Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Simultaneously among the most beloved, and most loathed, features of the popular roguelike game Nethack is its wide variety of jokes and anachronisms. Often, when people who dislike the game, but appreciate other roguelikes, discuss their dissatisfaction with the game, it's because it contains things like candy bars, quantum mechanics, credit cards, magic markers and fortune cookies within its vague fantasy setting.

There are those of us who dearly love all these kinds of things, and in case you haven't guessed I'm one of them. I find that far too many fantasy games, both the regular kind, and roguelikes too at times, take themselves too seriously. The most popular computer roleplaying games you can find don't care a whit about subtlety or humor except on rare occasions.

Even Zelda, the last time out, gave us a strongly-typed light-dark motif that, although they did try to overturn it during the course of the game, still seemed to buy into it more than discredit. Yet considering how the whimsical and joyous Wind Waker was the worst-selling console Zelda for a long while, it seems that most gamers are perfectly happy with this. I am disappointed in modern gaming for many reasons, but none so more as this.

You know the kind of games I mean. Games that throw around words like "darkness" as if they were going out of style -- and the sooner that happens the better as far as I'm concerned. Yet it is enlightening, perhaps, to note that other than a weird little tacked-on prologue before the game, we don't even know why Nethack's long succession of @-signs are braving the dungeon. It likely isn't to save the world; the player's god wants the amulet, but it isn't a pressing fight against the forces of evil. I've always seen it as more of a quest for glory kind of thing.

Of the other major games, Rogue's quest is important only so that Rodney can gain admittance to the local fighter's guild. (In light of that game's tremendous difficulty, I can only imagine that he'll be in scarce company.) Crawl players seek the Orb of Zot; we don't know why. Angbanders wanna slay Morgoth, the great foe of Tolkien's Middle Earth (Sauron's boss), but it doesn't seem like he's about to up and invade at the moment. ADOM, alone among the major roguelikes, puts the player in a world-saving (or conquering) role, and perhaps because of this it is ADOM's quest, which has far more storyline than the other roguelikes, that seems the most petty. To save the world is a noble thing, but come on, it's been saved millions of times by now. Can't the durn thing take care of itself for a moment?

Well I say, let the technicolor phantastic realm-kingdom in dire need of salvation take a running leap. This time, our focus is digressions. A listing of jokes in Nethack. Let's go!

Strange objects

Some time ago Nethack Devteam member Janet Walz saw the multiplicity of things in the game, and asked herself what thing is there that it lacks? The answer was obvious: the kitchen sink.

Sinks can be drunk from, if you have a death wish or something (there are two different ways to get polymorphed that way, and polymorph can destroy armor). They can be kicked, which can summon succubuses or incubuses for a bit of fun, or black puddings for a bit of the opposite of fun. Or you can drop rings down them, usually wasting the ring but providing a significant hint to its function in the process.

So, those results aren't funny? That's right, they aren't, but come on now. There are kitchen sinks in the dungeon!

Back when Tourists were added to the game, they were intended as a challenge class. They begin with no melee weapon, get overcharged in shops, and their starting armor is a "+0 Hawaiian Shirt," which offers no protection at all.

More recent versions have changed this somewhat; many players agree that the Tourist quest artifact, the Platinum Yendorian Express Card, which doesn't charge general merchandise but does wands, is among the best in the game. And that "useless" shirt, when coupled with other armor, can be a boon. Any armor piece can only accept so much enchantment, you see, before it becomes likely that it'll disintegrate. A player can wear a suit of armor, a cloak, a helmet, a shield and a pair of boots, and their combined pluses can be substantial, but once it reaches a given maximum it becomes dangerous to enchant any more.

A shirt, you see, is an extra layer of armor that goes under armor, and so while it has no defense value itself it can be safely enchanted to +4 or +5, and that can make a big difference. Shirts are very rare items to find randomly, so it is useful to begin the game with one.

