Nethack and anxiety

I don’t like video games, or games in general. That’s mostly because I’m an anxious sore loser: my mind and body have intense, unpleasant reactions to failure, and failure is a necessary part of almost any game. Most games make loss especially inevitable when you’re starting out, before you’ve learned how not to fail, and that’s the point when I throw a fit and give up. I just can’t do it! I’ll never be any good at this! After a lot of that, I learned to stop starting out at all.

Except all of that is a lie, because there’s one video game I’ve been playing for as long as I was physically able to use a computer, a game notorious for a really difficult play experience completely stuffed with failure. It’s called Nethack.

According to Wikipedia, Nethack (technically “NetHack”, but that’s not how I think of it) was originally released in 1987. It has ASCII graphics, because there wasn’t really another option for a home computer game at the time. It’s ultimately a descendant of an earlier game called Rogue, which makes Nethack one of the elder statesmen of the game genre called “roguelikes”. The basic premise is that you play an adventurer, a wizard or barbarian, for example, exploring a dungeon full of monsters and loot in search of the legendary Amulet of Yendor. Levels are procedurally-generated, meaning each floor of the dungeon is created anew for each new game, though certain structural features are always the same. Death is extremely easy for your fragile character, even at high levels, and permanent, meaning you have to start again from the beginning with a new character. Winning the game, while hardly impossible, is rare enough that doing so accounts a player a special status. To win Nethack is, in the game reality, to become a demigod, so the Nethack community refers to winning as “ascension”.

I’ve never ascended, or even gotten close. My dad, however, has. He’s been playing the game since before I was born, so he started playing somewhere in the five-year window between 1987 and 1992. His name is actually in the credits; he’s not part of the dev team, but he did create a font for the game to give it slightly more representative graphics. So of course he taught his tiny daughters to play this weird throwback of a game as soon as our hands could manipulate a keyboard. Nethack has had a clearly staked-out corner of my heart since then.

A few weeks ago, a new edition of Nethack came out. This is the first time that’s happened since 2003, when I was 11 and mostly unaware of what game development was. This time, though, I was incredibly excited. I mean, the fact that anybody is still working on Nethack is itself kind of amazing and heartwarming. My dad and I tweeted at each other about this. I’ve played 3.4.3 (the 2003 edition) on and off since childhood, but now I have a new goal, one I never really realistically considered before. I want to ascend.

I know I can do it. The primary skill that Nethack requires is persistence. After that comes a deep and complicated knowledge of Nethack’s extensive lore, or a willingness to look absolutely everything up in wikis, walkthroughs, and spoilers. (Those two aren’t 100% fungible, as some situations in Nethack may appear innocuous until you’ve suffered “yet another stupid death”; knowing when to stop and double-check your options is something really only experience can teach.) The strange thing, really, is why I never believed I could do this before.

Nethack, and the roguelike genre generally, seems like a horrible game for an anxious mind. Failure is deeply woven into its structure. “YASD”, or “yet another stupid death”, is the cute way Nethack players refer to this. I fell into a hole while wielding a cockatrice. I stepped on a level teleport trap and ended up facing an enemy way too tough for me. I ate tainted meat and died of food poisoning. There are so many ways to die, and the only way to avoid death is to be incredibly cautious. And this, I think, is actually what makes it great for someone with anxiety.

In my daily life, I prefer to react to stressful situations by slowing down, taking my time, taking a moment away from whatever it is to consider my reaction. Obviously, for many stressors, this is mostly to entirely impossible. If I’m getting a sensory overload from the noise and closeness of a crowd of people, I can’t just tab out of that experience to gather myself before moving forward. Even when I can take care, it isn’t always especially useful. I can prepare ahead of time as much as I want for a stressful conversation, taking deep breaths before contacting the person and planning out what I’m going to say, but as soon as something I didn’t expect happens, my cocoon of forethought unravels. Nethack, though, is a challenge that actively rewards stopping in the middle of things to go consult reference materials. The game is turn-based, and time only passes when I make a move. I usually play with at least one tab open to Yet Another Nethack Site or the Nethack wiki. The coping mechanisms that soothe my anxiety are optimal play strategies.

With that said, a minefield of failure – which, honestly, describes this game accurately – ought to be a huge anxiety trigger no matter how much it encourages preparation. Instead, Nethack’s frequent deaths and unpredictability transform via repetition into something almost comforting. I probably got pretty upset the first time, or even the first dozen times, I died in Nethack, but that’s far in the past. I’ve learned over and over and over again that losing at Nethack is really no big deal, and that it’s not hard to get started again and do even better the next time. Sure, I still feel frustrated at particularly irritating deaths – something I could’ve prevented but forgot about, for example. But overall, Nethack has somehow managed to get me to understand, on a bone-deep level, that failure is not a bad thing. (For the specific case of this game, anyway.)

The games I play aren’t new enough or expensive enough or console-based enough or whatever the hell to immediately fit when I think “video games”. And even so, I still doubt that I can ever succeed at them and immediately dismiss the successes I do achieve. It’s a small version of my daily struggle to believe, despite my mental illness, that I can take on challenges and overcome them. Playing a game is a small act of defiance to the lying parts of my mind that want to crush my spirit. It’s a small act of resistance against a culture that constantly tells me that accomplishments don’t matter unless they make money, that the mentally ill are incapable of success, and so many other lies.

Small acts matter. The only way to ascend is to work your way through the dungeon one monster at a time. And a few days ago, I found a wand of wishing and began to assemble my ascension kit.