Tuesday October 07, 2003 @ 05:01 PM (UTC)

The other day a link from Penny Arcade led me foolishly hither. I say foolishly, not for the reason some of you may suspect, as you recoil in fear from the prospect of Whisker Bob the cellar-dweller posing in a Speedo and draping himself artisticly over a vintage pinball machine – but rather because it was foolish to expect such a contest, promising a valuable prize rather than just bragging rights, would really have that indefinable something we call authenticity. One has only to click on the “top 10” to notice that, instructions not withstanding, nary a one of the female contestants has any trace of gaming paraphenalia in her pin-up – in fact, in many cases, you’d be hard-pressed to find paraphenalia of any sort. As an aside, I will say that this is really rather awful. Assuming such a contest to have some amusement value, is it really that unlikely that there are sexy gamer girls about, so we must allow random cheesecake entries to fill the ranks? And gaming references can be very cheesecakey — see the burgeoning subculture of cosplay or slap one of these across your tracts of LAN.

But I digress. The point here is that these NPC chicklets (Ling Xiaoyu and I do humbly entreat them to bring it.) had a list of favorite games next to their pictures. Three apiece. I was staggered. Three! I mean, I don’t even play that many games by web standards, but mostly there are about half a dozen I like equally well — how would I ever pick THREE? And then, even as I pondered the complexity of the question of “favorite game” and how no ONE video or computer game could ever really hold such absolute sway, I remembered nethack.

Nethack is my favorite computer game. It’s portable — I can play it anywhere I can utilize ssh. It’s got GREAT graphics. Look at this jabberwock: J. See how the dangerous curves of the beast are only sketched, leaving the rest to the imagination?

In all seriousness, nethack’s strength is its simplicity. New versions come out all the time. They’re free. They’re made for the love of the game. The game is endless in its variety — the jokes, the versatility, the way you can tame almost anything, polymorph into anything, eat anything (if you’re polymorphed properly). You can ride your pets. You can tame a dragon, or become a dragon and lay an egg, then protect it for an instant pet who wuvs you. You can swim (or fail to), if you don’t mind your potions diluting and your scrolls and spellbooks fading. If you throw a boomerang, or even the mighty hammer of Thor, at an orc or a troll, he MIGHT JUST CATCH IT! You can CAN corpses for later consumption. You can steal from shops, and get the Kops called on you. You can pray to your god, or tick her off. You can rub a magic lamp and make a wish.

Why is nethack so multifarious, so deep and ever-changing? Because it’s simple. To add a new weapon, a new class, a new monster, a new level, all you need do is write some code. No graphics, no rendering. Its limits are the limits of imagination. That’s what a game should be.


but this is funny! but why do you assume that the cheesecakers are filling the ranks? one of the girls was holding a console or whatever it’s called (she was blonde). perhaps this just means that these games are becoming so ubiquitous as to cross boundaries of (always useless anyway) social groupings.

Also you misspelled artistically.

BTW: My favorite game is, and always has been: Tetris. But I try to only play it once a year because once I turn it on I can’t turn it off for like five days straight.

I really can’t think of any reasonable way to express in a picture that you’re a gamer, except perhaps posing with the game-playing equipment of your choice. I saw a few of those (including some of the women in the top 10). Do note that there is a filter for “game related” pictures.

I suppose you could photoshop yourself into a screenshot of a game, but in most cases, you’d end up awfully small.

I suspect some of the photos were in fact attempts at cosplay, but I’m just not familiar with the characters. If there were captions, it would help a lot.

Many of the finest games to ever be created have been non-graphical. Adventure, Zork and the Infocom line were excellent games driven by a command line. Nethack, Moria and other rogue-like games (rogue was the first of it’s kind) offer some of the deepest single-player gameplay available. Long before Evercrack, we had MUDs.

It seems to me that modern games are largely about placing the player in situations he would not otherwise experience. Game designers place a lot of weight on making the experience as emersive as possible. Modern games are also more likely to take you through a pre-determined naritive.

