|the international journal of computer game research||
volume 2, issue 1
Aki Järvinen has written several articles and columns on the cultural and artistic aspects of new media, and given papers at international conferences. He has also worked in the new media industry as a concept designer and copywriter. He is currently employed at Tampere University's Hypermedia Laboratory as an assistant professor, working on a PhD on video game aesthetics.
by Aki Järvinen
Halo takes a little from here (Half-life, driving games)
and a little from there (Doom, Battlezone), and mixes these
ingredients into an enjoyable and polished whole. It doesn't really introduce
any single, new game technique or design gimmick. Does this, acknowledging
but dismissing the inevitable marketing hype, warrant it being called
"the best game ever" or "the most important launch game
for any console, ever" (EDGE #105)?
This review aims to show that "the best game in its genre so far"
might be closer to truth. Planet First Person Shooter with its Quakesauruses
has been hit by a meteorite called Halo. The FPS is dead. Long
live the new FPS!
Genre in Game Studies?
The whole question of genre is largely unexplored in game studies. Generally
it is accepted that computer and video games constitute a cultural genre
as such, but the distinctions, continuums and variations within that cultural
genre remain uncharted. The popular genre conceptions originate mostly
from game journalism, not systematic study. I say "mostly",
because, for example Chris Crawford's The Art of Computer Game Design
(from 1983) does provide a genre-like taxonomy. Crawford's effort has
not found its way into general discourse, maybe because Crawford's visions
(i.e. about sport games becoming unpopular) haven't rang true. However,
what we need is not visions or forecasts, but a systematic re-evaluation
of existing games in relation to genre thinking.
More recently, Mark J.P. Wolf has come up with 42 different genres of
games according to the kind of interactivity they offer. However, if we
see genre-based categorizations as a means of making sense out of a larger
whole, 42 genres ceases to be useful. Or, we have to accept that the diversity
of games requires many more genres and subgenres than traditional media
products which have benefitted from genre studies. Or, that a game genre
equals hybridity, because game genres are complex sums of interaction
and rule mechanisms, audiovisual styles, and popular fiction genre conventions.
Halo presents a case in this direction.
Even though a ludologist deserves a slap in the face every time s/he
compares a game to a movie, I cannot help myself: Halo is to the
First Person Shooter what Terminator 2: Judgment Day was to the
special effects action movie. Halo, like T2, does everything
a little bit better than its predecessors. It makes every explosion a
bit more convincing, each combat more engaging, hitting the FPS genre
with a "new high". A genre, with its conventions, always tends
to reach a saturation point as the action movie did with T2. After
that, the genre has to be re-invented in a dialogue involving both game
designers and players.
Element-wise, Halo is essentially a golden path to a player's
heart. Unlike Half-life, it uses cut-scenes, but like Half-life,
Halo allows the player to act in the midst of them, albeit in small
doses. In theoretical terms, it mixes distance-based and time-based scripted
events (cf. Birdwell 1999). In effect, Halo pleases the whole spectrum
of the action game audience: from Metal Gear Solid 2 enthusiasts
with the cut-scene fetish to fraggers with the death(match) wish.
In creating distance-based drama dependent on the player's actions, i.e.
event time, Halo plays with the player's expectations: the usually
boring tutorial chores transform into actual gameplay in a distance-based
scenario. Later in the game, one's journey towards a beckoning escape
route in the distance (a door showing daylight) is cleverly interrupted
by an attack of enemies cloaked in invisibility: "Ooh, now I can
relax...there must be an autosave-checkpoint over there also... What the...!!!!"
It is a pity, then, that in the latter part of the game, the scenarios
rely on repetition and quantity rather than innovativeness and quality.
Halo's sound design is exemplary, adding another dramatic layer
to enhance the atmosphere. Although the much-publicized AI does not appear
to live up to the hype, the game makes up for it in the voice-acting department.
Your average gaming situation in Halo, with the NPCs shouting out
their war cries and generally acting according to militaristic clichés,
equals one being thrown in the middle of a Starship Troopers or
Aliens fighting scene (slap!).
The game also plays host to the "breaking stuff" and "living
the movie cliché" mentalities (as epitomized by Grand Theft
Auto III). Bringing a spaceship literally to your feet with a rocket
launcher is, well, fun as hell. Moreover, Halo allows the player
every once in a while to switch to the third person perspective by driving
or flying different vehicles, such as the Warthog. So it also shows how
a genre defined by its audiovisual appearance, the FPS, has to seek comfort
from another, the TPD (Third Person Driver), in order to re-invent itself.
Requiem for the FPS
All in all, Halo triumphs in understanding the anatomy of the
FPS, pulling many of the right strings. It even manages to implement the
FPS control system to the Xbox gamepad very well. Halo doesn't
lack innovativeness. Rather, its innovativeness lies in its ability to
mix. The game does not come up with ground-breaking yet simple design
solutions, e.g. substituting the generic "seek conflict" convention
with "avoid conflict", as Thief the Dark Project
did. It does not have (under-used) gimmicks like the "geo-mod"
feature in Red Faction, or the role-based multiplayer scenarios
of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Halo is not so much about
"combat evolved" as the subtitle suggests, but about "genre
evolved". As a consequence, a requiem for the FPS is in order. Anyone
to the rescue? Warren Spector, Deus Ex 2, Thief III?
It is important to realize that "n times one notch better"
method, which Halo employs, equals more than the sum of its parts.
In other words, the game-playing experience shouldn't be reduced into
a sum of certain design solutions or formal properties. Systematically
conducted, this kind of thinking would lead to the "perfect game",
a game that probably few would want to play. I believe Peter Molyneux's
Black & White somewhat characterizes this problem: Champion
in form, curiosity in popularity. Not so with Halo: it is familiar
enough, but with its mix of elements, it manages to appear even more innovative
than it is, at least to the untrained eyes and ears. The cultural dialectic
between innovative and conservative impulses is guiding the game market,
with Halo as its beacon for now.
Birdwell, Ken (1999) " Valve's Design Process for Creating Half-life".