The Campaign to Nethack YikYak

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: I’m neither a luddite about technology (as I hope other entries in this blog show) nor a big naysayer about social media. I’m as guilty of spending too much time on Facebook, and all that, as anyone.

A typical Nethack screen. The player is the "@."

A typical Nethack screen. The player is the “@.”

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to Yik Yak. (I know, I’m behind the game–but while I’ve always been interested in all things tech I’ve never been an early adopter.) For those unfamiliar with Yik Yak, it’s a social media tool whereby users post messages, a bit like tweets. The difference is that the basis of Yik Yak is geographic: rather than seeing posts from groups of self-selected friends, Yik Yak uses location services to display only “yaks” from one’s location. The other difference is that the individial posts are entirely anonymous.

On the one hand, reading through posts on Yik Yak is fascinating. It’s a bit like having a sort of radio receiver that picks up on the subconsious thoughts of all your neighbors. For the same reason, however, it’s simultaneously quite creepy, as though we’re all staring at secret webcams webcam feeds from within our neighbors’ bathrooms. Something like Yik Yak might also seem to give users an opportunity to vent thoughts and frustrations they might not feel comfortable venting elsewhere–and some of the posts can indeed be quite clever. On the other, there’s a great deal of empty posturing–a lot of people advertising what’s less the expression of a subconscious than an engineered projection of how users wish their subconscious minds or unstated thoughts might appear to others voyeuristically tapping in on them. Therein lies some of its attraction, I think: it provides an opportunity for users to feel as though they are intentionally “branding” their own ids. (Of course, if you’re intentionally trying to “brand” your id through social media, it’s not really your id that’s showing…)

Yik Yak seems to me a relatively destructive way of using such imagination. It seems to reveal the worst in everyone around you (whether they’re really that awful or just wanting to brand themselves as such). It’s also been the source of a number of problems on campuses, a place to start and publicize very nasty rumors, or the perfect anonymous forum for cyber-bullying of the worst variety.

So, here, I would like to attempt to start my very own online viral campaign: the Campaign to NetHack Yik Yak.

The Campaign asks users of Yik Yak to do two simple thing: First, delete Yik Yak from your phone, tablet, or whatever, and, in its place, install NetHack (more on what this is in a moment). Second, spend the time you would normally spend on Yik Yak playing NetHack.

For those not familiar with NetHack, it’s a computer game, originally written, years ago, for Unix systems. It has the distinction of being the oldest computer game still in continuous development. Think about just that aspect: expert game designers and programmers have been working on this thing, refining and improving it, for that many years. In many ways its the ancestor of a lot of more modern games: if you’ve ever played something like Diablo or Torchlight, you’ve engaged with once of NetHack’s direct descendants. More indirectly, it’s the ancestor of the first-person shooter: the original FPS games, like DOOM, were conceived as something like NetHack from a first-person perspective.

On its surface, NetHack is a “dungeon crawler” or “roguelike” game. You start out at the top level of an underground “dungeon” with a mission to retrieve a mysterious artifact that lies at its deepest level. To get there, you must pass through many, many levels made up of rooms and tunnels, where you encounter friends and foes, traps and obstacles, puzzles and mysteries. You also have an animal companion who travels with you, can can assist you in many ways (though you have to work to discover many of them).

For me, there are several great things about NetHack:

For one, it’s all imagination. Played in its purest form, NetHack’s “graphics” consist only of ascii characters in a terminal window–no fancy images whatsoever. Like words in a good poem, those ascii characters are simply prods for your own imagination, in which you flesh out the appearance of the dungeon and its denizens. It might seem strange at first to those accustomed to flashy xbox titles, but what one begins to discover as one gets used to playing the game is that there is no better graphics card and no better CG designer than the one between your ears. NetHack is an adventure that takes place in the playground of your own imagination. And there’s no better place to play.

For another, once you get used to how the gameplay works, it’s an incredibly clever game. What might, at first, look like a very minimal interface with a very simple goal (get through all the dungeon levels without getting killed), the more one plays the more one discovers that all the energy that modern game developers put into graphics has instead been put into the imaginative and creative aspects of the game-play itself. The usual mantra of NetHack fans is “the developers thought of everything”–and the more one plays, the more this becomes apparent. The entire game is rife with possibility.

A third, less-touted aspect of the game (and my personal favorite) is that it’s very literary. Text shows up everywhere in the game, especially when one “looks” at any creature or item within. It’s also a game that’s very–to use the term my literary colleagues would apply–“intertextual.” That is, it quotes literary texts everywhere. For example, when one encounters a lizard as a “monster” in the game and “looks” at it, instead of some artist’s representation of a fantastical lizard, one gets this:

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

It doesn’t take a lot of literary knowledge to realize the source of the quotation as one of the scenes of the Three “Weyard Sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Instead of simply accepting whatever graphical image of a lizard a game designer or artist might throw at him or her, then, the player gets a host of imaginative prompts. As the player imagines his or her way through the images in Shakespeare’s verse (detailing the scariest parts of the scariest creatures), and also, perhaps, realizing the connotations of this scene in Macbeth (the witches cooking up Macbeth’s evil fate), one develops not just a visual image of the lizard but an emotional one as well. The text gives you not only what the creature looks like but how it feels, invoking an entire atmosphere of dread, creepy stings, flicking forked tongues, boiling and bubbling. It’s as though the developers have invented a graphics card that conveys not only visual but all other sensory and emotional impressions. That’s the lizard you’re fighting.

Similarly, when a character finds a wand lying on the dungeon floor, he/she might be confronted with this:

‘Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority.’Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.

Now that’s (with apologies to both Harry Potter and Paul Hogan) a wand!

So there’s my advertisement for the game. The best graphics you’ve ever seen, because the graphics are literary and emotive as well as simply visual. The more you play, the more you discover.

All of which is to convince you to do this:

Rather than engage in the negative, creepy, voyeuristic, and often destructive brand of imagination that is Yik Yak, why not take advantage of the exuberant, positive, and, ultimately, incredibly fun imagination of NetHack?

The other nice thing about NetHack is that various developers have ported it to run on everything: your iPhone, your Android phone, your tablet, your PC running Windows, MacOS, Linux, whatever. It’s a tiny program that takes up negligible memory, but in all other ways its a “bigger” game than anything else you could fit on your phone (it’s the only one I have on mine), because its scope is the scope of your own imagination.

Interested? There’s even more in praise of the game here, and a great Salon article here.

So that’s it. Ditch Yik Yak. Play NetHack.

Who’s with me?

P.S. If you’d like to try NetHack, it is free and open-source software, that comes in many different “flavors.” The most basic version, which I prefer, consists only of ascii characters, but there are other versions that use various sets of more-or-less sophisticated graphics, known as “tiles” to make the game a little easier to navigate and give it more visual appeal.

To download and play Nethack on a PC or Mac, everything you need is available [here]http://www.nethack.org/). This is the main Nethack site, which includes versions for Windows, Linux, and MacOS.

To play Nethack on your tablet or phone, free versions are readily available through the Google Play Store for Android devices, and the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

You can find a handy beginner’s guide to playing Nethack, including basic controls and gameplay, here.

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