Older games, by contrast, are often puzzle-based. Adventure, for example, revolves around solving the puzzle of each room you come into contact with. Often, older games have a certain element of chance as well. Modern gamers seem to expect to beat their games with little more than sufficient time investment. Nethack players don’t really expect to win.

These days, the only video games I play are twitch-games (shooters, driving games, Tekken, etc) and strategic/tactical games (real-time and turn based strategy, etc). I haven’t seen a game with a difficult puzzle in quite some time. I tried playing Final Fantasy X, but the damn thing is just cut scene after cut scene with combat between.

What ever happened to Sierra Online? I grew up on Space Quest; I haven’t seen anything like it for quite some time. I keep hoping that some day, the obsession with 3D graphics will end and game designers will designs fun games with humor and puzzles once more.

I’m sure, somewhere, lurking in some dark corner are a few modern games in the old style.

The official rules stated that game paraphenalia must be visible - when I looked last at the top ten, NONE of the five girls had anything like that - T-shirt, setting, controller, NUFFINK. So basically, whoever is in charge of vetting the entries (and if they weren’t vetting them, there would be even more DE and COLLE in the decolletage than there is.) So I assume that the people vetting the entries either don’t care about the rules, or figure if they’re sticklers, they won’t get any/good entries.

I figure.

Yes, it was artistic, was it not?

You should try nethack. It’s the bizzety-bomb. I got my SHAKESPEARE PROF playing it through sheer curiosity in college.

Ah, yes—the blonde is new to me, but she does have a controller. At first glance, PS2.

And now that I delve a bit, it says they’ll disqualify the non-gamey ones before the prize is given. That’s a mercy anywho.

Some people have photoshopped themselves—I pressed “vote” so I could see the ones that weren’t highly rated, and there was at least one girl who was cosplaying AND pasted into a pretty background from a game.

Oh, and honey? Most of those girls in the top 10, if they were trying to cosplay, missed what “cos” stands for ;p

Oh yeah, sure, I’ll try Nethack. That’s just what I need, another activity. Cuz I don’t have enough of those. I really have trouble filling my free time. I get home and I’m just bored, bored, bored. Especially since we bought a house. Should I join a bowling league? I just wish I had something to do.


Meh. It’s nice and portable. You have a knee-top computer, right? Or whatever the size between laptop and palmtop is? You have a bus ride!

Of course there’s modern games in the old style. Diablo II, for example, is a thinly-veiled Rogue-like with graphics! Not that it can really compare with Angband, my Rogue-like of choice (when I say Angband, I mean Zangband, Eyangband, Oangband, etc., all of which have swallowed hundreds of hours of my life.)

Felicity’s right about the graphics – it’s kind of like as Cypher says:

“But there’s way too much information to decode The
Matrix. You get used to it. I-I don’t even see the code. All I see is Blonde, Brunette, Redhead….”

Or in our case, Ancient Multihued Dragon (D), Black Reaver (W), Morgoth (P)...

Although speaking of twitchy games for graphicky systems, I am having a lot of fun with Devil May Cry right now.

Well, yeah, this is true. I have not, in point of fact, played Diablo II. I have played Diablo, which people prevailed upon me to try by comparing it to the holy nethack. But you know what you can’t do in Diablo? Anything but equip, pick things up, hack, shoot, and cast spells. In nethack, there are literally dozens of ways to address any situation. Not 4: hack, shoot, spell, or run. That’s what gives it a lot of its appeal—there is no one true way in Nethack, anything may work, and because it’s turn-based, you are given time to think without asking for it.

Also, in nethack bipedal monsters can open doors. Therefore novel game solutions like “get the boss to follow you, close the door, and shoot him with arrows through the grate until he croaks” don’t exist.

