One of the most sobering moments I've had in a videogame occurred during my second session in The Hunter. Inept and impatient, I was going in circles along the eastern face of Whitehart Island's central ridge. Knowing nothing of tracking, I was just hoping to luck into some deer and kill one. That had proved fruitless. Thoroughly frustrated, I decided to change locations and started hiking up the ridge. Not far from the top, I heard rustling and snapping coming from ahead of me and to my right. I dropped into a crouch and readied my rifle.
If you know what you are doing in The Hunter, you know to be careful. Setting up a successful shot can take several minutes of crawling around and waiting, and an instant's impatience can spoil everything. Deer can be preternaturally cagey. Even when you line up a perfect shot and lie still, waiting for your aim to steady on a buck 150 feet away through a stand of trees ... something will make it aware of your presence just as you are squeezing the trigger. As it darts deeper into the forest, the report of your wasted shot thunders through the valley, alerting all the game within a kilometer. The hunt is ruined, unless you can take the time to hike to another location where you haven't scared the bejeezus out of the entire animal kingdom. You probably can't, though, since your feet are your only transportation, and tracking can take over an hour and still lead to a dead-end.
I had not yet learned any of those lessons. I couldn't see anything but shafts of late afternoon sunlight stabbing through the canopy onto the tree trunks in front of me. The lack of visibility made me antsy, and I was creeping higher for a better view when I spooked a deer. I heard hooves pounding and I saw movement against the skyline. I swept my rifle to the left, saw something flash in my sights, and squeezed the trigger.
It was the first moment of action in almost 90 minutes, which seems like a pacing problem until you realize that The Hunter is, above all, a simulation. It offers rewards beyond the climax of the hunt. Stefan Pettersson, the current head of development for The Hunter, explains, "We are designing the world to make it rewarding just to explore the reserve. Besides providing a realistic hunting experience, we want to provide such a beautiful world that the player should get the same kick out of some virtual trekking as trekking in real life."
There are moments of stunning beauty: a cloud passes in front of the sun as you cross a field of flowers and prairie grass, and its shadow rolls across the valley like a wave. The sound effects accompanying each step convey reedy grass and soft earth underfoot. Then a breeze sends a shiver through the meadow, the cloud passes, and the shadow is peeled away to reveal greens, golds and purples springing back to vivid life.
These are the sensations that keep me coming back to The Hunter. The natural world is one of those things I always plan on taking the time to appreciate ... some day. The Hunter brings the natural world to the desktop, no more than a URL and a mouseclick away. Far from attempting to be a substitute for nature, The Hunter often seems like an ode to it, or perhaps a manifesto.