Monday, June 27, 2011

A Walk in the Woods - Immersion in The Hunter

This post is about The Hunter, a free-to-play game developed by Expansive Worlds, part of Avalanche Studios. The free version gives you access to one zone (Logger's Point) and allows you to hunt mule deer, whereas the subscription model ($15 for three months) gives access to all zones and hunting permits, allowing you to hunt everything from pheasants and coyotes to moose and elk. 

From the ridge where I'm standing I can see out across a wide expanse of trees, indistinct and undulating in the low westerly breeze, backed by soft blue mountains across a silvery shimmering bay. The shadow of a cloud passes over me, out over the ridge, and starts across the valley, skimming across the tops of the trees. The wind sweeps in slow waves through the tall grass in this small clearing, but I give it only a passing notice. The wind was at my back. I should have thought of that.

I'm looking, instead, at the dirt at my feet, where two tracks point off in either direction along the ridgeline.  Both are from the same bull elk, the same bull elk that I've been following for the past few hundred yards, the same bull elk, I'm convinced, that I lost nearly an hour and a half ago on the other side of the island. And now I've gone and spooked it again. In its panic, it has unwillingly thrown down this confounding distraction. Two tracks, both fresh, but neither clearly the most recent. Neither tells me which way he went.

My GPS tells me that he's within a hundred yards of where I'm standing, but if I choose the wrong direction, I'll lose him again. I listen carefully, hoping that under the bird calls and the wind, under the soft crunch of my own footsteps in the grass, I will hear the dull thud of his heavy hooves.

Perhaps it was pity, then, that made him call out a throaty grunt from just below the ridge to the south. Perhaps it was an ill-advised shout of triumph at his escape. I don't really take the time to think about it. I'm moving forward in a crouch towards the break of the ridge, looking for a space free of grass to lie down and line up the shot. He's still a good way off, and I'll be shooting through the treetops. I will need to make this shot count.

This stalking predatory mindset is not something I brought into my experience with The Hunter, not something learned in the deep woods on some brisk fall morning. I am a soft-handed and soft-hearted person. I have never before gone hunting. I have a very slim grasp on how to operate a firearm, either safely or effectively (and this despite the encyclopedic knowledge of firearms I've learned from playing games; I'm a cogent counter-argument for the "games teach people how to kill" foolishness). Up to this moment I had never considered the possibility of hunting. Perhaps, in my more self-righteous moments, I had even cast it as savage and dubiously motivated.

But now, after playing The Hunter, I think I understand what it means to hunt, not only on an intellectual level, but on an embodied moral level as well.

A World Made Tangible and an Ethics Made Livable

This revelation is made possible by the dedication and deep respect which Expansive Worlds and Avalanche Studios built into every aspect of the game experience, and by the support of the Boone and Crockett Club - whose "Fair Chase Statement" provides a moderating and educational ethical structure to the actions of players within the game world. Unethical kills, such as those made with an under or over-powered firearm, provoke a disappointed reproach from the game's few npcs. The hunter receives no points or rewards, and the kill is branded as unethical on the hunter's social page. Similarly, hunting female animals rewards no points, even if the kill is, by definition, ethical.

With a lesser game, however, these ethics would feel like little more than external and arbitrary rules trying to structure a sandbox environment. In The Hunter, however, the world itself embodies the reasons behind the ethics. The world feels real, the animals act real, and your presence in the game world has a tangible reality. You can hear your own breath over the crunch of your feet when you jog. There is a tense suspense in the rustle of the grass beneath you when you go prone to line up a shot. The wind carries your scent, while rain masks your approach. And when, after tense minutes or even hours of stalking, you carefully pull the trigger, the discharge of your weapon shatters the peaceful quiet of your surroundings, echoing through the landscape, sending everything living around you into a driving panic.

And they are living things. Leave aside the distinctions between real and virtual environments. The animals of this world behave in realistic ways, and that is enough to give your actions in the game world an embodied ethical weight. Their animations and their reactions to their world convey a range of emotions: safety, comfort, interest, alertness, fear, blind panic, even sadness. I cannot forget the feeling of following a trail of blood through the woods, knowing the whole time that I had fired too hastily and only winged the mule deer I'd been tracking. Each spot of blood showed the reeling panic of the animal, cutting blindly through the woods without direction. Each spot of blood amplified my feeling of guilt, until I too was rushing agitatedly through the woods searching for a body. When I came upon him, he was lying in a foot of water on the shore, the waves rising and falling around him, the reeds bending in the light wind. Too weakened to run any more, he raised his head and watched me as I made my way towards him from the line of the trees, watched me as I pulled out a pistol. Their intelligence, however artificial, is driven by a powerful will to survive that commands respect, even within the confines of the game. That will is, in itself, a formidable opponent.

There are six female mule deer in this frame. Can you spot them all?

The drama of each hunt, the tension of stalking such willful and wary animals, plays out within the most immersive game world I have ever inhabited. No other game provides a better argument for increasing the graphical power of your computer, or for enhancing your computer's audio. I have spent hours walking in these woods holding a camera instead of a gun, just being within these spaces. I've lost more than a few trails when, emerging from the dark closeness of the forest, I was stilled by the sound and the sight of a breath of wind swaying across a field of tall grass, or by the movement of a cloud over the distant water. It may not compare to the serenity of walking in real woods, but it comes far, far closer than any game world I have ever experienced, closer even than I would have imagined possible at the current time. Even if you don't see a single animal, even if you don't fire a single shot, no hunt in this world ever feels like time wasted.

Imbuing Virtual Choices with Real Emotional Weight

Back on the ridgeline, I've sighted the bull elk between the leaves of the trees below. He is walking again, cutting leisurely back and forth as he climbs the rocky scree of the next hill. I raise the scope to my eye and follow his ascent, waiting for a clear shot. From beyond the next hill, higher-pitched and plaintive, a female elk calls out. He pauses in my crosshairs, ignorant and proud, raises his head, and responds. I watch him through the scope as he passes over the crest of the hill and disappears into the woods beyond, then make my way back towards the coast as a light rain settles pattering around me, alone and content with the sound of my own footsteps in these somber woods.