Monstrous Hunter – The Digital Dominance of an Ecosystem

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It is no exaggeration in my mind when I say that Jurassic Park may be one of the most perfect films I have ever seen.

Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler are visited by an enigmatic man in a white suit. An entrepreneur, John Hammond claims that much of the work of the paleontologists will either be elevated to philosophic proportions or rendered useless.

Because he has brought dinosaurs back.

The pair, along with Ian Malcom and a “bloodsucking lawyer” are invited to a place cut off from humanity, where science’s worst impulses are brought to life in experimentation beyond tedious morality. However, the very second a perfect storm (literally) arrives and some double-crossing occurs by a disillusioned programmer named Dennis, and suddenly the fantastical tour is turned nightmarish. The dinosaurs are out, and it is not the power of science, but rather the studied knowledge of history in the bones of the dinosaurs that keeps the unwitting group alive. After a series of harrowing encounters with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptors, and the movement of Gallimimus “like a flock of birds,” they board a helicopter to take them away from a story that undoubtedly would continue in the hearts and minds of all the citizens of the world.

The pinnacle moment that many quote to humor their friends is this very idea of control that John Hammond and Dr. Slatter discuss over a now abandoned feast. Like two Greek gods debating the creation of man, Hammond’s continued perverse optimism even as people have died around them pushes the two into a passionate argument. Ellie Slatter will not stand for it. “You never had control!” she says, “That’s the illusion! I was overwhelmed by the power of this place.

“But I made a mistake too,” she laments, “and it’s out now.”

Another Kind of Park

As I sat, starting Monster Hunter World for the first time in late September, I thought of the movie about large creatures, about nature beyond our control and understanding, and I wondered. Does the thesis hold up? The human genome is at hand, DNA sequencing has helped to cure diseases and catch serial killers. What does Jurassic Park mean beyond the scope of dinosaurs if, on a long enough timeline, the wariness of exploratory fiction is rendered moot by routine trips to Mars?

In Monster Hunter games, you kill monsters. You travel to exotic places, find big monsters, sometimes as big or bigger than dinosaurs, and you kill them and take their bodies to make armor and weapons out of. You do this over and over. It is an extremely popular series in the East and has only recently made its way to mainstream success in the West.

In my second month of unemployment in the real world, I was reassigned to the Fifth Fleet in Monster Hunter World, called upon by the “Research Commission” to investigate the “New World.” According to the Wikipedia Synopsis, the Fifth Fleet is specifically charged with gaining a further understanding of the “Elder Dragons,” beings large enough to have direct effects on the ecosystems they inhabit.

Our journey and cause meet head on. The airship is intercepted mid-flight by one such elder dragon: Zorah Magdaros, who is less dragon and more Godzilla, a being so massive that whole fights occur on this island-like creature. It is a dark being of immense power and little patience.

Our arrival to the New World is rocky at best. We’re told to gather ourselves together and make for Astera, a sort of campsite that looks like it was architecturally designed by the lost boys from Peter Pan’s Neverland. Several floors of wooden terraces are embedded on the steep hillside, with linkages by stairs or by lifts of thick steel chains. The first floor is the tradeyard, where goods are bought and sold, and the research of smaller botanical plants is neighbored by ecological research of the monsters themselves. A young elf sits on the very books he reads, and behind him there are hundreds more waiting to be dusted and perused. On the second floor, you can find the workshop, where the smithy and armorer supply my character with all the weapons, armor, and accoutrements I can carry for the fights ahead. The third floor is the canteen, where an intimidating selection of sentient cats cook the most delicious of meals that my warrior will need to eat before venturing out.

Did I mention there are cats in this game? Palicos are the name, and I have one of my own. Designing the cat in the ugliest way possible, my sidekick Palico (named Ayn Rand) and I are about to embark on the first set of our missions in the New World. We must work our way to Zorah Magdaros and discover its purpose here.