I am not saying Diablo is necessarily bad—or any other game. But to me it’s worlds away from nethack or Moria, so many worlds it’s hard to compare. The richness that comes with a game that is entirely gameplay, with no graphics, would be really hard to have in a graphical game. It takes maybe two minutes to change the code of a game so that if you are polymorphed into a metallovore and you eat a trident, the game responds “That was pure chewing satisfaction!” Imagine how much time would go into creating a good graphic for eating a trident. You see what I mean?

The above message will actually occur in the described situation.

I gotta say though, Dan, where are you getting Black Reaver (W) and Morgoth (P)? Do you play slash’em or something? Because those are really unfamiliar to me. And the idea of a named and ominous Pudding brings a merry smile to my lips.

Nope, that’s just Angband, which, btw, is a lot more like Diablo than Nethack is (although there’s still a million more things to do than Diablo.) Also, Angband is extremely Tolkein influenced, so you’ll fight all those Orcish uniques and their warbands, maybe find Sting, or an Elven Ring of Power or two. BTW, I messed up before, (L) is a Black Reaver (it’s part of the Lich family, I guess.) So if you’re lucky, (W) is a Barrow Wight, and not a unique Ringwraith – or the dreaded Nightwalker,

“A huge giant garbed in black, more massive than a titan and stronger than a dragon. With terrible blows, it breaks your armour from your back, leaving you defenseless against its evil wrath. It can smell your fear, and you in turn smell the awful stench of death as this ghastly figure strides towards you menacingly. This evil undead creature moves normally. It is magical, casting spells intelligently which produce nether balls, cause brain smashing, produce nether bolts, produce mana bolts, terrify, blind or summon an undead.”

But it is worth about a million experience points. And afterwards you feel GOOD! (Assuming he hasn’t reduced your equipment to rust and costume jewelry.)

The ominous Pudding is a (j) where I’m from – part of the jelly family, and designated by color. Pretty easy in the Angband world, because they move at normal speed but “do not deign to chase intruders.” On the other hand, some DO move – particularly, the Acidic Cytoplasm, which moves at three times your speed to splash you with acid six times a turn – you kill it off only to discover that you might as well be naked with how messed up your armor is.

Whatsa P in Angband then?

L and W are the same in nethack - Lich (or archlich) and Wight (or Wraith - yummy!—or Nazgul (guaranteed cursed ring of invis with every one.))

Depends on the variant. In most *bands (p) stands for people (such as Novice Ranger, Demonologist, Desperate Adventurer, etc.) so a big (P) stands for big people – i.e. giants, such as Storm Giants, Giant Chieftans, and Morgoth, who’s kinda in a class all his own.

Occasionally a variant makes Giants (G), displacing (G)hosts who have to take the place of (g)olems, which then are grouped as (A)utomata, shoving (A)ngels entirely outside of the game. Of course, what business do you have beating up angels anyway?

Speaking of Nazguls, in ToME, an especially Tolkeiny Angband variant, each one is unique and quite nasty, and comes with a unique and nasty ring of invisibility, usually too cursed to wear. What’s worse is that even when you kill them off at great expense to yourself, they periodically and randomly are resurrected to come back to get you, unless you’ve chucked the One Ring in Mt Doom.

Wow. That’s quite different. Do you play more than one rogue-like on a regular basis? Such different ASCII schemes could endanger your little ASCII avatars. For example, my little nethack @dventurer would see your people as piercers, and no doubt attack them without mercy, whereas your ponderous Giants would seem no threat to the bold adventurer used to the meek and feeble Gnome and the fearsome giant Humanoid.

I play a number of different Angband variants, and yes, occasionally, I’m surprised by a symbol I thought was something else. A quick run-down on some of the more popular Angband variants:

Angband – also known as “vanilla”, as it’s the base for most everything else; emphasis on stability rather than innovation so there’s a solid foundation for variants to work from.

