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(open source)

My first encounter with Nethack was though the isometric graphical interface Falcon's Eye included with a version of Knoppix. Under the installed games, I saw "Falcon's Eye", started it (not reading the game manual, which I never even noticed), sat through the intro about risking all to find treasure in the infamous dungeon, chose a race and class from a list of sometimes absurd possibilities (Archaeologist? Tourist??) and found myself in a diagonally skewed dungeon with walls and floors alternately bare and beautifully carpeted. With a little dog.

Clicking on the walls and floors did nothing, except maybe move me to the spot clicked on. The little dog sort of followed me around, but didn't follow me downstairs. Movement was done with the mouse (making me rush to squares I hadn't intended to go) and cursor keys (impossible in isometric view). Various other actions were bound to letter keys, for instance, Search; and this after I'd quit several games because I started in a dungeon with (apparently) no doors or downwards stairways. Before discovering that doors can be hidden, I thought this was a fault in the random dungeon generation mechanism. Just as I thought there was a fault in the saving mechanism. Each time I tried to save, I was thrown out of the game and had to start up the game again to get back to the point where I left off. And if I died, which happened surprisingly often due to the deadly killer abilities of kittens, the save game was gone, too. I looked up where this save game was kept, and tested it: yes, save file wiped. So after playing, I always copied the save file to another directory and restored it from there when needed.

I found out later that this is called "scumsaving" (or "savescumming").

I also found out that the original Nethack was composed entirely of ANSI characters: dots and lines for the dungeon, letters for the various "monsters" (both plants and animals, even the shopkeepers and the player character are "monsters") and punctuation marks like brackets and exclamation marks for the adventurer's tools: weapons, armour, rings, wands, potions, scrolls. Ever wonder about the range of colours the dragons come in? It corresponds to the range of colours in which the screen can display the capital letter "D". So the number of different species of "monster" that can populate the dungeon is limited by the number of letters times the number of colours. And even so, the player may have to put the cursor on the letter to find out what particular member of the species "a" (ants, bees, other insects) this approaching "a" is. In fact, the player has to spend much time looking up what all the cryptic ASCII signs stand for. This slows down gameplay, directs attention towards the messages window, and makes playing the game more as intended, that is: the player thinks long and hard before every move. Using the graphical interface, I tended to get killed simply from moving faster than I meant to.

In fact, I found out that "nethack" (the game core) existed for many different platforms precisely because all it needed was a set of ASCII characters. And that various people had tried to make the game more graphically appealing by using flat square tiles to replace the signs. And that the isometric view interface was a relatively recent development. I also found that, due to its being portable and open-source, programmers could add their own patches to the game (and, depending on platform, graphics, which made me hopeful since Falcon's Eye reused the same tile for different monsters, which is a nuisance when what you hopefully assume is a tameable horse is, in fact, a vicious rothe) and that a major patch was SLASH'EM (Super Lotsa Added Stuff - Extended Magic) and that this patch had its own isometric interface, based on Falcon's Eye, called Vulture's Claw. The history is as follows: Finnish programmer makes Falcon's Eye for the nethack core. After a while, development stops and an admirer of this interface creates an updated version of it called Vulture's Eye for the nethack core, and Vulture's Claw for the slashem core. The slashem core contains more spells, monsters, potions, foods etc. and graphically, this translates to more tiles. A dedicated fan creates most monster tiles for the Vulture games, at least all the "missing" tiles for nethack monsters, and suddenly, the eye-candy factor is quadrupled. Not only that, but Vulture's has versions for MacOSX and Windows 9xx. I haven't installed it under Linux yet, but on the other platforms it lets me choose a player name, instead of forcing "username=playername" on me so that if I want to start a new game with a different character, I have to log in as a different user. (Update: the Eye and Claw forks are merged to simply become Vulture, which is intended to work with other nethack variants too; I have installed the game under openSUSE now that it's in the repositories, and it also lets me choose a player name.) Best of all: like their predecessor, the Vulture's can show the playfield in the old ASCII style too, but now you can also move the cursor on that map, so they are two playing interfaces in one, allowing the player to switch between both kinds of gaming experience at will.

