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.

2 thoughts on “Spoilers.

  1. bear Post author

    Recieved in email from the nethack 4 maintainer:

    Hi, thanks for your comments.

    I was trying to make a difference between tactical spoilers, and
    strategic spoilers. Tactical spoilers are things like “eating a wraith
    corpse gains you a level”. Strategic spoilers are things like “it’s best
    to leave reliable level gain sources alone until you have enough to take
    you to level 14”.

    Tactical spoilers are mostly unrelated to the idea of headroom; fixing
    them doesn’t really impact what choices are available in the game.
    Taking wraith corpses as an example, there’s no reason why the game
    couldn’t mention the levelling effect in the monster description. (In
    fact, it already would, if anyone had written monster descriptions;
    NetHack 4 already has item descriptions that describe the major
    properties of items, although the UI for them is currently bad and needs
    improvements.) Your article is entirely focused on this sort of spoiler,
    as far as I can tell.

    Strategic spoilers are more interesting, and also comparatively rare in
    NetHack. The case of level gain sources mentioned above is one of the
    few relatively uncontroversial pieces of strategy advice among NetHack
    players (as far as I know; I might well be wrong on this). This one
    functions quite like a newbie trap; drinking gain level sources early is
    mostly just going to be bad for you, as it’ll cause you to have to grind
    more later on and not give much benefit (in fact, it can be detrimental
    for some characters). Nerfing this sort of strategy, in general, would
    be a bad idea. Say I remove all the reliable gain level sources from the
    game; now everyone has to farm 14 levels the tedious, monster-killing
    way in order to be able to win the game. Most people don’t find this
    very enjoyable (in fact, it’s one thing that I often see players on
    their way to their first ascensions complain about, because they’re
    unaware of the “shortcut”).

    If a strategy’s dominating the game, there are various ways to fix it,
    but in my opinion, a straight nerf is almost always going to cause
    problems, because the rest of the game is balanced around the strategy’s
    existence. IMO, the best solution to this particular situation would be
    to readjust the level curve so that the grindy way of reaching level 14
    is less grindy, and the shortcuts were more useful at a range of levels,
    rather than just for hitting level 14. I might be wrong about this, and
    it probably would require playtesting to fix. (The Slash’EM developers
    tried a similar fix to the same problem, and I feel their numbers were
    off.) This sort of fix definitely increases headroom, because now there
    isn’t a single, obviously best strategy.

    I think a public debate on this subject would be entirely reasonable;
    I’m happy for you to make this response public, if you want to, and
    would be interested to see any re-response you might have.

  2. bear Post author

    Given the distinction you’re drawing between strategic and tactical spoilers, I don’t think I recognize strategic spoilers as being a real thing. Once the tactical information (eating wraith corpses won’t kill you and will instead give you a level boost) is known, the strategy of how best to use it is something the game does effectively teach. “Spoilers” in the sense of strategic advice are pointless, (or at least relatively harmless) because given the tactical information and a few games to make mistakes in its application, good players will evolve good strategies for themselves.

    IOW, Players wasting those precious gain level sources on low levels that they could easily have gotten via experience will discover the error of their ways when they realize that nethack’s experience scale is exponential, and that therefore a gain level source is worth exponentially more experience when used at a higher level. Then they will have the point driven home when they realize that killing every last creature a game can generate will still only reach level 19 or so, and that therefore there is absolutely NO way to get higher levels by experience – even showing XP amounts for higher levels than that is misleading, because there is no way to earn enough experience to get one of those levels.

    A “spoiled” player following a rule to hoard level gain stuff until it’s for at least L14 may or may not understand why they are vastly more valuable at higher level. But if he truly fails to understand it, it’s not the fault of the spoiler. A player who fails to understand the strategy implied from the ‘tactical’ information simply doesn’t have a strategy-capable brain.

Leave a Reply