Hunt the Wumpus
by Gregory H. Coresun
Debuted: April 1973
WELCOME TO ‘HUNT THE WUMPUS’ THE WUMPUS LIVES IN A CAVE OF 20 ROOMS. EACH ROOM HAS 3 TUNNELS LEADING TO OTHER ROOMS. (LOOK AT A DODECAHEDRON TO SEE HOW THIS WORKS-IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT A DODECAHEDRON IS, ASK SOMEONE)
The earliest computer games were made in pockets of isolation hard to imagine in today’s hyper-connected world. Like the first living organisms spawning and dying in countless dark seas before the right warm tide pool helped them thrive, early digital games were invented and lost and reinvented, over and over. Academic communities shared work at conferences and in journals; coworkers in industry computer labs swapped notes and code; but there wasn’t yet anything like the shared pool of ideas and experiments that would become so vital to future generations of gamemakers.
One of the earliest such communities had set up camp in 1972 at a small storefront in Menlo Park, California. The city sat at the nexus of Stanford technologists and Bay Area free-thinkers who would soon spark the computer revolution and the behemoths of Silicon Valley—but not just yet. The group who’d moved into the small retail space that year was called the People’s Computer Company, a nonprofit pursuing a dream that computers could and should be for everybody. No sign or plaque today marks the space, now an unassuming dry cleaning business, where many seeds of the personal computer revolution were planted.
The People’s Computer Company had been co-founded by Bob Albrecht, a lifelong computer evangelist by then in his early 40s. Albrecht had been struggling to teach computers in high schools before BASIC appeared in the mid-’60s, after which he became a massive advocate. “I lobbied, ranted, and raved for BASIC,” he later recalled: “I had made big buttons that said SHAFT (Society to Help Abolish Fortran Teaching).” By the late ’60s he was in the habit of loading his Volkswagen bus up with a bulky PDP minicomputer on weekends to give BASIC seminars at college campuses; on Thursday evenings he would “run computer programming, wine tasting, and Greek dancing parties” out of his apartment. Albrecht eventually helped found another influential Bay Area nonprofit—the Portola Institute, creators of the “Whole Earth Catalog”—and would co-found influential hacker magazine “Dr. Dobb’s Journal.”
Albrecht and a few other like-minded thinkers spun off the People’s Computer Company from Portola, launching both a newsletter and a community meeting space, the People’s Computer Center: in practice, both were known as just “the PCC.” The idea of the Center was simple: the PCC would convince big companies like DEC and HP to donate hardware, then set it up and make it accessible to members of the public, who could stop by to play computer games, “rap about computers,” or attend drop-in classes on BASIC (or folk guitar). Open computer time to do anything you liked was available for a few dollars an hour, or less: “the younger you are the less you pay.” The printed newsletter shared a similar spirit, filled with introductory coding tips, annotated program listings, articles on using computers to make art and music, and counterculture imagery and slogans. “Liberate Some People From School,” one issue buzzed: “Take them on a field trip to PCC by skoolbus, carpool, or bike brigade.”
Into this heady environment stumbled a young man then called Gregory Yob. Born in Oregon, Greg had suffered through “a lonely childhood in a relentlessly abusive household that left him with stunted social skills,” emerging with a love for mathematics and computers. His partner in later years recalled that “under the grumpy exterior, which sooner or later almost everyone who knew him would bump into, lived a brilliant mind, a compassionate heart and a delightful childlike playfulness.” After finishing a graduate degree and moving to California, Greg became a regular drop-in and newsletter contributer once he discovered the PCC. He had already been involved for a few years developing an interpreted language called PILOT (designed to run on top of BASIC) that simplified the creation of conversational-style programs. The PCC’s mission of outreach and accessibility no doubt resonated.
Greg began contributing to the early issues of the PCC newsletter at the same time a game design conversation had begun within its pages. A June 1972 Hide and Seek program, created by a high school computer class, was playable on the center’s PDP-8: in the game, the player attempted to guess where four computer-controlled opponents were hiding on a 10 x 10 grid. After each guess, the program would tell you the distance to each opponent, and students were encouraged to use tools such as graph paper and triangulation to win the game.
TURN NUMBER 1 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS? ? 4, 3 YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 1 IS 6.4 UNIT(S). YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 2 IS 6.4 UNIT(S). YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 3 IS 2.8 UNIT(S). YOUR DISTANCE FROM PLAYER 4 IS 1 UNIT(S). TURN NUMBER 2 , WHAT IS YOUR GUESS?
Unshackled from the restrictions of needing to make something with educational value, PCC members began to create their own amusing variations on the program. A common improvement was to replace the anonymous four hiders with a single named monster. The programs inevitably became named after the monsters, leading to games like Mugwump, Snark, and Hurkle, most still played on an easy-to-visualize 10 x 10 grid.
