I have just played my best game of Nethack. My best game of all time. I got to level ten and did almost all of the Gnomish Mines but, while backing up to find the Sobokan, I got trapped between a wolf, a cockatrice, and a giant housecat and was ripped to shreds by them all before I could figure out a way to escape.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that I had ways to survive. I could have used my pickaxe to dig a hole in the wall and hide inside it, thus limiting the attacks to a single front. Or I could have started zapping all my unidentified wands. Or I could have quaffed that one golden potion I’d found—there’s a chance it might have been a healing potion or a teleport potion. I could have thrown it at an enemy. It might have exploded and killed them (and me?) or paralyzed or confused them. I could have done a number of things. I was so close, really—eminently ‘ascendable’, as NetHack players say. My female dwarven cavewomen could have eventually won the game if I hadn’t screwed up there. A real Nethack expert would have known what to do.

I’m always telling myself that real Nethack experts exist. I honestly believe that there are actual people living in this world—in secrecy, of course, hidden among us under disguise—who have a godly understanding of Nethack and who can actually play it without feeling like a bumbling idiot. I have no evidence for this, but somebody had to write the Nethack Wiki. Those people have to be the geniuses I’m talking about. I mean, they’ve probably actually beaten the game.

You beat the game by ‘ascending’ the character: by travelling to the lowest level of the dungeon and taking the Amulet of Yendor from the High Priest of Moloch. You must then travel to the Astral Plane and offer it to your god, who will grant you immortality, ‘ascending’ you to demigodhood. In order to do this, however, you have to play the game for practically an entire lifetime, learn all the tricks and gambits, master a class and a playstyle, figure out the cost/benefit ratios of practically every risk you could take in the entire game (basically, of every action, since doing almost anything in Nethack could potentially get you killed).

In a way, it reminds me of The Arhkam Horror, a fantastic board-game based on HP Lovecraft’s writings: newbies at Arkham Horror will do everything, and they’ll have a blast. Experienced players will turn almost every risk down—even the ones likely to result in a benefit. They know something us new players don’t. They’re jaded. When they play, it looks like they’re not having any fun, because they’re practically not playing the game. But then they win it, so we all nod sagely and wonder aloud how they got so good.

It also reminds me of people who are really, really good at Civilization IV. They play absurd societies—societies where half the entire culture track gets invented before bronzeworking, societies which leap absurdly from power to power, which manipulate wonders and resources until they’re scarcely similar to real-world civilizations at all. Everything narrows down to the exactness of turns and production-times. The illusion of the game falls apart, and we’re dealing with mister Sid Meyer’s architecture. And it’s fun: that’s what the game is for. You’re supposed to get right on in there with the math and the loopholes and the broken mechanics. It’s satisfying to have that kind of expertise.

There isn’t a way to be an expert at something without surrendering a bit of wonder—without leaving the game-world behind. Not all of it, of course, mind you—just a bit. Enough so that we can peel back the story and get our hands on the numbers that make the game work the way it does. For Pokemon, there’s EV training; for Oblivion, there’s strategic leveling; for other games, like Halo, there’s the ethic behind the whole e-sports scene—three shots to the body, one to the head. Do people really die that way? Of course not, but there has to be some kind of death-math in order for us to master death in Halo, right? For Nethack, it’s the encyclopedic understanding of all game systems: people who can ascend probably know the exact probability that sipping from a fountain will release a water demon, and if they defeat the demon and it grants them a wish, they know they should ask for silver or grey blessed greased +2 dragon scale mail. They know that you can guess the identity of an unknown potion by dropping it in a store to see what the shopkeeper offers them—because they’ve memorized the prices of everything already, and they know what they’re looking for.

