[The post is an edited version of a chapter that first appeared in the book Halo and Philosophy. It studies how game design supports learning in Halo : Combat Evolved.]
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not that good. I don’t have incredible reflexes. I’m not particularly, or naturally, good at aiming or at dodging bullets. I play better than many people on Earth, sure, especially those who never or rarely play videogames. But among gamers, I am certainly not a star. Now, before you start thinking “Then what the hell are you doing writing a chapter in a book on a videogame?” just read on.
Despite my shortcomings, I finished Halo in Legendary Mode all by myself, without looking for help or tricks or cheats. And I achieved it because I was persistent and because I am a game designer. More precisely, I was studying game design at SupInfoGame when I first encountered Halo: Combat Evolved (without precision, Halo will refer to this first episode for the rest of the chapter). I did not play and replay it as homework but only because I enjoyed it. And yes, playing videogames is considered homework in a videogame school. Thanks to this game, I have learned many things about game design. I would like to share this experience with you.
I was once wrong about Halo…
The first time I played Halo, it was on a computer in October 2003. The Xbox version had been released for more than a year and a half. It was far more colorful than many FPSs (First Person Shooters). But the gameplay itself was just average. From the very beginning, I had been wondering what people found so amazing about Halo. So I borrowed an Xbox and the game from my school, for the holidays (it’s the kind of thing you can do in a game design school). I finished the game one first time, in Rookie Mode. It was good, but already far better on console than on computer.
The thing is, I have not been astonished or even surprised by the game. The once incredible graphics looked bad a year and a half later. The novelty of vehicles did not touch me because I had played Battlefield 1942 a lot. The small number of weapons was ridiculous compared to the real gun fetishist’s FPS (a.k.a. Perfect Dark). The game was entertaining; I had no major issues with it. At the time, I didn’t realize the implications.
At the school I was attending, I was taking a game design and project management course. Half of my homework was about game design. I was taught to see a videogame’s defaults and qualities. And I did not find any of the first in Halo. Not being able to find any flaw should have warned me but it did not. When I bought my own Xbox, I did not buy Halo. I waited until its release in “Classics” collection (which, naturally, cost half the price of the original). Then, I finished the game in Veteran Mode. It did not change my opinion much, but it was desperately enjoyable to play. So I tried to beat it in Heroic Mode. This was when I really started to see how great Halo is.
The real Halo begins in Heroic Mode
Sincerely, I did not realize it while playing in Heroic Mode. It only became obvious, even unavoidable, on Legendary Mode. Roughly speaking, I saw a pattern. In order to finish Rookie Mode, I had to master two things: shooting the right enemy and moving at the same time. In Veteran Mode, I needed grenade throwing mastery. The Heroic Mode required weapon mastery—choosing my two weapons wisely and switching cleverly between them while fighting. Finally, in Legendary, I had to add the melee attack.
It worked this way for me (it certainly was not the same for you, if you made it all the way to the Legendary Mode). Dajez notes the difference between the basic and the expert use of a videogame character’s action repertoire. Progressing in Halo cannot be considered linear (although the plotline might be considered as such). There is not an overall “FPS skill” that you have to improve. There are many different skills. Your level in each skill is independent from the others. A player may aim perfectly, like an e-sport team member, while not having the ability to expertly throw a grenade in order to maximize the amount of Grunts that get blown to hell.
The key, for me, was that I had mastered all these features after the first level of the Rookie Mode. It took me four times the length of the game to master and use them all. Let’s stick to Dajez’s metaphor. Consider each new skill as a new word. Your vocabulary gathers all the words you know. Your lexicon contains the words that you use in your everyday life, in other words, the ones that you master. For example, when the tutorial teaches you how to throw a grenade, you learn a new word/skill that widens your vocabulary. This word/skill will go to your lexicon, when you are able to throw a grenade wisely in combat. To progress, I did not improve the skills I already had. I acquired new ones and used all of them together. The order I followed came naturally. It was not imposed on me by the game. It was certainly possible to change it.
This means that every player may create his or her own way to reach the end of the game. The main features are given at the beginning of the game. The player decides which to master and when to do so. It coheres with James Paul Gee’s “Multiple Route Principle.” This principle “allows [players] to make choices, rely on their own strengths and styles of learning and problem solving” .
