“Nethack is my favorite game,” Boyfriend tells me on the phone at 7am this morning. “Well,” he amends, “no. It isn’t my favorite game. But it is the best game. It is a perfect game.”
This seems high praise for a game that I have never heard of in my life prior to hearing Boyfriend wax rhapsodic in its praise. “Well, okay,” I say. I am skeptical, but I typically find Boyfriend’s taste in interactive electronic entertainments to be quite excellent. “What’s it about?”
“It’s better if you don’t know anything about it going in. That way, you get to discover everything. Don’t read anything about it before you play it. But it’s really hard. I’ve never beaten it. You can die really easily in strange and sometimes dumb ways, but you always learn from it. Oh, also, it doesn’t really have graphics. You can download it from nethack.org. It’s like 20 KB.”
Okaaaay, then. This sounds mysterious. My curiosity was piqued as fuck. Especially because I’ve never encountered a game with its own .org website. Let’s check this shit out.
Well. Huh. This website appears to have time traveled from 1997. So after a small detour to ask a question of The Internet Oracle and after being reminded by Wikipedia that grid bugs are from Tron, I downloaded this crazy thing. After extracting the files, I discovered two versions of the program and a text file called “Guidebook,” which I presume is the game’s manual. I typically like to read such documents before diving into a new game, like a delicious linguistic appetizer, but Boyfriend did say not to read anything about it before playing, so I’ll just come back to that if things are too confusing.
WHOA, Nethack. Way to begin with a potential existential crisis. Aside from that, though, I’m interested to note that this game was apparently made in 1985. That is one year older than I am. However, this particular version was built about six months ago. Fascinating. For a game to receive thirty-one years of developer support seems unusual to say the least.
After confessing my identity, I am presented with a series of text prompts through which I may select my Role, my Race, my Gender, and my Alignment. I can chose to randomize these things, but I am a big fan of free choice, so I decide to be a neutral female gnome healer. I briefly considered being a “tourist,” which is totally a class option for some reason, but I like being able to heal stuff. I feel like I am playing a game on my dad’s 1980s DOS PC (which he still owns and still uses for his taxes).
Okay, so the game tells me that I’m a follower of Hermes, I’m a Rhizotomist, and that I have to go find an Amulet of Yendor. Cool. I wonder what a Rhizotomist is. It sounds like a nose doctor.
So now I am an @ symbol being followed around by a gray f. In what I guess is a room. Okay? So this kind of looks like a roguelike That’s not really what I was picturing. I don’t know, “Nethack” made me think that it was like a computer hacking RPG. However, knowing that this is some kind of crazypants ASCII roguelike doesn’t really tell me what I am supposed to do about this f that is possibly a monster? Or something?
So I leave the room and go into what I think is a hallway, where I hear a gurgling noise, and that damn f is still following me. Maybe the f is gurgling. Maybe it’s a frog. At some point, the f goes elsewhere, and I run into a `.
Oh, okay, so ` = boulder. Of course. Also, f is back. It’s following me again. Maybe the f is for follow. So I push the boulder for awhile – a pretty impressive feat for a gnome healer, I gotta say – but eventually, I guess my strength gives out, and I “try to move the boulder, but in vain.” By now, that sneaky fucker f has caught up to me and has me pinned against the boulder.
I turn around and head back towards f, but it starts fleeing me. That’s right, f. Don’t mess with nose doctors. Then, the f teleports behind me. What the hell, is f secretly Nightcrawler?
Oh. No. f is my kitten. What. Why do I have a kitten? Where did I get a kitten? Why did I take my kitten into a dungeon? That seems like irresponsible pet ownership to me. Also. Why is the kitten represented by an f? Why not a k? I mean, the f doesn’t really resemble anything approaching a kitten. But then, I suppose, a @ doesn’t really represent anything approaching a female gnomish nose doctor. Fine then. I will name the kitten Fernando.
So Fernando and I head down the hallway in the other direction. Fernando moves pretty erratically, jumping in front of and behind me, occasionally wandering off out of sight and sometimes getting in my way. Just like a real cat! The hallway doesn’t go anywhere, so I head back into the starting room and go out the other door. More hallway and another goddamn boulder. Who keeps leaving these boulders around. Seriously. Okay, so I can’t push that boulder as far, and now both hallways appear to be blocked. I start randomly hitting keys, and I drop a +0 scalpel that I didn’t know I had, but I also don’t know how to pick it up. Hmm. Maybe I should have read the Guidebook after all.
