DUNGEON CRAWLS


The remarkable and refreshing thing about Hunter, in Darkness is that it's a cave crawl that actually feels like it's in a real cave: dark, damp, wet, cramped, claustrophobic. Surfaces are uneven, the rock sharp and smooth; passageways don't snap to a compass grid, but burrow off in strange directions. You don't simply "walk", but crawl, crouch, climb, slide and slip. It's a coldly beautiful environment, but unfriendly, a place not meant for humans, difficult to navigate, unforgiving of errors.

Hunter is a striking reminder of why caves and dungeons became standard fantasy fare -- they are powerfully atmospheric settings. Think of what it would be like to be stuck in a medieval dungeon, for example. I'll say that again -- think of what it would be like TO BE STUCK IN A FUCKING MEDIEVAL DUNGEON. A place where people are imprisoned, punished, murdered, tortured, forgotten, starved to death. A place actively designed to be oppressive, dark and windowless, built of crude, cold, comfortless stone. Think of the darkness, the dampness, the hopelessness of being there, the terror and dread. Think of the stale air, the strange smells, the filth, the rats, the sound of rats scurrying unseen. It's a place you would not want to spend time in. I've never been in a dungeon, but even the sight of the oubliette of the Gravensteen in Ghent gave me the creeps.

It's startling how few IF dungeon crawls actually bring to mind a dungeon. Indeed, the terms "dungeon crawl" and "cave crawl" are used interchangeably in IF, even though caves and dungeons have little in common apart from being underground. The standard IF dungeon is really just an arbitrary and implausible complex of rooms, and for all its atmosphere and sense of presence, you might as well be wandering through Aunt Nancy's house. I can't think of one IF dungeon that remotely feels like a dungeon, and of the FF books, only Beneath Nightmare Castle came close to conveying some dungeon atmosphere. Not even the great Creature of Havoc was truly succcessful in this regard, and don't get me started on Deathtrap Dungeon and other Livingstone crap.

I get the impression that most IF fantasy dungeons just haven't been imagined at all. Why is this? Why choose a setting with such potential for atmosphere, and then treat it like a trip to the supermarket? Perhaps authors hope that calling their perfunctory sequence of rooms a "dungeon" gives it some automatic built-in atmosphere; but I don't think it's as simple as that. It seems that some authors endeavour to make their dungeons as humdrum as possible, or even choose dungeons because they are humdrum. (Indeed, the standard lazy-medieval Zork and Unnkulia dungeon seems almost calculated not to have atmosphere.) But then, some IF players and authors don't want atmosphere; for them, "setting" is just a bothersome distraction from the puzzles, from the nerdish manipulation of game objects. Any setting other than the default dungeon is an unwelcome reminder of "literary IF", artsy pretensions, the real world, other people, or whatever it is they want to get away from. Only a dungeon, bizarrely enough, offers them the comfort of the familiar. Which is why most IF dungeons are about as threatening as bathroom slippers.


index