A few versions after Hawaiian Shirts entered the game, the Devteam added T-Shirts, which are functionally the same except for one useless, yet interesting, feature: they can be read. And there are quite a good number of things that can be printed on them, like:

(By the way, Tourists themselves are not, strictly-speaking, an anachronism. They are a reference to Twoflower from Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. In fact the Tourist quest takes place in leading Disc city Ankh-Morpork, and the Tourist quest leader is Twoflower himself. In any case, the Tourist class is one of the features that can be compiled out of the game if the player is that opposed to them.)

They are found randomly throughout the dungeon, sometimes appear on bones levels at the spot a previous player met his end, and there are dozens of them deep in the dungeon, in the Valley of the Dead. They can be looted, but they can also be read. A sample grave marker....


Fortune cookies are an essential part of Nethack's hint system, with the meaning of the word "fortune" here being based more on the Unix command-line toy more than the confection offered by Chinese food places. There are hundreds of possible messages, divided into "true" and "false" based on their usefulness. Blessed cookies always provide true fortunes, and cursed cookies false. Many of the fortunes, further, are frequently fairly funny:

"So when I die, the first thing I will see in heaven is a score list?"
A wish? Okay, make me a fortune cookie!
Let's face it: this time you're not going to win.
Not all rumors are as misleading as this one.
Segmentation fault (core dumped).
Sorry, no fortune this time. Better luck next cookie!
You swallowed the fortune!
You choke on the fortune cookie. --More--

The Rogue level

Never let it be said that Nethack has forgotten its roots. In addition to the game's many holdovers from its early history as a remake of Rogue, deep in the dungeon it contains the greatest homage of all: a complete level done in the style of Rogue, right down to borrowing its own idiosyncratic ASCII graphics. Even graphic versions of the game drop down to letters and line-drawing characters here, and it'll also make an effort to duplicate a version of Rogue produced for the platform the game is made for; the picture above is from the MS-DOS port. It also always contains a ghost named after one of Rogue's creators.

Cultural borrowings

Perhaps the most awesome thing about Nethack, speaking as an English grad student? The game is loaded with cultural references! Most of the quest artifacts are taken from different fantasy series, from Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld) to Conan the Barbarian (the Heart of Ahriman). The Knight artifact is the Magic Mirror of Merlin, which goes all the way back to Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which was printed in 1596 for heaven's sake. Most of the other artifacts are borrowed similarly: Stormbringer comes from the Elric books, Grayswandir's from Amber, Vorpal Blade's from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Sting and Orcrist, of course, are from The Hobbit. The artifact weapon Snickersnee is from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, just about the last thing you'd expect a D&D-ish random dungeon game to borrow from. The gods worshipped by each character class is also cunningly chosen to be from a relevant world mythology (Valkyries, for example, get Norse gods), with the exception of Tourists (Discworld gods) and Priests (who get a random deities chosen from the other sets).

Not only that: balrogs and hobbits are also from Tolkien, crysknives and long worms are from Dune, towels and their use from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, lots of things come from the Zork games and Adventure, and many of the named demons come from Christian tradition by way of early Dungeons & Dragons books, pre- obnoxious fundamentalist furor perpetuated by televangelists and rabble-rousing preachers.

All of this just scratches the surface. The game's built-in encyclopedia has a quote, from some< work of literature, for most monsters in the game, as well as some of the more noted artifacts. An exhaustive list of those, over 180 in all, can be found here.


A recent version of the game introduced a new canine opponent, to go in alongside the domestic dog hierarchy (small dog, dog and large dog), jackals, wolves, winter wolves and hell hounds: the coyote. If you use the "What is" command, forward slash, to access the game's encyclopedia to get information on a coyote, the entry is:

If that's not enough to convince you of the monster's esteemed inspiration, the forward-slash command adds an interesting extra bit of information to the What Is report, only for coyotes:

Incidental messages

If you somehow die on the very first turn:

If you have a pet pit viper or pit fiend, who falls victim to a pit trap:

If you are polymorphed into a metal eater and munch on a trident:
If you're hallucinating the message is different:

Eating apples provides the report message "Core dumped," but I don't have a picture of that because it only does that in Unix ports of the game! (Core dumps are what Unix/Linux programs do when they crash, they write the contents of their memory to a file, called a core.)

