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Is Hunting in a Zelda Game Okay?

The newly announced game in the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, among other open-world features, for the first time allows the player to hunt wild animals in order to acquire food, which is this game’s way of accumulating life energy (represented by “hearts” in the series).

Contrast this against how previous Zelda games have handled non-combatant animals, and we can see a stark 180° turn in the series’ messaging. Every previous game punished the player, playfully, for attacking animals who were no threat to Link, the game’s ever-silent protagonist (with a few limited exceptions). Attack the cuccos (chickens), and they’d summon a horde of invincible cuccos to their aid, forcing the player to run away in shame for what they had dared to do (but come on, you did it again anyway in the next game, knowing what would happen, just to see it). A slight variation was seen in 2002’s Wind Waker, when it was a semi-wild boar who, when attacked, would go all “crazy-eye” and take a revenge pounce against Link. Once again, the moral was clear: don’t attack these animals; they are no threat to you.

You’ve unleashed something fierce (image via cucco’s-rage.tumblr.com)

Now, of course, it’s Nintendo’s property, and they’re free to do what they like with it. Open-world proponents will often defend the options for destructive behaviour as just that: options; the player can either partake in hunting or not. This fact was noted during Nintendo’s own demonstration of the hunting feature, and was reported by VegNews as being reflective of attitudes progressing away from animal harm, seemingly oblivious to the series’ actually very animal-positive history.

But the game mechanics aren’t exactly neutral on the utility of the players’ choice to hunt or not. Choosing to hunt results in more health for the player; choosing not to hunt, from all demonstrated evidence, simply puts the player at a lack of this health supply. Mechanically, the game is clearly presenting a compelling case for the player to hunt.

(And at this point I earnestly hope we’re above arguments along the lines of “If I hunt in a video game, it doesn’t mean I’m going to hunt in real life”, or “There’s nothing wrong with killing a virtual animal” – I trust it’s clear I’m arguing nothing of the sort.)

So while I’m not altogether opposed to representations of hunting in video games, I have a few suggestions for tweaks to the Breath of the Wild hunting mechanics, as they were presented by Nintendo, such that the choice to hunt or not becomes a little more in line with the series’ previously unambiguous messaging: A hero doesn’t hurt those that pose no threat, unless absolutely necessary. These suggestions are modeled to be in line with our reality of hunting, to appease any rebuttal along the lines of “Hunting in a game is simply more realistic“:

  • Meat Must Be Cooked – if, as is true in our reality, meat must be cooked before it can safely be consumed, this puts a necessary extra step between retrieving and consuming meat, which is not necessarily there for the fruits and vegetables that can be retrieved in the game. This would make raw meat a fairly useless item that takes up space in your inventory, until it can be cooked, or…
  • Meat Can Spoil – …the meat spoils. If raw–and even cooked–meat is on a timer before it becomes potentially hazardous to consume, the player can balance between the relative safety of fruits vs the time-sensitive meat.
  • Species Can Go Extinct – in our reality, hunting a population beyond what its ecosystem can recover can lead to irreparable damage to populations, and even species extinction. Perhaps if the player too eagerly hunts animals, their population could be noticeably reduced, and perhaps this could have a lasting impact on the world. This could give the player pause before hunting, and maybe have them seek out another source of food.
  • Wild Animals Have Families – as is true in our reality, when you kill a wild animal, you are potentially killing a father, a mother, a child, a sibling, or a companion. Imagine seeing baby boars following a mother around, and playing among each other. There would be no mechanical inhibition to killing the mother boar, but now it would simply be represented a little differently. Could you take care of the orphaned babies? Could you kill them too for less meat? What would this say about Link, the silent hero?
Enjoy that grass; it shall be your last! (image via gamecrate.com)

Just some thoughts. I have no expectations of seeing any such mechanics in the game, but in fairness, what was shown of the game is very clearly only a small sliver, so we don’t yet know the extent to which hunting will be mechanically rewarded (or punished), though I can’t help but find it disappointing for this series to take a neutral or even positive stance on harm that could easily be avoided.

There’s a lot of things that look really exciting about this game, and I’m looking forward to playing it, but trust that I’ll be playing through as a strict vegetarian, at least as far as is practicable. It’s what my Link would do.

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