The Heart of a Hunter: Unexpected Empathy in Monster Hunter World

In Features by Reza

(Warning: This article discusses several monsters, strategies, and experiences from the game. If you’re weary of spoilers, proceed with caution.)

A Brand New Hunting Ground

Capcom has been on a roll with their releases lately. Monster Hunter: World, the latest entry to the Monster Hunter series, was released worldwide on January 26, 2018. The game is a revolutionary entry for the long-running series as it is the first Monster Hunter game to be released simultaneously in the West and Japan and the first on next-gen consoles.

First introduced during Sony’s E3 2017 conference, Monster Hunter: World adopts the series’ standard formula from the older console and handheld games. You as the player take the role of a hunter and a pioneer, tasked with either killing or capturing the monsters roaming the new world. With every successful hunt, the player is rewarded with monster parts (wings, fangs, etc.) that can be crafted into stronger weapons and armors, thus allowing you to hunt bigger and more fearsome monsters. This core gameplay loop has always been the key to the success of the series, and yet Capcom has somehow managed to still make the experience with World very fresh.

Being the first next-gen entry of the series, Monster Hunter: World takes full advantage of the increased processing power of the modern consoles. Capcom has made several changes from previous titles, including creating open-world environments that are fully connected and removing the “zones” that were necessary for older iterations. Furthermore, monster artificial intelligence and physics have been vastly improved upon, resulting in ecosystems that feel vibrant and alive and can be taken advantage of during each hunt. There is no doubt that the “virtual ecosystem” Capcom have repeatedly mentioned is something they’ve managed to create beautifully in Monster Hunter: World.

The Uncanny Valley

The impressive capabilities of the PS4 (the platform I’ve been playing on) combined with Monster Hunter: World‘s design have had an “uncanny valley” effect on me. For those of you who are not familiar with this 3D animation theory, The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesized relationship between the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response of such an object. This concept suggests that humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly like a real being elicit strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in the observers. Crossing this valley means that the observer has perceived that the object is at the closest point to its real life counterpart, and this in turn elicits several different feelings, including empathy.

The uncanny valley theory mainly focuses on humanoid replicas such as androids or cyborgs. But expanding upon this theory makes sense of why Monster Hunter: World kept me up at night after some my successful kills.

The Intelligence of a Beast

The reason I crossed the uncanny valley while playing World was, as aforementioned, due to the impressive physics and AI that bring the game’s ecosystem to life. Capcom weren’t joking when they said they wanted to create a true virtual ecosystem. You can see this in action the moment you step into the first area, The Ancient Forest. As a pioneer and a hunter, this is your first foray into the environment of Monster Hunter: World. Characterized by its Jurassic forest feel, this peaceful zone serves as a solid introduction for new and old hunters alike.

First and foremost, Monster Hunter: World is an RPG. You create your hunter and get to be part of the expedition team called the Fifth Fleet. As a member of the Fifth Fleet, you are mainly tasked with clearing the new ecosystem of monsters so that your people can carve their way into the pristine and untouched new world. As a hunter, you do this by either killing or capturing the local fauna to ensure the safety of your expedition.

As of the writing of this article, I have spent two weeks with my hunter Rei and her palico cat, Iris. I’ve hunted, captured, and killed enough “monsters” in my journey to fill my living quarters with a smorgasbord of meat, skins, claws and bones. At this point in my life as a hunter (and after my fourth kill of Legiana in an effort to get enough scales for some new armor) there’s one thought that keeps plaguing me.

Who are the true monsters here?

Bear with me for a moment, and realize that this is not a negative assessment of this game. Monster Hunter: World is a brilliant game that I cannot wait to spend more time with. If anything, this is a nod towards just how impressive Capcom’s “living ecosystem” is.

To put it simply, it’s so well done that I feel empathy towards the beasts I’m hunting. Before the arrival of the expedition team, this pristine world was a balanced ecosystem that functioned beautifully without any intervention. The circle of life is ever present in this game, so much so that if you have two large beasts in close proximity to one another, more often than not they’ll have a showdown of their own — reminding you of how insignificant you are as a hunter among two titans. I can’t help but feel like the arrival of the expedition team is disturbing this beautiful system as humans try to force nature to bend its knee.

My sense of empathy only grew as I experienced World‘s impressive monster AI. You see, the Monster Hunter series is famous for not showing any sort of health bar for the monsters you hunt. Instead, subtle changes in a monster’s appearance or behavior indicate how it’s feeling. As a hunt progresses, you will notice that the beast you’re after will get tired and start to slow down. As its health is depleted, you will see the beast limping and even retreating to its lair. As it suffers severe and ever-increasing exhaustion due to your relentless assault, you’ll feel the beast’s desperation as it acts on its survival instinct alone.

Playing the hunter, you will of course continue tracking the monster until you find it in its lair, often surrounded by its offspring or eggs. My hunter is a bow user. I once tracked Tobi-Kadachi, a wyvern, to her lair after a long, hard fight. When I arrived, I saw the beast sleeping peacefully, trying to recuperate and gain back her strength. What did I do? Well, I needed an extra pelt from her… so I aimed through my reticle, charged my arrow, and fired a Dragon Piercing shot straight at her head.

