Autumn wouldn't be autumn in the Stone household without a spot of digital deer slaying. The following is a piece I penned a few years back for PC Gamer UK on the history and appeal of gaming's least fashionable genre.
Throw a couple of logs onto the fire, pour yourself a glass of something warming, and come sit down here next to me. Comfortable? Splendid. Today I want to tell you about my penchant for a pariah genre. Today I want to talk of hunting simulations, a genus of games that's been mauled, mocked, and lately, studiously ignored by British game critics.
The Bambi jokes and the barracking began back in 1998. That was the year Deer Hunter, a budget oddity built in three hectic months by a tiny team at Sunstorm Interactive, bounded straight to the top of the US charts. With the exception of 'real-time mobility' (walking would be added in the sequel) everything that came to define the genre was present from the start. Hunters chose gear and weapons, selected a tract of wilderness, then got down to the delicate business of locating, luring and liquidating virtual venison. Compared to the FPSs of the period it was rather pedestrian, rather ugly entertainment . You had to step back a few paces to appreciate the originality. While everyone else was doing 'frantic' and 'fantastical' Sunstorm had gone 'stealthy', 'slow' and 'realistic'.
Unsurprisingly, given DH's runaway success and relatively simple components, it was soon joined on US shelves by a herd of doppelgangers. Companies connected with rural sport milked the new genre mercilessly. Browning, Remington, Buckmasters, Field & Stream, TNN and Cabela all had their names blazoned across game lids by the end of 1999. Mainstream publishers were just as eager. Though big guns like EA, Activision and Sierra tended to stick with the tried-and-tested DH theme, a few smaller outfits gamely experimented with alternative quarries and settings. Punters bored of stalking hoofed prey, soon had the chance to bag ducks, turkeys and pheasants, and put their virtual lives on the line tracking creatures that growled, gored, and fought back.
To say there was a lot of dross in-amongst the initial bumper crop of hunting recreations would be a bit like saying there was a lot of pony poo in the New Forest. For a while it was hard to see the wood from the trees. The situation began to change in the early Noughties. By 2002 most of the gadflies had moved on to greener pastures - the flood of new hunting games had become a trickle. By 2004 a single new game a year was the norm. The second-half of the decade would have been bleak for bedroom backwoodsmen had it not been for a small reservoir of - yes, I think I can use the word - hunt sim classics. Editor-supported titles like Deer Hunter: The 2005 Season, Trophy Hunter 2003, and Hunting Unlimited 3 retained their appeal, and, to this day, still offer plenty of challenge, atmosphere and tension.
That last quality is a by-product of one of the most distinctive and disorientating features of this genre: the shyness of the slayees. In the 'free hunt' modes common to most sims, it’s not unusual to go 20 or 30 minutes without seeing hide-nor-hair of prey. These games might stick rifles in your hand and present the world FPS-fashion but their closest relations are not shooters, they're submarine sims like Silent Hunter. As in SH3, patience and vigilance is everything. All the waiting, the watching, and the wandering lends that moment when you finally spot a prize immense significant. The surge of nervous excitement you get when you finally sight some big old buck emerging from the undergrowth is precious and - dare I say it - faintly primeval.
U-boat sims aren't usually criticized for being unfair, despite the fact their main prey species - the red-bellied freighter - are soft, peaceable beasts. The likes of DH2005 on the other hand, frequently get it in the neck for being inequitable. Unsympathetic reviewers seem to relish pointing-out that digital deer are 'defenceless' as if that fact alone completely invalidated the genre. What's rarely mentioned is that most weaponless whitetails are much harder to hurt than most in-game Nazis, zombies or tangos. Well-coded deer can smell lynx (and Lynx) at two hundred paces, they don't stand where they're told to, and they don't stick around when the bullets start buzzing. Sure, they can't harm you, but what does death really mean in the average FPS? A quickload, a tweaked tactic and you're on your way again. Knowing you might have to spend twenty minutes re-stalking a spooked stag (that’s assuming you ever find it again) beads the brow every bit as effectively as the prospect of an inconsequential demise.
