Friday, February 10, 2017

Why I (unexpectedly) stuck with Halo

Although my family had a Nintendo Entertainment System I didn't keep up with the way gaming technology advanced through the 1990s - most of my experience with gaming consoles was on the NES with only brief asides to friends' homes to see what the next generations of consoles could do. My younger brother was a little more committed to gaming than I was and by the 2000s he had adopted the Xbox as his console of choice. When I would visit him in the mid-to-late 00s he would insist on my joining him to play his games. Frankly, I would have been almost as happy to simply watch him play.

My brother truly enjoyed the Halo games and it became the game he wanted me to play when I visited. However, I had no particular experience or interest in the first-person shooter. I found the controls confusing and unwieldy and my brother, in his haste to get the games going, wouldn't give me space to test the controls. I recall playing Halo 2 with him during one of my visits but I was wholly detached from the experience as I struggled with the controls. I had no interest in the cut scenes and opted to "skip" every time one appeared.

Some time later my brother convinced me I should buy an Xbox 360 so that he and I could play games together online. He mellowed my resistance by finding a used console for sale at a very good price, but the only games of his which I had enjoyed were the Star Wars Battlefront titles and I couldn't get a copy of those games for love nor money. One of my friends was into Assassin's Creed at the time and loaned me the first game of that series; my brother alerted me to a sale on Halo 3 where I got a copy for $20. Although I still had no particular interest in the game I conceded as it would at least be a game I could play with my brother.

In my first few months as an Xbox 360 owner my only diversions were Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed. I approached Halo 3 with a greater degree of caution; how would I ever adapt to the controls? Wasn't there some way I could play it outside of first-person perspective? I had no interest in the player vs. player mode (where I was hopeless) but resolved I would play one mission of the campaign each night and give up only when I reached a point I could not get past.

My first major discovery from playing the game solo was that I needed to invert the controls. Perhaps no long-time Halo player can appreciate this, but my ability to enjoy the game transformed dramatically when I could rely on aiming my character's weapon at my enemies instead of my knees. Further, I didn't skip the cut scenes this time; I was committed to "one campaign mission on normal difficulty per night" so I took the time to appreciate the story which had been crafted around the action scenes. I began to appreciate the elegant design of the game - that despite being in a 3d environment the correct path to follow was usually intuitive, that weapons worked differently and had particular uses in certain situations.

On my ninth night of Halo 3 I reached the second-last level and there hit a roadblock. Time and again I would try to pass the same checkpoint, fail and respawn. I had reached the point I had previously anticipated and decided to give up on the game. The next day I started up Assassin's Creed instead.

And yet, I wasn't quite done with Halo 3. I felt a compulsion to go back and finish the campaign. But how? How could I get past that frustrating checkpoint? What could I possibly do differently? I asked my brother and he had nothing to contribute. I should have simply carried on with Assassin's Creed but my mind kept going back to Halo 3. I'd formed a connection with that game - a sequel - which I had failed to make with the latter game, despite taking it from the beginning. One week after giving up on Halo 3 I returned and I got good; I realized my problem was ammo and trained myself to be more efficient and learned how to score headshots; I finished the rest of the game that night.

What did I find so compelling about Halo 3 while Assassin's Creed came up short? It's not so much about the gameplay - I appreciate both modes and initially I preferred AC's third-person view. Primarily my preferences come down to the protagonist. The lead character in Assassin's Creed is a jerk - a loudmouth who is needlessly abrasive towards his allies yet blindingly naive to his superior. Throughout that game when the lead would speak I usually rolled my eyes; what a wanker. By contrast, Halo 3's Master Chief seldom speaks in the game and when he does speak, it's very succinct. It's actually quite appealing and immersive to me - after all, the Chief is meant to be the player's avatar in the game so any kind of disagreeable personal traits would make that player-to-avatar connection disjointed. Or desynchronized, as Assassin's Creed would term it. I never cared for the protagonist of AC, but in Halo 3 I found a hero big enough to be imprinted with all the qualities I wanted to see.

Obviously, every Halo fan could see the Master Chief differently; perhaps you think he's a total bro who does the Dew and uses his helmet as a bong. Maybe that's a valid interpretation from where you sit; as we Halo fans say, "opinions are like guns: everyone has two" (we need to work on our catchphrases). What, then, did I see in Master Chief during Halo 3?

