Okay peeps, put yo hipster glasses on. Time to see who did what before it was cool!
Jus’ kidding. But, today Imma talk about NetHack, which came about pretty much before any of us were born.
What the heck is NetHack? It’s a videogame, one of dem “dungeon crawlers”, i.e. where your alter ego tromps through underground caves and tunnel systems, fighting monsters, foiling traps, and finding treasure. In NetHack, you travel deep underground, find a magic amulet, then climb back up and become a god or whatever.
Like with any self-respecting dungeon crawler, the story is bollocks. Like, there barely is any story – you just go into the damn dungeon, grab the amulet, and get out. If you can. But, the super wonderful thing in NetHack is that you can do anything. Or, like, you are stuck in the dungeon, but within those limits, you can do anything.
You can kick dogs and farm slimes. You can rob a shop by digging through the floor. Then you can evade the police by leading them into traps of your own design. You can wish for a dragon and get it – only if it is hostile, it’ll kill you.
The “anything” in NetHack is really quite overwhelming. You can do thousands of things, and nobody tells you how. On the other hand, you don’t have to know jack. You can just tap away and hope luck carries you till the end. Usually you just die, though. In that vein, NetHack was Dark Souls before the first King’s Field came out.
Soo… within dem limits, NetHack is so open-ended as to be kinda crazy. And, coupled with the fact that the story practically doesn’t exist, it creates a kind of magic: I can actually decide what the story is.
The story is what I do.
From a writing perspective, you’d think that’s kind of a nightmare, right? Not much use for a writer in a game like NetHack, right? After you’ve outlined the plot (“Player goes into this dungeon, at the bottom of which is the Amulet of Yendor. They get the amulet. Then they get out.”) you’re basically out of the picture… right?
Yeah, so, lately I’ve been dabbling in making videogames. I got nothing concrete to show you peeps yet, but I done a crapload of thinkin’ and adjustin’. That is, adjustin’ my writer self to the fact that writing can be a hell of a lot more than just words on paper and stories about characters who do stuff, save kingdoms, and grow as people as a result.
From a game design perspective, writing can be almost anything. Writing is deciding what the monsters are like, what weapons the player uses, and what the winding paths of the dungeon are like. (Oh, hello, world-building!)
I know some people are gonna say that those things are not writing decisions, they are game design decisions, but hey fuck y’all, this is about the revelations I’m having.
The revelation is that you can build it all. Nothing in a game comes pre-determined. (Kinda.) In the same vein, nothing in writing does, either. (Also kinda.)
In that regard, it’s ever more amazing to me how often people stick to grindingly boring and obvious clichés. Okay, so you’re making a new game? That’s great! What’s it about? Oh? A hero who’s a chosen one, gifted with magical power so that he alone can defeat an ancient evil rising from a thousand-year-old slumber, an evil bent on devouring the green crystal that keeps the world in balance?
I know there are psychological reasons why people stumble onto those clichés time and time again, but… just… gimme a moment here. My mind boggles.