Monster Hunter: World' is the best way to fight bosses with friends |  Engadget

My first venture into the Ancient Forest has me, again, thinking back to Jurassic Park. All around me as I wander aimlessly through the double-digit zones of the forest, there are massive trees sending vines down, the canopy covering almost completely any sunlight before it reaches the muddy floor. Herbs and bitterbugs and herds of dinosaur-as-hell monsters meander through the lower marsh-like regions to drink. YouTube reviewer SkillUp took to referencing Lord of the Flies in his take on the world. He has a point: the Ancient Forest is teeming with foliage from the lower marshes to the highest parts of the map.

I fight Jagras, small velociraptor creatures, until I come upon the big one, a Great Jagras, who has a hefty beer gut and dreadlocks. The fight is laughably easy, and I dominate the creature by studying its moves and striking at the best opportunity with my longsword. After gutting the creature, I will take its remains to the smithy and fashion armor and weapons out of him, and I will cast confusion, doubt, and terror over the Ancient Forest as I eerily hold the same color and texture as a predator, now long since vanished.

Or has it?

The similarities with Jurassic Park stop here, unfortunately. The terror brought along with navigating a jungle like Dr. Grant must do while protecting two vulnerable children has no comparison to the Ancient Forest, where we wander back and forth with biblical glee, as the line goes for Genesis 1:28…

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

You Are Not a Gadget

Five Questions for Jaron Lanier, Author of 'Dawn of the New Everything'

Speaking of dreadlocks…

Jaron Lanier’s thesis in You Are Not a Gadget is simple and all the more terrifying for it: that we had the opportunity to make computers serve humanity and what humans do best. As a forefather of virtual reality, Lanier’s take on computers is that they can help to give creators a heightened sense of well-being, by democratizing the dispersal of tools for us to make great things (and be paid healthily for them).

What happened instead is that we got “locked in.” Lock-in is a pretty simple concept to understand as technology evolves. As we update and improve hardware and software, so we continue to create more time spent updating existing models rather than building new things. Email will always look like email, and the work programmers spend to update and improve those models are excruciatingly boring and tedious. Yet it seems easier to update Windows 10 than to completely reimagine an operating system. It seems easier to update the first person shooter instead of taking deep strides in asking what a game could be otherwise. It seems easier to release the iPhone 8 after the iPhone 7. You get the idea.

But in doing so, the creativity follows the technology, rather than the other way around. Lanier’s constant example throughout the book is the MIDI tool for the creation of music. So much time has past since its inception in 1981 that to imagine making music in other ways is tantamount to madness. Yet in that time, like the destruction of languages in the United States, the language of music has been vastly reduced to whatever can be synthesized onto an interface.

One might present a counterargument here that, hey, what’s wrong with making it easier for musicians to create music using a digital tool? Much like digital editing for film, it cannot be much worse than that? The same democratization I discussed earlier is fully present here, so what’s the big deal?

But in a world where vast databases of music samples are available at the push of a button, pop music stars who chase numbers on Spotify are making millions, and meanwhile there are musicians with decades of skill in a violin, or a guitar, who must play for their local orchestra hemorrhaging money, or they must give private lessons to indolent twelve year olds, or they must go on tour (if their body can take it).

We seem to be eroding the livelihood of musicians. We felt as if good music would continue unabated forever, and that the talents of great artists would adapt.

And in a stark example, going back to lost languages: here is Jaron Lanier’s clincher. We have now an amazing array of translation tools to give us a better understanding of foreign languages than ever before.

But in order for those language algorithms to work, it must step into the shoes of actual language translators, who find themselves more and more out of work because of the power and proficiency of this new software.

Yet the software needs the analog translators. Language is not static, it changes and evolves in use as time goes on. Just try and understand VSCO girl before 2018 and you get the idea…

There is an obvious contradiction here.

Modern technology dominates and erodes what is underneath if it is left unchecked, and the digitalization of everything in the 21st century has given tech companies like the Big Five carte blanche in ways that other industries do not come close to.

