Halo: the Demise of the Arcade in Favor of the Real

Like any true millennial nerd, reared in the lap of Microsoft and Sony, I’ve recently been playing through the now completed (I think) Halo: Master Chief Collection. As the name implies, it’s all the games rolled now into one volume. And a total delight. Most of my teenage existence revolved around Halo. All my friends played it. My brother’s friends played it. Everyone played it and played it religiously. So to have the means to play through them all as (for all intents and purposes) one continuous experience? What a thrill and, surprisingly enough, enlightening.

Halo: Reach, the last game in the series to be developed by the original studio, Bungie, is conversely the first game in the continuity. The story follows a squad of Spartans (cybernetic supersoldiers) as they fend off an alien invasion of the planet Reach and is a direct precursor to the very first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. Reach itself is an action-packed romp that brings together all the highlights that the series is known for and adds a few more finishing touches to round out what is an excellent experience. At the time, the game was at the pinnacle of game design for first-person shooters. But this isn’t meant to be a review of a game that was released 10 years ago.

Naturally, having beaten Reach, I flowed right into Halo: CE. And the transition was almost disorienting. Everything had been stripped away. All the ephemera gone, not even the ability to sprint left behind. I wasn’t playing through someone’s idea of a real futuristic war anymore. This was a game. There are few other instances that so starkly juxtapose how much game design has changed, two different eras right on top of each other. I noticed the small but fundamental differences almost immediately.

Something strange happened on the second level, right after you make “planetfall” on the eponymous ringworld, Halo. I’m driving along in the now-famous Warthog battle humvee with my marines in the side seat and manning the turret. Things are just as I remember. What a joy. Then I roll into the first interior environment. Your stay is brief, but revelatory. There is a pitfall ahead. Harmless. Simply drive back up the ramp and approach from a different angle to get the lift needed to jump the gap. Then off you go on your way to avenge the human race against the alien Covenant. An entirely forgettable experience, until of course you remember.

When I played Combat Evolved for the first time as a wee lad, I questioned nothing. It was a fun little puzzle and, as any self-respecting Halo player knows, one of the most entertaining things to do in the game is to wreck your Warthog in new and inventive ways. But now, as a full-blown Lad, I see the structure for what it is: something designed, ostensibly by a sentient race of beings. This creates an obvious question. Why is there a random pitfall? The answer is also obvious. Because it’s fun.

That will seem strange to anyone reading this who started their gaming odyssey after the advent of Xbox Live and the widespread adoption of consoles. But aren’t games still fun, you ask? Don’t I have fun while I’m playing a game? Of course I do. Otherwise what’s the point! What indeed. It’s not so much that games are devoid of fun now; rather that their sort of fun is of a different kind. It isn’t the fun of ‘play’. It’s the fun of simulation, of immersion. Of feeling like you are really there on the battlefield. Visceral.

I thought back to my time playing Reach, which offered such a different experience than that which I was playing through now. Fighting from point to point, guided again and again by markers on my HUD, linear path after linear path after linear path. I thought about the years between the titles, a not inconsiderable decade of changes and advancements in tech and design. I realized one change in particular had snuck by. Over the years, hidden in the undercarriage of massive leaps in graphics and artificial intelligence. An Achilles Heel, almost: gone were the jumps and pitfalls of Halo: CE, arrived were the linear levels and boxy buildings of Halo: Reach.

These days pure playful fun seems to be a lost art in modern gaming. When you’re playing Combat Evolved, you’re playing a game and conscious of playing a game. You’re not playing a simulator. You’re playing a game. That isn’t true anymore. Which is why Halo: Reach feels so different. It’s why many games these days feel so different and something of the original feeling of playing a game can only be recaptured by playing Nintendo titles like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. Those experiences alone disprove the theory of nostalgia warping the idea that games are different now. And it’s worth noting that Nintendo remains an industry force simply by keeping alive that kind of game design.

Halo is an interesting series to examine in this light. The first installment, Combat Evolved, came at a turning point in gaming. Real gaming. Not arcades and Super Mario, but as an art form. It had the unique experience of bridging the gap between these two eras. Halo: CE launched the industry into the next era and popularized video games in ways never before seen; and yet it also retained enough of its roots to still feel like a game, something light and fun, down to even the awkward movement and buoyancy of the vehicles.

One of the hallmarks that transcended each game in the series, like a piece of retro DNA, were the incredibly high and incredibly slow jump mechanics. These moon leaps were so baked into the gameplay that the multiplayer almost centered around them. While everything else changed, elements like these remained the same. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Halo also remained a stalwart of multiplayer gaming even as the story stagnated under the care of new developers. It’s such an almost metaphysical quality, a secret sauce, that there’s really only one word to describe it: fun.