Less was More?

Despite the grumpy and dissatisfied tone I seem to have established in this blog, in vilifying various Bungie design decisions, I certainly don't regret the time I've spent playing, reading, thinking and writing about the Halo series. Now that the trilogy is done, however, and we've had time to digest Halo 3, I think it's time to start putting the whole experience into some kind of perspective. In previous entries I've talked mainly about technical factors in level design, gameplay and story construction. This time I'm interested in something less tangible - atmosphere, and the campaign experience as a whole.

Over the last few months, while reading discussion of story decisions, cutscenes, music and the in-game experience, I've found myself trying to tag and characterise each of the Halo games, considered as artistic achievements. My list of bullet points turned out to look like this:

Halo CE - most atmospheric, most replayable, most rewarding experience.
Halo 2 - most ambitious and artistically successful cutscenes.
Halo 3 - most spectacular.

Almost all sequels suffer by comparison with their originals. Discovering a new universe is almost inevitably more memorable than revisiting it, however glad we may be to return. I don't think that this is the whole explanation here, however. Halo CE's campaign provides a different kind of experience, which isn't really replicated in the sequels - until we reach the final level of Halo 3, which begins by very deliberately evoking the first game.

I'll return to that point later. First, I need to describe that elusive quality I'm talking about. Let me repeat, I'm not talking about gameplay here, or even fun, but something much more rare than fun. Fun is the minimum necessary ingredient of a worthwhile game, but it doesn't come anywhere near explaining why Halo CE has grabbed and held our collective attention for so many years. The game captured our imaginations, and if my analysis of the way that happened is correct, then two sobering conclusions follow. First, that it was a happy accident; the silver lining of a notably dark cloud. Second, that the chances of a similar accident recurring are very low; much current 'best practice' in FPS design seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

If you've been around the Halo community long enough, I'm sure you remember people describing how they stood for hours on the beach in 'Silent Cartographer', staring out to sea. The snowy canyons and mysterious Forerunner architecture of AoTCR and 'Two Betrayals' - the core of the whole game - were also powerfully atmospheric, evoking desolation, isolation, mystery and sense-of-wonder. The start of the 'Final Run' section of the latter level, where the player climbs the ramp from the last tunnel to quiet background music and the distant sounds of a Covenant-Flood battle is, in its understated way, one of the most evocative moments of the whole game. These are just a few examples, but they should serve to remind you of the quality I'm talking about here. If they have no special meaning for you, then you may as well stop reading now - none of the rest of this will make much sense.

Halo 2 and Halo 3, for all their various achievements and undeniable playability, rarely, if ever, quite recaptured (or at least, sustained) this quality, in my own experience - except briefly at the start of Halo 3's final level, where the original game is very directly and deliberately evoked. Not only are the environment, ambience and music familiar, but the player is exploring, solo, the Arbiter follows silently, and there is no unavoidable nagging from Cortana or anyone else. Peace, at last!

That's a broad hint as to where I'm going with this analysis. Chatter from other characters, while it may be amusing, is generally destructive of atmosphere, unless very carefully handled. Sparse dialogue isn't inevitably fatal to the effect, but it needs to be written and delivered with close attention to the specific mood and moment. In this context, it's interesting to note Eric Trautmann's [url=http://earthsmightiest.com/comics/interview-with-eric-trautmann-from-che... remarks[/url] on how he and Brannon Boren were given just three days (with no access to the game itself) to rewrite all in-mission dialogue. As Trautmann justifiably says, it's remarkable and very much to the writers' credit that the result was so successful. It's my assumption that such extreme deadline pressure forced the writers to focus on bare essentials - what absolutely had to be said in order to propel the story, guide the player, and convey character (Ken Levine's even more recent BioShock-related remarks [url=http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17531]here[/url] also bear on this important point).

In Halo CE's case, enforced restraint (and inspired handling of game audio resources in general) achieved an almost uniquely successful result. I'm going to argue that this enforced restraint was equally beneficial to other aspects of the game. As information has slowly been released over the years, it's become more and more apparent that Halo CE was strongly moulded by shortage of resources, and that the game only really came together in the last few weeks of development.

Not many game concepts have changed so radically during development as Halo CE's did. It's widely known that early builds used a third-person player view, but less frequently remarked that the game genre was initially seen as RTS (real-time strategy), a development following logically from Bungie's Myth, rather than Marathon series, or that the original intention was that much or all of the Halo ring's surface would be accessible and playable - a highly ambitious, but not totally infeasible technical challenge. Building environments on this sort of scale demands a completely different approach from that used to put together a conventional shooter level - a very heavy reliance on automated software to generate or flesh out the level environment, and (most importantly) large-scale re-use of architectural models. You can afford a few custom-designed one-of-a-kind structures (e.g. Halo's Cartographer and Control Room), but every other installation has to be re-usable, or ideally built from a modular kit of parts which can be assembled in multiple different ways.

Halo CE's development clearly went along this path for quite some time, before some combination of technical obstacles, conceptual change and mounting pressure to deliver resulted in a switch to a more conventional FPS game, set in more conventional FPS environments. The important point is that when this switch occurred, Bungie had already made a substantial investment in procedural landscape generation and modular modelling, and it would only make sense to re-use as many of these resources as possible.

Some of the signatures of this re-cycling are obvious, others less so. I'd argue that much of the landscape-rendering and procedural landscape generation experience was recycled to support Halo CE's then-sensational outdoor environments. The modular modelling influence is more obvious, and more controversial. Some players objected strongly to the modular room and corridor architecture in AoTCR/Two Betrayals, but the ship interiors, the containment facility in '343 Guilty Spark', and of course the notorious Library, all make very extensive use of modular kits, and not all of these are regarded as unsuccessful. In fact, I'd argue that this sort of repetition, used wisely, yields both aesthetic unity and enhanced realism. The only way to establish a consistent architectural or cultural style is by re-using similar or identical elements throughout a structure, and real buildings are often designed in a modular way, for good functional and economic reasons.

