October 23rd, 2005

Cathartic robots

I'm not much of a computer game player. However, there are a very few games that can captivate me.

SNIPE is a very simple DOS game, which runs in 40x24 text mode. You move around in a toroidal maze -- actually, "you" stay in the middle of the screen while the maze moves around you -- shooting at little bugs that hatch from nests. It's all very simple, you can only shoot in eight directions, in some modes your shots can bounce, and the little snipes can shoot back. It's very simple and pretty fast; it doesn't take much brain activity, so it's good for shutting down the higher parts of your brain and satisfying the biological need to run around and shoot things. I find it very cathartic. It got me through college.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a DOS machine in many years, so I haven't played it in awhile.


Nethack is the game that taught me programming. Well, I knew BASIC from high school, and I learned C in a computational physics class, but it was from reading the HACK 3.0 source code that I learned such things as linked lists. Nethack is a descendant of rogue, which I'm going to assume you know. There was a PC version of rogue floating around campus, it was all multicolored and pretty. Then there was HACK, which was richer, but merely black and white. I wanted to colorize HACK, and start adding to its richness, so when I discovered that the source code was available (my first encounter with open source), well, I spent the night in one of the labs, printing it all out. Several months later, I had a colorized, richer version.

I've been playing nethack for 15 or 20 years now, off and on. I've contributed to the game (check out the extended credits!), I've ported it, I've plumbed its depths. I usually play an Archaeologist ("Utah Jake"). But I have to admit, in all these years, I've never actually ascended. Archaeologists are hard.


And finally, there's Total Annihilation. It's an early real-time strategy game that runs on windows 95. It's pretty basic; you control a robot army, some units can create more units, and you have to worry about two resources: metal and energy. There are immobile units (solar collectors, laser turrets, artillery cannons, more), walking robot units of various types, different types of tanks, various aircraft, etc. On the strategic level, there's a balance you have to strike between building up your economy and attacking your enemies. On the tactical level, you can control units individually, or set them off to go patrol an area and do the right thing. It has a good UI.

I really like pitting these robot armies against each other. I find it cathartic, blowing them up. And although I can think circles around the little AI that runs the computer-driven opponent, I still like outsmarting it. Sometimes I play the game in a way a friend of mine called "Sim Fortress": I build up a defensive structure which I think I can leave on autopilot, and then I go away and let the game play for a day or so.. to see how good my defense was. I nearly always win, which can be really flattering when I need that.


Something like a year ago, I took my old windows machine apart. I no longer needed to do my own taxes (which was the main reason I had a windows machine); I needed the motherboard for my new firewall; and I needed to pack up my lab so that it could become Gina's office. I bagged and tagged the parts, things got reused elsewhere, but I knew I had my CDs.

A couple months ago, things (esp. work) made me, well, desire catharsis. What was supposed to be a quick "put a machine together" became a multiweek struggle to get the damned win95 system to install, but I finally sorted it out, and tonight, for the first time in too long, I got to blow up little robots.

And that made me very happy.