God did I loathe Halo and everything it stood for. It was the flagship game for a new video game system whose controllers my 15-year-old hands could barely wrap around (“lol xbox is huge”) and, most importantly, I sucked at it. Big time. My town, like many others around the country I assume, became a hub of Halo activity. People were bringing over TVs to play, stringing LAN cables from house to house, throwing hours and hours away to this stupid game where a pistol could be used as a sniper from thousands of virtual feet away and had a shotgun that instantly killed people from twenty feet out (something Dick Cheney could only dream of). And while I hated for eight months, my friends got better, so by the time I started playing, the game was awful. Little did I know I would soon fall in love with it.
That came through the onset of online multiplayer in Halo 2. Once I stopped sucking–which took a long time because of my familiarity with the “shoot in one plane, straight ahead, with no other options” Goldeneye controls–it became a bit more fun. Instead of being easily destroyed by my friends (who played with a family in town where all three kids were nationally ranked in Halo tourneys, including the girl who was my age), I was using their skill to my advantage. Suddenly Brian’s all-around abilities, of Jeff’s sniping, and of Meyer’s batshit-crazy-run-and-hit-anything-possible attack strategy were helping, not frustrating. Their skill allowed me to sort of go one-on-one with the shittiest player on the other team, all the while learning what my friends did and what their experience meant through actual gameplay, gradually getting better against better competition. And with each successive game, and each learning experience, I kept improving, and the game became better. And better.
There was just something about playing with your friends against a common foe, or trying to surmount the difficulty of playing with others all over the world for a common goal. The “us against them” mentality is clearly deep within all of us, and Halo was a light, cathartic way to get that out. By the time Halo 3 came out, I was in college, armed with an Xbox 360. It did not take long for my two roommates to fall in love with the game as well, about 10x the speed that I had initially. Within a few weeks we were marathon-ing games against the nameless bozos across this great land (and abroad) for hours and hours. But why did we fall so?
The key to Halo‘s success is the fact that it’s a game. Yes, it’s a game where you run around and kill people, and yes, there are games where the goal is to kill as many of these virtual avatars as possible, and yes, I do honestly get a thrill out of the process. But it’s not real, not in any way. We’re playing with humanoids, devoid of faces, who run and jump about like no person I’ve ever met with guns such as “the needler,” alien-based crystal technology that blows up after contact. You throw glowing blue-orb grenades that stick to other characters…but not to your hand before you throw them. The game has a robust physics engine so there is some gravity to (literally) ground the proceedings, but not enough to stop you from taking a Ford Explorer-sized truck with a giant gun turret in the back, driving onto a magical alien launcher pad, and throwing you hundreds of feet through the air, landing you safely (and in motion) on the other side.
Playing Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, the other big online multiplayer gun-toting franchise, feels real. Too real. You’re thrown into combat with tons and tons of faceless, unimportant people you do not know and will never meet with no idea what your objective is other than to stay alive and shoot other people. As soon as you walk outside you could be shot once, killed, and restarted. The game even shows you from the perspective of the other soldier how you were destroyed with current state-of-the-art weaponry, divorcing you from the process, objectively watching yourself get murdered. Everyone is dressed in camo, making it hard to find them, and your enemy can just sit in one spot and take out tens of men without ever being seen.
Essentially, they re-created modern war, which I’m sure is exactly what they wanted to do. Unfortunately, all this “game” does is make me think of actual war, how arbitrary it all is, and that no matter how good you could be at it, you could be randomly taken out by the one guy who just sat in a corner the whole time, quivering, and you’ll never know it happens. All it takes is one or two shots and you’re done. Then the assembly line cranks out another version of “you” and it’s back into the fold, back into the desert with your SCAR-H, before you’re back on the ground, dead.
Halo, with its goofy purple-based color pallets and wide-array of fun weapons, always feels like unreality. The people you play with and against are real people–mostly children or from the southern US, for whatever reason–who you hear talk and could socialize with while playing this game together. There isn’t any real malice like I feel during COD. It’s a strong urge to simply be better than anyone else. When I rack up 20 kills I don’t feel like a warrior with 20 scalps on his belt, but the satisfaction of knowing that I helped my team win, that my contribution mattered, and that I did it better than anyone else in the game. The act of killing isn’t “killing” because of how goofy everything around me seems to be; it’s more a means to an end than a blood lust.
This is supposedly the last edition of the Halo franchise, and that really does make me sad. I love this game because of how closely it’s brought me together with my friends, and how we all came together instead of going against each other for so many years, fighting for a common goal: winning as a team. I love it for how you can feel yourself improving, something as tangible as shooting foul shots over and over until they fall properly. I love it for the luck-of-the-draw moments when you and three other strangers come together to work well and then keep on playing, finding out that if they were from your area and you knew them, they’d probably be your friend. It’s a very unique, fun, light way to spend an hour–clearly a deeper experience than I ever expected–and I’ll surely miss it.
Until then, I’ll see you in there. Gamer tag: KingManton. Bring it, pussies (or wonderful, future teammates!).
Halo 3 image courtesy of this random blog.
ps The WordPress iPhone app randomly doubles my posts if I try to edit any piece of them. It doubled this post. It perturbs me.