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Tag Archive for Halo

The Subtle Art of the Sidekick…

Let’s talk a little bit about sidekicks in video games.

Up until now I’ve been doing a lot of talking over the similarities between science fiction in games and literature and film. But on the point of sidekicks there is a yawning gap, and it is one of the few places where the requirements of the medium is the key driver. 

In literature, we develop a connection to the hero through their interactions with other people. How they behave with both “good” people and “bad” people tells us who they are and why we should be rooting for them. The sidekick often serves as a key element of this.  The sidekick is often the one person who sees the “real” hero. They be the vehicle by which new and unfamiliar elements of the world get explained to the player/reader. They are the place in the story where theories can be surfaced and narrative plot points exposed.  They help contain exposition and ensure that the player/reader knows exactly what they need to, when they need to. 

The more far-future and fantastic the world becomes, the more essential this kind of character is. They serve multiple roles, all of which help to drive player/reader engagement. 

Image of Indiana Jones and Short Round

Video games have a long history of “waste not, want not”.  Every asset is created by a team of people, and as such holds a lot of value.  If a pixel is on your screen, then it has a purpose. There’s a reason for it to be there.  This goes doubly so for a character. In games, the sidekick usually serves a number of functions.  They are there to impart world information that the player might not know, they can carry your swag, they can fight alongside you, they can provide clues and useful information and can keep you following the right path towards the final Boss.

Image of Lydia from S

But, in games, the sidekick is not really the medium via which the player/reader gets attached to the hero.  In games, the player *is* the hero. Players map themselves, unconsciously or consciously, onto the main character of a game.  We don’t have to establish a connection because we *are* the connection. Whether the games point of view is first or third person, whether it’s a strategy game or a puzzle game or a simulation, WE, the person/s playing the game, is always the hero.

So the value of the sidekick in terms of the narrative changes.  And, to be honest, it gets a little weird sometimes.

Humans attach themselves to things.  Pets, cars, plots of land, other humans.  It’s is one of our defining characteristics; that we seek a connection and almost any interaction is improved by the existence of said connection.  This includes the arguably solitary experience of playing a videogame. Players in games get unreasonably attached to their sidekicks. Whereas, in literature, the reader is expected to empathise with the main character when their sidekick gets kidnapped, or broken, or killed, that relationship is still one step removed.  In games, that relationship is *personal*. The player is not observing from even the comfortable distance of the written word. This is fan-fiction levels of personal.

Image of the Companion Cube from Portal

As an example, the Weighted Companion Cube in the game Portal starts out as a bit of an inconvenience.  You need to carry it around and use it to hold doors open, solve puzzles and an array of small tasks. All the while, the research AI keeps talking to you as if the companion cube is an actual living, feeling companion.  You are warned that it will never abandon you, that ideally it will never stab you or cause you bodily harm in any way.

There is never any indication that the cube is anything other than an extra-fancy box with hearts painted on it.  Players drag it around, use it to advance through the level, giggle at the research AI trying to convince you that the cube is alive and has feelings.

And then the player must destroy the cube in order to advance to the next level.

This moment in the history of game-playing has become near-legendary.  This is the moment that the Weighted Companion Cube goes from being an inanimate object, to something that players are willing to fight and die for.  Thousands of hours have been spent trying to find a way through this level *without* the need to sacrifice the Companion Cube.

This inanimate cube has spawned poetry, fan-art, postcards, mini-films and even wholly cube-centric game experiences, and this “sidekick” is by no means alone.  

Cmpanion cubes are all over Reddit

In linear narratives (film and literature, primarily) once the sidekick has served their primary purpose, once they have brought the reader into the world, shown them how to love the hero and read them in on everything they need to know, they become a primary plot-driver as often as not.  They get killed or kidnapped, held hostage to ensure the hero’s compliance (which never works), sometimes they turn evil. 

But in video games it’s almost an unwritten rule that the sidekick cannot be used as a direct plot driver. Which seems a little odd, given the strong responses shown above to Lydia and the Companion Cube. They can retire, they can get married or simply quietly vanish, written out of the story or converted to an average NPC after the last training quest, but the minute you try to take overt *advantage* of a player’s ability to get attached to the sidekick, something strange happens.

The player stops caring.

And this happens for a very simple reason.

The goal of a game is to play the game.  This high-level understanding is present all the time in most players (there are, of course, always exceptions). The moment you impinge on this suspension of disbelief, the moment you try to coerce a player into an action through emotional means, the game ceases to be player versus game.  The game becomes “player versus game designer”. Players stop playing the game as it is laid out before them, and they start playing the higher-order “meta” game.  

Meta gameplay is different from immersive gameplay.  In immersive gameplay, the player is functioning as a part of the in-game world.  They are in tune with the game’s mechanics, with the quirky physics, the occasional visual glitches.  They are *forgiving* because all of these things are part of that world, flawed though it may be. The rules of that world are established  and they will accept that cats can be blue and if you just hit the controller buttons fast enough you can fly. The same way the reader of a novel will accept that FTL (Faster than Light) travel is the kind of thing a two-seater life-pod can easily handle.