Halo CE was also notable for its re-use of levels, in whole or in part, the most famous example being 'Two Betrayals' re-use of a slightly modified 'AoTCR'. Likewise, 'Keyes' reuses many elements from 'Truth and Reconciliation' and 'The Maw' recapitulates quite a lot of 'Pillar of Autumn'. Some players felt short-changed on this account, but by no means all. Registering a change or development by revisiting a familiar environment and seeing obvious differences is a fundamental and important technique in telling and constructing a story. If you give up this device entirely, or severely restrict its use because people with short attention spans demand wall-to-wall novelty (and then complain that the game's too short), or others cynically interpret every example of re-use as laziness, then you seriously compromise your ability to tell complex stories.

So what am I saying here? Let me spell it out: we treasured the experience of playing Halo CE's campaign largely because we were for the most part left to explore and experience on our own, without constant commentary, distraction and nagging from NPCs. Almost every list of advice for the aspiring fiction author lays heavy emphasis on the maxim 'Show, don't tell' - the author's most powerful ally is the reader's imagination, and you must leave this room to breathe, rather than smothering it with too much information. The Halo experience was something we created for ourselves, in our own minds, with the overall mood set by aesthetically unified level design and non-verbal cues from the soundtrack and music.

My conclusion is this: Halo CE's unique appeal largely derives from the constraints under which it was developed, and the creative way in which this enforced restraint was turned to advantage. Creative restraint doesn't come naturally to game developers. Their innate ambition and exuberance, and the marketing department's demand for sensational novelty, conspire to erode most games' artistic unity. If you see your goal as filling every moment of game time with action, humour and deadline-pressure, then you sacrifice atmosphere and emotional effect in favour of an unrelenting and ultimately monotonous pace. Some might argue that this sort of crowd-pleasing approach is unavoidable under modern commercial pressures, but surely Halo CE is the most powerful counter-argument you could wish for. We're all here because this seemingly deeply-flawed game exerted such a powerful fascination upon us that we're still hooked, seven years later. And it did enjoy some modest commercial success, after all. You'd think that such a successful formula would inspire a certain amount of analysis and imitation, but if I'm right, the artistic lessons which Halo CE offers have been largely ignored or misinterpreted - even by Bungie.

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Comments

Amen. Final Run still gives me chills. Like you said, it's a shame that developers have ignored what CE accomplished.

I like Halo 3 the most.

If you see your goal as filling every moment of game time with action, humour and deadline-pressure, then you sacrifice atmosphere and emotional effect in favour of an unrelenting and ultimately monotonous pace.

This is the most important sentence of the entire entry. To me, the Halo sequels were victims of excess: more dialogue, more action, more colors, more exposition, bigger battles . . . it all became overwhelming, and the resulting fatigue lead to it all being underwhelming by the end. Halo CE had atmosphere the other two games didn't, and a lot of that was due to the way it relied on the players' imaginations more than the sequels did. For example, giving other Covenant races the ability to talk completely ruined the narrative for me. Halo CE kept you guessing--you wondered what the various enemies were really like, what their motivations were--but as soon as they started babbling melodramatic gobbledegook in Halo 2 the mystique was gone and they were reduced to ordinary NPCs you can find in any run of the mill Sci-Fi narrative. I compare it a little to the Blair Witch Project. Part of what made the movie so compelling to me was that you really didn't know what was going on. The fun was the experience, not the explanation.

As Ken Levine said, sometimes the environment is the best story telling device you have. Halo CE took advantage of this, while the others didn't.

I am stunned. This article brilliantly articulates every feeling I've had about the Halo 2 and 3 campaigns in a way I could never hope to match. Every bit of it is true. Exceptionally well thought out and written.

Fantastic Blog, I agree whole-heartedly.

I was pretty cynical reading this, at least halfway down, because I've yet to read anything about "why Halo CE" that wasn't either obvious or polemically illogical. But this piece makes a lot of sense, and I think you're right. I think similar elements of what you're talking about can be seen in series like Elder Scrolls and some Legend of Zeldas. The one critique I have about this, is not really a problem, but when I went to comment I realized that a specific and fulfilling keyword or phrase has yet to be picked out to recognize quite what you mean. I don't have anything to offer, and maybe I misread and it's there, but that's the one thing I think this great idea you've revealed lacks.

I was pretty cynical reading this, at least halfway down, because I've yet to read anything about "why Halo CE" that wasn't either obvious or polemically illogical. But this piece makes a lot of sense, and I think you're right. I think similar elements of what you're talking about can be seen in series like Elder Scrolls and some Legend of Zeldas. The one critique I have about this, is not really a problem, but when I went to comment I realized that a specific and fulfilling keyword or phrase has yet to be picked out to recognize quite what you mean. I don't have anything to offer, and maybe I misread and it's there, but that's the one thing I think this great idea you've revealed lacks.

Excellent post. You've summed up lots of what I've been thinking about and trying to express since the release of Halo 3.

[quote]If you've been around the Halo community long enough, I'm sure you remember people describing how they stood for hours on the beach in 'Silent Cartographer', staring out to sea. The snowy canyons and mysterious Forerunner architecture of AoTCR and 'Two Betrayals' - the core of the whole game - were also powerfully atmospheric, evoking desolation, isolation, mystery and sense-of-wonder.

[...]

