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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 21 of 21

20. ADOM

Still mysterious after many years.

Developed and designed by: Thomas Biskup

Reason for inclusion:

In addition to its roguelike roots and capable copying of many of the best features of NetHack, in addition to introducing a number of similar features of its own, and the whole "ultra victory" system that's in place, there exists an item in Thomas Biskup's popular roguelike that, to this day, no one other than Biskup understands the purpose of, the "weird tome." How has it remained a mystery for so long? Well...

The game:

Ah, it's another roguelike. And probably the one that's taken the most inspiration, of them all, from NetHack. But hear me out on this one, because it's not here for containing random treasure and an identification game.

While NetHack is the product of dozens of people, hundreds if you count patch contributors, ADOM is mostly the work of one guy. And yet, it shows an amazing degree of ingenuity. Considering it's the work of a single designer, it's genius. It's right around the time people discover that the herbs on the dungeon floor grow according to the rules of Conway's Life that they get the notion that Thomas Biskup must be some kind of god-being. If one forgives some style issues (reading much of the NPCs dialogue makes me cringe), it makes for an extremely mysterious game.

There are very few computer games that still have the power to mystify us, and for the most part developers have given up the fight. When many of us started playing video games, we were still in school. Remember what it was like to hear about Super Mario Bros. warp zones for the first time? These days, I'm sorry to say, publishers have realized they can get themselves a tidy extra income by purposely dispelling any aura of mystery that might surround their games. Nintendo themselves took the lead in selling the secrets of NES games from the publication of the Official Nintendo Player's Guide, and now game strategy guides are expected to be sold alongside nearly any major game.

With ADOM there is no official cheatbook, and unlike NetHack there's no available source code to search, so despite intense study by a legion of players and the work of extraordinarily dedicated FAQ authors, there remain some things about the game that are mysterious. Not that a lot of progress hasn't been made in decoding the game's deeper mysteries: for a long time the details of the "ultra" endings, special victory possibilities that let the player ascend to godhood instead of just saving the world, were just rumor. People looking at the executable discovered that Thomas Biskup has even included unused, red herring strings in the code to throw people off the track.

One of the remaining mysteries concerns an item called the "weird tome." The stated purpose of the book is simply a package in a fetch quest -- deliver it to another character in exchange for valuable items -- but the player is able to read it. Apparently consisting of pages of magical music, attempting to read it without extremely high (far in excess of normal) stats and perfect scores in the relevant skills will just confuse the player for a long period of time. Although general consensus is currently that the book's contents is just a huge red herring, a couple of other characters in the game say interesting things if the book is given to them.

Design lesson:

To keep a game secret hidden in the face of overwhelming player interest is profoundly difficult. With consoles, developers have the advantage of relatively secure hardware, but on computers it's much more challenging without resorting to unusual trickery. A game's popularity works against it here; the more fascinated people are by the mysteries in a game, the harder they'll work to figure it out.


ADOM's remaining mysteries are summarized in a section of the community-written Guidebook.

Google Groups threads in which members of the ADOM player community discuss efforts to discover the purpose of the tome:

Disassembling the source code (2004)

Recent hacking of save files & building characters with maximum stats

Some older executable investigation from 2003

Article Start Previous Page 21 of 21

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