Microsoft is saying its upcoming “Halo 3” video game “will make entertainment history.”
I wonder, though, if the company will make another kind of history by releasing a provocatively themed war game in the throes of a horrible, divisive, real-life war.
In the game, you play the part of Master Chief, a Marine saving the world by blasting away at alien zealots.
I don’t want to be a spoilsport or a hypocrite. “Halo” is a great game that millions of people, including me, will be playing for years.
But the overt symbolism Microsoft is using to sell “Halo 3” is unsettling. Maybe I’ve lived in Seattle too long. You’ve got to wonder, though, whether Microsoft is pushing it in this case.
Consider the “Halo 3” ads that Microsoft unveiled last week, before the game’s Sept. 25 launch.
They’re a series of mock documentaries, some featuring a scarred old soldier recalling battles fought with Master Chief, “the man who gave the world faith” and made humanity “believe again.”
Is that M.C. or J.C.?
The ads zoom in on anguished faces of soldiers in a battlefield diorama.
Frank O’Connor thinks I should loosen up. He’s a lead writer at Bungie Studios, the Microsoft unit that created “Halo 3.”
“Honestly, we just want people to get away from that when they’re playing our game and shoot laser guns and fly Banshees and drive around in vehicles and have fun,” he said last week.
O’Connor said people drew comparisons between Islamic fundamentalists and the alien “Covenant” when “Halo 2” was released in 2004, but the game undercut assumptions by having characters change sides.
“Halo 3” concludes an epic trilogy, and the ads tell fans “the stuff you lived through in `Halo 1’ and `Halo 2’ has importance and consequence,” he said.
“We are the latest in a long line of people exploring the same themes. It’s just that we didn’t stop doing it because there was a conflict in Iraq; we didn’t stop doing it because there was a war in Bosnia - those things are external to what we’re doing,” he said.
Provocation and a little controversy may be part of the marketing plan. That’s old hat in the game business.
I don’t think Microsoft is trying to send any subliminal, pro-war message. It’s reflecting popular culture, like a 21st-century GI Joe, dressed up with big themes to make it seem weighty and build Star Trek-like enthusiasm.
But it seems risky for a global company to even lightheartedly link spirituality and military themes during a U.S. war in the Middle East that has outraged much of the world.
Especially a company that’s trying to stay tight with the Bush administration while building its presence in developing countries.
O’Connor said Microsoft gave Bungie autonomy with “Halo.” Nothing was censored, though Bungie asked for input about an African word, from an Islamic country, it had used. To be safe, the word was changed.
“That’s the only time I can think of any guidance coming from on high about anything,” he said.
The “Halo 3” story was influenced by science fiction, all the way back to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and fictional themes that are “prototypical and archetypical - conflict, resolution, heroism, sacrifice,” O’Connor said.
The game also draws on heroes “from World War II and heroes from Thermopoli and great historical and mythical conflicts,” he said.
“Of course these things are going to ring true because history’s repeating itself, and it always does.”