Trending Now: Halo 4 and Appropriating Mechanics
(or: Things I Really Fucking Hated in Halo 4 and Several Justifications Thereof, Contextualized by Reference to Other Games Which Did it Better or Worse, and Suggesting that Halo 4 Should’ve Just Left it to the Them, Really.)
[Editor’s Note: expect spoilers for all the Halo games, Metal Gear Solid 4, God of War, and Spec Ops: The Line.]
I know it’s a bit hairy to go about writing an article, or review, or what-have-you, about the latest Halo game. That’s always been the case. The fanbase for the franchise is so huge, and passionate at best, and rabid at worst, that engaging the issue can often lead to one’s voice being drowned out by the cacophony of opinion, or at worst, simply disregarded as part of that very cacophony. As such, I’ll save everyone’s time and effort by disengaging a lot of us right from the get-go.
First of all, I’m not writing about multiplayer; in fact, in large part, I’m not writing about the core mechanics of the game at all. I will certainly be considering the way that the designers treated their own mechanics, and the ways in which they deliberately decided to disregard or depart from them, but I’m certainly not too concerned by which button makes me melee and which one switches grenades (which change apparently causes some people to froth at the eyes, for being too similar to Call of Duty, or for being too dissimilar to the other Halo games, and what have you). When it comes down to it, I’m writing about the campaign mode of the game. So, those many of us gamers who are totally disinterested in that sliver of gameplay, and in fact, likely didn’t much bother to play it anyway – I absolve you! Go forth and cherish your disinterest.
Second, and in direct dialogue with the previous point, I want to make sure everyone knows that I FUCKING LOVE Halo. The whole franchise! I love a good rollicking space-faring adventure taking place over thousands of years and in multiple media. I love video game novels and live-action tie-in series. I love the games themselves. I love their world, really, and I love inhabiting it. I’ve spent hours and hours doing nothing but flying/hopping/walking/scoping/grenade-jumping my around the various spacecraft in the games, which have done nothing but become more beautiful over time, and in a very meaningful way. [Addendum, apropos of said comment: the ships in the Halo games have always been important, you realize? Space marines are only marines in so far as they exist in close contact with the ships that carry them, and operate in close support with them. The original games were definitely technologically limited, and for that reason it was tough to see the total vision that was described in the books and comics, for instance, wherein most of the action depended on strategically positioning ships for major engagements in space. The ships didn’t just get prettier on the Xbox 360 – they actually changed in design and function to better reflect their relationships with the actions you, as a player, performed, until Halo: Reach has you bombing around in a space fighter while a UNSC frigate circles around, providing fire support. It’s a really sexy feeling.] So basically, the point of that is to say: I am critiquing the game because I had a ton of fun playing it. That merely highlights that tragic danger of making a really good, really fun game: the un-good, un-fun parts will stick out rudely, like a sore thumb on Mona Lisa’s hand.
Now, if one were to ask more directly why I entitled this post “trending now,” it’s because I wanted to catch people’s eyes with a catchy little hook-title-phrase guy, of course. More importantly, I realized as I was mulling over the subject matter that I was irked by these sore thumbs for a very specific reason – not only because they were poor choices, not only because they were poor choices made by a studio with a very popular franchise to develop, not only because I’m an ornery gamer, but moreover because I couldn’t shake the feeling that those poor decisions were made, somehow, as a result of peer pressure. Other games made these mistakes, and somehow, 343 Industries decided their best option was to appropriate and compound those mistakes. Hopefully that will become self-evident in the writing of this article, but you can exercise your judgment to determine the truth of it; for my own benefit, I’ll provide some examples of the sort of things I’m thinking about when I make the claim.
1. Arbitrarily changing the whole feeling of the controls
There’s a moment early on when the Chief, having recently awoken aboard the derelict frigate Forward Unto Dawn, pries open the doors to an elevator shaft in order to access the next deck upwards. He slides the doors open just in time to be WOW KAPOW hit from behind with crates and debris as decompression from other parts of the ship causes air pressure to equalize and he gets knocked into the shaft and there he is, clinging to pipes and cables, looking up as space-junk starts falling towards him, and the screen suddenly tells you, use the left stick to climb.
Well. This is very curious indeed. It is very curious, because in a rather amusing fashion, we can technically argue that this is not one of those most hated phenomena, a quick-time event (heretofore QTE, for ease of espousing disgust). I wonder how many of us actually reflected on what had just happened. You see, in a QTE, at least such as I generally conceptualize them, the usual control scheme for the game is superseded by another, completely contextualized series of functions. In God of War, that eminent repository of QTE gameplay, that means that the button that usually makes you jump or hack instead causes you to break a ship-mast in half and stab it into a monster’s face, or whatever. This is not what happens to you when the Chief busts into the elevator shaft to climb up to the observation deck. What happens here is, schematically, just plain weird.
