Monster Hunter: Nostalgia, False Dichotomies, and the Buddhist Self

Hypocrisy!  Betrayal!  Yelling!

So, I ended up getting Iceborne.  To be specific, my partner bought it for me, said basically “you’re playing this with me,” and I was like, “FINE, I’ll have fun I guess, GOSH.”

And you know what?  Yeah, it’s fine.  It’s pretty good.  So even though I stand by what I wrote last time (for the most part), I was also not entirely correct in my assertion that all those true things I said meant that Iceborne wouldn’t be fun or worth getting.  A game doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun, after all.  Some new patches and new information also made a liar out of me in a few ways: they added in the ability to craft lower rank armors as transmogs, and the expac does have a pretty good endgame in the form of the Guiding Lands.  Also, PC is going to have content parity with PS4 from now on, and that rules.

So, I’m a hypocrite I guess.  Not the worst thing in the world to be, and there’s certainly a lot of us around.  Okay.  What I want to talk about today, however, is what I’ve been up to with Monster Hunter since my last post, and some of the revelations I’ve had regarding the series as a whole, particular games in it, and a fundamental delusion I was operating under regarding a separation between these ideas I had in my head called “World” and “The Classic Series”.

My partner and I beat Iceborne’s main story, which was cool (huehuehue), and we messed around in the Guiding Lands quite a bit, and I was thoroughly impressed by everything (well, except the Steamworks. it’s cute but I hate it, sorry).  But again, I found myself itching for a different gamefeel, for something with a bit more difficulty and a bit more payoff.  The beautiful boys were all well and good, grinding for augment materials, sure okay, but I missed headsniping those 90 degree stepping turns, I missed the long pauses, the gathering quests, Pokke Farm and all that.  I wanted “The Classic Series” again.  So I dug up the PSP and popped in Freedom Unite, the game that started me down the path of a hunter of monsters, and I played it for a while.

And you know what?  Yeah!  Freedom Unite is good.  It still holds up, if you ask me.  For the most part, anyway.  Sure there’s a lot of weapons missing, a lot of moves that aren’t there, the mechanics are simpler, but as a back-to-basics sort of deal, it works.  I may still go back and play some more of it, if I live long enough to feel “done” with Generations Ultimate (narrator: she won’t).  But after a while, I started to notice little things that were a bit annoying.  Like how it takes forever to confirm taking each supply item from the blue box, or how there’s no “take all” button for quest rewards, or how when you finish taking all the rewards, you have to manually back out of the reward box and move on to the next step.  How certain things in the UI have a lot of delay associated with them, while others are snappy and fast.  Or how you have to repeatedly press a button to harvest, you can’t just hold it down.  Or how your kitchen is located inside your house, meaning you have to zone twice to eat before you go get a quest, which is kind of backwards?  Granted, hiring and training your kitchen staff of adorable cats is awesome.  And some other things FU does, like not marking gathering and carving points and letting you explore more, or the simplicity of the weapons, I like that stuff.  But you see what I’m getting at.  There were a lot of little convenience features I started to miss once the nostalgia started clearing.  This was too much “Classic Series” for what I wanted, apparently.

The game I put the most time into after FU was Tri (not even 3U), and so by the time 4 came out, I was burned out enough on the 18-or-whatever monsters on offer in 3 that I didn’t even bother getting it.  I thought to myself, okay, FU is too far back, I never played 4U, let’s try that instead.  It’s still available on the 2DS eshop so I snagged those… excuse me what, TWENTY ONE THOUSAND BLOCKS on the SD card holy shit, and started it up.

The short version is, I’m torn on 4U, because it’s just World.  It’s like it fell through from an alternate universe where World kept the classic aesthetic style.  It has investigations and expeditions, it has a main palico that you raise, it’s got fewer non-large-monster quests, it’s got lengthy, heavy-handholding tutorials and extensive story cutscenes.  It even has the Caravaneer hauling around a mysterious item that’s clearly a monster scale, just like the Handler has in Iceborne.  It opens with a scripted sequence where you fight a giant monster you have no business encountering yet.  It all just seriously weirds me the hell out, for a number of reasons.

The existence of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate forces us to confront the idea that the dichotomy between “the classic series” and “this World stuff” is a false one.  In fact, it’s not just 4U.  The more you dig into this, the more it becomes clear that World was not actually a big dramatic reinvention of the series, that that idea was more marketing hype than anything real.  World and Iceborne are just Monster Hunter 5 and 5U, no more and no less.

