Friday, November 30, 2012

Warrior or Soldier? Master Chief or Easy Company?

Like many other people who own an Xbox 360, I dutifully pre-ordered Halo 4 and worked my way through the campaign, dabbling in the multiplayer mayhem that 343 Industries provided, and slogging through the opening episodes of Spartan Ops.  Unlike most people playing Halo 4, though, I don't have an emotional attachment to the series' protagonist, Master Chief, or the setting.  I especially have no affinity for the way in which Halo approaches multiplayer gaming, while appreciating that the game pretty much defined how to do a console FPS.

That said, the solo campaign and the Spartan Ops co-op mode that extends game-play to explore additional parts of the story are extremely well-done.  The graphics in the solo campaign are spectacular.  No previous console game that I've heard of, especially on the Xbox 360 has come even close.  The plot is ok, but shot through with holes that can only be remedied by reading the Halo novels, a move that is a mistake for any game or movie.  Despite assertions that Halo represents the pulp fiction of the 21st century, most players are simply not going to invest that much time, meaning that they really don't understand all of what is going on.  Some of the gaps are filled in by the video content unlocked by terminals in each mission of the solo campaign, but there are problems with this approach to story telling.

The biggest problem with the terminals is that they are not at all obvious, sometimes out of the way, and casual gamers may not even know to grab them.  Thus means that the people most in need of the information provided by the terminals are those most likely to miss out on it.  An additional issue is that once you've unlocked the content from a given terminal, you then have to leave the game and either go to the Halo: Waypoint website and login with your Xbox Live ID, or download Halo: Waypoint to your Xbox and watch the videos there.  I have a hard time thinking of a more cumbersome way to tell this story.  Really.  How many people are likely to do that?

As I was playing, I kept feeling like the game was missing something, and it was only when discussing our progress through the game with another UA grad student that I understood my problem with the primary Halo storyline. Master Chief John-117 represents a superheroic ideal that says that we need to place all of our trust in a small number of superhuman individuals when faced with extraordinary challenges - these folks must have speed, skill, strength, endurance, and dedication beyond that expected of ordinary mortals in order for the rest of us to survive.  In the game, like in the Halo novels, all of the regular, dedicated, and skilled people that show up die, while Master Chief survives, accomplishes his missions, and (literally) saves the galaxy.

I'm not a fan of this approach.  It's probably why I prefer movies, books, and games that focus on the team, or on dedicated and skilled groups of people.  Give me Noble Team (Halo: Reach) or Easy Company any day.  I'd far prefer to hang out with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson than Superman.  This may be the result of World War II movies with their stereotypical unit mix that included a red-head, an Italian-American from the Bronx, a farm boy, etc... led by a gruff all-American NCO or junior officer, but it also seems to me that the focus on the small team, the Band of Brothers, is an Anglo-American ideal.  Examples might include Arthurian knights of the roundtable or Robin Hood's merry men.

Another way to approach this is to look at the difference between the concepts of the warrior and the soldier.  Warriors may work together, be skilled, dedicated to a cause, even self-sacrificing, but they don't play well in groups, have problems following orders from people they don't respect, and have a tendency to strike out on their own.  The filmic version of The Avengers fit this model, as do characters like Wolverine.  Master Chief isn't a perfect fit for this model due to his seeming focus on duty and mission, but he does have the loner traits, and in Halo 4 a habit of not following orders (for the best in this case).  Contrast this to Easy Company as portrayed in the HBO series Band of Brothers or the messages about team work found in football movies like The Replacements or Necessary Roughness.  Each shows clear leaders and differences in ability, but the all of the groups succeed as a team.  Each individual has an important role, has to give up individual glory to gain success, and eventually accepts the need for a semblance of order and discipline for the benefit of greater missions (even if that mission is just to briefly achieve athletic success).

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