“I’m pretty sure my palico is the main character”
If the 739 upvotes are anything to go by then Rurico, the author of this reddit post, isn’t the first player to notice how Monster Hunter: World’s plucky, adorable cat companions often take centre stage.
“I've slowly come to this revelation as I'm nearing the end of the story. Hunt after hunt, my palico fearlessly takes his stance in front of the monster while I'm either cowering at the back or trying to sneak in an easy strike or two.
I've also noticed my hunter never speaks even when spoken to. This made me believe the NPCs are actually talking to the palico (the main character) instead of me, and they don't expect a response. My character just makes funny expressions or scratches his head.
I could keep going, but it dawned on me maybe I'm just my palico's sidekick...”
As Monster Hunter: World opens, a banner billows in glittering darkness, and a parade of travellers pass through golden light to board a vessel bound for a new world. The screen fades, then returns. Your character descends below deck, where hunters blurt out tales and excited cats knock together wooden beer mugs. You take a seat. A gleeful palico brings you a drink. A hunter asks your name.
Character creation screens place us, as players, in liminal space: somewhere fuzzy in-between real life and game. If games allow us to play the part of mythological heroes, then these screens are the threshold between worlds. When designing our avatars we can idealise our own forms, or explore completely new ones. The characters we create exist within these games’ fictions, and outside of them.
So it makes sense that your palico sometimes feels more like the protagonist than your hunter. No matter how long we spend in this world, we’re always going to be a tourist. But a palico? They belong here, in this strange new space you’ve chosen to share.
“They play the part of heralds issuing the call to adventures that disrupt the day-to-day existence of the protagonist” writes Adelina Vasile. She’s not writing about palicoes in Monster Hunter: World, however, but the cats in another famous piece of Japanese pop culture: the magical realist fiction of Haruki Murakami.
One of Murakami’s stories stars a giant frog that saves Tokyo from an earthquake. In another, a manifestation of KFC’s Colonel Sanders opens a portal to a new dimension. In one of my favourites, 'Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World', the protagonist loses his shadow and learns to read dreams from unicorn skulls. Whatever direction these stories end up taking, most begin somewhere similar. An entirely average protagonist lives out a mundane existence, perhaps tinged with melancholy. They cook pasta. They smoke cigarettes. They embark on long interior monologues about jazz records. Then, something transports them to another world.
More often than not, that something is a cat.
“The animal as archetype represents the deep layers of the subconscious and of instincts,” writes Vasile.
Murakami’s domestic fluffballs play an important mythological role in his books. You may recognise the “call to adventure” as one of the steps in the 'hero's journey' or monomyth as defined by Joseph Campbell. But we've all seen this story structure play out dozens of times. When Frodo leaves the comfort of the shire, or Rey realises that fleeing from the First Order has tangled her up in a much larger conflict, that’s the call to adventure — a leap from the ordinary into the strange and fantastic.
In Monster Hunter: World, it isn’t an ancient wizard or a grizzled mercenary-turned-hero that leads us through this transition, but our palico. They are — ahem — the catalyst for this event, our companions as we cross over from the world into the game. And what else but a cat, right? They may be spooked by cucumbers, but cats have long been depicted as having connections to the supernatural. And there are references to cat folklore, both Japanese and Western, running throughout the Monster Hunter games.
Follow hidden trails of paw print etchings far enough, and you might encounter a mysterious race of primal felynes called Grimalkynes. In Scottish folklore, the Grimalkin is a faerie cat that prowls the highlands, believed to have magical powers. The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth even have a cat familiar named “Grey Malkin.”
Interestingly enough, Monster: Hunter World isn’t the first Japanese game to make reference to these old Celtic cat legends. The Cait Sith — or Cait Sidhe in Gaelic — which translates as Fairy Cat, was believed to steal the souls of the dead during funerals unless catnip was scattered about the house to distract it. No mention of Materia or megaphones, however.
The Bakeneko is a Japanese Yōkai that begins life as an ordinary housecat. As the cat advances in age, it begins to gain supernatural powers, growing larger and, just like Palicoes, they start to walk on their hind legs.
The talking cats in Murakami’s fiction — like Palicoes, Grimalkins, and Bakeneko — are the mundane made magical. Something we recognise, altered just enough to draw us into a new reality without severing ties to our own.
This is something stories and games have in common. Magical realist fiction transports us to a world much like our own, but with the boundaries of possibility ever-so-slightly frayed. Games often place us in the boots of a newbie or, if the writers are feeling inventive, an amnesiac. These characters belong to the worlds they inhabit yet they journey as strangers, discovering everything as if for the first time. In this way, they exist in two places at once. It’s often easy to criticise the transparent artifice of clumsy exposition, but it takes skill to draw us into strange lands without shattering the suspension of disbelief. Unless there’s at least some small reminder of what normality was, there’s no way we can appreciate just how strange things have gotten.
For me, at least, the Palicoes are at the heart of what makes Monster Hunter so involving. Like folklore companions or witch’s familiars, they guide us through this new space. A constant connection, by our side from first to last, and an unfathomable bridge to another world.