NetHack has been around for twenty years, the work of literally dozens of people, working together and for no financial compensation. A product of the old USENET-dominated web ethos, in which collaboration and not self-promotion was king, it is legendary for its devoted following, its punishing difficulty, and its defiantly old-school game play and “graphics”.
But, is it a good game?
The short answer is, I think, yes.
In the most important and fundamental ways it is a better and deeper game than most hack-and-slashers, and actually it has more of a right to be called a role-playing game than, say, the Final Fantasy series. Blasphemy, I know. It doesn’t have any cut scenes or limit breaks. Your “party” consists of you and a small pet over whom you have no control. Your character isn’t even an amnesiac who saves the world!
The storyline is more akin to that of a platformer; that is, it exists only to give a context and a winning condition to the game play. There is an amulet fifty floors down and your job is to fetch it for your deity. The game’s many collaborators (and the creators of NetHack’s inspiration, Rogue) understand that a storyline can get in the way of game play, that it hedges the player in and diminishes their ability to choose, and that it allows for very little actual role-playing in a role-playing game.
In NetHack, however, the player’s ability to choose is at front and center. More typical of table-top or pen-and-paper role-playing games, most notably Dungeons and Dragons, you begin with character creation: choosing a name, character class, race, and alignment. There are a number of character classes available, from standards such as priest and barbarian to oddities such as samurai and tourist. The player’s choice at this stage narrows the number of races they can choose from; whoever heard, for example, of an orcish samurai? The alignment, which determines if the player’s character is lawful, neutral, or chaotic, is sometimes determined by these previous choices as well: orcs and elves, for example, tend towards being chaotic, while knights and samurai are unlikely to be anything but lawful and good.
These choices give the player different abilities, tools, strengths, and weaknesses with which to answer the game’s challenges. They also affect the sort of challenges the game throws at you: an orcish character, for example, is less likely to have trouble with goblins and orcs, while a gnome or dwarf will have an easier time exploring the Gnomish Mines.
The choice of alignment –and, to some degree, the other choices the player makes– also puts a stronger emphasis on the role-playing aspect of the genre. The player is rewarded or penalized for how well or how poorly they stick to their chosen alignment. A lawful character who robs shopkeepers or a chaotic character who kills other chaotics is likely to anger their god, making that deity less likely to assist when the player is in need of help. In extreme cases, the god will curse you, take away an experience level you’ve earned, or even strike you down dead.
“But,” you say, “how is this any different than many of the best MMORPGs?” And it’s true that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games do allow you to create your own characters. And these games are far more non-linear than NetHack and other rogue-likes, in that there is no way to “win” an MMORPG. In fact, while NetHack’s Dungeons of Doom are fairly large, you have entire cities and worlds to explore in an MMORPG. And of course there’s the fact that an MMORPG, by definition, is also a multiplayer experience, while NetHack is for a single player only.
But this is actually NetHack’s strength. A game like World of Warcraft is fast-paced and competitive. The player is required to quickly respond to enemy attacks if they want to stay alive. It is extremely unwise to linger in an area to think about what your next move will be, as more enemies– and more players, some of whom can be extremely and inexplicably aggressive towards less-experienced players– will soon cross your path. NetHack, by contrast, is a thinking person’s game and very strictly turn-based. Nothing happens until you choose to do something, allowing the player to fully consider the ramifications of what they’re doing. Surrounded on all sides by a particularly bloodthirsty crowd of monsters, the player can take as long as they need to think a way out of their predicament. You can call up a list of all commands by using the help command, ?, or you can view your full inventory, i, to see if you have anything that can save you. / will identify nearby items and monsters so you can better work out a battle (or flight) stratagem.
There’s never any reason, then, to panic or to hurry. Your character can be near death, and you can walk away from the computer, have dinner, watch a movie, and be confident that when you come back, your character is just where and as you left him.
The game’s focus is heavily on exploration and it achieves this focus through three basic and deliberate design decisions. First, the combat in the game is de-emphasized by virtue of its simplicity. Merely walking into a monster will attack it; there is no need for frantic button-mashing here. And while some monsters require different strategies– throwing a weapon from afar, for example, or utilizing a magic spell– none of this approaches the same visceral feeling you would get with an MMORPG or even Final Fantasy. In the most extreme cases, it’s more like an intellectual puzzle, which in turn makes the combat a function of the exploration.
Each time you start a new game of NetHack, the dungeon is randomly-generated, and this is the second design decision (albeit a cornerstone of the rogue-like genre) by which the game’s focus is narrowed. No rote memorization or walkthroughs will do you any good here. This encourages the player to learn from their mistakes in a meaningful way. In most games, learning from your mistakes is not meaningful and could be termed situational; for example, don’t stand for too long on the platform just past the red coin or the floor will give way. The only thing you’ve really learned in that case is how to best act in that particular situation.
Such a game can be won simply via trial and error, and thus requires nothing intellectually of the player. In NetHack, however, each situation is different: there are no patterns to memorize. The game therefore cannot be won by remembering the placement of traps and enemies. The player has to develop real strategies for exploration instead of the more common situational simulacrum.
Thirdly, the player is encouraged to explore by the sheer number of ways available to do that– literally dozens of commands enabling the player to explore not only the dungeon but the game itself. The level of interactivity the game provides is akin to the now-popular open-world/sandbox genre. The player not only can search, look, loot, force locks, kick open doors, drop items, throw them, or dip them into a fountain–just a few among many other very useful commands– but he can also name any creatures in the vicinity with the call command, c. Doing so does not change the outcome of the game or benefit the player in any way. There’s no real reason for this command, other than the most important reason of all: it allows the player to do as they like.
