Versus Mode – Debating Halo

by Matt Helgeson on May 26, 2014 at 01:00 PM

Versus Mode is a special feature that we're doing today, and it focuses on two editors debating the merits of a particular game or series. This entry features senior features editor Matt Helgeson debating the Halo series with senior previews editor Matt Miller. 

Helgeson: To start, we'll set the table: Miller is a huge Halo fan, perhaps the biggest Halo fan I know. Miller, can you confirm for our readers that you've actually read expanded universe fiction Halo paperback novels before?

Miller: Can I plead the fifth?

Helgeson: I'm establishing your credentials!

Miller: Fair enough. Yep, I'm that guy. In fact, not only have I read a bunch of Halo novels, but I've also dug into some of the comics, the mini-episodes/live-action film, and the anime film.

Helgeson: That's impressive, or scary.

Miller: Yeah, but it actually plays into part of the whole reason I like Halo -- I think they do a really excellent job of tying the different elements of their fiction together into a larger universe. Some gamers out there are confused when people like me make claims that Halo actually has a lot of cool story elements, because some of the most exciting elements of that story come out in the stuff outside of the games.

Helgeson: Well, I guess I might point to that as a flaw in itself -- assuming that even five percent of your audience is going to read that stuff in a series as mainstream as Halo seems a bit odd to me, especially if, as you say, there's actually really cool and vital stuff in the spinoff novels, etc. Though I do admire the fact that they don't -- as many game series do – treat that stuff as throwaway.

Miller: Exactly. I hate reading expanded universe stuff from a game that doesn't offer any real new insight into the world or its major characters. The games, by their nature as first-person shooters, are not going to lend themselves to complex character development or long backstories about where the aliens came from, or why Master Chief is in a giant suit of armor. But the other elements of the fiction allow enthusiasts to get those answers, while more casual fans are free to enjoy an action-focused shooter from beginning to end.

Helgeson: Well, for one, I think a series I know we both admire, BioShock, has proven that being an FPS does not preclude having characters with depth or really amazing and inventive stories. And – again – I have no beef with doing good work in expanded fiction, but it does beg the question: "If the stuff was so good, why didn't you put in in the actual games?"

I guess, from my perspective, a phrase you just used sort of gets at why Halo is a game that I enjoy but have never really loved: "Master Chief is in a giant suit of armor. " He's the core of the game, and he's always felt like a cipher to me in a way. There's a certain hollowness to Halo to me.

Miller: Yeah, I think that's a totally fair point. I think that, over the life of the series, the developers involved (including Bungie, 343 Industries, and Ensemble) have often done a poor job taking the richness of the fiction and finding ways to express that in the midst of an action campaign. As a big fan, I'm often sometimes disappointed that we don't get a little more of that meaty sci-fi storytelling as part of the experience. I will say, I think that Halo 4 moved things in a good direction in that regard.

Helgeson: I guess part of me feels like Master Chief is almost the accidental gaming icon. I think Xbox fans needed some character who was a symbol to rally around, and obviously Halo was the best of the early Xbox games and so by default he kind of became the "hero" for them, but he's never really felt like someone who people really related to. Then again, I guess it's not like there was anyone to replace him – I mean, I have my problems with Halo's storytelling, but it's not aggressively bad like the dialogue or characters in Gears of War, which was the game that could have supplanted it on Xbox 360.

Miller: You're hitting on another point that I think is significant about my own personal enthusiasm for Halo, and an aspect of the fandom that I share with a lot of people. When Halo released in 2001, I was a poor college student without the money for a fancy gaming rig – which was, at the time, the only real way to engage with FPS on any regular basis. Not only was Halo a standout title for Xbox fans to rally around at that time, but it was also a title for the wider console crowd to get excited about. Here was a brand-new fictional universe filled with interesting science fiction ideas (like the Halo structure itself), tight and exciting shooting, and story intermixed with the action, which was not the standard at the time, even on PC. Modern FPS developers owe a lot to that first Halo game, from control scheme to the structure of fights. I think part of my excitement about the series remains that it was so amazing to me the first time I played it, and that sense of enthusiasm remains even over a decade later.

Helgeson: At this point, I should give a shout-out to our old colleague Adam Biessener and my PC snobs out there by restating their old complaint – that Halo got a lot of credit just because it was on console and was just managing to do what PC FPSs had been doing for awhile! Not that I totally agree, but I don't think it's a totally baseless comment, either.