Zangband – “Zelazny Angband,” throwing in a lot of new features, with a new magic system (Chaos/Pattern/Trump/Sorcery/Nature/Arcane/Death) instead of just priests & mages, and many new races. It also includes, as you might imagine, many uniques from Amber, and instead of Morgoth for a final battle you’ll be duking it out with the Serpent of Chaos. I haven’t played the latest versions of this variant but they’re radically different from vanilla and, from what I’ve heard, still pretty unbalanced.

Gumband – Don’t recall why it’s called Gumband, but it’s defined by its tossing out of all Tolkein-stuff and replacing it with material from Michael Moorcock’s books, such as Elric and Stormbringer and such. Originally based, I believe, off of an early version of Zangband and customized from there.

Eyangband – “Eytan Zweig’s Angband.” (Eytan’s the maintainer.) Similar to vanilla, but lots more items, optional quests, classes (Mystics and Bards) and more races (including Angels and Demons, along with Rattkin and Felpurrs for those of you who’ve played Wizardry games.)

ToME – “Troubles of Middle-Earth”, probably the most blatantly different in gameplay from vanilla, attempts to incorporate TONS of stuff from LotR (despite the fact that once upon a time this variant was Pernangband – until the cease-and-desist order from McCaffrey’s people.) With a completely different skill-based levelling system, many new classes (many of which are completely unbalanced), a worldmap with different dungeons, and tons of wacky-powerful items, I find it more of a testing ground for new Angband innovations than a balanced or challenging game, but it’s still wildly popular.

Oangband – “Opinion Angband.” Although eerily similar to Angband, Oangband’s combat mechanics have been completely redesigned, and the monster AI is severely ramped up. It’s a very tightly balanced variant where every class stylishly works towards winning in its own way, requiring independent strategies for each class – you can’t just hack-n-slash or mana bolt your way to victory anymore. Although humbly declaring itself only version 0.60, it’s a much more finished product than just about any other variant out there, and despite being extremely challenging it’s my personal favorite.

Wow. You’re like a wine expert except of Angband.

Although all of these variants are at least somewhat different from each other, none are quite so apart as the gap between Angband and Nethack, mostly because there’s a fundamental philosophical difference between Nethack and Angband.

As far as I can tell (haven’t played much Nethack, so help me out here) there are certain items you need or things for you to accomplish in Nethack in order to win – kind of a “quest” format. (I’m not sure if I’m right or not here) but in Nethack you’re encouraged to dive deeper into the dungeon, because there’s no benefit to sticking around (and the monsters get harder anyway as you gain experience.) Without some knowledge of what exactly you’ll need to win (usually gained by dying a lot), it’s practically impossible to succeed. It’s often the combination of items that make your character powerful rather than any single item intrinsically.

Angband, on the other hand, is a lot more like Diablo: there’s no goal except the one at the bottom of the dungeon. As the Angband joke goes:
“What’s on a starting character’s to-do list?
1. Go to general store.
2. Buy lantern.
3. Kill Morgoth.”
The emphasis in Angband isn’t proceeding with the quest, but gathering the right equipment; in fact, there are certain depths of the dungeon where most players recommend you don’t proceed without a certain resistance built into your armor (because without it you’ll get insta-killed, by paralysis, for example.) Instead of being rewarded for diving as fast as you can handle, you’re rewarded for revisiting the same levels over and over (“scumming”) until you’ve got the equipment kit you’ll need to go on. There’s no real secrets or tricks to winning Angband: just max out your character, learn some basic tactics so you don’t get surrounded too often, keep a way of teleporting out of those tight spots, and make sure you’re resistant to the types of attacks you’re going to be up against when you visit the next dungeon level. What Angband does have is lots of shiny equipment, powerful in its own right: unique items (artifacts) that are pulled from the greatest weapons of LotR lore, Rings of Power, and Dragon Scale Mail that lets you breathe dragonfire and other nasty things on your enemies (although I hear that Nethack has this too). So by the time you’ve reached level 50 (the highest level you reach in Angband, and you’ll probably reach it long before you win the game), you feel pretty accomplished, and pretty pimped out in terms of your equipment. Avoidance, necessary in Nethack, is a rarity in Angband; a high-level character sees a nest of over a hundred Ancient Multihued Dragons and says “Woo hoo! What fun!” Even though it might take 10 minutes to kill them all, and an hour to go through all the junk they drop afterwards, that’s what Angband is about: hopefully after wading through all that crap you’ll find another artifact to take home.

