Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Digital Games: Nethack

Ah, Nethack- godfather of the dungeon hack subgenre of the PC RPG. Ok, that's not entirely true as it was based on the earlier game Hack, itself based on the earlier game Rogue, but seeing as how Nethack has been in development til today and has versions playable on most modern operating systems, I'd rather talk about it than it's predecessors.

So, Nethack then. It's a basic dungeon hack- when you start a new game, you create a character from one of several character classes, and then you're dumped onto the first floor of a dungeon. Your objective is to descend this dungeon, killing progressively tougher enemies while gaining better equipment, nifty spells and gold in the process. Oh, and when you die, it's permanent. There's a save-feature, but it's only meant for cases where you have to turn off the game to go do something else. This is what they call hardcore.

What makes this game, originally released in 1987 and very obviously based on the non-digital game Dungeons & Dragons, a digital game? Well, the first thing would be it's use of procedural content. Every time you start a new game, the entire dungeon you play in is randomly generated anew. You'll (very likely) never encounter the same enemy in the same spot twice. Or the same treasures, for that matter. This makes every playthrough unique and, coupled with the constant danger that permanent death brings, adds to the appeal of the game.

The idea of the computer as a moderator is important here too. Nethack is a single-player game: you, as the adventurer, are battling against the game system which throws various kinds of enemies at you to deter your progress through the game. In a non-digital version of Nethack, a moderator (dungeon-master, in this case) would have to co-ordinate all the enemies while setting the positions of all the treasures. Heck, he or she'd have to make a totally new map every time the player died too. Truly an ordeal that would reduce even the bravest of dungeon-masters to tears.

Another important thing that the computer does is hide the game's systems from the player. Even if the player is aware that combat in the game is decided by a series of calculations, he/she does not have to bother remembering those calculations. All the player has to do is choose to "attack the enemy." By doing this, the player cues the computer to compute all necessary calculations and near-instantaneously inform the player of the result of the attack- did it hit or miss? If it hit, how much damage did it cause? This information is delivered so fast to the player that there might as well be no delay between the physical action of pressing the attack key and receiving the feedback for the action. This clearly cannot be done in a non-digital game.

The last thing the computer does for the player that is, I think, quite important is to limit the player's information about the game. The dungeon map which the player explores is completely hidden from the player except for the areas which he/she has visited already and a few spaces in front of the player (if the player is exploring a new area). This adds an element of suspense to the game- a player can never be sure if a new room will contain a treasure chest, or a terrible enemy. Taking calculated risks becomes the name of the game.

It's interesting to see how Nethack (and it's predecessors and antecendents- such as Diablo) has taken apart a multiplayer, non-digital game- Dungeons & Dragons, and used it's gameplay elements as the framework to build a single-player, digital game. A cursory playthrough of both will reveal that the play experience for both games are markedly different from each other. Both provide meaningful play, but not by the same means.

Dungeons & Dragons is very much a social game, dependant on the interactions between players and the Dungeon Master, who controls the game. At times, the game can become something that's less goal-oriented and more of an interactive story, mediated by the players and the Dungeon Master. A digital RPG, on the other hand, can do no such things. What they can do, and do very well, is internalize all the complex rules of RPGs and present players with (relatively) fast-paced gameplay that is more often that not short on storyline but compelling nontheless.

Nethack is compelling because you never know what kind of adventure you'll go on each time you play the game and also because of the balance between risk and reward that the prospect of permanent death brings to the game- something that few modern games have been willing to emulate. No matter, though- there are more than enough variant of Nethack and other "Rogue-alikes" to satisfy the needs of dungeon hackers around the world. I'm off to slay a slime mold.


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