:: You are using the left control stick to control Chief’s movement: forward, back, side to side.
:: Chief gets hit by debris and clings to the inside of the shaft, and must climb upward while dodging more debris.
:: The game informs you that you must use the left control stick to control Chief’s movement.
Why – what? How did they not notice this while they were making the game? Did they not realize that they had created so disconcerting a gameplay experience that they actually had to tell you, explicitly, that nothing had changed? That had to give them pause at some point. I found it quite horrid, actually, once I got past my initial bemusement at the realization of the facts. The game does need to tell you that you use the movement-control stick to control movement, because the feedback system has changed, and utterly for the worse. The feeling of smooth forward motion has been replaced with a finicky, jumpy (literally), awkward, stilted confusion, as Chief hurls his Donkey-Kong-like cyborg body from one perch to another, in first-person.
What galls me so much is the question of why. Did the payoff work for most playtesters? Did people think that the intense, exciting drama of Chief getting hit by flying crates totally paid for the pointless instant of dragging his shiny metal ass up a mechanical wall? He could just as well have gone up some stairs. Or, without changing the geometry of the level, the elevator could simply have still worked, and he could have ridden it up a floor. Or whatever! What was the point of introducing so unpleasant a mechanic, for so short a span of time, and with so viscerally unnatural an effect that it demands on-screen acknowledgement?
But wait, we might say! Dan, you’re not giving them enough credit. Surely they are beholden here to your much-vaunted love for reflecting narrative facts in gameplay mechanics, and you as a player are experiencing the Chief’s own awkwardness and confusion upon being woken from four years of bitter cryo-sleep. Indeed, let’s consider a better example later in the game – near the end – when the Chief, weakened vastly by his Big Bad Foe, the Didact, must crawl forward on his hands and knees, like a mere mortal, to continue his mission. There we have a moment of beautiful narrative and experiential poignance, made possible only because it was mechanically foreshadowed by the experience of crawling up the elevator shaft. Right?
Well…meh. It was here, in fact, that I began to wonder how much was cribbed from other games, because all I could garner in reply to such an argument is that Metal Gear Solid 4 did that in so extravagantly superior a fashion that any game since should be ashamed to consider too close a mechanical comparison. One whole chapter of my undergraduate thesis was devoted to how well the Metal Gear Solid games use explicit instances of broken control schemes to force the player to confront a particular emotional or psychological state. Halo 4 has its moment when the Chief must crawl forward, shields depleted, body nearly broken, to grab hold of a nuclear bomb, and to set it off, intending to destroy himself in addition to ending the Didact’s threat to Earth. Granted, the controls feel stilted and awful – the Chief crawls with one awkward elbow at a time, and the first-person HUD system offers you some confusing feedback on your progress – but that’s what’s going! Same as MGS4, when Solid Snake must crawl through a hallway of radiation and laser beam defenses, going more and more slowly as he weakens, all by tapping the triangle button (which was, in itself, a strange if largely unimportant choice).
Here’s the thing, though. The whole story of MGS4 is the story of Snake aging, of Snake deciding that the world has changed in a way which demands his absence. More than that – he believes that his actions have, or ideally, can, create a world in which he is no longer needed or desired. He is old, he is weak, he has been disfigured, and he is fighting a losing battle against men and against time. When we urge Snake onward, crawling in anguish through a boiling tunnel of gamma rays, we are seriously concerned that Snake may not make it. The split-screen display shows Snake’s bodysuit melting away while his friends are overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers in a battle yet raging between two warships. We know the arc of the whole game, and the whole narrative, has led us surely to this point, and we know that Snake’s death and failure are real possibilities. The anxiety and turmoil of Snake’s slow, slow crawl (which takes frighteningly long, in game terms) is thematically significant. Chief’s moments of weakness and awkwardness, however, have neither of these superstructures to support them. First off, they each take barely a few seconds – nowhere near enough time for the emotional investment we are allowed in Snake’s arduous trek. And secondly, the game as a whole does not ever allow us to believe that Chief feels weak in this moment. We know that he has been struggling; we know he has struggled, we know he has failed in the past; but we don’t believe, right then, that what’s happening might be the end of him, and our journey with him. It’s just a moment of weird control fuck-uppery. Maybe I’m out of line in drawing different sources into the gameplay experience, but let’s be serious: 343 Industries announced the game as the start of a new trilogy. You can’t have a poignant moment of loss and failure at the beginning of what we already know will be a larger journey. For both mechanical reasons (it feels stupid) and narrative reasons (it is stupid), the gesture falls flat – whether it was intended to tie the player into Chief’s feelings, or just to be a moment of sudden spiky excitement, it fails.
