Thursday, August 16, 2012

Who broke the Halos?

My Top Ten Science Fiction Games post  was really fun to write, and I'll probably do more top tens in the future. But if you think back, there was one game series that seemed like it belonged there, it seemed really obvious, and yet somehow I overlooked it. It was something that supposedly changed its genre forever, and has become such an icon that its main character rivals Super Mario as one of the most recognizable video game characters ever.  Now what could that be.....Oh that's right HALO.


You hardcore Halo fans are probably frantically wondering now "Da f***ck is wrong with him? Did he just forget it? How could he not include one of the best games of all time?" Well calm down Halo fanboys, I didn't forget about it. I just didn't include it. Why? Because the Halo series....has one of the worst plots in video game history.   Halo fanboys, its time to wake up and face the firing squad: Halo is overrated. And no amount of manliness, space armor or e-murdering your friends in multi-player is gonna change that. You and I know both know it, and its time to stop pretending otherwise. 

That being said, I want to make something perfectly clear, because I know that there will be a million trolls waiting to descend on this post like the four horsemen of the apocalypse: despite all the negative things I'm about to say about this series, I don't hate the Halo franchise. I own the first 3 games and they are great for parties. And admittedly playing  the co-op mode with your buddies is actually kinda fun. And I will be the first to admit that I am looking forward to Halo 4...just not for the same reason that everyone else is. You see, I'm not looking forward to Halo 4 because of the online multi-player modes. Unless I'm playing with friends, I don't care about the multi-player that much. And I don't want to deal with the vocal minority of 10 year olds and immature adults shouting obscenities and homophobic, sexist and racial slurs (you know who you are, knock that crap off) over Xbox Live like Cotton Hill on meth.                   

No, I'm excited about Halo 4 because of the fact that the new developer, 343 Industries, is claiming that with Halo 4-6, they are going to do what the original developer, Bungie, should have been doing in the first place...namely have an actual story. 

Ok let me back up for a bit: for those who don't know, Halo is a first person shooter game that takes place in the far future and is about the last surviving super solider Space Marine, Master Chief Petty Officer John 117. Though I honestly don't recall them ever calling him that in any of the games, they always refer to him as Master Chief. Anyway, Master Chief and the human race are locked in an intergalactic war with 'The Covenant,'  religiously fanatical aliens who have conquered and converted and/or enslaved most of the galaxy and see humans as heretics that must be annihilated because....well because their aliens and apparently aliens only want to kill humans. Seriously, I don't think they ever talk about why the Covenant wants the human race dead or why they see them as heretics. At least not in the games but I'll get to that later. In anycase beyond this premise, the "plot" of the first 3 games centers around a series of ringworlds called "Halo" (hence the title) which apparently has some sort of religious significance for the Covenant and also houses a parasitic alien spices called 'The Flood'. You can probably guess by now what Master Chief's goal is. Stop The Covenant, the Flood and in general save the human race from galactic genocide. 

The premise of the plot (such as it is) in of itself isn't bad. Its more or less draws on the same archetypes of the Military Science Fiction genre that have been around since Robert A. Heinlein first put Starship Troopers to paper. What many people forget however, is that Starship Troopers was a societal critique from a militaristic point of view, in where the intergalactic war was just one part of the mayhem. But Halo doesn't even have that going for it. So the problem here isn't the premise, its the execution. And that terrible execution stems from a couple of  things: A) inexperience in story telling and character development on the part of Bungie. B) Bungie focusing 99% of their efforts on the Multi-player aspect of each title rather than the single player campaign. C) making Master Chief a personality deficient avatar rather than an actual character. And the other characters are as one dimensional as cardboard. And most importantly D) the decision to tell Halo's story with "In medias res," a story telling/literary device in where a story starts in the rising action (or second act) portion of the plot and the first act is filled in as the story progresses using flashbacks or some other means. This last doesn't have to be a negative, the anime movie Super Dimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?  did it and it still managed to tell a complete and compelling story. And Halo's spiritual brother Gears of War  basically did they exact something with its plot and it still managed to tell a complete and coherent (if incredibly uninspired) narrative when it was all said and done. But sadly this is not the case for Halo. 

Let me put this way,  Halo's plot is a mess. With in the games, we get no back story on anything. This series is full of bad story telling decision, so let me zero in on one example: in the games, so far as I remember, its never explained why Master Chief is the only living Super Solider left in the galaxy. We get no insight as to where he came from, who he is, or why he was turned into a super solider to begin with. Hell, we don't ever get to see his face or hear him talk that much. In other words, there is nothing to Master Chief other than "big macho-man kills Aliens and things go boom." We are never given insight into what he's thinking and he's never allowed to develop as a character becuase he's too busy killing things. Where I'm from, you wouldn't even be allowed to get away with that. And I fully realize that part of the reason for the Chiefs blandness is because the developers were trying to make the player envision themselves as the Chief. I also realize that a lot of games try to do this same thing nowadays like The Mass Effect series and the BioShock games. But the difference here is that, unlike Chief, Commander Shepard's (Mass Effect's main character) personality is molded by the player's action and the personality that the player gives him (or her) will affect in-game events. Similarly with BioShock, the player character is mute but he still has a fully developed back story  and their personality and in-game events are shaped by the player by way of the moral decisions that you have to make as you progress. Its the same thing that Mass Effect is doing, only on a much shallower level. Halo sadly has none of this. All you do in Halo is run down a corridor or to an objective, "point and shoot anything    that doesn't look human" and occasionally watching a cut scene. That's pretty much it. The rest of the time you're just shooting things and even that gets boring and repetitive after a while.  

