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‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’

‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’

Countryside

Sir, You Are Being Hunted
Big Robot

Disclaimer: Sir, You Are Being Hunted was released to the public on August 19th in alpha. It will be completed in the coming months, but is currently in playable form. This article is based on version 0.4.4578.

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Each player will have a unique experience with Sir, You Are Being Hunted. Yes, every adventure is inevitably set on an archipelago, and every archipelago is unavoidably overrun by deranged robots bleeping, chirping, and scouting for human prey. But since each archipelago is procedurally generated, players will have one or more to call their own. It takes a few minutes to build a set of five islands. In order to do so, players assign one of three biomes – mountains, fens, and rural – to each land mass, and then wait as the game does its automated landscaping. Invariably, the result will evoke an ineffable sense of Britishness. This is a very whimsical game, but it is also quite stressful and terrifying. It might be classified as a first-person shooter, but players are advised to skimp on the shooting and focus on the hiding and sneaking, popping out for intelligent rifle shots at nearby foes. A brief prologue tells of an experiment gone wrong and of pieces of an infernal machine scattered throughout the archipelago. In order to escape from the robotic swarm, these pieces must be retrieved. But that is only an excuse to catch the sights and dive from the whizzing bullets overhead.

The procedural generation system was created by one of the members of the Big Robot development team, Tom Betts, whose cheeky British Countryside Simulator quickly sculpts believable settings. Now, procedural or semi-random generation is looked upon with skepticism by many gamers. How can it construct virtual spaces with meaningful interaction? Obviously, elaborate temples like those in Zelda, with their puzzles and transforming walls, are impossible. But even broader environmental storytelling is made difficult. Think of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Yes, the Soviet architecture dotting the Ukrainian backdrop is repetitive, but woodland paths, underground tunnels, and urban settlements are distributed so that players are always transitioning from one to the other, while the spread of cities and industrial districts suggests a narrative. The Rostok town and train yard operates like a central hub, while Pripyat and the former Chernobyl plant, the most imposing structures on the world map, await near the end of the game, swelling anticipation for what is to come.

Sentry Balloon

Hunted finds ways around the limitations of procedural generation and even exploits the advantages of such a system. The British Countryside Simulator is an evocative piece of design, and its creations inspire feelings of melancholy, longing, isolation, and fear. As the protagonist – either a Sir or a Miss –, searching for the infernal machine’s fragments, you must run from and occasionally engage with the crazed machines, all dressed in properly English tweeds. There are shotgun-wielding hunters, ravenous dogs, and bulging “middle-class robots” who stand near towns, laugh, and shoot revolvers. The hunters usually patrol the islands on foot, but they also scout the fields on sentry balloons. If any of these inorganic minions sees you, it will fire at will. As for the fragments, some rest by their lonesome on the islands, while others are protected by the hunters and their dogs. Finding them requires much aimless wandering, although magical blue wisps tend to flutter towards their location, a subtle example of signposting which is admirable in this day and age of blinking red arrows leading players down linear paths.

The gameplay, then, revolves around the time-honored trope of the fetch quest. Like the cinematic conceit of the MacGuffin – a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an object that only exists in order to move the plot forward – the fetch quest is a reliable excuse to get players moving. Here, since all 25 pieces are findable from the start, players progress in a non-linear fashion. Some of the pieces are jealously guarded, while others are far more approachable, and the order in which they’re secured is a matter of choice. In the tradition of survival horror, players are plopped defenselessly on the central island and must frantically search for weapons, ammo, and food. These accoutrements are scarce, so every bullet counts. Eating is also important, for stamina and health, and cooking hares on bonfires should provide meals for days. Most items can be found inside houses, which are like huge chests, since they cannot be entered and their contents are only accessible through a grid-like inventory. Which is annoying, at least at first, since this turns them into hollow cardboard cutouts, but is easy to accept. After all, videogames create their own rules: nobody thought pipes could warp people to other worlds until Super Mario suggested it. So, in Hunted, the houses are made out of cardboard, and their very unreality endows them with a toy-like charm.

