On Liking 'Halo' for the Story

Halo: Reach wallpaper by Sam Spratt

Henry Jenkins's ideas of transmedia and convergence culture may have huge implications for what it means to be a "gamer" in a media generation in which play is optional.

Halo: Reach

Publisher: Microsoft
Genres: First-person shooter
Platforms: Xbox 360
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB Rating: M
Developer: Bungie
Release Date: 2010-09-14

Over the period of September 11th through the 15th, a group of friends -- far from the light and sound show of Bungie's Times Square launch party -- gathered together in a suburban basement in the Midwest for their own miniature Halo: Reach convention.

For most, this was their first hands-on Halo experience. Though a handful had played the previous games (one because of her work -- she's a Microsoft support technician), most had come at the series through ancilliary media: the expanded universe of the comics, the novels, and to some extent the excessively detailed Halopedia. All but one or two had gotten into it through Red vs Blue, a machinima webseries using Halo multiplayer as a way of animating the show (especially the later seasons that shift toward a more serious tone). For this group of college-aged, female* fans, Halo was more an extension of the fan driven webseries -- not the other way around.

I must make clear the emphasis that I'm placing on this relationship because by and large this is a group of fans -- and they're not so unusual in this era of Youtube walkthroughs and fan wikis -- who will click compulsively on every Monday but still consider the games themselves (those fundamental pieces of software which enable Red vs Blue's very existence) as a matter of the periphery. They will watch the cutscenes, buy the soundtracks, preorder the comics, accumulate the merchandise, kitbash the figures, but they just don't play the games a lot.

This opens up potentially huge considerations. Is it possible to be part of the subculture, even a devoted fan of something, without fully embracing the initial medium the way that it was intended? Or is intention something we have to break away from as much as our persistent attitude that play is fundamental to experience? Consider how linear the Halo games really are, and how, correlatively, there are far fewer transmedia inpoints for something such as, say, Mass Effect, in which player decision plays a large role. It could be that for a great deal of media (even those celebrated largely for their ludic aspects) that the narrative represents an oppositional way to engage a title or franchise.

Transmedia storytelling, especially as advanced by Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins, means storytelling (I would advance more broadly worldbuilding) that is accessed via multiple media forms and never in the same way twice (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, 2006). This idea would not necessarily be the same thing as franchise tie-ins or synergy. Instead, it involves understanding different media (games, animated shorts, comics) and applying them as unique entry points to the content. These might be side adventures, spotlights on tertiary characters, or spin offs. Even Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) like 4orty2wo's "i love bees", while virally promotional in intention, also offer aspects for narrative involvement not available elsewhere. What we see especially in Red vs Blue, as a kind of co-opted fan product, is a Stoppardian tragicomic and metalogical take on its subject matter with an incredibly strong emphasis on character, something that's lingered on the weak side in the games until Reach. Something that, of course, also benefited from an expansive viral marketing campaign of its own.

The totality of all these transmedia elements, including high quality fan productions, like what Rooster Teeth has been doing, add up to something that I would argue is at least as richly detailed and densely populated as Tolkien's fictional world (well, putting all value judgments regarding quality or longevity aside). Regardless, it's pretty clear that the more that a fan explores the expanded universe and remixes, the more meaningful their play experience -- if any -- becomes. It also potentially decentralizes play itself as part of what it means to be part of this kind of subculture.

When we say "core", we tend to mean devoted gamers, who more than being ludically skilled with a certain area of games are also invested socially in a kind of core culture. Hence, my introductory example of what are nominally a group of non-playing or novice level fans, who bear all the hallmarks of what we would consider dedicated, even obsessive, Halo geeks sans the element that we conventionally would consider essential to that identity.

Does this mean that Halo by necessity isn't core or that core as a cultural identification bears some further examination? If our relationship to the play experience wasn't at least a little mutable, entire sites dedicated to comprehensive video walkthroughs would not have proliferated as they have. Even the idea behind Let's Play -- the name itself, really -- is founded on a shared, communal gaming experience by proxy of the one uploader. And for franchises like Halo or more obscure properties like Bandai-Namco's .hack series, these intersections between official and fan inpoints (machinima, fan wikis, etc.) mean that a dedicated fan can indeed get a full enough picture from such composites.

* I mention their gender to be factual, not because I believe that female fans inherently approach media a certain way. In fact, I saw these friends as breaking with gender stereotypes just as much as multiplayer women do. No one present at the convention got into Halo because of a boyfriend or male relative or because it "seemed male" to them. Instead, they all very much seem to care about the character dynamics in the mythos. You should hear them hold forth on their interpretation of Emile and Jorge's relationship sometime.

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