2. QTEs (DEAR GOD QTEs)
Hasn’t Yahtzee yet convinced everyone everywhere that QTEs are awful? Why is the rest of the world still deliberating on this issue? He’s smart and sassy! Case closed! His opinions are valid, if not always totally true, and when it comes down to it, his feelings on “press-X-to-not-die” moments seem pretty spot-on. They’re not good. Indeed, another blogger posting on GamaSutra recently described a few horrible applications of QTEs in Assassin’s Creed 3 which utterly ruined the game for him.
I can’t believe this is still a thing. Halo 4 tries to do a decent job of setting up the Didact as an immensely powerful and malevolent villain, but then finds it’s backed itself into a corner: now he’s too powerful for you to actually defeat. Solution? QTE boss fight! Cortana immobilizes him with many rampant mini-Cortanas made out of hard light so that you can plant a grenade on him (yes, I said that sentence shut up). Here’s where my bitterness comes from:
:: The first time I played that part of the game, I simply couldn’t read what button the game was telling me to use to plant the grenade, because not all of us have gargantuan HD televisions. I pressed the bumper, when I was supposed to press the trigger, and therefore found myself treated to a scene of the Didact grabbing Chief and tossing him out into space like a used metal condom. I was not amused.
:: It’s lazy fucking design. It’s a literal “press-X-to-not-die” moment; the screen will flash with directions saying “press [inscrutable icon of the left trigger] to plant a grenade,” and if you don’t, well fuck you for thinking that games were about making decisions or figuring things out or trying to do anything other than follow the rails like a wee cybernetic gun-train. Especially after the exceptionally goddamn awesome edifice of exorbitant space-win which precedes this final stage (flying a spacefighter through the geometry of the Didact’s ship like the Death Star run on acid), the utter and abrupt diminuendo, which leaves you fighting the HUD instead of your enemy, can only leave the acrid taste of disappointment in your mouth. And ultimately, fighting the HUD, instead of the Didact, is exactly what happens. He spent too much time in his ship, doing bad things and hurting lots of people, but in game terms (and dramatic terms), not enough time showing his weird gross Voldemort-face. I never felt like I was fighting the Didact; I was fighting the Prometheans, but not their leader, and the final “boss fight” only reaffirmed this apprehension. You try to foil his plans, but you never fight the villain in Halo 4. Sure, maybe he’s being saved for a sequel, but it’s simply feel pallid – if nothing else, a case of eyes being bigger than stomach.
And here’s a shifty one.
(Also, do I ever write a blog post without mentioning writing?)
I was deliberating on whether or not to ultimately include this point, but it was one which refused to abandon me during my whole first playthrough. I think it’s also a valuable point of consideration, apropos of the whole design process, and the whole imagining of the game within the context of a new series within an old intellectual property. The Chief is being overwritten.
I mean it literally: they are writing more lines for the Chief than they need to, much to the detriment of the character. Sorry to flip-flop on you, but it’s something like the precise opposite of the problem most games have – not a trend, an anti-trend. Indeed, the closest example I can think of is from Spec Ops: The Line. I had the good fortune of playing it with a friend of mine who does not play games, and her mind was something of an uncarved block, in opposition to my jaded gamerbrain. Relatively early in the game, you come across a kind of domestic encampment, and one of your squadmates remarks, “Man, they even have a piano down here?” My friend and I both had the same reaction: can I play the piano? I meandered over and did my damnedest to bash, shoot, or however the hell else play that piano. But you can’t. And here’s the bake-your-noodle moment: why did they mention the piano, and not make it a dynamic object. Why? Why the ungodly shit would you explicitly draw a player’s attention to an object with which they will want to interact – indeed, an object whose very function is interactive? This isn’t Chekhov’s gun; this is basic human curiosity. After games like Metal Gear Solid 2, where every mundane object does something (and ice cubes realistically melt faster as single cubes than when they’re frozen together), nobody can afford to talk about a piano without making the piano interactive. In terms of character and story, Halo 4 does the same thing: by writing unnecessary lines for characters, it draws our attention to everything that’s wrong with the situation.