At the same time, it goes against another principle. According to Gee’s “Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle” (What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), good videogames should make the right information available at the right moment. In Halo, it can only be applied to tutorials and objectives. It works in Rookie Mode. Against further difficulty levels, you’re on your own. The game won’t tell you the way to success; you must find the way by yourself. Naturally, it is possible to cheat or to ask for help. But I, like many gamers, consider this route to be admitting defeat.
Learning and Unlearning
Let’s move beyond learning in a game and consider more specific mechanics, particularly concerning weapons. There were many points during my Halo tenure when I found myself realizing that I was wrong about something, and how dumb I had been previously. As my skills changed, my comprehension of the game changed.
My Dear Needler
The simplest example was the Needler. Before Heroic Mode, I thought it was the worst weapon of the game. Seriously, it is the only Covenant weapon that has to be reloaded. It launches shards that do not explode on impact. If you send enough on an enemy there is a big explosion, but only after a few seconds. This explosion is lethal, but because of the delay, you may waste ammunition and time shooting an already dead Elite. If you don’t shoot enough shards, you will only injure and not kill the target.
I changed my mind of Heroic Mode as my understanding got sharper. The Needler is not a usually good weapon. Its qualities are circumstantial. Most of the time, it is less effective than other weapons. But against the right situation and with the right technique, it may just be awesome. The higher the game difficulty is, the more attention you must pay to this kind of detail.
Until Veteran Mode, Covenants’s shields are not a real problem. They are annoying; but it is not necessary to deal specifically with them. In Heroic and Legendary Mode, you have to care about them, especially those of the Elites. You cannot allow yourself to waste ammunition and time in combat any more. The fact that Covenant weapons tend to be more effective against those shields eventually becomes significant. Thus, you tend to use them more and more, because their advantages become obvious and relevant.
But let’s return to the Needler. It has many features that make it great against Elites. First, no matter the difficulty, the explosion is fatal. Other weapons generally become less and less effective, especially human ones as the difficulty increases. Secondly, with experience, I realized that the shards were slightly homing to the target. It allowed me to focus a little less on aiming and a little more on dodging and analysing the situation, so that I could stay alive. Thirdly, the delay between the last shard necessary for explosion and the explosion itself may be counter-balanced.
When you are shooting at an enemy, you generally stop when the enemy is dead. The best is to stop right after the “killing” bullet is shot rather than when the enemy actually falls. While you are firing, you are exposed. It means that you can also be shot. Most bullets are too fast, it is impossible to profit by this delay. With the Needler, you have a few seconds between the shot of the “killing” shard and the explosion.
When you think that you have fired enough, you can hide and wait safely for the sound of the explosion. Thanks to the Needler’s fire-rate and homing shards, you can reduce significantly the time during which you are exposed. More importantly, this weapon tells you without any doubt whether or not your enemy is dead. You can also fire shards in order to detect enemies. If the trajectory is curved, there is an enemy around. The Needler may provide you with something often neglected and yet vital in combat: information.
I think this kind of evolution is somehow typical in FPSs, at least in good ones. But it is often neglected by researchers. Linderoth, Lindström and Alexandersson (“Learning With Computer Games.” In Toys, Games, and Media, 157-176. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc, 2004) made two girls play Perfect Dark in deathmatch mode. The girls found the Reaper good compared to other weapons. When I read this, my first thought—well the polite version of my first thought—was “What the hell? The Reaper is the worst weapon of the game!” It was a gamer’s reaction. In Perfect Dark, the Reaper is the Skeddar version of the minigun. It is heavy and absolutely not accurate. When you press the trigger, it takes a few seconds to warm up before firing. I would rather use the basic pistol than this useless fan-like weapon.
After this, I checked on the Internet to see whether my view was shared among players. And yes, according to many people, the Reaper is definitely one of the worst weapons in Perfect Dark. Anyway, I decided to consider that these girls had a good reason to appreciate it. I asked myself what its characteristics were and in which situation they could make it a better weapon.
