Hunt the Wumpus

I finished my introduction to IF today by playing through all of the 5 maze types in the Magnus Olsson port of Hunt the Wumpus. I found that the biggest challenge was mapping each of 5 types of maze. Once the maps were done it was usually trivial to avoid the traps and hunt the Wumpus, although some of the random features of the game meant that it was possible to lose through no fault of your own. Once you’ve mapped you win far more than you lose, though. All-in-all I’d say that the game is amusing for about an hour but once you’ve mastered a particular maze, replayability is low and the game loses its appeal.

I’m hoping that Adventure will hold far more of my interest.

Hunt the Wumpus is very unusual for IF, and many people would consider it an ancestor of IF rather than IF proper; Adventure is generally considered the first true IF.

Hunt the Wumpus is often mentioned in books about gaming history as a semi-precursor to IF. This position does not seem entirely deserved: Wumpus was just one of many mainframe-based text-based games. Every computer game was a text-based game for a while regardless of genre, in the mainframe days (PLATO, PDP), and while Adventure was very special it sprang from pre-existing hotbed of invention. There were already many, many text-driven games, like tic tac toe, etc, in the days of Hunt of the Wumpus. It was not a lone precursor: it was part of an entire ecosystem of precursors, most of which were not culturally fossilised and have thus been largely forgotten.

It might also surprise some to know that most major genres of early arcade video games had direct precursors in the much less culturally fossilised world of arcade mechanical games. People tend to think that video games were born and then differentiated into different arcade gaming genres, but the different arcade gaming genres (shooter, fighter, flight sim, tank game) preceded the invention of video games. They first evolved in a weird, rich world of Rube Goldberg-style physics gaming that might seem entirely foreign to those who grew up on MAME – almost like the gaming traditions of an alien planet beyond the range of the MAME-o-scope. (And it’s orbited by an exotic, late-acquired moon of Discrete Logic video games, which are also beyond the range of our MAME-o-scope.) 8)

The early video games are all just attempts to recreate mechanical games in video. It was almost entirely an imitative world at first. It was when video games started to leverage the one thing a mechanical game cannot do: memorise a long history of player choices instead of just reacting off the most recent one – that they began to pull ahead and the mechanical games became truly obsolete. The first game to really leverage this well was Space Invaders, with its enemy formations and shields both preserving the consequences of player choices. (There was a slight precursor to Space Invaders released by Midway in 1977 called M-4 – this game also had shields that would remember the consequences of player choices.)

Before M-4 and Space Invaders there were tons of video games in which one or two things flew past the screen at a time and you had to shoot them. And before that there were tons of MECHANICAL games in which one or two things flew past under the glass at a time and you had to shoot them. So people think that video games revoultionised things, but they revolutionised nothing. It was computer memory that revolutionised games, not a video display, and thus until that capability was fully leveraged there was no actual marketplace revolution and mechanical games were still around and popular in the days of Pong and all its imitators. Look not to Pong, etc – it was a mere recreation of a game that was superior as a mechanical game, anyway. Look to Space Invaders.

The preservation of the consequences of player choice is absolutely paramount to the power of computer entertainment. Graphical twitch game designers learned this lesson early and well (look at Pac Man – there is a game designer produced maze but there is also a player-modified maze of remaining pellets).

I feel as if interactive fiction designers, however, have still not truly internalised this lesson, to this very day. They still think their job is telling a story with choices in it; but actually what players desire from them is the deep capture and preservation of narrative choices without a continuity error and a set of feedbacks constructed from as creatively mixed a stew of the player’s prior choices as possible. The failure to learn and apply this wisdom effectively in a narrative context is plenty sufficient explanation for the market failures of interactive fiction over the years. (Making every event almost entirely a consequence of only the player’s most recent command is sadly a fair-enough description of the vast majority of games in the IFDB – face it, interactive fiction is largely still stuck in the pre-Space Invaders era of handling player choice. Even Mass Effect falls afoul of this litmus test! 99% of the so-called ‘narrative’ choices in Mass Effect have one immediate consequence and then are heard from no more.)

