Published on May 2nd, 2014 | by Nich Maragos


Procedural Life Labyrinth: 17 Views of NetHack

I started playing NetHack on December 2nd, 2013, very nearly the 10th anniversary of NetHack 3.4.3, the game’s last public release. In the article I published on the 20th of that month, I ended by saying that, while I hadn’t ascended a character yet, I was getting close. After my Christmas break, I attacked the game with renewed vigor  and got my first ascension on January 13th. I have played no other game since.

There are 13 roles (classes, as most RPGs call them) in NetHack. So far, I’ve completed the game with 9 of them. Roles in NetHack are much more distinct in the early- to mid-game; after a certain point, most feel about the same. I like the ones who are really different, especially the monk, who has not just differences but restrictions: monks don’t wield weapons, wear body armor, or eat meat. A lot of surviving in NetHack revolves around wearing very good armor and eating the corpses you find, so playing a monk really forced me to stretch myself. It was hard.

Here is a list of things I’ve played NetHack instead of doing during the last five months: Going to a party. Eating. Playing other games. Reading books. Writing books. Seeing movies. Designing games. Watching TV. Going to the post office. Calling home.

As obsessions and addictions go, at least it’s free.

NetHack’s structure can be broadly divided into two halves. You start in the Dungeons of Doom, which contains all of the game’s shops, altars, fountains, sinks, throne rooms, and other interesting features; and then around the midpoint you enter Gehennom, which has none of those things. A lot of players hate Gehennom’s about 25 floors of solid slabs of labyrinth. It’s tedious to explore, even more so because the difficulty plateaus at the first floor. If you’re able to survive there, nothing new or interesting will appear until you reach the bottom floor, at which point you finally face a stiff challenge in Rodney’s Tower and Moloch’s Sanctum.

Me, though, I love it. I take delight in the way you never know what’s around the next corner in NetHack. The next shop might be a general store, stocking any number of wondrous and helpful items. The next room might have an altar for testing the quality of all the junk you’re carrying (at last!). The next enemy you kill might leave behind a potion–or a corpse–you can use to stay alive just a little longer. When I get to Gehennom, I don’t see tedium. What I see is 25 more floors of corners to turn.

In the five months that I’ve been playing NetHack, I’ve mastered a huge body of esoteric knowledge; this aspect was one of the things that drew me to the game. I know the differing uses of scrolls when blessed and cursed; when lucid and confused. I know how to identify useful items in a shop by their price. I know which corpses are safe to eat and which ones aren’t, and which ones might not be but are worth the risk anyway. I know all the game’s commands, including #wipe, which I’ve only ever had occasion to use once. I know what the oft-cryptic messages beginning “You hear…” mean, and I know what features I can expect to find on a floor before I find them. I know an increasingly long list of things not to do.

Learning all these things has reminded me of what fun it is to learn things. When I’m driving on the freeway and thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve had my car inspected, I wonder to myself, why don’t I know how to fix a car? How hard could it be, for someone who knows multiple methods of creating unholy water?

When I say I’ve played no other game in the last five months, it’s a slight exaggeration. I’ve also dabbled in Brogue, the Gallant to NetHack’s Goofus. Brogue is transparent where NetHack is opaque; streamlined where NetHack is bloated. For instance, when you enter a room in NetHack and there are two )s, three Os, and a [, it’s up to you to know an O is some kind of ogre, and you won’t be able to distinguish the type of ) (sword) at all until you walk onto that space. Even once you know their names, you still know very little about them.

brogue-infodumpThe same room in Brogue, meanwhile, will immediately display what these items are in the game’s UI. Highlight the Os, and it tells you about ogres and what they can do, even to the point of providing best- and worst-case scenarios should you choose to engage them in combat. Pick up one of the swords, and you’ll be told, in clear numerical terms, what effect equipping it would have on your damage and accuracy, as well as how your current strength score affects your skill in using it.

If I knew someone was interested in playing a roguelike, Brogue is the game I’d tell them to start with. And yet, I haven’t put a tenth of the time into it I have with NetHack.

My first win was with a valkyrie, generally seen as the easiest and most straightforward role. After that, I tried a wizard, which was much harder. For my third role, I went all the way to the tourist class, who starts with no armor and a stack of darts for a weapon. Once I had finished the game with this supposedly hardest of classes, I posted, “I am finally done with this game for the foreseeable future, I ascended a tourist, what more do I have to do to prove myself.”

