The best game ever

No graphics, no sound, no razzle-dazzle -- but Nethack is still one of the finest gaming experiences the computing world has to offer.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Even if you're a regular at Slashdot, the Internet town clarion for hardcore techies, you most likely missed the odd little announcement posted just a few days shy of 2000: After more than three years of silence, an elusive consortium calling itself the DevTeam had just released a new build of the fantasy role-playing game Nethack, version 3.3.0.

The post might seem especially odd for a site that usually devotes any game coverage to eyeball extravaganzas like Quake III. After all, Nethack has been around for nearly 15 years and doesn't require a soundcard, a 3D graphics card or even a VGA monitor. Indeed, the entire game is usually played with graphics no more ambitious than ASCII text.

But as any hacker worth the title will tell you, Nethack is still one of the best games ever made. What's more, it's one of the best open-source games ever made -- meaning anyone who cares can grab ahold of the game's source code and make changes and improvements. The player's guide is even authored by none other than open-source ontologist Eric S. Raymond, perhaps best known for his essay, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," in which he argues that the open-source software methodology produces technically superior software -- a line of thought that is intellectual kindling for the Linux firestorm now raging through Wall Street.

Does that suggest that Nethack is a technically superior computer game, despite its lack of graphic zap? Depends what you are looking for. Still beloved and played by many, with an active Usenet group -- -- Nethack embodies all that is obsessive, brilliant and geekishly lovable about hackerdom. And while open-source advocates are more likely to vaunt the movement's ability to transform desktop and network computing, this endearingly pokey dungeon adventure is perhaps its most accessible exemplar, demonstrating how its core virtues seem to work even in the unlikely realm of computer gaming.

However, if you download the new version of Nethack -- a compressed file barely a megabyte in size -- from its official Web site, you will probably experience an initial letdown. Challenged to retrieve the powerful Amulet of Yendor from a fathomless, monster-plagued dungeon, you'll discover that the dungeon is actually a randomly-generated configuration of brackets, asterisks and periods; the villainous pit beasts are an assortment of letters ("O" for Orcs, "D" for dragons and so on); and your heroic avatar is nothing more than a cheerfully blinking "@" sign.

But beneath these primitive graphics is a game of such richness and endless variation it usually takes years to master, if at all. On my recent visit to Blizzard North to preview the game company's wildly anticipated sequel to its hit role-playing game "Diablo," Blizzard's designers readily acknowledged their debt to Nethack and other "Roguelikes" -- games of single-player dungeon questing.

Sampling "Diablo II," I could see why: That game and its successor are basically Nethack, writ large with 3D animation and stereo sound. And while Blizzard's rendition was undeniably impressive on those counts, I couldn't help noticing that it still lacked the breadth of gameplay that Nethack had in abundance. When it comes to immersing you in a game, vivid graphics only go so far, and often actually work against that effect. As science fiction author Neal Stephenson argues in his essay "In the Beginning was the Command Line," programs with a text-based interface feel more like direct interaction, far more so than the point-and-click visual fields we've come to accept as standard practice.

With the all-text Nethack, the preferred graphics card is your mind's eye. This enables you to feel real terror, say, at the approach of an innocuous letter "C" hopping toward you across the screen -- since it represents the cockatrice, an occult-spawned dungeon fowl whose bite turns heroes to stone. With little predigested visual mediation between game play and your imagination, you'd often get the sense that you were, so to speak, playing against the game itself.

With every object, tool, weapon and creature imbued with a wealth of attributes, every situation has endless potential. The aforementioned cockatrice, for example, could turn you into stone, but that is only the beginning. If you kill one, then pick it up with gloves, you can wield its body like a flail, instantly turning monsters to stone when you bash them with it. (Usenet wags dubbed this maneuver "wielding the rubber chicken.") If you have a wand of Polymorph and also wear a Ring of Polymorph Control, you can actually turn yourself into a cockatrice, and explore the dungeon in that deadly form. You can even lay cockatrice eggs, too -- usable as hand grenades of instant paralysis.

In Nethack, at any point, anything seems possible. Jean-Christophe Collet, a DevTeam member who discovered the game while working for a Parisian Unix company, says he was enthralled by "the sheer complexity of the situations you could get into, and the way that there was no 'right way' to get out of them." Surrounded by Orcs, for example, you could incinerate most of them with your Wand of Lightning, but the blast would likely ricochet off the opposite wall and crisp you, too. You could wear your Ring of Conflict, which would magically compel the Orcs to start attacking each other instead -- but then again, wearing it would probably also compel your pet Large Dog to attack you. You'd often get the eerie sense the game was anticipating you and all these uniquely intricate conundrums that no one could have possibly foreseen. Or could they? When I review computer games now, I always begin with the question, Is this game as complex and engrossing as Nethack? And even now, more than 10 years from the day I discovered it, it rarely is.

The basic framework for Nethack began with an earlier game called Rogue (hence the genre's subsequent designation as "Roguelikes") released in 1983 on U.C. Berkeley's mainframe. From the beginning, it was conceived (and still maintained by its successors) as an open-source program under Berkeley's BSD license. Anyone could download the game, as well as its underlying source code, improving and contributing to it as desired -- with the sole stipulation that such changes be noted and made available to all. Rogue became the basis for an offspring called Hack, and in acknowledgement of code fixes and additions passed back and forth via Usenet, the quickly evolving game was renamed Nethack. (The history of Nethack and its roster of well over a hundred contributors is detailed in the appendices of Raymond's guide.)

