Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: Dungeon Hacks and One Week Dungeons

There’s a subgenre of science writing – books like the Hacker Crackdown and the Newtonian Casino – which I dove into during my early twenties, which told the human stories of the development of the Internet and the communities that grew in and around it. In print form, there would usually be an insert of coloured photos of white, bearded, earnest, awkward looking men – because tragically by the mid 80s computer scientists are almost always white and male - in brown corduroy flairs and tucked in yellow buttoned breast pocket shirts standing around a computer or in a computer lab, alongside the computer hardware itself; reading the same stories on the World Wide Web you’d navigate through man pages, and pre-Geocities website designs to marvel at the crazy lengths early programmers would go to to exploit the hardware and operating systems of the time.

Dungeon Hacks falls into this same subgenre, and while it is a capital-I Important writing about the history of the development of roguelikes, it is never vital. David Craddock tells the stories of the creation of many foundational works of the genre, but he fails to bridge the gap between games over twenty years old - for which he has sourced a broad range of developer interviews and pieced together a highly readable story - and how these weird infinities coax their players to dedicate years, even decades to mastering them.

Mr. Craddock’s research is impressive, and he has taken full advantage of the willingness of roguelike developers to talk about their games to record numerous anecdotes as well as documenting the important relationship between Rogue and the Unix curses terminal. Unfortunately Dungeon Hacks doesn't make the case for why someone outside the roguelike community should care about this history, simply pointing to procedural generation and permadeath as if these explain all the elements which elevated this ghetto genre to indie darlings.

By placing the developers on a pedestal, Dungeon Hacks understates the contributions of the wider community of players and fans who freely give their time and energy towards the games – the communities formed around Hack and the Angband development team being two notable exceptions. To take one example, John Harris, whose words the book concludes with, is labelled as a historian. This misstates John’s importance to the genre: he is a historian insofar as any enthusiastic amateur who spends years writing about a topic as a labour of love is a historian, but he is not a historian in the sense that he has not received any academic recognition or financial compensation for the work he does.

If you are at all interested in the roguelike genre you need to buy Dungeon Hacks for insight into the early days of roguelike development. But sadly, that's the limit of my recommendation: it is not a cross-over work that will explain the genre's deep appeal to the outsider, and I am perhaps unfairly judging it on this criteria.

Where Dungeon Hacks is scholarly and historically focused, its companion volume One Week Dungeons is journalistic (in the literal sense that it forms a week’s diary of eight would be developers) and dramatic. Originally written as a coda to Dungeon Hacks, it has the vitality and relevance that Dungeon Hacks lacks, as it documents the frustrations and successes of these idealistic attempts to write a complete roguelike from scratch in 168 hours. Each developer’s tale is deeply personal, satisfying and thrilling, and the story of Joseph Bradshaw forms its unexpected human heart.

Dungeon Hacks and One Week Dungeon are both available from Press Start Press. I was provided early drafts of both books and complementary copies as a part of this review.


Darren Grey said...

"it is not a cross-over work that will explain the genre's deep appeal to the outsider, and I am perhaps unfairly judging it on this criteria"

I think this is a fair point to make, though perhaps unfair to judge the whole book on. The audience seems to quite clearly be roguelike fans, much like many of the games in our genre have a clear audience. Certain things have niche appeal, and could never dive into the depths they do without that niche focus.

I do think it's a shame the 7DRL stories were extracted out, especially since they're a niche within a niche and could have better served their purpose as part of a bigger book.

Overall I was impressed with a lot of the stories written. The author managed to reach people I would never even consider chasing for Roguelike Radio, and got some really nice stories out of them.

Patric Mueller said...

Giving that you brought Glenn Wichman onto the show, I wonder what people you didn't try to contact for Roguelike Radio.

You're probably not yet old enough so you don't know that the older you get the more likely you are gonna bore people with your old stories. Getting the chance to do it in a podcast, very few will want to miss that. :-)

I'm not sure if the book is intended only for roguelike fans. Andrew suggested on Twitter that it is at least for computer gaming people. As it goes back in time to the stone age of computer gaming when there wasn't that many games to start with, this would be sensible.

Categorizing is sometimes very misleading. I played lots of free games at the end of the 80s and the early 90s and many roguelikes as well (I don't think I knew that term at the time) and if you had asked me, I would have lumped them together with other games with random elements (like Civilisation or M.U.L.E). Permadeath and ASCII weren't a defining trait of those games.

Andrew Doull said...

I don't think the book is just intended for a roguelike audience. I just don't think it necessarily works for a different audience - although I think it has the potential to.

IMHO One Week Dungeons is the better book, and worked well as an albeit slightly schizophrenic coda to Dungeon Hacks. It will, as Darren points out, have a much smaller audience.