Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lasering Dudes is a Sport

(The photo above is an illustration of the author's vaunted lasering skills)

Last fall I bought Halo 3. Before I picked up the game I had never played an online shooter. I was certain that I was not one of those people. I was in it for the single-player game, which was fine but not earth-shaking. But one day I decided to give the whole multiplayer thing a shot. After several straight days of getting my ass handed to me by twelve-year-olds on Snowbound, I got the hang of it. The multiplayer game unfolded its splendors. Then, Halo got its hooks into me in the worst way. It proceeded to devour whatever time I dedicated to playing video games and much of the time that was traditionally allocated to my other important life activities: playing in the snow, kissing girls, and the like. While this was unfortunate for all other aspects of my life, I developed an appreciation for a new type of play.

I think the genius of Halo 3 really lies in the wellneigh absurd refinement of its basic combat mechanics, but that is a story for another post. I want, instead, to talk a little bit about some other reasons why I think the game is so compulsively enjoyable.

If you've been reading the blog for a while you know that I've been arguing games are fun because it's pleasurable to learn and master the rules of a game-world. I think this is basically true, but I think I should also make a distinction. So here's some crude taxonomy: All video games lie on a continuum between two extremes: on one hand you have games where you are discovering new rules and play mechanics almost constantly as you progress through the game, and on the other hand you have games where you discover most of the rules at the very outset, and the challenge comes mastering those rules and perfecting your use of them. Games that fall in to the latter category, like Halo's multiplayer, are sports. You have to evaluate these two categories of games differently. While the fun of the first category originates in our innate desire to master the world through experimentation and planning, the fun of the latter comes from our equally innate love of competition and storytelling.

The human thirst for identity is such that we are willing to submit ourselves to any set of rules that offers us a chance to distinguish us from our fellow man. I can attest to this, because while growing up my brother and I could take any activity-- eating dinner, peeing, jumping on the couch, anything whatsoever-- and turn it into a contest by slapping a few extra rules onto it. This not only enriches our regular day-to-day habits (If you ever watch the timbersports on the ESPN2 it will dawn on you that they are just lumberjacking with some extra constraints. ), but also gives us a way to match ourselves against others, because the artificial standards created by a sport offer a public and objective measure of our prowess. This is half the fun of Halo.

Here's the other: One of the reasons that sports have a such a reign over our imagination is that they feed into our love of storytelling. Sports are made to create situations with narrative significance: last-minute reversals, falls from grace, chances for redemption. It's why you can't talk about our national love of sport without talking about The Natural or Hoosiers or When We Were Kings, and it's also why sports talk is such a big part of sports culture; half of the fun of following sports is cooking up stories with the other fans about the games and the players, spinning a common narrative about what it all means.

In multiplayer games like Halo, the fun of the game comes from the stories that you tell to yourself using the tools you have acquired by mastering the rules of the game. The stories you get out of playing Halo usually lose something in the telling (“This was 'ought-seven... the red team had me pinned down outside of Zanzibar. I was down to my last plasma grenade, so I had to make it count.”), and this is why Halo 3's saved films feature is, to my mind, such an important step forward for the multiplayer genre as a whole.

Halo 3's theater allowed you to go back into any recent game and rewatch the action you had just played. The feature gave you the ability to replay and make saved film clips of your personal highlight reel, in order to narrate them for your Halo-playing friends. This enabled a more rich type of storytelling; you weren't limited to just telling people how it went, you could show them and add you own myth-making on top of it.

The theater also created another type fun native to sports. After you played with your roommate, (or clan, or whatever. I never personally knew more than two other people who played Halo), you could go to the theater and break down the film together. I know this sounds absurd, it was just wierldly fun for my roommate and I to sit down with a mess of breakfast cereal after a match and walk through the games we just played. Since the game records the action from every player's perspective, you could observe someone who had just schooled you and piece together the tactics that had laid you low. Or you could just walk through the last game from your own perspective and discuss how you tackled certain situations. This was not only fun in its own right, but it also made you better at the game, which was a bonus; it gave you a chance to do some second-order reflection on how you had made use of the game's rules and maps, and think about how to use those rules and maps to your advantage.

This is why we don't need a Halo movie. Let the idea languish and die. The real Halo films are being made every night, by the kids.


Matthew Gallant said...