To be fair, though, long-term preservation of the consequences of player choices is an extraordinary difficult task in the narrative realm, and thus it makes sense that finding the best ways to nail it would take decades of experimentation by multiple communities.

But we aren’t actually there yet. To my knowledge, this community has not actually produced a model for preserving player choices narratively that rings as clearly ‘right’ and points the way to future development as sharply as Space Invaders did for the graphic sim. (This should be enormously exciting to you if you are an explorer, because it means there is still a frontier.)


[Extensively re-edited and extended as of April 12 9:13 AM EST but I didn’t correct anything so apologies for sloppy sentence structure.]

Although i’m new to IF, I do understand what you’re getting at because I am a big fan of what is probably IF’s close cousin, the RPG. I have enjoyed many video game RPG’s but the problem is that even those that give you choices on things basically only effect boolean states in the game. Taking a sidequest may mean that you can’t take a different sidequest. Accepting one character in your party may mean that you can get some item down the line that may not have been accessible before, but all-in-all the game is pretty much the same no matter what you do. I have always longed for an RPG where the decisions that the player makes greatly alters the outcome of the game and can completely change everything that happens from there on. I haven’t seen it yet and it seems to be what you’re looking for in IF. A story that based on player choice sets events in motion that greatly alter what happens at the end of the story.

What games do you think come closest to this experience?

Difficult, maybe. Time-consuming, certainly. Satisfying for the player … unclear. If I understand what you’re talking about (preserving the player’s narrative choices over the arc of the story), the result would be a branching story in which the player can encounter one of several different story lines.

This can be done with simple CYOA software of course. But I’m more concerned about the nature of the narrative that the player experiences.

A story – almost any story – has a most satisfying ending (Hamlet marries Ophelia and they live happily ever after) and an array of less satisfying endings (Hamlet gets drunk that night and never encounters the ghost on the battlements). Were an author to write a branching narrative that included, say, two happy endings and five unhappy ones, then five players in every seven would have an unsatisfying experience because they would never encounter a happy ending!

Sorry, but I can’t quite see this as a desirable design for a game. One wants the people who play the game to have a good experience. At least, I do…

I wouldn’t identify a satisfying ending with a happy outcome. For one thing, players’ definitions of happy outcomes can vary. For another, a satisfying ending might be one in which one feels that one’s actions have the consequences they ought to have had. I can think of two romance-/relationship-oriented IFs where on my first playthrough I arrived at an ending that was signaled to be suboptimal – the PC and the love interest don’t get together – but that was the ending my choices were leading up to, and was satisfying for me.

In case you’re curious:

Masqueraded and Best of Three.

But another point is that the credible threat of failure can make success more satisfying. If you play through to an ending you don’t like, perhaps that gives you an incentive to play through to one you do, and make you feel like your choices matter. After all, one of the consequences of your actions in Space Invaders can be that you lose quickly, but no one thinks the less of it for that.

Actually to me, a great game would be one where you could play through it different times to experience the various outcomes. I used to love “Choose your own Adventure” books as a kid and I would read through those and first do what “my” choices would be but then would backtrack and check out all possible story threads until I’d read the book from cover to cover. That’s a simplistic example since many “Choose your own adventure” books didn’t even try to keep a consistent universe even within their own pages and depending on your branch the “cause” of whatever started the adventure in the book may not match the cause in a different branch. A game with a consistent universe but where the actions of the player’s character effected the outcome of the story to me would be a great game that I’d play again and again.

I don’t have specific titles to hold up as good examples – they are all bad examples. Sure, some are worse examples than others, but it’s like asking me to pick a golf club that can come closest to hitting a home run. The fact is, most narrative game designers have given up on what should be their holy grail (preserving deep consequences of player choice), believing that either it is impossible or (like Jim, above) that it is not even a desirable goal. The future will almost certainly prove these people wrong; the question is how, and I don’t have that answer. I only have my own (as yet unpublished) pet theories and experiments, which I do not assign any privileged position: they might well fail.