The Reaper has a high dispersion rate, so it is difficult to aim precisely at someone. When it fires, its rotating blades turn it a melee weapon at the same time. If you do know how to aim, the Reaper reduces your chances to touch your opponent. But if you do not know to aim correctly, the Reaper actually increases your chances to touch with bullets or blades.
The efficiency of a weapon does not only rely on the weapon itself. The skills of the user and the situation can change everything. A beginner should use a Shotgun rather than a Railgun, on the contrary an expert would be far more dangerous with the second than with the first.
While I was progressing, my perception of the Needler changed. I could tell the same kind of story about each common weapon of Halo. Some revealed their real value in time, while some lost their interest to me. This evolution is about understanding the true power of a weapon and the best way to use (or not use) it. The very best way is generally learned where you need it, in Heroic or Legendary Mode. You could have used it in Rookie Mode. It would have worked as well, even if it was not necessary in order to win.
My Dear Grenades
There is a particular weapon whose use changes according to the difficulty: grenades. At the beginning, I just wanted to write about Plasma Grenades. I did not use Fragmentation ones much. I found their trajectory too random and they could not stick to an enemy. I certainly could have learned to use them properly but I did not. So I finished the Legendary Mode without using them. I thought I could not say much about them, but I was wrong—it will often happen in this chapter.
The fact that I could go through the game all the way without Fragmentation Grenades is definitely relevant. It means that it is not necessary to master every part of gameplay in order to beat the highest difficulty level. It sends us back to Gee’s “Multiple Route Principle.” In order to progress, the player can choose what to improve and what to ignore. So I created may own way of playing Halo, which is one among many. In my way, I almost only used Plasma Grenades.
In Veteran Mode, I used them quite normally. You throw them to a group of enemies and they explode, killing or at least hurting them. As mentioned above, I did not need them in Rookie Mode, so I did not use them. Sadly or happily, things changed in Heroic Mode. It became almost impossible to get several enemies with one grenade. They would dodge or jump away. The only way to be sure to kill one was to make the grenade stick. Because of this, I suddenly found them far less effective. I considered Plasma Grenades useless in Heroic Mode. But I did judge a bit too fast. Yes, it became very hard to kill with a grenade, but no, they were not useless. After a while I realized that when an Elite dodged the explosion, its trajectory was rather unsurprising and moreover it was absolutely not shooting at me.
Throwing a grenade to a group changes a potentially chaotic system into a predictable one—at least for a few seconds. A well placed grenade may help you shoot your enemies. Sure, Plasma Grenades are less effective in Heroic or Legendary Mode. But they may be effective if you really know how to use them.
Halo as a game design lesson
Playing Halo taught me many things about the game itself. But I also learned about game design. Halo is the game that really made me understand what “gameplay depth” means. Depth in gameplay is often related to complexity or variety. I do not understand it that way.
I consider that depth is the ability of a game to allow a progression based on the mastery of mechanisms that were not told but discovered by practice. Depth is about acquired skills based on self-discovery of hidden knowledge. Naturally, you can search the Internet for tips, but you will miss the most important part of the game.
This definition may be applied to the Needler. However, in the next section I want to address two weapons I have not yet said anything about: the Plasma Rifle and the Plasma Gun.
My Only Two Weapons
At first sight, it seems awkward. Why on earth should I be limited to two weapons? It is especially true when you have played, and loved, Perfect Dark and its plethora of weapons. It is often said that limited weapons forces the player to choose wisely which weapons to pick up. It is certainly true, but is that it?
Consider the following. You are just about to enter the Truth and Reconciliation. You have to choose among many available weapons. A casual gamer would choose his or her two favorites, but a hardcore gamer would want the weapons best suited to dealing with the level in question. There are many possibilities. You know that one is the best, but you don’t know which one. If you were playing Perfect Dark, the best decision would be evident: take every weapon you find. In Halo, you have to evaluate each combination. Actually, the two-weapons limitation does not reduce choices, it increases the number of possible choices as the best one is not obvious. I argue that it makes the player “stop, think and (most importantly) care” (Kerezman, Alexander. “The Player and The Game,” 2010) about his or her weapons. And making people think and care about a videogame is absolutely not a bad thing.
According to Salen and Zimmerman (Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) , a key element of good game design is “meaningful play.” This expression means that the actions of the player are taken into account by the videogame and that the player can see the outcomes of his or her actions. I would like to replace “actions” by “progression” and consider meaningful progression.
