There have been a hell of a lot of posts around the blogosphere lately concerning choice, the lack of it, what it means, is there a god, if there is would he give you a choice, etc. There have also been some posts about FTP vs subscription, which one is more evil than the other, was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll. And I have been reading these posts, for want of something better to do, I have been absorbing them as such. There was also an interesting post about Hogger over at Hardcore Casual, wondering why Hogger is so memorable. Lots of people chiming in to say that he was their first elite mob, so you always remember the first one, blah blah blah. I tell you right now; the first girl I bonked I don’t remember it all that much. The other night with you-know-who? Oh yeah, I remember that.

The thing is, in any game it all comes down to the known vs the unknown. How much is there for you to discover? How exciting is it to discover stuff, and how much fun is it to work towards discoveries? If everything is known then what is left? There has been a lot of talk about how present day raiding in WoW is just about learning a dance. But the dance is scripted and not only is it easy to find information about it online, you’re viewed as a noob for wasting everyone’s valuable time if you don’t memorise it before you rock up for a brand new boss. There’s not much discovery going on here. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: sites like wowhead and wowwiki are the deathblow for trying to discover and enjoy a game.

But the question remains, how do you enable an atmosphere of discovery when everything can be so easily sourced and found online? It’s a tough question, but the other day I was playing a little computer game that I’ve been playing on and off since 1986. It hasn’t changed in that time, and I’m still not bored of it now, on the contrary. It’s called Nethack and it’s a simple dungeon crawl. Well, simple on the surface, but scratch that surface and there is a lot to discover. So how do they stop players posting everything online and making it trivial? (To be fair, a lot of Nethack strategy is posted online, but it’s impossible to memorise and it doesn’t come close to letting you beat the game).

They random it up. Take wands for example. Lets say you find an iron wand. What does it do? You don’t know, so you zap it and a lightening bolt comes out, hits the walls, and deflects back at your little warrior, killing her instantly. Oh dear, you say, but as you do so you’re writing down in a little notebook the words:

Iron wand – Wand of Lightening.

So you start up another game and sure enough you find another iron wand. Brilliant! But you’re not going to waste some charges testing it, you know what it does. Save it for a special occasion when you’re getting pummelled by some monsters in an open space. And then you take out your iron wand and zap the monsters. Which don’t get zapped at all, but suddenly speed up very fast and kill your character in no time at all.

Every game the wands are randomised. As are the scrolls that you find, and the armour effects, and the books of magic, and the list goes on. So you have to carefully plot your way and test things with great caution. And it all adds up to interesting choices as nothing can be taken for granted. And even if you have a mega-supa strong character they just might die to a little puff-ball since you forgot to eat a dead monster that would give you poison immunity.

Meaningful choices, the ability to discover new things even after so long playing the game, nothing spelt out for you. This is what playing a game is all about. I encourage you to download Nethack and give it a try. I recommend a Valkyrie for a new player. Tell me what you think. Oh, and it’s free.