I don’t know if this is the way we played games for expertise back in the day, before everything had its own online fan community and its own wiki, complete with number-crunched tables. But it’s kind of the way we play now: collaborating across the internet to rip the clothes off the game and get a look at its inner framework. It’s not bad; it’s just the way expertise works, I think. Being ‘good’ at a game means, most of the time, being an expert at the numbers, not being an expert at ‘enjoying the atmosphere,’ or ‘liking the plot.’ But it’s not like we’re killing the magic: we’re just swapping one kind for another. There’s something incredibly special about the x-ray vision we develop once we begin to look past the outer surface of a game and focus on its inner mathematics. When we learn to do that, we begin to feel powerful and wise. We enter into a kind of secret compact with the developers: we know the neurotically complex work that went into their game—particularly one as complex as Nethack—and we begin to understand it. We understand the game in a new mental language, almost. At any rate, it’s special.

It’s a kind of specialness I rarely feel, though. I’m not the kind of person who gets really really good at games—any games. I think the only one I’ve done this to is Dwarf Fortress, really. I find the process intimidating, and I’m always unwilling to take that mental step out of the gameworld and into the world of the game’s math. Perhaps this is why I run with such an awfully-balanced Dragon Age team, why it took me a whole week to figure out how to beat the Elite Four for the first time, and why the numbers-game focus of raid-level WoW often strikes me as heartless, even though I know that such players regard it as the point of the game. Expertise is the one kind of game-magic I haven’t yet learned to properly appreciate.

Here’s hoping I may, in time. Or I’m never getting anywhere with Nethack.

A bit of argument-killing on my own part, though: this binary is pretty much only the way I see things. People like the Magnasanti guy clearly can see both sides of the coin at once.

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  1. I’m reminded immediately of my experience with KoTOR 1 and 2. Both of these games had an excellent feature (hidden behind the quest journal, if you’re curious) in which you could actually see a log of all the dice rolls and stat comparisons the game did for every single combat round. It’s an absolutely invaluable resource for the number-crunching crowd, and Bioware/Obsidian wisely tucked it out of the way so that the less hardcore players could get on with roleplaying and beaning people with their lightsaber.

    I don’t know of any AAA current-gen games that do anything like this, though, which is a pity. Dragon Age (to me) practically begs for some number-crunching capabilities, although other titles like Mass Effect 2–and possibly Alpha Protocol–offer much better immersion without it. Maybe it’s just down to the spirit of the individual game? I kind of felt as though the original Mass Effect wanted to be a numbers-free roleplaying experience, but Bioware were too attached to their D&D roots to let go entirely.

    I wonder if, in light of gaming’s newfound mainstream appeal, we’ll start seeing less of the shameless numbers and more opaque interfaces? I notice that Magnasanti was built using an 11-year-old game, even though a sequel existed long before Ocasla started planning his magnum opus. Is it no longer possible for one game to be accessible for both types of audiences, as KoTOR was? And which mode of play is actually more fun? Do number-crunching “munchkins” even need atmosphere and plot in their games? Does giving players the ability to min-max everything actually compel them to do so? And if this mechanic does play off our psychological need to “win,” why aren’t more developers exploiting it?

    As you can see, this raised a lot more questions for me than it answered. Perhaps I should give my brain a rest now; I seem to be rambling a bit.

    • lauramichet

       /  May 16, 2010

      I’m sure there will always be games which can appeal to both audiences. I don’t know that we’ve passed into an era of doom– I think it’s just become easier to access the numbers. I mean, I can clearly enjoy Nethack even though I feel like I’m not good at it/don’t understand it. Same goes for Pokemon: plenty of kids play it without knowing the first thing about EV training. Expertise is a social phenomenon, and if you’re not clued into the social group that cares about it, it won’t effect you.

      Thing is, most of my game-playing friends are the numbers-loving types, so I get exposed to their attitude constantly. It’s made me hyper-aware of the differences between us, I suppose.

      I do still think that– even if these two opposed groups don’t really exist– there’s a real difference between looking at the game without understanding the math and looking at the game with the math taken into consideration. Look at the math only once, and the way you play changes forever, even if it’s only a mental phenomenon. The change is real. I’ve felt it in myself. And I think it’s an important part of what makes games their own special medium: there are a variety of ways to interface with games, and the degree to which players choose to acknowledge the code is important.