Meaningful progression means that the progression of the player is taken into account by the videogame and that the player can see the outcomes of his or her progression.
Inside the Truth and Reconciliation, you have to fight two Hunters. They are tough enemies unless you have the right weapon and the right technique. Three different weapons may kill them in one shot: the Pistol, the Sniper Rifle, and the Shotgun (at very close range and it may take two shots). Only the Sniper Rifle is available in this level. In order to kill the two Hunters easily, you should keep it. But, in order to do so, you have to know that you will face them onboard as well as the right way to kill them. Let us imagine two different players; Player A is doing the level for the first time, while Player B already knows that there are Hunters inside. They both know how to kill Hunters easily.
If it was possible to carry every weapon without counterpart, players A and B would both take them all. They would both have the right weapon to face the Hunters. There would be no differences between the results of their play. Player B’s additional knowledge would be meaningless. As they could only take two weapons, Player A may have made a wrong choice. Then, there would be a difference in the result. Player B would have the advantage.
In the first case, the game would have given meaning to their progression because they were both able to kill the Hunters easily. In the second case, the game gave more meaning to the progression of Player B. As far as I am concerned, better skills or knowledge, in the way one plays, should always lead to better results.
I could probably stop here, but I am not done yet with the limitation. Judging from the comparison I made between Halo and Perfect Dark, one could think that the first is better than the second. Fortunately, it is not so simple. As I mentioned before, Perfect Dark is a gun fetishist FPS. Its fun lies in firepower, playing it is about having too many far too powerful weapons. On the other hand, Halo: Combat Evolved’s fun lies in combat. It is about choosing the right two weapons and getting the most out of them by choosing the right tactic according to the situation.
In Perfect Dark, changing weapons is not a common fighting action. It takes too long to do in combat, as you generally have many of them. In Halo, switching between your weapons only requires the press of a button. As you only have two, you can reach the other one very fast. If you make a mistake or change your mind, just press the button once more. Switching between weapons is a fighting action in Halo. These two games are very good ones, they are both considered FPSs, but they are definitely not alike.
My Dearest Plasma Rifle and Plasma Gun
I loved the Plasma Rifle from day one. I found it far more useful than the Plasma Gun. Once more, I was wrong, but that’s not the point right now. The Plasma Rifle made me understand how to use switching to increase my firepower. More precisely, it taught me how to fire longer without stopping. In order to do so, I combined the Plasma Rifle with the Assault Rifle.
First you start with the Plasma Rifle. When it overheats; you switch to the Assault Rifle. Once your magazine is empty, you switch back the Plasma Rifle which has cooled down. And you can fire again. I used this combination as an example of depth during the final presentation of my first year at SupInfoGame.
Now, I know it was a mistake. Someone could have asked “Hey, Sébastien, why don’t you take a Plasma Gun instead of the Assault Rifle? You could fire endlessly.” No one did, but my answer would certainly have been “Well, perhaps because I am stupid.” Combining the two Plasma weapons was actually obvious, even desperately obvious. Yet, at this moment I had not thought about it. The two rifles combination was enough at the beginning of Heroic Mode. It did not need more firepower, so I did not look for it. But I had to, later. I also had to understand the subtleties of these two Plasma weapons.
The Plasma Gun may seem simple and it is. You press and release the trigger, it shoots. You press and hold it, the gun charges. You release, a big Plasma ball is fired and the gun overheats. But this Plasma ball is not only more powerful, like the Needler’s shards, it is also slightly homing. And it can annihilate an Elite’s shield. The charged Plasma Gun is perfect to start a skirmish by destroying the leader’s shield.
The Plasma Rifle is harder to master. At first sight, you may think that pressing to fire is all that you have to do. To be precise, this weapon has two fire rates: a fast one (compared to the Plasma Gun) and a faster one. The second rate is reached after holding the trigger for a few seconds. It is more powerful and less accurate but it also heats up much more.