Halo 2 and Halo 3, for all their various achievements and undeniable playability, rarely, if ever, quite recaptured (or at least, sustained) this quality, in my own experience - except briefly at the start of Halo 3's final level, where the original game is very directly and deliberately evoked. Not only are the environment, ambience and music familiar, but the player is exploring, solo, the Arbiter follows silently, and there is no unavoidable nagging from Cortana or anyone else. Peace, at last! [/quote]

Agreed. I still feel that sense of wonder when I play Halo CE. Crashing on Halo and looking around at the wide open grassy valley, the blue beams shooting up into the distance, and seeing the Halo arching overhead is one of my favorite moments in any videogame. I've always loved the interior Forerunner architecture from the first game. Although it was repetitive, it didn't bother me at all. I liked how deserted, strange, and alien it felt. Also slightly creepy.

Halo 2 and 3 really did fail to capture those feelings. Perhaps it's because of how the environments were designed. Comparing the Forerunner Architecture in Halo and Halo 3, Halo 3 looks more visually cluttered as well as less strange and alien.

[quote] If you see your goal as filling every moment of game time with action, humour and deadline-pressure, then you sacrifice atmosphere and emotional effect in favour of an unrelenting and ultimately monotonous pace. [/quote]

Halo 3 does seem to have a much faster pace. It feels as though I'm always rushing from one encounter to the next, which is really different from Halo CE, where it felt a little slower paced as you explored this alien structure you were on.

I thank everyone who has commented so far, and I'll try not to let the more extravagant compliments go to my head. I'll respond to points in order of posting.

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[quote]
"For example, giving other Covenant races the ability to talk completely ruined the narrative for me. Halo CE kept you guessing--you wondered what the various enemies were really like, what their motivations were--but as soon as they started babbling melodramatic gobbledegook in Halo 2 the mystique was gone and they were reduced to ordinary NPCs you can find in any run of the mill Sci-Fi narrative."[/quote]

If we assume that the general direction of the story was planned from the start, it's rather hard to see how Bungie could have avoided other Covenant races speaking human languages. The way the situation was set up, short of a really outrageous deus-ex-machina device, humanity was bound to lose to the Covenant in the end, so the key to humanity's survival was to change and/or divide the Covenant - and it would have been highly disappointing (to put it mildly) if this critical development took place off-stage. As I said in the article, I rate the Halo 2 cutscenes very highly, but I'd have to agree with everyone else that the in-game voicing of the Elites was unsatisfactory. If my conclusions regarding in-game speech in general are followed through, then Elite in-game speech should have been confined to minimal situation-specific reaction and minimal exposition. Beyond that, the problem lies in the tone of the writing, which is, as you said, mannered and melodramatic.This isn't really the actors' fault - given the way the lines were written, their options for delivery were very limited indeed.

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[quote]"The one critique I have about this, is not really a problem, but when I went to comment I realized that a specific and fulfilling keyword or phrase has yet to be picked out to recognize quite what you mean. I don't have anything to offer, and maybe I misread and it's there, but that's the one thing I think this great idea you've revealed lacks."
[/quote]
I'd have said that the penultimate paragraph, and its last sentence in particular, come closest to encapsulating the argument as it affects game design, and I'm not sure that the idea can be compressed much further without loss of information. The title obviously references Mies van der Rohe's "Less is more", which I regard as a more valid and useful generalisation than Robert Venturi's riposte "less is a bore".

The argument as presented here does imply a more general conclusion, which was omitted for the sake of brevity and strict relevance, and which could be summarised thus: the story genre and emotional palette of an FPS game is inherently quite limited by technical considerations. The story format which works best is that of the solo quest, and the emotional tone most effectively evoked is that of isolation in a hostile or uncaring world - though if the environment is relentlessly challenging, hostile or unpleasant ('Cortana' in Halo 3, is an extreme example), and a sense of even temporary security or tranquillity is unavailable, the player will have neither the time nor the inclination to pause, reflect and enrich the experience by the use of his or her imagination.

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[quote]"Halo 2 and 3 really did fail to capture those feelings. Perhaps it's because of how the environments were designed. Comparing the Forerunner Architecture in Halo and Halo 3, Halo 3 looks more visually cluttered as well as less strange and alien."
[/quote]
Yes, the Forerunner architecture on Delta Halo lacked any obvious stylistic correlation with that of Halo 04 (apart from one section of the Library), and didn't have much internal consistency. The introduction of the ancient (Precursor?) structures apparently transplanted and conserved by the Forerunners wasn't really exploited within the story, and it's hard to resist the conclusion that this was seen primarily as a pretext for a different visual style - which was not, itself, really self-consistent.

Your remark about Halo 3's Forerunner architecture looking less strange and alien bring up two interesting points, from my perspective. The first is that I remember saying to a game-designer colleague that as a child of the 60s and 70s, I felt curiously at home amid the utopian concrete architecture of Halo CE (Mies van der Rohe rides again...). The second is that I perceive an interesting and subtle drive in Halo 3 to emphasise the Human-Forerunner connection by converging the two design styles. I can't really point to specific examples, but I started from the observation that 'Forward unto Dawn' seems to blend in visually with the Ark's structures, and those of Halo 04a.

Well done Nick. Just about your full analysis of the subject fits with mine. Only I don't quite have the ability to construct and convey it like you. I tip my hat at you old chap.

[quote=OldNick]
Almost all sequels suffer by comparison with their originals. Discovering a new universe is almost inevitably more memorable than revisiting it, however glad we may be to return. I don't think that this is the whole explanation here, however. Halo CE's campaign provides a different kind of experience, which isn't really replicated in the sequels - until we reach the final level of Halo 3, which begins by very deliberately evoking the first game.[/quote]

Bingo. I see what you mean by the way the final run builds up however I really had a problem with the level as a whole. The "final run" in Halo 3 gave me such a feeling of being ripped off. All I could think about was something that was also being felt through the final game in many instances. That feeling that Bungie just couldn't do it. That they knew what Halo 2 and then 3 was lacking but they just couldn't replicate it. The falling tiles of the final stage and the flash backs to the first game made it anti climactic for me. I was shaking my head the whole time.