Ya see, rather taking the time to tell the first act of the story and develop the characters in the games, Bungie and Microsoft instead decided to do all of that in other media. Namely a series of expanded universe/tie-in novels, comics and even an anthology of  Japanese anime short films similar to the Ani-Matrix.Which is hilariously ironic because games like Halo and the Xbox brand have never been popular in Japan. Now  I have nothing against expanding the narrative of a franchise like this. It can put writers like me to work and, for the most part, the finished products aren't all that bad, even taking into consideration the time constraints placed on the authors (or other wise creative team) and questions of quality. But when said expanded universe becomes mandatory reading or viewing just so you can make sense out of the most basic principals of the source material, that's a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. In other words, in this particular case, Halo's expanded universe isn't "expanding" on the story. It IS the story. But even if you take the time to read all that stuff, Master Chief and the other characters are still as one dimensional and boring as ever in the games. Now, let me ask you people something, whats the point of telling the story like this if your source material doesn't reflect the development of the characters and progression of the plot as told in the expanded universe? The answer is that there isn't one, and all of this is just an excuse for Bungie and Microsoft to keep sucking money out of our wallets. Oh and yes, I am aware that Bungie made a video game prequel to the first Halo game, called 'Halo: Reach', before selling the rights to the franchise to 343 Industries. And I am also aware that Bungie tried to fill in the story gap in Halo 3's plot with the expansion pack, "ODST." I have not played either yet, but based on everything I've read and heard about Reach, it doesn't address any of the broader problems I'm talking about. 

And thus leads us to Halo 4:


I really have to applaud 343 Industries for recognizing that Bungies approach to story simply wasn't working and probably never worked. As I said before, 343 Industries has stated that they are placing a greater focus on story than the previous games. Unlike the previous games, they are actually developing Halo 4 and its planed sequels as an overarching trilogy that will tie the games much closer the back story as explained in the expanded universe novels, comics etc and also flesh the cast out and make them more rounded characters. Which is great because it means that they have a chance to make Master Chief interesting for once. But they also claim to be changing the game play a bit. While shooting stuff with a gun is still a big part of the game. that won't be the only thing you'll be doing, as the game will have more emphasis on exploration, and problem solving similar to BioShock (although I doubt that there will be moral choices). And while I won't spoil much, The Covenant and The Flood are also no longer the bad guys here, no they are done with. We get all new aliens that want to wipe us out....ok so that much hasn't changed, but the point I'm making is that 343 Industries are taking a huge risk here. Just like the movie industry,  The video game industry is notorious when it comes to closure, meaning that as a whole they suck at it. And just the idea that the fight with the Covenant, the enemy that gamers have come to know for the past few years of theoretical interconnected story, is truly finished, well I say that's a big deal. It be like if DC comics killed off Lex Luthor and kept him dead for the rest of time. Yeah, its basically one big bad group of aliens being replaced with another big bad group of aliens. But the point is that these new aliens are not connected (so far as I know) to the old ones, and therefore the developers have more room to be creative, since they are not being held back by tradition. In other words they're now free to take an old idea, and make something new out of it...which is what Bungie should have been doing in the first place. 

As I said before, I don't hate the Halo series, but is it the best game of all time as so many of its hardcore fans have claimed? Hell no. Its not even close. But Halo 4 looks as if it is going to at least try and be better than its predecessors, and that's really all anyone can ask for. 

And with that, I'm out.                                        

1 comment:

  1. Let me start by saying that this comment is with no intention of trolling, just rebutting. You keep saying that Halo has no story, that the games show you no story nor do they have relevance to anything. You keep limiting the story of Halo to the games and only the games. Now that's totally unfair. The story of Halo is by no means all in the games, and while that is unfortunate that doesn't mean it's not there. You started by saying that there is no reason that the Covenant want to kill humans; that shows you haven;t listened to the backstory of Halo. The reason the Covenant treat humans as heretics is because Forerunner glyphs (remember Forerunners) about humans were originally translated as "reclamation", meaning that the humans were to give the Covenant Forerunner artifacts (which they worship and you would have known if you payed attention). But when the oracle (a forerunner AI they had found) told them that the glyph meant "reclaimers", insinuating that the humans were the chosen ones of the forerunners not the covenant (which was the foundation of Covenant beliefs), the prophets (you should know who they are if you have all 3 games) didn't want to lose the power they had and instead decided to lie and try annihilating humanity instead.
    But as you said, you don't like a series that makes the expanded universe mandatory, and that's fine, but if you are one of those people who is going to complain that there is no plot in the games then you should at least take the five minutes to check the website or even the wiki, for the most basic information, because that alone is enough of a plot. And before you accuse Bungie of spending more time on the multiplayer than on the story, then you are asking for fanboy trolls. I know you probably don't care about Halo enough to have learned that your statement is without any foundation. They themselves talked bout how it was the last thing they added and it was because they felt it was necessary, and then people loved it. So next time how about you make sure you have all the facts before you decide to criticize. So I'm going to end this comment with the statement that you are criticizing Halo without trying to find out about the things you're criticizing it for.

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