First up, I have not learned to speak Monster Hunter. I am still learning. In fact, I am pretty much still at the beginning of it. I have almost no good equipment. I have tangled with only the most feeble of Monster Hunter’s terrifying beasts. I know what Psychoserum does, but only because I looked it up. But anyway, I have started! I have ventured into the wild lands, which at first seem very tame and blurry and empty – I am playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on the 3DS – and they have just started, over many hours of early-game missions, to seem truly wild. This is how it begins, I guess. I have always wanted to do this, and this is how it begins.
Actually, it began for me with two things, one of them distant, the other very recent.
Recently, I booted my way into the beta for Monster Hunter World and found a lavish world of lurid plantlife and shambling giants. It was like stepping into a new biosphere, the air thick and buzzing. I tracked animals and hacked away at them optimistically. I batted aside rubbery leaves and waded through puddles and marveled at the sheer ferniness of what I was encountering. I came across a vast beast with a head that looked like a single human molar, and as I chased her from one part of the landscape to another I lost her for a few moments, only to find her again as she rose out of the mud and ooze, this digital creation suddenly possessed of something so natural, so truly wild. And as it loured over me, I thought: I have to learn about this stuff!
And before that, in the distant past of, ooh, 2013, I had read Rich Stanton’s wonderful review of MH3U where I came across a single line that moved me in ways I cannot adequately describe. Ahem: “God help the neophyte who decides to pick the bagpipes.” Oh, I thought, as I scrolled and stopped and something stirred within me. I thought: I could be that neophyte! In fact, I think I am that neophyte! And that thought, arriving here for the first time: I have to learn about this stuff!
That’s the glorious crux of it, I think. Monster Hunter is a game that you learn. As such, it feels completely different to anything else that purports to be wild and sandboxy. You do not not have to learn Far Cry, not really. You merely bend the latest Far Cry to your will, seeing the wildness in these games, I suspect, as little more than interesting dice-rolls, mountain-lion-modifiers that seek to wake you up during another firefight.
Monster Hunter, though? Monster Hunter will bend you to its will. It gives you a task – the task, unsurprisingly, is hunt monsters – and then it teaches you how to do it. God, it takes a long time to learn how to do it. Mostly, at first, I would argue that you are learning your place, and your place is to be small and deeply set within a vast game that surrounds you on all sides.
So far, I have been playing on my own. That seems important. Just as you don’t turn up at a cocktail party at the French embassy and spark up a Gauloises when you’re still at the “je m’appelle” stage – you don’t do this because you will bore people or, much worse, seriously entertain them – I suspect that you shouldn’t join the hunt with competent strangers when you’re still trying to grasp why it was a mistake to come packing bagpipes. More importantly, as with PUBG and Fortnite: Battle Royale, there is something deeper at work in this decision. In the first place, I play these games to be alone.
So instead of partying up – and isn’t that meant to be a pain on 3DS? – I have settled into the hub village and listened very closely to everything I have been told. Someone wants to talk to me about smithing: absolutely, for once in a game I will actually learn about smithing. Someone else wants to discuss fish. For fish, I will even take notes! I will learn about the farm, I will learn about the various ships that come by. I will learn about resources and how to cash in kills. Oh yes, and I will learn about quests.
It is quests that have started to transform the world of Monster Hunter for me. A world which, on the 3DS, is not filled with luminous plantlife to knock through, and which is not by any stretch the ferniest thing I have ever encountered. MH3U’s great outdoors actually looks like it’s been sandblasted at first, a low-poly landscape that looks scrubbed down to a cloudy mineral finish. When I first started to explore the opening area, as I struggled to understand the way a single place is broken up into a handful of elbowy spaces, linked together like weird bodily organs, I was struck by what felt like the hollowness of it all.
But then I was given a shopping list, and while the shopping list was really a nested set of tutorials – let’s learn about foraging, let’s learn about mining – it was also teaching me something much more basic. This map, this stretch of nature, may look dead at first, but it isn’t.
And that’s because of presence, I think: presence built up through repetition. These huge environments, built of clusters of little spaces, they may seem dull and empty at first but they become vivid over time as you grind them. And if grinding seems mindless, it’s a peculiarly mindful kind of mindlessness in Monster Hunter. You really do learn where the mushrooms you are after spawn most regularly. You really do learn where to find iron ore. You learn where to get honey, and you learn the vital intervals that ring in the Vespers of a life of honey collection.
And then, in the bee-loud glades, you learn secret paths between distant places and over time the woods and the deserts that once struck you as a bit “is this it?” become cherished stomping grounds because you have done all that stomping, because you have learned how the awful f***ing menus work, because you found those two blade weapons that allow you to dervish your way through even the toughest hide, and because you have settled into a meaningful place in nature. And while the unnatural natural world of Monster Hunter is actually a piece of clockwork, maybe the real natural world is too? Maybe the mushrooms and wild strawberries in the fields near my house are on their own timers, their own cooldowns.
It is a special kind of game that manages to craft a sense of wildness out of repetition and structure, out of moving over the same places again and again and doing mostly the same kind of things. Monster Hunter mints joy from all this – surprise and fear and carnage as you hunt a giant beast from one zone to another – because the depths of the systems are truly astonishing. You can drop a pebble into any one of its menus and you will never hear it hit the ground. To accommodate those depths, though, to make them approachable, the main interactions on the surface level are very simple: go here, get me five of these, don’t die.
Don’t die! That is the thing I am still learning. And speaking of death and learning and the interaction between the two in a video game, more than anything I am learning that Monster Hunter is like the weird sibling of Dark Souls. Or rather, as I play Dark Souls – I am still deep into a first playthrough that has lasted over a year by this point; greetings from Blighttown! – it now reminds me of Monster Hunter in so many ways. Both games have a love of moss on stone, of the clumsy clink of weaponry on wood and ancient bone. But both send you out on your own – if you choose to be alone of course – to gain a proper understanding of a landscape by moving back and forth over it again and again until you properly get a sense of how it works, how it fits into the wider environment, what its purpose is, and what you should definitely never try to do while you are there. I love both these games because while they seem to offer mastery, they ultimately suggest that mastery is another sad human folly.
That’s it, I guess. That’s the thing I have definitely learned so far. One wrong move, one stupid choice, and mastery is not worth very much in nature. Or even in a video game that is trying, despite the kill-lists and the barbecue spits, to respect nature and make you understand your place in the natural order of things.