Monday, 8 August 2011

Bungie, Part I

There is a new "ViDoc" out from Bungie. It details the rise and eventual fall of a company that only made decent products when they weren't burdened by the enormity of success. It is the story of a company that was founded by a bunch of college buddies renting out a cramped, stinky room, and ballooned into a faceless monolith that charges $70 to have explosive diarrhea once every few years.

Whenever a new Halo game was in development, Bungie would release "Video Documentaries" about their progress. They're certainly not the day-to-day in-depth look you'd get from Peter Jackson's video diaries, and they're more PR than anything, but I looked forward to seeing how much this company could lie through its teeth when saying how "awesome" Halo 2 was. I wrote my thesis on how that was such a steaming pile of dog shit that the games industry still hasn't quite recovered. Because of that one game, we have Xbox Live, and thus a dependence on violent, stupidity, and sequels to gray and brown FPS military masturbation.

It is a 60-minute long look at how a small company of RTS game designers ruined video games.

There are two eras for this company: Pre and Post Sell-Out.

This company started out like a lot of them do: by a bunch of college dorks who didn't want to get a "real job" and get payed to do stupid shit. It is depressing how literally they've applied this philosophy in recent years. There they cut their teeth on the Real-time strategy genre, although they also had a fairly well-received couple of first-person shooters called "Marathon". Unfortunately my knowledge of this era is second-hand, since I haven't played anything of theirs pre-Halo. I will say this though: If you think today's Digital Rights Management(DRM) schemes are draconian, intrusive, insulting and ineffective, get a load of Bungie's "Myth II". If you tried to uninstall it, the game deleted your computer.

All of it. Your machine became a very expensive foot-stool. I am amazed that Ubisoft hasn't already implemented this. Maybe they're too busy punching every paying customer in the face to prove they aren't ghosts.

Nonetheless, these games were made from simpler times, with smaller ideas and not as much technical horsepower to go around. The player characters were faceless, silent and just a mode of transportation between the player and killing gross pixely dudes onscreen. It was a functional-enough solution for the time. Unfortunately, history has shown that Bungie never learned how to do anything else, and they refuse to learn even 20 years later that this kind of shit doesn't fly in a story-based multi-million dollar project.

That said, I remain a supporter of the original Halo. "Combat Evolved" perhaps was not the game Bungie wanted to make, but a few happy accidents are okay. I think I like it for a lot of the reasons it gets slammed. It didn't look as good as other games. It wasn't as complex as PC shooters at the time. What it was, I think, was a love-letter to the games that would never be made again: The simplistic sci-fi shooter games that had a definitive look and feel.

Does anyone else remember when PC games looked different from console games? Not necessarily better in all cases, but when you could actually tell the difference between screenshots? Halo looked and felt like one of those PC games was pulled from the mists of time and given to the console crowd, to show what we were missing. And while I won't say it was some glorious gift from the heavens, it took a daunting task(a mouse and keyboard-dependant genre) and accomplished it well enough on a control pad to carry on Goldeneye's legacy.

And even though I should damn well know better by now, I am looking forward to the HD remake. Especially since they decided to bring back colour to the series after its conspicuous absence in Reach.

I first heard about these games when Halo 2 came out, and everyone was talking about it like it was the successor to Half-Life. I saw it at a friend's house and played it myself, and I felt like an alien entity on my own homeworld. There was no way my own species was stupid enough to mistake this for brilliance. It's not like Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, which despite being clearly unfinished and dumbed down from the original at least has its charm as a stand-alone product. This game was offensive on pretty much every level.

The art-style was devoted to making every surface look like shiny, colourless mud. It was confounded by needless change for the sake of change(the two words to make the asshole of any Bungie employee or fan clinch are "The Pistol"). It made the mysterious alien threat from the first game into something goofy and overtheatrical. They took away any skill involved and made victory dependant on who could spawn closest to the Sword and Rockets. The grenades were made less powerful, with a smaller blast radius and severely idiotic physics that prevent them from landing anywhere close to your enemies.

It was a first person shooter where your guns were impractical and designed to make people bad at shooter games feel good about themselves. The Shotgun, for example, has a spread-shot that does more damage if you miss your opponent. Only a game catering to the lowest-common denominator would reward bad reflexes in a game genre ALL ABOUT REFLEXES.

Imagine a Sonic the Hedgehog game where you can't spin-dash, can't get power-ups, cannot jump and can only jog at a mild pace. Or where every time you fall into a pit, or run into some spikes when you don't have any rings, the game congratulates you. Now imagine Sonic the Hedgehog's fanbase was somehow willing to put up with even more crap from Sega, and give them three times as much financial support for their repeated failures.

Literally the only decent thing about Halo 2 was the story arc of "The Arbiter", who displays a surprising amount of character depth from people who have to lie down for a while after coming up with: "Silent guy with helmet who kills people". You know, to give their brains a break from all of this innovation. It helps that Arby is voiced by Keith David, who managed to give some rather dopey dialogue some much-needed weight.

Like a lot of their good ideas, he's mostly absent in later games.
It was also infamous for promising an ocean and then spitting on its customers. Because that's the same thing, right? It's trailers depicted exciting confrontations that never happen, improved graphics that never showed up, weapons that weren't included in the game, and interesting environments and missions that you never get to play. It wasn't just that we didn't get what we were promised. It's that what we got instead was obviously rushed and pathetic compared to what they were advertising. It's like buying a box that says "Turkey Dinner" with a picture of the perfectly cooked Thanksgiving meal on the box, and opening it up to find a leaky TV dinner. A TV dinner that's expired and is mostly vagrant semen.

Even Bungie hated it. Oh, they had to pass it off as the greatest anything ever at the time, but even in their latest ViDoc an entire section is devoted to what a miserable death-march it was to make, and what putrid results they were left with. That impressive E3 demo was made with incompatible technology than what they were going to use for the retail disc. The company's ambitions ran wider than their abilities at the time, and they crashed and burned. Far be it for me to take joy in another's suffering, but it's actually kind of comforting to know that Halo 2 damaged these people's lives as much as it did for me. I can't wait for the day when they can admit that Reach was actually a purposely awful excuse to give the two-for-one-special to their fans/former employers.

And worst of all, Halo 2 was the game that popularized the online matchmaking/ranked playlist First Person Shooter craze that is, to this day, still dragging down video games into an ugly place: their parent's basement. But we'll cover that in a later article.



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