Ridealong is our monthly feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This time, a real-world hunter takes him deer tracking and duck shooting in theHunter.
There’s a man making duck noises in the swamp. He raises a tubular horn to his lips and makes the duck sound again and again, looking at the sky as his spine cranes back at an unnatural angle. At his feet a sandy Labrador sits quietly. The man puts the horn away and gets out a shotgun. The next flock of mallards is coming in to land.
This is the world of theHunter, a free-to-play hunting simulator with almost a dozen open world hunting reserves based on locations around the world. You can enter any of these lands as a lone player, or as part of a small group. Today, there are just two of us – me and a long-time hunter called excalibure73. Or more simply, John.
“All my in-game characters are named after my dogs in real life,” he says.
He starts listing off the names of all the dogs he has owned. Excalibur, Sabre, Dagger, Blade, Razor, Flachette, Bowie, Claymore. They are all Labrador retrievers and all named after edged blades. Of these, Flachette, Bowie and Claymore are still around. When he tells me this, over Teamspeak, the dog Claymore hears his name and comes to John. The dog is gently told to go and lay down again.
There are 11 different hunting reserves in the game – maps that are based on real world locations like Australia or Alaska. A Rocky Mountains map had just been released the previous month, bringing bears, elk and wolves to the game. But we are standing in the swamps of the Rougarou Bayou, a map based on the Bayou of Louisiana.
The first time I see John, he is dressed head to toe in Arctic clothes. His most recent hunt was in a colder clime. He quickly switches to forest camouflage, useful for sneaking up on animals and becoming harder to spot. I am wearing a t-shirt.
We step out into the shallow water, heading toward a hide – a small, open platform that will render us invisible to the animals. I glance around, seeing dozens of birds already in the water around us. They don’t move as we slosh through the shin-deep water. Confused, I ask John what is wrong with them. Do all these ducks not care that we are just hanging out among them?
“These are decoys.”
I look again at the ducks. They are all on sticks, some of them have wings that spin around and around to mimic the flapping of wings on the water. I feel stupid. But then again, I’ve never been hunting before. Unlike John, who is an enthusiastic hunter not just in-game, but also in real life.
“I grew up in rural Iowa. So we all hunt there. Ever since I was a kid, [I’ve] gone out hunting with my dad and grandfather, and friends and family now.”
He just got back from a trip to Montana last month, where he spent three weeks hunting prong-horn antelope and elk. Meanwhile, in Missouri, where he lives, there are white-tail deer, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes. But when he kills an animal, what does he do with it?
“Eat it,” he says, with a tone of voice that seems to add “of course”.
“Certainly deer… sure, most animals. You would always eat a deer, but certainly ducks, geese...”
He trails off and looks at the sky.
“Speaking of ducks, I hear some ducks coming. Can’t see ‘em yet, it looks like they’re coming out of the sun.”
I look toward the rising sun – John has set the time of the game to 7am – and see a small flock of the birds coming towards us. Behind me in the hut, John continues to use the duck caller, quacking relentlessly at the heavens, his rigid character model bending in a way no human ever would.
“Hopefully, they’ll break and come down to land. They don’t always, it’s a random thing. But having the decoys out and using the caller increases the chance that they’ll come to land. Just like in real life.”
Four of the birds break away from the flock and start to spiral down toward the water. John inspects the birds through binoculars and says that they are mallards – two male and two female.
“Go ahead and get your shotgun out,” he says, “go ahead and take aim and fire away.”
I equip my shotgun – a simple gun loaded with a single cartridge of birdshot – and aim toward the incoming birds. I fire. Two of the animals fall from the sky and land with a splash in the water.
“A double with your first shot,” says John, “good job.”
John’s character whistles and points. The dog, who has been sitting in the hide with us this whole time, comes to life and jumps into the water, swimming out to collect the ducks and bring them back to us. After bringing one of the bodies back he heads out further and further, out into the swamp.
“Where you going, Bowie?” asks John to himself. He has named the in-game dog after one of his real-life ones.
Eventually, Bowie comes back with another duck in his jaws. In the meantime, a second flock has flown over, allowing us to fell more birds.
“So this is what duck hunting is like,” says John.
In reality, all the ducks we’ve killed could be eaten. But what does John do with the animals you can’t eat? Does he keep them as trophies?
“I don’t do a lot of hunting like that. I’ve shot a few Coyotes because, I live out in the country, and there’s too many of them, they start eating the turkeys. I’ll go out and shoot a few of them and just throw them in a ditch. It’s just trying to reduce their numbers. It’s like guys who go raccoon hunting. They may skin them and keep the skin, but they don’t eat them.”
But other times he hunts not as a control measure, but as a pastime. Why does he enjoy it?
