Archive for April, 2012

Awesome game experiences – Nethack

Posted in Gaming, Uncategorized on April 17, 2012 by marzzbar

Rarely have I been so obsessed and engrossed with a game as I have been with Nethack. Despite its age and simple graphics, it’s often listed amongst the greatest games of all time.  Although technically a linear game, its strength lies in its ability to generate entertaining situations from scratch, and allowing the player to do pretty much anything, ensuring no two playthroughs are ever the same.

In Nethack, I’ve been killed by a vault guard, who was attracted by the commotion made by my pet gray dragon and ice troll running around in said vault, whilst I stood outside naked and unarmed, allowing a nurse to hit me in an attempt to bring my maximum hitpoints up.

I’ve been swallowed by a giant eel who was lurking in the river near the camp of the Duali tribe,  but since I was wearing a Ring of Slow Digestion, its stomach couldn’t handle me, so the worm spat me out.

I’ve almost killed a succubus by swinging a cockatrice corpse at it to turn it to stone, only to have her seduce me into taking off my clothes, including my gloves, stoning me instantly.

I’ve eaten lembas bread, and found to be extremely tasty, so tasty in fact that I ate too much of it and choked to death.

I’ve created a gremlin in a swamp level, which then proceeded to reproduce itself multiple times by throwing itself in the abundant water, creating a chain reaction and filling the whole screen with gremlins. And yet, this is what it looks like most of the time:

And sometimes this:

Or this:

Despite its difficulty, I completed the game after about four months and dozens and dozens of playthroughs, and I enjoyed just about every minute of it.

WHAT

The premise of Nethack is deceptively simple: you are an adventurer on a quest to find the Amulet of Yendor from the bottom level of the Dungeons of Doom, and bring it back to the surface. The reasons for doing this differ depending on your race and class, but the backstory doens’t really matter. Along the way, you’ll come across a wide array of creatures and items, all randomly generated. Quite a simple premise, but it’s jam-packed full of creatures and items and spells drawn from many different parts of geek culture, from Lord of the Rings to The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to The Invisible Man. You’ll never quite know what you’ll run into.

Nethack is what’s known as a “roguelike” game, a genre lending its name to the first game of its kind (“Rogue”, 1980). Although it’s debatable what a roguelike game actually is, they are typically turn-based role-playing games, have ASCII graphics (objects and creatures are represented with character symbols), only allow you to die once and are quite difficult. Really difficutt.

The gameplay mechanics are quite simple, although the controls can take a little while to learn at first. Being a roguelike game, Nethack is turn-based, meaning when you perform an action, such as moving in a direction, using an item or casting a spell, all other creatures perform actions as well. Combat involves simply trying to move into another creatures square, although you can also cast spells/zap wands at creatures from a distance. There are a large number of actions you can do at any one time, such as Kick, Cast Spell, Search, or Force, and all of these are performed via a key on the keyboard, possibly with a modifier (CTRL, SHIFT or ALT).

There is a huge amount of items and creatures to interact with, some of which are incredibly useful, some of which are useless, or will actually harm you. Each time you play Nethack, all the levels and creatures in it are generated randomly (within certain parameters). For example, you start off with a pet dog, cat or pony, but you can turn them into other creatures using a wand of polymorph. If you turn it into a dragon, you can attach a saddle to it and ride it. Or you could use the wand of polymorph to turn yourself into a giant worm, for example, digesting any creatures you see. There are dozens and dozens of things you can interact with, and dozens of ways you can interact with each of them. If you feel like you should be able to something with a certain object, chances are, you can. Part of the challenge of Nethack is working out which actions are beneficial, and which you should avoid, and hence being ready for any crazy situations the game throws at you.

Despite this open style of gameplay, Nethack is actually quite a linear game. At the beginning, the player is prompted to create a character. This involves choosing a role from a possible 13 (ranging from Barbarian and Mage to Archaeologist and Tourist), a race from a possible 5, and a gender. As expected, each role and race lend themselves to different styles of gameplay. The basic premise of the game is pretty simple. You start at the top of the dungeons of Doom, and you must retrieve the amulet of Yendor located at the bottom, and bring it back to the top. Although the player does come across some side quests, they are usually done as soon as they are found, and the player always makes their way back to the main path.

WHY IS IT INTERESTING?

Nethack is open source, which means a few things.

It definitely doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. People often say that the open-source model is not suitable for games, since the amount of effort expended in creating most games today is so large, too large for people to give up willingly for free. However, this is simply not true for certain games, particularly games that are less focussed on the creative process and more on the underlying gameplay.

Indeed, the fact that the game IS open source is a large part of what makes it so great. The reason it was called “Net”hack was because it was distributed and developed over Usenet. Whilst there has been one core development team (which has changed over the many years of development), many fan-made versions of the game have been made. Often the development team will take suggestions from the game’s players, and even incoporate additions made in other mods. Over the 20+ years of development, the result is a game with more creatures, items and surprises than you can shake a Blessed Wand of Death at.

