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…and it only took me 24 years…


I bought my first computer in 1985. It was completely retarded. It could do nothing. But I didn’t know that; I thought I was Buck Fucking Rogers. After several months of booting it up and staring at the C:> prompt, though, even I got a little restless. Then I went to my first computer fair (goodness, I was impressed by the smell and, for some reason, the fact there were several nuns attending) and bought a fistful of shareware programs on floppy disk.

One of which was a game called Hack — thereafter known as The Game That Ate A Year Of My Life. I still have that original floppy, by the way, which may be the world’s only surviving copy of the original IBM port. Wish I could read it.

Anyhow, Hack (later Nethack) was an astonishingly complex game. I won’t even say “for the time” — it’s still one of the richest gameplay universes ever hacked together (which is why, incidentally, it was called Hack). It’s the familiar Rogue formula — you go into a dungeon, fight monsters, retrieve an amulet and skedaddle. But the wands, potions, magic scrolls, traps, monsters, characters, weapons, armor, food and everything else you encounter along the way are designed to interact with each other in all sorts of ways, planned and not planned.

Nethack is one of my all-time favorite games, one I’ve been playing since 1200 baud was smokin’ fast. — Actor Wil Wheaton

Because Hack was different every time. It wasn’t played on a fixed layout; the program had a formula for generating random dungeons. It could do things that surprised its own programmers (though the development team was famous for anticipating just about every weird-ass thing that might happen in gameplay).

Because it was essentially a game of text messages, it could be HUGE and hugely complex, even on the most primitive PC’s. But your character was a letter that you moved around with the arrow keys, so it was easy to learn and visual enough to kick your imagination in the ass.

In short, NetHack 3.1.3 is the most elaborate role-playing environment you are ever likely to explore. This is a place to return again and again, each time for a different experience. You’re really going to have to play it for a year or two and see for yourself. — “Fatal Distractions” by David Gerrold

The journey was so much fun, I happily played it for 24 years without ever winning a game. Oh, I got close. I once escaped the dungeon with a cheap plastic imitation of the Amulet of Yendor. Several times I got the amulet but did something incredibly stupid on the way out — stepped on a dead cockatrice and turned to stone, or ate one too many food rations and choked to death. This is a phenomenon known on Usenet as YASD — Yet Another Stupid Death. And every new incarnation of the game was more complex and added sidequests and pitfalls.

Thank you for the latest release of gradewrecker. My GPA just went in the corner and shot itself. — USENET posting, author unknown

Meanwhile, Berkeley began to ship its version of Linux with Hack on — my old friend, the simple original version that ate my 1986. I discovered it by accident on one of my shell accounts. And a mere two years and several hundred games later — this Sunday, specially for the solstice — I finally escaped the dungeon with the Amulet of Yendor!

It was…a howling letdown. After all the late nights, the YASDs, the near misses, the little dogs and shopkeepers and orcs and killer bees and demons and dragons, it all boils down to this:


Now what? Trying to beat the newest (and last) version, of course.

June 24, 2009 — 8:23 pm
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