Hunger Daemon Critical Play, thoughts on the level of interactivity

Hunger Daemon is a free, online, award-winning work of interactive fiction (game) by Sean M.  Shore. I have never played a game quite like this before, admittedly I didn’t play the whole thing as it feels like a game I’d rather spread out over a few sessions but overall, I thought it was great!

When I was playing I got this weird feeling that the design was like lining the interior of an old, clunky, antique car with modern leather upholstery and comfy seat cushions. What does that mean? I think the designer made the most of an old and limited technology.

In this game, you read a little bit, and then you get to take an action by typing in a command. Something like “go left” or “eat donut”. I assumed that the scope of commands was going to be very limited, the tutorial and hints mention just a few commands like “go to” or “examine”, so I found myself often pleasantly surprised to see a sensible response to some random input I did:

“pop balloon” ->
“You might need the balloon. Better not pop it.”

“eat book” ->
“It might come to that. Great Cthulhu, you are famished.”

“kill Uncle Stu” ->
“You’re generally a non-violent person.”

For that last one I didn’t expect anything to happen (I didn’t really want to kill Uncle Stu), I was just messing around because I was stuck. Actually, I found myself stuck in the first room and was becoming increasingly annoyed at my lack of mobility. It turned out the inputs that I needed to progress in the game, at least for this part, were fairly strict and counterintuitive. This was the most infamous example I encountered:

“go to pantry” ->
“You know how to get there, but you would be better off exploring first, searching for clues, that sort of thing.”
“go up” ->
“You tiptoe over to the stairs…
This is where all the food would be…”

So here, I couldn’t type “go to pantry” I had to type “go up” to arrive at the pantry. So even though the game felt very interactive considering the technology, there were moments where it still didn’t feel interactive enough. Getting stuck took me out of the story and made me think about how to game the system.

Although technically changeable, I have a hard time putting this on the designer. Its a nice thought that a person could meticulously code up and test every branching possibility in such an open ended game where every command I could conceivably type would be met with a logical and sometimes witty response, but it just feels incredibly intractable. This game, as far as I can tell, is making the most of what is still a very limited technology. That’s why I started to think of it like a refurbished clunky old car. Under the hood, the car is limited, but the designer seems to have put in a lot of work to give the player a feeling of a well-oiled, smoothly running machine. At times, I would be snapped back to reality with an all to familiar “That’s not a verb I recognize” but at other times, the game felt so interactive that I believed I could type anything, any phrase, and the game would understand what I was trying to say, like I was really in the story!

So, my main thoughts on this game are that its a testament to what can be accomplished with creativity and willpower but that ultimately we are still a long way from technology that supports interactive fiction with text inputs in a completely seamless and immersive way. That said, this game gets a lot closer to that then I ever would have expected and after playing for 15 minutes, I think it’s easy to feel out the scope of what’s possible in the game, and get cozily immersed into what seems like a great story! (hoping to finish it soon)

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