When we think of “the classic series”, we have certain ideas that spring to mind that define that concept for us.  The clearest and easiest delineation to make lies in the visuals, the aesthetic.  Monster Hunter games prior to 5 undeniably have a certain look to them; there’s a colorful, sort-of-fantasy-Mongolian/Thai… thing, that World lacks.  But that’s where the clear separations end.

The number of monsters has been pared back dramatically for a new-engine release before.  That’s what happened with 3, which had far fewer monsters at launch than 5 did, to boot.  This alone disproves the idea that assets have just been getting reused and imported from the first game all along, but for further evidence, see entries such as Stories, Riders, and MH Online, where everything is remade from the ground up.  Are these “classic” or “world”?  Obviously, they’re neither.  Monsters have also been redesigned several times as the series progressed.  Most notably, Rathalos changed significantly between 1 and 2, but he’s not been the only one.

The series has implemented expeditions or something like them in every entry since 3, as well.  In 3, we had the “free hunt” mechanic where the player can roam freely in the Deserted Island map, hunting whatever shows up.  In 4, there are expeditions on a procedurally-generated map, and guild quests with procedurally-generated goals, strongly echoing 5’s expeditions and investigations.  The Guiding Lands, then, feels like another iteration of this ever-evolving mechanic, rather than an entirely new idea.

As we start to think about the little differences and similarities, a picture emerges of a series with both a lot more and a lot less continuity than is generally thought.  World’s release in the West, followed quickly by Generations Ultimate, prompted many people to lean on this “new vs. old” comparison, but the truth isn’t nearly so clear-cut.

As an example of a constant difference, the damage system has undergone several overhauls over the years, and little things about it change from game to game.  In Generations and GU, weapon power is expressed using “true raw”, where the number is scaled based on the weapon’s overall speed and ability to find openings.  Thus, a 200 damage great sword and a pair of 200 damage dual blades might have very different attack values per hit, but you’ll find yourself getting kills about as fast no matter which you pick.  But in World and Freedom Unite both, weapon damage is expressed in wildly-divergent numbers.  Great swords and hammers will have attack values in the thousands, while bows and lances are down in the 2-300 range.  5 lets you see damage numbers, 4 doesn’t.  Are they fundamentally different games because of that?  And who can say what approach 6 will take?

Generations Ultimate is an interesting title when viewed in this light.  As I mentioned earlier, when I played Freedom Unite I was filled with a sense of nostalgia that persisted for a while even in the face of the reality of the game, but eventually, it wore off.  Generations Ultimate is a game that revels in nostalgia.  It gives us “the classic series” not as it actually was, but as we think it was through a nostalgic lens.  Insect Glaive is vastly improved and nectars are simplified over 4U, for instance, and there’s all these hunter arts and styles that capture the epic anime feelings we had on those old, super-simple hunts.  There’s palicos just like FU’s felyne comrades, but they’re an entire customizable army with a ton of abilities and different specializations.  That was never in a “classic” game before.  I mean, it was kind of how 4U handled palicos, but not nearly to that degree of specificity and power.  You can even hold down a button to keep gathering from the same point or carving up the same monster, just like World.

Part of the title of today’s blog is “the Buddhist Self”, and it’s here that I want to start getting into that a little.  Because the big things I think of when I look at Monster Hunter as a series are the Three Bodies Doctrine and the Buddhist theory of mind and self (the skandhas).  And I feel like Westerners in general (and gamers in particular) tend to struggle a lot with Things Changing and with theories of self and purity, just because of our philosophical underpinnings, and maybe a more Eastern religious perspective can shed some light on a way forward where these things aren’t such a huge deal.

I know, it’s weird.  But I promise it’s cool, too.

The Western Self vs. The Three Bodies Doctrine

Our concept of self in the West is pretty rigid.  We generally view the self as not only real, but enduring and whole, to boot.  When we take anti-depressants, we agonize over not “feeling like ourselves”.  We worry about people who change aspects of their personalities, thinking there’s something wrong with them or they must be faking it.  We have all kinds of complicated metaphors to suss out how we view the self, such as the well-known “Ship of Theseus”.  If every plank on a ship is replaced one by one on a voyage, is the ship that arrives the same ship that left?  Or whatever.  The West tends to struggle with questions like this because our formal logic only has 2 main categories.  A thing can either Be, or Not Be.  Either A or Not A.  There’s no room in a binary system like that for things that both Are and Are Not, or something that contains its own contradiction.  Or for concepts like Non-Being (as opposed to Not-Being): something that neither Is nor Isn’t, something outside of that dichotomy entirely.  We consequently struggle to process things that don’t fall neatly into this two-pole scheme.