THE HURKLE IS HIDING. TRY TO FIND HIM. WHAT IS YOUR GUESS ?5, 5 GO SOUTHWEST WHAT IS YOUR GUESS ?3, 2 GO EAST
In Greg’s retelling, Hunt the Wumpus was born when he saw several of these monster-hunting program listings side by side in the April 1973 issue of the PCC newsletter, and became annoyed that they all featured that same 10 x 10 grid. A friend had cited his work in a paper that year for the SIAM conference (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) on equations for “homogenous solids from whose center of gravity there are only four normals.” Computers were capable of simulating much more interesting structures than grids, and Greg was capable of visualizing them. By the end of April he’d written his own monster-hunting program. His creature was called the Wumpus, and his map was a dodecahedron.
Greg may also have been influenced by another game then floating around PCC by fellow member Dave Kaufman. In Caves1, the player navigates through a group of rooms arranged in a tree structure, looking for a way to escape:
IMAGINE YOURSELF AN EXPLORER OF THE FAMOUS DUZZLEDORF CAVES. YOU’VE BEEN UNDERGROUND FOR DAYS, TRIPPING THROUGH THE CAVERNS AND TUNNELS. UNFORTUNATELY, YOU’RE LOST, AND YOUR FOOD HAS RUN OUT. THERE IS ONLY ONE PATH OUT. SEE IF YOU CAN FIND IT. YOU’RE IN CAVERN # 1 # 2 # 3 # 4 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO WHERE NEXT? 4 YOU’RE IN CAVERN # 4 # 5 # 6 # 7 # 1 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO WHERE NEXT? 5 DEADEND WHERE NEXT?
Largely forgotten until Jason Dyer rediscovered them in 2019, the Caves games were some of the earliest where players moved through a series of connected areas with a fictional theme, a trope that would later become foundational to interactive fiction. The numbered rooms, the conceit of being trapped in a cave, and the language around descriptions and movement are all similar to Wumpus. While the Caves source code wasn’t published until the month after Wumpus made its debut, it’s possible Kaufman gave Greg a demo at the Center that laid down the kindling of an idea. Annoyance at the earlier grid-based games was the spark.
In Hunt the Wumpus, you explore a network of twenty numbered caves, each with three exits and a complex set of interconnections. The map replicates the points and edges of the dodecahedron, a platonic solid better known to roleplayers as the d12. While the shape is mathematically simple, it’s nearly impossible for anyone but a mathematician to map sensibly in their head or on a flat piece of paper, resulting in a space that feels disorienting and claustrophobic: always wrapping in on itself in surprising ways. Unlike with a grid, there’s no comfortable axis to orient yourself against, and it’s easy to lose track of how many moves it might take to get back to safety.
Within this uneasy environment are hazards and foes. Two random rooms contain bottomless pits, which mean instant death if you step into them; two more rooms are home to “super bats” who will transport you to another room at random (including, unfortunately, the ones containing bottomless pits). And in a fifth room is the Wumpus, who might kill you if you blunder into him, or simply slink away through one of the three exits.
What makes the game compelling is that you can’t see these hazards directly—by the time you stumble into a room containing them, it’s too late. Instead you must infer them from a distance. The messages I FEEL A DRAFT, BATS NEARBY, and I SMELL A WUMPUS are printed when you’re one room away from pits, bats, or the monster, respectively. Since each room has three exits, players don’t know for sure which one leads to the hazard unless they’re paying close attention, keeping a map and using logical induction to work out which paths are safe.
YOU ARE IN ROOM 9 TUNNELS LEAD TO 8 10 18 SHOOT OR MOVE (S-M)? M WHERE TO? 10 BATS NEARBY! YOU ARE IN ROOM 10 TUNNELS LEAD TO 2 9 11 SHOOT OR MOVE (S-M)? M WHERE TO? 2 ZAP--SUPER BAT SNATCH! ELSEWHEREVILLE FOR YOU! I SMELL A WUMPUS! YOU ARE IN ROOM 15 TUNNELS LEAD TO 6 14 16 SHOOT OR MOVE (S-M)?
The Wumpus must also be dealt with from a distance, by firing a “crooked arrow” which can travel a twisting path of up to five rooms to hit its target—once you’ve worked out which one it’s hiding in.
SHOOT OR MOVE (S-M)? M WHERE TO? 14 YOU ARE IN ROOM 14 TUNNELS LEAD TO 4 13 15 SHOOT OR MOVE (S-M)? S NO. OF ROOMS(1-5)? 2 ROOM #? 15 ROOM #? 16 AHA! YOU GOT THE WUMPUS! HEE HEE HEE - THE WUMPUS’LL GETCHA NEXT TIME!!
