We Have Never Been Hunters

I'm playing a ton of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. It's the first in the series I've really dug into - I played through the first few village quest levels of Freedom Unite but quit for various reasons. Monster Hunter's a really big game, wide and deep, and my thoughts about it - aside from "I like it, it's fun" - are vague and meandering right now.

It slowly morphs between a couple different games, each one acting as a tutorial for the next. There are a lot of moving parts and each one feeds into the next one, and some of them feed back as well. You gather and farm (literally, organizing agricultural production; figuratively, performing repetitive actions) to get resources to build tools to let you farm more effectively to hire and train assistants to take on bigger challenges, and repeat. The change is slow, but when you compare one star vs. five star vs. challenge quests, it's sort of like proceeding from gomoku to capture go to proper go. (If you also had to fell and cut lumber for the board and find shells and mine rock for the stones.) Same parts, similar mechanisms, very different game. Each step I have to pick up some new tactic or tool or I risk losing more often.

This also means it's very slow - I've "beaten" it after around 50 hours, but that really just means I'm now doing high-rank quests. I suspect that high-rank to G-rank is going to be another slow ramp up to a new kind of game.

The size of the game also dominates online discussion. There's a lot of explanation of what and how because there's a lot to learn (and I don't want to downplay the friendly community) but not much critical analysis of if and why.

I have a complicated relationship with physical violence in games. I play a lot of horror games (and watch a lot of bloody horror films) and that doesn't bug me; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas doesn't bug me; Hotline Miami bugs me in what I suspect is exactly the way it's designed to; Saint's Row 3 was really troubling for me; I found Grand Theft Auto 4 more or less unplayable. Intent, magnitude and amount, fidelity, agency, a bunch of different (and non-orthogonal) axes make it difficult for me to guess how I might react or tease out what exactly bothers me.

Monster Hunter doesn't bother me. There's a fair amount of blood, and everything about it is really brutal: the hits and knockdowns, breaks and carves, bites and smashes. It knows it's toeing some kind of line, and so when you attack the speaking Lynians or the cute Kelbi, it's careful to show them retreating rather than dying.

There's probably something to say about Monster Hunter and ecology. I'm not smart enough to really dig in, but that won't stop me from writing a bunch of crap.

First, it's a game that has an ecology in the normal sense. There are fictional books styled as notes from naturalists who have studied the monsters. This offers an ecological interpretation of its game mechanics: The research is a tool for players to learn how to deal with (fight, avoid, steal from, etc.) monsters. Take this description of Qurupeco, an early monster:

Bird Wyverns with unique plumage. Well known for using their thoracic vocal organs to imitate others monsters calls, first summoning them, then using the distraction to flee. Spits a dangerous combustible body fluid.

We have the veneer of "real" natural history with a reference to the genus "bird wyvern". This tells the player about its general shape and behavior. It also offers an outline of how it interacts with other monsters in the area and its unique behaviors. Every monster and many other objects in the game have descriptions in this form.

But Monster Hunter isn't an ecological simulation in the sense of e.g. SimCity where you take on the role of a transcendent planner and explore ecological potentials1. Instead it has an ecology, and you - the player/character - are part of it, unable to cause macro-level change on your own, and instead must prepare and learn about it in order to survive and enable a series of micro-level changes.

Second, the games' plots usually concern the relationship between particular human settlements and the surrounding environment. Humans in the world of Monster Hunter seem constantly at risk of extinction through large-scale ecological disaster. In the case of 3 Ultimate, a giant monster butting its head against the ocean floor nearby is causing earthquakes.

Humans don't have any dominion over that space (e.g. the ocean floor), they only mitigate, course-correct, survive. They also aren't very interested in developing a dominion. By the end of the game your village's interaction is broader, but it's not physically larger, and it interacts with the larger space in the same way it did with the smaller one. You can displace the cause of the quakes, but it comes back, or creates a space for other problems - you achieve an equilibrium, not ownership, control, or transcendence.

But it's also not a "primitive" society. There's global travel, money and trade, advanced metalworking and steam power, domesticated animals, division of labor, bureaucracy, books and scientific research. Some aspects are tribal and agrarian, but most of the culture is late-Enlightenment at the earliest.

Is it particularly good at any of this? Does it really put forward a coherent viewpoint when considered over the course of all games / quests? Can we learn anything about ecology from it? I've got no idea so far.

My hypothesis - which like the previous ones, is too coarse - is that we are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters... Bruno Latour, "We Have Never Been Modern"

  1. But wow, how cool would it be to have a SimCity-like game where you had to live in the city you built.