      I didn’t answer many/any of your questions though, did I? You made me think a lot more about the topic, too.

  2. I have to say this is an alien world to me. I can’t remember ever trying to decompose a game into its stats or numbers, even during my obsessive years [finishing Ultima IV twice in one night because I got the last question wrong and was denied access to the Codex].

    RPGs make you compare prices or weapon advantages- that’s the visible, coarse surface of the game. To sit down and analyse the finer in-grained Da Vinci codework to arrive at the correct, optimum choice in certain situations – that’s never been me. I play by intuition; if I needed to sit down and decode a game’s universe of discrete possibilities to be a “good” player, then I would probably feel like I was doing homework instead of having fun. This is not to paint it as some sort of perverted gamer fetish – just that it’s not my scene. The better game interfaces become, the less I am inclined to do any hard work of this sort.

    In the spirit of completing contradicting myself, if I were to reconsider every game I had ever played, I dare say I would had made numerical notes for some game or other. I probably just can’t remember it. But if so, it didn’t mean that much to me. Strategy games (e.g. Armageddon Empires) cry out for some kind of calculation but even then I am doing things on the fly in my head and not applying a general formula I have managed to deduce.

    I think people who do obviously loved the game when they went down this road: they wanted to get more out of the experience than the surface players like myself, understand the game like Neo understands the Matrix.

    Whether that makes the game more fun for an enthusiast, I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you.

    • Some of the very interesting responses regarding Nethack make me wonder if we can really disentangle becoming an experienced veteran at a game and becoming an expert at playing a game’s numbers. Is it a rather arbitrary line I tried to draw between the two?

  3. dbdkmezz

     /  May 16, 2010

    I’m not sure if this kind of expertise with the numbers ruins all games, take StarCraft 2 for example. The 1v1 multiplayer is designed with that kind of player in mind, everyone good knows which unit counters which, which are worst in which situations, when different build orders start certain units to appear, and how to prepare for them. And yet, because the game is designed for it, it doesn’t ruin the game, it fits it perfectly, and the game is at it’s most fun and atmospheric at that level. It’s tense, exciting, and unpredictable, even though you know your opponent’s options backwards.

    As for Nethack, you are precisely right. I played the game on and off for a number of years, starting to get a little further after each binge of games. And it was spectacular fun. My first visit to minetown, my first completion of the mines, my first completion of sokoban, and my first … were all wonderful experiences. And it was great slowly getting better and better at the game, never really ruining it.

    But as I played I’d occasionally read the guides and look on the newsgroup. Over time I learnt far more than I should do for a player of my experience, until eventually I got a character far further than I had ever done before, and realised that ascension was possible, and didn’t want to just die from ignorance and star again after investing so much time into that character. So I read everything about ascending, found out exactly what could go wrong, and exactly what kit I needed to prepare for it. Continued playing, and then died stupidly. I ascended a couple of months later. But it was boring. All the mystery was gone, all the atmosphere was gone, I knew the important numbers, and before I went on the ascension run my character was so well kitted out that almost nothing could touch me. Dull.

    I probably don’t need to say this, seeing from what you said in your post, but don’t read the guides! Or the forums. Or the wiki. Yes, there are a few basics which you need to know just to make the game fun (such as how to use alters, how to gain poison resistance, and a vague idea of how to id scrolls, rings and wands). If you don’t know any of them then you will die stupidly far too many times (arguably, it’s a poorly designed game because of that). But once you know that, I’d say avoid everything, just play. And learn what you need to learn from playing, and by chatting to the oracle. You may never ascend, but it’ll be awesome :) Or if you want play a game about which you know everything, then go play StarCraft 2, where knowledge only makes the game better.

