Uncovering the Conflicting Intent within 'Monster Hunter: World'
This article has some early-game spoilers for Monster Hunter: World.
When Monster Hunter: World was released in late January, I admittedly paid little attention to the conversations surrounding it.
Having never played any of the franchise’s previous installments, and after hearing much about the steep on-ramp in regards to difficulty and system comprehension, I felt I had missed the boat, and was too far behind to catch up.
This changed within a week. After hearing reviewers, podcasters, and content creators gush over the game’s mechanical intensity, beautiful world art - and, admittedly, its comparison to the Dark Souls series - Monster Hunter: World was downloaded onto my hard drive and I found myself staring at the title screen. As my friend Caleb put it, “I just want to be part of the conversation”.
With over forty hours invested into the game, I am genuinely happy to be part of this conversation. From its very first quest, Monster Hunter: World offers an impactful experience, punctuated by an intense feeling of accomplishment and reward every time I sit down to play. On the surface, the goal of this game is simple: follow an Elder Dragon to a new world, establish new “camps” and “bases”, do some science stuff (sort of) - but mostly hunt monsters, and reap rewards for doing so successfully. There’s a lot of joy to be found here: white-knuckle encounters with building-sized beasts that have me sweating and breathing tightly. Sprawling, semi-open world levels that range from deep, lush jungles, to arid, rocky desertscapes. Intricate upgrade systems that force me to heavily consider my actions and manage resources. The companionship of a tiny cat-friend (a race known as Palico) who aids me in battle, and encourages me with cute banter. Simply put: there is a lot going on in this game - and a lot of it makes me smile.
Despite this almost universal praise, no game is flawless, and Monster Hunter: World is not an exception. Artistically beautiful yet technically underwhelming, there are parts of this experience that - especially for a newcomer to the franchise - are just broken. Out-of-sync dialogue animation, initially created for the game’s Japanese version, kill gameplay immersion every time a character speaks. Hub-worlds are too large and detached, requiring unreasonable amounts of travel between points of interest. The game’s most glaring technical misstep, however, is the frustratingly complex co-op system that forces every player in a party to watch multiple unskippable cutscenes in order to join a friend’s quest. For a game that heavily encourages playing with friends, Monster Hunter: World really gets in its own way because of this.
But here I am - teaming up with other hunters and playing the game every single night, getting entirely lost in the fantasy it allows me to indulge in. But for the first time in my 20ish years playing video games, I find myself confronting a recurring an uncomfortable sentiment: after almost every successful “hunt”, I feel genuine guilt, and question what fantasy the game is really letting me play out.
Beyond its promise of fantastical quests, pouring with adventure and thrill, Monster Hunter: World provides a platform through which players are thrust into a seemingly neo-colonialist narrative that I wasn’t prepared to grapple with - mostly because that narrative isn’t overtly advertised. The formula is baked into the experience from the start: a “fleet” of hunters team up with scientists, travel to a new land in pursuit of an exotic beast, disrupt the ecological landscape by building new settlements, hunting native wildlife (in the name of “science”), and carving parts from them for resources. These resources are then used to forge and upgrade new weapons and armor, allowing hunters to stand against bigger, more deadly beasts. Quite the cycle.
Monster Hunter: World continues to push the theme of subjugation throughout almost every quest, even in its gameplay mechanics.
An illustration of this was during my hunt of a Paolumu - a bipedal, winged mammal that sort of resembles a Northern Ghost Bat. This beast, about the size of an SUV, wanders around the Coral Highlands, engaging with other wildlife, and generally just being a part of the ecosystem. I approached it straight on, expecting it to rear up in surprise or anger and start attacking me. But that didn’t happen - it stared past me, not caring about my presence. It was clear the game was telling me to make the first move, so I did: pulling out my glaive, I launched high above the beast in a masterfully animated aerial spin, and landed hard on its back, blade-first. It stumbled back, finally becoming aware of me, and let out a massive screech in protest. The in-game music mounted into a high crescendo, and the hunt began.