“Well you get to be outdoors, it’s just something I grew up with, it’s a tradition.”
And I guess it is more difficult in reality?
“People argue whether this game is a simulator or not. To some extent it is, in that they try to make it look real, they try to make the animals’ AI act real, the weapons are real weapons in real life, the ballistics on them are fairly accurate. But then there’s other compromises they made because otherwise it would be really boring. In real life you might spend three days out hunting and never see an animal. Obviously, that wouldn’t make a very good videogame. In the game the animal density is higher, they aren’t quite as smart as they are in real life.”
It’s probably also less dangerous than real life, I suggest.
“I don’t think I’d say that. I’ve never been injured hunting. I suppose if you’re out bear hunting or something, I suppose that’s a bit scarier than here in the game, where you know you can’t really be killed.”
Has he ever been bear hunting, or hunting for other predators?
“No, I’m not interested. That’s kind of where I draw my line. I hunt prey animals, I don’t personally have any desire to hunt predators. The exception to that is coyotes, but again, typically where I live and in most of the country, that’s more of a ‘we gotta get rid of them’ [thing]. You know, there’s too many, they’re causing problems, they’re killing people’s pets, they’re chasing cattle. Ranchers out in Montana always tell you: ‘shoot any coyote you see.’
“Around here, I’ll hear em outside my house at night all the time and I can tell when there’s getting to be too many because suddenly all the turkeys will disappear.”
We get out of the hide and John teaches me how to ‘harvest’ an animal, which basically involves running around and clicking on the dead animals with a magical device, your hunting aid, that records your score and evaporates the body. You can also take trophy shots with a camera, he shows me, lifting a ragdolling duck into the air in front of his character with an unseen drag tool. The duck dangles in the air in front of us, as if held aloft by a third invisible hunter.
We trudge around the swamp collecting the dead mallards. In real life, I would probably be concerned about alligators. John tells me about his trips to Lake Okeechobee in Florida, which is “basically a swamp”. He’ll see men standing with shotguns in the water, in a habitat with “thousands of alligators”.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘man you guys are brave’. I would never do that… I’m perfectly happy staying in the boat. But there’s duck hunters out there happy to stand in three or four feet of water with snakes and ducks and all kinds of crap. I just don’t wanna duck that bad.”
Another flock comes in and we shoot some more. Videogames have changed a lot, I think, but at least the spirit of Duck Hunt has been preserved. John’s pump-action shotgun unleashes round after round at the sky in quick succession. One duck after another falls into the water. Finally, he whistles to Bowie and tells him to “go get ‘em.” Then he turns to me.
“Want to do something else?”
Fifteen minutes later we find ourselves in Hirschfelden, a map based on the German countryside, shooting at geese in much the same way. We step into a blind. John gets out a lure – a giant wing-shape on the end of a stick – and starts flapping it around. In reality, the blinds of the game wouldn’t work, he says. It would need to be covered, or we would have to lie on the ground and sit up to shoot when the geese come to land. After a few minutes of this, John suggests we carry on.
“Wanna go look for some deer?”
We leave the dog behind (it isn’t useful for a deer hunt) and head into the forest. We walk slowly through the trees and soon John crouches and starts creeping even more slowly through the brush. I follow suit and we skulk along, trying to make as little noise as possible. When you run or walk, John explains, you make more noise, and animals up to a hundred metres away will run away before you even see them.
To your average gamer, all of this might seem very niche, very slow-paced. But for John, it’s a nightly activity. Does he enjoy the game because it lets you hunt without going outdoors?
“I enjoy it because it’s an activity I enjoy in real life. Obviously, there’s a lot of animals on here that I can’t hunt in real life. We don’t have red deer, or roe deer here in the US, or Kangaroos, if we were to go to the Australian reserve… and obviously, in most parts of the country you can only hunt for a few weeks of the year, whereas here you can hunt all year round. So although I would say I’m a fairly avid hunter in real life, in reality that’s only a couple of weeks. That’s what the season is.”
We carry on, lurking through the woods like two hunched cavemen, as he explains the way the game’s shopping system works, how you have to buy everything.
“Microtransactions is the industry term I think.”
It isn’t long before we see something ahead of us. A red glow on the ground. The game’s way of telling you something has recently passed this way. The glow often surrounds some hoof prints, for instance. This one is a little different.
“It’s a pile of crap,” says John. “That’s a red deer track. It took that shit about an hour ago. And it weighs between 175 and 200 kilograms.”
He is using the game’s hunting aid, the GPS-looking device that dissolves bodies, to determine all this. When I click on the poop with the same device, it just tells me that it is a red deer, nothing more. This is because John’s skills are higher than mine. That’s what hundreds of hours of playtime will do for you.