It also means that there are no secrets. Every creature, item, statistic, probability, hidden chamber, stat booster, fantasy reference, and hidden ending is exposed in the code. Whilst it’s not necessarily easily accessible to the average player, it’s there, and those that CAN and DO read the code (known as source divers) share what they find in a more legible format. In the olden days, this meant word of mouth via forums and chat rooms. Nowadays, there is a well-maintained wiki at http://www.nethackwiki.com/ .

This sort of information is known as ‘spoilers’, and at first it seems to be an appropriate term. In a game where a lot of the enjoyment comes from discovering new things and surprises, why would you want to read about what happens next? And what about the satisfaction that comes with finding out yourself how to progress further?

These are fair points to be sure, but one has to realise that whilst Nethack is a single-player game, it is also a very social game, and the game evolved with this in mind. The game was often played via clients on shared servers, and players would discuss strategies on message boards and chat rooms. Whilst anyone dedicated enough could gleam knowledge about the game’s secrets directly from the source code, realistically people would learn these things second hand from other players. Relying on the advice and ‘folklore’ of other players was expected, even encourged. Players would post detailed accounts of their victories (known as ascensions) as well as their failures on forums. The game keeps track of any players that have died, and any future games played on the same computer or server had a chance of coming across the graves (and possibly the ghosts) of these dead players. Even today there is an active server that players can telnet to (http://alt.org/nethack/) and an accompanying chat room that is constantly active, and full of people sharing stories and giving advice. Indeed, Nethack is by nature a very social game.

Nethack is incredibly difficult, and near impossible to win without some knowledge. Whilst it could be argued that one could attain this knowledge through trial and error, it would take many many playthroughs to make any headway, even if you played in the invincible “Wizard” mode. Whilst I would recommend the use of spoilers if you wish to make progress in the game and discover what it has to offer, I wouldn’t suggest reading up on absolutely everything to give yourself an advantage. My general rule of thumb was to look something up when I came across it. I still found the game incredibly challenging, as I was placed in situations that I couldn’t predict or prepare for, and I still had that thrill of discovery and amazement.

As mentioned previously, Nethack’s main game mechanics stem from Dungeons and Dragons. I haven’t played much Dungeons and Dragons, but what struck me about the game was the detail in the game system for determining what happens, and how whilst the mechanics of the game provide the details, your imagination paints the picture of what happens. What you see and what you interact with are basically a crude representation of the physical aspects of the world, but somehow your brain takes all these details and creates a very real world. The same is very true in Nethack. Whilst it is possible to play with a tileset, I played in the traditional ASCII mode, as is common with most Roguelikes. In this mode in particular, the interface is quite sparse, only showing the details necessary; the location of walls, objects, creatures, short descriptions of objects, noises, smells, feelings. You give commands one at a time, actions are shown incrementally, and yet your imagination builds a very real scene.

What’s also fascinating is that, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, the descriptions of the environments, items and creatures are quite short. You are left to not only create the scene from the meagre details, but to fill in the gaps as you see fit. Add to this the algorithms in the code to simulate the actions of creatures in the game, and what you have is an incredibly immersive experience totally absent in modern games.

I remember my first pet dragon in the game. It was originally a cat, but it had wandered into a polymorph trap and turned into a big white “D”: a baby white dragon. I tried talking with it using the “#chat” command, and it snarled back at me. I named it Manky, and it was a fierce animal, fighting everything it came across. I made sure to protect him from too much harm, killing the more powerful enemies and leaving the worker Dwarves for him to kill, and then waiting patiently for a few turns while he feasted upon the corpses. Eventually Manky grew more into an adult dragon, and became an incredibly strong fighter. Whilst in a shop, I contemplated taking the items and teleporting away to steal them. My dragon came looking for me, took one look at shopkeeper and started clawing at his face. Before long he had killed him and was chewing on his remains.

Eventually I found a saddle, and put it on Manky’s back. I mounted him and rode him into Fort Ludios over the moat. He mauled my attackers whilst I held on and cast spells from on top.

He didn’t fight all my battles for me though. Once we had cleared a room full of enemies, and I could tell there was a crowd of soldiers on the other side of a locked door on the other end, thanks to my character’s infravision. I decided to stand in the doorway and hack at them one by one with my blessed Cleaver, reflecting their Death Bolts with my reflective Silver Dragon Scale Mail. My plan seemed to be going well, with me creating a pile of soldier corpses at the door and Manky picking up and dropping various items around the room. But then, after about a dozen soldier had been decimated by my Cleaver, and while Manky sat behind me gnawing at a Goblin corpse, the game gives me the following message:

“You hear a bolt whizz by you! You have a sad feeling for a moment, then it passes.”

What it didn’t tell about was Manky’s cry of shock and pain, my character’s roar of anguish and fury, and his avenging rampage resulting in the decimation of the remaining two dozen soldiers. More importantly, it didn’t tell me about my genuine sadness and longing for my capital D, controlled by code and algorithms to fight other letters controlled by other code and algorithms. The game had provided mechanics, my brain had provided the story.

I cannot stress how powerfully immersive this game is, and it’s owed entirely to the mechanics of the game. It gives you just enough information for YOU to create the story and environment. This is a very powerful and unique way of interacting with the game’s world.

