What Halo's Ancient History Can Tell Us About Destiny

You can never truly know a game until you play it.
Seraph, from Matrix Reloaded

Okay, so I'm paraphrasing, but the point stands. Right now we don't know much about Destiny, but it might be pretty difficult to say we know anything at all. I'm starting to get a sort of pleasant feeling of deja vu, and wondering what it was we thought we knew about Halo when it was first revealed. Our first glance at the game back then was more substantial back in the summer of 1999, when Steve Jobs welcomed Jason Jones on stage to show Halo running live, in real time, using OpenGL, on a Macintosh. He then said it was coming out on PCs and Macs next year.

The rest is history.

Perhaps Bungie showed more of Halo back then than of Destiny now because they honestly thought they were closer to releasing Halo than they really were. Possibly they felt they had to generate some hype for the game. Despite being an award-winning cross-platform developer, it's hard to say that Bungie commanded the kind of attention before that game's release in the Macintosh gaming market that they have occupied in the console world ever since. Now, independent from Microsoft, without the need to serve the well being of the Xbox platform over and above all else, the players on Sony's platform may now be their thrall as well, and after that, who knows, perhaps those on Macs, Windows, and even Linux, iOS and Android. Bungie would appear to have big plans for Destiny.

It's not the first time Bungie's had big plans, though, and things have a way of taking on a life of their own. In particular, some of Bungie's plans for Destiny remind me of what I always guessed were Bungie's original plans for Halo...

HALO BRINGS ACTION GAMERS A WORLD WITHOUT END
MACWORLD EXPO, NEW YORK CITY--July 21, 1999--Today Bungie Software announces Halo, a game that shatters the confines of typical game environments. Halo is a third-person perspective, sci-fi action epic that takes place indoors, outdoors, in the sky and beneath the surface of a world of astonishing realism and visual impact.

It is kind of neat that in Halo you can move in and out of doors with minimal loading. Halo certainly did take place indoors, outdoors, in the sky, and beneath the surface. "Shattering the confines of typical game environments" might be hyperbole, but hey, this is a press release.

The real trick is the description of halo in the title. "A world without end" certainly does describe a ring (or a sphere or a torus or a mobius strip, for that matter) and so might just be a bit of clever wordplay on Bungie's part; but when you combine it with the rest of that paragraph, plus what comes next, you get a sense of a vision of Halo that was a bit different than what we got. It sounds more like... well, like a sandbox game.

With no levels or breaks in gameplay, Halo gives players complete freedom of movement over open terrain. Vast outdoor vistas, complete with flora, fauna, weather and celestial events, are complemented with indoor environments of comparable detail and complexity. A universal physics model and persistent objects make events in this world utterly convincing. In this open environment, gameplay is not linear but unfolds in response to the player's actions.

Halo stutter loads areas to minimize wait times, but it certainly does have loads and breaks in gameplay. As for complete freedom-- well, freedom of movement in Halo games is always complete within certain limits. It's certainly more free than in certain other popular shooter series on the Xbox, like Gears, where large portions of seemingly playable areas are little more than window dressing and the paths trod by players are narrow and completely linear.

Flora and fauna? For Halo 1, at any rate, the closest we got to fauna were some jungle insects. Put this down as "trees" at least until Halo: Reach, five games later, gave us some birds and dinosaurs. Most everything else was purely decorative.

Weather and celestial events? The Halo engine essentially never offered these. It struggled to produce enough rain to give ODST the proper atmosphere, and despite rampant speculation about time of day and realtime weather effects, Halo never got them. It looks like they're coming in Destiny. Then again, Minecraft already has them, so there's that.

A non-linear, open environment, where gamepaly unfolds in response to the player? That's pretty much the definition of the modern sandbox, and it doesn't apply to Halo at all-- but it seems that is what Bungie wanted to do, at least at one point. Sure, the design for the game changed a lot. Halo started off as a strategy game, and then a third person shooter, and finally a first person shooter, but some of the other changes in the concept from the release are more sweeping than just the player's perspective.

The player is a military recon unit of the human race's fledgling planetary empire.

There's some stuff here that matches up better with what Bungie is proposing with Destiny than what we got with Halo. Halo gave us a humanity with colonies throughout the galaxy, pushed into a corner by the superior Forerunner technology wielded by the Covenant, and the threat of absorption by the ravenous Flood. That's not exactly a "fledgling planetary empire". In fact, by Halo 3, humanity is no kind of empire at all, having lost all her off-world colonies, and Earth itself under siege by both the Covenant and the Flood.

Something similar has happened in Destiny; humanity once had footholds across the solar system, but lost them. Only the Traveler preserved humanity's presence on Earth. The story of Destiny will be, it seems, the story of taking back the planets of the solar system for humanity. That sounds a lot like establishing a "fledgling planetary empire".

Pursued by alien warships to a massive and ancient ring construct deep in the void, the player must single-handedly improvise a guerilla war over land, sea and air, using the arsenals and vehicles of three distinct cultures.

