Games… for free!

Every month, when I sit down and put pen to paper to write this column, I find myself remembering the original open-source applications I used to use. Open source has been around for decades, but it’s only during the last 20 years that the relationship between the software producer and the software user has become so formalised. And so my mind keeps drifting back to when I was a research student and the applications we used then, at which point I have to admit that most of these open-source “applications” were not for work at all – they were games.

Games... for free!

There were a few serious open-source applications in use at that time, several of which are still widely used, such as the Emacs text editor, which remains popular with a certain group of users – a group that I don’t adhere to – and the document production system LaTeX, which is still used by many academics. Obviously, anything relating to Unix dates back many years, too: the BSD Unix running on a DEC PDP-11 that I used to read my Usenet newsgroups has evolved through many versions to become the core of Mac OS X, which I’m using to write this article.

So in a mood of nostalgia, rather than assessing open-source server applications I’m going to lighten up this month by writing about games. There’s also a secondary motive for this nostalgia trip; namely, the thought that I might be able to persuade my children that instead of buying them a PSP or Nintendo DS, they can actually play games on my computer that are as good.

Humble beginnings

The very first open-source applications I ever encountered were all games, and the first game I played was Hack. There had been other open-source games before that – the famous original Adventure was distributed as Fortran source code, but I was never a big fan of adventure, having failed miserably to distinguish the crucial difference between “little twisty passages” and “twisty little passages”, which meant I could never get out of the maze. Rogue, on the other hand, was something very different, representing the most fun you could have on a VT100 terminal, and I spent many hours watching ASCII art figures move around a screen while navigating the levels of a cave.

The basis of this game and the related NetHack is that your character navigates a series of caves. I was more of a NetHack fan and, in the words of the website, “Your goal is to grab as much treasure as you can, retrieve the Amulet of Yendor, and escape the Mazes of Menace alive”. You could choose to be a particular type of character – in NetHack, that means anything from an archaeologist through to a wizard, by way of options such as elves and monks. Each character type has its own different set of abilities and, as you go through the game, you pick up more abilities as you kill opponents (and, occasionally, make friends). For my own part, I never escaped the maze and never saw the Amulet. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the game still exists and can be run on virtually every computing platform, so I happily downloaded a copy from and was ready to be transported back to a world of rooms with walls made up of +——+ lines, but instead I downloaded the graphic version. This version was in colour and had proper bitmapped graphics, but all the old key combinations worked and I was once again transported to those caves where I fought, and lost again. And my children’s verdict on the game – “Is that a game, dad?” A bit of a hard ask for them, but their father enjoyed it.

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