But once a player starts playing the meta-game, they cease to be immersed.  Once the emotional blackmail kicks in, they will take a step back and evaluate everything more rationally.  They will break their emotional connection to the sidekick because suddenly that sidekick has become an object.  They have become a piece of the game mechanics and as such the player knows they are now disposable in the service of the game’s designer.  And in order to complete the game, the player will need to be ready to sacrifice that sidekick.

It is a key point of difference between the use of the sidekick in games and the use of the sidekick in more linear storytelling, like games and film.  And at the end of it all, the reader can breathe a sigh of relief that Han and Chewbacca are back together again, but the game-player must mourn the loss of the Weighted Companion Cube, even if they’ve found a way to beat the level so they survive.

Those that came before

Science fiction is littered, quite literally, with the corpses of long-dead civilizations. Forerunnersprecursorselders, the generic-ness of the names suggests that we can’t ever know the reality of them.  At the same time, we cannot resist the idea of a vastly advanced race that came before us. Adding the relics of a long-ago culture to your science fictional video game gives you the opportunity to add depth and mystery to your world without the expectation that it will be resolved… Ever.

One of the differences between games and literary science fiction is the active presence of the player. In games (much like film or television) every little thing costs. It costs time, sure, but you’ve also got your designer, concept artist, sound engineer, gameplay engineer, texture painter, environment designer all involved trying to bring a story to life. Game players learned a long time ago that anything in a game is there with deliberate purpose.  This is one of the reasons easter-eggs are so precious. They are a deliberate action, a gift, if you will.


Image credit: comicvine.com

This “every polygon has a purpose” mindset means that, like toddlers at the Louvre, game players will poke, prod, shoot, roll over, kick, pray to, finger, collect and carry about in one’s inventory for months in the (possibly vain) hope that an object will reveal its secrets. If, as a game designer, you failed to make it clear to the player that the forerunners are just part of the backstory, they’re going to burn hours on tasks that do nothing to advance the gameplay experience (or, these days, just head to the internet to see about a walkthrough).  As a gameplay concept, this can work well in a sandbox style game, but if it’s something more immediate and mission based (say a FPS), it’s going to be rage-inducing.


Image credit: R. Martone

In fact, where science-fiction videogames are concerned, I would go so far as to say that probably 80% have a forerunner civilization involved somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes you’re simply fighting your way through the ruins of their cities. Sometimes they have left behind a technology that is essential to finishing the game. Sometimes they are the reason given to all the incredible technological advances (like flying cars and full-body regenerations).

This gives us a loose “trope-y” framework on which to classify the presence of forerunner races in videogames.  By and large, you’re going to see them pop up in one of three forms.

Set-dressing.  Things like ruins with mysterious glowing lights or miles of dimly lit metal corridors.  Sometimes even the ground itself is an artifact, like the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved (widely considered to be one of the best videogames of its era) and it’s sequels. Under the set-dressing heading, I would include elements like backstory, architecture and non-useable technology.  Essentially, this focuses on elements that are used to deepen the world, but that are not essential or active participants in the playing of the game.

Excuses. Ray-guns the size of a BMW that you can yank out of your hip-pocket? Doomsday weapons that can wipe out all life on the planet? Flying cars (okay, maybe not that one) but any kind of handwave-y improbable technology is often attributed to the existence of a precursor race.  The technology might be useful (even essential) but any hard sci-fi fan is going to peg it as a stretch. This kind of use is different from set-dressing in that it is often integral to the gameplay itself, The players need to interact with and.or use the technology rather than it serving solely as a worldbuilding element.

Game mechanics. These elements are *essential* to the way the game is played.   Sometimes it is a technological tool that allows the player to complete the game, sometimes it is a literal change in the way you think about solving problems.  Players may be asked to memorize musical notation or computer code, they may need to remember that the forerunner race had no single central brain and therefore headshots on the robots they left behind will never succeed.  One way or another the game itself revolves around the player’s ability to understand and problem solve around a race that’s been gone for millennia.

Last time I talked briefly about the Anthem of Creation, a prime example forerunner technology and a core piece of that particular game. This week I want to take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved which showcases two out of the above three themes.  The final theme: Game mechanics, I will cover in the next article in the series.

