The tonal whiplash of Monster Hunter: World and Shadow of the Colossus


The game I’m playing the most right now is … well, it’s Celeste. That’s an excellent platformer, and you should pick it up. Outside of that, however, I’m also spending a lot of time with Monster Hunter: World and the Shadow of the Colossus remake on PlayStation 4. And playing those back-to-back has made it impossible for me to ignore how similar they are in concept and how jarring they are in tone.

Now, I know I can’t stop you, but please — before you send me and angry tweet (@jeffgrubb) telling me I should be fired for being so stupid — hear me out. Monster Hunter and Colossus are a world apart in terms of gameplay. They don’t exist in the same genre. The comparison I’m making, which I don’t think is some incomprehensible notion, is that the core conceits of each game share a similar thrust.

In both games, you play as a human who travels to a foreign land. These new continents are devoid of human presence, but they are brimming with megafauna. Each game treats these creatures as monsters, and it is your explicit purpose to kill them because their deaths will provide something of value to the humans.

The difference between the two games is that Shadow of the Colossus understands the moral implications of your actions. The theme of Colossus is that humans are so addicted to extracting resources from nature that they will corrupt themselves. Monster Hunter: World, meanwhile, doesn’t have any qualms about what you’re doing.

“But hunters are good, though!”

Now, I brought this up on Twitter, and some Monster Hunter megafans took time out of their days to educate me about the series. It turns out, they claim, that the humans in Monster Hunter are morally impugnable.

Here’s a passage from the Monster Hunter wiki about the Hunter’s Guild that multiple people sent me:

“The primary goal of the Hunter’s Guild is to prevent further damage to the monster populations. This is so they can prevent other monster species from going extinct like some ancient species. Due to this, the Hunter’s Guild keeps tabs on the monster populations in areas and prevents hunters from taking the same quest more than once, unless it is necessary to do so. However, if a monster threatens lives, towns, cities, etc. then hunters are allowed to hunt it to prevent destruction, even if the monster is rare, as long as the monster is at least repelled or slain.”

I actually have a couple of issues with this explanation, but for now let’s ignore the idea of human-determined population culling. Let’s also ignore that the hunters are clearly colonialists who value the security of their settlements over the lives of the natural inhabitants of the New World.

That defense is absurd because the mechanics of Monster Hunter have nothing to do with protecting monster populations. You are clearly harvesting these beasts for their loot. You go out into the field not because the Great Jagras are eating too many Aptonoths, but because you want to make a new sword or a cute hunting skirt.

In the face of the text of Monster Hunter, the wiki explanation comes across as an ad hoc diversionary tactic to avoid thinking about what the player is actually doing.

Humans vs. nature

Bouncing from Shadow of the Colossus to Monster Hunter: World hit me with tonal whiplash — at least at first. One game seems to deal with its themes while the other pretends it doesn’t have any.

But now that I’ve spent some time thinking about it, that chasm in tonality has vanished, and now I see a pair of metaphors for our relationship with nature.

In addition to these games, I’m also reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. And because I’m one of those storytelling primates desperate for patterns, it’s easy to see how Colossus and Monster Hunter are expressions of anxiety about our place in the world.

Monster Hunter: World

Monster Hunter is about how destructive humans are. Even when we enter a new ecosystem with the alleged goal of protecting the native species, we always leave a loophole open for ourselves. If one of these creatures gets close to our settlements, we’ll have to kill it no matter how rare it is.

Humans rarely are trying to eliminate a species entirely. We enter a land, and we kill a few giant mammals every couple of weeks or even months. But that is faster than they can procreate, and in a few dozen generations, you have the Holocene extinction.

We are still in the Holocene extinction era, which the sixth mass-extinction event throughout the biological history of Earth. Human activity is primarily responsible for this unfathomable loss of species, and yes — that means we are as destructive as whatever killed the dinosaurs.

How do we know that humans are responsible? Well, Holocene extinction didn’t reach islands like Hawaii and New Zealand until humans settled it.

As I play through Monster Hunter: World, I can’t help but think about this history. The game doesn’t actively acknowledge this, but that is representative of how we have always lived through this extinction event. We are settling new lands and eliminating megafauna species. And then, suddenly, we are “protecting the ecosystem” by hunting overpopulated deer because they no longer have any natural predators.

Shadow of the Colossus

You can read Shadow of the Colossus a number of ways. It’s saying that humans will kill animals indiscriminately to save themselves. It’s also saying that maybe we’d kill ourselves in the process like some kind of global climate change. But I think the chapter in Sapiens about the domestication of humanity provides an interesting new read on what Shadow of the Colossus means.

The popular understanding of the agricultural revolution is that humans conquered the nature and improved their lives immeasurably by doing so. But that wasn’t the case for a long time. Hunter/gatherers were healthier, happier, and worked far less than farmers. The only thing humans got out of farming was enough calories to support larger families.

And while modern society has built a ton of systems and luxuries to make humans fit better into our industrial-agriculture societies, early farmers were miserable. But they were willing to corrupt their existence to squeeze a little more life into the world.

If you don’t buy that, think about it this way. We have way more chickens today than we did before the agricultural revolution. Those chickens are all miserable and living in awful conditions, but they have produced billions of copies of their genetic code.

So how come you can describe the state of humans and chickens in the same terms before and after we became farmers? If we domesticated chickens, why were we in the same situation as them? Because nature domesticated humans. In particular, wheat domesticated humans. We got a taste of this high-calorie grain, and we ended up addicted to it.

In Shadow of the Colossus, we get a similar story. A boy is willing to let some supernatural force corrupt him to squeeze a little more life into his girlfriend. The boy is changed and miserable, and he unleashes the supernatural force upon the world — just like wheat.

Wait … wheat?

OK. Forget the idea that wheat domesticated humans. I shared my interpretations with you as an exercise. Finding meaning in art is easy. The bigger point here is that these games are worthy of playing and thinking about. It is inevitable that a good game will go through this kind of examination, and the best of those can stand up to that scrutiny.

Shadow of the Colossus succeeds at this because it has obvious thematic elements, but it conveys them without slipping to pretension.

And if we whiplash over to Monster Hunter: World, it succeeds for a different reason. Capcom probably doesn’t even think about subtext while making these games, but I still see it because Monster Hunter is a great game. And the developers pour hours of details into its world — and especially into its wildlife.

So yeah, I think Monster Hunter is glib about the effects of colonizing a New World with a unit of hunters. And your character’s actions are immoral. But I don’t think Capcom has to change anything because this doesn’t make Monster Hunter an immoral game — it just makes it more fascinating.

The PC Gaming channel is presented by Intel®‘s Game Dev program.

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