The demonic properties of an ampersand

Descending the staircase in the dark halls of Gehennom, I come face to face with Asmodeus, the “overlord of all hell.” He offers me a grim choice—give him a large portion of the gold I’ve so carefully hoarded away from the creatures that inhabit the rest of this dungeon, or refuse, and presumably fight this demonic prince. Alternatively, I know that if I draw Excalibur—which I was gifted earlier in the dungeon by dipping a longsword into one of the few fountains found in the upper floors—he will be blinded by its brilliant aura, anathema as its light is to all demons, and attack me anyway.

He offers me a grim choice

This is a recollection of a game I once played of NetHack. NetHack is a ‘roguelike’ game, a genre known for its procedural generation of dungeon levels, permadeath (the inability to reload upon your character’s death) and ASCII graphics, a long-maintained visual style where all monsters, items and everything else are displayed using textual characters. Although several decades old, the game is still being played, and is, in a manner of speaking, still in development. Many roguelikes as well as NetHack contain demons, although NetHack contains by far the most complex ecosystem of demonic entities. Demons are commonly depicted in games where they often serve the role of high-level enemies, evil villains or challenging bosses, whether the cyberdemon in Doom, the Daedra in The Elder Scrolls or most of the creatures encountered in the Diablo games. Although there are rare exceptions, they tend to adhere to a strongly coherent and oft-reproduced aesthetic. Where demons in most games are depicted visually—red, orange or black amalgams of horns, fire, forked tongues, bat-wings, cloven hooves, tridents, and other such signifiers of the infernal—the named demons in NetHack are all depicted by a single textual character: “&.” This ampersand does vary in colour, as Juiblex the Faceless Lord is a green ampersand, whilst most are depicted as magenta, but no high-ranking demon is seen by the player as anything other than that character. Lacking any method for displaying demonic aesthetics, NetHack instead makes its portrayal of the demonic about their interactions with the player, not their visual depiction, and in doing so placed itself (intentionally or otherwise) in a clear lineage with many concepts in western demonology over the past two millennia.

Although it also draws from other sources, NetHack is replete with Judeo-Christian mythology when it comes to its portrayal of the demonic and the divine. The god Moloch plays the role of the Christian devil, rebelling against “Marduk” and travelling to “Gehennom, the Under World” to hide away the Amulet of Yendor which I seek. There are a range of angelic beings—angels, ki-rin, archons, and others—and a far, far wider range of demonic creatures, ranging fromminor demons up to the named demon lords, of which Asmodeus is one. Approximately halfway through the game the player leaves the dungeon and descends into Gehennom.

After exploring this hell, a crucial late-game part of NetHack is performing the Invocation Ritual, a concept drawn from an 8th-century Catholic excommunication ritual, wherein a priest would ring a bell, slam shut a book, and extinguish surrounding candles. Just as the real-world ritual was meant to leave the victim damnatum cum diabolo—damned with the devil—the NetHack ritual does this on purpose, and is designed to take the player to the deepest level of Hell where the Amulet of Yendor must be acquired. If I survive Asmodeus I will later ascend to levels above the main dungeon, and the five levels up there draw upon the traditional medieval concepts of the elements—fire, water, earth, air, and aether—by challenging the player across five “elemental planes” where the level design is highly unique, unlike anything else a player will have seen in NetHack before, and based around each element. The main dungeon, the underworld and “higher levels” thereby echo the Judeo-Christian cosmological triumvirate of heaven/physical world/hell, and pre-modern notions of the elements. Such mythology suffuses the world of NetHack, and in a similar vein, NetHack’s demons are shown, and interacted with, in three central ways: via monetary payment, via a complex system of summoning and a hierarchy of demons; and even via demonic seduction.

the named demons are all depicted by a single textual character

In NetHack, Asmodeus and many other Demon Lords appear within a number of lairs, from which they will converse with me and ask me for payment. In exchange, they allow me to pass; if I refuse, then the Demon becomes immediately hostile. This possibility of payment suggests that—as many demonology texts assert—demons are experienced in having interactions with the surface world, and therefore speak the language of humans and understand the value of human money (compare Dungeons & Dragons’ assertion that devils are “lawful” whilst demons are “chaotic”, but both are evil). However, payment in NetHack’s demonological system can also be seized from the player, as well as given willingly. Like many demon princes and lords, Asmodeus is defined in the game’s code as being “covetous”—he also desires the Amulet of Yendor, and if the player has retrieved it without killing Asmodeus, he will actively attempt to seize it for himself.