The beast moved swiftly as we fought, dodging my attacks and using a sack in its neck to suck in air and float for several seconds. After chasing it down three or four times (monsters tend to flee from a battle after taking damage), it was clear I was close to the end of this contest. The beast began limping and moving slower, missing attacks and swooping in the wrong directions. It let out what seemed to be a final cry, and I braced for another massive lunge - but it never came. The Paolumu simply turned around, unable to take flight anymore, and limped into a clearing in the walls of a cave. I followed it, and discovering it was just laying down in silence. I paused for a moment, watching the beast breathe slowly, unsure whether my hunt was over or not. Again, the game was telling me to attack, but under different circumstances: it was telling me to attack a wounded, sleeping animal. It woke to the feeling of weapon digging into it's body once more, and after only a few more minutes, the hunt was over. I harvested resources from my fallen enemy, and returned to camp.
This experience didn’t sit too well with me, maybe because before I attacked it the Paolumu was actually kind of cute. More largely however, it highlighted the fact that the overarching goal of this game is to establish dominance - mostly through violence. The beast I had just killed wasn’t directly involved in my pursuit of the Elder Dragon we were supposedly trying to learn more about, yet it was in a main quest that I had to play through.
Part of how Monster Hunter: World drew this unexpected sense of guilt from me is based in how the game telegraphs enemy damage. Unlike most games, there are no health bars or HP counters on your enemies - the only way to discern how wounded a monster is, is to pay attention to its movement, design, and behavior. Beasts will develop scars and scrapes on their bodies, drool and froth from the mouth when they’re hurt, limp away from you as they flee - and yes, even lay down for a nap. Disarming monsters by cutting off tails and horns during battle is a common occurrence, and prevents them from attacking in various ways. To the game’s credit, you do have the option to capture monsters rather than killing them, using traps and tranquilizers - only to later find them back at your base, closely guarded by other hunters.
There are also quests that drop you in an arena with monsters, complete with lever-operated traps and massive trick weapons hidden within walls. I never had much trouble with these contests, mostly because the cards were so clearly stacked in my favor. With nowhere to run and hide, the monsters' only choice is to go toe-to-toe with me in a sort of sad gladiatorial match. To quote Caleb again: “Those gladiator arena battles are gross.” As fun and rewarding as they are in Monster Hunter: World, I kind of agree.
I’d like to reiterate that I am genuinely enjoying my experience with Monster Hunter: World, and am certainly not advocating for people to stop playing it. But for a game that conveys some systems very poorly, it excels at conveying how much pain and grief you’ve caused as a hunter, which raises questions about intention. Is Capcom trying to draw empathy from players? Are they encouraging us to take a long hard look in the mirror, and ask ourselves what fantasy we're really playing out? My guess is no. The mechanics of hunting monsters and harvesting their parts for resources have been central to the entire franchise since its beginnings, but the conversations and questions that arise from playing it are a definite side effect.
At the end of the day, I can’t help but to think that these side effects shouldn’t come as a surprise; the word Hunter is in the title, after all. But unlike other violent video games (of which I’ve played many), Monster Hunter: World doesn’t show its hand as a violent video game - at least not openly. Instead, players are thrust into a conflictingly complex world where pain and brutality are the price of discovery and knowledge. Hunting towering beasts across sprawling, intricate landscapes is simply the mechanism through which hunters become smarter, stronger, and more equipped with the context to push on through quest after quest.
I don’t think the guilt I felt after hunting down the Paolumu was the intentional result this game sought to achieve. But with that experience sitting in the back of my mind days later, I’m forced to reckon with uniquely subtle themes that I’ve rarely experienced in gaming. For this, I won’t be forgetting my first experience in Monster Hunter: World any time soon, and I certainly don't think I'll have answers to the questions it forced me to ask myself.