Lessons from Nethack
So, I downloaded the new Nethack (3.6.0) a week ago, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m old enough that I first played Nethack (or possibly one of it’s variants) on the University unix system, before the invention of the WWW. Needless to say, I was terrible, and usually starved to death in a few minutes, or died. I rarely got past level 3.
Of course now, there are entire wikis devoted to nethack. You can watch videos on you tube. Now I’m doing better, my scores have gone from maybe 1,000 to 10,000 and in and lucky case, 35,000. (According to the Nethack Wiki, the odds of a random piece of armor having +5 or better enchantment is 0.0001761%, so getting a +5 of anything is about 2 in a million. Getting a +5 Mithril armor? Priceless).
In some ways I’m cheating by reading the wiki, but I come by my cheating honestly — with hundreds or thousands of games played. But even knowing the odds and whatnot, Nethack games (fast as they are) have a joy.
And that is the Joy of Ignorance.
I may know what all the scroll options are but now, in this game, what does the READ ME scroll do? Identify stuff? Cause a (point blank) fireball? Punish the caster? Remove a curse? And is that particular scroll blessed? Cursed? Does this ring aggravate monsters, or allow me to go without food, or let me control polymorphs? Even if you know all of the code and tricks — and I don’t, still. Stupid Wights — you enter each game woefully ignorant.
That’s something that older RPGs don’t capture. At least, not if the player’s read the player’s guide. But suppose that you just took the monster descriptions and randomized them from what the book said? (Maybe not the basic shape, but the details). That looks like a jaguar …. oh, it’s a rust-monster. Oops. I believe that some of Monte Cook’s new games have the idea that where you come from (jungle, tundra, islands, etc) play a real factor, in that a native can basically walk through the terrain fearing only monsters, but a non-native will struggle to survive. The idea of implicit knowledge, and the lack thereof.
Board games struggle with this. And that’s fine. Being able to determine the odds, knowing a deck composition, and the like are all valuable skills. But there’s something to be said for having no idea. As much as I mocked the X-Com game, I wanted to like it. I want to have to learn things, in game. I want each game to be different, within a certain framework. And now that I’m playing Nethack again, I’m reminded why no other Dungeon Crawl game seems good.