Do you remember the year 1997? This was back when Mike Tyson took a bite, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated chess champ Garry Kasparov, and Microsoft becomes the worlds most valuable company! All in all, a pretty unremarkable year when compared what a team of 15 were working on in Chicago. They had a top-secret strategy game with a clearance code the pentagon would be jealous of that would come to shape gaming not only thought storytelling, game play and ai but more importantly through mystery of its universe and the importance of you as the hero. Not only was this game ambitious as it featured enemies that knew how to fight back but also showcased realistic physics simulation, 3-dimensional environments and most importantly it was unveiled at Macworld. This gave it the pedigree as the game that will launch the Mac as a serious gaming platform. This revolution of a game was code named: Monkey Nuts!
Then, just a moment later, Jason Jones, who was the lead for the game, realized he couldn’t even tell his mother what the game was called. As the game cycled through some naming possibilities it eventually hit on a name that would later become synonymous with an entire platform ecosystem and grow to be a top grossing media product for an entire industry. This game was of course called “Blam!”. No wait, it was Halo. Though to be fair, it didn’t exactly set the Mac world on fire as it never made it that far. Instead, Microsoft decided that with Sega out of the console market there was a hole that needed to be filled, bought up the studio and Blam! Halo became the reason to own an Xbox.
Looking back 20 years now, and Halo still is able to stand with the best games on the market. Sure, the graphics have aged but slap on a new coat of paint and this game is still a blast to play through even though by now you can walk through each level on legendary blindfolded with both hands behind your back while listening to the soundtrack of watching a plant grow. So, a question rises, what made Halo Combat Evolved so mesmerizing? But more importantly, how is it that no other Halo game since, has been able to recapture the magic of the original even through games in general and Halo games specifically are getting better. That’s an objective statement by the way, not just a fanboy opinion.
The first thing you might think is that Halo’s success can be partly attributed to the late 90’s and early 2000’s being a pretty slow time for games as video games themselves have not evolved in complexity so Halo had a leg up and if you do think that than you are so very, very wrong. Just to a list a few amazing games that came out the same year; Grand Theft Auto 3, Max Payne, Silent Hill 2, and Metal Gear Solid 2 and many more. Searching to justify your first misguided attempt at quantifying Halo’s success you may specialize to category and say, “Well, first person shooters, surly they were lacking even if other genres were great.” Here too, you would be wrong but this time with an asterisk. While shooters were in full swing around the release of Halo with games like Counter Strike, Operation Flashpoint, Ghost Recon, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and of course Half-life, they all had one major weakens in common. All these shooters were released on PC (or PC first).
Before you write me a private message about how I forgot to mention your favorite shooter from 20 years ago, let me assure you that I did not forget about Perfect Dark. Yes, that game was great. Have you played it recently? Try.
To say that Halo success was merely a biproduct of the an under saturated market would be a titanic oversight on my part, as I know first hand how this game shaped an industry. Thus, as much or as little as can be attributed to market saturation, the game had so much more going right. We shouldn’t forget that gamers picked up an Xbox for halo, not the other way around.
Any game can be built up from the sum of its parts, there is gameplay, graphics, sound, and story. For a game to become a masterpiece it needs to excel at each one of these and push it self-past its piers and to bring something extra, a sense of discovery. That sense of discovery is the reason so many films and games have the original in the franchised pined by their fans as the magnus opus even though later iterations may be better in technical terms.
What Halo Combat Evolved did in 2001 as it found its way into millions of homes, wasn’t just dazzle with beautiful vistas, seamless indoor / outdoor transitions, or best in class ai. What it did was it showed the world something new. For many gamers this was the first time they had played world with so few boundaries and one rich in its story moments.
Halo opens up with a pretty typical FPS level design as you move from corridor to corridor sweeping each room and shooting aliens. Even there you can’t help but notice the brilliance in their movement, these aren’t just bag of bullet sponge. They are smart and they are tough so you toss a grenade, only to be dodged by the bigger guys who you would later know to respect by the name, Elite. As you make it through the tight hallways of your spaceship after chatting up El Capitan and flirting with Cortana, you jump in a life capsule, speed away from the burning wreckage eventually land on a new world filled with multiple objectives, vehicles, various enemies, and the sense of exploration takes over.
This is where the strength of the original comes into play and why a sequel usually cannot match its older brother. It’s that newness of the world that draws you in and keeps you hooked with each act. As the game starts with a simple search and rescue operation it keeps you on the hook with a constant progression on new story and environmental exploration. This isn’t a case of just do a mission than another mission and another one because some talking head told you so. What you are doing through each level grants you access to learn more about your enemy, your place in the world, and why its important.
If learning about the mystery of the universe is what pulls you into each cutscene than equally the importance of your character should push you to action. It would have been easier to divulge most of the important story elements in the first half and have the set up of the second half of the game just be the action repeat trigger based on the importance of your character. However, Halo’s masterful story telling pushes the mystery element even further as the start of the second half unveils an entirely new enemy threat with a background and agenda all their own.
This magical formula can be looked at as a dripping faucet and the game length as an empty cup. With each drip a the game tells the player a little more about the world pulling them in for the next act and with each act the player is reinforced with the sense that they are the only one that can help, pushing them to action. Thought every Halo game since the original reinforced the feeling of needed action, none came to the level of the original by pulling the players in with wonder.
This is because unlike any other media form, games do not tell stories through story alone. Halo 5 wanted to recapture the mystery of the first by introducing a new playable character, freshening up the controls and bringing in new cast. They repeated the mistakes of Halo 2 where there was a step in the right direction but not enough. Halo 3 did its best by ushering in new game modes, enemy types, vehicles and more but still the formula of Halo felt as it did as the start and it ultimately failed to capitalize on mystery the game needed to achieve the legendary status of the first. In fact, every Halo game since the original brought with them improvements and each and every one was fantastic but they didn’t recapture the excitement of discovery like the first and it is because the best games let a player mold that story through gameplay. If you were to ask someone to summarize Halo, they may say something along the lines of, “It’s a game where a space marine fights a bunch of aliens and you can drive a bunch of vehicles, and there is Cortana.”
What if you ask that same person to tall you about a specific part of a level they played? The story would change to a intimate moment that player had with a level. Because at the time, this was a unique gameplay loop. By that I mean, no one had played Halo before. The story of each battle with the covenant was unique as well. The story in this case was written by the player interacting with the mechanics of the game. These mechanics were previously unseen and therefor the story was new and mysterious.
With each iteration the gameplay evolves slightly and so one can argue that that gameplay-story evolves slightly with it. The challenge is finding a balance of freshness and familiarity. How refreshing should a franchise like Halo feel after so many versions? Luckily for the two or three of you that read this article, part 2 will outline how to keep the halo formula but expand it to have a player feel that sense of discovery once again and more importantly usher in an era of Halo that is a akin to a world even more than it is to a game launch.