Read between the lines of many scathing hunt sim reviews and you'll find loathing of hunting itself. While I'm neither passionately pro or ardently anti- bloodsports I wouldn't dream of claiming there's no moral overlap at all. Many a time I've pointed my rifle at a distant doe only to notice a dappled fawn trotting along behind it. In DH2005 the bag limit (the number and type of animals you can kill during a single hunt) usually includes females, but that doesn't make it any easier to orphan sweet little Dainty Hooves or Bracken Junior. There's other targets I can't bring myself to slay too. The lions and the elephants that roam across HU3's Namibian map, and the bears and cougars that wander TH2003's Rocky Mountain wildernesses might be just amalgams of textured polygons, but there's still something disturbing about gunning them down. Maybe there'd be less heart-searching if the devs had couched the killing differently. In most hunting titles we wear the unsympathetic Timberlands of a recreational hunter - a person who kills for kicks and trophies. If we were shooting deer to feed frontier families, thin oversized herds, or protect forestry or crops, triggers might squeeze a mite easier. Deer Hunter:1639 anyone?
For every ethical line the virtual hunter draws for himself in the pine needles there's usually at least one scribed by the game designers. All of the titles discussed here punish hunt crimes to some extent. Down one of the soaring red-tailed hawks in DH2005 and you get a verbal warning for harming 'a national treasure' and - more importantly - lose all trophies for that hunt. Shoot a swimming deer in TH2003 and you get a similar rap across the knuckles. Activision's long-running but less-than-brilliant Cabela series has grown increasingly intolerant over the years. In Cabela's Big Game Hunter 2006 - one of the last PC hunting title to get a high-street release in the UK - you catch hell for everything from nudging animals with your quad bike, to firing weapons too late or too early in the day. The constant nagging would be easier to take if the in-game wardens didn't also gleefully encourage handgun hunting.
In real-life, using a revolver to drop deer will get you arrested most everywhere. In hunt sims, leaving the bolt-action and the telescopic sights back at the cabin and opting for something a little more primitive - a handgun, shotgun bow, or flintlock - is often one of the most rewarding ways to play. Even with gun shake, bullet drop, and other ballistic irritants modelled, hunting with scoped rifles can start to feel rather clinical after a while. The shorter ranges, reduced stopping power, and longer reload times of the weirder weapons make things far more interesting. With a crossbow or 19th Century cavalry Colt in your hands you know you can't just heart-shot every unsuspecting ungulate from half a mile away. You must carefully creep closer (staying downwind, naturally) or entice the quarry toward you with musky chemical attractants and alarmingly phallic calling devices.
There's something deliciously dastardly about luring something furry to its doom. Seeing a far-off stag stop and turn its head on hearing a fake doe call or a rattled pair of antlers makes my inner Wiley Coyote chuckle every time. It's a shame there isn't more skill involved though. The chance of making an effective call tends to be determined by an RPG-style stat rather than the outcome of an ingenious mini-game. I'm still waiting for the hunt sim that does something really inventive with sonic seduction.