Eastern logic doesn’t really have these problems, because there’s room for a few more categories.  We’ve got A, Not A, Both A And Not A, and Neither A Nor Not A.  Thus, it more accurately reflects reality as it is.  To return to the Ship of Theseus for a minute, of course the ship that arrives is both the same ship that left, and also not.  It’s changed, but something is carried through and remains, as well.  Nobody is confused when the Ship of Theseus arrives in its destination port; they were expecting the ship that arrives, and there it is, no matter what kind of planks it has.

Video game series, then, are the Ship of Theseus writ large in the modern day.  So too with any serial piece of entertainment, from books to music to movies and beyond.  Each new entry in an ongoing series changes, sometimes in small ways, sometimes dramatically, always orbiting around a central concept or identity but never quite expressing it the same way.  Listen to the way people talk about a band’s albums, or the movies in a trilogy, or the adaptation of a work they enjoy, and you’ll start to hear Western-identity-oriented language everywhere.  For instance, people complain (myself among them) that the Picard of the Star Trek TNG movies isn’t the same Picard from the TV show.  Apparently there’s an enduring, real Picard out there somewhere that can be pure or impure, stay the same or change.

And I mean, isn’t there?  It sounds wrong and nonsensical to say that Picard doesn’t exist in some fashion, right?  We can’t say that he 100% doesn’t, when so many people have experiences and thoughts and emotions about this “Picard”.  It has reality in their minds.  But it’s a fictional idea, too.  It’s neither A nor Not-A.

This idea about an object that people have in their minds has reality and weight in Buddhism.  In fact, it’s one third of the self, the part called the sambhogakaya (the “body of mutual enjoyment”. very lewd).  It’s the ideas that people have in their minds when they think about you.  This is derived from the Three Bodies Doctrine that specifically talks about Buddha’s self, but since all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature (read: he was just a regular guy), we can infer that we all also have these three bodies.  Another great example of a sambhogakaya is Amida Buddha, who is a Buddha who primarily exists as an idea or feeling in the hearts of those who believe in them.

The extremely Western follow-up question would be, “well, is Amida Buddha supposed to be a real person out there somewhere, then?” to which the answer is, yes and no.  What we think and feel is part of reality, and as such, sambhogakaya-buddhas are as valid and as real as anything else.  Even if you’re a pure materialist, you have to acknowledge that thoughts seem to consist of — or at least be accompanied by — electrical impulses in the brain, which yeah, electricity is real.  Amida is the Buddha that sits in that electricity, if you like.  Personally, I feel like that’s a reductive way of looking at it, but it’s a starting point for sure.

Side note: imagine how chilled-out Christianity could be if they had this concept at their disposal.  God could be like Amida Buddha, a sambhogakaya entity that doesn’t need to physically exist to be powerful and real to his followers.  But no, they’re still stuck in materialism, even in spirituality.  It’s kinda messed up.

More relevant to Monster Hunter is the way Generations Ultimate seems to reflect the sambhogakaya of the so-called “classic series” to its fans.  By embodying our collective nostalgic ideas and collecting them all under one title, GenUlt gives form and validity to the feelings people have for the idea of “old-school Monster Hunter”.  We might call it the sambhogakaya-buddha of the pre-World series, if we wanted to be completely ridiculous about it.  As such, does it really matter if the old games weren’t “really” like that?

The other two Bodies of the Three Bodies Doctrine are the nirmanakaya and the dharmakaya, by the way.  The nirmanakaya is the physical incarnated body that lives and dies (see: the reality of playing Freedom Unite in 2020).  The dharmakaya is your legacy, the impact of one’s actions, the purpose of one’s existence.  I’m not entirely convinced that video games have one of those.  What do YOU think, does video games have a dharmakaya? Put your thoughts in the comments, like subscribe bell patreon aaaaaaaaaaaaa

Maybe you can see how this doctrine gives us part of the answer to how to escape the rigid Western idea of self (or maybe to not being angry about video game sequels).  But there still does seem to be some “stickiness” to what goes on in the self, doesn’t there?  We still think of ourselves as being our thoughts and feelings.  If only there was another concept that could h-

The Five Aggregates, or: Don’t Serve Your Thoughts Any Tea

Though this is changing in recent years, the West generally thinks of the mind as a single unit.  At most, some people say you’ve got a conscious mind and an unconscious mind, and lately a lot of people in the West are starting to say the unconscious mind isn’t even real, that the mind is flat.  That’s all well and good, but lemme tell you about a completely different way of looking at the mind.  See what you think about it.

