Monday, February 22, 2016

Of Storytelling in Video Games

When I was a kid, video games were pretty simple.

"You're this tank...and you want to destroy that other tank--over there. That guy."
Why do I hate this other tank so much?
"Uhhh...ummm...that other tank stole your cheese?"
DIE, TANK!

Video games didn't have voice actors, music, more than 10 pixels or...most importantly, a plot. As I grew up and video games evolved, these qualities slowly crept into the mix, making them more compelling...well, to an extent.

"So, the princess has been captured. Go kill stuff and SAVE HER!"
And, eventually...

"These aliens hate you and want to destroy you. Defend your planet!"
But, why do they hate us so much?
"Uhhh...ummm...your race stole their cheese!"

Thankfully, these subpar plotlines have given way to much more robust, serious, or even wacky, epic stories that span entire franchises and even multiple media types. Some of these games become legends among gamers, exhibiting top-notch writing, production values, and gameplay.

And, then, there's Halo 5. Yeah, it's been out for a while and I've taken a few months to sit on it and stew--mostly to avoid having the entire discussion be me ranting and saying over and over "Screw Halo 5! Screw Halo 5!"

First of all, let me get this out of the way. The gameplay is pretty fun. The action feels very "run-and-gun", blow through enemies and destroy stuff like the great god of destruction that you are. Multiplayer is a mixed bag. 343i changed up the multiplayer to add optional microtransactions and new game types while pretty much discarding all of the old tried-and-true game types. It's different and, often, I pine for the game types of old. But that's not what this is all about.

This game was very seriously marketed wrong. Every element that was introduced in the commercials--rivalries between characters, a hunt for the iconic Master Chief, and whatever crimes the Chief committed--discard all of that. I mean, literally, dump it in the trash. It has really very little to do with the game itself.

So what does the game's plot entail? Well, the story feels like it was written by a third-grader who, halfway through, got distracted by a pack of squirrels outside, then said third-grader wandered into traffic and his faithful dog finished the story. It's a disaster. It meanders through uninspiring locales and, ultimately, ends up having advanced to virtually nowhere. It's like working your butt off for a day but not accomplishing anything. You're tired, you're dirty, and you've nothing to show for it.

The game does nothing to address any plot points left over from Halo 4, the books, or any of the movies. For a mere three chapters, you play as the beloved Master Chief. The rest of the time you have to endure playing as Spartan Locke, a "by-the-books goody two-shoes" who is half-assedly (it's a word now!) pursuing the Chief...sort of.

And, then, there are several chapters of the game where the entirety of gameplay is you, running around, talking with people. That's it. Just go to point A, talk to a dude, go over here, talk to another dude (or dudette), repeat, get a sandwich, jump off a cliff...whatever. It's as if 343i didn't have enough of a game so they threw this garbage in, hoping people would be fooled into thinking that it was awesome!

It's not. It's terrible. It's shoddy. It's half-hearted and uninspired. I seriously can't believe that this is what my beloved Bungie had in mind for the series when they handed it over to 343i. Maybe they didn't know where the franchise was going after Halo 3 and 343i had to make it all up by themselves. Either way, it's too bad.

The gameplay could be the best ever (and, while it's solid, it's not the best ever) and it would still fall flat.

Video games have transcended beyond the "infinite levels of a pixelated space ship blowing up pixelated aliens" type of game. I don't expect every game I play to be revolutionary or a huge breakthrough. I'm fine with many of them being right on par with others. Even if they're not the best ever, I can usually find something good about them. But Halo 5, with the huge expectations that were laid upon its shoulders, dropped the ball...then stomped on it, set it on fire, and kicked it into the neighbor's house

Which also caught on fire.