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Old 11-12-2008, 02:02 PM   #1
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Halo: Combat Evolved Discussion - Please Rate This Discussion :P

PART 1

Please note that this is not your average discussion of Halo. It may seem so at first, but read on, and hopefully you will see that it is absolutely a valuable contribution to thought on videogames...and Halo

I have not had as much fun with any other videogame, as I have with the original Halo. 7 years later I still believe it to be the best videogame yet to be made, with the possible exception of Ico.

Over the years I have tried to explain, to myself and others, what makes it such a proficient construction, compared to all of the trash surrounding it. Over the years my fluency in the language of videogame analysis has increased, particularly in the last year, after listening to Jonathan Blow’s lectures on how the medium works, and a great deal of thinking on my own part. I hope that my ability to discuss the achievements of Halo has risen accordingly.

Perhaps, some years ago, when describing Halo, I would have referenced the lack of tedium compared to other first person shooters like Half-Life, along with other videogames in general, such as resident evil, final fantasy, GTA, and many, many others. The thing about Halo, is that it focuses almost entirely on its combat, while these other games seem to think it appropriate to waste the players time with getting from one place to another, with no challenge in between; or waltzing around collecting one or another sort of treasure, again with no challenge apart from that of rising depression; or with ridiculous, and I mean REDICULOUS, ‘puzzles’, which might I add would be of no relevance to the core gameplay; and then there’s the getting from one place to another with the challenge of working out how to get there without any directions…only the assumption that there are only two possible paths from where you are, backwards, and some obscure forwards path, lingering under some pile of garbage (Half-Life). Halo did away with all these wretched videogame conventions (curse there souls), resulting in a line of transparently connected ‘challenge areas’, with the simple challenge of getting from one to the next. This usually meant killing all the aliens in your way (otherwise, it meant rushing past them all and getting to the next checkpoint before they could kill you).

The other area of reduced tedium I would have referred to is more to do with the core gameplay. Halo’s system of recharging shields; only being able to carry two weapons at a time; grenades on a hot-key; and frequent, well-placed checkpoints, spoke a tangible dialect of sound logic. It made clear the problems of what, at the time, were normal health systems, whereby the game designer never knew how much health you had at a given point, and so each scenario was either too easy or too hard. In this way, the player often had to take matters into their own hands, replaying sections they had already completed in the hope of emerging with more health, or traveling backwards vast distances to pick up that health pack that they couldn’t pick up earlier because their health was too full when they first came across it.

With Halo’s system, the player always knew where they stood. They always had an amount of health that was small enough to be comprehendible, but rarely so small that their death was conclusively inevitable. They never had so many grenades that their value was in-comprehendible, rather the player was put in a position where they could make an informed decision about how to act, and were provided an intelligent interfacial mechanism with which to use them. The same was true with the weapon system, and it is worth noting the logical balancing of the weapons, which forced, the player to make clever decisions about which weapons to carry in a given situation. Further more, a very intelligent system was implemented for picking up and switching between weapons quickly, in contrast with the un-wieldy system in most games at the time. I could go on, explaining the utter competence with which Bungie executed the use of vehicles, AI, melee attacks, simple, ‘diagrammatic’ visual style, and almost everything else in the game.

Recently though, I’ve been trying to develop a more subtle approach to analyzing videogames, which makes fewer assumptions about what games should be doing in some respects, and more in others. So I find it hard to decide what approach to take when discussing Halo. The first would involve treating Halo as a game within the FPS genre, or, I should say, a game which uses, and heavily develops on, the FPS form. The problem with this approach is that most people have very different understandings of what the FPS form is Mre problematic is that most of these are likely to be very primitive understandings, because writers are yet to sit down in earnest and explore how the form operates in communicating ideas and experience to a player. I could, of course, attempt, myself, to make such an exploration, but it would be nigh on impossible to strike a balance between exploring the form, and discussing Bungie’s use of the form, in one ‘review’. I sort of tried this approach in my review of ‘Little Big Planet’, which turned out to be a bit of a mess as I didn’t execute either part very well.