(Click here and here for screenshots of Vulture's Claw in isometric and map mode. Screen caps from the Mac version, which tends not to show the number of turns; this can be changed in the settings.)

From the README.TXT included with SLASH'EM (maybe I should have read this before starting to play the game):

| Section 3: What is the Nature of this Beast? |

THE PROBLEM:  The AMULET OF YENDOR has been stolen.  Not only that but
it appears that the Wizard of Yendor (not a nice person), who took the
amulet, is hiding in the Dungeons of Doom (not a friendly place).

The SOLUTION:  Well, armies have been suggested.  Maybe hiring a superhero
or two.  Unfortunately, it seems that it is more economical to offer a
reward and let some poor adventurer with dreams of glory go and get it.
Guess who's got the enviable job of saving the day...

Super Lotsa Added Stuff Hack - Extended Magic (SLASH'EM) is a role-playing
game where you control a single character.  The interface and gameplay
are similar in style to Rogue, ADOM, Angband and, of course, Nethack.
You control the actions through the keyboard and view the world from an
overhead perspective.

Moreover, I discovered from the golden resource called "spoiler files", how well designed the game core (the bare game, no eye-candy) is. Dip a potion in water, it becomes diluted. Dip it again, and it becomes water. Dip a sword in water, and it rusts. Certain conditions can also cause a weapon or piece of armour to become cursed; if you're lucky, a text message appears to imply this by noting your item's changed appearance, if not, you discover 1000 or so turns later that it can't be unequipped. Examine an item, and the game gives some information on it, but not all; often you won't know what an item does until you use it, possibly with fatal results. After which you die. Permanently. Deleting the save file when the player dies is not a bug, it's a feature. As is the deliberate vagueness of the messages describing what happens. Although a one-person RPG, this game plays almost like a text adventure; what happens when you do stuff to other stuff is something you have to guess from deduction and experimentation, taking plenty of time to think and paying close attention to the textual hints. What the spoiler files show is that, despite its apparently haphazard nature, there is an internal logic to the game.

The game logic is the result of a collaborative effort from what is called the "devteam" (developer's team) which seems quite international, as the game not only contains many references to Western culture (the Tourist derives from the Discworld series, the Archaeologist refers to Indiana Jones) but also to Japanese mythology and martial arts. This devteam makes decisions on how the game is supposed to work from an entirely logical standpoint. For instance, despite RPGs being based on the works of Tolkien who idealized elves and would have considered them lawful, the devteam, drawing on a wider base on myth and fiction, weighs the evidence and considers elves chaotic. As logic dictates, chaotic characters will rise in their god's favour for actions that will cause lawful characters' gods to become angry with them. I didn't mention gods yet, did I? Each race has its own trio of gods (lawful, neutral, chaotic) to help the player fulfill the game's aim: find the Amulet of Yendor and sacrifice it to one's patron deity. There is a fair bit of arithmetic involved in how to raise one's luck points to exactly the right amount to get the right response from these gods when praying: toss a gem to a unicorn, break a mirror. All very logical, once you realize how it works. And SLASH'EM adds more possibilities in the same vein. In the old game, dogs and cats could be tamed with meat, and horses with vegetable food; in the extended game, monkeys can be tamed with bananas, rats with cheese, and rabbits with carrots.

