The Hunter: Official Website

The Hunter: an Unusual FPS

6th April, 2013

Video games opened a new dimension the day they juxtaposed your eyes with those of the character you're playing, effectively creating a virtual reality. The most famous case is Wolfenstein 3D (1992), although older games had done it before, just not this well, and certainly not with the same impact. Why is this so important? Playing a character that you can see on the screen is very much like piloting a remote control toy: you're you, you control something else and do things with it. This isn't new or original, only the medium differs slightly, mostly in that the thing controlled is virtual, a bunch of lights on a screen. Now, when you yourself are paralleled with the character you're playing, this does a few things. First, it puts your own existence in perspective: you evolve in the game (roughly) the same way you do in your actual life: you see through your eyes, you open doors, you walk, etc. You don't relate to this sort of game the way you relate to other games; and the best proof of this is how much more frightening these FPS games are compared to others (for the horror genre), for instance. Playing a lot of FPS can even make you feel like your life is also a virtual reality, where you pilot yourself from somewhere else, with the added difference that this game never turns off. (And this is not to say that video games will make it more likely for you to kill people "in real life" if you do so virtual realities; sane people always know the difference.)

Immersion, then, is the prized element of FPS games. FPS stands for "First Person Shooter", in which the "first person" is "I/we", grammatically speaking. (Second person is "you" and third person is "he/she/it/they", if one wants to be thorough.) It is interesting to note that this immersion business is automatically paired with "shooting". Of all the things one could do in a virtual reality, shooting seems to take the cake. Why is that?

I won't speculate too much on that, but one could say that our hunting instincts appreciate the idea of shooting/killing, while our more civilised side appreciates the idea that nobody gets hurt, nobody dies. The best of both worlds, if you like. A certain taste for violence must have been a plus during our evolution. This is potentially why First Person games have war as their theme far more often than cooking or watering the garden.

However, some games explore new paths. Minecraft showed the world that people could become downright obsessed with building, crafting, planting seeds and growing vegetables and whatnot. The survival aspect of the game is what personally drew me to it, and I'm not alone in this. (Creative mode was never for me: there is no joy in building a useless 200-meter high pyramid with blocks you haven't scooped from a mountain yourself.)

Portal (2007) is another prime example of an unusual FPS, where you could almost remove the S, as the "shooting" is only done to open portals, not to kill anyone. Here, the immersion isn't used for violent ends, but puzzles. This showed us that immersion alone, without the violence. could work as well. Seeing through the eyes of your character no longer implied seeing a gun too.

With the evolution of indie games, new concepts emerged. Ideas that major studios wouldn't capitalise on became the rich soil of smaller studios. You trade graphics and artwork for originality, and sometimes a whole lot of fun. Minecraft, for instance, has graphics that would be unacceptable from a major studio, but being indie, everyone understands and nobody minds; and you quickly forget about them once you start playing, it becomes part of the esthetic of the game.

And this is where I finally reach the centerpiece of this chapter: The Hunter, developed by Expansive Worlds and Avalanche Studios. The Hunter uses First Person immersion to create a most realistic experience (according to actual hunters, according to the game developers). It is a hunting game, as the title implies, but classic hunting, don't expect any dragons. Why is this game worthy of a whole chapter? For the following reason: any game that can have me walk around, slowly, for 30 minutes without firing a single shot and give me a sense of accomplishment as I discover poop on the ground deserves praise. Indeed, being realistic, the gameplay consists mostly of tracking animals (via footsteps, or, as the case might be, excrements). While your average Doom minute can see the death of a hundred demons, your average minute of The Hunter will see you walking quietly 60 meters from the shelter. And nothing else, unless you remember to load your rifle before the moment you intend to shoot. (Noobie mistake: don't load your weapon until you're right behind a moose, then remember you can't shoot because it's not loaded, load, make enough noise for the moose to hear, and see your prey run away from you, into the trees and bushes, never to be seen again, as you cry over the 20 minutes you spent tracking the damned beast.)

What The Hunter offers that few other games do, to my knowledge, is extreme realism and no babysitting. When I said walking for 30 minutes without a single shot, I was literal. And conservative. I've spent far more without a single shot. I've walked two kilometers without seeing any animal (though I saw a lot of poop, which still makes me happy because that way I know I'm not utterly alone in the reserve; sometimes it makes me so happy, I even consider leaving my own droppings behind).