[quote=OldNick]
If you've been around the Halo community long enough, I'm sure you remember people describing how they stood for hours on the beach in 'Silent Cartographer', staring out to sea. The snowy canyons and mysterious Forerunner architecture of AoTCR and 'Two Betrayals' - the core of the whole game - were also powerfully atmospheric, evoking desolation, isolation, mystery and sense-of-wonder. The start of the 'Final Run' section of the latter level, where the player climbs the ramp from the last tunnel to quiet background music and the distant sounds of a Covenant-Flood battle is, in its understated way, one of the most evocative moments of the whole game. These are just a few examples, but they should serve to remind you of the quality I'm talking about here. If they have no special meaning for you, then you may as well stop reading now - none of the rest of this will make much sense.[/quote]

Right to the point of it. This was a big factor for me. In not only my enjoyment of Halo 1 but in my disappointment in the following sequels. What is more puzzling is the way such an important thing is largely forgotten about. Like fans can't remember those instances you suggest and the feeling which cascaded through us right throughout the first game. I still experience that feeling of awe. The moments still exist in replay of the game where you feel alone and isolated. A feeling of complete hopelessness but over whelming determination to soldier on through what seems a glorious and never ending world.

I think certain things you suggest were used with such minimalism that you don't notice at first what it is that gives out this feeling. The architecture as well as the looking to the sky and seeing the Halo ring wrap around space while you feel so small and somewhat helpless. Simply amazing.

There was definitely too much dialogue in Halo 3. The more they tried to lay the story out the more questions seemed to be asked. There was so much effort in trying to explain the plot that it did leave a high percentage of players still scratching their head. Such an effort to hammer more and more into the story. Trying vainly to tie loose strings and wrap it all up. Why not just leave it simple and open ended. After all not knowing if Jose Wales dies or not is half the enjoyment upon reflection.

P.S. I'm sure you won't mind but I linked this to another gaming forum. The members there would find this article very good reading also.

[url]http://halomonks.net/forums/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=611[/url]

To VVV: Thank you for your kind opinion.

Regarding Halo 3, while I certainly think there is too much chatter in general (perhaps so much that it tends to drown out important information), I'd suggest that the breakneck pace is another powerful reason why some people seem to find the plot hard to follow.

It's also interesting to note what doesn't get said (or evoked) in Halo 3. I've suggested in my previous reply (and you've remarked as well) that loneliness, isolation and the single-player-against-the-world scenario seem to be the natural province of the FPS at its best, and there's a huge missed opportunity to exploit this in Halo 3.

Just after you touch down on the Ark, a marine starts to remark on the galaxy spread out across the sky, but gets slapped down by his non-com. That's militarily authentic, no doubt, but doesn't it seem a little strange that no-one else seems to think it worth mentioning that everyone is a very, very, very long way from home until the Chief is finally allowed to register the obvious in the Cartographer cutscene with 343 GS - and there's no significant emotional component to the 'revelation'. I think something could have been made of this, without too much exposition. The Ark is an awe-inspiring structure in an awe-inspiring location, but even the cutscene cinematics don't really exploit this fully, and the level design (and audio design) seem to be focused on gameplay and plot points to the exclusion of a 'sense of place'. It's ancient and marvellous, in theory, but this just isn't conveyed to the player on an emotional level. The Ark and The Covenant are certainly great fun to play, but they don't get under your skin in the way they could and should.

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P.S. I'm perfectly happy (flattered, in fact) that you should link in people who may be interested, but it's Narcogen's bandwidth, so he's the arbiter here, and I really should thank him, too, for providing me with a platform.

P.P.S. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to comment on your article about MP maps, but since I have absolutely no experience of Halo MP, I don't think I'm entitled to an opinion on the subject.

You hit the nail on the head with this, thanks for the thoughts, they help clear mine up.

Wish you'd written letters like this to Bungie before they made the sequels, Narcogen too; you both put into words what Bungie failed to realize...

I'm thinking about playing Halo CE right now...sigh

[quote]You hit the nail on the head with this, thanks for the thoughts, they help clear mine up.

Wish you'd written letters like this to Bungie before they made the sequels, Narcogen too; you both put into words what Bungie failed to realize...

I'm thinking about playing Halo CE right now...sigh[/quote]

Now I'm getting a little worried. While I do derive some satisfaction from having successfully expressed what some other people were thinking but couldn't articulate, I didn't set out to found an anti-Halo-sequel movement or damage fans' faith in Bungie. My aim was to analyse why Halo CE had qualities which its sequels lacked, with the benefit of hindsight and the synthesis of many other people's insights, in the hope that game developers might profit from the analysis, and Halo enthusiasts might appreciate a novel explanation of how we came to be here, (at least, in my opinion).

As I pointed out in the last paragraph of this entry, game developers tend to be ambitious, enthusiastic and exuberant people, positively driven to cram as much as possible - or even more - into any given game. I've done it myself, many times, in many different ways. The sequels are what they are because talented people poured years of effort into them. It's a sad irony that this very drive and effort were arguably counter-productive in some ways. I would imagine that when Bungie set out on Halo 2, the overwhelming sentiment among the team was that this time they had the resources to do the job properly.

To deliberately exercise the sort of creative restraint I see in Halo CE while making a game for the contemporary market would require very great courage and self-confidence. Austerity is hard to sell, especially in the numbers necessary to support a modern development team. I'd like to think that visual beauty, atmosphere and involvement (plus excellent gameplay, of course) could still deliver a hit with popular as well as cult appeal, but in the games market it's much easier to sell (and provide) excess.

If I've badly misinterpreted the intended meaning of the poster to whom I'm replying here, then I apologise.