Even though the game’s general direction is technically linear– move from the top level of the dungeon to the bottom, side quests and offshoots notwithstanding– the game-play is decidedly non-linear, due to the large number of possible ways a player can overcome an obstacle or solve a puzzle. And because the game allows you to discover so much for yourself– nothing like “Eastmost peninsula is the secret!” is in evidence here– this, too, puts the emphasis squarely on the player’s autonomy and thus on exploration.
But all that would be for naught if the game’s world was not worth exploring. Thankfully, all the tools and commands at the player’s disposal are matched against a world with a rewarding complexity and a strong level of relative verisimilitude. Your character can faint from hunger if he does not eat; your pet must also be fed, and if confused from hunger might try to bite you. Slain monster corpses double as comestibles, but usually taste bad at best and are poisonous at worst. Each item you pick up has weight and mass, slowing down your ability to move and fight; if you’re carrying too many things, you’re also liable to fall down the staircase leading you to the next level of the dungeon, and thus taking damage. There are few things as humiliating as having been slain by a flight of stairs.
But– to put it delicately– the game can be extremely humiliating. In its own way, it is as difficult as Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts– perhaps moreso, because nine times out of ten, your character’s demise is the result of your own carelessness.
And when you die, that’s it: there are no resurrections or second chances in NetHack. Dead is dead, and when the game is over, you have no choice but to begin anew.
In another game, especially a game of this length, such an unforgiving mechanic would be frustrating to the point of exhaustion; consider, for example, the universally-derided Bomberman: Act Zero. In that game, however, this “no-continues” system could technically fall under the auspices of arbitrary difficulty, but not in the sense that this system arose out of the general incompetence of the design team. The people behind Bomberman: Act Zero made the game as unforgiving as it was on purpose, through a deliberate design decision on their part rather than a mere oversight. The game is supposed to be this difficult, and it is the same with NetHack; the difference, however, is that it was a good design decision on the part of the NetHack crew and a very bad one on the part of the people behind Act Zero. Or, to put it another way, while the decision in both cases was made on purpose, only in the case of NetHack was the decision made for a purpose.
And that purpose, again, is to teach the player how to play the game, how to explore, how not to die. How to think, instead of merely regurgitating patterns. And it achieves this by making sure that mistakes have an actual and dire consequence: game over. If you could reload the game from a saved state, or continue, then there’s no real consequence to dying and thus no consequence to what prompted the death and thus, no impetus to learn from your mistakes.
If you were killed by a black pudding explosion the last time you played, you can bet dollar to doughnut that you’re going to be more cautious around them the next time you see one. Whereas if the mistake was divorced from any lasting consequence, a player might make the same foolhardy mistake again, and, who knows?, maybe this time he’ll survive the explosion. If a save system is in place, nothing is risked because you can always restart from your last save point.
In most extremely difficult games, the difficulty is intended only to provide a challenge to the player; satisfaction is derived from besting it: I beat Contra in twelve minutes without losing a life is an mind-numbingly incredible achievement. The difficulty of NetHack is designed to make you better at the game. It’s a refreshing design decision, implemented with intelligence, grace, and skill, existing organically within a complex and ingenious system.
NetHack has a cult following, and it must be said that the game’s difficulty is a huge contributing factor to that, along with a certain defiant esotericism: a game without music utilizing ASCII characters in lieu of graphics, in the not-exactly thriving rogue-like genre, dozens of commands and its own complex mythology– hardly qualities that engender popular appeal. But there are two important points to keep in mind.
First, the game is not deliberately obscure. The designers didn’t get together and say, “Let’s make a game for just this narrow audience! Oh snap!” This is a game, remember, that has evolved over the course of two decades, and in the thick of the eighties, ASCII symbols-for-objects was not only acceptable for computer games but a step-up. Music was unheard of and rogue-likes were more popular online than they are today– though it must be said that the type of people who were online in the mid to late eighties are just as likely to appreciate a rogue-like today as then.
While the game has expanded and evolved over the years, it have kept true to the spirit of the original. However, the development team have introduced optional features, such as an “explore” mode that makes the player immortal and a graphical interface that replaces the @ with a more traditional avatar.
So, these more accessible options are provided to potential players. It’s just that they’ve been largely ignored by the NetHack community as a whole and treated with thinly-veiled disdain: “real NetHack players don’t use the explore mode! Graphics are for wussies!”
My second point regarding the game’s esoteric qualities can best be summed up with a story about Woody Allen.
The venerable director wrote the screenplay for What’s New, Pussycat?, which was the highest grossing comedy film up until that time. Allen was dissatisfied with the end results, however, and became a director largely to prevent his material from future mutilation at the hands of others. Regarding Pussycat, he once said that if he had had creative control over the material, the film would have been twice as funny, but half as successful.
The same “esoteric” qualities that make NetHack an unlikely candidate for, say, Halo-level popularity, are the qualities that make it a better game than Halo. The lack of music or “sophisticated” graphics narrow the focus on the game play; it has a zen spartanness that is nicely balanced by the robust and expansive game world.
In fact, expansive is the perfect word to describe this game that takes up half of a computer screen and less than 2 megs of memory. Not only in the sense that the choices available to the player and the amount of things to be discovered are expansive, but also in the sense that the very mechanic that powers the game is expansive– the dungeon opening up, expanding and unfolding as you move through it.