So, it’s winter here in the northern hemisphere (although, given the weather we’ve been having lately, you wouldn’t know it), and I now have a renewed passion for two of my favorite hobbies: knitting and Nethack.
Anyway, since the start of my “season” I’ve created and killed off a whole host of characters, during which time I’ve often felt the nearly irresistible urge to throw my DS against the wall. And this fact begs an interesting question (to use that phrase colloquially): Why on earth do I do this to myself??
Now, for those not in the know, Nethack is part of a family of games known as Rogue-likes, named after their original progenitor, Dungeon Crawler. Err, I mean, Rogue. Anyway, this family of games all have a few things in common (which is why they’re a family, duh):
First, they’re almost invariably centered around a character the user controls, who is then responsible for exploring a world, encountering bad guys, and eventually progressing to the endgoal, whatever that may be. In the case of Nethack, it’s a dungeon, and the player’s goal is to descend to the bottom of that dungeon, retrieve the Amulet of Yendor, and return it to his god, whilst not dying along the way.
Second, most roguelikes involves lots of items, armour, weapons, scrolls, wands, spellbooks, and so forth, that the player can acquire along the way, either by finding them randomly, looting from corpses, or buying or stealing from shops.
Third, those items? They’re unidentified at the outset. For example, in Nethack, you may come across a scroll with a name like “NR 9”, but you’ll have no idea what it actually does. So a large part of the game is focused on various tricks to identify those items. Oh, and of course, items can be good or bad, so that scroll may have been a scroll of enchant armour, or it may have been a scroll of destroy armour. So you can’t just go randomly reading scrolls, zapping wands, and trying things on (unless you plan to die quickly).
Fourth, when you die, you’re dead. No take-backsies. No save points. Nadda. You can, of course, save your current game and pick it up later, but if you die, that save state is gone. Toast. Kaput. You’re boned. So you have to be very careful. And avoid stupidity (the YASD, or Yet Another Stupid Death, is a common experience amongst Nethackers).
Fourth, and most importantly, the level layout, the positions of the items and their identities, the enemies, they’re all random. So each game is completely different.
So, back to the question. Why do I do this? YASD after YASD, I still come back for more, and I like it. And it’s that fourth item that, I think, is the key.
You see, gambling works by a pretty simple reward system, combined with the thrill of risk taking. Of course, anyone who’s spent any time in a casino understands what I’m talking about, here. Notice any similarities? Like any other form of gambling, Nethack provides randomized rewards to the players in exchange for risk, and as one progresses in the game, the risk only gets more pronounced (since the player has more and more invested in their character). One game, they may find a wand of wishing on the second level. The next, they might hit a poly trap in the Gnomish Mines, blow out their armour, and get killed by a cockatrice. That kind of randomized reward system plays with the brain in the exact same way that, say, Blackjack does.
So you really have to wonder, are there problem Nethack players out there? Was Rogue really the first Evercrack? I’m betting the answer is ‘yes’… the only difference is, unlike WoW, the Rogue-like family has maintained a relatively low profile, and so you don’t see the kind of widespread addiction we now see in modern MMORPGs.