Wednesday, August 9, 2023

The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game

In the same post that inspired yesterday's ramblings on magic and realism (Damn! That's what I should called the bloody thing!) Tipa makes a potent argument against hunting in Palia. Using EverQuest as an example to describe what is surely the gameloop of most MMORPGs, she neatly sums up the entire genre in a sentence: "all anyone really wants to do is kill stuff."

We could easily consider ourselves entitled to expect more from a self-described "cosy" game than the usual indiscriminate slaughter and yet the repeated, rote killing of wildlife is very much a core activity in Palia, just as it is in the huge majority of fantasy or science-fantasy titles. (Palia is very definitely science-fantasy, by the way.)

Hunting is one of the eight available Skills in the beta, the ones you can "Focus" to level up. The full roster comprises foraging, mining, insect catching, gardening, hunting, furniture making, cooking, and fishing. 

It's notable that, while hunting is there in the list on the official website's Skills page, it doesn't get a mention anywhere in the introduction on the landing page. I guess it's covered, generically, by "Live off the land any way you like" but the words "hunt" or "kill" are nowhere to be found.

Once you step inside the game itself, however, there's no such coyness. Hunting is introduced in the tutorial along with all the other skills. You're sent to speak with the stereotypically gruff and suspicious huntsman, Hassian, a moody fellow with a distinctly dark-elven look about him, although his grimdark demeanor is heavily undercut by his cute, blue wolf companion, Tau

Despite his disdainful manner, Hassian wastes no time in giving you a bow and arrows and sending you off to kill some animals. He's not particularly bothered which ones although when you return with the evidence he's quick to take you to task for killing deer or, rather, Sernuk which, for no obviously good reason, is what deer are called in Palia.

Deer are indigenous to the area and to be treated with respect, apparently, unlike the Chapaa, for which Hassian has no time at all. He clearly considers the small, cute-looking creatures to be an invasive species and he's more than happy for you to kill as many as you like. All of them, if at all possible.

But of course, it's not possible. Palia follows the rules of almost every MMORPG since Ultima Online's famously disastrous experiment in quasi-realistic ecology which, back before the turn of the century, led players gleefully to instigate the genre's first extinction event. You can kill as many chapaa as you like; there will always be more.

Chapaa are very easy to kill. They sit up like rabbits and sniff the air, just waiting to be popped. I started by killing them but before long I was killing Sernuk instead. Sernuk are considerably harder to hit (Pro tip: always shoot them as they come towards you, not from the side.) but they drop hides when killed that can be turned into leather and leather is what I needed to make my hang-glider.

Already, as you can see, the seeds of destruction are being sown. Palia may advertise itself as a cosy game with no combat but death there is as much a part of life as in any other survival game or MMORPG. I won't go so far as to say if you don't kill, you don't eat, because you can eat mushrooms if you like, but if you don't kill you won't fly, that's for sure.

The thing about killing, though, as many a serial-killer will attest, is once you start, you find it hard to stop. You get a taste for it, you know?

Hunting in Palia is one of the more enjoyable versions of the sport I've encountered. You have to aim your bow. There's no auto-targeting. If you miss, your prey flees. If you get too close, it spooks. Sernuk gallop off into the distance; chapaa burrow into the ground.

I found chapaa easy prey from the start but Sernuk were hard. At first I was lucky to kill two or three with a stack of twenty arrows. I persisted, not because I needed the pelts but because I was enjoying myself. Now, several sessions later, my hunting skill is closing on level five and on my last hunt I killed eighteen Sernuk with twenty arrows.

Here's the thing. I've seen quite a few people already complaining that there's not a whole heck of a lot to do in Palia. I'm curious about that. There are those eight skills to raise to level ten. There are all of the villagers to ingratiate yourself with. There's a story to follow. There's your house to build and a largeish number of recipes to gain and craft.

It seems like a lot to me. At the rate I'm progressing, I imagine it would take me a few months to run through all of that and I'm fairly confident Singularity 6 will have added something more for me to do by then. It seems to me that there's plenty to do in Palia - if you don't mind doing much the same thing over and over and over again and if you only play for an hour or two each day.

The question for me doesn't seem to be so much "is there enough to do?" as "is it amusing or entertaining?" and I'm guessing that's where the problem lies. For me, so far, Palia's scoring higher than expected on that index. It's not that it's offering me anything new - it categorically is not. It's that the familiar activities have been implemented in a way that makes them intrinsically enjoyable.