If you've ever heard the term "casual" applied to gamers, you've just found the antithesis of casualty (pun not really intended, but it works and I don't see what else this phrase could even mean). If you haven't heard the term applied to gamers, it basically means games that are easy, that you can pick up whenever and just have gamely fun with. While a rather pejorative term, "casual" games can be good. I've been told that Plants Versus Zombies is a casual game, but it's one of the best "little" games I've ever played; and I'm not entirely sure that "casual gamers" would love it all that much - I mean, it's not Bejewelled (which is not to say that Bejewelled is bad, by any means).

So yes, The Hunter is definitely not casual and you may come to hate it. The experience is different, and it might be boring. Personally, I love it, and walking around beautiful sceneries is something I both enjoy and find extremely relaxing. 90% of the game is you walking around in beautiful landscapes, so if that doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, this may not be the game for you; however, if you're of a contemplative nature, and you like nature (ominous repetition, not mindless wording), then there's a fair chance that you will adore The Hunter. The "map", if you will, or simply the territory, is awesome (original meaning of the word, causing awe). Contrary to Minecraft, it isn't "procedural", meaning it doesn't make itself randomly with maths formulas (which is awesome too, but in a different way). This means the landscape you will explore are carefully designed to look like real landscapes; you will find land that looks just like Washington State (and by God this is beautiful), land that looks like central Europe, etc. If being in the wild gets you philosophical, meditative, and generally makes you feel good, then this is a game for you. Picture this: the sun is rising, rays of light pierce through the canopy, on and off because of the wind, leaves falling off trees, showing you which direction it blows (and where it carries your nasty human smell, which animals can detect easily), beautiful mountains, mounts, hills, fields, forests, endless variety of vegetation, mushrooms, rare abandoned cabins, rivers, lake, even the ocean, all of this with changing weather (sometimes sunny all the time, sometimes English weather with massive rains for a few minutes, sometimes overcast, sometimes snowing). The background is essential to the experience created by The Hunter; I cannot imagine it without these sumptuous vistas of never-ending natural beauties. If you've enjoyed exploring the world of Minecraft, this will please you too, in a less random fashion, but in a far more realistic and striking way. (Blocks tend to lose their beauty fast while I don't think I've seen two similar blades of grass in The Hunter (slight exaggeration over).) (Yes, that was a set of parentheses inside a set of parentheses; it may look weird, but everything is under control.)

I wish now to tackle a subject that might have arrested you. If you're an animal lover, I can hear your thoughts, and I will answer them. (That isn't to say I can't hear everyone else's thoughts, though; I don't suffer from selective telepathy. Badampshee.) This is something you probably don't expect from a video game, but it will happen. You'd think shooting animals in a video game is as easy and thoughtless as shooting demons or dragons in a video game. You're wrong. Yes, you probably shot thousands of humans to death already, and never made a big deal from it. The thing is, here, the setting is so realistic as to make you feel bad, at first. I'm not even kidding. I'm not even a vegetarian either, but still. At first, you look at the (virtual) animals and marvel about them the same way you did with the trees, bushes, rivers, etc. Then you remember that the point of the game is to hunt, which means you have to kill the marvelous being. The first few times, you feel bad in a weird way, because you know it's not a real animal, but that doesn't seem to affect you much: you feel bad. Sadists amongst you will enjoy that feeling. How weird is this, though? That a virtual experience should make you think and feel things like it's an educative experience? Rest assured, this passed, and I am now happily murdering animals in drones. No hard feelings. I didn't become desensitised to the death of (real) animals, I just got used to the (virtual) ones, and see them as what they are (pixels) and less as what they represent (real animals). However, while we're at it, I am not condemning hunting, or vegetarians. I love everybody (rather, I try fucking hard) and understanding everyone's points (rather, I try fucking hard). I don't condemn hunting for this reason: reserve animals live a natural life in their original environment and die by the hands of professionals who generally care about wildlife and know what they're doing, and don't do it for money, while battery animals live a horrible life (check out how pigs are treated and cry) and die by the hands of people who kill as their job, mechanically, and probably don't care too much (which they shouldn't or else they couldn't do that job); in either case, the death part is comparable, but not worth living the life of battery animals, if you don't include the mishaps of industrial death (such as not being dead when you, turkey, should be dead, which will grant you a bonus skin-scalding process). (All the facts about industrial animal death presented here are produced by flimsy memory and might be corrected by anyone if they so wish.)

