My hunter quickly carves up the corpse of a feathered dinosaur as the mission timer ticks down. In a few seconds, she’ll cheer triumphantly in armor made from her last dozen kills as she poses over the remains of this latest one.
I’d half-heartedly tracked the Kulu-Ya-Ku for a while. Along the way, I stopped to fight some Kestodons, examined old footprints, and got interrupted by a Great Jagras. I picked fistfuls of flowers and mined. I filled meters. It was another Expedition in Monster Hunter World, a free-form mode allowing me all the time I wanted to explore and extract from The New World. But my mission here was still clear—there was a nerdy-looking bird dinosaur digging up pottery in an area that the Hunter’s Guild had claimed as a camp, and that nerd bird had to die. And when I’m done, I’ll do this at least a half-dozen more times until I’ve made myself a fancy new set of bird beast armor.
The Hunter’s Guild would call it “restoring balance.” But if we’re honest it’s a quest that sticks deep in the confused and confusing colonial explorations at the heart of Monster Hunter World, and games like it.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in videogames over the years, it’s how willing they are to readily dive into colonialism. Whether they mine it for setting, narrative, or theme, or implementing systems and mechanics of exploitation and control, colonialism is often and unfortunately a natural fit for games, most often ones pumped out by bigger developers who don’t really consider for what these systems and games invoke.
Games are good at an “us” (the player) and a “them” (other players, or whatever non-player opposing force the game dictates). Games of the current generation, with their fondness for open worlds, have players laying claim to regions, scouting new ones, and extracting resources, often while waging violence to do so. Many of these games even pursue this with an extended goal of total dominion in mind, markers and achievements indicating when a player has exhausted the frontier—100%.
The more games gain in complexity, the more they borrow from systems of colonial expansion, control, and, ultimately, violence. And, in a way, the more games do so, the murkier the waters grow. It becomes harder to actually conceive of these systems and ideas. Games have gotten so good at them, they’ve become expected, even boring—we often just don’t notice them anymore. We come to accept colonialist power structures and actions as natural, normal, and acceptable—ignoring the centuries of continued violence and oppression that inform everything from our daily social interactions with the latest evolutions of those structures, to extinctions and climate change.
Monster Hunter World is absolutely a game about colonialism. And, to an extent, it has to know this. The frontier it presents is literally The New World, a vast, largely unknown continent to the west. There are indigenous tribes of sapient cat-like people, not unlike the player’s companion Palico; they draw primitive figures on walls and trees, and you can earn their trust and they’ll give you quests and grant you boons. There are resources to extract, for consumption (literally). And of course there are all sorts of flora, fauna, and their mega- equivalents to exert will and dominion over.
Like other AAA titles, it brings with it an open world full of wildlife to explore and dominate. Except, it deviates in a fairly sharp manner. The premise behind Monster Hunter is that the Hunter’s Guild actually has an ecological conservationist mission. Sure, it’s anthropocentric, but the general idea is these are the predators with enough sense, morality, and superego to maintain the balance of nature these other giant predators can’t. Meeting this game halfway means accepting that this is genuinely what the Hunter’s Guild believes, and in this world there is at least some truth to it. Monster Hunter World wants to be a game about research, cataloging, and understanding, as much as it is about, well, hunting.
Monster Hunter World tasks players with being Lewis, Clark, John Smith, and a monster-killing version of George Armstrong Custer—clearing a path through this previously-inhabited land at the barrel of a light bowgun, so that the teams of naturalists back at base can do important ecological research.
Yet, for all its pontificating about balance and selective culling, Monster Hunter World has to allow for players to determine how selective that culling needs to be. If you really want that particular armor set, and you’re getting unlucky with the material drops from your kills, the threshold for upsetting the natural world’s balance is as high as you need. The game only required me to kill one Great Jagras, for instance, but to complete the armor set, I killed nine. Which, for the game world and the Hunter’s Guild, was completely fine. Encouraged, even. It seemed no matter how many I hunted, there was always a need to cull more. Because as much as this is a game about the importance of balanced ecological systems, it’s also a game about hunting monsters.
The more I played, the more I wondered just how many of an individual species I’d have to hunt before extinction set in, before the balance of the New World’s ecology was devastated to the point where it would take centuries to repair. What is the American Bison tipping point of Monster Hunter World? Of course, there isn’t one. There can’t be. Where’s the fun in that?
And if there’s a broader disappointment in Monster Hunter World, it’s that, for its narrative and all its systems that want to model and poke at aspects of colonialism and conservation simultaneously, it can’t bring itself to truly model them.
We might feel genuinely bad watching as the once impressive predator we’re hunting is cowed and dispatched in a flurry of compelling, weighty animations. But we never see that impact reflected in the world. There’s always another one of those to slay, or a different one, and another after that. That’s the fun in this game—hunting, mastery, dominating the landscape under the aegis of environmental protection.
How many times can you harvest the same wildflowers before it ceases to bloom? What happens to the gentle herbivores when you’ve turned their grasslands into your abattoir? Do they leave, disrupting another ecosystem where they weren’t expected? Or do they just lay down in the dust and carnage where their food supply once grew?
Just how much pollution and waste does Astera pump out in a day, a month, a year, anyway?
They’re questions Monster Hunter World perhaps could answer, but it isn’t interested in them. Because its developers know that’s not what makes a best-selling game of the year contender. It’s interested in you being the hero A-rank hunter of the Fifth Fleet, sometimes meeting up with your heroic A-rank hunter friends to lay claim to the New World. It’s interested in hunting the shit out of monsters. Even when capturing monsters, they end up carved into pieces for corporations for study and goods manufacturing. At best, rarely, they can become a pet.
World doesn’t want players to think about the impact that a massive settlement like Astera has on the ecosystem, even though they have to know how many animals and vegetables it takes to feed a fleet (which doesn’t appear to engage in agriculture at all), let alone the four that arrived before this current expedition. It doesn’t want them to consider the impact that bringing so many foreign bodies and shipping containers has. It doesn’t want players to think about invasive species too much.
Except, World does want players to think about one invasive species. Specifically, Elder Dragons. That’s really what you’re here to hunt. These dragons, who we’re told aren’t endemic New World life, form the basis of the crisis of ecological impact of the outsider in Monster Hunter World—not the restorative Hunter’s Guild. The guild isn’t even implicated in the crisis on this frontier. They’re just there to maintain ecosystems from corruption. Nergigante and the other Elder Dragons who the franchise tells us are a threat to the natural environment are the real monsters, never the Hunters.
Which is a shame, because it limits Monster Hunter World from rising to what it could be. Rather than a muddled, murky Diet Colonialism Fantasy of exploration, World could be a game that requires players to maintain that balance. Hunt too many of one species, and the systems that choreograph the cross-species interactions between monsters in the middle of a hunt suddenly bring the real world implications of environmental stewardship to the fore. Allowing players to impact the ecology of The New World visually, or systemically in ways that alter gameplay, would go a long way to preventing Monster Hunter World from undercutting itself. Requiring players to make choices between hunting to develop more armor, craft more food, and risking the environment creates meaningful opportunities for investigating the tropes and histories external to the game.
It’s my hope that games will start devoting their powerful computational capabilities towards ends that don’t just give players a wild ride through exotic frontiers where they can mimic an approximation of the Early Modern Era’s lust for conquest or the catastrophic imperialism of the United States. That, as these open worlds progress and become more elaborate. the designers will find new ways of engaging with them beyond exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating. That in some small way, even with those aggressive, colonial verbs, we can find ways to engage players with our real history on this planet, and the longstanding effects of that history, so that we do more than continue to replicate them for entertainment.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.