The experience of play was more compelling than just about anything that had come before. Unlike most earlier games, the possibility space was large enough to contain different strategies for play. In contrast to the inevitable westward movement of a wagon train or downward fall towards the lunar surface, here you could choose which direction to move in. Shooting through a dizzying network of rooms opened up interesting, unexpected possibilities (like accidentally shooting yourself). There’s just enough randomness to allow for surprising events (bats dropping you into a pit; lumbering into the Wumpus on accident) without the game feeling unfairly capricious. The maze is genuinely disorienting when you’re first dropped into it, encouraging players to keep a paper map and annotate it with observations about which rooms are safe or might contain hazards. The Wumpus’s occasional movements might invalidate previously safe routes and force a rethinking of strategy halfway through a game. And there’s just enough description in the instructions to lend the Wumpus himself a hint of character:
THE WUMPUS IS NOT BOTHERED BY THE HAZARDS (HE HAS SUCKER FEET AND IS TOO BIG FOR A BAT TO LIFT). USUALLY HE IS ASLEEP.
In short, Wumpus is fun: immediate and immersive in a way that few earlier computer games had managed to capture. Its role as part of an ongoing conversation about games at PCC may have been part of the reason. It wasn’t produced in isolation: it was reacting to earlier games. Wumpus existed as part of an acceleration of craft wisdom about the making of entertaining computer programs that the emergence of both local and national communities, like the PCC center and newsletter, were beginning to enable.
Greg’s game was widely shared around the PCC and quickly became a hit. By May, he was seeing it at computer events around the Bay, inevitably with clusters of backseat drivers huddled around the person at the terminal, shouting out their own Wumpus-hunting strategies. He quickly devised a sequel, Wumpus 2, which added a choice of other cave topologies, and began to sell copies of both games on paper tape for four dollars, making him one of the earliest digital gamemakers to do so. But the idea of copyright for computer code was still nebulous and, indeed, anathema to many early hackers: so as with all other successful programs of the time, Wumpus was freely copied, ported, remade and redistributed, soon spreading across the country. Ken Thompson, creator of Unix, wrote a version in the new language C; by 1974 a rip-off called Super Wumpus started circulating. The original’s code appeared in Creative Computing magazine in 1975 and would later show up in several of David H. Ahl’s influential BASIC books. By 1981 a graphical version for the TI-99/4A home computer was on the shelves of stores nationwide, cementing the game’s place as an early computing touchstone. “I smell a Wumpus” will still get a smile out of many aging computer geeks.
Other than the Wumpus sequels, Greg never released another computer game, though he remained passionate his entire life about the potential of computers to challenge minds, especially young ones. He became a regular columnist for Creative Computing, and was involved with another walk-in computer center called LO*OP in Cotati, California (north of Petaluma). In 1977 he taught a college course called “Computers as a Tool for the Artist.” Throughout the 1980s he was heavily involved in the user-friendly Commodore PET community, writing regular columns for magazines and instruction manuals for the PET and its many accessories. Increasingly taken with the possibility of technology to expand consciousness and extend life, he wrote an unfinished book about a spiritual human/machine interface, and adopted the shamanic name Hara Ra: “with a gleeful twinkle in his eye,” his widow later recalled, “he would call himself a Neo-Neuro-Cyber-Shaman.” He eventually retired to Santa Cruz, where he went by the name Gregory Coresun and worked on “interactive computer art of ever changing mandalas.” He passed in 2005.
Wumpus has been identified as one of the earliest ancestors of the text adventure, a form that would crystallize more completely with Adventure in the second half of the decade. Like the latter game, it has a map that must be explored, challenges to overcome, a memorable adversary, and the first hints of a transporting story. But the game wasn’t born in a vacuum: it grew from a thriving community of computer evangelists playing, sharing, and remixing each others’ experimental games. In the years to come, these communities would become a common thread across text game makers from different decades, platforms, and technologies, with the most memorable innovations nearly always springing from communal fires. While most of these games were single-player, going on adventures (and the joy of creating them) has always been best when shared with others. IMAGINE YOURSELF AN EXPLORER, Dave Kaufman’s Caves began: and in the years to come, more and more computer users would do just that.
Next week: when a high school sophomore’s favorite TV show is cancelled, he sets out on a determined quest to recreate it on a computer—even though he has no way to access one.
You can try the original Wumpus online, or peruse its source code. Thanks to personal memories shared by Greg’s widow Andrea van de Loo; the Creative Computing and PCC newsletter collections preserved by the Internet Archive; and to research by Jason Dyer and Jimmy Maher.