December 5, 2000

On the train of life with Nethack's papa

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people
While most people turn toward entertainment to be removed from the
of day-to-day life, look to be lofted into fantasy by film and
Jay Fenlason, the creator of the Open Source computer game, Hack, which
evolved into the increasingly popular Nethack, is not impressed by what
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
for creating a computer game, he boasts one lively enough to propagate
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
get and operate that even I was undaunted. I simply downloaded and

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
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
burden of performance increasingly on the graphics and leaving less and
up to the imagination.

The repercussions of this trend are not lost on Fenlason, who keeps
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
his wife answered the phone. Given the hysteria in the background, I
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
only two. The next day Fenlason introduces them into our conversation
"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
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
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
drifted from his original priority of gaming over graphics. "They got
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
bother him, he simply plays the original version. (His wife, on the
hand, fancies playing the latest release.)

He has voluntarily avoided participation pretty much since spawning
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.
he was introduced to Rogue. Like any
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
(the Salon article states it was available, but at the time Fenlason
it, it was not) he simply started experimenting.

"I was curious about some of the game play issues involved in
it, things like how the rooms and corridors were generated, so I
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
work on the computers he discovered there. His school was near
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
education community. It was under the guise of
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
together a tape of some of the contributed software. I put [Hack] on
tape and forgot about it until someone I know mentioned that the two
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
versions of Hack written, and I think I'm the only person who still uses
text editor."

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

Even though his commute is long, he says on his cell phone that it's not ample time to
what exactly Clearway does, so instead he promises me it's interesting
to lure him through the two-plus hours a day he spends getting to and
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
successor for the GNU

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
which ones simply take up space and arrange to have the files you don't
moved to a less expensive medium. They get burned onto a CD ROM and if
attempt to use the file afterward, the system would put up a message
'insert CD ROM x to get at this file.' The file system part isn't
difficult but the utility programs that actually move the file onto CD
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
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
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
end of his day; I imaging him, as I'm sure he imagines himself, to be
adventurer in his own game of life.

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