19 January 2010

Halo 3 - Xbox 360

On the week of The Halo 3 launch my mother called and asked me the following question:
“When will you play Halo 3, Hon?”
You know you’ve crossed into a new entertainment phenomenon if a 72-year-old woman from East Baltimore knows when a video game is hitting the shelves. She even knew that some people were lining up at midnight to buy the game the moment it was released.
I’ve spent the past decade heralding the coming onslaught of the video game medium. The industry eclipsed Hollywood in sales a long time ago. No one really believed me when I used to tell them that more money is spent annually on games than movies. No one believed me when I’d defend my hobby by saying your average game player is around 30 years old. And no one even wanted to talk with me about gaming’s eventual crossover from “Asteroids” to art form.
Now that’s all anyone is talking about. These topics are on the lips of TV talking heads, politicians and mothers in East Baltimore.
Now they’re starting to believe.
As a game, Halo 3 managed to exceed the hype juggernaut. It was as great as you wanted it to be. The added features to multiplayer and campaign mode were all excellent. You played as the Master Chief from beginning to end – no offense to the Arbiter of Halo 2, but that was a gimmick I never liked much. The story – twisted and confounding as ever - was tied up. And the graphics were astounding. A lot of people hate on the Halo graphics and I've never understood it. From Master Chief's dramatic crash landing that opens the game through the varied levels and firefights that follow, I found Halo 3 to be a refreshingly bright landscape of impressive graphics (though I agree the faces often look terrible.) Perhaps the original Halo was so groundbreaking in the graphics department that people were expecting photo-realism and were disappointed when all they got were stellar visuals.
In Halo 3 you finish the fight you started in the first game. That reference is obvious. I was more intrigued by the “Believe” tagline. I think it’s a bold way of saying: “Yes. There’s a lot of hype surrounding this game and things rarely, if ever, live up to their hype. This will. Believe it.”
And it did.
Even before the game was released to the masses, critics from gaming magazines and elsewhere in the media hailed it as a triumph. It was not the best game of all time but it was unanimously regarded as an excellent game and a fitting end to the Halo trilogy.
But is it art?
A lot of ink has been (and will be) spilled on the topic of video games as art. I will humbly submit that the question is so subjective as to be nearly irrelevant. The better questions are: Is it fun? Is it well done? Does it spark the imagination? Does it stay with you?
Do you want more?
Here’s my take. If you believe that storytelling is art than it stands to reason that Halo 3 is art. When I first popped it into my XBOX 360 and started finishing the fight, I was certainly impressed by the graphics and the gameplay. The game looks fantastic and is as much fun to play as any game out there. But what kept me in front of the television, what drove me to charge through the game’s many battlefields and challenges without looking back, what sent me through the game as fast as I could with guns blazing is that I wanted to see what happened in the end.
I was happy to finish the fight (because the game is all about fighting) but after getting hooked on the first Halo game seven years ago I was ready to find out what happens at the end of this story. What happens to the many characters who, just like in the movies or in a book, have become familiar and important to me? Who wins the war? What happens to the most important character — me? For this is what the truly great games do for us. Master Chief isn’t just a cyborg space marine — he’s you while you’re playing the game. He is an empty husk in which we place ourselves as we’re running through mission after mission and saving the lives of those characters around us who we’ve grown to love.
Any good movie or book keeps you interested long enough to see what happens in the end. Halo 3 isn’t the first video game to do this, but it does it well.
The video game medium may only be scratching the surface of compelling storytelling, but it’s there.
And it’s art.
Victor Paul Alvarez

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