We were five hours upriver in the Peruvian Amazon when we saw the anaconda. It lay coiled and motionless, nested inside a clutch of dead trees that had snagged together near the bank. Its head was no larger than my hand, but its armored body was as big around as a dinner plate.
I asked our guide how long it was. He said, judging by body width, around seven or eight meters. That’s more than twenty-three feet, maybe as much as twenty-six – either way longer than the motorized canoe we stood in, longer than the distance from us to the snake. It was without doubt the scariest creature I’ve seen in my life.
Having grown up hiking through Hawaiian rainforests, I’d always assumed I had a handle on the rainforest. My little bit of knowledge made me snarky about videogame jungles, and how they never seem to have enough trees. But when I saw that snake, I realized I was wrong. Hawaii had kiddie pool rainforests compared to the Amazon, and the videogame jungles I loved to snicker at were even more wrong – and sometimes more right – than I ever realized.
Here’s what I learned.
Line of Sight is Irretrievably Borked
Depending on the time of day, you might be able to see fifty feet in the jungle. Trees and vines create a dense net of vegetation, and the canopy puts everything in perpetual shadow. Seeing animals, or people, means peering through the spaces between the foliage to see a hoof, a wing, or the flash of a white T-shirt. At night, you can’t see anything but a few stars winking through the branches. An experienced tracker – like our guide – can sense animals quite well, but they often use auditory cues, smell and moving leaves rather than actual sight. As for seeing into the trees from the outside? Good luck. Your visual range goes about ten feet deep.
To illustrate, one day my wife and I were tracking wild boar. Every time we caught a glimpse, they’d sense us and run away, roaring and clacking their jaws with a sound like a paintball gun. We’d gotten close enough photograph the herd’s alpha when our guide caught up with us. He said we’d moved too far ahead and were in a dangerous position. Though we could only see seven boars, there were actually seventy in the herd. The rest were lurking around us in a U-shaped formation, just out of sight. Boars are vicious. One bites your leg to bring you down and the rest swarm and eat you alive.
Most games don’t hold with this limited vision, since it hampers gameplay. Developers plant well-spaced jungles with wide avenues. One exception is Call of Duty: Ghosts, which featured an Amazon mission where the player stalked pursuers through a jungle with restricted sightlines, but the reality is far more extreme. The game that really gets it right is Warhammer‘s tabletop rules, which limit the amount soldiers can see through woods and jungle unless they’re specially trained like the Catachan Jungle Fighters. To Far Cry 3‘s credit, stalking via sound was a major part of its hunting system, but I’d like to see more games build on this aspect – and work toward making leaves that rustle when something passes.
The Rainforest Isn’t One Ecosystem, It’s a Thousand
Every tree in the Amazon has another organism growing on it. Vines and moss make their home on the bark, and ferns sprout directly from the trunk. Though it’s called the rainforest, a surprisingly small amount of water makes it to the ground when it rains. As a consequence, the plants are aggressive. Small plants climb on big ones. Strangler vines mummify and kill enormous trees to reach the sunlight above. Everything’s stealing position and moisture from everything else.
When you look at a tree in the jungle, you don’t see a tree. Instead there’s a whole ecosystem growing vertically. A few games have incorporated this – Call of Duty: Ghosts and Crysis 3 had some trees that match this description, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Most game trees are bare so the sight lines are clean and programmers can reuse assets. It’s a small difference, but a striking one that makes in-game jungles look sterile.
Mud Is A Natural Booby Trap
There are infinite varieties of mud in the Amazon. There’s the thin mud that’s little more than a foot-deep puddle. There’s the gritty stuff filled with pebbles. Form-fitting clay mud, and mud the consistency of a chocolate shake – that’s the kind that’ll suck the rubber boots right off your feet. Given that rain and humidity are a given in the rainforest, mud’s an inevitable part of life there.
It gets particularly bad on trails where there are few roots and shrubs to hold the soil together. Moving through the jungle involves frequent slowdowns as you wade through mud puddles twenty feet across and up to two feet deep, not exactly the run-and-gun gameplay of most games. In fact, given games’ difficulty with fluid dynamics, I wonder if it’s not just negative gameplay effects that gets this hostile terrain cut, but technical ability.
Once again, it’s actually Warhammer and other tabletop games that get this right – the difficult terrain rules become a lot more clear when you’re trapped calf-deep in mud, trying not to fall and impale yourself on a root spiking out of the ground.
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.