A reply was posted: “Conducts, of course.” It can always get harder. I wasn’t done at all.

A common NetHack aphorism is that every time you die, it’s a useful exercise to ask yourself what you could have done to prevent it. The question usually has an answer you hadn’t considered at the time, even though NetHack is turn-based and will wait for your next command as long you want it to. The secret to staying alive in dangerous situations, then, is to ask yourself, “When I die, what will I regret not doing five minutes later?” Then do that instead of whatever fool thing you were about to.

Apart from Brogue, I haven’t tried many other roguelikes. A lot of them, even the venerable ones, have pretty bad reputations. Angband is legendarily tedious, and a winning game can take weeks. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup’s balance has disappeared up itself as the dev team obsesses over making sure every choice is an interesting one. Dungeons of Dredmor errs in the other direction of having almost no interesting choices at all. One of the best NetHack players I know set himself a project to try and explore a new roguelike every month, and by the third month abandoned the project when the atrociously misguided IVAN came up in the rotation. There are some that do sound tempting, like DoomRL, but I’m mostly fine sticking to NetHack. How many roguelikes does a man need, anyway?

I’m very fond of NetHack’s story. “Its what? NetHack has a story?” Not precisely, but it does have the outline of one. A few bare lines of text outline your task at the outset of every game: win back the powerful Amulet of Yendor from the evil god Moloch on behalf of whatever god your particular role/alignment serves. It’s just fertile enough ground for your imagination to take root. What does the Amulet of Yendor do? What makes it so powerful? What has Moloch been doing with it? What does your god or goddess want it for? You’re described as “heralded from birth” as your god’s instrument—what was such a life like before you entered the Dungeons of Doom? A special mid-game role-specific quest provides a scant few hints, as you return home via a magic portal to solve a problem at the behest of your old mentor. Much later, at the very end, you attain immortality and demigodhood through your successful offering of the Amulet. Just as the tale has no real beginning, neither does it have any end.

As much as I scoff at other roguelikes, there are those who scoff at NetHack. The complaint I hear most often is that the game’s cryptic, opaque nature makes it just a test of whether or not the player has memorized the wiki. I don’t think that’s an accurate criticism. I know as much about the game as many players, enough to have finished the game with over half the roles, and my runs still end in death more often than not. Learning all the secrets and mysteries is a big part of the game, but a larger task still is learning the right behavior and mindset to carry you through to victory.

I won’t pretend that having so many arcane interactions and tricks to learn isn’t a big hurdle; you can’t answer the question of “What could I have done to avoid death there?” without overcoming that huge hurdle first. But learning the game’s secrets is not the same as completing its challenges. It’s still hard either way.

I don’t talk about my victories much. The stories I share are the ones of my defeats. Since NetHack is a game with permadeath, the further in you perish the more agonizing the defeat—and often, the better story to share with your friends.

nethack-castleThe worst (and therefore best) death I ever suffered was while preparing a tourist for the endgame. I had everything I needed to succeed: a preposterously low AC score, all the magical items and equipment de rigeur for a run at Moloch’s Sanctum, and a powerfully enchanted weapon in either hand. But all this, I decided, was not enough and so I embarked on a scheme to lower my AC even further by polymorphing myself into a metallivore and eating some rings of protection to increase my intrinsic defense. Since morphing into the creature I had in mind would have caused my precious magical armor to burst at the seams, I removed it prior to changing form. And then tragedy struck.

While I was in my altered and much weaker state, a run-of-the-mill bone demon decided to run up and summon Yeenoghu, a bona fide Demon Prince. The two of them worked me over, doing so much damage that the polymorph wore off, leaving me as a naked human frantically trying to put his armor back on before the demons could flay me apart. I didn’t. There were any number of things I could have done to prevent the death—I counted eight during my anguished postmortem—but I didn’t do any of them, and my tourist paid the price for my hubris.

When I was 11, one summer I went on a hiking trip with my church’s youth group. I was not then the pale blob I am today; I had played baseball and soccer, and the next year would join the school’s track team. But there was something about walking down that West Virginia trail with a full load of gear on my back that I just couldn’t bear, and I kept having to take rests, slowing the group down. After a certain number of these, the youth minister said as gently as he could, “I know it’s hard. But it’ll be good for you to do something hard.”

“I’ve done hard things,” I fumed at him, both of us knowing it was a lie.

