theHunter

"What's that daddy?"

It's my son, Peter.

"Shhhhh...." I chastise him. Without a beat, he shifts to a whisper. "What's that daddy?"

"It's an elk," I whisper.

He hops onto my lap, and for the next 20 minutes we work our way closer. The elk remains on the ridgeline, slowly working his way along a trail of moss that must be his afternoon snack. Peter points out the birds and butterflies. He giggles with delight as we crawl 15 feet from a Mule Deer not our prey. We are very quiet.

"Dinner time guys!" calls Jessica from the top of the stairs. "Shhhh..." respond Peter and I in unison.

Jessica tiptoes into the office. Looks at the animal on the screen. Looks at us.

"Why am I whispering?"

The reason we're whispering is that we are playing theHunter, a surprising game by British publisher Emote and Swedish developer Avalanche Games.

The premise of theHunter is simple, and indeed small. Grab a rifle and head out to a small island off the coast of Washington State to hunt deer. A simple web-based interface helps select a starting area, a character, and provides a paper-thin "mission" or two. But the island and its inhabitants are anything but simple. Avalanche has taken a very small piece of real estate and used every tool in its AAA-title arsenal to make it real. Not just real in the sense that it's well rendered, but real in the sense that it's logical and consistent. Wind flows along gullies from the beach. The calls of animals echo through canyons. Animals follow logical but not necessarily predictable paths through the landscape. And the animals behave like prey -- they smell you coming. They catch flashes of sunlight on binocular lenses. They hear everything.

While there are concessions to playability -- a GPS that doubles as a sound locater and tracking aid -- the game is fundamentally a simulation. Of hunting. Which means walking quietly. Stopping. Looking. Listening. Then walking some more. Initially, I expected to be bored. I told myself I would simply walk around until I saw something, consider it a game played, and move on. But once I started actually tracking down deer -- a process of identifying scuff marks, deer crap, and deer calls -- I began to understand the allure of real hunting. I was struck by a sense of calm and wonder at the world around me, combined with the thrill and tension of trying to outwit a creature in whose home I was a trespasser.

And at the end of that first half hour, when presented with a small doe in the crosshairs of my rifle site, I was deeply conflicted. Clearly the "point" is to pull the trigger, bag the deer, and get "credit" for the kill on the game's web-based leaderboard. But the importance of that one trigger pull after that half hour slow-motion chase surprised me.

A Different Way

The biggest surprise may be that the game exists at all. Avalanche Studios, the developer of the generally well-received 2006 third-person action game, Just Cause, hasn't had an easy time of it. Just last October they were forced to lay off half their staff as projects fell through. The team that remained has focused on only two things: delivering Just Cause 2 for EIDOS, and theHunter.

One game is a would-be AAA console title in a well-understood and well-served genre (third person, sandbox, rocket-launcher action game). The other a free-to-play, pay-for-stuff web/PC hybrid in a genre often used as an example of the lowest of lowest-common-denominator, WalMart discount gaming (the hunting game).

If that seems like an odd mix, publisher Emote would disagree. "I think [theHunter] grows into a treble-A title," said Emote's COO, David Rose. It's an admission that the game isn't where it hopes to be, eventually. But consider that the game has gone from zero to taking-credit cards in just 12 months, and that the core experience is completely free. What you pay for is the ability to hunt more than one species, with more than one weapon. But in no case are you paying for a AAA story-driven epic. "Instead of a game taking 3 years, perhaps coming to market dated. We can come to market that quickly and then respond to what people tell us they would like to see," insists Rose. "We're just using online delivery to bring games to people in a way we think is a little bit smarter."

But I worry the game won't break out of its niche. That its verisimilitude and languor will alienate all but the simulationist. Emote, for their part, get that this is a limiting factor. Through the intermediation of Skype, I can hear Rose shifting uncomfortably in his chair. "I think that concern will never go away, and never should," he says. "I'm relatively happy with the balance between the realism of hunting, and giving you something to do every 15 minutes. But for someone coming to hunting for the first time, that means slowing down, taking your time." And this is ultimately the hardest part. "You're not fragging 10 deer," he says. "Nor should you."

