Friday, October 24, 2008

Big Buck Huntin'

Cold dawns in the foothills, morning mist laying over stubble and pasture, pooling thick in the low places. Bare-bone trees and leaves on the ground... I'm thinking of ear-flap caps, bright vests over camo, pickup trucks and thermoses of black coffee... the grey chill split by a crack of gunfire. Hunting season.

I've never hunted, myself, though I figure I'd have a den's worth of trophies by now if all the idle (and kind of ominous) offers to “take me out sometime” I've had over the years had been realized. Still, out here in the rural/semirural places, you can feel the excitement in the air as brief autumn winds down to early winter – here come the pleasant buddy-days afield; here comes some damned delicious eatin'. And just as the excitement of hockey season spills over into street hockey, table hockey, fantasy hockey and hockey video games, so does the excitement of hunting season spill over into gaming: in the taverns and saloons, loonies by the roll disappear ever faster into the coinslots of Big Buck Hunter cabinets.

The most present thing about Big Buck Hunter is the sound. Not the in-game audio of gunfire, running deer and flapping wings – that's usually well drowned by the jukebox, the band, or the general high-decibel rhubarb of barroom bullshitting – but the relentless plasticky clattering of the game's candy-colored shotgun controllers being pumped rapidly and relentlessly. Chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka! This virtual sportsman's paradise also offers the fantasy of hunting with unlimited Hollywood-style rapid—fire reloads.

So there's your answer to the question of why a real hunter would be into a hunting video game, especially when the season's open and the real thing is just a sick day away: because it's so fake it's awesome. It's the same reason why a musician would play Rock Band or a skateboarder would play Tony Hawk. Video games are their own thing, their priorities and prerogatives utterly unlike those of the activities whose names they appropriate. You're not “hunting” in Big Buck Hunter any more than you're “killing hookers and taking their money” in Grand Theft Auto; you're playing Big Buck Hunter.

If anything, the fantasy forests and fields here presented are even more outlandish in comparison to hunting's reality than even Guitar Hero's version of rock stardom is in comparison to the life and times of an actual touring musician. Just stand back and look at what's happening on that screen: nearly every square inch of screen space is taken up by tawny digital deerflesh, ungulates streaming through the field of vision in endless gamboling cascades, an environment so rich in targets the key challenge isn't so much to bag your bucks but to somehow avoid hitting one of the harem of does prancing around like Secret Service agents, desperate to take a bullet for their mates. Big Buck Hunter is the Big Rock Candy Mountain of hunting, all that's missing is a Bacon Tree and a creek running with hot coffee and Crown Royal.

But every Garden has its Serpent, right? Paradisaical as the glades and trails of Big Buck Hunter may be – and they are little paradises; you should see the Promised-Land look on a hunter's face as he pauses to gaze at the peaceful scene before the virtual twig snaps and the deer break and run – it wouldn't be a game if there weren't challenges. Now, I know that at the higher echelons of Big Buck Hunter play – like Golden Tee, the Grand Old Man of the boozecan arcade, Big Buck Hunter offers online tournaments and global leaderboards – there are some serious skill elements in the pursuit of perfection, but for most casual players the greatest challenge to overcome is the goddamn guns themselves. I have yet to play a single session where one or both of the players doesn't curse the shit-ass, broad-side-of-a-barn targeting of his chosen weapon. As a hopeless nerd, I compensate by retreating farther into fantasy, pretending I'm playing Stormtrooper Safari, TK-421 and his nearsighted buddies on a little leave from Death Star duty...

You can eventually figure out how badly fucked your aim is, of course, and adjust to compensate, but that takes time... and time costs loonies. Precious, precious loonies that might otherwise be beefing up the anemic tips you've been giving the barmaid. Better to forget precision, and revel in the manic, scattershot, let-God-sort-em-out fusillade Big Buck Hunter allows you: chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka-chakka...

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