Locked-In Ecosystems

Monster Hunter World is already a huge hit - The Verge

I should preface this section by saying that I love the game that is Monster Hunter World. The earnest nature of its plot, and the attitudes of the monsters and the narrative arcs that the fights take are some of the best experiences I have had in gaming. Capcom, the developers of the series, leveraged the power of consoles in making a non-mobile experience in Monster Hunter World, and they did not disappoint. The artificial intelligence increases the variety of the ways that the monsters interact with you, and with the environments. It is unlike anything I have seen in gaming.

But here is where Jurassic Park comes back as a similarity, as we discover that each of the areas you visit as a hunter, as beautiful and varied as they claim to be, are still hoped to be static. Like John Hammond’s quest for control, it cannot account for change.

The Ancient Forest is lush and verdant. The Wildspire Wastes are open and arid. The Coral Highlands are ethereal and vertical. And the Rotten Vale is dark and dead. But consider them more like venues in a park, like the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom at Disneyworld in Florida. Their ecosystems only mix when the monsters enter high rank, and the animations, so tailored effectively to their original environment, comes across as awkward when placed in another. Sometimes it works: Anjanath, the T-Rex seen above, almost works better when he is transplanted from the Ancient Forest to the Wildspire Wastes, where the claustrophobic fights open up, and he is able to maneuver that big, ugly head around.

Just like in a theme park, however, all the “rides” reset upon returning to Astera. Were I so tempted, I could go back and fight the dreadlocked Great Jagras again, though now that I have his armor and weapons, I do not see the point. At no moment am I given the chance to exterminate a species: the numbers remain always at unlimited. I can harvest a plant, circle around The Ancient Forest, and come back to the same spot 80 seconds later to find that the Nutberry has miraculously grown back for me to harvest again. And rivers that flow through the Wildspire Wastes will never dry.

To the game’s credit, and the credit of all video games everywhere, seldom does a game have the bandwidth to have time and change as a core concept. The only games that do this are ones that take it as a core feature. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Outer Wilds have a time loop feature. Hitman has you repeating a set of routines that take time to develop as you assassinate targets at the right time, as well as place. Dead Rising, another Capcom mainstay, originally had a time mechanic that tracked the zombie outbreak at Willamette Mall. Hopefully games in the future explore the concept of “change” more in video games, as time is something that all of the analog world faces.

But here is where the game, in its design and plot, effectively asks me to “kill” change.

Subdue the Earth

In Monster Hunter World, the behaviors of the ecology of the world remain static. From the second you step foot in the game, your dominance of the ecosystem is made manifest in your ability to read and react to the world you are given. One imagines a Neolithic-style execution of all large monsters much like humanity actually did (see Guns, Germs, and Steel). The world presents you with many options for cultivating and collecting parts, items, and equipment. You can send cats out in the world to collect random materials. A ship arrives every so often and brings many wares. And of course, you can go out and kill. Finally, there is the “Elder Melder” which assumes that the world is much like that of a computer, where everything can be so reduced to “bits/bytes” that you can take materials you don’t need and turn them into materials you do.

There are hints from the developers that perhaps what we do to the environment is unsettling. Instead of killing the monsters, the NPCs of the game insist that capturing the monsters reaps greater rewards. It’s a pleasant thought at first, but one wonders how exactly we were to acquire more scales, talons, tongues, tails, and even eyes from the monsters if we simply captured them. Do we bring them back asleep and proceed to carve them up? Do we take from them and…release them without their evolved parts…back into the wild!? We simply do not know, because after we capture them with a shock trap or pit trap, we never see them again. The ugliness is (mostly) kept backstage in Monster Hunter World.

That ugliness of a nature that should be respected and feared, much like Werner Herzog demonstrated in his documentary Grizzly Man, is instead most prescient in the contradictions in the plot of the game. After tracking and attempting to “take down” the massive Zorah Magdaros, we are repeatedly stymied. The most recent attempt by my hunter and the Research Commission had barriers set up to intercept Zorah’s dogged trajectory, and as we mounted the monster and attempted to weaken him, we were fought off by a Nergigante, a strong protector who flies around Zorah in a symbiotic relationship.