Indeed, it's unlikely that you'll even find 10 deer in the course of playing theHunter for a weekend, much less a single evening. Simply being quiet isn't enough -- this isn't a stealth shooter. Instead, theHunter demands that you learn the island, learn how to read the wind, learn how to hug gullies and see through the clutter of grasses and leaves to even find your prey, much less engage it. The game is in the chase, not in the shot.

Should.

It's not just the pacing that breaks theHunter from its gaming roots, it's the attitude. TheHunter is pedantic. The game consists of two distinct experiences. The one in screenshots is the actual hunting. But the second experience is entirely browser based -- the game is even launched from a browser, which must be connected in order to work. While this serves as a pathway to some minimal community features like leaderboards and friends lists, its primary purpose is to act as the interface through which you plan and analyze your hunting.

While simple missions exist in the web-interface, there is no goal to the game beyond the experience of hunting. TheHunter is a pure sandbox game. But unlike the sandboxes of Grand Theft Auto and its many doppelgangers, bad behavior isn't rewarded. There is no 4x4 in which to trash the wilderness. There are no paint cans to mark your favorite trees. More than that, bad behavior is chastised. The simple tutorials, given through a web-interface character named "Doc," are concerned primarily with imparting an ethos of ethical hunting.

While this might seem like an oxymoron to an anti-hunter, it's not. I've spent most of my life surrounded by hunters and fishermen. To a fault, they take the idea of a "fair chase" very seriously, and there is no greater failure for them than leaving an animal wounded in the woods. TheHunter reinforces this. You won't be given credit for animals you kill, but fail to track and virtually haul out of the brush. Nor will you be rewarded if you take down an elk with your turkey-shot loaded shotgun. And if you should pursue these less-than-honorable activities, the virtual characters who populate the website will send you nastygrams, reminding you that you've screwed up and how to avoid doing so in the future.

This sense of right and wrong has permeated my time on the island. Not only the right-and-wrongness of how to hunt, but of my very presence there. It's ludicrous on the face of it that I should be concerned with the moral implications of shooting a virtual turkey. After all, how many nameless thousands have I slaughtered without conscience? Billions, in the case of strategy games?

And yet, after crawling on my hands and knees through the underbrush for half an hour, I find my trigger-finger hesitant as the gigantic elk meanders obliviously into the iron sites of my 30-aught-6.

Comments

Wow, I'm going to have to give this a try. Games that create a place that feels like a place have always had a lot of appeal for me.

It sounds sort of like if Far Cry 2 didn't hate you.

[quote]the iron sites of my 30-aught-6[quote]Talk dirty to me.

wordsmythe wrote:

It sounds sort of like if Far Cry 2 didn't hate you.

True dat.

A bunch of us have been playing this for a couple weeks (there's a post in the Gaming forums) so join on in and friend us up.

Rabbit touched on the little missions they give you and I find they make it interesting as they increasingly challenge you to do more and get better. They start off with just tracking spotting, and hunting your first deer. Then they send you out to kill a 6-point buck. Oh, you did that, now go get me an 8-point buck. Got him? That's nice, now go get me 2 200lb bucks. I haven't gotten there yet, but I hear there's one to kill a deer from every single stand in one day.

So, while completely optional, I'm glad they put in the effort to include them.

Dangit, I've avoided downloading this or reading the massive thread so far but now I have to. At least it's free. Nice writeup.

Indeed, it's unlikely that you'll even find 10 dear in the course of playing theHunter for a weekend

Surprised wordsmythe didn't point it out...

This sounds like the kind of game I would love if I had a lot more patience. I don't think I do....but I may have to find out.

Minarchist wrote:
Indeed, it's unlikely that you'll even find 10 dear in the course of playing theHunter for a weekend

Surprised wordsmythe didn't point it out...

Sometimes I wonder whether you all actually read the articles or just play "nail the proofer." Sheesh. You could at least shame me in private.

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

I second this. I'd play it then, because as it is I'm just not comfortable with the hunting.

rabbit wrote:

You could at least shame me in private.

