Video games are obsessed with killing monsters. Or maybe we are. The fantasy of slaying a dragon or hunting down a werewolf has been the stock and trade of games for so long that it’s hard to separate the two. But the intense contrast between how two recently released games – Monster Hunter: World and Shadow of the Colossus – treat the idea of monster slaying points out interesting moral issues at the heart of one of gamers’ most cherished virtual activities.
Warning: Light spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus below.
Where Monster Hunter: World celebrates and encourages the wholesale slaughter of its New World wildlife, Shadow of the Colossus questions the morality of every colossus the player kills. The two games are complete opposites in terms of how they approach the idea of killing “monsters.” One focuses on what’s gained from the hunt; the other focuses on what’s lost.
Monster Hunter: World relishes the idea of the hunt. Its simple yet satisfying loop of hunting down creatures and looting their corpses for items to craft better gear is one we’re all familiar with. But the game fulfills a power fantasy that drives people forward.
The most recent game in Capcom’s franchise is a tale of new frontiers and conquest not too different from the one the real-world conquistadors and colonists embarked on. It’s probably not a coincidence that everybody calls the game’s continent the New World.
Although it would be an understatement to say that Monster Hunter: World isn’t really concerned with story, the game does a remarkable job of playing into the fantasy that drove the colonists of our own world. The whole world is out there for the taking. And the wildlife is part of that world.
Monster Hunter: World’s monster murder is given context – a beast has attacked a research caravan or cut off a trade route – but no one really needs the extra bit of motivation. The joy of discovering a new beast – and then killing it – is all the motivation we need. The monster fights are tense, difficult encounters that require quick thinking as much as planning. Finally bringing down a monster is fun and rewarding – a true test of skill. When a monster dies, triumphant music plays as the monster’s body collapses to the ground.
It’s hard not to think that these monsters are attacking our self-defense and self-preservation. We’re invading their world. As a loot-driven game, Monster Hunter: World rewards the cyclical murder of these beasts for the sake of our own benefit. Sure, that new set of armor is really cool, but is it worth the destruction of a majestic (and, yes, deadly) beast?
Obviously, this doesn’t make Monster Hunter: World any less fun. But it’s worth reflecting on how eager and receptive we are to going out and slaying these creatures just for the sake of an armor upgrade.
Of course, Monster Hunter: World brushes aside any consequences or lasting impact that our actions might have on the monster ecosystem by allowing the monsters to respawn. It’s a necessary part of the game’s loot-driven grind, but it only reinforces the idea that these creatures are here for our pleasure. It’s all part of the hunt.
Then you have Shadow of the Colossus, which picks apart this fantasy, casting doubt on the very idea of what makes a “monster” in the first place.
Throughout Team Ico’s masterpiece, we’re asked to kill 16 colossi in order to resurrect a dead loved one. It’s a classic quest: slay the monster, get the girl. But Shadow of the Colossus makes sure to question this quest every step of the way.
Even in the PlayStation 4 remake, Shadow of the Colossus’ world is a lonely place. The remake really gets across the idea of how small and insignificant the player is. Unlike Monster Hunter: World, Shadow of the Colossus takes every opportunity to strip away your power and sense of importance. Wander – and, by proxy, you – don’t belong in this world.
There’s no place in Monster Hunter: World’s very Western idea of conquest for this sentiment. In order to go on a hunt, you need to believe that the untamed wilderness can be tamed, that the monster is out there just for you to hunt, that you can own the world. Shadow of the Colossus never once makes you feel at home. Even the name of the world – the Forbidden Land – is meant to make you feel like an intruder. There’s loneliness in its massive plains and quiet forests. There’s anger and fear in the eyes of its massive, lumbering residents.
The game’s somber, self-reflective take on action games culminates in the colossus fights. Without spoiling too much for those who are coming to the game for the first time, it becomes clear pretty early on that killing these colossi is not the “heroic” quest we think it is. The moment after each colossus’ death makes this painfully obvious.
The music that plays as a colossus falls has no hint of Monster Hunter: World’s celebratory trumpet. Instead, soft, somber choral vocals play over a slow-motion shot of the colossus crashing to the ground. It’s shot like a “heroic death” in a war movie. Only, you aren’t the hero.
Shadow of the Colossus also makes each death personal, largely by forcing each fight to feel intimate. Fighting each colossus involves climbing up to its weak points and stabbing them repeatedly. More often than not that means you’re face down in the colossus’ fur or climbing across its back. It’s an involved process that makes the player feel close to the colossi both literally and figuratively. The impressive detail that the PS4 remake packs into each colossus only helps to connect the player with the “monster” in even more uncomfortable ways. Killing each colossus amounts to a defeat, not a victory.
Monster Hunter: World makes each of its monsters an opportunity for you, the player, to gain something, whether it’s loot or glory. Shadow of the Colossus is an important caveat to this kind of power fantasy. It puts scare quotes around the very idea of a “monster” and asks the important question, “But what do we lose?”