What is all this purpose for? Where is Zorah going? As the monster breaks all the barriers, questions are left unanswered, and we are left to track its glacial wake.

We eventually see the circular nature of the ecosystem, if in its visual fidelity only. The Ancient Forest and Wildspire Waste creates a food web that has monsters leaving to die deep below the surface in the Rotten Vale, and their nutrients bring life in colorful arrays in its Coral Highlands. Zorah Magdaros, as many elder dragons do, seeks to die, yet for Zorah to die would send such a large shock of “bio-energy” according to the Commission, it would destroy the entire ecosystem. That is where Zorah hopes to go with its body: to a place where it can die and begin the New World anew. The Research Commission, fearful for all our lives, decides that we must stop Zorah Magdaros at all costs, or else we will all be annihilated.

Well, hang on…

We spent much of the first half of the game like Mufasa does with Simba in The Lion King. It’s the circle of life. In Jurassic Park, nature is both on their side and against it, as nature does not recognize sides. One minute a T-Rex is chasing down Ian Malcom, as he says “must go faster, must go faster” in an off-road jeep. The next minute, that same T-Rex saves them from death by eating a lunging Velociraptor. Nature always wins, even if it loses. That is the way of natural selection: it’s the largest business performing the most methodical R & D of any company…just don’t expect “results” anytime soon.

The Research Commission claims that Zorah Magdaros’s bio-energy will destroy these environments, but what really worries them is that it will destroy us, the hunters. And we cannot have that…no. We have an endgame after all.

The hunters like me of the Fifth Fleet have been a walking genocide of monsters to this point. At no point does a researcher stand up and say, “Your destruction of keystone species like the Anjanath will eventually bring drought to the Ancient Forest, making it much more dire than even the Wildspire Wastes. I hope you are proud of yourself.” No. The truth is that we so desire the endgame loot grind of Monster Hunter World that we say to ourselves, “We have to stop Zorah Magdaros so we can keep this party going.”

Heart of Darkness

MONSTER HUNTER: WORLD

A third of the way into my fascination with the game, as my hunter was collecting ever cooler armor to wear, and longer and sharper blades to swing, I began to see the title of Monster Hunter as all wrong. The double-meaning of the title is now obvious to me. I am a hunter of monsters, this is true, where the adjective tells me just what exactly I claim to be hunting.

But underneath that is another adjective. What type of hunter I am can also be based on the quality of the person who is hunting. I am a monstrous hunter. And the further I step, much like the rampant consumerism in a game like The Sims, the further I make the declaration that only I know what is best for the ecosystem. Unlike Ian Malcom’s universal worry of Chaos Theory, as he flirts with Dr. Slatter, only I know what chaos is best for an ecosystem. With one hand, the game presents the next step in the evolution of the New World’s ecosystem, and with the other it gives me the tools to stop it. This conflation of the title of the game is everywhere. It is the locked-in problem of video games writ large, and it is the lack of insight we made in the 20th century, where we assumed that air quality would always be “beautiful and clean” as Donald Trump stated in the September 29th presidential debate.

And despite reminders of climate change in the wildfires on each corner of the world, in Australia and the western United States, floods and hurricanes in the gulf, Trump continued to roll back restrictions to help exacerbate the problem.

In Monster Hunter World, I have dominated the ecosystem. I have pushed back Zorah, and it left to sea to give over to me the ability to seek out ever niche mutations of monsters with better fights and more engaging experiences.

And I am obsessed.

Somewhere between the naïve arrival of the Fifth Fleet and now, I have turned into a fierce and humorless hunter, not by taking into account the food web, but stoically wondering what I need to kill next. It would be like if Dr. Grant, rather than leaving in a helicopter (to a beautiful and uplifting score) turned around and picked up a heavy machine gun.

It is change that is the villain in Monster Hunter World, and by all accounts it is change that is the thing that digital technology seeks to avoid, lest it be forced to do more work innovating systems rather than capturing them.

I, by hunting, have become an enactor of the not-change. And by doing so I have doomed the creatures of the New World to an even worse fate than the promise of renewal.

It is all servitude.

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