[quote]If I've badly misinterpreted the intended meaning of the poster to whom I'm replying here, then I apologise.[/quote]

Well I certainly enjoyed Halo 2, I’m still enjoying Halo 3. Both are great games, I just meant to say that Halo CE had something special that I think you’ve described here really well, maybe Bungie missed what made Halo CE so special, maybe it was impossible to capture it again, I just meant to say that Halo CE was something Halo 2 and 3, however good, just didn’t live up to. When I compare all three, they don’t live up to the original, but they certainly are great games.

This is a dilemma that all sequels face in all mediums. Creators are really caught in a catch-22; if they stick too closely to the original, then the sequel is just “more of the same”, and if it strays too far from the original, then its “missing X that made the first one so great”. I point this out because making a good sequel is an incredibly difficult balance that creators must strike, and most often fail.

As you pointed out, going into 2 and 3, the player has already had that moment of awe the first time they landed on a ring and saw it arching up into the sky over them, and the first submersion into the elegant symmetrical architecture of the forerunners, the first thrill of getting into a Scorpion and blowing the sh*t out of things, etc etc. Bungie was never going to recapture that – and so to compensate, the best they can do is to make each sequel “More”. It’s of course debatable how effective their attempts were, or what opportunities they missed (personally I thought there were more “wow” moments in 2 then 3), but its clear they were trying.

Secondly, some things are very much “of their time”, and while we may look back on them fondly, they just wouldn’t be acceptable anymore. For example: stop-motion animation. When I watch Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, I am totally in awe of what they were able to accomplish. But if I went to see Transformers (and I stress IF) and the robots were stop-motion animated, I think that everyone would be more then a bit disappointed. Another way of putting it, which has also been discussed on this site: I would love a Marathon remake or sequel, but it just wouldn’t be a Marathon game without the terminals. I don’t think a game where the story is told through text terminals would be accepted these days - gamers wouldn’t want to sit and read those things anymore. If Halo 2 and 3 had stayed closer to the simplicity and sparseness of H1, I think they would have been a huge let down. Remember the outrage when the Halo 3 beta was released and everyone was complaining it looked like Halo 2.5? Imagine the fury if it looked like Halo 1.

I’m struggling to express my ideas here without writing a thesis… am I making sense?

not.now.murray said:
[quote]
This is a dilemma that all sequels face in all mediums. Creators are really caught in a catch-22; if they stick too closely to the original, then the sequel is just “more of the same”, and if it strays too far from the original, then its “missing X that made the first one so great”. I point this out because making a good sequel is an incredibly difficult balance that creators must strike, and most often fail...

...If Halo 2 and 3 had stayed closer to the simplicity and sparseness of H1, I think they would have been a huge let down. Remember the outrage when the Halo 3 beta was released and everyone was complaining it looked like Halo 2.5? Imagine the fury if it looked like Halo 1.

[/quote]
Your very cogent points suggest to me that I should try to restate and expand on my implied suggestions as to how things could or should have been done in the sequels - with benefit of hindsight. Clearly, as you say, a simple rehash of Halo CE would not have been acceptable, so what vital elements of the original could be carried over and re-applied without self-plagiarism? I'd say that evocation of mood and pacing are perhaps the most important things.

Successful evocation of mood largely depends on audio presentation. Halo CE relied heavily on quiet, unobtrusive environmental sound and low-key spot effects, which (coupled with the sparse dialogue) encouraged the player to listen, watch and move carefully, like a stalking hunter intensely aware of his surroundings. Music was used quite sparsely, and all the more effectively for that. Near-silence can be golden.

Then there's the intimately-related question of pacing. Halo CE levels included a lot of very obvious 'vision-locks' designed to isolate high-detail sections of a level from each other. The zigzag corridors and tunnels in AoTCR are a classic example, but there are many others. These had the secondary effect of spacing out encounters, letting the player relax for a few moments and putting him back into the alert and receptive state described above, listening to pick up audio clues to the nature of the next encounter - and letting him start the next fight in his own time and on his own terms. Levels in the later games seemed to be deliberately designed to make these sections less visually obvious, which is fair enough, but also used them to stage encounters, thus making the action more continuous and less episodic. There's absolutely no reason why the effect can't be deliberately re-created. It means fewer encounters per square metre of level designed, but would [i]you[/i] let an accountant design video games?

NPC scripting also affects this question of pace. Where allies follow the player, the player sets the pace, and is free to take his time - unless nagged, which is something which really should be done very sparingly indeed. All too often in Halo 2, the player is forced to run along after allies, leaving no time to appreciate the environment and ambience. Bungie may have recognised this problem, since it's less evident in Halo 3, but they do tend to put pressure on the player in other ways - primarily deadline pressure and nagging from NPCs. If you ignore the nagging, then unless you're an incorrigible egotist (and see your character as a kindred spirit) you lose some degree of your immersion in the game world. On the other hand, if you're a painfully conscientious type like myself, who tries to stay in character while playing, you end up rushing through the game in order to avoid the NPCs' disapproval, and feeling more like the hunted than the hunter.

It's perfectly acceptable to include a few deadline-pressure sections in a game - Halo CE has at least two - but who wants to be chivvied all the way through a game? Non-stop action and stress can become just a little wearing after a few hours. If you can relax from time to time within the game world, then you can maintain immersion much longer.

[quote=OldNick]Your very cogent points suggest to me that I should try to restate and expand on my implied suggestions as to how things could or should have been done in the sequels - with benefit of hindsight. Clearly, as you say, a simple rehash of Halo CE would not have been acceptable, so what vital elements of the original could be carried over and re-applied without self-plagiarism? I'd say that evocation of mood and pacing are perhaps the most important things.

