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Halo and Videogame Emotion

Author's Note: It's been a while. Sorry, college and a music blog takes up a lot of time. Anyways, finally got around to playing/thinking about some games, so here we go. Have a seat kids, this might be a long one.

Halo is one of those franchises, like many people, I couldn't give less of a care about. It's a typically blandly-designed first-person shooter that really likes to think that you care about what's going on, but forgets that they have to actually be interesting and have characters you care about to do so. That's why ODST and Reach speak to me so much more than 1, 2, or 3 do; the series isn't being weighed down by Master Chief, a character that couldn't be less interesting even if he was even given a name or face in the first place. Yes I know, he represents the soldier, a faceless man that fights for the humans at the expense of his humanity, blah, blah, blah. The thing Bungie forgot is that Half-Life beat them to the punch and they don't realize that giving one-liners and no kind of motivation basically destroys any allegory or symbolism, whether it's about games, perspective, or war itself. In other words, you can call things the Pillar of Autumn or give alien races sweet names, but the fact that the story and characters are already superficially useless, it doesn't matter.

ODST is a game where the story does not matter one bit, which might conflict with what I just said, but give me a minute. ODST is a Halo game in name, but instead of putting you in the boots of a virtual superman, incapable of being killed unless you pump up the difficulty, you're just a man. A human being. Not a cyborg, an android, or even a possible hard-ass. You're just some guy with a half-assed armor suit and some shitty weapons. So through a vulnerable perspective, we see the brilliance of Halo: ODST's real narrative power: the city itself. New Mombasa is falling apart and we see that through the Rookie's eyes. Flashing police lights illuminate streets where roving mobs of alien enemies are waiting to tear your fleshy body apart.

Giving the player a set of stakes is part of it, shifting perspectives is another, but the fact that they finally show instead of tell makes ODST's story the last thing we care about. We can skip the cutscenes, because they aren't important. What is important is seeing and experiencing the city and it's trashed highways and remnants of civilization for ourselves through the eyes of a real human being. Gordon Freeman isn't a great character because he's emotionally resonant or relatable; he's a great tool to experience City 17 because Valve knows that giving him a voice and a presence gets in the way of what's really important: the world and characters around you. Ostensibly, you are Freeman just as you are the Rookie, and through your eyes, not someone we don't give a shit about's eyes, you see the danger and desperation for yourself. You feel it.

What I'm getting at is that Halo does many things very poorly: level design, boss fights, character development, coherent motivations, interesting dialogue, real emotion, etc. However, what is contained in sparse moments within these games, the first three included, is a very unique emotion only capable of being brought out by videogames. Halo, the first one, isn't a bad game (none of them really are bad, just bland), but for the most part, you're going from one uninteresting wide-open area, killing the same two or three enemies, and then moving on to the next wide-open area. Snore. However, at certain points, there is this shimmer of brilliance.

At the end of the game (SPOILERS), you find yourself at the odds of the ever-inevitable end-game self-destruct sequence. However, you have about 3 miles of close-quarters combat ahead of you and not much in the way of weaponry at this point. Then you realize two things: A) You have a warthog and B) The score is making your heart pound through your chest. In that moment, with the unique mixture of circumstances, time restraints, and the music garnishing it with a particularly effective crescendo, you slam your finger on the trigger, get the warthog moving, and you tear out of the collapsing building hitting every enemy you can along the way. (SPOILERS OVER) The excitement, the moment of realization, everything all comes together to make a moment that is only capable of being made by videogames.

ODST's city is the same kind of amalgamation of meta-narrative and gameplay that make unique situations only games can give you. For another example, we have Halo 3's first scarab fight. You're to face a seemingly impenetrable purple beast crawling with aliens that have way more guns and friends than you. But, beyond all of this, you have a mongoose, a small vehicle capable of driving you and only you, and you have a ramp that will possibly launch you onto the beast. There is only one thing to do. The moment you gun it and fly onto the scarab, abandoning your vehicle in mid-air and bombarding Covenant with rockets while you fly into them, you have yet another moment of pure excitement and unhinged emotion as you tear apart the scarab from inside. For once, it's not Master Chief doing it in a cutscene; it's you doing it on your own.

Recently, Reach, the newest Halo game, did the very same kind of thing. (ENDING SPOILERS) All along the way during the game, your poorly-defined confidants are being picked off all around you, and for the most part, you don't really care. Sure, the story, is telling you that this is bad and that this planet and you yourself are heading for a dead end, but as a laser-rifle-toting badass called Noble 6, you don't care. The story is contradicting the gameplay with its cutscenes full of motivations you don't actually have and being told that you care about characters you don't even know. However, by the end, you are alone. The Covenant have won. You, for the first time, feel what the story has been telling you to feel.

Any objectives you previously had are done and done without your thought; they're an afterimage and a memory the moment they leave your screen. However, the end has only one word to offer you: Survive. It's not an order or an objective or even a challenge; it is all you have. Suddenly, you laser rifles are useless in the face of a massive hoard of enemies. When your hit, you health doesn't rebound. A bullet hits your visor; it cracks. A sword comes through your stomach and you don't get your shield dropped or a flashing health bar. You get a moment of curious mortality and you fall to the ground, unable to "Survive" as the game urged you to do. You have failed, just as each Noble in front of you. With your sacrifice, others were able to live on. You feel not as a cog in a machine, but rather as a human being fulfilling something worthwhile. (SPOILERS OVER)

These moments are special and belong only to the medium Halo exists in; making a movie about it would only serve to insult it. Sure, you can watch Master Chief fly through space, say a witty line, and then blow up a ship with a giant bomb, but the part you really care about is the moments where you get to do such improbable tasks. You feel the isolation of Mombasa, you feel the excitement of the Scarab battle, you feel the mortality and sacrifice of Reach's ending, and it's all hidden under a game that's really more about running-and-gunning through generic aliens. Halo may be a franchise that many hate, myself usually included, but for these moments alone, they have showed me things I will always remember, no matter how terrible their boss fights or level designers are.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09


Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


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