The other approach would involve treating Halo as a work in isolation; I could then explore it from first principles. This would lead to the obvious problem of not being able to go into much depth, since I would spend all of my time explaining the basic effect of the work. I think that a serious writer on videogames is in a very tricky position at this point in time, having so few sound assumptions to fall back on.

Well let me start you off with a quick, probably un-elegant, definition of art which I have come to recently. Art is the presentation of objects, patterns, symbols, sounds, rules and so on, which exist in the real world. They are presented without the clutter which surrounds them in their real-life manifestations, and are ordered in space and time, such as to be easier to understand for the recipient, and such that interesting relationships between them are revealed. I’ve been writing an essay recently, in which I attempted, at first, to set videogames along side other art mediums by treating them as constructions of rules and goals (which exist in real life), but with fewer of these rules and goals than are present in their real life manifestations, so as to focus more intensely on the ones which are presented in the game. Each of these rules and goals are interesting in themselves, but are presented in such a way in space and time so as to show them more clearly and to draw our attention to particular relationships between them which the artist sees.
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Old 11-12-2008, 02:03 PM   #2
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Re: Halo: Combat Evolved Discussion - Please Rate This Discussion :P

PART 2

However, I realized this to be the wrong path, since other mediums used rules as their materials of expression also. The interest in a play is often in the reaction of a character to a given situation. The playwright displays his skill in essentially working out the rules which govern the hypothetical character, thus deducing their reaction to a given event. Similarly in an action movie, rules are constantly presented to the viewer. We are shown that when some one is shot in a certain place, they are killed (or not, accordingly), and so on.

So in fact what a game does, the conclusion I came to, is to essentially present a simplified challenge. Of course, following my train of thought, this challenge exists in real life, but, if we imagine that, during a period in a persons life, they are confronted with various challenges at the same time, and other matters of confusion, then a game might create an alternate world where a player has only one of these challenges which existed in this hypothetical persons life at that time. Thus we can focus on this and learn, by playing, how best to deal with it, and simply experience what it is like to be engaged with it, and the emotions that occur for them while doing so. Perhaps, by viewing it in isolation, one doesn’t necessarily solve it, but they can see it more clearly in their own life, and can live more in peace as ignorance is reduced. The game creator doesn’t necessarily know what messages will be learnt by engaging with his game, he simply puts together what seem like they might be interesting rules and goals, to create a simplified, alternate reality. The rules and goals are themselves organic however (because they have been taken from the real world), and so lessons lie ready to be learnt from them just as they do in their real life manifestations, and similarly do emotions lie ready to rise as you engage as a human being. While other art mediums present alternate realities, the game is the most direct medium for this sort of representation, because they have all of the fundamental components of the real reality. While a film is just presented to you, you engage with a game fundamentally in the same way you would real life, and so it is a form representation which is most like reality. Of course a game does not actually have to have a challenge. It is true that most of the time, our reality is based around some sort of goal, but I think there are some times, perhaps more in some than in others, when we actually don’t strive for anything, and a game could very conceivably be modeled on such an experience. One last point about the medium at large, is that the purpose of games is often not so much any of the above, but is to simply let the player engage with a challenge, or other experience, which, as a human, they have an in built in drive to do, but which has been hampered by modern society. Of course, in such a case, the game would still have the function of teaching lessons on how to complete these challenges, and they might even give rise to various emotions, but the player often plays simply for a chance to live out that sort of experience that they cannot in real life. This is most prevalent in games with ‘skill’ based challenges, like football, Halo and such, but also, more recently, with RPG’s. A game which is designed to be treated in such a way, is likely to be more ‘entertainment’ than ‘art’, but this is not necessarily so.

