MH4U was one of those games I couldn’t get into on the first attempt. The high skill floor it demanded, the complexity and depth in its systems and the sheer difficulty of mastering my weapon of choice – the charge blade – made me set it down multiple times before getting completely hooked 30 hours in. Monster Hunter is that kind of game. The more you play, the better you understand the systems, the more fun you will get out of it. As the charge blade transformed from a pain in the ass to my new best friend in monster hunting, the game reciprocates by dishing out more content, newer modes, greater challenges and cool new weapons and armour. And I continued my journey in this fascinating world until some other game pulled my attention away.
I recently purchased Monster Hunter Generations (MHX), the newest entry to the franchise and I thought I’d get into much easier than I did MH4U, since all I really had to do was to polish up my charge blade skills and get use to the new mechanics. The more I played it, however, the more I realised how much the lack of a story mode in this installment is preventing me from coming back after a bad run like MH4U did. Yes, I have always argued that a game’s narrative is more important than its plot; however, that does not mean that the existence of a plot cannot help to craft or shape emergent narratives in games that are unique to individual players.
Here’s a nice image that depicts exactly what I am describing in the next paragraph
The plot in MH4U follows the player’s journey with a caravan crew and their journey across the world of MH4U by gathering resources, clearing away dangerous monsters for their adventure to continue. What is most memorable about this plot is the Gore Magala, a six-limb wyvern with wings attached to its front claws with scale looking like a suit of black armour, which is the first creature you fight in the game but is not able to fully defeat until late in the story. When you first encounter the beast, the player is tasked to chase it away by firing ship cannons at it; in the second the Magala strikes down your caravan’s elite team and you are trying to distract it long enough until it escapes, and finally on the third encounter is the player able to go all out against the Magala and defeating it once and for all (well, not quite). The unsatisfying end to the first two encounters sets up a grudge, a rivalry and a thirst for an epic battle that settles the score between you and the Gore Magala; and when that moment finally comes, my heart pounded with fear and excitement as I flashed back to the moments where I was relying on gimmicks to chase the creature away, and now with the chance to finally test my abilities against my rival finally at hand, this was a battle that had to be won. It also helps that the Gore Magala is a well-designed boss that is smart, quick and powerful and provides a more than satisfying and exhilarating challenge, with a difficulty spike that feels just slightly too much to make the player feel the pressure of the battle. It was a fight of blood, of sweat, of tears, of adrenaline rush, and the greatest hunting trance any video game has ever put me into. And as the Gore Magala falls as black smoke oozed from its body, it felt like a long overdue debt has been paid, and this the game’s way of showing you what lies in the future if you continue playing. ‘There is more where that came from,’ MH4U whispers, ‘are you interested to see more?’
More means more bigger and more shinier Magala
And with the story missing from MHX, it becomes a problem because there is no goal to urge me from continuing. My wish to finally defeat the Gore Magala kept me going until I could love the gameplay loop of hunting monsters to make better armour and weapons to kill even bigger monsters, and I am just thankful that my first real contact with the series was the one that made the most effort to draw new players in, and set up the narrative in a way to keep them invested until they could appreciate the core gameplay. Narratively, MH4U is extremely similar to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game that I also enjoyed immensely not because of the plot, but the Nemesis system that sets up the player’s rivalry with various Orc Captains that would return from the brink of death after you supposedly kill them, or will taunt you if they have killed you before and ranked up in the army as a result of defeating you. Emergent narratives in Darkest Dungeon and X-COM, where I named my soldiers and heroes after friends, kept me invested in those games far more than the actual plot in those games did. Tales of Justino the undying Paladin who kept returning from the grave after death, but gets more unwilling each time and therefore his name contains more ‘no’-s every time he revived (in actuality, I just renamed new Paladins Justinono, Justinonono, etc.), and Sandy the black sniper commander who always screw up her missions and is now being suspected as an alien infiltrator (because she missed the most 98% hit-rate shots and twice her teams got wiped on quests and she was the sole survivor both times), are stories unique to my playthrough and my playthrough only.
This was the 5th time I had to kill Grûblik, he really, really hates me
And this is why I think video games serve as better books than actual books because everyone is going to have vastly different experiences, and have stories that belong to them and them only. For big role-playing fans like me, it always helps to enhance the experience while playing the game, and I believe that even if I were to forget the mechanics and plot of these games in the future, I will probably never forget the stories.