Learning to Speak Monster Hunter

The January 26 Monster Hunter: World home console release is almost upon us, and then the PC release is just a few months away, so I think it's safe to say that a lot of people will be trying Capcom's fantasy hunting RPG for the first time very soon. As such, this Eurogamer article that could be subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grind” is quite a nice read. It documents one man's journey as he attempts to figure out the currently available Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on the 3DS and in the process learns to appreciate games you have to learn before you can enjoy. An excerpt:

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.