NetHack is pulp fantasy, and has the orcs, dwarves, elves, and trolls you expect of the genre. But it also has fantastic things you’ve never heard of, not even in the Monstrous Manual. Get far enough in the game, and you’ll meet, kill, and probably eat such wondrous creatures as titanotheres and baluchitheria, hulking quadrupeds found in the late stages of the dungeons. Or sandestins, a rare species of shapeshifter never encountered in their “natural” form. Or nalfeshnees, whose powerful spellcasting abilities make them one of Gehennom’s more dreaded demons.

nethack-litminesIn their drive to include everything they could in NetHack, the developers cast a wider-than-usual net into myth and lore for their source material, and the results are often fascinating. When I was younger, Final Fantasy led me to read the Epic of Gilgamesh and listen to Orff, and today I have this to point me towards interesting culture.

When you first start playing NetHack, a lot of it will seem unfair and arbitrary. But once you’ve become a veteran… some of it will still seem unfair and arbitrary. You can’t wish for a magic lamp, thanks to a ban on wishing for more wishes, but since each lamp can only grant a single wish in turn, such player behavior is more recursive pedantry than game-breaking. An entire quest for the priest class revolves around an ability that’s not explained and virtually useless elsewhere, but indispensable in that one specific instance. You’ll be stopped and prompted to make sure you really want to attack peaceful monsters, but can fat-finger your way into a game-ending lava bath without the game seeming to much care.

The problem is that NetHack, unlike other, more modern roguelikes, has calcified into something without a lot of the conveniences and concessions players might expect. Other roguelikes are living beasts, receiving regular updates to fix bugs, add quality-of-life features, and introduce new monsters and equipment, but NetHack has remained at 3.4.3 for the past ten years, and everyone assumes the dev team has moved on. There’s a nascent effort by a new group to release NetHack 4, but they face a steep challenge in updating the game into the modern era without offending everyone who’s gotten used to the way the game is now.

And maybe the naysayers are right. Maybe this should be NetHack’s final form. Even George Lucas stopped fiddling with his movies eventually.

I played NetHack yesterday, I played it today, I’ll play it tomorrow. There’s a better than even chance I’m playing it as you’re reading this. I do this despite having basically exhausted the challenge of the game. Sure, I still die a lot, but less out of inexperience and more out of impatience. I know what to expect from every monster and what to do to counter it.

So why not move on? If it’s not hard anymore, is there a point? I suspect NetHack has gone past something I do to challenge myself and become another one of my comfort zones. I look over at my unopened copy of Bravely Default, and think, “That seems like a lot of effort.” So I sit in the same chair, in the same room, playing the same game, day in and day out. It’s not a good look.

There’s no trophy for playing NetHack. There are no achievements. Confetti and streamers won’t appear when I ascend the 13th role. The answer to the question, “What more do I have to do to prove myself?” is nothing, because there was never anybody to prove myself to in the first place. My youth minister will not walk through the door after I ascend with foodless conduct and tell me it’s okay, I can stop now.

I still play NetHack because I still enjoy it. I’ll stop when I don’t anymore. As conflicted and refracted as my thoughts are, writing this has brought me a good way closer to understanding what I actually think about this game. Admitting the truth can be hard too.

Header image credit: Rebecca Morel

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used to do it for the money, but now does it for the love.

One Response to Procedural Life Labyrinth: 17 Views of NetHack

  1. Mdnthrvst says:

    “Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup’s balance has disappeared up itself as the dev team obsesses over making sure every choice is an interesting one.”

    This is a wildly dismissive critique of the best-balanced roguelike ever made. Seriously, what are you even talking about? How does the vigilant effort of an attentive and proactive devteam corrode gameplay balance? That is exactly backwards. Crawl’s development has been laser-focused on tightening the game’s balance for years.

    Is the DevTeam controversial? Occasionally, yes. Some decisions clearly favor high-level gameplay balance over flavor, such as the removal of generic Mountain Dwarves or the overpowered spell combination of Distillation and Evaporate. However, for you to say that these decisions have come to the DETRIMENT of balance is entirely wrong. If anything, they have sacrificed fan favorite content in FAVOR of balance.

    Not that you’d know, since you weren’t actually interested in addressing Crawl to any greater extent than dismissing it based on an ignorant second-hand perspective. Writing an article about NetHack and Brogue is fine, but please, don’t condemn other games, especially traditional roguelikes, you’re not at all familiar with to any extent.

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