As far as I know, the most efficient way to use the Plasma Rifle is to keep shooting at the first fire rate. To do so, you need to press and release the trigger at the right rhythm. It allows you to fire longer with a fast and accurate weapon. I came to know, and like, so much about it that the Plasma Rifle is one of the reasons why I stopped playing Halo 2. There are two Plasma Rifles in Halo 2: the Elite blue one and the Brute red one. The first was supposed to be my dearest Plasma Rifle, but it was not.
First, it did not look exactly the same, but it was almost meaningless to me. Secondly, its sounds were different, but I could have worked it. The really annoying thing was that its rhythm had changed; its feeling was completely different. Not mastering new weapons is quite normal, I could bear it. But I could not suffer being once again a beginner with the Plasma Rifle. This change made all things I had learned about this weapon, and all the time I spent to learn them, meaningless. I know it may sound extreme but it felt like a betrayal.
My Two Unforgettable Moments
After gameplay depth, let’s consider an other critical aspect of the game: emergence. Halo, in its very structure, has the ability to create unpredictable and yet logical experiences. It became apparent after two remarkable episodes. The first moment happened while I was sneaking around, looking for the right place to start my next attack on a Covenant unit. Just after rounding a corner, I came face to face with an Elite. Actually, I was facing its back. I used the Melee Attack for a stealth kill. Then I laughed and I certainly got killed right after because I was laughing. The difficulty was high (Heroic or Legendary), a surprise meeting with an Elite should have resulted in a tough situation.
I knew I had just lived a rare and unpredictable moment, so rare it only happened once. I knew that because of my many hours playing Halo. You almost never get a free stealth kill on an Elite. I mean a “real” free kill, not one decided by the game designer. It may happen though, because the game is scripted but not completely. Its small parts of randomness allow these kinds of moments to occur.
My second unforgettable experience took place in Legendary Mode. I was facing a Jackal in an open space, with nowhere to hide. It was at about ten meters. I saw a green light on its gun and made one step to the right, one to the left, and one more to the right. These steps made me dodge three bursts of three Plasma bullets. After the last one, I ran to the Jackal and threw it off balance with a Melee Attack. Then I could shoot its feet and make it fall before finishing it.
I did not plan to act like this, it just came naturally. It was not a matter of reflex but only knowledge and anticipation. I felt like a super hero dodging bullets by reading his enemies’ mind. At that very moment, I became aware that I knew almost perfectly the Jackal’s fire pattern. This knowledge was not enough to avoid all the bullets, but it was all that was necessary .
Once again, it happened because the game allowed it. The Jackal’s pattern was both complex and predictable. Dodging it was very difficult, yet doable. It gave meaning to a higher progression. Killing a Jackal in Legendary Mode without grenade or charged fire is not easy. Doing so without being touched requires even more skill. It could have been impossible. Believe me, an unavoidable pattern is easy to create, it is also true for one that must be easy to avoid. A “hard but not impossible to avoid pattern” requires a lot of work and testing.
Uncertainty, the Dark Side of Learning
Learning in a videogame is uncertain. It is uncertain because you are not forced to play a specific game. If I did not play Halo, I would not have written what you are reading at the moment. It is uncertain because the game allows you to not understand. Tutorials set aside, Halo never forces you to understand one particular thing. Information is available but you have to decide to look for it. So you may as well miss it. There is nobody behind you telling how you should play—well, there could be someone, but in my case there was not. You can finish the game in Rookie Mode while ignoring most of what we have discussed here. I finished it in Legendary Mode and I know I did not master everything.
You only have to learn when you are facing difficult situations and when you want desperately to overcome them. But there are so many different skills that it is impossible to predict which one you will acquire or improve in order to do so. The game designer can only hope that the player will not give up the game. For example, it is not possible to foresee what a player will have learnt after finishing the game once. This is why learning in videogames, and particularly in Halo, is unpredictable and deeply uncertain.
But instead of fighting this uncertainty, like a teacher would, Halo embraced it. Each play is different and some playthroughs are more significant than others. Each skill or mechanism may be understood roughly or deeply according to the needs of the player. He or she may choose which new skill to acquire and which to leave apart.
Giving meaning to a deep understanding or knowledge rewards the attention paid to the game and makes the player aware of his or her own progression. Even if the game gives every reason to work in order to progress, the decision is always up to the player. In my opinion, this is the main difference between learning in videogame and learning in school.