Morality is safe, I hope. If you think you'd enjoy hunting minus the existential part where you wonder about the ramifications of becoming an animal killer, I'd recommend The Hunter. It does make you think about animals and meat. I eat meat, I love meat, and I'm aware that not actually hunting doesn't mean animals aren't killed for me. The Hunter can serve as a friendly memento mori: everything gets killed by something (and this might be paraphrasing something Hemingway once said, but I forget). Animals die whether you kill them or not, the point is how they live.

On a happier note, The Hunter will teach you a lot of things. You will recognise the sweet song of the turkey (it's not sweet, it sounds like a troll is regurgitating marbles and slime), you will know what a mule deer is, what a moose looks like when male or female, you will know a few weapons and what sort of ammo is allowed for what animals, and, most of all, you will recognise poop. You know why a strong, solid, big blackish turd makes me happy? Because I recognise it as the dropping of a black bear, and, as of this writing, I have never, ever, been able to even see one, let alone kill one. I see the black bear's doodoo fairly often, including his massive footsteps, but, thus far, he has been as elusive as Big Foot. And I try fucking hard.

One more word about the territory before I move on to the gameplay with an in-depth presentation. The whole playable territory is pretty huge, and when you play, you are asked to choose a section of it (the whole thing looks like a series of islands, varying in size); each section has a certain range of animals and different types of landscape. Not all weapons can be used for certain animals, you have to respect the rules. You can still shoot animals with any weapon you want, but you won't score anything (the game keeps all sorts of statistics, including how many shots you shot, how much you walked, etc.). Now, for each section, you have, on average, two "special places", represented by an exclamation mark on your map. These are usually especially beautiful spots, or just unusual. One is a wooden platform on top of a mountain, giving you a breath-taking view of the valley below, another is a "mysterious cave", mysterious because nobody knows why it's mysterious. It's just a cave, with nothing in it. Except... Mystery. Another is a sublime canyon with a Temple-of-Doom bridge over it. Another is an electricity central that makes a buzzing sound; that may not sound all that special but considering that you're in a reserve, human buildings are extremely rare and whenever you find one, it's a mini-revelation. "Woah, a WOOD CABIN! WITH HOLES IN IT! AND NO FLOOR!" The Hunter makes you appreciate the little things, abandoned cabins, poop, as well as the big things, canyons, black bear poop.

To the gameplay, now! We're over the philosophical part of this presentation, make room for the pragmatic side of The Hunter: how does one play this game? Very easily, actually. If you're familiar with FPS games, there won't be anything new with regards to the controls. Classic WASD commands (for those who don't know, these are the letters you use on your keyboard to move forward, leftward, backward, rightward, respectively and with neologisms, in lieu of the traditional arrows (next to the numpad), which is why these letters have been selected: they fit the pattern and are on the left, making your right hand free to use the mouse for aiming, lefthanded people be damned (or use the arrows and mouse with your left)). (Yes, double parentheses again.)

Various weapons and items can be selected using the numbers on top of the letters, as is usual in FPS games. There are three positions you can adopt: standing, crouching, crawling. While standing, you can either walk or run. Running makes a lot of noise and you end up panting, all of which will scare animals away. You can spend 2 hours running in the game and you will never see anything (I should know, I've done it). I only run when I'm dead certain that there are no animals to be scared within quite some distance. Walking is the usual: not too slow but still stealthy. If you think there's an animal within 50 meters or so, depending on the visibility, you can crouch. This makes you much slower but much less visible. Finally, crawling, which I rarely use due to the fact that it makes you helplessly slow, and diminishes your field of vision to that of a grasshopper. However, shooting from the crawling position offers the best stability.

Depending on what gun you use, you may have a scope or not. Some scopes have different levels, you can switch between close-ups. As in real life, before you shoot, you hold your breath (spacebar), to stop your lungs from swelling up and down, for a more stable aim. You can't hold your breath forever, though. Aiming isn't made artificially difficult by adding some odd moving parameters, as I've seen in some games; you're as stable as you really are, depending on your posture and breathing. The most stable is the crawl position, obviously. Aiming isn't the tricky part of the game, by far, although it will help to know where the heart is in various species. As an FPS gamer, your first reflex will probably be to go boom headshot, but that will prove a delicate task, as heads move considerably more than chests, and chests are the containers of hearts. (After each successful shot, and if you recover the body, the anatomy of what you hit is shown to you; that's how you learn animal anatomy in this game, although a trip to Wikipedia won't hurt, even for things such as, "When do bears walk around?" since the animals you hunt have particular ways to spend their day and you should know about it, or else you might hunt while everyone's asleep, and accidentally bump into a moose; I should know, I've done it.)