But generaly speaking, shorter games tend to do better on this because they are not bumping up so hard against the limits of combinatorial explosion. (That is why longer narrative games tend to get narrower and narrower in scope towards the end, providing the unfortunate built-in sensation of a shrinking realm of possibility, very unlike linear movies/books which normally only provide the sensation of increased scope as they mature.) But there is another part of me that realises this is an unfair requirement at the present time and so I turn this criticism off when I evalutate most games, because I want to at least try to enjoy them and I think it’s fair to evaluate them on their own terms. However there is no question in my mind that the idea of interactive fiction is broken. It has never really been not-broken, and it’s going to take a massive leap of insight from some unexpected corner in order to make it so.

If I had to pick a gaming genre that comes closest to the ideal of preserving deep consequences of player choice, it would not be text games, but it would be roleplaying games (which you mentioned). But of course they do it by quantifying the effects of player choice and turning them into metrics that participate in a huge monolithic system of randomly detemining outcomes. There are very serious limits to that method as a way of representing all of the possible stories and emotions in the world. It’s mathematically up-scalable but it isn’t narratively down-scalable. You’d better be doing a pretty standard heroic quest narrative, or the expected RPG tropes are just all going to get in your way. That can’t be the way forward.

However, what if we use a roleplaying rules system as a start, and just scaled down the rules to a smaller ad-hoc field of play? Sort of inventing a new roleplaying system for every narrative set-piece. You could also come at the same target from another direction; start from a standard text game, and add unorthodox ad-hoc advancement metrics that only apply to a particular predicament. By learning where the rules lie, the player learns the shape of that situation and becomes more aware of the possible narratively extrapolated effects of their actions (beyond just the next turn). In order to have deep consequences you need to give the player the power to predict some of those consequences, even though they might happen ten turns down the road. Why? Because what is satisfying about deep consequences is having the power to manipulate them. (This is why Jim’s objection above about people only seeing a ‘sad’ ending betrays that he is still thinking in terms of people not being able to predict their actions and playing more by trial and error – this is the classic IF setup but there is no reason it has to be this way.) So in order to give people the power to manipualte consequences many turns in the future, you have to teach them rules with consequences in that future; rules they can apply to their present behaviour. That means you have to somehow formalise each narrative predicament in the abstract rather than just describing that predicament then situating it in a toybox world in which only physical objects are discretely represented. We have to move beyond the physical when it comes to object-orientation. You have to give the player long psychological levers on the main character, and find a naturalistic way to teach the player where those levers might reach to, in advance of pulling them. (The roleplaying equivalent would be a player being able to see the ultimate highest level skills achievable along every branch of the skill tree – this is pretty crucial to a successful RPG, notifying the player in advance of where these learning branches might ultimately lead. Large text adventures are desperately lacking in long-term goals that vary with play style.)

This all resembles proceduralism of course, but I am talking about recruiting ad-hoc systems specifically into psychological terms. You’ll see more what I mean if/when you see my work-in-progress.

I’m not saying I have found the light though by any means. I’m just saying, ‘Hey it’s still dark in here,’ and hunting for my own wumpus. 8)


Do you feel as though challenge is a legitimate subset of player choice? I ask because there are a number of somewhat prominent IF titles that present you with a scenario that grinds toward a particular unhappy ending, which can be altered by the player’s decision to come to grips with the game logic and derive a workable set of choices.

Defining it in those terms casts a fairly wide net. I am thinking specifically of Make It Good, which is quite difficult but nonetheless exquisite.

This is the core mechanic of Make It Good. Another game laid out along these lines is All Things Devours. Those are the first two that come to mind, but the essential kernel of the idea is present in many IF games. Spider and Web pivots on a moment where narrative learning and player prediction fuse together and ignite in an unhinted but obvious solution.

Yes I agree with you Ben — that is a legitimate subset of player choice. However, so is ‘find all the treasures and put them in the trophy case’. If you didn’t pick up the treasures available in the early parts of the game, that can affect your endgame and make it less than optimal (or prevent it from happening altogether). The way you describe it strikes me as a variation on that although I haven’t yet played Make It Good; I have had it recommended several times and I have a system for checking out recommendations but I’m not very efficient at following my systems. I have at least moved Make It Good up on the list — thank you.