Finally, while I won't spoil it here, players who are really hungry or low on points, are playing a Wizard or Valkyrie or of Elven race, and are familiar with the arcade game Gauntlet, are bound to be surprised eventually.

Hallucination messages

That brings us to the uncomfortably large category of hallucination jokes, which the game contains so many of that at times it seems like the hallucination condition is there solely as an excuse to be funny. It is easy to overlook the fact that hallucination actually predates Hack, first being seen in later versions of Rogue.

The Devteam did make the most of it, though. Almost anything the player does prompts a funny message when hallucinating, often with a pop culture joke or bit of hippie slang attached. (A personal favorite is "You feel that Odin is bummed.") There are so many of those, and they're scattered so throughly throughout the source code, that I won't even try to list them. I will offer extra points, however, to whoever can find the condition that causes the game to tell them "There's a tiger in your tank."

The actual effect of hallucination is that monsters (and item observed from a distance) appear to flip randomly through a set of possibilities, thus depriving you of knowledge of what type they are. In Rogue the random appearance was chosen from the monsters in the game, but Nethack will also pick from a list of monsters that don't actually exist, which cover a wide gamut of sources in games, books, TV, movies and comics. Favorites include giant pigmy, master lichen, grue, Y2K bug, rodent of unusual size, Smokey the bear, smurf, Klingon, Totoro, Dalek, teenage mutant ninja turtle, one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater, and, of course, Morgoth from Nethack's distant cousin, Angband.

Shocking the gods

Finally, a specific game event that most good players encounter eventually, but always comes as a surprise, and sometimes a rude one, the first time they see it. It is a kind of joke to do with the alarming tendency of Nethack characters, once they get a good 15 levels under their belt and a selection of all the useful equipment they can obtain in the game, of becoming unstoppable tanks.

While even advanced characters can be killed, and often are in the days running up to one's first victory, if the player really knows what he's doing, more than half of the game can become a foregone conclusion. A really knowledgeable Nethack character is in some danger at the beginning, a little bit danger maybe at the very end, and almost completely safe in between. Of the named demon lords that can accost the player later in the game, the great heavies of the old-school D&D world, only Demogorgon is a significant challenge by the time he might show up, and he makes an appearance in only a very small number of games. I've never run into him myself.

Of course ultimately, there's always a bigger fish. The dungeon of Nethack a number of branches, but what is considered the "dungeon" is split into two major halves, the Dungeons of Doom, which go down to about level 25 or so, and Gehennom, which is the rest of the way. There are a number of significant differences between the two (like that Gehennom is a lot more frustrating to explore), but the foremost one is perhaps that prayer, Nethack's all-purpose escape valve for the almost-dead player, doesn't work in Gehennom. While there operators route all prayers get routed to Moloch, the game's antagonist deity. (See: fish, bigger.)

If alerted to a presence in his domain, the there is a chance that the thing does is fire a lightning bolt at the player's character, which instantly kills if it isn't resisted. But of course, by this time the player is likely to have gained shock resistance from one of several sources, and will pass through it unscathed, which gives Moloch an excuse to pull out the big guns, the wide-angle disintegration beam.

This beam cannot be reflected (like by a shield of reflection), and can destroy multiple inventory items at once. Magic resistance doesn't help either. However, it IS survivable, for one kind of monster in the game, black dragons, can confer the intrinsic state of disintegration-resistance if its flesh is consumed. The comment made by the Great God Moloch upon realizing he has been thwarted by a mere mortal is awesome to behold: