Critical Intel

Critical Intel
What Visiting the Amazon Taught Me About Video Game Jungles

Robert Rath | 31 Jul 2014 16:00
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BUGS OH GOD BUGS

When a moth the size of an open wallet attacked my face, I realized headlamps are not ideal tools in the jungle. Insects thrive in rainforest conditions, from million-strong ant colonies to flights of butterflies that surround you by the dozen. Amazonian insects are enormous and beautiful, but they'll also kill you.

In a jungle filled with poisonous snakes, caimans, jaguars, pumas and wild boar, insects are the most dangerous predator for humans. Disease-carrying mosquitoes kill more people per year than any other animal, and even going to the Amazon calls for a Yellow Fever vaccination and daily anti-malarial drugs. Every time you step into the brush you do so in long sleeves, long pants, a hat and a layer of repellant so thick it could stop bullets like Magneto - and you still get bit, even through your clothes. (I withdraw my assertion last week that Lara Croft could wear hiking shorts in the jungle - she'd get eaten alive.) In addition to the mosquitoes there are flies that carry all manner of parasitic nasties. The one in vogue around our lodge, cutaneous leishmaniasis, runs through your body until it finds a small skin cut, then bores it out into a coin-sized lesion. Doctors cure it with a sixty-injection course.

While mosquitos might be a bit much, it would be interesting to see a game use butterflies and moths as visual flourishes to add a little life to their jungle, much like CoD: Ghosts used parrots in their Amazon mission. Large ant colonies would be an interesting addition to the terrain, as well as an environmental hazard. And it wouldn't hurt for more RPGs to add diseases and infections to their swamps and jungles Elder Scrolls-style if they wanted a greater sense of environmental danger.

The Animals Might be Monstrous, But They're Still Animals

During our five days in the Amazon, I saw a lot of animals that could kill me. A giant anaconda. A jaguar. Wild boar. Army ants. Wandering spiders. At one point, a macaw that could've easily taken my finger off invaded our room to check out our stuff. (We stayed at a macaw research center, and some of the birds that had been treated and released back into the wild decided, yeah, no, your breakfast butter packets are delicious and this is our home now.) But no matter how vicious, these things behaved like animals, not monsters. They had their territories and stuck to them. They focused on getting out of our way rather than confronting or stalking us - since attacking something as big as a human is a gamble most animals won't take. The risk of injury is too great, and in a hostile environment like the rainforest, injuries frequently lead to death. Though jaguars and pumas will stalk and kill a lone human, and an anaconda will totally go for you in the water, big cats attacking a group of people ala Far Cry 3 is farfetched. Our only glimpse of a jaguar came as he climbing a riverbank away from us, looking not that different from a startled housecat scrambling up the back of a couch.

What Far Cry 3 got right, however, is territorialism and distribution. Animals wander for all kinds of reasons, but they often favor certain territories or environments. Though Far Cry 3 keeps their wandering range tightly condensed, it's not unheard-of for experienced guides to know where herds like to gather or the best place to see a jaguar or anaconda (the riverbank, for both). And to the game's further credit, many animals in Far Cry 3 would rather run than fight and even the ones that hunt you feel like they're just doing their thing, rather than monsters bent on your destruction. We've had this same conversation about dinosaurs.

In summation, a game developer who's considering how to improve their jungle should focus on two words: More life. Rainforests breed life, they're dense with it. Everything around you except the dirt under your boots is a living, breathing organism. It doesn't take much more than a few different textures, some ambient animals, and the sounds of life (and a few droning mosquitos) to make the deepest, darkest jungle feel a little less empty.

But you can leave out the anacondas. I think one's enough for my lifetime.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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