Your point brings up an important perspective though — it’s not so much that there have been zero ways of incorporating past player choices. It’s more that there is an overly simplistic, now very much played-out paradigm for doing so. Manipulate a list of physical objects to get the optimal ending. The other ‘endings’ are mostly failures.

I believe in allowing failure (big-time) but I don’t really believe that holding out one or two win conditions and making the entire game a process of lining up the physical pins necessary to achieve that win condition is the future of narrative gaming. I believe that we can leave this territory but without dispensing with puzzles. (We have plenty of expeirments already that leave this territory by dispensing with puzzles — I am not in favour of those.) This is key to the idea of long-term narrative levers allowing players to tailor their experience. I am advocating using the principles of puzzle design to allow players to work out how to mould their characters in a direction that intrigues them personally, which may and probably should indirectly create a panoply of endings (but does not actually have to create multiple endings).

So instead of asking the player to work toward a specific ending, why not ask them to pick a goal to work towards, among a bunch, and then explore what those choices will do to the scenario and the ending? This is still goal-driven and leads the player forward (which is extremely important for a game) but doesn’t put the player in a position of consciously trying to assemble a specific narrative as if it’s a model kit. I want the player to be seduced into living in the narrative having chosen a non-compulsory manner in which to do it. I want the player to feel the way I did in A Mind Forever Voyaging when I stumbled into my own apartment in the virtual world and decided to try to just hang out there for a while with my virtual wife and see what would happen — in that moment, I chose my own goal for the game for a while and it was the best I’ve ever felt playing Infocom, despite the fact that the game didn’t really make any hay out of my going to refrigerator repeatedly. Wouldn’t it have been awesome if it had? Wouldn’t it have been awesome if the whole progression of the game were mutated and altered based on my decision to avoid my duties and stay at home?

Having seen it recommended elsewhere in this forum, I have now played All Things Devours and I am forced to say I found it tedious and just a ton of repetitive puzzle grunt-work necessary in order to attain a final ending configuration that I already knew everything important about in advance. The game was all, ‘jump through these difficult hoops just to prove you can’ with very little mystery about where the story was headed. I want my experiments to be pretty much the exact opposite of that. 8)

Spider and Web of course is a brilliant piece of work for reasons you mention. I don’t think it is quite doing what I’m doing, either, however. I will try Make It Good at my earliest convenience. Thanks again!


Make It Good is kind of hard to discuss without spoilers, but you can spoiler-proof any general discussion of its merits by playing through once. It’s not very long and by the end, the essential outlines of the challenge will come into focus, even if the path to a solution does not.

So please do that and then read this spoiler, which should no longer be much of a spoiler:

The game is largely about manipulating NPCs: figuring out how to set someone up and get them to confess to a crime they did not commit.

Ouch. :slight_smile: I can see why you might feel that way and I think it depends on how you approach it. When I played it, I was in the middle of fixing a pile of race conditions in Gargoyle’s sound code. All Things Devours essentially maps that problem onto a game world and gives you some locks and a scheduler to avoid memory corruption.

So for me there was that larger “aha!” moment of recognizing the problem in a surprising new form.

I suppose that puts it into the same conceptual class as the venerable maze, where you can solve it by working out an algorithm and applying it rigorously, and we know how popular mazes are these days. Still, for me this is one of the IF types that really resonates.

I’m getting a better feel for the distinction you’re making, I think. I do like that goal-choosing aspect and I’m struggling to think of an example in the IF I’ve played. It happened frequently in Red Dead Redemption. One memorable instance was when a random mountain lion killed my horse. In game terms it wasn’t a very good horse; I could’ve stolen a better one in any town or just summoned a new one by pressing Y after a suitable cooldown period. In narrative terms it didn’t matter at all, but I was overcome with shock, grief, and rage.

This sort of emotional engagement is rare for me and it would be wonderful to play more games where it happened. I think it’s tricky to try to build it into the overall narrative because then it’s just one of many things the player will try to optimize. If horses in Red Dead Redemption were like the Little Sisters in Bioshock, for example, then I would expect them to die, and my reaction would be either indifference (if I wanted the “most horses killed” ending) or frustration (otherwise).