Miller: Even if that were true, I'd argue that making that step over to console was no small feat. People don't always think about the way that a console shooter works on the controller, but Halo's controls were a major innovation in their own right. Plus, I think that few shooters on PC in 2001 succeeded at all the things that Halo did right, all in one game -- fun multiplayer, richly imagined and illustrated game world, compelling enemies, engaging fiction, and surprising, distinct weapons.

Helgeson: Okay, I don't think this is as adversarial as it's supposed to be. HALO SUCKS! The Needler blows! Remember all those repeated environments??

Miller: Hmm. I'm not sure if I speak internet that well. Let me give this a try. No, you suck! I don't think I'm very good at this.

However, I will agree with you about the repeated environments. Even when the game came out, that really bugged me. So, here's a loaded question -- what do you think of Halo multiplayer?

Helgeson: I've always enjoyed it. Though to be honest I'm not sure if I really play at a high enough level to totally judge it in terms of being a competitive game. I will say that I, like a lot of people, tended to gravitate towards Call of Duty after awhile just because it was faster paced and the perk system was so well done later on. I've actually been speaking with some pro gamers for a piece in an upcoming issue and a lot of the Halo pros feel like Reach ruined it. I definitely acknowledge its place in console multiplayer, but in some ways it feels like its time has passed away, and has been overtaken by either Call of Duty for more casuals and Battlefield for people who want something more complex.

Miller: I feel for the Halo multiplayer designers, and really any game developer working on competitive stuff these days, because it feels like a no-win scenario. It's nearly impossible to create a game system that is going to cater well to new players, longtime fans, and the professional gaming scene. I'm sure some of the same things that pro players might not like about Halo 4 are some of the things I enjoy about it.

So, another question -- what would a Halo game have to do to make you excited about it at this point? Or has that ship sailed?

Helgeson: Honestly, I think they have a good opportunity now. I'd really like to see them make a clean break with the past – understanding that this will be a sci-fi shooter in the Halo universe. But, I think that they need to take some kind of risk with the series, in multiplayer, storytelling, and gameplay. Now, I guess Destiny, which is Bungie probably continuing on where they wanted to take Halo, might scratch that itch – but the problem with that is so far it feels even more generic as a sci-fi universe than Halo to me. I do expect 343 to try something along those lines. I think now would also be a great time to really take some chances with the storytelling, and maybe try to strike a different tone or come at the universe from a different perspective. As a longtime fan, what's your feeling?

Miller: On the Halo front, I actually agree. As much as I like the existing games, I feel like it's a franchise that is scared to deviate too far from its established tenets for fear of angering a very vocal fan base. The problem is, that fan base is only going to dwindle if there aren't attempts to try fresh ideas and risk failure. I'm heartened by that first image they've shown off of Halo 5, which seems to indicate a new playable character. Plus, Halo 5 will be the first new game in the franchise on Microsoft's new-gen console. If Titanfall acted as a calling card for what a new franchise can do on Xbox One, Halo 5 needs to make a statement about how existing franchises can move forward on the system. That's not just important for Halo and 343, but for Microsoft's larger games initiative.

On the Destiny front, now I feel like you're just baiting me. Generic? I think Destiny looks amazing. But that may be an argument for another day.

Helgeson: Halo 5 should be great...when it finally comes out in 2017 (*rimshot*). Seriously though, I do think Destiny's concept has a lot of potential, but it does feel pretty boilerplate sci-fi to me. Okay, here's a test question to see how much of a Halo rube you are: Did you like Halo: Forward Unto Dawn?

Miller: I feel like this is a trick question. But yeah, I thought it was pretty neat. It speaks to what I mentioned earlier -- taking the existing fictional universe and putting a new spin on it, and from a different perspective. Don't tell me you actually saw some of it?

Helgeson: I did! I watched two episodes! Man, it was...well, it felt like they were shooting for a Marvel film and ended up closer to a SyFy Original.

Miller: I'm not sure I'd disagree with that. Then again, I have been known to enjoy a SyFy Original from time to time.

Helgeson: I never saw Sharknado, maybe I should. Well, it seems like we're winding down here, and maybe we found more common ground than we thought. I just wish Halo 5 was coming out this year so we could have some resolution to this.

Miller: You and me both.