Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ An Addict's Lament

An Addict's Lament

Parents: Keep your kids away from NetHack. It's bad stuff, certain to lower grades, damage moral fibre and turn your children into slackers. If that's not enough, many pushers use NetHack to get their victims hooked on vi, since both these demonic programs use similar keystrokes -- if your kids ever stumble into that pit of a text editor, they will be nerdified and you will lose them forever.

Kids: Keep your parents away from NetHack. If you thought their addictions to Hockey Night In Canada, Baywatch, Due South, the business section of your local newspaper, mortgages, cars, the Playstation they got you for your birthday, making up unfair rules to oppress you, Treasure Trolls, and their relentless campaign to embarrass you in front of your friends were bad, you ain't seen nothing yet. If they ever get their parental brains around the full-keyboard interface, they'll start playing NetHack day and night. They'll forget to make you dinner, to go to work, to scold you for being out too late, to sign the endless number of papers they have to sign for school. If you interrupt them to remind them that you haven't eaten dinner for the past three days, they will glare at you and shoo you out of the room. When they aren't playing NetHack they will be in withdrawal: they'll be cranky and irritable, and will snap at you for no good reason at all. So keep them away from that game!

I know. I shouldn't be making fun. Drug addiction is serious, depressing business, and no matter how bad NetHack is, an addiction to NetHack is less likely to ruin a life than an addiction to crack cocaine. But make no mistake: NetHack is addictive, and I am a NetHack addict in the truest sense of the word. It hasn't ruined me financially -- yet -- but that is mostly because it is free. However, it has lowered my grades, it has helped me ruin personal relationships, it has wasted many, many hours of my life, it probably has warped my moral values, and it has been a drug I have used for years now to escape the dismal reality of existence. I can't afford vodka, so I play NetHack instead.

What is NetHack? NetHack is a computerized role-playing game loosely modelled on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D). In traditional role-playing games (also known as RPGs), a bunch of nerdy people get together with lots of strange dice, pencils and paper and sometimes boards and figurines (actually, I think that most RPGs use boards and figurines, since that way the game producers can sell the nerdy gamesters more stuff). One nerdy game-player is assigned to be the "Dungeon Master," and the rest of the players choose roles to play -- in AD&D, you can choose from stock fantasy characters like fighters, clerics, magicians and thieves. The players embark on a make-believe quest, trying to survive, kill as many monsters as they can, collect treasures and reach their goal (it's just like real life, except that in real life you don't get to cast spells of magic missile at monsters that annoy you). The players take turns deciding what their character should do -- whether to cast spells or shoot arrows or just rest for a turn, and the Dungeon Master rolls dice to determine whether a given action succeeds or fails. Based on dice rolls, the Dungeon Master also generates monsters, traps, and treasure for the players to deal with.

One of the first RPGs was AD&D's predecessor, which oddly enough was called Dungeons and Dragons. Upon its introduction, D&D proved to be a huge hit with the geek clique. Cliquesters bought enormous numbers of odd-looking dice, pencils and game manuals so that they could hold gaming parties, where they would cast spells and roll dice long into the night.

Naturally, when gaming companies saw how popular RPGs were they flooded the market with lots of new scenarios -- both add ons to existing RPGs, and brand new games that situated themselves in science-fictional futures or the historical past (such as World War II). More recently, variations on the style of RPG play have become popular, such as Magic: The Gathering cards and the subgenre it spawned, and even the currently-popular Pokemon game. RPGs, of course, are well-suited to computerisation: computers are good at generating pseudo-random numbers to use for the many dice rolls RPGs require, and the rules in RPG manuals can easily be translated into a programming language. I am convinced that the Sony Playstation won a significant portion of its market share based on the popularity of Final Fantasy VII, and one of the most popular games for the old Nintendo Power System was The Legend of Zelda. But even before these fancy game consoles were born, some evil programmer wrote a game called Rogue...

I have never played Rogue, but I respect its status as a great computer game. I also accuse it of being a wretched, horrid drug. Rogue was one of the first adaptations of an RPG to computers. I believe it implemented a variation of the D&D rules, but I know that it offered the world two innovations: It offered an ASCII rendered screen display, and it allowed a game player to play a true RPG all alone.

The screen display was exciting because many computer games of the era (such as the infamous Infocom games) were textual -- the player would type in what he or she wanted to do, and the computer would type out a response on screen. A graphic display, while not necessarily better, was different, and well suited to RPGs because the user would not have to keep track of mapped terrain on paper.

