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.

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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.

Sightseeing missions familiarize the player with different hunting grounds, and show off the beauty of the world that Avalanche Studios have created. They also reveal that being in the reserve is supposed to be a pleasure in itself. If players find that these missions are too boring or too slow, The Hunter is probably not the right game for them. While Pettersson and the team at Avalanche do not want to discourage new players, they are not interested in compromising the game’s core values.

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“We are not making the game with the typical COD: Modern Warfare 2 player in mind. Instead, we are targeting those who really want to get this realistic nature and hunting experience,” Pettersson says. “Many of our most dedicated players are real life hunters and true wildlife enthusiasts.”

Upon creating an account, new users receive greetings from Colton Locke, called Doc, the warden of Whitehart Island, followed by a series of missions. They are as simple as “Kill a deer” or “Walk to the lake,” but there is usually a lesson hidden within them. Assigning a deer-tracking mission, Doc explains that you can harvest a doe or a buck once you’ve finished, because the “herds are in good shape right now.”

It’s not as if players can damage the animal population of Whitehart Island by going on a rampage while out on the hunt, but The Hunter still raises these issues. “There are two main reasons for this,” Pettersson says. “First, we want to encourage ethical hunting, fair chase and acting responsibly in the environment and among wildlife. Closely related to this is wildlife management, and hunting is a common way to control specific animal populations. Hence messages like this, as well as other references related to wildlife management, are common. The other reason is that, being a simulation, our aim is to make it as realistic as possible, including the ‘back-story.'” The hunter, as portrayed in this game, is as much a steward as a sportsman, with all the responsibilities that implies.

Feeling far from either steward or sportsman as my shot echoed, I took note that the deer was gone, vanished over the ridge before I could even slide the rifle’s bolt open. I finished reloading and ran to the top. For the first time, I saw deer tracks and realized that you could track an animal. They were hard to miss this time. The deer had left a long trail of prints and blood spatters along the back slope as it fled. I started following, expecting to come across the animal at any moment.

But the trail just led onward. Excitement faded as my pursuit became a long hike along the western slope with nothing but bloodstains as evidence of the deer’s passing. Finally, after perhaps a kilometer or more, I came to a defile where a mature doe was lying beneath a tree. At my approach, she lifted her head and regarded me with large black eyes.

A skilled hunter gets the pleasure of a successful hunt, a clean kill, and a trophy buck. All the game’s challenges and slow, deliberate pace serve to build up the moment that the player scores a clean kill. “It should require patience and some skill to bag your first animal,” Pettersson says. “We really want to give the player the thrill of spotting a big buck, getting closer and finally being able to take that perfect shot. Bagging an animal should really feel like a significant thing, something which would not be possible with a more arcade-ish or ‘shooting gallery’ kind of gameplay.”

However, the player who takes a bad shot will find himself exploring some dark terrain. After tracking the doe, that is where I found myself.

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I hadn’t actually expected to find a live animal at the end of the chase, and certainly not one that was aware. Until that moment, the blood trail had been a game mechanic, a bit of inconvenience parceled out to players who lacked the skill and patience to score a clean kill. But the doe, silent and watchful on the ground, made everything a little too real. My hasty, lousy shot had inflicted a slowly crippling wound. Now, her race run and energy spent, it fell to me to dispatch her with the shot I should have taken a half-hour earlier.

I pointed my rifle at her head, but she was still looking at me. Unnerved, I gave it up and circled around behind her, but she craned her neck to watch me. Once I was out of her sight, I aimed the rifle again. Before I could fire, she placed her head down on the dirt and drifted off. I had not even managed to fulfill my responsibility to dispatch her mercifully. She had died of the terrible wound I had inflicted on her hip.

It occurred to me that The Hunter had passed judgment on me. Or, perhaps more accurately, it forced me to pass judgment on myself. If the simulated hunt was thrilling, and the simulated forest relaxing, then this animal’s simulated suffering was horrifying. I understood now that a successful hunt is not a binary state, where a deer is either killed or not. How I hunted and what kind of death I dispensed mattered more. A quick snapshot at a running target, far from being the feat of reflexes and marksmanship that I thought it was, turned out to be irresponsible and cruel. I was the worst stereotype of a hunter: a yahoo loose in the woods with a gun.

Since then, I have become much more careful and selective about shooting deer. In many cases, it seems gratuitous or mean-spirited to aim at weak targets. An underweight doe is no one’s trophy. I never take wild shots. If I can’t get a good angle and steady aim on the target, it’s not worth it to fire. I’ve had one miserable pursuit, and don’t look forward to another.

The conservationist movement has historically sought to deepen people’s understanding of nature, and their relationship and responsibilities to it. The Hunter belongs in that movement, and teaches its values by example. The Hunter is someone who places his actions in the larger context of an ecosystem and a moral universe that extends to animals. By demonstrating that to people like me, who have few opportunities to learn these lessons in practice, The Hunter can change how players view the world and our place in it. The ethics of the hunt and the values of the conservationist find new expression in long rambles across Whitehart Island.

Rob Zacny lives in Cambridge, where swan boats and late-night MBTA passengers are the only wildlife he encounters. You can find more of his work through his blog.

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