    Oh, and as for your mythical nethack genius. Yes, they do exist, the most famous when I used to play was called Marvin. He used to win all the big competitions in the devnull nethack tournament (like the first to ascend every race within the month the tournament ran). Apparently he ascends 80% of the game he plays. And you’re right, he plays very very carefully. I don’t understand why he plays!

  4. Peztopiary

     /  May 17, 2010

    I understand your point about leaving behind the wonder of something for the understanding of it. I just think we are past that as a group(, that Gaming is). As awesome (in terms of religious experience) as Nethack is I submit that other randomly generated twitchgames have picked up that Idea of game as incomprehensible adversary (I wanted incomprehensivle but man the auto-spellcheck says otherwise) and plopped themselves square down in territory that is frightening to people who play by the percentages.

    Spelunky is right now my game of choice, due to the Hackish nature of it. I love the fact that what I do will decide whether my dude (or lady) lives or dies…I also love the randomness of it all.

    I think games anymore, at least the good ones, ((whatever that means) take agency into account in a way that was impossible in older games because of programming limitations not because of lack of scope.) assume a certain amount of player dictated choice. Can you imagine playing a game that was literally nothing but dice rolls and those results as law vs whatever neat thing you were trying to do?

    • lauramichet

       /  May 17, 2010

      Yeah– all the good games I have enjoyed lately have been the ones that let me feel good about not knowing the numbers. Dragon Age throws numbers at you all the time, but like Veret said above, they’re not really accessible for analysis. I liked that. It did improve my feeling of having an agency– I know there’s randomness involved, but I can’t see it, and usually my tactical placement/moment-by-moment decisionmaking in that game was rewarded with success. I’m glad it wasn’t all dicerolls.

      By the way: SPELUNKY IS MARVELOUS. And you’re right: it’s so random that numbers have got nothing to do with it. But understanding the way the game is put together on a coded level is important there, too: you becin to recognize repeated landscape elements, begin to understand the ‘sense’ behind each of the four level types. I know that the first four levels are unlikely to give me a straight-shot through to the bottom without callin gfor a few wall demolitions, but I do know that the elements that comprise the second set of levels can often result in hugely easy shortcuts. So understanding the way that game is put together, even mathless, also involves tearing down a bit of the illusion to get at the level of the way the game’s constructed.

  5. HF

     /  May 17, 2010

    I am by no means a Nethack “expert” but I have ascended a few times. So here is some unasked-for advice!

    1. There are no teleport potions — but teleport scrolls are some of the most common so reading through your inventory to potentially avoid death is a good strategy. (other possibilities are scrolls of fire — going out in a blaze of glory is always fun)

    2. Digging into a wall probably won’t help — you’ll just trap yourself. Digging into the FLOOR.. now that is a sure-fire escape. Of course you’ll likely run into something even WORSE on the next level below but that is part of the fun!

    As for the sentiment of the article I totally agree. After ascending a few times and obsessively browsing the wiki I feel like nethack has lost some magic for me. It’s still fun but it is more science than art now.

    But hey, you can always switch to Dungeon Crawl. Just fight the urge to go wiki-diving!

  6. Ryan Williams

     /  May 17, 2010

    You might be interested in John Harris’s column, @ Play, for GameSetWatch. That dude is an expert, and he’ll use his completely encyclopedic knowledge of these games to tell us how different design decisions lead to differing play styles amongst expert players.

    In the same vein, but for a different genre, is David Sirlin’s blog, especially the entries where he talks about balancing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for tournament play.

    • I don’t think Sirlin’s site is at all relevant to this discussion — or even the mention in the article of pokemon, for that matter.

      It’s pretty clear that when you enter the realm of player-vs-player (like all fighting games are, by definition), you’re going to start playing the numbers game because at that point it’s a matter of winning — winning mean being the best, and being the best requires specific knowledge.

      When it comes to games like Dragon Age: Origins, or KOTOR as mentioned in the above comment, that becomes much more murky.