Successful evocation of mood largely depends on audio presentation. Halo CE relied heavily on quiet, unobtrusive environmental sound and low-key spot effects, which (coupled with the sparse dialogue) encouraged the player to listen, watch and move carefully, like a stalking hunter intensely aware of his surroundings. Music was used quite sparsely, and all the more effectively for that. Near-silence can be golden.
[/quote]

I guess what I was getting at was not so much a critique of the Halo sequels, but just to acknowledge the challenges that Bungie faced when trying to follow-up Halo:CE. I thought that addressing these might shed some light on the decisions and deviations that Bungie made for the sequels.

As for your specific points, I agree that while the sequels never quite exactly captured the mood of the original, particularly the sense of solitude, I think that points in 2 and 3 equaled or exceeded the awe, wonder, and sense of ancientness in H:CE, all while staying true to the tone of it. And as for use of music, while my favorite musical moment of the trilogy occurs in H:CE, I thought the use of music overall was lacking in effectiveness due to its sporadic and at times arbitrary use. But I do agree that, at the right time, near-silence can be golden.

As for the pacing of Halo:CE, I thought it was one of the game's weaker points. Not that 2 and 3 are pinnacles of great game pacing, but I found H:CE to fall too heavily into the "hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - etc." trap that added a great deal of unnecessary tediousness to the campaign. H3 is greatly improved in this department. However, the overall flow of H:CE - fight your way in / fight your way out - I think worked brilliantly.

I too found the constant nagging of the NPCs annoying as I am also the kind of gamer that wants to take his time and explore every corner (probably left over from the Marathon days - there might be some ammo back there!) so I agree with you on this point.

This probably sounds like I'm totally ragging on H:CE, but when all you're talking about is flaws it can't help but sound that way...

Murray, I find that the "hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - etc." gameplay to be right through the series. This is certainly something that in many peoples eyes reflects badly on game play. However I think Nick is looking at something that we can seperate from the game play.

Silence is golden and many challenges that game makers have are not dis-similar to those faced by other medias. Especially the movie making industry. Quite often when a winning formula is developed in movie making the sequel is let down by trying to tread a different path. If I can use a comparison here I think back to the Matrix trilogy. It was evident that bigger was thought of as the way to go. However the struggle between Agent Smith and Neo lost much of it's appeal as the two grew more powerful. Neo lost his vulnerability which was a big reason for his appeal.

Anyway I digress. Certainly I'll admit that Halo CE has moments you look at and think "hey this looks a little rushed and mashed together". Nick does a good job of proving the reuse of things as necessary in various ways. However the game at times does feel padded in many ways. Not sure how to best explain that.

I guess what I'm getting at is when it comes to game play and "reuse" of levels or elements of them we can all agree. Halo CE is far from perfact and there is plenty of evidence that Bungie struggled throughout the process in terms of production. This is heavily over shadowed however, simply by a game that (somewhat fortunately) stumbled upon a method of story telling which worked perfectly with the game design and story.

In my opinion Halo CE is the absolute best of the Halos, I enjoy playing it over and over. Every thing in Halo CE just look more alien than all the other Halos. I believe this differint perspective was cause by starting us off on the "POA", by showing us how primative are teck was than comparing it with Halos teck, all of it look so differint and out side of the box. Also when putting us on the covenant ship, it further more increase my awareness of the beauty and effert the artists put in to make every thing look more alien. They tried to do this in Halo 2 but in stead of making Halo look alien they made it look more ancient. There are some parts of Halo 2 that did look extraterrestrial but the majority of it just didn't have that breath taking awe that "CE" has. At the end of Halo 3, the hole reminder of halo CE end was fun but it sucket. the flood and the sentinels were barely going at it. Now halo CE they were kicking each other a55 along with the covenant too, that was an ending. I must have died a thousand times, i kept looking at the battles instead of the road. Also i think the Marines in Halo CE look WAY better and moved better than any of the others. Not including the O.D.S.T.

Good job Nick i think every one that plays Halo sould read your post, and should understand that Halo "Combat Evolved" is the best of the best.

I fine the hall way room full of monsters waiting for you to be mighty fun, i mean there is so much you can do with it. So many tactics that you can use: how about throwing just frags or try to be stelth, guns blazzing, suicidal guns blazzing, beat downs, and my favort beat down suicidal. Good times good times, gust try it you will have the time of your life hahaha.

As VVV points out, I wasn't advocating a slavish return to the hallway-room-rinse-and-repeat layout (though the most recent anonymous poster demonstrates that this traditional pattern can also be seen as a familiar and potentially enjoyable ritual). The important point, as I see it, is that there should be significant pauses between encounters at reasonably frequent intervals, to let the player soak up the ambience. I see this as an important factor in Halo CE's atmospheric quality.

Regarding the Halo CE audio environment, I've been looking at the 'Audio Post-Mortem: Halo 3' article over at the new [url=http://www.bungie.net/inside/publications.aspx]Bungie Publications page[/url] (unfortunately I can't yet read the 'Environment Design in Halo 3' article - roll on the pdf). Perhaps the single most general design maxim declared in this is 'Sound Makes It Real - Music Makes You Feel'. That seems to me like a rather dangerous credo, if interpreted literally. Coupled with the very technically-impressive capability for adaptive soundtrack music, you could read it as encouraging the use of continuous background music, which I personally deprecate. I've found that in reviewing Halo 3 cutscenes and samples from the soundtrack album, I've enjoyed the music much more, whereas while playing the game I'd simply tuned it out almost all the time. In Halo CE, that wasn't true - when music started playing, you noticed it, and appreciated it, and in the intervals the ambient/spot effect soundtrack set the mood quite effectively. This is directly analogous, and closely related, to the episodic pacing discussed above - contrast and relief are good things, when used sensitively.

[quote=OldNick]This is directly analogous, and closely related, to the episodic pacing discussed above - contrast and relief are good things, when used sensitively.[/quote]

Joe Staten said, some time after h2 release, that the one thing he missed in h2 was the chance to relax and take in the surroundings. (I can't remember his exact words.)