This probably should have been a bigger giveaway than it was, in retrospect. If you count human as one distinct culture and the Covenant as the other... what was the third? You can't exclude humanity and turn the Covenant into the source of all the cultures, because that's too many. Of course, it may have been that the Covenant was originally envisioned has having a tripartite structure, but if not, then the existence of the Flood was hinted at pretty early. Of course, the problem with that is that they don't really seem to have a culture, let alone an arsenal or any vehicles. Still, it was a hint that there was a third party to the game's major conflict.

As for the guerilla war, Halo did manage land and air (as well as eventually a bit of space) but stayed entirely on land, despite having pretty water. A far cry from Marathon that featured quite a bit of underwater combat, although no naval combat to speak of. Might Bungie try their hand at this at some point? A tantalizing possibility.

Using everything from composite swords to orbital bombardment, driving everything from giant tanks to agile combat aircraft, players wage intense warfare over and under the surface of this world.

The two weapons Bungie chooses to highlight both fail to appear in the game, although one could argue that the "composite sword" eventually became the Covenant energy sword (or plasma sword). Tanks? Check. Agile aircraft? Check, of several kinds.

The epic single-player game is complemented by a role-based, cooperative multiplayer team game. Playing the humans or the aliens, players will use entirely different skills, strategies, vehicles and weapons to compete in a variety of game types.

Here we get a flat-out declaration of a kind of cooperative play in Halo that we never, ever got. Competitive multiplayer is not mentioned, although it eventually became the staple of online Halo play. You could eventually choose to play with an Elite player model, but the difference between it and the Spartan model were extremely slight.

Three players might take the roles of driver, shotgun and rear gunner of a light, fast all-terrain vehicle, roaring and bouncing over uneven ground toward the enemy fortress, ducking under a hail of fire from alien aircraft screaming overhead. Halo's multiplayer game will be an experience that is as much lived as played.

Parts of that experience could be had in competitive multiplayer team games, and eventually Halo 3 and Reach added online coop, but this was less a distinct play mode and more just a slight wrinkle on the solo play. Certainly the situation described here is Warthog driving, although the vehicle is not mentioned by name; it certainly was shown in the MWNY video from two months before the release, in pretty close to its final form in appearance, even if the Spartans, Elites, and environments of the game would change quite a lot.

Bungie's original vision for Halo was quite broader than what they were able to realize with the Halo series, and at some point, the features that were both possible to implement and that became popular with Xbox owners were those that got fleshed out: namely, competitive multiplayer and matchmaking. In the small amount of information we've been given so far about Destiny, I see hints that this expanded vision has once again been dreamed up at Bungie, and this time, they might very well be able to get much closer to making it a reality.

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Xenos's picture
Xenos
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Re: What Halo's Ancient History Can Tell Us About Destiny

Great read. I'd completely forgotten just to what extent the early glimpses of Halo differed from what we got. It's almost like Jason Jones was disappointed about what they could pull off with Halo and immediately started thinking about Destiny instead.

narcogen's picture
narcogen
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Re: What Halo's Ancient History Can Tell Us About Destiny

Thanks!

I don't know if Jones moved on from Halo that quickly, but it has seemed as if he's been trying to get a non-Halo project started at Bungie for quite awhile, even back before they regained independence.

Templar Boe's picture
Templar Boe
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Re: What Halo's Ancient History Can Tell Us About Destiny

None of that stuff actually links on and if you put it into context it's clear that most of it was driven by a need to market an, we now know, up and coming platform. There are so many games and movies which start with the player or main protagonist on the back foot so the fact that the Halo series and Destiny share the same format only tells me that the designer is going with a well tried formula. I know what you're going for but there's no Lore here.

narcogen's picture
narcogen
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Re: What Halo's Ancient History Can Tell Us About Destiny

Templar Boe wrote:

None of that stuff actually links on and if you put it into context it's clear that most of it was driven by a need to market an, we now know, up and coming platform. There are so many games and movies which start with the player or main protagonist on the back foot so the fact that the Halo series and Destiny share the same format only tells me that the designer is going with a well tried formula. I know what you're going for but there's no Lore here.

The press release was written long before the MS acquisition; none of those features were chosen to promote the new platform, as at the time, Halo was a PC/Mac game.

I'm not sure how you read this in as lore-- I'm not suggesting that Destiny and Halo share any lore whatsoever. In fact, I've been one of the leading critics of the idea that Marathon and Halo had shared lore. Bungie games, for the most part, share themes, but don't take place in the same universe, possibly the only solid exception being PiD and Marathon, which at least share a single piece of lore-- the Jjaro.

What I am saying is that from a technical standpoint-- in terms of the emphasis on cooperative over competitive multiplayer, the emphasis on large sandbox-style areas featuring a high degree of freedom of movement and an emphasis on travel and exploration and not just combat-- the way Bungie described Halo sounds more like Destiny than it sounds like the product that was actually released under the name "Halo". What I mean by this is that what we are getting now with Destiny, in terms of those specific features-- not the fiction-- is closer to Bungie's original vision for Halo than the games we got.

That's not a criticism of Halo, it's just an acknowledgement that Bungie sometimes has overambitious designs that cannot be achieved with the time, resources, and technology at hand. They may be much better positioned now to achieve this vision than they were back in 2000.

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