Arthur Morgan embarks on a hunting expedition along the banks of the Upper Montana River to collect the supplies needed to feed the entire Van Der Linde gang. He spots the perfect prey: a white-tailed deer, head down drinking water from the river’s edge. He unsaddles from his trusty steed, equipping his bow and catching a few arrows after landing. It enters hunting mode, stalking its prey from the wind until it reaches the optimal distance, slipping into cover behind a tree.
Arthur carefully draws an arrow from his quiver, notching it into his bow and slowly applying tension to the bowstring. He focuses on making a clean kill, nailing the white deer’s heart. He releases the bowstring. Arrows whistle through the air. Suddenly something jolts the deer, causing the arrow to miss the heart, instead sinking into the lung. We hear the painful moans of the wounded deer. Arthur stepped forward, drawing his knife. He compassionately puts the animal out of its misery. The Van Der Linde gang will be well fed for a few days. However, as a gamer, this hunting activity made me reevaluate my views on the relationship between video games and the wild.
Even as a child, I always had an affinity with animals and nature. A lot of this came from learning about dinosaurs. Who wouldn’t be surprised to know that giant reptiles roamed the Earth millions of years ago? I have always known that animals are an integral part of the world and should be protected.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was revolutionary for me because it was the first open world game where the animals and ecosystem felt real. Graphical realism allowed me to experience nature without the limitations of my disability: the main hook for me was exploring and enjoying my experience with the game outside of the main narrative. I spent hours tracking animals, dying from ambushes by packs of wolves, running foolishly into the jaws of a crocodile or standing on the edge of cliffs, trying to find an elusive Bald Eagle. All to finally complete the comprehensive summary.
The negative aspect of that realism for me was the graphic act of skinning animals. It just looked and felt so real. The amount of detail in the skinning process became uncomfortable to watch, especially with larger animals, due to the increased length of the process. In the first Red Dead Redemption, I had no problem with hunting activities because the graphics weren’t powerful enough to replicate anything close to reality. Red Dead 2 meant I couldn’t look away.
Elsewhere, The Last Of Us Part 2 similarly affected me when dogs were introduced as enemies. I always tried to sneak around them, but inevitably ended up killing a few due to inept stealth. When it first happened, I had to pause the game to process the emotions of guilt and responsibility for my actions. Why should I feel responsible for my actions? It’s just a game, right? However, with the realism of this loyalty, it is difficult to justify to yourself that your actions are only in the game. You hear the realistic sounds of an animal in pain or owners calling out their dog’s name, and it triggers actual emotions: empathy and an aversion to causing that pain again.
Fortunately, I recently played Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, such a useful game to celebrate the natural world and emphasize the message of care and respect for the planet. As the new protagonist Alba, you are given a camera to photograph the birds you discover as you explore a small open world. It was such a joy to play as I felt connected to the birds. In other games, I’d just see birds as useful feathers for making arrows! It highlighted an internal dilemma I have with the way nature is portrayed in games. Inevitably, open-world games must limit the way in which players can interact with the world. This is why most interactions with animals revolve around hunting, turning nature into a commodity to be exploited to benefit us.
However, a big change is happening. Think of a desire that so many players have in games with canine companions: I want to pet the dog! Is this spreading further? Far Cry 6 allowed you to bond with multiple pet friends, and one of the cutest choices was the Chorizo Dachshund with wheels for hind legs. It’s impossible not to want to pet him or call him a good guy after he helped you ambush Anton Castillo’s soldiers.
Bethesda’s highly anticipated game Starfield is an ambitious space RPG with 1000 colony worlds to explore. The reveal of the game showed us the mysterious rocky moon Kreet, with various alien creatures in the environment. This got me thinking if your character would be able to scan or understand about creatures if you could choose a xenobiologist background. That would increase immersion and investment with the planet’s various ecologies instead of generally viewing all creatures as enemies or commodities, right?
Then there’s something like Stray. What a fantastic concept. You explore a decaying cyber city through the eyes of a cat as you solve an ancient mystery. Stray gives the player a unique four-legged perspective of environmental navigation and the ability to perceive and interact with the world as a cat. I think more games should have animal protagonists. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate animals through play, and the added sensitivity only enhances our appreciation of nature. Stray’s approach makes sense. Animals give us so much joy both in the real world and in the game world, so more games should focus on providing deeper interactions with animals, rather than just looking at them through the lens of hunting activities .