So it looks like some of the guys at Bungie understand what you are saying and maybe they tried to put this into Halo 3.

I believe that feedback from the play-testing labs (another feature that Halo CE probably lacked or had little of) is responsible for NPCs chiding the player. I'm constantly been told when a fight has finished. I suspect that playtesting showed that some players had difficulty knowing when a fight was done. So... Bungie adds NPC chat to tell you when all the Covies are dead. Its very blatant, 'This fight is over, we won Spartan.', 'we're finished here Chief'.

I wish this was restricted to easy and normal. Let Heroic and Legendary players work it out for themeselves. And keep a count of games played, for players with a hard drive, and stop bugging them after the 4th time through a level.

Is overreacting to playtesting responsible for one way gates and other restrictions of movement choices? Too many players getting lost, uncertainty of which way to go?

Scarab wrote:

[quote]Joe Staten said, some time after h2 release, that the one thing he missed in h2 was the chance to relax and take in the surroundings. (I can't remember his exact words.)

So it looks like some of the guys at Bungie understand what you are saying and maybe they tried to put this into Halo 3.
[/quote]
That's definitely interesting. Maybe his was a minority opinion? I can only hope it gains wider acceptance, since I would have said that there's a progressive reduction over the three games.

[quote]I believe that feedback from the play-testing labs (another feature that Halo CE probably lacked or had little of) is responsible for NPCs chiding the player. I'm constantly been told when a fight has finished. I suspect that playtesting showed that some players had difficulty knowing when a fight was done. So... Bungie adds NPC chat to tell you when all the Covies are dead. Its very blatant, 'This fight is over, we won Spartan.', 'we're finished here Chief'.

I wish this was restricted to easy and normal. Let Heroic and Legendary players work it out for themeselves. And keep a count of games played, for players with a hard drive, and stop bugging them after the 4th time through a level.

Is overreacting to playtesting responsible for one way gates and other restrictions of movement choices? Too many players getting lost, uncertainty of which way to go? [/quote]

I suspect you're probably right. I'd be very interested to know how FPS-experienced the testers were. Traditionally, playtesters would be hardcore gamers - no-one else would take the job. I gained the impression from what's been said on the subject that the pool used to test Halo 3 was much larger than usual and may have been less ... specialised. As you say, more experienced players might appreciate the option to take off the training wheels. It still seems like a rather clumsy and obtrusive way to guide the player about.

I actually started writing a blog entry on the subject of seemingly arbitrary movement restrictions in Halo 3, but it turned into a dissertation on why shooter levels are inevitably so small and restrictive, and was recycled in part for this entry.

[quote=OldNick]Perhaps the single most general design maxim declared in this is 'Sound Makes It Real - Music Makes You Feel'. That seems to me like a rather dangerous credo, if interpreted literally. Coupled with the very technically-impressive capability for adaptive soundtrack music, you could read it as encouraging the use of continuous background music, which I personally deprecate. I've found that in reviewing Halo 3 cutscenes and samples from the soundtrack album, I've enjoyed the music much more, whereas while playing the game I'd simply tuned it out almost all the time.[/quote]
Be advised that I haven't been able to review the GDC articles yet... so I'm going only from my own experiences with the games on this. However, they way "Sound makes it real" worked out (in my experience) is the use of audio to signify interactions; footsteps on sand or snow or metal, for instance, to alert the player of a transition... the fade between near- and proximate-sound filters to give players an idea of how near or far an event is... speaker-position mixing to make the direction of an event intuitive (rocket! behind me!)... My interpretation is that "sound makes it real" is intended to mean "incidental and ambient sound make the game feel more 'real' to the player when they match in-game events". (If the talk notes contradict that interpretation, I'll take my crow roasted with sea salt and a dash of vinegar.)

Marty's been vocal on other sites about the necessity of "down time" in soundtracks to avoid the music turning into wallpaper, so your concern is known. However I found I appreciated Halo 3's soundtrack much more *consciously* upon replay, when I was less focused on the game, and in retrospect that the music did act as a subconscious cue even though I hadn't been consciously aware of it on my early run-throughs.

As to the necessity for breaks in the action, well, I provide those myself as I did in Halo 2; the game's not time-limited (save during certain fights) and so I can take the action at my own pace... so I do.

-- Steve

Anton P Nym wrote:

[quote]My interpretation is that "sound makes it real" is intended to mean "incidental and ambient sound make the game feel more 'real' to the player when they match in-game events".[/quote]

I don't think there's too much room for disagreement about the interpretation of "Sound Makes It Real". My quarrel with this maxim is that it sets up or implies a false dichotomy: ONLY music can evoke emotion.

[quote]Marty's been vocal on other sites about the necessity of "down time" in soundtracks to avoid the music turning into wallpaper, so your concern is known. However I found I appreciated Halo 3's soundtrack much more *consciously* upon replay, when I was less focused on the game, and in retrospect that the music did act as a subconscious cue even though I hadn't been consciously aware of it on my early run-throughs.[/quote]

We seem to agree that much of Halo 3's music works only subliminally (at least on a first play-through), and this strikes me as a pity. How does this differ, essentially, from music as wallpaper? Music I don't notice may have some emotional effect on me, but I don't believe I'm really appreciating it. My own experience has been rather different from yours, in that I still found myself tuning out the music in-game even after forty-odd play-throughs. I didn't even find that I gave it much more attention while watching saved films.

[quote]As to the necessity for breaks in the action, well, I provide those myself as I did in Halo 2; the game's not time-limited (save during certain fights) and so I can take the action at my own pace... so I do.[/quote]

That's not quite what I meant. What I'm advocating is variation of pace within the game, not simply to allow the player to wind down, but to encourage awareness of the game environment and sensitivity to atmosphere. I see this as an important quality of Halo CE.