Well, there was last Friday night...

pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

you should check out Wild Earth: African Safari. Graphics can't really compare, but a fun game in its own right.

Dysplastic wrote:

This sounds like the kind of game I would love if I had a lot more patience. I don't think I do....but I may have to find out.

I think you are in the same boat a lot of us were. Rabbit mentioned in his article that he was skeptical as well. Give it a shot.

pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

Rumor has it there will be a camera in future content releases.

rabbit wrote:
Minarchist wrote:
Indeed, it's unlikely that you'll even find 10 dear in the course of playing theHunter for a weekend

Surprised wordsmythe didn't point it out...

Sometimes I wonder whether you all actually read the articles or just play "nail the proofer." Sheesh. You could at least shame me in private.

But that wood be no fun.

Nice article. This game has really been occupying my time lately.

Worth mentioning is that the Warden license offer expires at the end of the month, which gets you a license to hunt mule deer, whitetail, elk and turkey, plus extra weapons and equipment, where you will probably have to purchase those things separately in the future.

Nice write up, rabbit.

Interesting that the island is supposed to be off the Washington coast. As a resident of said coast, the forest seems much too deciduous to me, and not nearly damp enough. I totally agree on the fantastic sense of place and reality, though. Avalanche really has done a fantastic job with this.

rabbit wrote:
Minarchist wrote:
Indeed, it's unlikely that you'll even find 10 dear in the course of playing theHunter for a weekend

Surprised wordsmythe didn't point it out...

Sometimes I wonder whether you all actually read the articles or just play "nail the proofer." Sheesh. You could at least shame me in private.

Poor rabbit. It's the price you pay for writing for a literate audience.

Something like this on Kotaku and you will be reading through 'Ur Certis is awesome n00b' post instead.

*edit*

hehe, I love the word filter.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

I second this. I'd play it then, because as it is I'm just not comfortable with the hunting.

I felt the same. I'm far from having any desire to shoot any kind of animal unless my life depended on it. But after thinking about the millions of humans I've "virtually" shot, stabbed, blown-up, etc. shooting some "virtual" deer isn't all that bad. Well, the deer aren't actively trying to kill me, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, there will be a camera in the game soon and the speculation on the forums is you may be given missions to go photograph the various animals. But even now you aren't forced to do any shooting. You could just go out with your binoculars and go sight-seeing and try to track some animals. You can take screenshots using PrintScreen and alt-tabbing out to paste into whatever graphics app you use if you want to "photo" something.

In a way it makes no sense, I have no trouble killing countless humans in "murder simulators" like Far Cry 2, but a simulated hunting experience just puts me off, even offends me somehow. Obviously I'm very anti-hunting ... but then again it's not like I'm pro-murder. Weird. The mechanics of the game do sound cool though. I could see myself playing to get those perfect shots ... and not take them.

The camera idea sounds awesome - now that is a game that could interest me and I could share with my kids.

AcidCat wrote:

In a way it makes no sense, I have no trouble killing countless humans in "murder simulators" like Far Cry 2, but a simulated hunting experience just puts me off, even offends me somehow. Obviously I'm very anti-hunting ... but then again it's not like I'm pro-murder. Weird. The mechanics of the game do sound cool though. I could see myself playing to get those perfect shots ... and not take them.

I feel much the same. I've killed countless millions, including over 54,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead alone and the entire Third Reich at least 10 times, yet I'm somehow uncomfortable with the idea of shooting a deer (or dear) even in a game. Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals.

LobsterMobster wrote:

I feel much the same. I've killed countless millions, including over 54,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead alone and the entire Third Reich at least 10 times, yet I'm somehow uncomfortable with the idea of shooting a deer (or dear) even in a game. Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals. :P

I'm thankful for the game if for no other reason than that it's made me think about this very issue.

Vega wrote:
rabbit wrote:
LobsterMobster wrote:

I feel much the same. I've killed countless millions, including over 54,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead alone and the entire Third Reich at least 10 times, yet I'm somehow uncomfortable with the idea of shooting a deer (or dear) even in a game. Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals. :P

I'm thankful for the game if for no other reason than that it's made me think about this very issue.

