(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.