Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Lure of Nethack

I confess: I've been playing a lot of Nethack lately. It's a burgeoning addiction that I'd do well to nip in the bud,

And I ask myself why? Take a look at the screenshot below, and I'm sure you'd also ask the question why?

Nethack ain't pretty, nosirree. Zero polygon count for the characters. No particle effects. No 3D scenery. No Dolby surround sound. Nada. Zip.

But darn it all, it's a great game! And here are my reasons why:

1) Nethack has surprisingly great depth. From the very beginning, you're given a choice of 13 character classes to choose from, each one with their own special abilities. Each class actually plays differently. And as you progress through the dungeon, you'll find so many things to explore and experiment with.

2) Nethack has great tongue-in-cheek humor. The character class I usually play as is...Tourist. The Tourist, of course, is armed with a camera (great for blinding enemies) and a credit card (great for picking locks). Oh, yes, the whole aim of the game is to find the Amulet of Yendor. Now, spell it backwards. Deep within, there are several other satirical nods to fantasy lore.

3) Nethack has great balance. Oh, sure, you'll die a lot the first few times so it's useful to look up a few tips online. But Nethack is never cheap in that it overwhelms you by sheer force of enemies. There's usually a way out, and if you died, it's because you were being stupid and didn't take it.

4) Nethack is cheap. The game itself is freely downloadable, and since it doesn't require the latest 3D accelerator and kaboodles of CPU speed, it's actually playable on ancient computers. You can't get any cheaper than that.

5) In Nethack, YOU are the hero. There are graphical interfaces to Nethack, such as Falcon's Eye and Nethack-qt. But for some reason, I always find the ASCII map more appealing. Why? I think we can find the answer in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

McCloud says: "The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power, both in comics and in drawing generally. Another is the universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe." McCloud goes further to say that cartoons are iconic in nature.

Nethack represents the hero as a simple @. What could be more iconic than that? In that total absence of detail, your imagination fills the gap. Voila! Total immersion. You are the hero.

It's these reasons, I think, that make Nethack such a great game. Either that, or I'm just a real geek.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a dungeon to explore.