In my last column, I briefly mentioned that Halo was a good example of a game that impressively managed to bring plot to the traditionally plot-bereft first-person shooter genre. Upon further though, I’ve decided that perhaps I was too hasty. I’m sure you can take a guess as to what’s seemingly changed my mind so drastically between then and now: the latest Halo game, ODST.
The original Halo was a breath of fresh air for the genre. It had a surprising mix of action and plot in order to progress the story. You weren’t just butchering aliens; you were trying to stop Halo from firing and annihilating all life in the universe. The same holds true for the second and third entries in the series; we see more butchering of aliens yet you’re attempting to stop the Prophets and other similar villains. Unfortunately, that’s about as deep as it gets. But do we need more in-depth Halo games? Would such a beast, ungainly as it is to describe, even be a Halo game?
The answer to both questions is a resounding… no. At least according to Bungie, or whoever it is piloting the franchise today. Michael Abbott, the notorious author of The Brainy Gamer blog wrote up his own inspection of Halo: ODST just a week after its release. In the article, he states that the game itself fails to deliver on the “possibilities inherent in its design.” According to Michael, the big problem with the game is that at its core it’s just another action movie that’s been distilled into a video game. This statement followed a lead-up consisting of his aspirations for a game that certainly seemed to include a promise of meaningful interaction between characters, or as he says, “a Halo game as devoted to its characters and story as to its brilliant bursts of supercharged combat.”
First and foremost, I’d argue that the reasoning behind so little change to the classic Halo formula had to be the current state of world economy. True, entertainment isn’t tanking nearly as much as other areas, but that doesn’t mean that companies want to throw money away either. There’s a reason Sigourney Weaver keeps coming back, sometimes even from the dead, for the Alien movies. It’s the same reason that the first Terminator lacking Schwarzenegger received nearly universal negative reviews. Can you imagine pitching a game where you not only remove the main character from the rest of the series, but you also attempt to fundamentally change the nature of interaction between player and characters? I can, and to me it sounds an awful lot like a game that will go unfunded.
It’s not just the economy, though. The people who want these games to make money know what Halo is known for and what it has done best in the past: multiplayer. It’s no big surprise that they would include the ability to play Halo 3 multiplayer with every single copy of Halo: ODST. Maybe the slight defection from the normal formula was cause for alarm and thus they added it. To me, it seems more like a way to have everything anyone could want out of Halo. Players don’t keep playing it for the campaign, at least in no large part. It’s the matchmaking, and it always has been the matchmaking.
This type of relationship with a game’s multiplayer isn’t unheard of by any means. The most recent incarnation of the SOCOM franchise doesn’t even support a campaign mode. But when you attempt to craft a meaningful plot with so many incredible possibilities by design, you owe it to yourself and the audience to at least do it right. One commenter on The Brainy Gamer noted that maybe we’re just “intellectualizing” something that doesn’t merit the effort. I beg to differ. Just because it isn’t more, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be or that it shouldn’t.
As consumers, we don’t have to be satisfied with more of the same. A plot-heavy, character-driven Halo game isn’t an impossibility and certainly has the chance to do well. The problem isn’t with the idea, it’s with the transition between idea and reality. In reality, that would require changing the formula yet again. Possibly too much. I would like to see more meaningful plots added to games, but not to the detriment of their substance and certainly not in a manner that would alienate the fan base. Halo with an engaging plot could either be like Half-Life 2, a wonderful experience to go down in the annals of history, or more like Rise of the Argonauts, a conflicted game that clashes between the multiple niches that it’s trying to fill and ultimately fails at all of them.