in Comp99

Hunter, In Darkness by Andrew Plotkin as Dave Ahl, Jr. [Comp99]

IFDB page: Hunter, in Darkness
Final placement: 8th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Several sections of this review could be considered plot spoilers when viewed from the proper angle. You have been warned.]

Actually, Wumpus and Wumpus II are in ‘More Basic Computer Games.’ Which
has 84 games, and is indeed by David H. Ahl. Wumpus rules. All IFers
should play it. Indeed, play it before the competition so that you have
a sense of our collective roots. Then marvel at where we’ve come.”
— Adam Thornton, 9/18/99

Hmmm. I didn’t follow this advice, but I remember Hunt the Wumpus. It’s a classic computer game, but pretty primitive. It involves locating a target within a grid of rooms, avoiding deathtraps and teleportation traps (the latter of which was adapted for a clever, though irritating, tribute in Zork I). It is almost nothing like Hunter, In Darkness. And yet… And yet one wonders why Adam was exhorting us so enthusiastically to play this game, preferably before the competition. I suppose we’ll find out our answer soon enough. In the meantime, let’s examine the game before us. It is a marvelous game, gritty and atmospheric with writing and coding savvy to spare. It is a true “cave crawl”, with much of the action involving literally crawling through sections of a remarkable cave, rife with tight passages, underground pools, and dangerous rock formations. And it is also an update of Hunt the Wumpus… sort of. As in the original game, you play a hunter, armed with a crossbow and five bolts. You can smell your prey from several rooms away, and must struggle with dangerous pits and threatening bats. But that is where the similarity ends. Where Wumpus was bare, even abstract in its depiction of the cave, Hunter is rich with description. In fact, the levels of description can run so deep that the detail of the game becomes almost dizzying, as in the following example:

Narrow Ledge
This ledge is barely two feet wide at most. You try not to feel like
it's angled slightly outward. The pit stretches above and below you; but
you can see no way to climb from here, either way.

A rope hangs across the pit, a gentle arc well above your head.

You can make out the pit floor. It's only two or three body-lengths
down; but the stone formations directly below you look vicious.

Sharp spires rise directly below you -- some chance result of dripping
minerals and flowing water. If you try to descend farther, you'll slip
and probably fall into them.

I have a terminology I’ve made up to talk about this sort of thing. In this terminology, first-level nouns are those nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions. Second-level nouns are those nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the first-level nouns. Third-level nouns are in the second-level noun descriptions, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more detailed and immersive the textual world. Most text adventures don’t even fully cover the first-level nouns, but Hunter does, and often many of the deeper levels as well. The result is a cave environment that feels hauntingly, sometimes terrifyingly, real. I have crawled through a few caves in my life, all of which were much safer (thankfully!) than the cave depicted in Hunter; the game matched my experience quite accurately, adroitly capturing the spelunker’s combination of awe and fear.

Along with being extremely well written, Hunter is also brilliantly designed and implemented. I went through the game several times and not only did I find no bugs whatsoever, I also discovered that the game very cleverly allows multiple routes to the same puzzles. There aren’t many puzzles in the game, but those that exist are very good indeed, and quite original. They belong to that rare breed of puzzle that is perfectly integrated with the story and the environment, and is a great pleasure to solve because it requires lateral thinking within a very logical framework. I didn’t find any multiple solutions to them, though seeing the care with which this game was designed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some existed. In addition, there is at least one point at which I think you can make the game unsolvable, but the situation only comes up because almost every logical action is implemented. I kept finding myself surprised at just how many actions were accounted for. Even those that were disallowed were often disallowed with a message that was specific to the particular circumstances of the PC, and that sometimes gave a clue as to how to proceed. As impressive as all this was, I was even more wowed by the way that the game subtly arranges itself so that it appears to allow a very wide scope of action, but in fact moves the PC through a specific plot. I can think of several junctures where multiple choices are possible, all of which lead, very logically, to the same point. This is a game that clearly took great care with its design, extending the illusion of freedom a long way while maintaining a fairly specific structure.

Also, several rooms have initial descriptions which describe the experience of arriving in the room, and the features that are most salient at first. Once this description has been displayed, further looks at the room will stabilize into a more settled description, one which takes details into account and bears reading multiple times. Attention to detail like this just permeates the game, and makes it one of the most engrossing competition entries I’ve ever had the good fortune to play. Its origins do sometimes undercut it a bit, such as when the fearsome beast is first revealed as a Wumpus — the comical tone of the name jars against the serious and deadly atmosphere of the rest of the game. However, the contrast between the original Hunt the Wumpus and this game is amazing. It’s like the difference between a limerick and a Stephen King novel. Follow Adam’s advice — play Hunt the Wumpus (there are several versions available on the web) and then try Hunter, In Darkness. You too will marvel at where we’ve come.

Rating: 9.8

[Postscript from 2020: In response to my epigraph at the top, Andrew Plotkin wrote: “If you *didn’t* see that post, by the way, it’s because Adam cancelled it almost immediately.

He was a beta-tester, but he posted that on his own, without consulting me
first. I more or less blew my top at him, and he apologized and killed the

I spent the next weeks worried sick that it might have Ruined The Effect
for some hapless player. Fortunately, the whole mess turned out to be
trivial next to the lack-of-walkthrough problem. Heh.”]

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