Now, let’s be clear, Halo is a first person shooter, or FPS. The general perception of these games is that they are light on story and heavy on the “pew-pew-pew”. While may have been accurate in the earliest days of the genre, at the AAA level everything has a story.  How much of that story makes it into the game is up for grabs, but I guarantee you that somewhere in the design chain, somebody has a fully realized narrative that they are developing from. “But why bother writing the story if you’re just going to shoot everything anyway?” you may ask.  The reason is simple enough. Games (almost every game, but there are always exceptions) are the product of multiple people. That means different experiences, different ideas and different styles. At the AAA level it can be tricky to streamline communication and production under a single visionary.  So the story, the high-concept of the game is laid out. If a decision needs to be made on something small, or something that has to happen rapidly, it can be checked versus the story and the existing design to see if it will fit.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Dyson ring)

In the case of the first Halo game, we are delivered onto a larger-than-planet-sized Set Dressing referred to as the Halo ring. It is an artificial ring-shaped world built for an unknown purpose by a long vanished race. It is, essentially, variation on the Dyson sphere. A ring-shaped artificial habitat surrounding a power-source (like a star).  But, in the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, we are not here to examine the structure. We’re not here to figure any of this sh*t out. We are a super-soldier in an exo-suit being guided by an AI that’s a h*ll of a lot smarter than we are. It is merely the closest place for us to crash a broken spaceship. And so we do, quite spectacularly.

Of course, since we are in the middle of a combat scenario, and the guys who punched a hole in our ship are coming to finish the job, it is up to the Master Chief (our player avatar) to clear a path to what’s left of the command section of the ship.  Bring on the pew-pew-pew!

But about halfway through the game, the Halo ring (which is one of seven that form the Halo Array doomsday device) goes from being Set Dressing to an Excuse.  The ring itself is a tool, much like the Anthem of Creation from last month’s article, and direct intervention with this tool is key to the winning of the game.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Doomsday Weapon)

As we power through the narrative via a now standard set of shooter game mechanics, more of the world gets revealed to us and we come in contact with the immortal maintainers of the Halo ring. These are not precursors or forerunners themselves, but rather they are stewards and as such form another piece of the overall gameplay puzzle.  The ring is being overrun by a parasitic organism called The Flood. The stewards are responsible for keeping the infection under control. The arrival of the survivors of the crash and the enemies that are hunting them has provided a fresh new source of hosts for the Flood and, of course, the clock begins to count down. You (as the Master Chief) and your smarter half (Cortana, the AI) are engaged to help activate the Halo ring, which will eliminate the Flood and save the day.

So, through the discovery of these stewards and the reveal of the ring as more than just a big, dumb, object, the forerunner technology takes a step forward from Set Dressing to Excuse.

Why Excuse rather than Game Mechanic? Because you, as the player, still don’t get to work with any of this technology. It doesn’t require you change the way you think or the way you play. You don’t get bigger, fancier shields or bigger, better guns. You now have robot friends with improbable beam weapons and have been told of some kind of super weapon you can use to save the day, but you don’t really get to use much of anything the elder civilization left behind. As a gameplay element the precursors and their technology are still just a way to explain not only the structure of the ring world but the presence of the new bad guys (the Flood),  the robot friends and their beam weapons and ultimately a doomsday weapon that only a human can fire.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Busted by humans)

In Halo: Combat Evolved, we never get to the point where the forerunner/precursor technology is a central to the gameplay mechanics themselves. In games that is a much more rarified event.  Here are the technology serves as a threat, it serves as a location and only very occasionally serves as a tool. In fact the climactic moment of the game involves, not the use of the advanced race’s technology to win the day, but instead the oldest trick in the book.  Blowing up the remains of your crashed ship. This cracks the ring world and defeats the forerunner/elder civilization technology without the player ever really engaging with it in a meaningful fashion.

THE WRAP UP

So while Halo: Combat Evolved does a reasonable job of using the science fiction concept of an elder civilization as an underpinning for the game, it never makes the final jump to having that experience being a more intimate part of the game experience.  That is reserved for other AAA titles on the market.  However, within the greater context of Halo’s climactic moment, this makes perfect sense.  After all, it is by reverting to the technology that the main character (and through them the player) has at hand that the the day is saved.  The story of Halo at the end of the day, is that humanity’s current state, their will to survive, trumps the rationale put forth by their ancient ancestors.

This is NOT my Halo…

So the Halo Reach beta has been released, and like a half a million other Halo fans out there, I’m all over it like a Jack Russell in a chop house. Coming from a longtime Halo player, you’d expect this blogpost to be waxing poetic about how the level design has really upped the bar for multiplayer games, how the weapon balance has clearly been tested to be sure there are no absolute game killers, how the gutting and rewriting of the game engine has resulted in visuals that are truly top of the line. And, yeah all that’s true. But with so much focus on the multiplyer the games gone cold. It’s lost it’s charm.

We were introduced to a massive new game universe. We were given the opportunity to be the ass-kickin right fist of the Marine Corps. We met characters who were interesting, who had backstories we wanted to hear. Entire books have been spawned from this game, comic books, movies (well, they tried at least). And here we are, left with what is essentially just another game where you try to shoot people before they shoot you first.

This is not the Halo I fell in love with. The third game in the series had a woefully short story, ODST was an improvement, but still too damn short. They’re losing that player connection, we just don’t get a chance to delve any further into the universe, and worse than that, Halo: Reach doesn’t make me *want* to.