Here the demons are depicted as all being implicitly waiting and willing to challenge the current hierarchy, an idea familiar from classical demonology texts which assert the existence of rigid—but also competing and ever-changing—hierarchies. In attacking the player to achieve their own goals, NetHack also positions demons in line with classical demonic writing which acknowledges the possibility for demons to attack humans, even humans who have summoned them: take the examples from the Red Dragon, a grimoire of demonic knowledge with details of how to enter pacts with demons, or the Lesser Key of Solomon, which explains what may happen if this summoning and offering goes wrong.

In keeping with such texts, ritual is not just the exchange of payment in NetHack—there is also a deep and complex system of demon summoning, which allows the player to catch a glimpse of the demonic hierarchy which some players may see little of in a given playthrough without really engaging in this mechanic. Each major demon has a chance each turn of summoning another major demon or other lesser demons, a combination which can risk some fairly extreme outcomes. In one game I accidentally generated a water demon on one of the earliest floors of the dungeon; this enemy by itself, although weak, was deadly enough in its own right to slay my early-game character, but a single turn later it summoned Juiblex, a named Demon Lord,
who then himself subsequently summoned another Demon Lord, though I do not now recall which; needless to say, I was swiftly slain.

an entire ecosystem of demons, demon summoning, rituals, and payment

Players can also interact with this system—sacrificing a member of one’s own race upon an altar will summon a demon lord, just as angering a chaotic god whilst standing upon an altar may also summon a demon lord. By existing in a hierarchy, NetHack’s demons are distinct from other games where one might encounter a demon once as a boss within a chamber which clearly delineates the space within which the demon is fought and, presumably, within which it has strength. Many demonology texts similarly describe the various arcane rituals by which demons might be summoned—generally involving chalk circles, plants, icons and symbols, and incantations in some combination—where different systems are needed for different demons in the hierarchies they describe. By creating an entire ecosystem of demons, demon summoning, rituals, and payment, NetHack allows the player to not just fight them, but to engage with them, rather than considering them to be nothing more than rare aesthetic aberrations.

Lastly, NetHack draws on classic demonology when considering the “seduction” of the player. NetHack contains two monsters—the Incubus and the Succubus—which can seduce the player, with potentially beneficial but generally negative consequences. There are no other ways the player may be seduced, and indeed the player’s chosen sex is effectively only relevant when engaging with these monsters. The equation of sexual desire with the demonic in NetHack is also abundantly clear throughout medieval and demonic literature. The “Aberdeen Bestiary,” for example, describes “fire stones,” a certain kind of gem which may be male or female, and when brought into close contact erupts in flame, thereby equating fire—the quotidian symbol of the demonic and devilish—with lust, forming a clear allegory for celibacy and the dangers and immorality of intercourse. In NetHack the only time when the player’s sex matters is when one of these malevolent and seductive demons is encountered. There is no benevolent or pleasurable sexuality to be seen in NetHack’s world, and it is merely another cog in the complex and many-layered demonic system the game presents us with.

The demonic is not rare in videogames

The demonic is not rare in videogames—Diablo, Doom, Dragon Age, Devil May Cry, Demon’s Souls, Castlevania, The Elder Scrolls, and even Mortal Kombat all speak to that. There is some overlap between those and NetHack in terms of the oft-repeated demon-human-angel hell-earth-heaven triumvirates, but whilst many of those games depict a particular demonic aesthetic, NetHack instead chooses to focus upon a complex and many-faceted demonic system. We see a vast and complex hierarchy of demons who exist within a world of interrelationships, potential interactions with the player, and echoes of a range of demonic literature, art and mythology from the past few millenia. As Milton famously put it, it is “better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven,” and the demons in NetHack are not a bestiary of cursed creatures, but rather an independent source of power in their own right, with their own hierarchies, and systems of behaviour. When the player enters Gehennom they benefit significantly from considering the value of payment (or withholding payment), the systems of demons and how these might be twisted to the player’s advantage, and the risks and benefits of running into incubi and succubi. NetHack speaks to classical ‘real-world’ demonology texts by developing demons beyond the merely visual, yielding a depiction that is many times more interesting than another red-skinned two-horned creature attempting to dispatch the player without even offering so much as a greeting.

Header image courtesy of Wikipedia.