The second "innovation," single-user gameplay, was truly a double-edged runed broadsword. It was wonderful because you could play all alone. The computer would take care of the dice-rolling and mapping and the recording of discoveries, and you would just play. But single-user gameplay was awful because you could play all alone. I think part of the reason Dungeons and Dragons was so popular was because it gave people who tended to be outcasts an opportunity to get together and socialize and engage in friendly competition and work together towards a common goal. Playing together also makes the constraints of reality more visible -- it's hard to keep playing in RPG-land when someone's mother has vowed to slay the offspring that attends a D&D party until 2AM, especially when the offspring in question is one of your friends. Single-user gameplay wrecked some of that. While people still could get together to talk about their favorite single-player RPG, they wouldn't have to meet to actually play the game. And it is a lot easier to risk death by maternal dismemberment when only your limbs are at stake.

Although Rogue and its children robbed RPGs of some of their social opportunities, they retained the richness and complexity of pencil-and-dice RPGs unlike any other role-playing variant I have ever seen. Most computerized RPGs offer excellent graphics and sound, but are often boring because they trade off the highly stochastic nature of pencil-and-dice RPGs for a more-or-less linear storyline, limiting the number of choices players can make per move and the directions the game can take. Once a player "learns" the RPG, much of the fun is gone.

NetHack (and other Rogue descendents such as Angband and ADOM), on the other hand, takes a different approach. It retains the complexity of the game through the use of a full-keyboard interface, a wide variety of monster types, several different character classes, lots of different objects a player can find and use, fairly complicated rule systems and lots and lots of dice-rolling. In return, it doesn't offer great graphics (although graphical "tiles" are available, I stick to the good old ASCII interface) and its learning curve is high, because there are so many different commands available. Each incarnation of the game gets more complex, even though the physical size of the game remains small (The version I have is about three megabytes big; the version I used back in high school was about 600k). This complexity gives the NetHack player lots of game to explore; even when a player has learned what each object in the game is and what it does, there's still the matter of learning the situations when to use those objects to their best effect. Actually completing a game takes hours of gameplay. Learning enough about the game to complete it takes years.

That's one of NetHack's biggest problems. Once a person gets used to the keyboard interface and the simple display, there is no return. Like advertising, NetHack works because it makes you feel bad about yourself, and because it always promises redemption just around the corner. Almost every time I lose in NetHack, I feel stupid because I think of a way I could have saved myself and prolonged my player's life -- two minutes after losing the game. People on the newsgroup call this "YASD": Yet Another Stupid Death. But NetHack promises me redemption every time I play it, too: every time I learn something new about the game, I know I can use that knowledge to help me get a little bit further "next time," in the hopes that one day I will learn everything I need to know to finally finish my quest. Unfortunately, that day is many hundreds of games in the future.

Even then I might be enslaved: lots of NetHackers finish the game once or twice, then switch character classes and start all over again -- every character class is unique enough to force a new style of play. What's worse, by the time I finish the game I bet the NetHack Development Team (or DevTeam, as it is known in the NetHack community) will have released another version, further compounding NetHack's complexity and entertainment value, addicting me all over again. Already I know of one set of patches that converts the game to "Slash'Em", a variant that modifies some of the rules and adds lots of new items. I'm afraid to download those patches; I'm deep enough in the hole already.

Even if I finish NetHack a hundred times, however, my accomplishment will be meaningless. In the end, NetHack is just a game. Playing NetHack will not feed a starving child, or clean up a polluted ocean, or help my community. I do no good when I play NetHack, because it's just a game, and there are so many better ways I could spend my time. There are so many other things I want to do with my time. I want to read books and write web entries and study interesting subjects and spend time communicating with my friends and daydream and think and observe and help my community and become a better person. I'm not doing any of those things when I explore the Dungeons of Doom, even if I do stumble upon a +2 Grey Dragon Scale Mail in the process. I can't even say that NetHack helps me "get ahead in the world." What am I going to do -- tell potential employers that one of my skills is playing NetHack? List "Play NetHack a lot" as one of the achievements on my resume? The best I can say is that NetHack helps me learn details and techniques that I can apply in future NetHack games. That's not much of an achievement at all.

The moral lessons NetHack teaches me are dubious as well. When I stop and think about what I do in this game, I shudder. Granted, it's "only a game," and I don't want to invoke any Columbinesque imagery here, but NetHack (like many other RPGs) suffers from a twisted morality that disturbs me:

NetHack is just a game, an idle, amusing pastime. If I could manage to treat it as an idle pastime -- playing it every once in a while, then putting it away and doing more productive things -- then I would be able to live with myself better. But I am an addict. NetHack can suck hours out of my week if I let it. When given some free time and access to my computer, more often than not I will play NetHack. Even when my time is not free, when I have important things to do, when I have important assignments to finish, I often hear NetHack's call. Shamefully, sometimes I answer. Usually, I can control myself enough to get what needs to get done done before starting on the NetHack -- but when I can't, I pay the price.