Oh, walking over the scalpel picks it up, I think. Scalpels look like >. Suddenly, I am accosted by a :!
Well, as far as early dungeon enemies go, a newt is way more interesting than a rat. However, I have no idea how to attack this newt. Presumably, I would like to stab it with my scalpel. No idea how to accomplish this. I move towards the newt.
Well, I guess that’s good, although it appears that I may have lost the scalpel. Damn. The newt bites me again, so I punch it good. It dies. Its broken newt corpse (%) lies sadly on the ground. Okay. So I killed a newt. Great. Now what?
By hitting random keys, I somehow seem to have brought up my inventory. Man, I have a lot of stuff! I do still have my scalpel, though I am not 100% sure how to reequip it. Maybe I press a. I have a lot of money. Also, I am interested to note that I am the proud owner of five uncursed apples. I like that we need to have that clarification. Also, an uncursed stethoscope? Which really raises a lot of questions about the world that I am inhabiting. Stethoscopes seem a decidedly un-fantastic piece of technology. But also, having an uncursed one seems to imply that they can be cursed. What does a cursed stethoscope do, I wonder? Stop people’s hearts when you try to listen to them?
Okay, pressing a does equip the scalpel. Great. I am armed and dangerous once again. But I still have no damn idea where to go. Pressing j appears to let me jump, but I can’t jump over the boulders. Pressing r lets me read runes, but I apparently know my runes pretty well already. After pushing buttons for awhile, my newt corpse rots away. That was quick. I’m surprised Fernando didn’t eat it. Hitting 6 seems to make me run.
Aha, the plot thickens! A guard approaches! Maybe he’ll move one of these damn boulders. Instead, a wild d appears. The game tells me that this is a jackal and it is biting me. How are all of these animals getting in here? I guess they can climb over the boulders? I punch the jackal, despite the fact that I thought I had a scalpel in my hand. I guess I didn’t actually equip that. Also, my kitten attacks! It misses, but hey, it’s pretty cool that Fernando is apparently an attack kitten. Fernando and I make quick work of the jackal. But still. Boulders.
I continue to wander in circles, pressing random buttons by the boulders. I am having more boulder problems than Sisyphus. Also, now I am hungry. Maybe I can eat an apple. Since they’re uncursed. After a lot of key pressing, I finally figure out how to eat an apple. “This apple is delicious!” says Yanna Usagi the female gnomish nose doctor. After some more key pressing, I figure out how to equip my scalpel. Still no boulder progress, however. I press more random keys. Suddenly…
Aha! A hidden door! PROGRESS!
Also, I am hungry again. I am going to starve to death, penned in here by boulders. I press more random keys.
Aha! THIS looks useful!
# can be a kitchen sink? What kind of dungeon IS this?
After this comes a three page list of commands. Fucking fuck. How the hell does anyone remember all of these commands? Am I meant to print this out and reference it? Like every key on my keyboard does a different thing, and capital letters do a different thing than lowercase letters! I eat another apple, but it’s rotten. Gross. The next apple is okay, though. I’ve figured how to kick, so I kick a boulder. This accomplishes nothing but hurting my foot. So I go up and kick the hidden door.
YES FINALLY. So there’s a newt, but I can handle newts. However, there is also lichen? From which I cannot escape?
So I don’t know what a lichen is, but I cannot escape from it. I also apparently cannot attack while I cannot escape from it. So the newt bites me, and then I am also attacked by a fierce F (a goblin, I think). But I can do nothing, because I cannot escape from the lichen.
Huh. Okay. Yanna Usagi the nose doctor, killed by a newt, a goblin, and lichen.
So that’s Nethack. Wandering around with a kitten, penned in by boulders, eating uncursed apples and punching newts until being unceremoniously murdered by lichen.
I think I would have loved this when I was ten and the only video game I had to play was Mixed-Up Mother Goose. The trial and error would have really appealed to me. Now…I’m not so sure I have the patience for this. Boyfriend says that I absolutely should have read the manual, just nothing ELSE about it. He says there are over a hundred commands! THAT IS TOO MANY COMMANDS. I’ll try again, though not today.
But I can see why Boyfriend likes this game…
Update: I Googled “rhizotomist.” It means “A person who collects roots and herbs to make medicine.” That makes more sense than “nose doctor.”