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Tao Plays: Halo 2
Memories of Master Chief
Usually when I pick a game to play, I try not to lean too heavily towards childhood nostalgia. I believe in creating new and great experiences for myself now, rather than riding on the positive feelings of days gone by. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and one which publishers use knowingly when marketing their games. Alongside World of Warcraft, Halo was probably one of the defining games of my adolescence. I know how much I love it, and the amount of time I can spend on it if I let myself. Perhaps I have written this little preamble to convince myself that, as I did with WoW, I am consciously making an exception by going back to it 15 years later. In truth, the reasons I have sunk over 40 hours into Halo 2 online multiplayer over the last few weeks is the same as they ever were: my friends are playing it, and it is ridiculously fun.
With the release of The Master Chief Collection on PC, my housemate suggested we try and gather enough people to play 4v4 custom games with one another. It sounded like a wholesome enough plan. We would avoid the cauldron of online matchmaking in favour of games where we knew everyone’s real names and faces. It would be similar to when we ferried big TVs to each other’s houses, and stretched long ethernet cables between rooms at LAN parties, but updated for modern times. Weeks before the release of Halo 2 we were in a position to play, with 9 people ready and waiting in a dedicated whatsapp group and discord server. We had already warmed ourselves up on Halo 1. We knew the multiplayer experience in the previous game paled in comparison to its successor, but it was still a satisfying taste of what was in store. Incredibly, Ben was not among us. His avoidance of the newly reformed zeitgeist genuinely had the ring of a recovering addict, for whom complete abstinence was the only option.
The day Halo 2 was released I heard the familiar sound of booms and gunfire coming from the living room. My housemate was straight into online matchmaking for some practice games. I joined him without a second thought. The room became a portal to the past. We took great pleasure in finding our old rhythm again so quickly. Later, I tried clumsily to compare the feeling of having the controller back in my hands to when Theoden gets given his sword again in Lord of the Rings (‘Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped your sword…’). The muscle memory I trained as a teenager appeared to be completely intact. The visual representation of each map in my mind, essential for smoothly strafing behind walls, crouching in corners and jumping between ledges, was still there. The paths I travelled, optimised to reach the the most powerful weapons and outflank my opponents, felt like they had been worked out long ago.
The frustration of being outplayed also returned. The games where we were thoroughly thrashed did not feel good. Ordinarily I can coolly rationalise loss in games. You’ve either made a mistake, or your opponent has played better than you. However, in Halo I will usually find every other reason I can think of before admitting either of these things are true. How often have I heard different variations of ‘that’s $%#^*£™&, they definitely should have died!’ from both me and my friends whilst playing online? If it isn’t the fault of lag or modding, then it’s simply the disfavour of the Halo gods: your death predetermined, and out of your control. The Halo rage, as it’s well known, is certainly less pervasive than it was when I was younger. Nevertheless, I feel like I should have somehow moved past it. As someone who usually has a fairly tranquil disposition, my angry reactions to being beaten feel pretty out of character.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is how addictive the game is. While playing alongside my friend on the sofa a couple of weeks ago, with another friend on discord, we let ourselves be drawn into match after match before dragging ourselves away. Every game had either gone so well that we wanted to play another, or so badly that we wanted to reassert ourselves before moving on. My friend’s partner told us afterwards, in no uncertain terms, that hearing us play created an undesirable vibe in the house, not to mention that our cries were upsetting the dog. Since then we’ve tried our best to limit ourselves to a couple of sessions a week at the most, for no longer than two hours at a time. If you’re not careful, a whole Sunday can be swallowed up in online matchmaking. Whilst the moment to moment experience is incredibly satisfying, looking back on a day of doing nothing else does not fill me with joy.
Shamefully, the dream of a 4v4 custom match between our friends has not materialised. There has never been a time when more than 4 of us have been online during a single session, and so we have leant on strangers with funny names to facilitate our fun. I tried to describe the enjoyment to another friend who used to play, but has not yet rejoined us. I explained the satisfaction in dusting off a skill that was once well trained, but has been left unused. It might be the same feeling a retired footballer gets when they kick a ball around with their grandchildren, or an expatriate feels speaking their native language after many years living abroad. Given my lack of recent practice, I have no right to be as proficient as I am; for my instincts to be so well drilled. My friend responded: ‘you make it sound as though you’re ex-military’. Perhaps I really did spend too long looking through the Master Chief’s eyes.