I am an addict. I wanted to accomplish so much over this Christmas break. I knew that I wouldn't get many more opportunities to have time for myself. I haven't accomplished half of what I wanted to get done -- but I have played a lot of NetHack. When I am back in school, stressed out because assignments are monopolizing so much of my time and because I can't get anything done, then I know I am going to regret wasting my days off playing NetHack. I know that I regret playing NetHack even as a start up another game, but I still play. If that isn't a sign of addiction, I don't know what is. I don't go into comas when I'm deprived of my fix, but there have been many instances when I have become irritable because I wanted to just drop everything and play NetHack, but I wasn't allowed to.

One of my problems is that I have an addict's personality. I fear alcohol because I know how easy -- and how tempting -- it would be for me to drink my life away if I ever got started. When I crave something -- Nutella, perogies, McCain's Deep'N'Delicious cakes -- then I go out and buy loads of my desired food to satisfy my craving. Then I eat and eat until I get sick of the stuff, regardless of whether I am hungry or not. I cannot understand how people survive by eating tiny little meals, but then I wonder why I have such a great big belly. I don't like to start reading thick books during the school year because I like reading even more than I like NetHack: I will ignore everything around me and read for hours straight until I either finish my book or fall asleep. I am always the last person who wants to quit whenever I am out with friends having fun. Truly, the concept of restraint is lost on me.

Furthermore, I am somewhat of a perfectionist (although you would not know it to look at me). There are lots of things -- sports, chess, beauty contests, shaving -- that I doubt I will ever be good at, so I don't invest a lot of effort in those activities, and I don't expect great results when I do try them. But when I invest time and conscious effort into a task, I want the results to be perfect, or as close to perfect as I can manage. I agonize over my writing to the point where I am afraid to let anybody read it for fear of criticism -- one of the reasons I started this page was to try and combat that paralysis. I hate myself when I know I could have done well on a school assignment and I don't; I have been reduced to tears and fits of helpless rage many times after being forced to hand in mediocre assignments. Little things upset me because the little things are the only things I am capable of doing well; I don't like it when I learn I can't even get the little things right.

Combine my lack of restraint with my perfectionism, add a dollop of sheer laziness and blend well: That's me, and I sometimes think that is a recipe for disaster. How easy would it be for me to become a drunk? How easy would it be for me to start playing the lotteries, or going down to Casino Rama to spend my savings away? How easy would it be for me to descend into a life of vapid, promiscuous sex, or to get myself a credit card and spend, spend, spend until the collection agency comes to break my knees? I don't think it would be that difficult at all, especially given my current feelings towards life and its meaning and my place in it. This reality is scary and depressing and I am not doing anything to make it better; why not spend the rest of my days in Never-Never land? I can't think of a truly convincing reason for that other than, "It's just wrong." So I stay away from the expensive habits that I know will destroy me, and opt for a cheaper one instead.

Verily, I chose my poison. No seedy-looking pusher slipped me a floppy disk in some dark alley. Rather, the alley was brightly lit; I picked up my first copy of NetHack -- PC-Hack 3.51 -- when I was on a grade nine field trip to a computer show. I had not heard of NetHack before then, and I had never played an RPG. However, I had already discovered the AD&D manuals at the public library, and every so often I would take one out and pore over the pages. I especially enjoyed the assorted Monster Manuals, which were filled with imaginative descriptions and cool pictures.

In any case, I saw lots of shareware vendors at the computer show, and I got excited. I was looking for new stuff to try on my Tandy 1000TL/2, and the idea of getting games cheap and legally intrigued me. There was only one problem: Nearly all the shareware vendors packed their wares on 5.25" floppy disks, but my computer only had a 3.5" floppy. In the end, I found only two kiosks that offered PC shareware on 3.5" disk, but one of them offered a catalogue printed on newsprint, which I picked up. Careful to avoid the dreaded "XXX Shareware" section, I flipped through the pages, looking for games that would amuse me and run on my computer. I found three contenders. One was a pack of arcade games (including Centipede, but I am not sure what else) rendered in glorious four-colour CGA. The second game included ASCII rendered renditions of Space War, Tank Wars and Tetris. The third diskette contained PC-Hack. I knew that my fraternal unit liked Tetris, so I seriously considered getting that. In fact, I was just about to order the ASCII Tetris disk when I suddenly changed my mind and got PC-Hack. Offhand, I can't remember why. Perhaps the devil made me do it.