In 1988, Izchak Miller, a University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor, helped organize the game's chief contributors into the DevTeam, an affiliation intended to oversee its continued evolution. Members were drawn to DevTeam by the hacker's unique yen to repair and endlessly tinker with code: "Nethack crashed on me; I fixed how it was crashing," explains Janet Walz, one of the DevTeam's original (and still active) members. "Repeat several times, and then I got a list of suggested upcoming things to implement."

Many enhancements would seem, to an outsider, perfectionist beyond all necessity. Current DevTeam member Dean Luick thought, "It was stupid that lamps extinguished when dropped from the hero's inventory ... The real reason [this happened] was that internally it was hard to have a lit area that wasn't centered on the hero. OK, change that." Luick corrected this barely perceptible shortcoming with an elegant subroutine, by which discarded, still-lit lanterns could keep track of themselves, as it were, throughout all the dungeon levels.

Eric Raymond first noticed the game sometime in the late '80s, attracted by his general love of fantasy role-playing games: "I've been a fan for a long time, going back to the original 'Dungeons & Dragons' in 1973." In addition to the player's guide, Raymond brought some important contributions to the code and gameplay: "Probably the most significant user-visible things I did were adding color support and blindfolds to the game." Nethack aficionados remember those blindfolds well -- wearing one gives you clairvoyant awareness of every monster on the current level, to great tactical advantage. (Only after first killing and eating a magic Floating Eye, of course.)

With the DevTeam coordinating these revisions transmitted from literally everywhere in the world, the game greatly expanded. And owing to the constant peer review native to open source, its architecture still grew increasingly stable. Of the thousands of times I've played it, despite its wild diversity of game play, I can recall maybe a mere handful when it crashed.

The DevTeam soldiered on, even after Miller's death in 1994 from cancer-related complications. An expert in Husserlian phenomenology who lectured at Stanford and MIT and worked for a time at groundbreaking Xerox PARC, Miller was well-loved by his DevTeam colleagues -- even though few had ever actually met him. "I still have a copy of the e-mail he sent me more than 10 years ago asking me if I wanted to join the DevTeam," Collet writes wistfully. "I considered him one of my closest friends and wanted to meet him eventually. I'm still kicking myself for not doing it. I miss him badly." In his memory, Nethack's Gnome Town level has a cheerful candle merchant named Ichzack -- a reference to Miller's contributions to the artificial intelligence of the game's intimidating shopkeepers and also, to the philosopher's illuminating guidance of the DevTeam, in life.

During Nethack's inception, it was unthinkable that computer games would eventually become a market of several billion dollars. It was even more inconceivable that the shaggy-beard ethos of open source would one day claim the keys to the economic kingdom. So many people who have loved this game for so long have, quite unexpectedly, fallen into insane amounts of money. So I ask the DevTeam: "Say a hacker who's suddenly become wealthy from a Linux-related IPO approaches you and says, 'Here's a million dollars. Let's make a full-blown, graphics-rich version of Nethack to rival Diablo. Interested?'"

Among the DevTeam members interviewed, the question provokes some interest, but far more skepticism. While the rest of the world has made the Windows and Mac GUI-interface their home, many in the DevTeam steadfastly remain on the ASCII-only Unix terminals through which they first played the game. Janet Walz worries, "Several of us don't work on platforms that are ever supported by fancy graphics libraries, so it would be difficult to continue the tradition of programming what we wanted to play." Collet, now a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, perhaps expresses the DevTeam's fundamental reservations best: "We work on it because it is fun ... Take the fun out of working on it [by making it a job] and, most likely, the game won't be as much fun to the players either."

Meanwhile, other open-source RPG projects proceed without real financing, driven mostly by the desire to create a living world. Raymond cites WorldForge and Time City as having potential in that regard. But he's a little doubtful that the open-source model will burgeon in the professional game industry, since "games are an exceptional case; the economic logic that makes opening source a compellingly good idea for infrastructure software like operating systems ... applies much less strongly to games." According to Raymond, the cost of failure associated with a software bug in a game is far less than in a Web server program or other critical infrastructural piece of software -- so there's less to gain from opening up the code to public view.

But "Playing the Open Source Game," an essay by British game designer Shawn Hargreaves (referenced in Raymond's writing), argues that many games no longer succeed or fail on their programming: "The role of the programmer now consists of writing good tools and trying to make life as easy as possible for the artists and level designers, rather than leading from the front with state of the art technology."

For all those who've loved Nethack -- many of whom find themselves now, to their own surprise, at the forefront of modern culture -- this must seem like a heartening suggestion. While most current commercial games can hide the papier mâché flimsiness of their construction behind flashy visuals, this also suggests we've reached a point where such graphics are good enough to actually enhance Nethack's ability to enthrall. Perhaps Slashdot will someday announce the formation of an ambitious new development team, eager to breathe visual life into this ancient dungeon that still teems with the genius of its many creators -- difficult to conquer, in play; in design, even now, near impossible to surpass.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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