Recently, I watched a rather delightful film called The Bear. I’d not heard of it before until a friend told me how it was a childhood favourite of his. (His film taste is usually worth listening to.) Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud of Seven Years in Tibet and The Name of the Rose fame, The Bear isn’t like most other animal-themed films. It’s far more nuanced than it first appears to be. A live action tale (with a mixture of animatronic bears and real ones), it follows the story of an orphaned bear cub in late 19th century British Columbia, as he tries to survive, pitting himself against nature and some rather determined hunters.
It’s utterly charming and makes me smile just thinking about it, but it’s also quite nasty in places. Hunting dogs are used (and yes, a dog versus a bear doesn’t go brilliantly), bearskins are everywhere, and you even see two bears have sex in the distance. That kind of stuff never happened in The Lion King. You see hunters torment animals and, just when you think the human threat is gone, a cougar comes along to remind you that nature itself can be very cruel too. However, it’s beautifully shot and the bear cub is adorable, if clearly soon to be quite a threatening beast once he grows up. The film uses very little dialogue and hardly any music. Yet you hardly notice any of that because the film is so elegantly put together. The exposition is there for you to see rather than hear.
What has this got to do with games? Well, the day after I watched The Bear, I went to load up Red Dead Redemption 2 for a bit, and soon felt rather terrible. I needed to go hunting – to shoot at a bear or two and skin them. Suddenly it felt a little bit too real, as daft as that may sound. Sure, I’ve killed what must be hundreds of thousands of ‘people’ in games by now but the more I think about it, the more I’ve realised I feel quite uncomfortable about killing an animal in a game. Which is utterly irrational, I know.
Many quests and locations in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey involve killing animals. Wandering into their caves and killing them while they sleep for the sake of a pelt and a few extra experience points. How would I feel about that post-The Bear? I remember feeling terrible a few days back when I was playing World of Warcraft. I was in the woodland-ish zone of Darkshore and had to kill bears for some pelts. Just as I’d downed one adult bear, a small bear cub came bounding over and stood next to his deceased mother looking a bit lost. Thoughts of The Bear and his little face as he was orphaned come flooding back, and I don’t care how much of a snowflake it makes me sound.
It’s a weird idea that I’m fine killing virtual people but not animals, so I thought I’d search around to figure out why I and other people are like this. Looks like it’s a mixture of two things. Supposedly, there’s a concept known as ‘collapse of compassion’. Essentially, this means that the more deaths that occur in one incident, the less we seem to care. You’ll notice this happening in the news a lot (albeit not exclusively). One person dies in a freak car accident? Ohh, the horrors as we learn all about where they were driving to and how much family they had. 30 people die in a landslide? It’s too much, somehow, to get your head around in quite the same way. Names and details matter a lot in this, which I guess is why naming animals generally has an effect on our affection for them.
There’s also the matter that we innately think of animals as innocent or helpless. This isn’t actually always the case. A 9 foot tall Kodiak bear like Bart who features in The Bear is far from helpless when faced against scrawny little me, but it would be different if I had a large rifle and knew how to use it. He is pretty innocent though, merely trying to go about his business. That business in The Bear happens to be helping a bear cub get around in the world, with an occasional pitstop to woo a female bear by tearing a sapling out of the ground to impress her. Who could begrudge him such pleasures? Well, hunters.
Realising I’d lost my fairly limited bloodlust for hunting in games, I thought a nice gentle game of Never Alone might be better for me. Just me – a little Iupiaq girl – and her arctic fox companion as we traipse through the Alaskan landscape together. No suffering or killing. Oh, except for when I screw up and my fox friend falls to his death. Or I flee from a polar bear and the bear falls into icy water to his inevitable demise. On second thoughts, maybe I just need to stick with match-three games and FIFA.