After the field trip, I rushed home to try out my new game. Lo and behold... it didn't work. Something was happening on screen, but instead of mazes all I saw were garbled ASCII characters on screen. I was incredibly disappointed. I loaned my disk to a friend, but he reported the same garbled results. I had been suckered! I threw the disk into a disk box and forgot about it.

A year later, I stumbled across the disk again while looking for something to play on my computer. This time, I actually looked at the contents of the disk, and I discovered a README file. Upon perusing the documentation, I learned that I had to create a CONFIG.SYS file and call up the ANSI.SYS driver in order to play the game properly. I did just that. Lo and behold... the game worked, which either demonstrates that people should always read their documentation or that idle hands are the devil's workshop.

That was the beginning of the end. It took me a few weeks to get used to pressing "z" when I zapped a wand and "T" to take off my armour, but my initial Hack experiences were rewarding enough that I wanted to play more. I started playing Hack regularly -- at times so regularly it got me in trouble. I would rather play Hack than do housework; who wouldn't? Instead of drinking a beer to relax after school like all the other children, I would play an hour of Hack.

I remember quitting Hack a few times. Once my video-game playing provoked such a fight that I swore off video games forever, but after about six months I started playing again. I had a fling with Star Control for a couple of years, but once I got good enough to destroy either side in Melee play Star Control's allure faded a bit. Since I didn't have a hard drive, I couldn't play Star Control II, so I only heard of that game's glories. In high school I got the opportunity to get involved with real RPGs like Shadowrun, but the game paraphernalia was too expensive, and I never overcame the learning curve. I flirted with chess a little as well, but all I realized is that I am the world's second-worst chess player. That was too bad; playing chess makes you smart.

Perhaps my high school addiction was not terrible, because I had friends in high school and I still participated in tutoring and other extra-curricular activities. I was not happy when I was at home, but I hadn't the courage to leave. Hack was there for me; it dulled reality enough for me to get by (if only barely).

By my first year of university I ended my first round of addiction. I had played Hack on and off for years, and I had finally gone as far as I possibly could in the game. I never did get the Amulet of Yendor and complete my quest, because I could never figure out how to get below the maze level to the Wizard's lair.

If it hadn't been for the Internet, that would have been the end of the story. Unfortunately, in the summer of my third year I became NetHack-fixated again. I discovered the newsgroup, and I began reading it every day. A new version of the game had recently been released, and newsgroup posters were raving. Eventually, I got curious enough to download a copy for myself. It was amazingly different from the version of Hack I had been playing: Gods had been introduced, and there were two status lines at the bottom of the screens, and the NetHack designers had changed the labellings of the monsters, and the game supported ASCII colour, and dungeon rooms came equipped with doors, and you could learn actual spells, and ... wow! Even though I had been playing Hack for years, I had to learn several new keystrokes of the interface. Things had really changed in the ten years between Hack versions.

Even then, I knew that I would become addicted to this strange, new NetHack if I began playing it. I didn't want my university career to end up as miserably as my high school one -- especially since the work was so much more time consuming in university -- so I left NetHack on a machine at school, only playing it when I had some time after class. Fortunately, this new NetHack would not run on the Tandy at home, so I couldn't bring it home with me. Although I continued to read the newsgroup on a regular basis, for the most part I left the actual game alone.

Then I bought my laptop. I knew that installing the game would be a big mistake, but when I installed Linux on my machine I put NetHack on anyway. I was right. Installing NetHack did turn out to be a big mistake, especially after I moved to Waterloo. Now that I am living on my own, I don't have parental pressure to stop me from playing. Furthermore, I don't know anybody here and I have not become involved in extra-curricular activities. I'm not sure I made the right decision when I decided to go to grad school, and I don't know what to do with my life. Sometimes I get lonely. Then I turn to NetHack, because unlike real interpersonal relationships, I can't hurt NetHack. The only way I can let it down is if I stop playing it, and even then it probably won't care very much. Don't get me wrong. I think that I am well-suited to the solitary life. I'll probably spend the rest of my years alone. And I don't just turn to NetHack when I am feeling bad. It's just that I thought I would be doing so much more with my life, and I am not. That's pathetic. I managed to shake off television and movies and a Maple Leafs fixation, but now NetHack has me in its talons and I'm not sure I want to break free. That's what addiction is all about, I guess.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go pretend I'm Sisyphus for a while...

With great effort you move the boulder.

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OrcFace the Rhizotomist     St:9 Dx:8 Co:13 In:10 Wi:18 Ch:17  Neutral
Dlvl:1  $:1391 HP:13(13) Pw:6(6) AC:8  Xp:1/1