The FPS deals with a particular sort of reality in which the protagonist is presented with the challenge of killing a certain amount of enemies while not being killed themselves, or something to that effect. On a surface level, it is clear to see where this sort of challenge might occur in reality: on a battlefield. If we let that stand for the moment; then presenting such a challenge is already a great simplification, since a soldier in such a situation might easily be dealing with all sorts of other problems at the same time, in other areas of their life. The reality is further simplified though, since the vast number of variables that might exist on a real battlefield is reduced to the bare minimum, in order that those which are considered to be interesting by the games creator are focused on. There are all sorts of interpretations which one might make of the battlefield when making a game; Chess is one, although admitably it is a very different sort of battlefield that is draws from. The FPS as a form, is one of these possible interpretations of a modern battlefield; in which certain elements are extracted. The form allows for a lot of development on the basic principles though, as has been shown by Halo.

At this point I would like to ‘stick’ (as opposed to twist) there, and go on to how Halo uses and develops on this FPS form; confident that at least some of you would have understood what I have said so far. Unfortunately, I would be worried that perhaps just one person reading this, in that case, would think me un-sophisticated in the picture that I have developed of the FPS form as a whole so far.

The thing is that a games abstraction of a reality isn’t necessarily as simple as that makes it sound. While it may be possible to simply reduce the variables of an actual real life reality, and present it as a game, most games will actually put together elements from different realities to make something more interesting. Whether they were conscious of it or not, the instigators of the FPS genre did just this, and so the FPS isn’t a simple representational abstraction of a real life battlefield reality, as much as it includes this as a general backbone to the form, while imposing on it more general, and more highly abstract, parts of reality to do with balance and skill. FPS games try to mesh the reality of the battle field with another part of reality in which nothing is down to chance, but instead, victory can be achieved by displaying enough skill. In this world ‘virtue’ is rewarded fairly. It could be seen as something of a falsity to impose this onto a battlefield, in which virtue is rarely rewarded in this way, and infact, it shows something of the world-view of the game creators. Of course, in reality, they don’t really hold this world-view; they are simply following in a tradition of a world-view which has prevailed in games since the times of chess and go. At this point in time (now), the concept of ‘balance’ is seen as a given aim for almost any game, as opposed to just one of the many things that could be expressed.

I feel I must apologize for this, but I’m afraid that there are just a few more details about the FPS genre which must be elucidated before we can look at Halo’s contribution. Apart from the actual expressive components of the reality that is created in an FPS game, there are a number of practical conventions which are used just to allow the game to work. These have to be ‘conventions’, because they are so peculiar when you think about them that they can only be acceptable when the are expected by the player, and so not really noticed in the games structure. These include things like invisible walls to prevent the developers from having to create the whole world for just one little battle, also the use of invisible triggers which trigger cut-scenes, enemy reinforcements and so on.
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Old 11-12-2008, 02:04 PM   #3
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Re: Halo: Combat Evolved Discussion - Please Rate This Discussion :P

PART 3

Now, Halo could be seen as communicating the same sorts of themes as other standard FPS games, and its developments could be seen as being in aid of strengthening the communication of these themes. At the same time though, while this concept of a world where virtue is rewarded fairly is one of the things an fps communicates, it also works with the particularities of the variables which it extracts from the real battlefield (or other sort of combat scenarios). In this way, every little change could be seen as one which changes the messages of the game.

Anyhow, when we examine Halo’s attempt at imposing this world of fairness onto the battlefield, without judging the concept itself, we can see that it makes gallant strides toward this goal. I have already listed a number of clever alterations it makes to the form in this vain, but the game is still far from achieving its vision of this balanced perfection. One problem is the scoped pistol, which is effective at both medium and long-range, and not too bad at short range either. This leaves it with only a little weakness which can be easily made up for with a good short range gun like the assault rifle. This results in a player with no weakness to be exploited, while almost every other combination will have a weakness, forcing the player to decide which combination would be most suitable for the anticipated scenario. Other problems are more subtle, and their’ solutions would involve further undermining the battlefield reality in favor of the abstract reality. Further balance would surely be reached if all appropriate weapons were always available to the player, but the 2 which could be used could only be selected every, say, 5 minutes? The grenade system, with a maximum of 4 grenades of each of the 2 types is certainly an improvement over other games, as is the frequent availability of re-fills, but I think further balance might be reached by having them be rechargeable in the same way the shield is, only, they should take longer to re stock. Again, though, this would undermine the battlefield reality, so these would not necessarily be improvements to the game as a whole.

