As if I didn’t have enough things to do, what with the ongoing writing project (the 1000 words/day project has languished after our last cold, but it’s still going… just not as quickly as I’d like), renewed cooking interests, the ever-recording PVR, books, etc, etc, but for some reason, in a fit of boredom while trying to figure out how to fill my hours at work, I made a huge mistake: I started playing Nethack.
For the uninitiated, Nethack is a 20-year-old game, still in active development, which traces it’s origins back to Rogue, a classic game for the Unix environment. It’s best described as a dungeon hack-and-slash, and has been cited as a direct influence for a number of modern games, including Diablo. The general idea is that you pick a class, race, gender, and possibly alignment, and then start fighting your way though the dungeon, in search of the fabled Amulet of Yendor, which exists somewhere beneath level 20. Once you get it, you must then make your way back up and out of the dungeon.
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but it does have a few things going for it:
- Randomly generated maps
- ASCII graphics
- An incredible depth and breadth of play
- A good sense of humour
Like the original rogue, every game of Nethack is different. While there are various areas to be discovered (the Gnome Mines, the Sokoban levels, and so forth), the levels themselves are randomly generated every time. Thus, it’s impossible to “finish” Nethack, in a real sense, as you can always come back and try again with an entirely new dungeon to explore. This does mean there’s an element of luck to one’s success in the game, but I think that’s mitigated, to a great extent, but the richness of gameplay available.
Secondly, Nethack is played using plain ol’ ASCII graphics. The walls are dashes and pipes, the doors plus and minus signs, the various items are punctuation marks, and the enemies are letters. Of course, if you like a little flash with your hack-and-slash, you can make use of colours, or even IBM high-ASCII graphics characters! But the purists will tell you that straight-up, B&W ASCII is the only way to go (personally, I like the flash). But why is this a plus, you ask? Because I can ssh to frodo and play from work! cough
Then we have the sheer complexity of the game. Nethack sports an immense number of weapons, armour, items, scrolls, potions, rings, amulets, and random junk, such as pick axes, lanterns, whistles, blindfolds… the list goes on and on. If that weren’t enough, there are a vast number of actions a character can perform, including dipping, throwing, kicking, reading, sitting, praying, eating, casting spells, and many more besides. And what’s truly amazing is that the developers seem to have thought of every possible combination of actions and items, so you can dip your sword in potions, wield rings as weapons, and stick gems in your sling-shot. In addition, your character typically starts off with a pet, which can be tamed and trained, and you can also tame other animals in the game (I was observing one game on nethack.alt.org (a free, public Nethack server) in which the person had tamed a giant of some description). These animals will fight for you, steal for you, and are generally quite useful. Then, to that, add the myriad actions and effects that can happen to your character, and the number of scenarios possible becomes truly bewildering. Get bit by a wererat? Turn into one yourself, randomly transforming into a rat (at least you get a pet rat as a consolation prize). Eat the corpse of a floating eye? Gain… oh, well, I won’t spoil that.
So, yeah… the game is remarkably rich.
Lastly, the game is just plain funny in many ways. As an example, if you eat slime mold, the game will tell you how delicious that slime mold was! Mmmm… and then there’s the grave stones you come across with amusing epitaphs on them, and the odd bit of writing on the floors. Heck, you’ll even occasionally come across your own ghosts from previous deaths (you even get the chance to loot your old corpse).
Unfortunately, the game is also legendary in it’s difficulty. I have yet to make it past level 7 (or was that 6) of the dungeon, and I often die in rather annoying ways (such as getting paralyzed by a floating eye, and then bitten to death by wererats). Oh, and when you die, you’re dead. No save points, no lives. That’s for losers who can’t handle a challenge. Sure, you can save your progress and pick up your game later (some may back up the save files, but this practice, known as “savescumming”, is rather frowned upon), but if you die, that’s it, game over. And yet, despite this, I keep coming back… the damn game is just addictive, somehow.
Which would be why I regret breaking out the Nethack. I just can’t stop playing it. “Maybe next time I’ll make it to level 8,” I tell myself. “Maybe I’ll be an Archaeologist next time! Or a human instead of a gnome. Or maybe I’ll spend some time in the Gnome Mines before going down the main dungeon. Or.. or… or…” It’s like frickin’ crack. I just wonder if I’ll ever be able to get this monkey off my back (or, at least tame him so he’ll steal stuff from shops and fight my enemies for me).
It’s 12:53am on Saturday night. I just finished watching an episode of Stargate and decided to pop open the laptop to quickly check email. And I seriously considered playing another frickin’ game of Nethack…
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