I think the genius of Halo 3 really lies in the wellneigh absurd refinement of its basic combat mechanics, but that is a story for another post.

I hope you write that post one day, I firmly believe that Halo 3 has the strongest multiplayer mechanics of any console shooter ever made. One could argue that the first Halo is the game that made people take console shooters seriously for the first time.

Quinn said...

I'd be interested to read that post too, because despite the pervasiveness of that opinion I've never understood why people think Halo's mechanics are so far beyond those of other FPSs. But that's probably because I suck at Halo.

laz said...

I'm trying to think about how the "narrative" aspect of video game enjoyment you propose pertains to my experience with WoW. It's true that I have often heard things like:

"You guys have gotta go to the guild website and check out the video I made of Fawal clearing SFK. It is so bad ass! He totally pwns Arugal! One hit! Spam Execute for the win!"

in guild chat, but I usually don't then go and watch said video (albeit mostly because wow videos are often very low resolution and thus much less entertaining than actually playing wow.

What we seem to spend more time talking about is our gear and our skill builds; how many bonus heals we will have if we re-spec our talent tree or what our unbuffed hp will be if we get those new epic lootz. This type of talk doesn't seem to be narrative to me, but does match the idea of trying to perfect our mastery over the rules of the game.

On the other hand, I also find myself going on at much greater length than is probably desirable whenever any of my non-wow playing friends ask me even the most casual comment about wow. This is a fun challenge for my linguistic abilities as it involves describing a fanatically complex scenario, which is described between other WoW players with almost insufferable levels of jargon, to someone who not only doesn't know that jargon but doesn't at all care what I'm talking about.

In the pidgin of talking about wow to people who don't know about wow, there is alot of "Storming the Castle" and "Killing the Dragon."

Sorry I just hijacked your comments thread. With a mostly incomprehensible "don't want to go to work" style post. :D

L.B. Jeffries said...

Reminds me of a conversation I got into with a friend when he was forced to choose between buying Halo 3 or The Darkness.

Both are really good games. One is mediocre single player but good multi-player, the other has a great plot but no multi-player.

After some discussion I finally got tired and said, "That's the game equivalent of a bag of golf clubs. You'll use it like hell but not for a plot. That's the game equivalent of a DVD series. You'll play it once and be done with it. Which one do you want?"

The trouble that can erupt with declarations that games are about mastering rule systems or experiencing great stories is that the medium is quite versatile. What makes video games so interesting is that it bridges this gap.

Sometimes your bag of golf clubs has some very interesting things to say.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@matt: I agree with you, and at first I was going to try to put this into this post too but I decided it was overstuffed as it is.

@quinn: I can't make a really well-informed argument about the superiority of Halo relative to other multiplayer FPSes, because my experience with the genre is pretty limited. My understanding with the game, having played an absurd amount, is that the gameplay mechanics and map design are the result of a good deal of careful thought.

@laz: I understand that WoW (from what I heard) is all about coming up with some really intricate team strategies to make best use of the game's rules. Like Halo, the storytelling doesn't quite make it across to the non-player, but to the person who has the familiarity with the game I imagine it's pretty entertaining. (this is the same with football or anything else) Believe me, the only reason I'm sorry I don't play WoW is that I do not get the opportunity for you to regale me with tales of your conquests.

@l.b. jefferies: I think you're right; although I think some of the really unique possibilities for the medium come from the process of learning rules I don't think games like Halo are any intrinsically any better or worse than the meaty single-player games. It's a matter of taste. Games are versatile medium with many mansions.

The golf club medium is apt: whenever I get around to writing about Halo's gameplay I plan to talk about the fact that its combat requires a mastery of both the long game and the short game.

The Clandestine Samurai said...

I play FPS games quite often, but I don't go into the multiplayer, lest I run into one of those players that can bring the gaming world to its eschatological fate with a pistol in Master Chief's hand and a Red Bull in his real hand. Although you are right about the narrative quality. It's feels very action movie like to me.

There have been tons of "Die Hard" and "Matrix" moments for me in that game, and the fact that the game physics can provide those kinds of dynamic moments for me is what keeps me playing.

Although, I strongly disagree with you about a Halo film. I've been waiting for that for the longest (well, I've been waiting for a Peter Jackson production, I don't know who the guy directing it now is).

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