Gunfight

The fetch-questing forces players to confront the robots and become well-acquainted with the terrain. Now, the procedural generation clearly follows certain guidelines which bolster the realism and efficacy of the end product. Islands contain patches of farmland and tall grass broken up by copses, hills, hamlets, isolated churches, ancient ruins, forgotten shacks, and so on. Near the shoreline, the plant-life thins out and gives way to granite boulders, often protruding far into the water and providing adventurous swimmers with foothold. Obviously, depending on the biome, these elements are more or less common, but they’re usually coordinated to maximize variety. Although the deadly machines teem across the landscape, much of it is eerily empty, and while most villages are occupied, others are not. The 25 pieces, as well as the need to procure food and weaponry from the cardboard homes, force players towards conflict zones, though they can also hide in the safety of tranquil shrubbery and woods. This gives the action some breathing room, and also sets the tone: there cannot be horror without pause and suspense. Indeed, the windswept archipelago, with its mournful lifelessness, recalls Dear Esther, except without the solemnity or ghostly narration, and a healthy dose of killer robots.

Most of the patrolling hunters drone with casino chimes, muttering garbled, recorded voices. Their silliness registers like a funhouse nightmare, and their tweedy flamboyance only underscores their sinister irony. Inside the houses, among the hares, bullets, rats, chandeliers, and moldy cheese, players might find books with enigmatic texts. Some appear to provide back story, but they are all so cryptic that they confuse rather than enlighten. The simplicity of the main objective – finding the 25 pieces – allows the emphasis to fall on the mechanics, that is, on the interactions between the roaming artificial intelligence, the procedural countryside, and the weak player. If the game has a story, it involves the slow mastery of these interactions. That it all takes place in a recognizably British milieu creates a sense of uneasy familiarity. We have all visited, read about, or seen pictures and movies of this setting, and here it returns to us in science-fictional garbs, harkening back to H.G. Wells and his turbulent visions of Victorian-era England. A social context associated with decorum, respectability, and tea, is suddenly torn apart. In War of the Worlds, an alien invasion turns civilized Brits into animalistic mobs. In Hunted, the civilized Brits are not simply colonized by killer robots, but replaced by them. Even their clothes are refitted for metal exoskeletons. It’s funny, but also irksome. Our enemies exterminate us and then, like a sick joke, spend their days parodying our customs and fashion.

Shore

This meaningful use of a recognizable location is likely no accident. Videogame journalist Jim Rossignol, another member of the three-man Big Robot team, who oversaw the making of the game, wrote a guest article in 2010 for the architecture-themed BLDG BLOG, and in it he shares a relevant lesson he believes S.T.A.L.K.E.R. teaches game designers: “… the architecture of the real world comes prefixed with meaning. Even now, when cities can be raised procedurally from the blank canvas of a game engine, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the real world and the mythology that has been strewn around it.” Now, the environments in Hunted are “raised procedurally,” yes, but they definitely take from “the real world” and its “mythology.”

Currently, Hunted is in alpha. This means it’s playable, but unfinished, and Big Robot will be releasing updates in the coming months. Some graphical elements need polish, the sound will apparently be retooled, and further aspects will be improved upon. Books, items, and buildings repeat too often, for instance, and unmask the otherwise inconspicuous procedural generation. But tinkering with what is essentially a sketch is an intriguing experience. A robust sketch, to be sure, but nonetheless a preliminary version of a future complete title. Now, during interaction, players might not remember that the game is unfinished. After all, a sketch outlines a future, but at present, it’s also something that exists. It can be appreciated on its own. According to Big Robot, upcoming updates will include new enemy types and two more biomes, industrial and castle town. The question is, if I enjoy the game as it is now, will I continue to do so as it evolves? Or if I hate it, will my opinion improve or not? If this game were a symphony, and my adversaries were notes on a sheet, what happens when more of them overrun the fields? The frequency of encounters, the pace of the adventure, the level of danger and tension, all these would be affected, for better or for worse. It would end up being quite another symphony. This is the uncertainty involved in playing a beta or alpha, like standing on a frozen lake. Beautiful, but was that a crack? Is springtime coming? And what will the lake look like, when the ice melts?

Church

Then again, alpha or not, videogames and other art forms are always in a state of perpetual flux. Books are printed and reprinted, new editions correcting or even adding errors. Films are released, rereleased, re-edited, and remastered. Videogames are updated, their graphics overhauled for anniversary editions or their content expanded by mods. Even a supposedly finished game might reveal itself as a kind of beta or alpha, requiring patches, downloadable content, or the archaeological coding of modders to finally reach completed form. In the end, every version of a book, film, or videogame could be considered on its own. To quote French historian and professor Roger Chartier, the “multiple textual forms in which a work was published constitute its various historical states, which must be respected, possibly edited, and always understood in its irreducible diversity.” Which means that, for the time being, I’m enjoying one version of Hunted and awaiting the others.

– Guido Pellegrini

House of trouble

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