Well, Nethack does actually have a quest-like set-up, but it’s fairly easy to get the quest items without knowing about them, as long as you explore a lot. The ultimate goal of the game is the get the Amulet of Yendor from deepest Gehennom. That much you are told in the introduction. What that doesn’t tell you is what you need to do to get to Gehennom, which is the complex part. You need three things—the Book of the Dead from the Wizard of Yendor, the Bell of Opening from your quest bad guy (Rogue Quest, Wizard Quest, et cetera), and the Candelabrum of Invocation from Vlad the Impaler. You have to take them to the bottom level of the dungeon (no stairway down) and stand on the vibrating square (only detectable by standing on it) and apply 7 uncursed candles to the candelabrum, apply the Candelabrum to light it, ring the Bell, and read the Book. THEN the doorway to Gehennom opens and at the bottom level of Gehennom you kill the High Priest of Moloch and get the Amulet.

It sounds complex but it’s not really that bad. The Quest thing is pretty persistent - your Quest leader keeps trying to contact you telepathically and then sends a portal for you. You go through that, kill the bad guy, get your Quest artifact, and the baddie has this bell. It seems to be important, because it won’t go into a container - “The bell cannot be contained by such trappings!”

You go along exploring, and at some point the levels start to include a big blank square in the middle—you can’t dig into it, you can’t teleport into it. This is a frustrating enigma! So when there is a chance to get in, you realize you’re at the bottom of a tower, you fight your way up to the top, realize “Vlad was here” was not just a clever piece of graffiti, kill Vlad, and he has the Candelabrum. You’ve never seen a candelabrum, so you take it along (or leave it and come back later when you realize it was important, like my first time). Since the game is all about collecting junk anyways…

The book works similarly - the tower in the middle is the Wizard of Yendor’s. Then you get to the bottom, hopefully you figure out the vibrating square is important, and you luck into the right order (light to read by, bell to attract attention of audience, read the book). Then it’s pretty much drill down and kill some more, and then you have the amulet. You figure you need to escape the dungeon with it, so you go back up, killing the Wizard as he keeps reincarnating and attacking you - and you get to the top level. Yes! You’re about to win! You climb up the level to the outside of the dungeon…and you’re transported to the elemental planes. You have to fight your way through those, and you find yourself on the Astral plane, you find the right altar and sacrifice the amulet. Ta da!

Okay, so it’s complex. But when you’re playing, it’s a logical extension of the trial-and-error process you use for everything. And it’s been reinforced already that exploration is key—goodies like the luckstone in the Gnomish Mines, the amulet of reflection or bag of holding in Sokoban, the pots of money in Croesus’s fort, the wand of wishing in the Castle, all reinforce that good things come to those who search every cranny of the dungeon.

And yeah, phat artefacts and good armor are a big emphasis in nethack. And yeah, I’ve only ascended a lvl 50 character. But you’re still in danger even then - even if you have a lot of tricks up your sleeve, a lucky cockatrice can get you, Elementals gang up in the Elemental planes, and while 5 elementals are no problem, 15 may be - and finally, the Angels and OH MY GOD the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the Astral Plane really take the cake. Every time Death touches you, you have to make a saving throw vs. him (hint: magic resistance is your friend). Worse, Pestilence makes you deathly ill every time he touches you—and unicorn horns are not infinite use items! And Famine is no lightweight, either. (Hint: Ring of Conflict, baby. Awww yeah. Just remember to take it off before meeting your coaligned High Priest.)

Oh, and the “maybe THIS area will have the Wizard and he’ll have the Amulet” thing keeps you pluggin’ and findin’ those other quest items, too.

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