The turn-based nature of Nethack, and indeed other Roguelikes, creates quite a unique experience. Whereas tun-based games are usually all out strategy games controlling multiple units at a time, in Roguelikes you’re controlling one person, one action at a time. This means that the game essentially goes at your own place. You can speed through passageways you’ve been through before to find that locked chest you kept potions in on the other side of the level, or you can take minutes agonizing over whether to cleave the goblin hacking at your face with a dagger to your left, or whether to death bolt the Shaman shooting firebolts a few spaces in front of you, or whether to quaff a potion to try and bring your health points up, or whether you should shoot your Wand of Digging at your feet and risk facing possibly even more dangerous creatures on the level below. You’ll find that the game can provide some truly tense situations that require good knowledge, tactical thinking and even a bit of luck.

WHY I LIKED IT

It took me a couple of attempts to really get into Nethack. I had heard about it years ago, given it a quick go, but was overwhelmed by the amount of things in the game, the sheer difficulty of it, and I wasn’t patient enough to learn the controls. Generally, I’m pretty turned off by games with too much content and too steep of a learning curve,such as DOTA, or Civilization. As mentioned, there is a LOT to learn about Nethack in order to play it successfully.
However, play it successfully I eventually did. I think there are a few reasons for this:

1. The game is turn-based, and single-player
This means I could play it at my own pace. This is a contrast to DOTA, where playing with and against bots is really no substitute, and playing with and against other humans results in ruining their game and you getting yelled at. Indeed, as mentioned previously, part of the beauty of Nethack lies in its sense of discovery. You’re not SUPPOSED to know much when you first start. Part of the fun is the bewilderment of the game, the awe at the possibilities, and the sheer amusement of dying in stupid ways. You find yourself want to learn more about the dungeons, and with the help of the folklore of other players, and the mere curiosity of the quirky and unique envirnoment, the game lures you in. Each time you play, and die, you get just a little bit closer, learn a little bit more, get a little bit better at remembering to prepare yourself for eventualities. In a way, my journey from first playing the game to ascending was a journey in itself, parallel to the journey that my character takes into the Dungeons of Doom, and in fact almost the same thing. Through its incredibly immersive (yet scant) interface, you feel yourself actually partaking on this incredible journey, made all the more epic by the long-term investment into the game. By the end of it, you really do feel like you’ve been on a massive adventure.

2. The game has massive scope for possibility and complexity, but it is ALSO linear
What turns me off games like Civilization is the incredible amount of complexity. You have to manage all these different aspects of your civilization at the same time. Yes, it’s turn-based, but I just couldn’t be bothered learning it all. Nethack is much simpler. You control one character, and you learn about things as you come across them. Also, you have a definite goal, something to work towards, even if you probably won’t make it there. Unlike more ‘sandboxxy’ games, or games with multiple objectives, your objective is clear, and any subobjectives are just ways to work towards that one objective.
Also, I just love games where anything can happen. Generate a world randomly with certain parameters, code up some algorithms for behaviours, give the player a ton of possible actions and see what happens. Since its inception in 1987, people have found ways to stretch the game to its limits, from permanently turning into a black dragon and completing the game as a dragon, to being illiterate and vegan (can’t read scrolls or eat animal products), to farming the game for gems and enlisting giants as pets to carry bags of gems for you. The possibilities are amazing.

3. It’s tactical.
Not a huge amount, but just enough to force you to make some important tactical decisions. To be honest, your success is probably determined mostly by how much you know about the game, followed by how careful you are and whether you made the decisions you should’ve made. I think it was more the experience itself that I enjoyed, rather than the mental challenge.

4. It’s open-source
Obviously I’ve already mentioned why this is awesome for Nethack, but it’s awesome in general. It means it will never die, never have compatibility issues over time. Although there hasn’t been any new official releases, the team releases ports for new system (they recently released a version for OS X Lion). It also means that people can make their own games from the existing code (link to SLASH EM and UNNETHACK).

5. It’s extremely light on requirements
All you need is a terminal screen and a few megabytes. It’ll run on anything.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

I guess I didn’t like how winning is basically dependent on how much you know about the game, rather than your skill level. Also, there’s a high luck factor. However, this wasn’t the focus of the game for me. It was more the experience that counted, and these things are essential to that experience.

FINAL WORD

Nethack is an absolutely incredible experience. If you can get over the small learning hurdle at the beginning, you’ll be lured gently the rest of the way, and you’ll find an incredibly immersive, entertaining experience.

OTHER GAMES?

– Diablo: Cite Nethack as a direct influence, and it shows. I’ve played this, and will have to do an article on it sometime.
– ADOM (Ancient Domains Of Mystery): Another epic Roguelike, but it’s Closed Source, and has more of an “Overworld/Dungeon” feel. I haven’t played this much, but would like to.
– Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup: Another Roguelike, I think it’s open-source. This one seems to be a bit more focussed on tactics and gameplay, rather than immersion. Haven’t played this one either.
– Dwarf Fortress: Also uses simple graphics and complex mechanics, but is much more “sandboxxy” and less roguelike. It’s actually not turn-based. I haven’t given this game a proper go yet.