The weapons available depend on what pass you purchase. The basic game is free, but in that version you can only get one rifle and one revolver, I think, and you can only hunt mule deers (don't start me on the plural of "deer", thanks) in either one or two locations, which is enough to know if you'd like to spend more time with the game or not. With the full membership, you get access to various rifles and even bows and arrows (the only weapon that can legally kill any type of animal in the reserve). Amongst the items you can use, there are various baits and lures, which I assume are taken straight from real hunting, because no game designers would invent these things for their esthetics alone (remember that next time you're blowing through a ribbed pipe, making the sounds of loose sphincters in retirement). You can also get a tent and various other things I've never used. The game is in constant development, so expect new species, new territories, etc. As of this writing, a multiplayer mode should be out soon, although I have no exact knowledge of how that will work.

About the realism, you may wonder how easy it is to spot poop on the forest ground, or footsteps. The one dent into realism the game has is that said poop or footprints get a red halo over them when they're within sight. True, this phenomena does not occur in real hunting, but to be honest, it enhances the fun of the game and doesn't take anything away from the hunt. Staring at the ground all the time would not have added anything, and realism is great up to the point where it unncessarily keeps elements that don't deliver anything in return. So yes, droppings and footsteps are highlighted, hollow haloes if it's a new animal or one different from the one you were tracking, full haloes if it's the very same. Your most important tool is a hand-held computer thing called the "huntermate" which generally shows you the map and where you are on it, as well as the locations of where you tracked an animal, and various other things. If you hear an animal, quickly press the left button of your mouse and the huntermate will locate the position of the animal. This gives you yet another way of locating your preys.

The way hunting goes is this: you walk around quietly until you either come across footsteps (or poop, of course), or until you hear a cry, or, better yet, until you see an animal (this happens too). If you encounter traces, you click on them with your huntermate thing, and this shows you the general direction the animal was on (unless it's poop, then you can only estimate how far the dropper might be with regards to the droppings). Footsteps show direction, obviously, and after a series of these, you get a pretty good idea of how near or far your future victim is (represented as a circle on your huntermate).

You are advised to move against the wind so that your smell doesn't alert animals, but to be honest, I never paid much attention to that and don't recall having problems hunting with the wind, but that's perhaps because I naturally smell good. Watch the falling leaves to see where the wind goes, or use one of the items that allows you to do the same: some powder you throw in the air.

What else is there to say about The Hunter? It is a unique experience among video games, the likes of which I have never seen, and after over 30 hours of it, I still enjoy it a lot and am far from having explored all the land there is to see. If the idea of shooting animals in a realistic way repulses you somewhat, know that there is no gore in the game, at all. Wherever you shoot animals, chest or head, they look pretty pristine upon harvest. The only blood you will see serves as traces: if you didn't shoot a vital organ like the heart, your animal can run quite some distance, wounded, and die somewhere else, in which case the blood stains will be a useful clue to follow. And that's about all the blood you'll see, more game mechanics than blood for blood. So I wouldn't say it's a "violent" game. Yes, it's hunting, but the realism didn't go into exploding skulls and brain splatter, thankfully. Gravity, however, is respected, and so next time you shoot a deer on a steep slope, as I did, be sure to know the animal will slide down until gravity deems it stable. (I lost a deer that way, I don't know where it slid, and I looked for 20 minutes.) (I know, this is an uncalled for digression but I really wanted to share, indulge me.)

And that's it for my review of The Hunter, a contemplative, active, meditative, hunting game. If some of you are actual hunters, I would very much want to hear your opinion on both hunting and The Hunter; said opinions would then be published below. If you know of other unusual FPS games, let me know and your comment will be posted below too. Those I know of, but haven't experienced yet, are: Amnesia (The Dark Descent), 1916 (involving World War I and steampunk velociraptors, don't ask), Dear Esther, and that's about all.

I'll close this chapter with some quotes about hunting:

One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted [...] If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.

Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting.

When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.

Ernest Hemingway, Winner Take Nothing

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one's own culture but within oneself... There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams


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