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Monster Hunter and the Conflicted Vegetarian

How do you come to terms with a game that clashes with your belief system?

Opinion by Bob Mackey, .

This article originally ran in December 2015. We're re-publishing it here to celebrate the release of Monster Hunter World. Check out our review here!

I may be USgamer's self-appointed Monster Hunter evangelist—check out my recent review of 4 Ultimate if you need proof—but, just five short years ago, Capcom's multiplayer-focused RPG series did an excellent job of turning my stomach.

Take a trip with me back to 2010: I'd been pegged to review Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for the recently departed 1UP.com, so I decided to pick up an old copy of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the cheap, just to see what all the fuss was about—if Hideo Kojima was leaning on this series for inspiration, it had to be something special (or at least too popular to ignore). I get about 20 minutes into the game, and, after coming to terms with its clunky PSP controls and menus upon menus, I'm given one of my first quests: slaying some wandering herbivores to obtain their undoubtedly tasty insides. Wandering out into the wilderness, I spot a family of peaceful dinosaurs hanging out at a watering hole, minding their own business. Already I'm feeling conflicted about this whole "monster hunting" thing.

One of the few situations where human-on-dino violence is acceptable.

I press on, swinging my massive sword at the nearest cow-sized lizard—what looks like the female of the group. After a few blows—and without my target putting up a fight—she falls, and her companions make a hasty retreat. As I dig into this fresh body to reap my rewards, I can't help but feel awful about the whole thing. Did I just bring some poor dino-family to an swift and brutal end thanks to the edge of my blade? After this experience, I quickly filed away Monster Hunter in the "not for me" pile—I just didn't have the heart (or stomach) for it.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm a vegetarian. (Actually, I'm a pescetarian, but further classification feels kind of pretentious to me.) And, contrary to popular belief, we're not a prosthelytizing group. As a matter of fact, it's typically other people who bring up the subject, mostly if I turn down something I'm offered due to its meat content. This doesn't happen nearly as much now that I've moved to the Bay Area, but back in my Ohio hometown, I found myself trapped in confrontations with incredulous people who seriously could not process how a human being could resist the siren song of bacon. ("Really? No bacon ever?") Like many places in the Midwest, a bite of food without meat in it is an unthinkable proposition.

I'm coming up on my tenth year of vegetarianism now, and while I still think cooked meat smells great—especially when its odors waft into my window from the Mexican restaurant next door—it's something I've learned to live without. Back in 2005, I reached the decision to go meatless due to my love of animals; while I won't ever try to confront anyone about their own lifestyle choices, I feel it's my responsibility as a human being to reduce the amount of suffering on this planet while I happen to be living on it. Really, though, it can't be overstated just how empathetic I am to the pain of animals, to the point where it sometimes negatively affects my life. If I go outside and see a little pigeon hobbling around on one foot, my heart sinks for the next hour. And if I happen to witness someone mistreating their pet (or a wild animal), I always try my damnedest to set them on fire with my mind. (I figure it's bound to pay off one day.)

Not scientifically accurate, except in my hometown.

And that's why I wasn't necessarily on board with Monster Hunter from day one: while you're slaying these beasts out of necessity instead of sport, the game still asked me to defy some very strong beliefs I hold. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure if my original take on Monster Hunter could just be chalked up to idiosyncrasy, but a few people on Twitter reached out to me about the issue without the question even being raised. In response to my 4 Ultimate review, one of my followers said, "Your MH4U review got me interested in the game, but is it weird that I think hunting the monsters would make me sad?" Another follower replied to this: "That's actually the main reason I can't get into the series. I need to steel my bleeding heart." Clearly, I'm not alone in my oversensitivity.

To Capcom's credit, their game centered on killing remains pretty sanitary. At best, you'll do some superficial damage to a monster, or lop off their tail, but you're never showered in fountains of blood or covered in viscera. And, in general, the monsters are the aggressors—though, to be fair, their hostility seems to be generated from territorialism rather than malevolence or a desire to eat you. Still, there's a brief bit of sadness baked into each and every battle. As you wear a monster down to the point where it's limping, drooling, and fleeing desperately, you should feel triumphant, but there's a bit of guilt mixed in as well. And when someone delivers the final blow and that massive beast spasms through its final breaths, well, it feels pretty heartbreaking—even if this wasn't Capcom's intention.

Before I'm accused of hypocrisy, I'm no fan of violence and killing in general, and don't typically seek out games with this subject matter. Even if they're popcorn, escapist entertainment, I don't touch Call of Duty because of my feelings about war, and the newest Mortal Kombat's fatalities escaped their former silliness and have now taken the form of photorealistic creep shows I'm not entirely comfortable with. I wouldn't try to take these games away from anyone, though, and I'll gladly admit fundamentalist belief systems don't lead to a happy life—nearly everything we consume has some problematic content, and I've played plenty of games where I did icky things without first having to pause and stand on one of many soapboxes to preach my outrage. And I feel that's something people angered by those critical of media fail to understand: You can disagree with or find content objectionable without wanting to banish it from existence. (Something Anita Sarkeesian points out in the introduction to all of her Feminist Frequency videos that her loudest detractors seem to completely ignore.)

As of now, I've played over 200 hours of the Monster Hunter series, so it's safe to say I've gotten over my initial reservations. Still, that doesn't mean I haven't learned to play the game in a way that best fits my bleeding heart sensibilities. Whenever possible, I trap instead of kill monsters, which actually works in my favor, since this difficult act yields more rewards—like Metal Gear, Deus Ex, Dishonored, and others, a pacifist approach is incentivized. And while it's implied these creatures are put down, post-capture, since everything happens off-screen, who's to say? Maybe Moga Island is home to a Jaggi petting zoo or something! (No, I'm not really that naive—I just prefer to not be around for the actual act of killing.)

When angered, my pet parrot is basically indistinguishable from Monster Hunter's Qurupeco.

Even so, it took some doing to get over my issues with Monster Hunter. And I don't expect everyone to simply "get over" their sensitivities—there's tons of media out there I'll never enjoy, so I feel no obligation to try. Regardless, it's been interesting to see how these simulacrums of reality manage to worm their way into our frontal lobes; kudos to Capcom, I guess, for making their cast of monsters feel so much like living things. But if they wanted to construct a new creature entirely out of delicious baked tofu for the inevitable Monster Hunter 5—in a possible sly reference to Resident Evil—I'd be the last person to object.

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