The Buddha taught that the mind consists of five parts called “heaps” or “aggregates” (skandha in Sanskrit).  So right away, we’re in different territory altogether, here.  The heaps are: Form, Sensations, Perceptions, Formations, and Discernment.  That sounds like a bunch of random synonyms, so I’ll elaborate, don’t worry.

Form (rupa) is the physical reality of a thing.  Pretty simple so far.  When you see an apple, that apple being there, that’s Form.

Sensations (vedana) is the feeling that comes from the form of a thing.  This isn’t as developed as “Oh I like apples,” it’s more like, receiving the “redness” from the apple’s Form.

Perception (samjna) categorizes and labels the other aggregates.  So, if you feel nostalgia for Monster Hunter Dos, perception is the part of the mind that says “Ah, that feeling is called Nostalgia”.  Alternatively, this is the part of you that thinks “That apple is Red.”

Formations (sankhara) or “mental activity” are kind of like memories, they’re pre-built constructs that are triggered by perception, form, and sensation.  But they can also trigger those things as well, this isn’t a one-way street.  “I like the taste of apples.” or “Monster Hunter World ruined the Classic Series”, when they arise as a unit like that, that’s Formations.

Discrimination/Discernment/Consciousness (vijnana), that’s the part that oversees, that is the base of experience, that which discerns and chooses.

All these heaps send signals back and forth and are constantly talking, creating the activity that we usually think of as our thoughts and feelings.

Okay, got all that?

You might notice something is missing from this list, here.  What’s missing is any sense that the “self” or “the mind” is one thing crouching there behind our eyes, unchanging and eternal.  And yeah, in Buddhism, it’s not.  There’s kinda something there with Discernment, but Discernment isn’t in charge of all the other heaps or anything, it’s just the switch-flipper.  Rather, what we have is a very convincing illusion of continuity founded on a lot of rapid discrete packets of activity that we take for a continual stream.  Almost like a video game series, whaaaaaaaat

I Thought This Article Was About Monster Hunter, I Have Been Bamboozled Into Reading Your Religious Propaganda Madame And Frankly I Won’t Stand For It Any Longer, P.S. send bobs

To return to video games or whatever, here’s the leap I’d like you to make.  Just as we, as sentient beings, have these aggregates and three bodies and stuff, so too do other things.  Our concept of our own supposedly-sentient self is flimsy enough that the same ideas can easily apply to things that we don’t consider sentient, and doing that as a mental exercise can be instructive and interesting.  Of course, I fully expect your Western mind to recoil.  “That’s anthropomorphing!  Anthropomorphozizing!  Anthropizing!  You make a not people a people!  Don’t… how dare, doooon’t you do it!” and that’s okay.  I’d like you to observe that thought, say hello to it, and then set it aside for a second to consider a different perspective.  You can go back to that after this, it’s okay, you’ll still be you.

If “Picard” can have a self that we can have thoughts and feelings about, then so can “Monster Hunter”.  And if “Monster Hunter” was a person, each entry in the series could be thought of as a new chapter or big event in the life of that person.  A new expression of that person’s identity, changing over time.

It’s okay for people to change.  The Ship of Theseus is still the same ship, even though every part of it is different.  The Ship of Theseus is not the same ship, even though it arrives where it intended to go from the start.  Monster Hunter World and Monster Hunter GenUlt are both awesome, and both equally “Monster Hunter”.  Trans women are women.  Republicans can become good people if they abandon their beliefs, and people are “criminals” only while in the act of committing a crime.  Power corrupts, it doesn’t matter how awesome you were before getting it, it will ruin you because we take the shape of our containers.  Anti-depressants change how your brain functions and that’s the whole point, because the You that was suffering needs to be a different You to stop suffering.

See how much sense the world makes, how chill everything becomes, when you let go of the idea of a cohesive, enduring self?

Anyway, Iceborne is 10/10 GOTY.  Fuck me I guess

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