Sunday, March 27, 2016

[BoRT: March] Have You Ever Looked at Master Chief's Feet?

Agile and limber, dancing on three-inch wall protrusions, I am so much more than a thousand-pound space marine. I hop along the rooftops, tagging jackal snipers that strut from the oblivion of half-hidden spawn points, while enemy fireteams stand inactive in the shadowed alleys of Old Mombasa. When my brother and I received Halo 2 on Christmas Day, 2004, it was both our first Xbox game and first first-person-shooter. Without the distraction of Xbox Live we replayed the campaign levels with the repetitive scrutiny of archaeologists scratching in the same dig site day after day.

Halo 2’s story is noticeably the most fragmented of the series. The came jumps back and forth between the franchise protagonist, Master Chief, and a dishonored general turned special operative, The Arbiter until the two meet and unite against the threat of galactic annihilation. “Space Opera” does not even begin the capture the grandness (read: blandness) of the game's twists and turns and sudden transitions from planet to planet to space station; jungle lake to snowy tundra. In many ways, I over-consumed the narrative. What should have been a brief experience dwarfed by weekends lost to the addiction of competitive multiplayer became an optimized ritual unto itself. My brother and I learned where extra vehicles were hidden, which alcoves held additional sniper and rocket ammunition, and which side routes provided a tactical advantage. These experiences lead me to reject the traditional claim that Master Chief's blank face-plate allows the audience to project themselves into the ultimate super solider. As we explored the architecture of each level we became more quartermaster than commando and more concerned with the minutia of supplies than the titillation of combat.
A comparison to Doug Liman's military scifi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), might perhaps help us understand the irony of player choreography within the framework of the “action genre.” Whereas the pleasure of most action movies is the way the characters spontaneously respond to challenge after challenge with fists, swords, or guns, Edge of Tomorrow makes the audience aware of repetition and staging within action films. Tom Cruise's character can only transform from journalist to soldier through countless respawns that teach him where each danger lies waiting on the battlefield. Much of the film's visual pleasure emerges from the learned perfection of a well-timed dodge or double-kill. The film bridges the gap between games and cinema and asks us to consider how we play and how we replay.
My experience with Halo 2 stretches beyond Edge of Tomorrow's deconstruction of the action movie and leads me to ask: How does repetition both slow down or enhance a game experience? In a level called “Regret,” situated roughly in the middle of the campaign, there is a moment when a gondola arrives to carry the Master Chief over a lake. After killing numerous enemies who intended to storm out of the gondola and attack the Chief, I would wait for a Pelican (the game's dropship) to fly by and release several resupply canisters filled with power weapons. Because the game limits you to carrying only two weapons at any time, the superficial implication is that the player should pick their favorite means of destruction, then get on the gondola and forge ahead. Instead, I made a habit of ferrying each weapon onto the gondola, trading it with an alien weapon dropped among the corpses I just killed, then going back to the resupply canisters to exchange the inferior plasma firearm for another power weapon. The game takes a tranquil pause until I've littered the gondola deck with shotguns and rocket launchers and launch onward across the lake.
I think this sequence represents a tension in the game's design because my little maneuver worked to both arrest the level's forward momentum while simultaneously empowering me with more tools of destruction to fight more aliens on the other end of the gondola ride. I had to discover that this little piece of choreography will help me later on in the level. It represents on of so many little dances that both optimized my play and distanced me from intended machismo.
      If first person shooters are meant to embody military perspectives and fantasies of warfare, who am I when I stop shooting? There is something profoundly un-Master Chief about snooping around for extra sniper ammo, yet, in order to play on Legendary mode, the game's highest difficulty, the aforementioned “Legend” needs to start doing less running and gunning and more walking and collecting in order to survive.

      A few weeks before the Xbox appeared under our Christmas tree I remember when my brother's friend brought over his own Xbox and a copy of Halo 2 during a sleep over. During this brief preview I recall that as the friend showcased the game's graphics and gore he would occasionally look down with the joysticks and look at the Master Chief's feet. Not every FPS shows the player's feet he insisted; for emphasis, he occasionally stuck his own shins with a plasma grenade and ran around before blowing up and respawning. The feet mattered and the paths they take matter, treading and retreading the battlefield. 

This piece was inspired by Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table March discussion on Choreography in games. For more video game writing consider reading Critical Distance or checking out these other pieces on Choreography:

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