Saturday, February 23, 2013

Halo and endless killing

I spent a large portion of my formative years playing video games. I played a lot of computer games. I played a lot of MUDs, aka Multi-User Dungeons, aka proto-mmorpgs. I played a lot of Counter Strike, and a lot of Diablo II. I played console games. I played Sonic and Tails for the Genesis. I played Mario 64. I played Goldeneye. And, later, I played Halo.

A great part of the desire I have to play modern video games stems from nostalgia for the experiences I had as a kid. Sometimes, that nostalgia gets me into trouble. I posted a while back about how bad Diablo III was.

I'm about halfway through the campaign of the newest Halo game, called Halo 4. That the fourth Halo game is called "Halo 4" suggests a lot that turns out to be true about the game itself: the game is familiar, but doesn't have much imagination. Halo 4 and Diablo III have at least one important thing in common, though they are very different games in gameplay and tone: both games require the player to kill endless numbers of "bad guys." The bad guys are bad in D3 because they're evil, and evil things are bad. The bad guys in H4 are bad for no reason. The bad guys in H4 have to die for the shockingly mundane reason that they are in Master Chief's way.

Diablo III's story is for children, with no traces of moral complexity in its self-righteous butchering of legions of demons. I expected better from H4, but so far haven't found it has any conscience about the souls of the intelligent life forms it demands I send to alien heaven. But even if it did--even if the Master Chief showed some remorse about the aliens he had killed--would that make it better?

In any case, Halo 4 seems like the creation of some perfect sociopathic mind. I play a masked killer wading through the blood of alien species belonging to a highly developed intergalactic society. Why not engage in diplomacy instead? The story of Halo 4 beggars belief. Cortana, Master Chief's artificial intelligence companion, faces rampancy (i.e. confused outbursts of emotional rage [which turns the game's plot into something like: stoic, powerful male seeks to save emotional, helpless female. Hmm...]). Master Chief promises to get Cortana--let me emphasize again that Cortana is not alive--to safety. To do this Master Chief kills thousands of aliens, destroys alien ordnance of incalculable worth, and (I'm guessing) starts a new war between humans and aliens. This is done to save the mind of one artificial intelligence. The question has often been posed: how many foreign lives are worth one American life? In Halo, the question is: how many alien lives are worth the life of one (not actually alive) friend? The answer: aliens have lives? Huh.

There's a line of dialogue near the beginning of the game, right after Master Chief sends his first alien on the Great Journey. Master Chief says: "I thought we had a truce with the covenant." That's the only mention of a possible diplomatic solution to Cortana's problem. Truce, schmuce. Halo 4 is about killing aliens because they're aliens. Why talk when you can shoot? It's much more fun.

I'm playing Halo 4 for nostalgic reasons. But the game doesn't have to treat me like I'm still 15.

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