The Chaos Fold’s Year in Review Pt. II – Buy Teh Haloz

While storytelling in video games has made a tremendous leap forward over the past year, not all games had grandiose storylines, eccentric writing, or clever twists. Most games didn’t.  Perhaps most notably, Halo 3 ended up being, well, Halo 3.

It was Halo.

Halo 3 didn’t demolish the world under the weight of its code.  Halo 3 didn’t annihilate the multi-media brand-scape with its nigh-megalomaniacal marketing campaign.  The soda didn’t taste half bad, though.  Many gamers, though, felt as though Halo 3 was a failure in some way.  It’s hard to blame them.

The first Halo wrote the holy book on how to make a console FPS, from controls, to vehicles, to voice acting and storyline.  Halo wrote the book.

The second Halo’s online multiplayer has been the yardstick by which all other games are judged since the very day of its release.  Just as the first Halo nailed the basics, the second finessed the multiplayer experience.

By the time Halo 3 rolled around, their revolution was already over.  And how do you live up to two consecutive revolutions?  You can’t, and the only reason Halo 3 is as good a game as it is (and it is a damn fine game) is that Bungie didn’t try to reinvent their own wheel.  They instead focused on adding non-essential features that would give the game legs beyond its predecessors.  Four-player online co-op, rudimentary level-editing tools, video capture, screenshot capture, and file-sharing aren’t revolutionary, any PC gamer worth their mouse and keyboard will tell you that these features have existed for over a decade, on PC.  In the end Bungie’s greatest strength was knowing what it could do and what it couldn’t do.  On September 25, they shipped a product that wasn’t out to move the Earth, rather a labor of love, a gift to all those who made them what they are.

Halo became more than the sum of its parts because of timing, and likewise that same timing neutered some of what Halo 3 could have accomplished.

Instead of a graphical revamp, they stayed true to the old art style. It doesn’t get in the way, but the old art style is so shamelessly ripped out of Aliens that they missed an opportunity, here. Likewise the pulpy bits of Halo’s storyline, grunt-humor and all seem to get in the way of the more serious aspects, with Halo 3’s story playing it altogether too safe. There wasn’t a single event in the plot I didn’t see coming from a mile away.

I said a while ago that Halo is gaming’s Star Wars, the parallels are staggering. Star Wars was a film that was in many ways revolutionary, with effects that gave legitimacy to an otherwise maligned genre. Likewise, Halo was incredibly advanced for its time, and became the first console FPS to stand on even ground with its PC counterparts.

Star Wars was released in 1977, still very much in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The unmolested-good vs. indomitable-evil storyline very much spoke to audiences at the time. Halo was released November 2001, two months after 9/11, its own storyline pitting a human hero against a genocidal faction of religious aliens.

Both went on to massive sales and acclaim despite very real flaws, notably campy storylines and dialog, the sort normally reserved for sci-fi channel originals. Halo is arguably the first true gaming blockbuster, with lines stretching for hundreds of yards on the release of Halo 3. Their impeccable timing and resounding themes made them far more than the sum of their parts.

When the dust finally settles and no more cat helmets are sold, Halo’s legacy will take on a similar tone.  Hushed, reverent, respected to a fault, perhaps.

Just hope they don’t make a prequel trilogy.


Bungie’s Split.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recently-announced split between Bungie and Microsoft. Mostly due to playing a lot of Halo 3.

After my brief dalliance with consoles as a youth, I became a big-time PC gamer. My laptop, however, was a Mac, so I became an early and avid supporter of Bungie. I played Marathon and Myth to death and back. I even bought, played, and beat Oni when it came out shortly before their purchase by Microsoft.

If ever there was an odd sight in a junior-high-school cafeteria, it would be a goofy-looking kid with blonde hair going on about how Bungie has sold their souls to the devil, and that I could only hope that Billy Gates didn’t get his hands on the Soul Extraction Machine.

Now, it would seem, that Bungie has completed Step Six of their long-standing credo, the Seven Steps to World Domination. Step Six, “Stage bloody coup of new parent company.” was what they were on.

Well, I for one, am glad. Microsoft no doubt holds right of first refusal, and Halo is theirs eternally, but a world in which Bungie makes nothing but Halo is a lesser one than one with an autonomous Bungie. Microsoft did something great for Bungie, though, they put them on the map in a big way. Halo wouldn’t have been the phenomenon it was on the Mac or even the PC. Like Star Wars, it was a product of circumstance. The stars aligned in such a way that Halo transcended its relative quality to become something indescribable.

Star Wars wasn’t a particularly well-written movie, nor was it a particularly inventive movie in the narrative fashion. Yet because of the tensions of the era, the cold war, the vietnam war, it offered something powerful: Escape. In the wake of 9/11, Halo offered a similar escape to a new generation of bruised and disillusioned souls. Star Wars gave a hero to a generation.

The launch of the Xbox added another dimension to its perfect-storm appeal. This was exclusive, and it was new, and it was cutting edge. That’s a sexy combination. Halo, in the right place and at the right time, did what neither Bungie or Microsoft could have done purely of their own wills. It became the Star Wars of Video Games in a sense.

Granted, video games are a far more niche medium than film, but the paralells are valid. Perhaps a more apt financial comparison would be Jaws. No single game before Halo truly became a “blockbuster”.

Now that Bungie is its own entity, I’m relieved in a way. Halo stands on its own. I’d be perfectly happy if there were never another Halo game. I have my closure, even with a cryptic post-credit scene. Bungie can now do something that while it will almost certainly not be the cat-helmet success of Halo, will be new.

One bit of speculation before I wrap this one up, though: Bungie’s next project? Sci-fi MMO.

It could be Cyberpunk or pulp space opera, or steampunk, any number of subgenres, but I’m thinking that they’re going to aim at World of Warcraft, try and grab some of that pie for themselves.

There aren’t many studios that are equally equipped to do so.