Monday, November 30, 2015

[BoRT: November 2015] Respawn, Repent

Four purple blurs, four lives, four Xbox 360s linked over a fiery hellscape. This is the final level of the Halo Trilogy, this is the Vidmaster Challenge: “Annual” —one of the most unforgiving experiences in gaming history.

I completed it six or seven years ago though I can’t say I’ve saved the memory with any particular accuracy. I recall slogging our way to the foot of a snowy pyramid, only to slog our way to the top of that same pyramid, only to drive across grueling kilometers of cinematic explosions. On its own, the final level, simply titled “Halo,” sought to conclude the series with a cyclical return to the circular superstructure. The developers at Bungie released “The Vidmaster Challenges” almost a year after Halo 3 as a way to revive the campaign experience with additional challenges and connect the series to Halo: ODST’s prequel campaign. Ultimately, after earning all seven Vidmaster achievements split between both Halo 3 and Halo: ODST, the player could gain access to the Recon Armor in Halo 3’s online multiplayer. The Vidmaster Challenges were notoriously cruel since several of them required playing through a campaign level with three other players and with the Iron Skull turned on. Whenever a single player died, the Iron Skull automatically returned all players to the last checkpoint. Suddenly, what should have been a sci-fi romp turned into a stop-and-go nightmare requiring more restarts than a cheap wireless modem.

The Vidmaster Challenge deserves attention as a case study because the mechanics did not get more difficult yet the game became more “unforgiving,” due to the Iron Skull. According to this model, save systems represent how a game forgives players for their mistakes and determine the stakes of investing time and energy into a game. For example: arcade games and perma-death rogue-likes deny the player any respite from failure; the slightest misstep, miscalculation,or poorly-timed jump sends the player back to the title screen. A Bethesda or Bioware RPG takes an opposite approach to the problem of preservation. These games provide almost endless access to save files so players can safeguard themselves against a slew of possible accidents and bad dice rolls. Under the aegis of a comprehensive save system, players can feel confident that minor errors will not disrupt their long-term participation with the narrative. The ability to save progress does not make these games any less difficult— many challenging games offer robust save systems— it just means that these games emphasize long-term reward by diminishing the damage from individual mistakes. In other words, the forgiveness built in a save system is directly proportional to the amount of personal investment designers intend the player to have with a single play session of the game.

Halo 3’s save system fell in the middle of the two extreme modes. On one hand, the “30 seconds of fun” dictated in Bungie’s design mantra depended on the ephemeral adrenaline of arcade shooters. Failure to understand the rules of these short-lived bullet mayhems punished the player with death. On the other hand, the designers also wished to present a narrative that (however cliché) justified the cost of the game and brought meaning to the random alien encounters. Death provided tension for each individual firefight but to in order to prevent narrative arrest (and too many Spartan corpses) the game could never be allowed to lose its narrative momentum.

As a compromise, the checkpoints automatically saved and restored the player to the beginning of each skirmish: far enough back to punish the mistake while still promising a chance for rapid amends and progress. Co-operative play in the Halo series promised even more space for tactical creativity. As long as at least one player remained alive, all the other players could respawn around the lone survivor and return to the carnage.

I believe the Halo series was always meant for co-operative play. Players maximized both the arcade excitement and the level’s narrative unity by playing into the rhythm of teammate resurrection. The Iron Skull shattered that balance and stripped away the forgiveness of co-operative respawning. The additional rule destabilized the traditional co-operative struggle and (I would imagine) infuriated many players. In the wake of this merciless achievement, however, the Halo 3 “Annual” challenge managed to reassert the human value of co-operative play.

The catharsis of the Vidmaster Challenge succeeded because it transferred the power of forgiveness from the computer back to the player. There was no way to survive the Vidmaster Challenges without accepting that you and your three compatriots will make mistakes. These errors would be numerous, idiotic, and demoralizing. At every step of the way, internal frustration threatened to destroy everyone’s progress if a single player succumbed to rage quitting. The challenge no longer became a measure of skill, it became a measure of forgiveness as players needed to learn to absolve the errors of others. Suddenly the experience sounds more like a Sunday sermon.

Though there had always been a ubiquitous aura of Christianity shrouding the Halo series, the franchise was only ever a parable left stillborn. Suggestive names such as: The Flood, The Ark, and The Prophets promised audiences with a Judeo-Christian story of salvation but the writers never allowed the message to shine past the lamina of science fiction and Marathon references. Even the final level bore comparison to Dante’s lowest circle of icy hell where Guilty Spark betrays his human companions in a misguided love for the Halo itself. The games always wanted to draw from the wealth of the Bible but they stopped before calling into question the fundamental acts of violence that the New Testament so abhors. The Master Chief could never be resurrected if Spartans never die.

The “Annual” challenge made a final attempt to explore the Christian potential of the Halo Trilogy. In place of four horseman of the Apocalypse, the Vidmaster Achievement turned the players into four disciples willing to forgive and endure. The obvious symbolism is that each player needed to complete the level by riding a ghost, perhaps the Holy Ghost, as sign of faith. In the final sequence of the game, the Halo begins to collapse under the players as they ride to the safety of a waiting ship. In that moment, the Halo represents the machine, the weapon, the non-human promising salvation but only delivering destruction. By successfully completing the challenge, the players liberated themselves from the limits of the machine. They no longer relied on the game’s forgiveness and they rediscovered the ability to forgive others. Those who bought Halo 3 were promised the opportunity to “Finish the Fight.” For the few who chose to complete the campaign’s Vidmaster challenge, the experience offers a chance to “Finish Fighting” and find peace.

Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table inspired this piece. If you like video games writing, consider checking them out.