I noticed one thing when I found and killed the beast. Capcom’s incredible AI had managed to make me feel genuine empathy towards Tobi-Kadachi. So much so that I had actually paused for a few seconds before dealing that killing blow.

The Living Ecosystem

In real life, I’m not a hunter at all. I grew up in a big city and have never killed any animals for my own nourishment. I’m not a vegan, as I don’t think I can ever stop being a meat-eater. I am, however, an advocate against animal cruelty. I have two cats myself and the fight against animal cruelty is one cause that I’m definitely passionate about.

With Capcom‘s new living ecosystem, I can’t help but be immersed as I play my hunter. One of my quests was to secure two wyvern eggs so that the expedition chef could have new ingredients to cook with. During this quest, the mother wyvern Rathian swooped down to protect her eggs from the thief. Rathian’s entry said that she would chase anyone that had stolen an egg to the end of the world. On my first failed attempt to steal the egg, I had to kill Rathian to secure the area and make the quest easier. This got me thinking: there I was, trying to steal a wyvern egg for the sake of improved food, and in the process slaying a mother whose instinct was just to protect her offspring.

Who was truly the monster here?

Some of you might argue that you could steal her eggs and not kill her at all. (And yes, this is what I ended up doing as I felt so horrible after my first attempt that I restarted the quest.) This can be achieved by utilizing the Ghillie Mantle that makes you invisible for a certain period of time. But let’s be honest here, given the option, most hunters will slay Rathian just for an extra chance at getting her scales or tail.

Each beast I hunted tended to behave differently too. For example, outside of the main story hunt, Tobi-Kadachi (the monster mentioned earlier) was a very peaceful beast. On several occasions while I hunted Anjanath in the Ancient Forest, my path crossed with Tobi’s. The blue beast would stare at me for a bit, sniff me, and then go about her business. At one point, Tobi even showed affection by giving my hunter a quick lick on the face before continuing on to whatever it was she was doing.

Another beast that caught my attention was Barroth in the second desert area. Despite his scary demeanor and appearance, Barroth’s AI was that of a gentle giant. If you spend some time just observing him, Barroth is an insectivore beast and is docile by nature. To me, he is akin to a giant dog, especially when he’s rolling around in the mud to cool himself off from the heat of the desert. Repeatedly killing him after learning of his true nature quickly lost its enjoyment for me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certain beasts that I gladly hunted over and over again. Anjanath comes to mind first, as Capcom have created a very aggressive beast with him. Yet even with Anjanath I felt some pity whenever I saw him limping away trying to flee. Furthermore, comparing Anjanath to something like Legiana — the beautiful beast we hunted because her hunting ground somehow disturbed our expedition — is an insult.  

To Kill or to Capture?

At this point, some of you are surely wanting to point out that there is a capture mechanic in the game as well. By throwing a tranquilizer bomb at it, you can capture a beast alive and bring it back to your settlement. In fact, Capcom seem to make this the preferred method of farming each monster in the game as the capture quests often yield better rewards than the kill quests.

I started to view this positively until the game introduced you to the Arena Hunt. Put simply, the Arena Hunt is a special zone within your settlement where you can go toe to toe with the captured beasts. It’s a circular area filled with traps, and the beasts have no way to run. Both of you will fight until one of you dies.

This was another one that got me thinking. At this point, this was no longer a noble hunt in any way. This was a beast that had been removed from its natural habitat, sedated to be studied, and then put in a big arena only to be killed and carved anyway. And the arena would often have painful traps such as the shock trap or the poison coated arrow.

Again: who are the real monsters here?

It’s a big World out There

It’s easy to view this article as a negative assessment of the game, but it really isn’t. Monster Hunter: World has managed to re-ignite my love of this genre and has allowed me to relive the adrenaline rush I experienced after taking down my first apex predator. With this game, Capcom has re-introduced me to the conundrum I used to have in choosing between sleep or completing another half an hour hunt to complete a set armor.

No, this is absolutely not a critique of the game.

This is a salute to Capcom as their masterpiece has managed to stir something in me in a way that few other games have. I care about these beasts, and since killing them is the main part of the game, this has slightly diminished my enjoyment of the game.

That being said, it doesn’t mean I’m going to put down my controller and hunting bow anytime soon. It just means that I might take a break once in a while after finishing a successful hunt. Or more likely I’ll simply spend some time exploring and observing instead of a hunting.

By and large, Monster Hunter: World is an absolutely stunning game. Capcom’s obsession with creating a living breathing ecosystem has bared incredible fruit. I encourage you to simply explore the game world once in a while and only kill to defend yourself. It’s amazing how much you could miss if you simply focus on the hunting aspect of the game. From observing Barroth rolling playfully in the mud, to watching Tobi-Kadachi napping under the sun in the Ancient Forest, Monster Hunter: World offers much more than simple kill missions if you simply open your eyes. 

So once a while, put down your weapon and relax. Soak in the sun with Tobi-Kadachi or Watch Legiana hunt majestically in the Coral Highland. You’ll be amazed at what you see and it will give you a newfound appreciation of Capcom and their living, breathing ecosystem. 

Well, except for Anjanath. That guy is just a dick.

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Staff Writer
Early adopter, critical gamer, passionate writer, perpetual student, and a cat enthusiast.

Current mood: Stomping around Kamurocho as Kazuma Kiryu