      • lauramichet

         /  May 17, 2010

        I know people who have EV-trained their pokemon simply for the hell of it, without ever playing against other people.

        What I’m saying is that there is a real live difference between looking at a game with the code in mind and looking at a game without thinking about the numbers underneath everything. People do both. People play multiplayer games without thinking about the numbers and still have a good time, even if they lose, which they probably will.

        This article was a bit more incoherent than I initially hoped it would be, but I stand by the point: there are a bunch of ways to play games, and some of those ways are pretty darn divergent when it comes to the kind of experience players are having. Have you ever wondered whether CPU enemies in RTSes and the like are cheating? If they’re programmed to know how you’re doing, or if they have impossibly good reaction times? You don’t have to ask yourself that question, but once you do– and once you try to systematically understand these things– your experience changes.

      • Laura- coming back on your RTS comment to Morgan. Chris Park of AI War said that after playing an RTS for awhile it would become relatively easy to game as you gradually discovered the weaknesses of the AI. His goal was to make a game where it was very difficult to game in this way; in fact, although I am not played AI War, I understand that AI War is a game that you *must* be careful in, for a rush will ensure certain and early doom.

  7. I had an interesting experience with this issue last month. I built a simple game off of a gameplay idea I had, with the intention of making it really hard. Most of the initial feedback I got was that it was too hard, so I did eventually scale it back. But there were a few people who were getting extremely high scores that put my own to shame. One person in particular was able to perfect a pattern with enough precision that after some practice she was hitting scores in the multiple hundreds of thousands of points, which blew me away. After she sent me a video of how she did it, I came up with some ideas for how to specifically nerf that tactic and debated whether or not to implement them, but what she told me was that the solvability of the game is actually what made it fun for her. I’m still debating whether that’s a good thing or not, but I did find it to be a really interesting reaction.

  8. I’m an optimizer, but have also been able to move beyond that to experience a game on different levels once I’ve satisfied the optimiser part of me.

    Now for the story:
    While at uni, I was hooked on civ2. I would play it over and over. Always on the hardest level, sometimes winning, sometimes restarting early. As soon as one game finished though, I’d immediately start up another with a new plan or with a different race.

    After ~4 months of playing I wondered why I’m still playing it, and why it’s still so engaging. I settled on the idea that I play games with the intent of understaing how the system works, then exploiting the weaknesses to beat the game. Once there is nothing to learn from the game it got boring for me. Civ2, with so many variations diverging from every move, felt like there was more to discover once the game was complete. I figured that the only way to break out of the game was to purposefully play the optimal game.

    So, with a very good start and with many hundreds of save/loads I put together what I believed waas the perfect game. All optimisations completed. I could finally put down the game and play something else.

    Funny thing happened though. A couple of months after I fired up civ2 again, but I was content to ply it on monarch level and just see where the game goes. It felt like the pressure was off and I no longer needed to beat the game. It was and enjoyable experience, and, once done, I felt no urge for replay. The experience itself of one play through with the chips falling where they may. Previously a loss of a city or even a bad battle outcome would have me hovering over the restart button. The story evolving from the playthough and the experience of that story made the game enjoyable in an entirely different manner.

    Nowadays I still have to break the game, but can then ease into the random story that computer games can throw up. I’ve found writing AAR’s are an ideal way of focusing in on this aspect of play.

    So yes, game can bring pleasure to many different kinds of players with different play styles and even different goals. As an optimiser the thrill is learning a new system and understanding it enough to break it open. The end goal is rarely to finish the game, but to extract as much information as you can. For me the exit criteria usually happens when another game comes out that offers more learning potential, or a definite insight that clearly breaks the game.

    As a storyteller I’m looking for a specific playthrough where the journey is of most importance. The end goal is tied to the character’s eventual success (or death). That said I have done AARs on games with no real conclusion (like Football manager), and these usually fall victim to a new game with new things to optimise.

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