Trait 1: Forgiveness

In the opening of Halo 3, the Chief has just been reunited with a squad of soldiers led by Sgt. Johnson. Accompanying the sarge is an Elite, one of the enemies of humanity, the battlefield commanders of the Covenant. The Chief grabs a pistol and has already jammed the barrel under the Elite's jaw when the sarge calls the Chief to back down: "The Arbiter's with us." When the Chief does not change his stance, the sarge continues: "Come on, now. We've got enough to worry about without you two trying to kill each other!" The Chief finally releases the Arbiter who, somewhat contemptuously remarks of the attempt on his life: "Were it so easy."

Throughout the game, the Chief and the Arbiter have to set aside their personal feelings for the sake of their common foes - the Covenant and the Flood. In 1 player mode the Arbiter only appears during the game for particular moments, sometimes disappearing for a full level or two. And at some point - amidst all the near-death experiences and fate-of-the-galaxy drama, the Chief and Arbiter begin to respect each other. Their altered relationship becomes clear in the eighth mission when a temporary truce with the Flood ends as Flood surround the duo; the Chief and Arbiter stand back-to-back, braced for combat and clearly trusting each other.

It continues to the ninth mission as the Chief ventures alone into the Flood-dominated vessel High Charity to rescue Cortana. Near the end of the level (in 1 player mode) the Arbiter suddenly reappears to provide cover for the Chief as he evacuates the soon-to-explode ship; Cortana is surprised when she detects the Arbiter's presence; "Who would be crazy enough to come in here?" The Arbiter coming to the Chief's rescue unbidden is a further sign of that growing trust. As the final level begins, a cut scene depicts the Arbiter throwing a rifle to the Chief as they prepare to destroy a Halo ring. The game ends with Master Chief missing in action; the Arbiter attends a solemn ceremony on Earth's in the Chief's honour. A final conversation between the Arbiter and the Navy leader Lord Hood sums up the change which the Chief & Arbiter's relationship underwent over the course of the game, with Hood noting his own prejudice against the Arbiter.

Lord Hood: "I remember how this war started. What your kind did to mine. I can't forgive you... but you have my thanks. For standing with him to the end. Hard to believe he's dead."
Arbiter (wistfully): "Were it so easy..."

As noted, the Chief is not particularly talkative and there is no moment where he unearths his feelings about the Arbiter and the evils he was responsible for while loyal to the Covenant. Instead, I interpreted the Chief through his visuals and his actions; he doesn't forgive the Arbiter with words but demonstrates his trust and acceptance with actions. They respect each other as equals (why not? they have the same button controls) and let the past rest. At one point, the Chief gambles the survival of Earth on a hunch - his trust for Cortana - and the Elites support him without reservation, while the Chief's own superior, Lord Hood, is dubious. As the Chief accepts and trusts others, they accept and trust him.

Trait 2: Perseverance

Oh, sure, perseverance, the Chief's got that in spades, what with the events of Halo 3 taking him from Africa to two different space stations and a number of ships; his adventures have a huge scope and he never backs down from the challenge. But when I say he has perseverance, I mean he persists when all reason suggests otherwise. Is it too much to call Master Chief an existentialist hero? What? It is? Too bad, I'm going with it. Master Chief embodies the attributes of Soren Kierkegaard's existentialist hero, what we call "a knight of faith." Like Kierkegaard's hero, the Chief labours towards his ideal without the promise of reward but is kept aloft by the ideal itself.

Throughout Halo 3 the Chief receives strange communications from his friend Cortana, of late a prisoner of the Flood. The messages are brief, disjointed halves of old conversations and remembrances. Later, the Chief receives a message from Cortana which, if obeyed, could leave Earth vulnerable to an attack, but as a prisoner of the Flood it isn't clear whether Cortana is in her right mind, if she can be trusted. Finally, in the ninth mission the Chief boards High Charity to retrieve Cortana. Snippets of Cortana speaking in a disarming way appear through the level as she seems to have no memory of who the Chief is; still, the Chief moves forward. The Flood's Gravemind contacts the Chief to taunt him, boast of Cortana's corruption and assimilation; the Chief moves forward. Even before the eventual rescue of Cortana (who was not nearly so assimilated as the Gravemind thought) I had become impressed with the Chief; he is true to his word and true to his comrades in spite of all the attempts to dissuade him. He fights on even when all testimony suggests there is nothing to fight for.