The Master Chief is an interesting character because he’s an uninteresting one. Perhaps, better, a schizoid one. He’s represented quite differently in the novels and the games, and for good reason, I’d say. The game canon establishes him as a stoic, silent pillar of strength – a literally faceless hero, without too much personality other than some sub-military snark with his AI friend, and therefore a perfect avatar for players to project themselves upon. With a game, that’s great! It’s a game, and we know that the player needs to feel compelled by the story and events, and that can happen if we allow the first-person illusion to totally overlay the Chief onto the player. The novels, quite rightly, appreciate that they are not games – they’re novels, and therefore, they demand more objectively compelling characters. That means the Chief can’t have the reader’s emotions; he has to have his known. So the SPARTAN we’ve inherited by Halo 4 is really a dangerous amalgam of these two strains in the Chief’s developmental history, a condition necessitated by both the increasing connectivity of the storylines across multiple media, and the need for the franchise to go in a new direction if it’s to survive a whole second trilogy. There’s a lot going on there, and I won’t claim it’s an easy morass to navigate – not that I wouldn’t have relished the chance to give it a shot myself.
My qualms about the writing are partially motivated by nostalgia by what the Chief was, in the earlier Halo games, and partially by an appreciation of this labyrinth of character which frustrates static cartography. The thing is, the new trilogy is going in a new direction, and should do that, and I fully support that. And for that matter, it has to, even in terms of internal consistency: the world has changed by the time Halo 4 rolls around. The Covenant has a ceasefire with the UNSC, and the human military is itself much different. There’s a new challenge to writing the Chief simply because his situation has changed; whereas Halo found the Chief typically alone, stranded, and desperate, Halo 4 sees him working in close conjunction with other UNSC troops. He has to communicate with them, and that’s certainly understandable. But the negotiation of this obstacle has been handled differently in the past. There are obvious instances in the earlier games where the Chief receives his orders and simply does them, rather than bothering to acknowledge them, and that describes a particular strength of character.
That rarely happens in Halo 4. Indeed, in one level, you get to ride a massive war-machine through a desert to destroy Covenant and Forerunner installations, until terrain prevents your mount for progressing. The Chief radios to his CO that he can move faster if he goes alone, and the officer gives his permission. I scrunched my nose when it happened; my fingers itched. Obviously, the Chief has always been duty-driven, and has obeyed orders in the military chain of command (although…not always), but he’s never had to be so meek about it. The man who hears what must be done, and does it, is powerful; the man who hears what must be done, and asks permission, has lost some of his Nietzschean vitality.
There’s a particularly wonderful moment in Halo 4, which pops up after Cortana has had an attack of violent rampancy. She watches an artificial sun outside of a viewport, and wistfully reflects on how she can analytically deduce that the sun is artificial, but will never know if it looks or feels real. She turns to find Chief methodically loading and checking his weapons, and begs him, “Before this is over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” Chief has no reply; he avoids her gaze, considers the remark, and is still considering it when another character walks into the room. That’s a Master Chief moment, the kind we understand – the Badass Bambi, who doesn’t have anything good to say, so he says nothing at all. That’s a strong formula for a likeable character, because it strikes a particular balance. Chief isn’t a silent protagonist – we know he has thoughts, we know he speaks – but he chooses not to if the situation does not call for it.
This finely under-written scene is tragically counterbalanced by the ending of the game, where the Chief converses briefly with another human soldier. When it becomes apparent that the Chief thinks of himself, and of soldiers, as “outside of humanity,” an external factor looking in on the object of its duty and loyalty, his companion remarks, “Soldiers aren’t machines; we’re just people.” And he leaves the Chief to his solitude.
Chief then takes his solitude and functionally headbutts it in the face, because while he’s standing alone by the window he remarks, out loud, to nobody in particular, “She said that to me once.”
And then a pause.
“About being a machine.”
FADE TO BLACK.
Oh…oh, 343i. We know. We know she said that! We were there! Probably just a couple hours ago! Who is the Chief talking to? Why? We know that you want us to understand his emotional conundra, but for the love of all that is holy, you don’t need to slap us in the face with this flaccid word-dick to make us understand it. The books give him plenty of angst, but it’s all exposed in the narration; he doesn’t voice his fears, he swallows them and deals with them. We would get it; we’re relatively smart people, gamers. And those of us who are not – well, we’re too busy playing multiplayer anyway. This scene didn’t need that line, at all, and I’m amazed that it survived the editing process. The scene can literally be improved if you, dear player, simply wait for the aforementioned “we’re not machines” line, and then frantically mute your television, so that you merely have a shot of the Chief looking intense and wistful before the fade. Trust me, the experience is much improved by the silence.
Then again, I’m sure people have said the same thing about me.
4. Mayhap conclusions
Less is more. Do your controls work? Don’t change them mid-game for a fifteen-second sequence. Do your characters work? Let them work. Is your game good?