Mark Gritter (markgritter) wrote,
Mark Gritter

Roguelike Celebration notes 1/N

Last weekend I attended the Roguelike Celebration ( at the Eventbrite headquarters. All the recordings are available online. Each session is short, only a half hour each, but the conference did have to split into two tracks. Here are my notes from ones I attended in person.

A Love Letter to Hack by George Moromisato, author of Transendence, a space exploration and shoot'em'up game. He talked about the ways he was inspired by Nethack and tried to apply the same lessons to his game. So what's so awesome about Nethack? Despite its crude ASCII nature, it came out in 1987, the same time as Ultima V.

He contrasts "graphical immersion" with "interactive immersion", "quality" vs "variety" and "experience" vs "mastery." The last axis is sometimes talked about as "replayability", but the distinction he's drawing is more about whether you are continuously learning the game, or just going back for another helping.

One of the key features he identified was the "illusion of winnability." Even though you almost always lose, there's a sense that "if only I had done X". Nethackers label this "Yet Another Stupid Death." But the combinatorial explosion of possibilities makes it hard to win even an "open book test" like Nethack where you have unlimited time to make up your mind. This combinatorial explosion and interaction was a common theme at the conference.

Because George is writing a space game, he found it hard to take advantage of another of Nethack's strengths, which is relying upon the player's knowledge of the world. Yes, Nethack is a fantasy game and has its own set of conventions. But it also has monsters the are familiar to fantasy fans, and interactions like "getting things wet" behave like they do in the real world. In a space game, this is harder, because the interactions between different technologies doesn't have the same sort of standard vocabulary.

A third feature he characterized as "quantity is quality." Interacting with 100's of monsters is its own good experience even if each of them is just an ASCII letter and a small set of behaviors. It's the combinatorial explosion of attributes interacting which makes this variety possible. Roguelike developers provide the most benefit when they add "one more experience" to the game rather than higher-quality content. He characterized this as "building a city, not a resort."

Accessibility in Roguelike Games" by Alexei Pepers talked about a project to make Nethack more accessible to visually impaired players. (Believe it or not, some do play it by using screen readers pronouncing the punctionation characters on the screen!) Her main idea was new commands that describe your surroundings in text, including the exact offsets in terms of relative number of tiles. Backtracing and mapping is also hard, so they also added some shortcuts for navigation ("head back to the staircase.")

Alexei characterized three main lessons learned: (1) No substitute for feedback from visually impaired users. They did some of their experiments with sighted players with the map turned off. But that population are not experts in screen-reading software! (2) Give users options on how exactly to get info, for example NSEW vs up/down/left/right. (3) The complexity of games leads to a lot of special cases. For example, a common tactic in Nethack is stealing from shops by training your pet to pick up items and put them down in the store entrance where you can grab them. A large store may have tons of items and having screen-reading software describe them all every clock tick, in order for the player to figure out what their dog is doing, is a complete pain.

Corridors in Nethack, and some of the lower levels, are very difficult. Precise spatial information using text is hard, while maintaining the sense of immersion that makes the game fun. (One idea that I'd like to see is building a tactile interface for showing the shapes of corridors--- but I don't have the time nor skills to put one together.)

Concrete Poems by Nick Montfort (a poet.) There was a lengthy opening discursion on why a tweet is limited to 140 characters, as an example of the "history of material texts" that Nick is interested in. But this left frustratingly little time to talk about roguelikes! (It's an entertaining enough exposition, so you should watch it.) Why were compute terminals a grid? Because of typewriters, which need to advance by the same amount on each letter. Previous typography was, sensibly, proportional.

But what really got my attention is talking about "Concrete poetry" and some of his examples were stunning. This is poetry that uses the typewriter, but in a "dirty" form: moving the paper around, masking letters, changing the ribbon, etc. He presented this as an early exploration of how artists made "space" out of ASCII.

His challenge was what roguelike developers can do to make something as visually stunning as the examples he showed, like Steve McCaffery's "Carnival".

(I have notes on several more sessions which I'll post later, but each session had a lot of depth so my writeups tend to be long.)
Tags: conferences, games, geek

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