Actually, there was one that had a good stab. DH's long-dead sister series, the delightfully eccentric Bird Hunter, had a call system that had to be seen - or rather heard - to be believed. To lure ducks onto the water in front of your blind, not only did you have to learn how to space your plastic decoys appropriately (different spacings for each species) you also had to memorise complex call patterns. A passing pintail 500m away might require a vigorous QUACK-QUAAACK-QUACKITY-QUAK, a greenwing teal circling overhead, a pianissimo quak-quack-quaaack. And the turkey hunting was even more involved. To tempt 'toms' like a pro tom tempter you had to learn to play maybe fifty different tunes on your turkey box, turkey slate and - honestly, I'm-not-making-this-up - turkey diaphragm.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little buzz out of seeing a duck tumble from the sky in a cloud of feathers or a buck buckle from a neat lung shot. There is a thrill in the kill, but the final act of a hunt is often not the one that lingers in your memory. The most gripping moments in a hunt sim come when you're hot on the trail of a wounded animal. Loping along, scanning the ground for prints and blood stains, your head is usually abuzz with questions. Where did I hit it? Why didn't I get closer before firing? What if it runs for miles and dies slowly in agony in the middle of some anonymous thicket? The guilt mingled with the annoyance of letting a prize get away gnaws at you like a starving wolf. Pre-contact tracking, that tends to be less engaging. Back in the early days of the genre, digital deer stalkers chose their starting locations by searching a map for diverse signs of herd activity like scraped trees, sleeping areas, and shed antlers, today's generally have to rely on luck, boot-leather and the odd pile of dropping to locate their prey. A bit less rambling and a bit more Ray Mears-style spore-reading wouldn't go amiss.
The landscapes in later games might be less useful than their predecessors, but they're a damn-sight more attractive. Bearing in mind the classics are all getting on a bit and were all designed for the $20 budget market, they do a remarkably good job of evoking rural environments. DH2005 in particular really makes you feel like you're out there gulping that fresh pine-scented air. Even if you find the idea of slaughtering simulated wildlife abhorent I'd recommend the game purely as a relaxation aid. Twenty minutes spent amongst the swaying Illinois maples, the towering Oregon firs, or the slightly-too-black Black Forest spruces certainly soothes me.
Well, it soothes me right up until the point I realise I've daydreamed my way to within spitting-distance of a napping stag, and that stag has just got up and dashed off into the undergrowth. Realistic beast behaviours are obviously vital in this field/copse/forest and DH2005 sets the standard here too. In Hunting Unlimited, spooked animals have a strange tendency to circle aimlessly before heading for the hills.
To experience the smartest deer the sims have to offer, you really have to get hold of some old copies of DH3 and round-up a few mates. That was the last title that allowed people to play as the deer in multiplayer. Dodging bullets, hiding in hollows, defecating on the boots of AFK hunters... The Endless Forest it was not. Today there's still a few people playing DH2005 online. Personally, my preferred form of communal competition is the offline challenge. Acquire HU3 or HU4 then pop along to http://huntingunlimited.scssoft.com and you can download user-designed 'tourney' missions. These challenges place you in a particular locale with a certain weapon or weapon selection and task you with bringing home the biggest and best trophies. Once the tourney deadline has expired, uploaded results are published and you get to see whether anyone has bettered your arrow-riddled moose calf or Magnum-despatched boar runt.
Chances are, someone has. That someone will probably be American, but it's not impossible you'll have been beaten by a Brit. There's interest in hunt sims on this side of the pond whatever UK publishers might think. A couple of years back I asked an Atari representative why they didn't distribute their DH games over here. The gist of the answer was 'Deer hunting is an American phenomenon. The titles wouldn't sell in the UK.' Until a canny budget distributor gets round to putting a Deer Hunter 2004/2005 or Hunting Unlimited compilation on British shelves we'll never really know how flawed that analysis is.
I'd love to be able to end this little fireside chat with upbeat predictions about the future of this once-thriving genre. Sadly, I can't. Atari seem content to let dust gather on the Deer Hunter licence . The Hunting Unlimited series looks to be going nowhere fast (the differences between HU3 and its successors HU4, Hu2008 and HU2009 are negligible) Activision and Magic Wand show no signs of injecting more freedom and space into their cramped Cabela games. In short, prospects look bleak. Perhaps some passionate indie outfit will step in and move things forward. Hunt sims certainly deserve a new champion. They are far too colourful and curious a creature to be lazily dismissed or left to bleed to death unnoticed in the middle of some anonymous thicket.
The current issue of PC Gamer (#205) contains a happy postscript to this piece. See page 78 for my review of The Hunter.