"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.
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.