Monday, September 19, 2005

Where the Grid Bugs bite

The first ever role playing game I played on a computer was Diablo. Lacking a computer of my own, I would visit one of my friends and tactlessly invite myself to stay over at his house over the weekend. My friend (Bless his heart!) would let me play Diablo on his computer all night long to my heart's content. I never finished the game; as much fun as it was, I was not quite drawn to finish it.

Only a few months later it became next to impossible to play the more modern games on his computer. It appeared to me that every new game was designed to raise the bar on the memory and processing capacity requirements needed to play it while the basic game play and story lines remained the same (there are of course notable exceptions - the Ultima series of games immediately come to mind) I finally gave up on playing new games - Sierra's Arcanum was about the last game my once top-of-the-shelf laptop could handle.

And then Ravi drew my attention to something called Nethack. In this age of zillion-polygon graphics, Nethack's "ASCII art" screen was a highly contrasting oddity. I downloaded the game (all 2.0 MB of it!!) but never quite got around to playing it. A bad mistake. Almost as bad as picking up a cockatrice corpse with your bare hands. (If you haven't played Nethack don't worry - you will understand the last sentance when you do!)

Several months later, wailing in the in the confines of my Dilbertian prison (let us not go there), I chanced upon Nethack again. I realised that Eric Raymond was speaking from experience and wisdom accrued over years when he said opening the Nethack guidebook "Recently, you have begun to find yourself unfulfilled and distant in your daily occupation. Strange dreams of prospecting, stealing, crusading, and combat have haunted you in your sleep for many months, but you aren't sure of the reason".

In the wink of an eye I was transformed to Castcom, the lawful human Samurai, devoted servant of the mighty Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, beginner in the ways of the Katana, on his quest to find the mighty Amulet of Yendor. Every day, every single trip that I made into the dungeons was a new adventure. And who cared if the Gnomes killed me the first few times? Or if I triggered a land mine and died? What was death by stoning indeed to a Samurai bound to Bushido?
(For those uninitiated to the game, there is no "save game" option in Nethack. If you die, you die. You have to start all over from the beginning.) I could now see exactly why Nethack is considered THE best game ever by gamers and hackers.

I had heard of players taking years to complete the game - to "Ascend" in game parlance - only to go back in again, donning another costume, playing another character. I wondered if I would ever make it, and if so, how many attempts it would take me. Out of curiosity, after a dozen or more attempts, I came up with a way to count.

My character would be named Castcom - with a suffix indicating the number of times I had tried (and died) so far. As I remember Castcom1 died a very unheroic death. Castcoms 2 through 30 were "experimentals" as I learned more about the game and came to better understand the tricks of prospecting in dungeons. Castcoms 31 onward were serious adventurers - though I never stopped learning more about the game. While the key aspects remain the same, the dungeon levels are auto generated, as are the creatures that populate them. Thus there is little chance of any two game layouts - or experiences - being identical.

At the time of writing this I have two games going on. Castcom the 68 at home, and Castcom the 66 at, um, in Dilbert land. If you were wondering what happened to #67 - well, he bent to feel something on the ground while blind - only to realise that 1) the item on the ground was a cockatrice corpse and 2) he was not wearing any gloves. He would remember the lesson for the rest of his life. All 2 milliseconds of it. But I digress.
Above: Castcom68 (the '@') inspects an elven dagger (the ')') while his noble companion Hachi the valiant dog (the 'd') stands by.

I could go on and on about the game for several pages - to the peril of Castcom68. The noble Samurai and his valiant dog just barely escaped being kicked to death by a mad warhorse and an oppurtunistic Gnome king a few minutes ago. A prayer to the Sun Goddes has just restored his health - small comfort considering the vicious creatures in the next room that he has managed to flee for a few minutes but must now confront before venturing any further. Now to open the door to the next room ...

Update on 08 March 2006: Castcom215 finally ascended - albeit thanks to liberal usage of spoilers. Rather shameful, considering that Castcom215-san was a Samurai and gave bushido
scarce consideration when he used all those tips available on the internet. Will his kami ever find peace? Only time will tell.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

so what happened next ?

Abey Mullassery said...


Good to read about your ongoing adventures. I like your writing style. I am sure the game would be more thrilling if it replicated the "Dilbert land" as Ravi attempted.

Didn't you try Ultima7 too? Ravi, Sriram and I used to spend a lot of time playing it. If I remember right, you were there too. Or did you graduate to 3D games directly? :)

Manoj Govindan said...

"so what happened next ?"

Let me just say that I am playing as Castcom104 now :P

Manoj Govindan said...

Thanks for the kind words.

One "Dilbert Land" (in real life) is about all I can take ;) But yes, I can see why it would be fun.

I was not around when you guys played in rotation - but I do remember taking notes for Ravi when he played it a long long time ago.