Hunting is a great example. As we've agreed, almost all games of this kind send you out to slaughter the local wildlife, often ad infinitum. It's the ones that make doing so engaging in and of itself, not just for the numbers-go-upness of it all, that make you feel like taking a half hour extra just to go kill some more critters.

For me, at this stage at least, hunting hits something of a sweet spot. I'm getting better at it but not just because my in-game skill has gone up - my player skill has improved as well. And it feels satisfying. It feels very much like when I was in my teens, spending hours throwing darts at a dart board. You practice, you get better. Hitting what you aim at is fun.

Cooking in Palia is marginally similar. Making vegetable soup involves a mini-game where you chop vegetables as the pot simmers and you have to get them done in time to throw them in before the stock is spoiled. Probably other recipes will require similar hands-on application. 

That's all very well and I did enjoy it but somehow you just know dicing up a mushroom is never going to be as much fun as hitting a moving target with an arrow. I don't believe the target needs to be a living creature but it has to be something you can creep up on and surprise and for a developer, wild animals just fit the bill too neatly to ignore, I guess.

In a game as supposedly "cosy" as Palia all that slaughter does pose a problem. It doesn't help that the animals you're offered as targets are either cute or shy or terrified of you or all three at once. I can see where some people coming to this game specifically for its niceness might have a problem with that.

There is a workaround for the bow-shy and it's an odd one. I'm not even sure if it's a feature or a bug. When I was out hunting yesterday there were at least three other players doing the same thing in the same spot and I began to wonder why they didn't seem to be picking up the drops from the Sernuks they killed. 

I also began to wonder if you could pick up other peoples' loot in this game. I've never been averse to a bit of scavenging in an MMORPG but I didn't want to make it look like I was poaching, so I waited until I saw someone kill a deer and run off, obviously not intending to come back, then I sidled over and picked up the bag they'd left behind.

That was how I got most of my pelts yesterday. I must have looted a dozen, at least. It seemed crazy so many people weren't interested in their loot, especially because in Palia your hunting skill only ticks up when you press F to collect the drop, not when the creature expires. If they didn't want the loot or the xp, why were they killing them at all?

Eventually I came to the conclusion that it had to be part of the "shared loot" system I'd read about somewhere. I knew that players could engage in activities and all get the same rewards but I'd assumed they'd need to be grouped together in some formal fashion. It seems not. It very much looks like as long as you hang around there or thereabouts in the same place as someone who's hunting, you'll be entitled to the same share of the kill as they are.

Way to go to spread responsibility for your actions! It adds a whole new moral dilemma to the process. Is it just as bad to share in the spoils as it is to fire the killing arrow or is it perfectly fine because the deer was going to die whether you picked up the loot or not?

Honestly, I don't care. There very much was a time when I would have cared.  I might even have kept myself awake at night worrying about it. I took this sort of thing very seriously when I first played EverQuest. 

Too bloody seriously, I realise now. I'm less intense now. And less crazy.

It's still an interesting wrinkle in a complicated fabric of intent, all the same. Hunting does seem like an odd choice for a game like Palia but a glance at Hassian's stock (His high moral tone is somewhat undermined by his willingness to make a profit selling hunting gear to anyone with the coin to spend.) reveals it's no after-thought.

I was very surprised to see you can buy arrows that "disrupt the magical abilities of powerful creatures" and a Hunter's Horn that "allows you to track rare creatures". That suggests we won't just be hunting a few deer for pelts to make leather; we'll be making something of a career out of it. Just like Hassian has.

In a game that otherwise offers very little in the way of action, perhaps it was predictable, if not inevitable, that we'd end up hunting something. The non-lethal smoke bombs that stun the insects you can collect and keep in terrariums in your home seem more in keeping with the cosy concept than copper-tipped arrows. On balance, though, I'm quite pleased the developers let a little of their bloodlust seep through.

It's not that I have anything against the cuddly little critters, you understand. It's just that it's so much fun when they run...


  1. I feel like I need to be the voice of the fish. Or is it all catch and release? Because otherwise, fish are animals too and no one is complaining about them being dragged from their homes via a hook in their throats!!! :)

    1. Believe it or not but I actually considered putting in a paragraph about fishing in the context of killing in Palia - but then I decided it would be a step too far. And now here we are... (And no, it's not catch and release, although that would actually make more sense...)


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