Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

The Halo Trinity

It would not be correct to say that the debate over whether video games are art is raging. Those who play video games believe in their importance, and everybody else doesn't, and the two parties have very little to say to each other. But for the latter group, video games are getting increasingly difficult to ignore as a vital force in popular culture, and the hardest game to ignore right now is Halo.

Questions of aesthetic philosophy aside, Halo — like its sequel, Halo 2 — is an extraordinary animal, to which a plot summary does not do justice. (But for the record: laconic supersoldier battles alien religious zealots on a ring-shaped planet, while a zombifying plague preys on both sides.) To play Halo is to take part in what feels like a sci-fi Wagnerian opera, a ballet of bullets, lasers and orchestral music.

Video games are collaborative artworks — sorry, products. The Halo 2 team was led by Jason Jones, co-founder of Bungie Studios, which makes the game. (Bungie is owned by Microsoft.) Art director Marcus Lehto created the vivid look, while physics-programming lead Charlie Gough made sure objects in the game behave as they do in real life, only funner.

If you still doubt the power of their creation, consider that in the first 10 weeks after its release, gamers logged 91 million man-hours playing Halo 2 online. That's 10,000 years spent in the virtual world that Jones, Lehto, Gough and their collaborators built, and that's only the online figure, a small fraction of what must be a truly staggering total figure. Halo 2 may be virtual, but its power is clearly very real.

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