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Halo: Combat Evolved Discussion - Please Rate This Discussion :P
Please note that this is not your average discussion of Halo. It may seem so at first, but read on, and hopefully you will see that it is absolutely a valuable contribution to thought on videogames...and Halo
I have not had as much fun with any other videogame, as I have with the original Halo. 7 years later I still believe it to be the best videogame yet to be made, with the possible exception of Ico.
Over the years I have tried to explain, to myself and others, what makes it such a proficient construction, compared to all of the trash surrounding it. Over the years my fluency in the language of videogame analysis has increased, particularly in the last year, after listening to Jonathan Blow’s lectures on how the medium works, and a great deal of thinking on my own part. I hope that my ability to discuss the achievements of Halo has risen accordingly.
Perhaps, some years ago, when describing Halo, I would have referenced the lack of tedium compared to other first person shooters like Half-Life, along with other videogames in general, such as resident evil, final fantasy, GTA, and many, many others. The thing about Halo, is that it focuses almost entirely on its combat, while these other games seem to think it appropriate to waste the players time with getting from one place to another, with no challenge in between; or waltzing around collecting one or another sort of treasure, again with no challenge apart from that of rising depression; or with ridiculous, and I mean REDICULOUS, ‘puzzles’, which might I add would be of no relevance to the core gameplay; and then there’s the getting from one place to another with the challenge of working out how to get there without any directions…only the assumption that there are only two possible paths from where you are, backwards, and some obscure forwards path, lingering under some pile of garbage (Half-Life). Halo did away with all these wretched videogame conventions (curse there souls), resulting in a line of transparently connected ‘challenge areas’, with the simple challenge of getting from one to the next. This usually meant killing all the aliens in your way (otherwise, it meant rushing past them all and getting to the next checkpoint before they could kill you).
The other area of reduced tedium I would have referred to is more to do with the core gameplay. Halo’s system of recharging shields; only being able to carry two weapons at a time; grenades on a hot-key; and frequent, well-placed checkpoints, spoke a tangible dialect of sound logic. It made clear the problems of what, at the time, were normal health systems, whereby the game designer never knew how much health you had at a given point, and so each scenario was either too easy or too hard. In this way, the player often had to take matters into their own hands, replaying sections they had already completed in the hope of emerging with more health, or traveling backwards vast distances to pick up that health pack that they couldn’t pick up earlier because their health was too full when they first came across it.
With Halo’s system, the player always knew where they stood. They always had an amount of health that was small enough to be comprehendible, but rarely so small that their death was conclusively inevitable. They never had so many grenades that their value was in-comprehendible, rather the player was put in a position where they could make an informed decision about how to act, and were provided an intelligent interfacial mechanism with which to use them. The same was true with the weapon system, and it is worth noting the logical balancing of the weapons, which forced, the player to make clever decisions about which weapons to carry in a given situation. Further more, a very intelligent system was implemented for picking up and switching between weapons quickly, in contrast with the un-wieldy system in most games at the time. I could go on, explaining the utter competence with which Bungie executed the use of vehicles, AI, melee attacks, simple, ‘diagrammatic’ visual style, and almost everything else in the game.
Recently though, I’ve been trying to develop a more subtle approach to analyzing videogames, which makes fewer assumptions about what games should be doing in some respects, and more in others. So I find it hard to decide what approach to take when discussing Halo. The first would involve treating Halo as a game within the FPS genre, or, I should say, a game which uses, and heavily develops on, the FPS form. The problem with this approach is that most people have very different understandings of what the FPS form is Mre problematic is that most of these are likely to be very primitive understandings, because writers are yet to sit down in earnest and explore how the form operates in communicating ideas and experience to a player. I could, of course, attempt, myself, to make such an exploration, but it would be nigh on impossible to strike a balance between exploring the form, and discussing Bungie’s use of the form, in one ‘review’. I sort of tried this approach in my review of ‘Little Big Planet’, which turned out to be a bit of a mess as I didn’t execute either part very well.
The other approach would involve treating Halo as a work in isolation; I could then explore it from first principles. This would lead to the obvious problem of not being able to go into much depth, since I would spend all of my time explaining the basic effect of the work. I think that a serious writer on videogames is in a very tricky position at this point in time, having so few sound assumptions to fall back on.
Well let me start you off with a quick, probably un-elegant, definition of art which I have come to recently. Art is the presentation of objects, patterns, symbols, sounds, rules and so on, which exist in the real world. They are presented without the clutter which surrounds them in their real-life manifestations, and are ordered in space and time, such as to be easier to understand for the recipient, and such that interesting relationships between them are revealed. I’ve been writing an essay recently, in which I attempted, at first, to set videogames along side other art mediums by treating them as constructions of rules and goals (which exist in real life), but with fewer of these rules and goals than are present in their real life manifestations, so as to focus more intensely on the ones which are presented in the game. Each of these rules and goals are interesting in themselves, but are presented in such a way in space and time so as to show them more clearly and to draw our attention to particular relationships between them which the artist sees.