I like many things about Nethack.
One of the things I passionately hate about it is spoilers.
I don’t mean I hate the text files that explain the tactics and strategies that enable experienced players to win. What I hate is the fact that these tactics and strategies are not revealed to most players in the context of the game itself, and often don’t even make sense in the context of the game itself. The fact that the information CAN be learned in the game, if a player assiduously writes down every fortune cookie message and solves every riddle over the course of scores of games, doesn’t matter.
Here is what matters. First, the game is failing to effectively teach the players its most effective strategies and tactics. That’s a failure in the design of any game that requires strategy and tactics to win. Second the players using these strategies and tactics have failed to learn them in the context of the game, and so failed to experience the joy and satisfaction of discovering them for themselves. Depriving players of that joy and satisfaction is another fundamental failure of the game. Third, Nethack is often played as a competition between many players, and the competitions cannot be fair when a huge advantage is accorded to players whose tactics and strategy is not in fact learned from the game. That means the competitions actively discriminate against those who are learning their strategy from the game itself, depriving them of enjoyment as well.
Now, I probably oughtn’t pick on just Nethack here; this is common to many roguelike games. But I’m writing in response to a blog article by the maintainer of Nethack 4, so I’m very much thinking of the question in terms of Nethack. Recently in the context of Nethack 4, Alex Smith was blogging about the spoileriffic playstyle of Nethack as an example of player input into what he was calling “Strategy Headroom” and bluntly speaking he was missing the point entirely. He is right about strategy headroom and that it’s a very important factor in game design decisions. But he is dead wrong about the place spoilers hold in relationship to strategy headroom.
He is interpreting a player request to reduce a game’s reliance on spoilers as a request to increase strategy headroom (generally speaking, a request to make the game easier). That is not even remotely the point of any such request. When I make a request to reduce a game’s reliance on spoilers, it is not about whether the game is easy or hard, or about whether I as a player ought to have more or fewer viable choices in a given situation – it is instead about fundamental game design and quality assurance issues. Relying less on spoilers should mean that the game effectively teaches its strategies, that those strategies should make sense in game terms, and that the game should avoid being unfair in favor of players who learned their strategy outside the context of playing the game.
A request to rely less on spoilers, in short, is not about making the game easier or harder; it is about making a better game.
Alex calls Nethack a game with very high “strategy headroom” – and this is true in that a player who knows the spoilers has a huge range of strategic choices available, and can win the game almost without regard to what strategic choices he or she makes. Here, in fact, is a long list of peculiar or suboptimal strategic choices that players of nethack can make and win the game anyway, correctly labeled as “Stupid Ascension Tricks”.
Seriously, look them over, and see how many of them even make sense in the absence of hacky crap that is there solely to make the game easier for the spoiled player.
Here, I’ll list the first couple:
Never ate an amulet. You can win the game without eating an amulet? Wait, when in any sane world has eating something not destroyed it? This is even crazier than it sounds, because in nethack, the only creatures who can ingest and swallow something are specifically those whose digestive systems can destroy it. And when does a destroyed item keep working? Um, if it’s an amulet in nethack. I count this one along with Never ate a ring as something that makes complete nonsense in the context of the game.
Here’s a couple more things that page didn’t call out, which are equally egregious nonsense. Under some circumstances people prefer to use cursed items rather than use the items normally. That sort of implies that whoever made the curse had no clue whatsoever what curses are about, doesn’t it? In some cases people prefer to use magic items or spells, while confused. Not only does it work, but its differently beneficial effect is also more predictable and reliable than the effect of doing ordinary things like … walking … while confused. So doing magic is easier than walking, does not require presence of mind, and doing some kinds of it while confused is better than doing it when you know what the heck you’re doing.
Here’s another thing that makes nonsense in the context of the game. You can eat the corpses of undead creatures. Not only is it non-fatal, and not only is there no disease or putrefaction that you need to cure, and not only do you not become undead yourself – but it’s also nutritious and good for you. So good, in fact, that you could gain a level of unearned experience.
Should I go on? Okay, let’s talk about succubi. When succubi attack, it’s often good for you. Everything you learned about succubi outside of nethack should lead you to expect that they’ll be taking your soul back to Hell with them, but in nethack, the odds are in your favor. As predators, and as demons, they are complete failures. Now, unlike most of the game’s nonsense, it will teach you this one; a succubus will attack your character and then, often as not, accidentally do something nice for him. So this is less a game design issue than a world design issue.
On a related note, did you know that there’s a type of monster in nethack whose attacks damage you unless you are stark naked? That is, it hurts you if you’re wearing armor, but if you’re naked, it will instead first heal you, then permanently give you hitpoints you never otherwise had. These creatures are supposedly intelligent and benign in intent, but they will not tell you what they want to do for you, nor refrain from hurting you if you aren’t naked, nor ask you to take your armor off so they can help you, as intelligent creatures of benign intent would if they were making sense. Instead, their presence and behavior makes nonsense.
Now my point about things making nonsense in the context of the game is that non-spoiled players would never do these things, nor treat monsters doing them as something that is reasonable to expect and prepare for. There may be in-game pointers to them, but except for succubi effects those pointers don’t show up in most games and most players never learn about them in the context of playing the game.
If the game taught players these things in an effective way when they become relevant to play, it would fix the game design problem because it would no longer be unfair in favor of the spoiled. But for those of us who want to use our imaginations in playing the games – for those who treat these games as roleplaying rather than as pure puzzles – It is also important that the internal logic of the game’s world should be plausible. If features of it make that much nonsense, even if we learn them in the context of playing the game we want to ignore them because they mean the game’s world is visibly stupid. That wrecks our ability to care about the game or to care about our characters in the game.
And that is why we want games that rely less on spoilers. First because the game’s failure to communicate its strategies means that it is unfair in favor of the spoiled and deprives people of enjoyment playing. Thus it is bad game design. Second because if the best strategies work only in a world that makes nonsense, it is bad world design.
If you interpret this request as a request to increase “strategic headroom” or make the game easier, you are completely missing the point. You can comply with the request just as easily by simply eliminating all benefit to characters from the spoiled feature, especially when, like the ones I call out above, it makes nonsense. That would be a reduction, not an increase, in “strategic headroom,” and also an improvement in game design.
“Strategic headroom” has nothing to do with the real reasons for the request. Instead, most of us who make such requests are requesting that the game should either eliminate benefit from nonsensical strategies or teach its beneficial strategies effectively enough that spoiled players should not be favored over players who learn their strategy from the game.