[quote=OldNick]I don't think there's too much room for disagreement about the interpretation of "Sound Makes It Real". My quarrel with this maxim is that it sets up or implies a false dichotomy: ONLY music can evoke emotion.[/quote]
I suppose it could be interpreted that way, but as you say that interpretation is a false dichotomy... or, rather, mistaking the statement to be prescriptive instead of descriptive. The primary function of music in games is to evoke appropriate emotions in the player, but music is far from being the only tool to do so. Me, I'd be spamming the player with as many emotional tricks as I have in my bag; plot, character, lighting, art design, whatever works to put the player into the game-space and forget about the TV's/monitor's bezel. Of course, it doesn't pay to over-do it and kick the player back out...

[quote]We seem to agree that much of Halo 3's music works only subliminally (at least on a first play-through), and this strikes me as a pity. How does this differ, essentially, from music as wallpaper? Music I don't notice may have some emotional effect on me, but I don't believe I'm really appreciating it. My own experience has been rather different from yours, in that I still found myself tuning out the music in-game even after forty-odd play-throughs. I didn't even find that I gave it much more attention while watching saved films.[/quote]
It depends upon the intent, I guess. If the game designer wants the music to take a back seat to the action and the music still does its job of cuing player emotions, then it's mission accomplished for the designer. As for players, well, that seems to be a matter of preference. Bungie included custom soundtrack support in Halo 3 for a reason, and not just to tick a 360-developer checkbox.

(As for my experience with the game music, I find that when listening to the soundtrack on my mp3 player I mentally superimpose in-game SFX at appropriate moments sometimes... for instance, missile-pod launches in "3 towers" at the start of the measure for that first Hornet dogfight.)

[quote]That's not quite what I meant. What I'm advocating is variation of pace within the game, not simply to allow the player to wind down, but to encourage awareness of the game environment and sensitivity to atmosphere. I see this as an important quality of Halo CE.[/quote]
Whereas I like the idea that the player can choose to set the tempo of the game; if he/she wants to blitz through it's possible, if he/she wants to soak up the ambiance, that's possible too.

Indeed, one of the things I like about the Halo series is how flexible the experience can be in each game. Players can choose how much story to absorb, how fast to play, how hard to fight; Halo works best (IMO) when it's not forcing you to clean your plate before dessert if you don't want to. That allows the game to appeal to a broad spectrum of players. Admittedly in Halo 3 those who felt the game crowded or rushed probably could've used more "take 5 and smell the flowers" cues; I know I've let myself be swayed into playing through faster than my 'druthers more than once by that near-subliminal music and dialog tempo.

-- Steve's a big fan of giving players all the choices they can handle... then again, his current game addiction is RezHD which doesn't really give much flexibility. Hmmm...

[quote=OldNick]My conclusion is this: Halo CE's unique appeal largely derives from the constraints under which it was developed, and the creative way in which this enforced restraint was turned to advantage.[/quote]
I mostly agree. Some of the good points of Halo CE were happy accidents, probably due to time pressures and resource constraints. I also believe that working around constraints can help creativity.

But I also think that Bungie consciously threw away a lot of the FPS baggage.

We don't have a bag of holding to carry every weapon that we ever picked up in game. We don't break open crates to find: ammo, health, food, brass tubes, etc. We don't discover power ups.

We had the weapon that we were holding and the-other-one. We had the selected grenade type and the-other-one.

Compare Halo CE to Bioshock. There are no mini-game safe cracks, no currancy (dollars or elastic tubing and screws). No overly complicated and impractical plasmid reshuffling. Just pure combat.

Bungie did add stuff after Halo CE but they also removed health packs. So I suppose there is a tension between people inside Bungie who want to add stuff and visionaries who want to take stuff away.

I like the minimalist approach. I could totally do without duel wielding and the new grenade types. Vehicle jacking is ok. Equipment is ok. But the action button has become so overloaded. I wouldn't shed a tear if they all went, especially the first two. (The new grenade types are a crime against gameplay.)

[quote=scarab]We don't discover power ups.[/quote]

DOH! [b]permanent[/b] upgrades

[quote=not.now.murray]
As for the pacing of Halo:CE, I thought it was one of the game's weaker points. Not that 2 and 3 are pinnacles of great game pacing, but I found H:CE to fall too heavily into the "hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - room full of monsters waiting for you to show up - hallway - etc." trap that added a great deal of unnecessary tediousness to the campaign. H3 is greatly improved in this department. However, the overall flow of H:CE - fight your way in / fight your way out - I think worked brilliantly.[/quote]
Well, I think there's something to be said for the way Bungie handled those encounters in Halo 1- at least it wasn't "a room full of monsters waiting for you to show up"... all standing pointing their guns at the door you need to enter the room through. The sleeping grunts/patrolling elites may still seem like a poor cover-up for the cliche that you note, but in my opinion they subtly added to the atmosphere of AotCR (other things Bungie used to avoid this included having enemies preoccupied with combating either marines or flood or sentinels when you got there). It added a stealth aspect that was never replicated in the rest of the game, let alone the sequels. Using the word "stealth" is mostly disingenuous save for the one large room after you go down the elevator in that level, as most of the time avoiding detection was just momentary aid to get the first shot/grenade stick away. In either case, trying to be "stealthy" around an elite, seeing his chin slowly edge towards his shoulder, and then suddenly turn and point while bellowing or wort-wort-wort-ing at you was an amazing feeling. The encounters certainly weren't CONSISTENTLY that good when entering a new area in CE, I'm just saying that it was never quite had the plastic light-gun rail shooter psychic enemy syndrome you make it out to be. Even if the covenant were just twiddling their thumbs or pacing back and forth, at least they were doing SOMETHING besides waiting for the Demon to arrive.