Monster Hunter and Hitman might seem like very different experiences. Where one has you swordfighting with dinosaurs so that you can turn them into a pair of chaps, the other’s an exercise in hurling cans of pasta sauce at the kinds of people whose deaths we’re told not to celebrate in polite society. But whether hunting monsters literal or metaphorical, both games are, together, a reminder that learning doesn’t just have to be in service of the standards defined for us.
I was already suffering pretty severe academic burnout before I graduated high school. With the help of what’s been diagnosed as a nebulous cocktail of depression, anxiety disorder, and ADHD, I’d made the same calculus that many are pressured into: I couldn’t learn as much as I wanted. I only had so much time, energy, and attention to work with, however many Wikipedia articles about Greek mythology or space propulsion I wanted to explore (I was very cool, and popular). Even topics I enjoyed in class couldn’t be engaged with as deeply as I’d like. There were tests to pass and metrics to meet. Teachers who were otherwise thrilled to indulge my curiosities were constrained by similar, structural pressures. Learning was only worth doing when it was making numbers go up.
While that lesson was never true, it’s difficult to unlearn in a world with a constant expectation to make the most of your time, all the time. And it’s a lesson that even our favorite games can reinforce.
Learning, to me, is the fun of exploring curiosities. That can mean literal, physical exploration, or the kind of conceptual exploration in falling down a Wikipedia hole. It can mean experimenting with available options and ideas, seeing how they interact. It’s self-directed, its progress self-defined. Games, meanwhile, tend to measure progression in more concrete ways, based on standards specified for you: checkboxes to be filled, bosses that need to be killed, numbers that have to go up. However satisfying it is to complete those objectives, they can cause an accidental conflict between two ideas of fun: choosing to explore for yourself often means voluntarily slowing those pursuits. When a metric’s set for you, it naturally implies a subordination of whatever activities don’t directly meet it.
A game can define those metrics for us in any number of ways: they can be broad goals, or granular objectives. They can be set by narrative, like when a serpent in Dark Souls tasks you with collecting Lord Souls. Or they can be defined mechanically, when Destiny 2 gates activities behind power level thresholds. Just as often, those standards are defined culturally. Dark Souls has been mythologized by its community, deservedly or not, as a crucible of skill—completion is proof that you’ve gotten good.
We’re free to reject or ignore whatever standards we’d like. But rejecting a standard means it enters into friction with your own. If you’re like me, that friction translates into an awareness of all the ways you aren’t meeting expectations of progression while you’re exploring and experimenting. When I’m wandering Destiny’s open areas with a podcast on, feeling out the spaces and testing out my newest batch of space guns, I can feel the weight of Powerful Rewards that I could be chasing. In Dark Souls, if I find a Black Knight Halberd in the Tomb of Giants, I can’t spend time learning its moveset without being conscious of the fact that I’m delaying a date with Gravelord Nito. Stopping to read the descriptions on my items means I’m not running the gauntlet I’m expected to.
That tension’s only exacerbated by the fact that there’s only so much time to spend. What can develop is a shallow relationship with your proficiency, where any gained familiarity that doesn’t directly translate into progression is wasted time. In school, it was why I crammed for tests and exams, retaining just enough information for just as long as it took to pass an exam. In games, it’s why we cheese encounters. Your dopamine hits are doled out to celebrate not your ability to engage with how the game works, but your ability to engage with as little as feasibly possible.
To be clear: I love those dopamine hits. My rat brain delights in green arrows and growing numbers. But in that tension between exploration and progression, and in my anxieties surrounding it, something breaks. It can happen after two hours, or after dozens—in a first playthrough, or third. But it’s always earlier than I’d like. An internal deliberation starts, even as I’m staring glassy-eyed at the game in my Steam library, weighing a kind of mental exhaustion that’s built up from continually wrestling my standard for fun against the one held by the game or its community. Either option becomes a compromise, a denial of the other’s reward. Rather than choose one, I choose neither. I’ll opt for a game that might seem less interesting in the moment, even if it doesn’t have any exploring left for me to do, because it means playing without that friction.
Monster Hunter and Hitman reverse that reward dynamic. They don’t usher you along delineated paths of progression, only celebrating your effort when you meet their metrics. They encourage you to explore and experiment as you choose, generating a cycle of the joy of discovery, and the satisfaction of putting those discoveries to use. Both games still offer their sets of boxes to be checked. But the standards they provide are secondary to the self-directed pursuit of building your collective mastery. Their stories and missions are introductory tours, sampler platters to tempt you into learning more about the dinosaur you just fought, or about the glimpse of an assassination scheme you caught while dumping a body.
It’s not coincidence that crafting a monster’s armor set in Monster Hunter takes more than one hunt, or that Hitman formalizes your explorations by increasing a literal mastery level—it’s exploration through designed repetition. Each outing is another opportunity to develop an intimate familiarity with your environment, your tools, your capabilities.
Every hunt or expedition in Monster Hunter is space to feel out the timing of the longsword’s iai slash, to see if Odogaron’s voracious appetite makes it more susceptible to poisoned meat (it does). Hitman’s catalogue of mission stories and challenges, while offering structure and explicit endpoints to your pursuits, are crucially left vague enough that each requires its own experimentation. Knowing that there’s a challenge to push an oligarch into the Seine still means you have to manipulate events so that your hand is there to make the shove. And as you work to solve that puzzle, you always find something worthwhile along the way, even if it’s just knowing where the nearest crowbar is when you eventually want to drop a lighting rig on that oligarch’s head.
The games are a marked departure from other titles that are similarly lauded. Even in Dark Souls, which is celebrated for elevating exploration and mastery, the possibility spaces for how you confront a challenge are relatively restrictive. Each boss only has so many strategies, and that number is narrowed by the build you’ve invested in during your playthrough. You can only depart so far from how you’ve been playing—it’s a rigid equation, and you can only change the variables so much. Solve for X.
In Monster Hunter and Hitman, however, your suite of strategies for any individual problem is only limited by the time you’ve spent experimenting. Each of Monster Hunter’s 14 weapon types offers its own set of strategic options for any individual monster, multiplied by potential armor combinations that can fundamentally change the flow of a weapon’s playstyle. Likewise, every unlocked tool, starting location, or access point for smuggled materiel in Hitman offers a new angle for you to employ the lethal opportunities you’ve discovered in its clockwork environments. While both games offer additional metrics to engage with—arena leaderboards, or assassination scores and star ratings—they act as a reflection of the mastery you’ve gained, rather than a criteria to be met.
At its worst, the pressure of productivity can hollow out the joy of play. Destiny becomes a prescribed weekly quota of numerical advancements. Dark Souls becomes a procession of crammed equations, to solve until you’ve passed the exam. But where other games can devolve until the only reward is in meeting someone else’s standard, games like Monster Hunter and Hitman celebrate your own exploration. Where others are a test, they are an open conversation, in a self-taught dialect. At first, you were too busy deciphering their arcane language of weapon mechanics and dinosaur violence, of clockwork patrol routes and environmental hazards, to get a word in edgewise. But now you’re fluent. Each encounter issues a unique question, and to each you’ve found countless answers. And you’re encouraged to find more.
These games are reminders of something that’s easily obscured, and too easy to forget: that learning for yourself, and using what you’ve learned, is its own reward.