Saturday, July 02, 2005

Rational Technology: Nethack in the Season of Distrust

Well, yes, a rehash of my previous post, embellished with a topical framing device, for my weekly column in the local paper. I'm feeling a bit dumb this week. Must be part of my biorhythm cycle. Go figger...

Deep in the midst of this brewing political storm, it's easy to get carried away in the rush of emotions. It's hard to escape from the commentary and opinions bandied about. And yes, I have been guilty of adding my own bit of fuel to the fire, I'll admit as much.

Then again, the reason I'm uncharacteristically vocal about the situation is because I feel so...violated: by GMA and unnamed Comelec chairmen whose judgments lapse; by warring factions in the military who release wiretaps at inopportune moments; by opportunistic oppositionists coming out of the woodwork; and by a civil society that for the moment no longer looks so civil.

So I'll do what I always do when I'm aggravated: play video games.

One game that's caught much of my time and imagination these days is Nethack. It's free, it's addictive, and it's ancient, dating back to as early as 1987.

Nethack's plot is as ancient as they come. You, the hero (or the heroine) travel through several levels of a dungeon in search of treasure and the ultimate prize, the Amulet of Yendor. So what's to differentiate it from the countless other dungeon games in the market today?

Well, Nethack is text-based. 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, remember that 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, including Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

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. Well, yes I am.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a dungeon to explore to get my mind off this political madness.

To get Nethack, go to http://www.nethack.org. Versions are available for almost all operating systems, including Windows and DOS.

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