the international journal of computer game research
volume 2, issue 1
July 2002
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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.

Halo and the Anatomy of the FPS


by Aki Järvinen tells us that Halo's average review score in game magazines and sites is 97 out of 100. In its review, EDGE Magazine gave it a full ten (for the fourth time in the publication's history). In the review, the details of the gameplay were shrouded in secrecy, "because it's difficult to find the words to do Bungie's work justice" (EDGE #105). Without doubt, Halo is widely considered to be a remarkable game. Why is that?

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.

Halo Dissected

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".
Crawford, Chris (1983) The Art of Computer Game Design
Wolf, Mark J.P. "Genre and the Video Game"

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