Imagine how I felt when I, due to aiming mishap, accidentally shot the horse I was riding…

When my dad was young, he was out hunting with his dog. He took a shot at a deer; the dog jumped up at exactly the wrong time. It was one of the saddest moments of his life.

So I think I have an idea of how you feel and I think it’s pretty cool that games can evoke that.

It’s a credit to Rockstar that they allowed for that to happen. Any number of development shortcuts or demographic concessions might have left the player’s horse impervious to player damage. Nor did they cheapen the moment by flashing ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: TRIGGER UNHAPPY on the screen. I am fairly cynical about commercial games but I can recognize a kindred spirit at work there.

Thanks. The game does look pretty interesting. I will play more. 8)

Yeah put me firmly in the anti-maze camp. You nailed it — the game resembles very much debugging the flow of the program, which is not something I do for fun. I program exclusively in order to accomplish exciting things. I play IF for the same reason. If I am not accomplishing something exciting and mysterious then I don’t really wanna do the work anymore, because I just can’t get psychologically invested in solving puzzles for their own sake. Essentially, I fail to care. This is why I do crosswords instead of sudoku. I care about expanding my vocabulary. I don’t really care about learning all the number tricks. All Things Devours felt like a giant sudoku to me with about as much narrative reward. 8)

I am making it sound like I don’t like difficult puzzles but that is not true. I am a puzzle pragmatist. I don’t particularly enjoy puzzles regardless of difficulty when they don’t promise me anything beyond getting solved. If they promise very intriguing rewards I am willing to engage with difficult puzzles, but I just need to be seduced into caring, first. The Edifice did an amazing job with that.

Players may not be able to optimise different strategies if they genuinely conflict with one another. And also: optimise toward what? Optimising toward one goal might require one puzzle-solving strategy; optimising toward a different goal requires a whole different strategy that cancels the former strategy and interferes with the former goal. Which way will the player go and will they get what they are looking for in setting that priority? That is the interesting part about real, interactive life; but that isn’t included in most interactive stories. Why not?

RDR is a sandbox game and AMFV is probably the closest thing Infocom made to a sandbox game. The total otherness of sandbox games gets pretty exaggerated. I know that you know the following, but bear with me: in a sandbox game, you get to pick among goals, but normally consequences aren’t very highly developed. In a classic puzzle adventure, you don’t get to change your goal (sometimes you can resequence your goal’s substeps trivially, that’s about it): but in the classic adventure consequences are more highly developed along a fairly linear timeline. What we need is a miniature sandbox games where you get to pick your goals but in a concentrated situation instead of in an open world – there is a sweet spot there where combinatorial explosion can still be controlled without resorting to linearity.


Yeah, I like this as a direction. One of the games I’m most excited about is gravel’s Farming the Apocalypse - it’s very much in the sandbox camp, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the narrative aspects.

Your observation has helped clarify some of the structural issues I had identified in one of my own projects, so thanks very much for that. It’s a limited scope open world, and I was going nuts trying to superimpose a series of gated puzzles on it for the sake of the narrative. My instincts kept telling me this was not the right direction, which is helpful but not much use for charting a new course.

What’s funny is that my other WIP is also set in a limited scope open world, but since I cast it as a multiplayer game, it came pre-structured as a Capture The Flag or King of the Hill scenario. So there I have a thousand problems, nearly all technical, but I am not at all worried about incorporating player choice or interactivity, because the game will be obviously terrible if I don’t. Obvious terrible is the best kind IMO because I know I have to fix it.

My CS skills are hobbyist-level, but the angle I’ve been working is to use a backward-chaining pseudo-AI, specifically RAPPER (T3/I7), to create autonomous situations that try to pull themselves into instantiation.

In other words, say you have a collection of Polti Situations. These are dramatic situations, like “Man Betrays His Wife For The Purpose of Bigamy With an Other Woman.” There’s 36 basic types, which are further broken down to one or two hundred fairly specific situations.