He gestures to a tree, telling me there’s a tree stand in it. I look up. There’s a metal structure built into the trunk. I creep to the base of the tree and hit ‘E’, quickly reappearing in the stand. Now I am fastened here.
“I’m gonna go up here about 20 metres and start calling for animals,” says John from the ground. “And then I’m gonna crawl away and hide somewhere. And with any luck, something’s gonna come and you’re gonna get to shoot it.”
John starts calling with a horn, mimicking the sound of a roe deer, then a red deer. The red deer is a long, comical moan. It sounds like someone dying of a hangover, who suddenly realises what happened the previous night. I sit in the tree and look around. In his home in Missouri, John tells me, he has 26 acres of woods with half a dozen tree stands just like this one.
“So, on opening day, when my brother and my father come up, at the crack of dawn we’ll all go out and sit in our tree stands. And usually, anywhere from five minutes to five hours later some deer will show up and we’ll shoot ‘em.”
Just as he finishes talking, we hear a call from within the forest.
“There’s a red deer – a male red deer,” says John. “He’s close.”
He starts to crawl towards me on his belly, away from the spot where he was calling, lamenting his lack of scent eliminator. If you get close enough to the animals and the wind is not in your favour they will catch your smell and flee. The consumable item would prevent this, but for now we’ll have to do without.
“There he is right there,” he says, “he’s about 40 metres right in front of you.”
I look into the woods, but I can’t see anything. Then, movement. But it isn’t a deer. It’s a fox. He comes slinking through the woods. I follow him with my eyes and then realise that the fox himself has approached the deer, revealing its location to me.
“You can shoot either of them,” says John, “I don’t care.”
I get out my gun and aim toward them. A tree is in my way. I can’t get a good sight of the deer. But the fox has walked into view. I feel worse about shooting the fox, who really only helped me out, but if he’s all I can see, he’s what I’ll have to shoot. I centre my aim and pull the trigger.
A huge blast comes out of the gun. Both of the animals are hit, says the game’s tickertape, and both immediately flee. For a second, I’m confused. Then I look at the game’s message. You’re supposed to shoot at animals like this with a rifle. I had fired my shotgun.
“Oh,” says John.
I hear the distinctive metallic flick of a Zippo lighter from the other side of the Teamspeak line, and the first drag of a cigarette.
“We’ll probably find blood tracks,” he says afterwards, talking about the deer, “but that’s not going to kill him since you were probably using birdshot, you just pissed him off.”
John creeps up and looks at the blood. By using his hunting device on these we can track the animal, following a series of glowing domes until we get closer and closer. I follow close behind John as he starts and stops, following the trail, peering at things through his binoculars, telling me about the difficulties of hunting, how tiring it can be, how you can walk 15 miles a day, how even when you find and kill an animal there’s still work to do - the butchering.
A noise comes from the forest. He stops. It’s a different deer, and it’s even closer than the one we are tracking.
“Let’s go after that one,” he says.
He gets out his horn and calls. Then drops down on his belly and crawls forward through the grass. I follow his lead, blinded by the grass until we reach a bare spot on a hillside.
“I can hear him walking, actually. I can’t see him but I can hear him.”
Then I spot him. He’s right in front of us, maybe thirty metres down the hill and obscured by some tree branches.
“If you got the shot take it,” says John. Then: “Make sure you use the rifle.”
I say he should take the shot. John doesn’t argue. He gets out his rifle and within three or four seconds the gunshot rings out. The deer goes down.
“That was a 7 millimetre magnum,” he says proudly.
We get up and walk down to the animal.
“This is a red deer stag,” he says. “Not a very big one. His antlers aren’t very big, but it’s all right. He’s decent, he’ll probably score around the high one hundreds, maybe two hundred.”
I look at the stag. It looks pretty huge to me. John gets out his in-game camera, entering the trophy shot mode – he’s going to take a photo of us with the kill. The stag’s head wobbles like a macabre puppet as he jostles with its positioning. Eventually, the antlers sit in a good enough position for a snapshot.
He exits the camera mode. The body disappears.
We start to walk away, uphill again. I tell him that I have a lot of friends who would see what he does as cruel. My girlfriend is a vegetarian.
“You know,” he says, “different cultures have different traditions. Sure, I can understand it. If you grow up in a country that doesn’t have much of a hunting culture, if you grow up in a city where there is nothing to hunt, then you’re going to have a certain attitude.
“I grew up in the United States, I grew up in a state that’s a very rural farming state, there’s wildlife everywhere, and it’s a tradition to go hunting. It’s what we learned to do, it’s arguably how human beings survived to get to the point that we are.