Being the result of a collaboration, Nethack (as a collective name for both game cores and any interfaces) is a very democratic game. Being free, which means that the makers' motivations are more social than financial, it has a very sectarian side to it. For instance, when I found about the saving bug, I shrugged: "free software, you get what you paid for". Surfing to find out more about this game, I discovered that restoring from a save after death had been made impossible because the game was meant to be "devilishly hard"; by killing the player character completely and irrevocably, it was supposed to force the player to think before every move. Huh?? Who's telling me how to play a game? No game is ever free, it appears: commercial gamemakers want people's money, makers of "free" games want to control people. I was taught that saving often is good practice when doing anything on the computer, and now it's "scumsaving"? Because I can lazily resurrect my character after dimwittedly stumbling into a trap? That's the idea of virtual adventuring, you don't really die. Besides, I've "scumsaved", not only to restore my own character, but also each time a pet died, or when I'd had to kill a shopkeeper by mistake, even if the restore meant losing some valuable items. I would sooner say the way pets are treated in this game is scummy: they are guinea pigs and cannon fodder. To make things worse, the fact that the save file is erased each time you start the game, means that if the computer blacks out, you have no save file; a utility is included to create a save file from the temporary game files, and this does not always work. Fortunately, the Vulture's have an Explore mode which does retain the save file, although I still can't save without closing the game. In Explore mode, there's no score, oh boo-hoo. I never looked at the score anyway. Another attempt at controlling people: purists say that graphical interfaces are bad because the ASCII interface forces you to use your imagination. Who is going to force me to use my imagination? If it hadn't been for the interface, I wouldn't have given the game a second look. An old-time player has remarked that Nethack is stale once all the riddles have been cracked. Stale? A game that generates a new set of dungeons each time you start a new expedition, one that is, with the right graphics added, a zoo, safari and aquarium in one? When I found out about "scumsaving", I was too disgusted to play the game for a while, but its tiles and corridors drew me back. Maybe the staleness comes from versions that have no tiles, only stupid ASCII characters? Finally, one exceptionally arrogant fan said "People who read spoiler files should be fed to the newts." Well, if I hadn't read all the spoiler files I could find, I would not appreciate the game as I do today, and would have chucked it for being, as it came across, buggy and badly written. Those spoiler files have given me as much gaming pleasure as the game itself, in the way that reading up on a foreign country before visiting it can be much more fun than just taking the first plane there and missing all the good parts of it through not knowing they existed.

What this rant boils down to: I obviously don't like RPGs, nor do I like fandoms. And I certainly don't like being told how to play.

My game experience is most like that of the gamer who preferred the Tourist because he always feels like a tourist in this game. That especially applies with a graphical interface. I don't feel like seeking out the Amulet of Yendor, because that would finish the game; I just like to walk around and collect pets and shiny things until I die, which is usually at level 5. And since learning about the sectarian side to Nethack, I don't care so much about pet survival (I never did care about my own survival) and play recklessly, if at all. My favourite race is Doppelganger; my favourite class, Priest (free uncursing) or Healer (for the stone-to-flesh spell); I almost always play in Explore mode, but let the character die if it has "died" too often or lost too many pets. Like a virtual animal hoarder, I love to collect the most exotic pets, and my personal aim in the game is to tame a chameleon, as it will cycle through all those beautiful game tiles before my eyes; I've let chameleons kill me repeatedly while waiting for them to change to dogs so I could toss them a ration. So, my SLASH'EM-centric (so I can be a doppelganger) and totally useless (as I've never ascended) gameplaying tips are:

The Vulture's are available for download as binaries again, and also as source to compile using whatever compiler is available on the system, which, under Windows, is likely to be "none". An advantage of source over binary file is that the tiles are not packed into an executable, but stored in a directory (relative path: slashem\win\vultures\gamedata\tiles). The artistically inclined may take any tile they don't like and paste a new image in it, or even add new tiles if they know how to compile them into the game. In later versions, the tiles are not compiled into the executable but put in a separate directory during the installation, allowing me to make and test files without needing to reinstall the game every time.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? And does that imp look familiar?

The tiles currently included seem to be mostly the work of two artists: one who started making graphics when the interface had no 24-bit colour and transparency, and which seem colour-reduced, and have a delicate black outline one pixel thick, and generally a shadow (sadly, name unknown); and John Shaw, the maker of the "Absurd Tileset", which was made for a 2D non-isometric view, and whose images have a pasty black anti-aliased outline, and no shadow. I prefer the first type, although the second type also has its charm.

One style versus another.

Having found some free images online that would be good for making the "barnyard animal" tiles, I submitted them and wrote a how-I about it.

Update, end of 2014: it seems the isometric Vulture interface may soon become vintage, as its maker is looking at ways to make it fully 3D. The format of the tiles configuration file was already about to change, but replacing the tiles with 3D objects means that the abovementioned how-I is about to become obsolete.

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