Ahoy, Nethack!

Nethack is a punishingly difficult, mind-bogglingly complex and above all horrendously addictive game. Its a top-down turn-based text-based RPG that was created in 1987. 22 Years later, the #nethack irc channel is still buzzing, and 140 games of nethack were played today alone on nethack.alt.org – which is only the games that were played online. I would personally call nethack the most lastingly successful game ever, which is a curious thing because it breaks some of the most fundamental rules of good game design.

Nethack is my favorite example of the fact that the rules of good game design are simply guidelines, and that if you know what you’re doing, you don’t necessarily have to abide by them.

Its addictiveness comes from two main things. The first is that 90% of the world is procedurally generated, meaning your experience will never resemble the last. The second is that it has massive depth. My favorite illustration of its depth is this; a quote from the nethack wiki.

While any given game of NetHack may be very difficult to complete, it is generally understood that every game is winnable

And yet it took me two years, and hundreds of games to finally win it. To this day, I still play nethack with the nethack wiki open alongside it. There has never been a confirmed case of somebody winning nethack without reading the spoilers or source code, and most people argue that while such a thing would be possible, it would use most of ones lifespan. Did i also mention that saving is only for quitting? Death deletes your save files, and trying to preserve them is looked down upon.

Everything i just said reeks of bad game design, but the truth is that nethack was designed very well for a very specific audience.

The developers of Team Fortress 2, Valve, once looked into death in games, and which deaths were the most and least frustrating.  The results of their research was that the most frustrating deaths were those that were deemed unavoidable by the victim, and the least frustrating deaths were the ones that the victim realised were their own fault, and could improve upon next time. I believe that Nethacks enjoyability is based entirely upon this concept. Almost every nethack death is preventable if played right, as seen in the quote included above. And this perpetuates the players willingness to return for another game. Every death, the player goes “Ah, i should’ve just run away!” or “I forgot about that wand of teleportation, I could’ve gotten away!” or one of a hundred other things that could’ve saved their life. And then, having learnt from their death, they are willing to play again, determined not to make the same mistake.

This is how, despite blatantly ignoring all the rules of difficulty curves and maintaining progress, nethack is still a good game, played to this day.