Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bungie, Part II

Part I is here.

I remember many years ago reading an article about how Bungie started playtesting their games with, I kid you not, actual soccer moms. Unfortunately, Google can only locate snarky forum posts that use this sort of information as ammunition. That's the kind of things 12-years try to use as an insult for a game someone else likes. Maybe Marcus Lehto is trying very hard to pretend it never happened, like George Lucas with the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Can you imagine priorities this stupid in another medium? That's not even selling ice to an eskimo. That's marketing a white-supremacist romantic comedy to Spike Lee. That's selling a book to a Tea Party rally.  If Bungie were a car dealership, they would be trying to appeal to the armless demographic by making every steering wheel a bear-trap.

Halo 3 stands today as the single most hyped anything in the history of consumerism. If Jesus comes back, he won't have as much build-up as this insipid swill received. It didn't fix much of what was wrong with the last game. It was still a confusing series of bullshit confrontations where it's impossible to tell how much damage has been inflicted. It still lied about the functionality of its weapons, in a genre where that's kind of important. And there's still virtually no engaging story or characters to speak of.

But at least it was pretty to look at again, and had a good soundtrack, so it was only mostly a failure. And more importantly, it revealed that the folks behind the games actually WERE good at something:

Community pandering.

When most people try to contribute to a franchise, they get a cease and desist letter. Because Bungie decided not just to look on with approval, but even give modders and machinima builders a bit of a leg-up with Forge, Screenshots and Saved Films, we got Red Vs. Blue. We got stat-tracking systems, which the Call of Duty series is still trying to figure out. And we got a practical use for a series of otherwise abysmal products:

As games, they are mostly lousy and utterly contemptuous of their audience. But as tools, as an entry-level machinima distribution service, they are rivaled only by Gmod. This is why Forge World managed to be one of my favourite things of 2010, while Halo: Reach... well, I'll get to that.

Now, at this time Bungie was no longer technically owned by Microsoft, but they still technically owed them some more Halo content. So they set to work on one big, end-all effort, and one quick side-story that focused less on multiplayer and more on a personal experience. Guess which one turned out to be a bloated, under-ambitious turd, and which one turned out to be a focused precision effort.

Halo 3: ODST came out, and it still stands as the most legitimately entertaining product this company has ever released. It erased a lot of the bullshit that was killing this franchise(like dual-wielding, which put a big fucking wrench into game balance, without compensating the way Goldeneye and Perfect Dark did). It had a story, even. It had a recognizable cast doing interesting things, with writing that didn't completely hate the audience. And it managed to involve the main character(and the player) in a meaningful way, in one of the most starkly realized and unforgettable environments in any video game. And the soundtrack is unbelievable. They had finally learned their lesson...

And then they forgot that lesson again, and made Halo: Reach.

It was nice of them to let the mentally-challenged playtest it, though.

No, I don't care if you've played Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, or Daikatana or E.T. for the Atari. Reach was worse. Reach is worse than Jersey Shore. It's worse than Glee and 9/11 put together. It was a more painful experience to me than the worst root-canal I can remember. To date, it stands as the only video game that made me think Left 4 Dead 2 and Halo 2 weren't so bad after all. It also holds the distinction of being the only title that notorious game-hating douche-beard Ben Croshaw went too easy on.

But because it's the most recent title, Bungie has to sell it off as this perfect idealization of all of their life's goals. It's like seeing a man being held hostage and forced to recommend(with a straight face) that Batman and Robin is SO much better than The Dark Knight, dudes.

But unlike Halo 2 and 3, which were crippled by bad ideas, Reach was actually a good concept. It was about its characters, each with a distinctive look and personality(even if they were tired clich├ęs). It decided to clean up its matchmaking system, and install a better rank progression system involving earned credits after every match. (In Halo 3, you either won 1 experience point, or you wasted 15 minutes of your life. In Reach, you get something for participating, but you get a lot more if you do well.) It brought back easily-identifiable Health meters. It gave you your choice of weapons and special abilities every time you spawned into a game. You could play the Campaign and Firefight online. And it didn't have the fucking Master Chief in it.

So how can Reach be the worst? Well, it's easy to hate a game that was never going to be any fun. Halo 2 and 3 were terrible games because of bad design choices. Halo Reach had a lot more going for it. It had the right ideas, it had the right setting and the right goals. It had a hefty budget, and a very comfy development schedule. It had everything going for it. It was idiot-proof. And they still fucked up.

Maybe there is no understanding how and why Reach turned out this badly. I honestly can't even tell if it was an accident. It could be the world's cleverest meta-"fuck you" to Microsoft and a dipshit fanbase by its developers. I have no idea. We won't know until a few years have passed, and Bungie can finally talk shit about it. Of course by then, Bungie will not be in business anymore.

Oh please. Activision is not kind to its business partners. It's a lumbering idiot of a corporation run by a guy who would make Snidely Whiplash tell him to "tone it down a bit, bro". I've said before that when much more successful, much better franchises started to dip in sales, they effectively ended them. Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero no longer exist. Not just because public interest waned, but because as soon as those geese started laying a few less golden eggs, Bobby Kotick wrung their slender necks.

Bungie is now making a new IP for them. "New IP" is what you tell a room full of shareholders today when you want someone present to cut off your dick. Especially when those shareholders have stock in the company that makes the Call of Duty games. This isn't going to be a sequel to anything. It is depending entirely on the stupidity of its previous game's fans to not know any better. And if it doesn't make more money than World of Warcraft and Scrooge McDuck combined in the first week, then you probably shouldn't expect a sequel. I wonder what the exact moment was like, when Bungie realized it was getting into a maximum security prison shower, and it had slippery soap hands.

And there you have it: a half-assed, bitter look at the history of a company that is either infested with easily-entertained dimwits, or is held together only by the collective effort to pretend that they aren't wasting their lives.

You have to understand, I saw this franchise as something filled with potential. More than most game franchises. Free of the boundaries of reality that your Modern Warfares and your Battlefields pretend to cling to. I think there is a vault of untapped resources here, the kind that lead to long-standing classics. It has a gigantic mythology with countless interesting stories to be told, and an art-style that begs to be made into cool action figures.

Instead, they made FPS games designed for racist idiots the only marketable venture in video games. If it weren't for this one company's success, we wouldn't have Call of Duty, or Xbox Live. We wouldn't have to rally behind a cause just to get games like Xenoblade released here. Video Games themselves wouldn't be such a waste of time that the Supreme Court has to decide whether or not they're on the same level as pornography. Video gamers would be better people, be treated as functioning adults in a society, and we would all be a lot happier.

And it is all Bungie's fault.

If they're not going to get blood from this stone, that's their problem. I just wish they cared as much about how the last 10 years(and the next 10) could have been as much as I do.



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