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On the train of life with Nethack's papa

By JT Smith on December 05, 2000 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people
While most people turn toward entertainment to be removed from the drudge of day-to-day life, look to be lofted into fantasy by film and television, Jay Fenlason, the creator of the Open Source computer game, Hack, which evolved into the increasingly popular Nethack, is not impressed by what he sees on the silver screen.

"No special effects in the movies will ever live up to those in your head." Of course, Fenlason doesn't just boast the imagination prerequisite for creating a computer game, he boasts one lively enough to propagate a game that offers up just enough visuals to trigger the real show in the player's head. Hack and its progeny, are all text-based, and so simple to get and operate that even I was undaunted. I simply downloaded and double-clicked.

The latest slew of releases began in July 1999 and by January 2000, had created enough excitement to warrant recognition in Salon Magazine which, by Web standards, is a major publication. Recent reviews of Nethack suggest that its majesty (which they all agree it possesses) lies in that it leaves the spectaculars up to the imagination. It is a notion quite contrary to demands exhibited by mainstream gaming market trends, the products of which seem to be moving closer to virtual reality, laying the burden of performance increasingly on the graphics and leaving less and less up to the imagination.

The repercussions of this trend are not lost on Fenlason, who keeps his eldest son away from the kind of screens he spends his own days at.

I knew he had kids because I called his home the day before we spoke and his wife answered the phone. Given the hysteria in the background, I was sure I had called the shoe where the old woman lives by accident. I wouldn't have been surprised if she said there were four kids but there were only two. The next day Fenlason introduces them into our conversation as "hacker version 3.0 and 3.1." When he does, he's overtaken by a chuckle, the pride in his voice audible even over a cellular connection.

"Alex takes after his papa in a lot of ways, but I've been carefully keeping him away from computers so far. Computers let you focus on them exclusively. It's a lot like TV in some ways, and at that age they need to be learning more about how the world works, like climbing and building towers out of blocks and all the basic physics things that we take for granted because we learned them when we were three."

Blocks and climbing trees; Fenlason is a purist. He is a do-it-yourself kind of guy in an industry founded on its ability to automate. He even considers the current versions of Nethack, still in simple text, still representing monsters with symbols found on any pedestrian keyboard, to have drifted from his original priority of gaming over graphics. "They got so busy adding cool features and didn't spend enough time thinking about how it would effect playing the game."

But as Open Source allows for, it has evolved without him. It doesn't bother him, he simply plays the original version. (His wife, on the other hand, fancies playing the latest release.)

He has voluntarily avoided participation pretty much since spawning the original Hack almost 20 years ago. He was a junior at a high school in a small suburb outside of Boston when he went to visit UC Berkeley. There he was introduced to Rogue. Like any good hacker, his imagination went into the game before it went out. He was intrigued and went looking for the source. When he was denied that access (the Salon article states it was available, but at the time Fenlason sought it, it was not) he simply started experimenting.

"I was curious about some of the game play issues involved in designing it, things like how the rooms and corridors were generated, so I started hacking up some random level generators and stuff to try things out. Someone looked over my shoulder and said, 'what's that?' So I sort of explained and they said, 'oh, that's cool; when do we get to play it?' "

Though indifferent toward most of school, he would often stay after to work on the computers he discovered there. His school was near Maynard, where DEC (now part of Compaq) headquarters were located, and his ninth-grade teacher convinced DEC to sell him a PDP 11 at a 75% discount and instead of loading DEC's operating system, he loaded Unix, then significantly discounted for the education community. It was under the guise of work for his advanced computer class that Fenlason indulged and built Hack.

"Usenix had biannual meetings, Unix users would get together and swap war stories. For each meeting they'd put together a tape of some of the contributed software. I put [Hack] on the tape and forgot about it until someone I know mentioned that the two most popular pieces of software on that particular tape were my silly game and my friend Jonathon's text editor. Since then there's been several different versions of Hack written, and I think I'm the only person who still uses that text editor."

The text editor author was Jonathon Payne, whose net worth, after Marimba went public, was significant enough to be reported in the the Wall Street Journal, let alone retire on. Fenlason, who would be happy to retire in order to play with his kids and concentrate on a couple of projects he's got on the back burner, currently labors away as a software engineer for Clearway.

Even though his commute is long, he says on his cell phone that it's not ample time to explain what exactly Clearway does, so instead he promises me it's interesting enough to lure him through the two-plus hours a day he spends getting to and from their offices in downtown Boston. If it weren't for the paycheck though, he might prefer to spend more time developing the Unix file system, and the successor for the GNU tar that he wants to get to an alpha quality and eventually release for community development.

The file system he proposes would "keep track of what files you use and which ones simply take up space and arrange to have the files you don't use moved to a less expensive medium. They get burned onto a CD ROM and if you attempt to use the file afterward, the system would put up a message saying, 'insert CD ROM x to get at this file.' The file system part isn't terribly difficult but the utility programs that actually move the file onto CD and keep track of which CDs they're on, turns out to be a bit of work. Not conceptually difficult, just work I haven't had time for yet."

He still gets emails on the GNU programs he worked on while with the Free Software Foundation and thus his interest in the tar successor. He was with FSF for five years but ultimately left, he says, because of their insistence on sticking with Hurd instead of building a complete system out of say, the BSD sources. "And to this day the FSF still hasn't released a complete operating system based on Hurd so I think I kind of made the right choice."

Choices, like an gamer at a crossroads. Between the audio of the offspring, the sounds of his commute, the train, the traffic, I hear throughout our conversation, the cries of "papa" that bring him joy at the end of his day; I imaging him, as I'm sure he imagines himself, to be an adventurer in his own game of life.

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