Now what more is there to say? I don’t think anyone would like me to go through listing all of the ways in which Halo improves on the communication of the balance concept. This is precisely the problem with this sort of review. I have spent so much time illuminating the general nature of videogames and particularly fps’s that it would seem a laboured task now to explore in detail all of the ways Halo could become more balanced and more skilful in its representation of the battlefield scenarios, and the ways in which it has improved on its predecessors. Come to think of it though, this is basically all a review could do at this point (apart from talking about such interchangeable things such as its graphics, sounds and such). This is because the actual concepts were stated with the first of the FPS games, (Doom, Duke Nukem, or what ever it was), and so the basic ideas it expresses were discussed back then (they weren’t of course, but this is besides the point). For some reason though, it has been deemed acceptable for countless games to try and improve on them. Perhaps it should not be acceptable, and a review of Halo should run through its improvements before dismissing it as a copy of the original FPS. But I suppose this happens in other art mediums as well (the copying and improving I mean). I think you can think of your own examples of this. Perhaps though, the occurrence of this is particularly allowable in videogames, because it’s such a young medium. One might suggest that developers came up with ideas, like the FPS, which, because use of the medium was so undeveloped, they didn’t have the skill to execute to full effect. On the other hand, one might suggest that the person who came up with the idea was simply not talented enough technically, and it was necessary for someone else, like Bungie, to take the idea, and execute it better. This all works on the false assumption though that the idea is limited to the combination of the two realities to which I refered earlier. In actual fact, the end product also depends largely on the particular parts of the combat reality that the creator chose to extract. Therefore it is not enough that Halo copied the welding of the two realities, to pass it off as a copy, Halo has, arguably, created a different game, as opposed to an improvement of the first FPS, by extracting different elements from real life battlefield-like scenarios. If nothing else it adds vehicles. Gears of war could be seen as more of a different game, because, while it copies the idea of imposing the world which fairly rewards virtue onto one based on a battlefield, the actual elements of the battle field that it represents are more fundamentally different, mainly because of its use of the cover system. Nevertheless, it is still very similar, and I think it may be about time we started making things a bit more different.

Now then, any IGN readers present; would you like me to discuss any of the games features, graphics, or sound?

Just as a little note to anyone who is unconvinced by my idea that the FPS imposes the world of justice onto the world of the battlefield, think about what a game which was modeled accurately on a battlefield would be like. It would not actually make a very enjoyable game, powerfully expressive perhaps, but not fun in the sense that your skill would be rewarded as it is in Halo. In a real battlefield, your fate would be largely down to luck. Does the enemy happen to shoot you or your companion standing next to you? Do you get shot out of no-where by a sniper a couple of miles away from you? It only turns into a game comparable to Halo when this abstract world where justices rules is imposed onto the basic foundation of the battlefield.
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Old 11-14-2008, 03:18 AM   #4
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Re: Halo: Combat Evolved Discussion - Please Rate This Discussion :P

Hey S.N.F.-

here are a couple of ways I could go on this, but I think the overall most pressing issue is that the piece, while interesting, is simply too long.

if you're interested in having this piece published, I'd say the best place to start is to distill the entire thing down to one solid page and make the points you feel most strongly about in a very concise fashion.

you've obviously been spending a lot of time thinking about game theory, but the truth of the Internet is that the vast majority of readers would abandon ship before finishing the first page... if you can trim it down, I'd like to see a revised version.
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