Let’s say you have about two dozen of these. Each role in a given situation is a field that can be satisfied by a character. To qualify, there are rules attached to the roles. (X must be the spouse of Y.) Further, there are rules defining something like “betrayal,” which would include different kinds of betrayal.

Every time a random event happens, one of these situations can tilt the randomness. The more activated the situation is – the more rules are fulfilled – the more power it has to tilt (pseudo)random events and thus pull itself into instantiation.

Frank and Betty have some nonzero chance of quarreling, and a quarrel has a nonzero chance of getting out of hand, and Frank and Debra have some nonzero chance of falling for each other – or, Frank for Debra when Debra is uninterested.

This tends to shape sandbox events gently into dramatic events. To further shape these into narratives, dramatic events are more likely to pull themselves into instantiation when they’re likely to meaningfully resolve past dramatic events. One character betrays another: that gives “revenge” and “forgiveness” situations more power to tilt random events their way.

If you got far enough, you’d need to tune it so that the same old situations didn’t always crop up. In my notion, you’d want it sensitive to the PC pushing NPCs in one direction or another, but yet truly nonrandom, so that a given walkthrough would always give identical transcripts.

Raw materials for this one were Polti situations, “Games People Play,” by Eric Berne, and the classics of game theory as templates for character interaction. Also some reasonable thermostat-type modeling of human emotionality, a notch more interesting than one finds in the Sims.

The notion of such a game is something I find weirdly intriguing. Also I wanted the PC to be switchable, so mid-game you could change to any other character.

A realistic look at the CS required for this one – well, as I say, I’m a hobbyist. But if anyone finds anything pirateable in these notions, pirate away.


Ha ha, good point. And glad I could be of some small help to someone who has done a lot of work from which I have personally benefited! 8)

Your plan is a little too complex for me. I have this philosophy about modelling surface events and not attempting to model what’s behind those events like individual characters’ psychologies too much, except the main character. When I say that I wish to cast long-term consequences into psychological terms, I mean for the protagonist. It’s not impossible that I will do the same for NPCs, but if I did that, then that NPC would be the entire focus of that chapter of the story, like Galatea or whatnot. I don’t want to build too many complex underlying mechanisms for supporitng characters, because then they become too numerous and difficult for an ordinary player to predict, and you lose the sense of specific agency. Something similar has been tried in various ways (Erasmatron, anyone?) – I find the problem with it is that it is often indistinguishable from randomness because it’s just too complicated.

That’s just by of explaining why I have steered clear of assigning all sorts of state variables to NPCs — I assign state variables to narrative events, instead; I am trying to skim the surface and fake it. Smoke & mirrors, et cetera. 8)

This doesn’t mean that experiments of your style are not still valuable, because (1) I might be entiely erroneous in my rejection and (2) I might not really understand some key differences that make your iteration of the concept work where it hasn’t for me before.


EDIT P.S. I think perhaps one differennce here is that my definition of a sandbox game does not include narrative events that weren’t predicted by the designer of the game. Some people’s definition includes that, but I think that’s way too ambitious – as in I don’t actually believe that it is truly possible to achieve story (events, yes; story, no) in any meaningful way in a fashion that wasn’t predicted by the dev. So I think of sandbox games as merely a cohort of individually non-compulsory, pre-designed narratives discovered ‘accidentally’ by exploring a relatively open field of play. Track-switches between the different narratives are careully allowed so as to ensure they will still make narrative sense; nonsensical track-switches are blocked and suppressed by the dev’s noticing their incongruity in advance; and in this way a set of narrative branches are designed for the player to discover and travel preferentially. It’s not like LEGO – it would be awesome if it were but I don’t see it happening and it’s too ambitious a goal for me personally. I don’t even think games like RDR and GTA really accomplish what they say they accomplish, so IMO, it’s too ambitious for them too, although they are still good games.

Heck, why not just model narrative events? – I hope you keep us posted as you continue to make progress.


Bingo. Or more to the point: model narrative questions.

When I finally have something to show you’d have to tear me away from keeping you posted. 8)