I'm thinking it mostly comes down to the cuteness and defenseless factor. I mean, typically in these other games were talking about the humans (or zombies) being lethal and are actively trying to kill us. Plus, a lot of times the people we're shooting are a**holes, so they had it coming. Not to say there probably aren't a**hole deer out there, but the ones I generally see seem nice enough.

I mean, if you were playing the game and came across a deer with a machine gun pointed at you. Would you have a problem putting a cap in him?

Knowing that it lacks fingers with which to operate such a weapon? Hmm....

Yes, I am very much ashamed that I skimmed that.

AcidCat wrote:

In a way it makes no sense, I have no trouble killing countless humans in "murder simulators" like Far Cry 2, but a simulated hunting experience just puts me off, even offends me somehow. Obviously I'm very anti-hunting ... but then again it's not like I'm pro-murder. Weird. The mechanics of the game do sound cool though. I could see myself playing to get those perfect shots ... and not take them.

The camera idea sounds awesome - now that is a game that could interest me and I could share with my kids.

My guess is that this is because intentional estrangement and the uncanny valley both make virtual humans seem less, well, human. These deer, on the other hand, have less uncanny valley issues and care is taken to make them more lifelike instead of less sympathetic.

rabbit wrote:
LobsterMobster wrote:

I feel much the same. I've killed countless millions, including over 54,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead alone and the entire Third Reich at least 10 times, yet I'm somehow uncomfortable with the idea of shooting a deer (or dear) even in a game. Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals. :P

I'm thankful for the game if for no other reason than that it's made me think about this very issue.

I'm thinking it mostly comes down to the cuteness and defenseless factor. I mean, typically in these other games were talking about the humans (or zombies) are lethal and are actively trying to kill us. Plus, a lot of times the people we're shooting are a**holes, so they had it coming. Not to say there probably aren't a**hole deer out there, but the ones I generally see seem nice enough.

-edit-
removing stupid retorical question as it takes us out of the realism this game presents into fantasy so doesn't make much sense.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

I second this. I'd play it then, because as it is I'm just not comfortable with the hunting.

I'm the same way. After walking, crouching and crawling through the forest for 20 minutes I had Bambi with 2 lumps on his head in my sights. I watch the crosshairs on him and find myself thinking, "I can't shoot you. Your ears are bigger than your antlers." So I stood up, scared the crap out of the little guy, and watched him bounce away.

I haven't "killed" anything yet but I'm enjoying my "nature hikes". I highly recommend it even if just for the relaxation.

LobsterMobster wrote:

Knowing that it lacks fingers with which to operate such a weapon? Hmm.... ;)

Hah.. got me before my edit.

Minarchist wrote:
pyjamarama wrote:

It would be interesting to be given the otion to replace the rifle with a camera

you should check out Wild Earth: African Safari. Graphics can't really compare, but a fun game in its own right.

And you should check out our piece on Afrika/Hakuna Matata.

LobsterMobster wrote:

Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals. :P

The meat in your super market comes from killing real fuzzy cute animals. At least when you kill a deer as a hunter, the deer gets to have a pretty good life before it's killed.

If God didn't want us to eat animals he wouldn't have made them out of meat.

dumb_kid wrote:
LobsterMobster wrote:

Maybe I'll give it a shot just to see how it feels. After all, it doesn't mean I have to start killing REAL animals. :P

The meat in your super market comes from killing real fuzzy cute animals.

Which is why I don't eat them, either.

rabbit wrote:

I'm thankful for the game if for no other reason than that it's made me think about this very issue.

Indeed.

Vega wrote:

I'm thinking it mostly comes down to the cuteness and defenseless factor. I mean, typically in these other games were talking about the humans (or zombies) are lethal and are actively trying to kill us. Plus, a lot of times the people we're shooting are a**holes, so they had it coming. Not to say there probably aren't a**hole deer out there, but the ones I generally see seem nice enough.

-edit-
removing stupid retorical question as it takes us out of the realism this game presents into fantasy so doesn't make much sense.

One other game that I recollect felling to some extent bad about killing was shadow of the colossus although they weren't exactly defenseless it felt somehow wrong of me to take them down.