Nethack: adventures in futility

, | Game diaries

Video games are mainstream now. Everyone and his girlfriend has a Wii. You’d almost think games were socially acceptable. That’s why I only play old games. As long as I stick with ugly graphics and byzantine interfaces, nobody will mistake me for someone who has a job, a relationship, or self-respect. And no game has uglier graphics or a more byzantine interface than Nethack.

After the jump, a brief word of explanation for those who have experienced physical exercise in the last 25 years.

Nethack is of a genre called “roguelike,” because it is like a game called Rogue. Smart, right? Rogue and Nethack and most other roguelikes share these appealing attributes:

  • No graphics to speak of. Everything is represented by a textual character or punctuation mark. For instance, your character is an “@” symbol. Hott.
  • When your character dies, he is dead forever and the game deletes your save file. You can’t reload without some file-system sleight of hand and the crushing knowledge that you’re a total puss.
  • Your character will die, and you will lose the game, at LEAST 99% of the time. This is not an exaggeration. An Olympic-level Nethack player, if such a thing were not the most incongruous concept ever invented, might have a 5% win rate.

Nethack’s own uniquely lovable traits include these:

  • By all accounts, the journey to victory is a long, tedious slog, not that I will ever experience it.
  • It hasn’t been updated since 2003, and its interface was obsolete and terrible even then. Little conveniences that players of modern roguelikes take for granted are absent.
  • The official version of the game doesn’t run on modern Macs. I had to track down a homebrewed version some benevolent nerd put up on his website.

Once you’ve accepted these idiosyncracies, it’s time to play. But not to win. You will never win, because in order to win, you must interact with monsters, items, and environments in ways that can only be described as “bizarre and unguessable.” Vast documents of Nethack “spoilers” might clue you in, and while they’re called “spoilers”, they really don’t spoil anything. A more appropriate term for these “spoilers” would be “facts that you won’t learn by playing, but you need to learn and memorize them to have any chance of winning”. Indeed, I can safely say that no man (for Nethack is only played by men, pudgy ones, with Pringle grease on at least three body parts) has ever won a game of Nethack without consulting the “spoilers”. If you know otherwise, I’d like to hear about it, because I could use a good laugh. But I’m sure I’m right, so don’t bother lying.

I refuse to read many Nethack spoilers, because if I wanted to read stuff I for damn sure wouldn’t be reading about pudding farming. (I have a feeling if you open any Nethack devotee’s fridge, or walk in on one late at night, you’ll find a couple real-life forms of “pudding farming.” But I digress.) Without vast spoiler knowledge, I’ve given up any chance at actually winning Nethack, so I focus on its more mundane pleasures: Killing monsters, exploring randomly-generated dungeons, and searching for treasure.

Join me, won’t you, for the ludicrous journey of a foolhardy, ignorant idiot, who will meet an unexpected and probably bloody end.

Sort of like life.

The adventure begins tomorrow.

Tony Carnevale is a writer who lives in New York City.