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Halo 3 and The Art of Repetition

So far I’ve done two columns here at bit-tech explaining how I became a games designer and all I’ve done was got you, gentle reader, up to speed on all of the reasons why I should get any attention at all (the reasons are few, but I’m working on it). And with lengthy introductions out of the way, it’s time to talk about games!

I like to wax philosophical a bit while still adamantly maintaining that philosophy is a completely useless major (to all of you philosophy majors out there: sorry to offend, but you know I speak truth). Of course, being the rabid gamer and game developer I am, a great deal of this philosophising I do revolves around gaming.

I like immersion. One of my most memorable gaming experiences was playing Bungie’s Marathon on a Macintosh Centris 650 at a glorious 14 fps. The chunky, slideshow visuals, while still amazing to 12-year-old technophile James, were just the icing on a cake composed primarily of an engaging story in which two AIs—a nice one and a crazy one—fought over me, as told through text terminals. Maybe it was my impressionable young mind, but I still remember the feeling of being a hapless, manipulated pawn whose only bargaining chip is the ability to blow away wave after wave of mindless thugs as being just brilliantly executed.

Therein lies the rub: action videogames essentially present you with a series of challenges for you to fight your way through; therefore the essence of a videogame story is that of a hapless, manipulated pawn whose only bargaining chip is blah blah blah. [Spoiler Alert] It worked for BioShock; it kind of maybe sort of worked for Metal Gear Solid 2 (though honestly I’m not quite sure what happened toward the end of that one); it definitely worked for Marathon.

"I still remember the feeling of being a hapless, manipulated pawn whose only bargaining chip is the ability to blow away wave after wave of mindless thugs"

So if telling a story where you are a manipulated killing machine is a perfect fit for videogame storytelling, what about other stories? A mismatch occurs.

Case study time! Let’s take Halo 3, and, before I actually say anything about Halo 3, I should make a disclaimer digression. I had put up some articles about repetition in games on my blog, and how I felt that repetition is sometimes a good thing (more on that later), and may have implied that aspects of the Halo 3 campaign could have benefitted from some more repetition, and I ended up with some comments that went something like this:

Variety is the spice of life. Games with repetition suck. Your game will suck and no one will play it.

Now, I think I’ve played through the Halo 3 campaign about half a dozen times. I love the game—I even pre-ordered it. I enjoy fanboy speculation about Halo’s association to Marathon. While this does not make me an expert in all things Halo, I think it at least gives me license to critique and comment. So I say: fanboys, stand down!

"Games like Marathon and BioShock succeed in storytelling because the main character can be a bewildered idiot"

That out of the way, the critique goes like this: imagine you are playing through Halo 3 for the first time. You play as the legendary saviour of humanity, who plays it cool while expertly wielding a massive arsenal to mow down wave after wave of baddies. However you have a somewhat foggy idea of where to go next, what a missile pod does, how all of those crazy new items work, the feel of a Spartan laser, and so on. So here’s the mismatch: in cut scenes, the Master Chief is extremely cool and confident, but under the control of the first time gamer, the Master Chief is suddenly acting like some bewildered idiot, fumbling with bubble shields and flamethrowers.

Games like Marathon and BioShock succeed in storytelling because the main character can be a bewildered idiot. In Marathon, you’re a space marine who lands on a colony ship with very little idea of what’s going on, when suddenly aliens start attacking and AIs start fighting over you. BioShock is roughly the same story—you land on an underwater city, things start attacking you, and greater powers start fighting over you via the radio. You’re a dummy with a big gun, and everyone knows and is willing to exploit this fact.

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James Silva

There’s a certain story that does terribly with this mismatch: the revenge story. There are some great revenge stories are in Ninja Gaiden, God of War 2, and—would you look at that—my very own The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai!

The revenge story fares even worse because the hero’s demeanour is much more separated from that of the bewildered player. The hero on the quest for revenge is driven by loss, regret, and anger; this mixture of driving emotions fuels a momentum that lays waste to all in its path. What happens when bewildered player does something clumsy? Or is lost for five minutes? Suddenly, that momentum is faltering – and if the momentum falters then maybe the mixture of driving emotions is tiring out, and eventually we are left with a hero equivalent of an emo kid: driven by anguish, but too socially awkward to do anything about it.

The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai is a by the books revenge tale, one where you die a lot to boot. You play as the Dishwasher, an undead samurai who was killed by the cyborgs, mysteriously brought back to life, and is on a quest of anguish-fuelled revenge. There are numerous scenarios where the storyline mismatch issue I described will rear its ugly head. Is this a concern?

Well, it sort of is and it sort of isn’t. It is for all of the reasons previously mentioned: it creates a mismatch between the cut scenes and the actual game play as it will doubtlessly pan out in the hands of a newbie (or an experienced player at Samurai difficulty, for that matter).

"Repetition, when used appropriately, can do wonders to help the bewildered player step into the shoes of the unstoppable hero"

But it also isn’t a concern for a few reasons. For one, the story in The Dishwasher doesn’t really try too hard. It’s presented though a series of small comic strips, usually one or two per level, which cover some key plot points without dwelling too much. I’ll admit it: this is sort of a fake argument. I’m almost saying that you can’t fail if you don’t try, right? It still works in its own way—new players won’t have much interest in the story, but more hardcore players will want a better idea of what kind of universe they’re interacting with.

Another reason why I’m not too concerned is because The Dishwasher does feature a healthy amount of repetition. Nothing obscene, mind you (though it starts to feel that way after some rigorous testing sessions), but enough to try and familiarize the player with what the game is. I like to think that repetition, when used appropriately, can do wonders to help the bewildered player step into the shoes of the unstoppable hero. Repetition helps players know what they’re up against; it empowers them (while hopefully not boring them—it’s a balancing act). In a game where the hero’s character is very powerful, this works well. On the other hand, in a survival horror game, where the hero’s character is fragile and scared, repetition is very, very bad.

The last reason why I’m not too concerned is easy: The Dishwasher is, I think, a rad game. It’s such a rad game in fact that people will want to improve their game so that their onscreen persona matches that timeless ‘Dishwasher Revenge’ attitude described in the cut scenes, much in the same way that that crazy Sony exec predicted that people will want to work extra hours to buy a PS3. OK, I don’t actually believe that; I’m really just making things up at this point, which means it’s about time to wrap up.

However, if I make a sequel, I can promise you one thing: that the storyline will feature a hapless, manipulated pawn whose only bargaining chip is the ability to blow away wave after wave of mindless thugs – and if you’ve got a problem with that then you can toss it in the forums.