Trait 3: Trust

Lord Hood: "Earth... is all we have left. You trust Cortana that much?"
Master Chief: "Sir. Yes, sir."

I've written about trust in the previous two entries but it really deserves some space of its own where Cortana is concerned. At the time I played Halo 3 I wasn't aware of how the Chief & Cortana's relationship had been previously portrayed, nor did I know the specifics of the Chief's promise near the end of Halo 2. That did not matter for my purposes; as I have stated, the Chief is someone who both gives and receives trust. He faces the horrors of a ship full of zombie-like Flood, through seemingly endless muck all for the sake of Cortana and in spite of her seeming-insanity. And, as I came to realize upon reflection, Cortana had been resisting the Gravemind all that time because she believed in him - which was not misguided.

Cortana: "You found me... But so much of me is wrong, out of place... you might be too late..."
Master Chief: "You know me. When I make a promise..."
Cortana: "...You... keep it."

There is a sense that Master Chief is honourable and honest, very straightforward in how he approaches others. He's confident in himself, sure, but more than that he makes others confident. The Chief will absolutely honour every promise and achieve every goal he sets out to do, which leaves his allies to simply do their part. He's reliable, for want of a better word.

Trait 4: Comfort

Related again to the above is the comfort he lends to Cortana, the calm, reassuring way he speaks to her. Soon after being reunited with her, he makes a joke - the one time in Halo 3 where he is less-than-serious:

Cortana: "Got an escape plan?"
Master Chief: "Thought I'd try shooting my way out. Mix things up a little."

At the time, Cortana is still reeling from the trauma of fighting against the Gravemind for however-long she was on High Charity. The Chief seems very concerned about her fragile emotional state, first stooping down to place himself at eye level to her hologram as he reminds her of his promise to her, then cracking a joke as they prepare for combat. Later, he consoles her prior to the Halo ring's destruction:

Cortana "If we don't make it --"
Master Chief: "We'll make it."
Cortana: (short pause) "It's been an honor serving with you, John."

At the very end of the game's cut scenes, the Chief and Cortana have been stranded in space aboard a crippled ship. They've been listed as "missing in action" and thought dead. There's very little chance of their being rescued and the Chief seems resigned to their hopeless fate as he hangs up his weapons. But then he offers a final word of comfort as he enters stasis to await rescue.

Cortana (whispering) "I'll miss you."
Master Chief: "Wake me... when you need me."

For Master Chief, there is no life but that of a soldier; when Cortana tells him the war with the Covenant and Flood is over he seems almost sad as he concedes, "It's finished." What purpose does his life hold without a war to fight? In that sense, it's logical for him to place himself into stasis like King Arthur, to be awakened in the hour of humanity's greatest need (or Halo 4, whichever comes first). But when he's around Cortana the Chief demonstrates his softer, human, emotive side. For her sake, he closes with words of comfort; even if there isn't a battle to be fought, he'll be there for her, knowing well the strain she's already undergone and being cognizant that as an AI, she has a limited lifespan which will probably be played out entirely aboard the crippled ship lost in the void of space.

Cortana's presence in Halo 3 points to another side to the Chief, of another identity he could have as a feeling human being - the person who Cortana (and she only) refers to as "John." Despite being a computer program, Cortana is modeled after her human makers and experiences the full range of human emotions. She draws those emotions out of the Chief and he, in turn, helps her cope with her feelings. They rely upon each other, to some extent and that bond - that relationship - that's what drew me in to Halo 3. Perspectives on that bond vary amongst Halo fans - some want them to be romantic, comradely or fraternal. The giant space marine in armour is in love with the computer program inside his helmet; 'twas ever thus. I don't care what form their affection takes: I simply appreciate that they like each other. And that, more than anything, made me want to spend time wearing the Chief's boots.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I didn't think I'd enjoy playing Halo but it turns out, I do. I still do.

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