In Praise of NetHack: Still The Most Imaginative Computer Game

This is the time of year in which I find myself continually reminding my students–not to mention myself–not to neglect self-care, even when there’s only time for small breaks. In that spirit, here’s a “review” of sorts of one of my favorite coffee-break timeouts.6a00d8341bf74053ef01b8d180d728970c-600wi

One of the themes of the “Tech” thread of this blog is that its definition of “tech” is time-agnostic and novelty-agnostic. In other words, it’s that the fact that a technology is new doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better, and that the fact that a technology is old doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile–and that, in fact, sometimes older technologies can actually work better for certain purposes. In that way, a paper codex (i.e. a “dead tree” book), as the levelling in ebook sales has shown, is still a better technology for reading, in many ways, than digital texts, although those, of course, have their place as well.

So this is a game review, but not of the usual sort. Not a new game, but an old one: Nethack.

For those not familiar with NetHack, it’s a computer game, originally written, in the deep backward and abysm of time (in 1987), 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 it’s the ancestor of a lot of more modern games: if you’ve ever played something like Diablo or Torchlight, you’ve engaged with one 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. Nethack also pioneered the idea of an environment wherein all the various elements could be manipulated and combined in many and surprising ways. This deep complexity gave rise to the fan acronym “TDTTOE,” or “The Dev Team Thinks of Everything.” This gives the game an almost infinite playability as the player slowly discovers possibilities upon possibilities, making it, too, a spiritual ancestor of games with fully manipulatble environments like Minecraft.

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 puts all its emphasis into depth and 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 or a Shakespeare play, 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 are no better graphics than the ones generated 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, the game is incredibly clever. 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 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 owlet’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 recognize the quotation as one of the incantations 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 not that the developers neglected the visual; it’s that they realized from the getgo that the original mechanism for “special effects” is literary language. Poetry. Words that convey not only visual but all other sensory and emotional impressions (find a graphics card that can do that!). That’s the lizard you’re fighting.


The player (@) looks at a statue in a room of the dungeon (o), yielding an image from C.S. Lewis.

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 (with apologies to both Harry Potter and Paul Hogan) is 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.


In the same room, the player is attacked by  lichen, evoked with a passage from an atmospheric 19th century English romance.

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, and runs on even the oldest hardware, 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.

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] 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.

Go forth! The Amulet of Yendor Awaits!


For those who aren’t used to the ascii interface, various graphical enhancements are available, like this one using simple graphical tiles. Here the player and his dog (Slinky), having tangled with a newt and a jackal,  encounter a potion, a locked treasure chest, and the stairway to a deeper level.