Hunger Daemon

Hunger Daemon

Sean M Shore

Inform

Summary: Highly polished and well-written diversion

[spoiler]Hunger Daemon is a thoroughly mainstream parser game, marked by its very high levels of craft and polish. It starts with a curious premise: your uncle Stu, a Cthulu cultist, is engaged in some sort of ceremony, and you sneak out for a sandwich. This leads to the discovery that the crucial object required for the ceremony – a snake’s heart – has been stolen. You must solve various puzzles to recover the heart.

The puzzles, consistently with the game’s overall approach, have a goofy cartoonish quality. I used the (well designed) in-game hints for some of them, but only because I was concerned to make sure I finished in time (and I might have done anyway: the length is more or less perfect). They were good puzzles, because they repaid a combination of careful observation and “getting on the game’s wavelength” and thinking sideways, in a way that was satisfying, and they were all sufficiently hinted by the text itself. (The hint system, also, although entirely conventional in form, was very well put together: providing just the right sort of nudge.)

The playing experience was very smooth. Actions were easy; non-standard verbs came naturally; there was little friction to the communication. The game avoided finicky annoyances, keeping the pace brisk. A GO TO command eased navigation to known areas. Objects were all implemented. These things are not easy to manage. The first time I played, I encountered one area that was defeating me in a frustrating way. I’m not sure if I had hit a bug or done something silly, but I tried again with an updated version of the game, and the problem did not recur.

More importantly, the puzzles were embedded in a light but entertaining and coherent story, and the writing was good. Consider this description

This seems effortless, but it’s rather clever. It manages to be interesting and funny, but without actually describing any physical object at all (so no red herrings). It focuses on telling details (the hairpiece, the earth-toned tie. The use of “lair” as a verb is precise and unexpected. It’s a technique Ryan Veeder uses a lot (and indeed the general tone is reminiscent of Veeder in many ways: one can’t help but be reminded of Taco Fiction). It very exactly suits the game.

I also enjoyed the way the game played with IF cliches. It’s not done in a heavy handed way: if you don’t recognise the cliche, it will simply pass you by. But, for example, I enjoyed how the game began by suggesting that it was actually going to be about the dullest thing a game called “hunger daemon” might be about – looking for a missing sandwich – and subverted it. I enjoyed responses such as this, to EXAMINE DESK, which acknowledges the frequent appearance of drawers in desks in IF:

The game is full of little touches like this, which don’t really make a huge difference individually, but collectively add considerably to the player’s experience.

So it’s solid, funny, fun. Does the game mean to do anything more than this? Well, there may be a bit of gentle fun being poked at organised religion, but I don’t think anyone would accuse Hunger Daemon of having any sort of philosophical axe to grind. It’s meant as an amusement, and I was amused. Some might say that it is not especially ambitious, but that’s not completely fair. It’s not ambitious to break any new ground, admittedly; but the skill and effort involved in producing something that plays with as little friction as this, and with such high polish, shouldn’t be underestimated.

I’m sure Hunger Daemon will finish well, and it deserves to do so. In any Comp there are only a few games that one can honestly say are good enough to be recommendable on their own merits, which are likely to stand the test of time. There’s no doubt in my mind that, this year, Hunger Daemon is one of those.[/spoiler]