Halo ‘aliens’ invade Europe for video game launch

The Master: Halo players adopt the role of a faceless and sinister hero.

Halo 4, the latest instalment in the iconic Halo video game series, will arrive in shops tomorrow, greeted by millions of eager fans. What is it that makes the game’s faceless hero so appealing?

Last week, the tiny European country of Liechtenstein was taken over by visitors from another planet. The 13th Century Gutenberg Castle glowed with an unearthly light as it was transformed into a futuristic military bunker. A quiet patch of farmland became the scene of a ferocious battle between brave space marines and ruthless split-jawed aliens. The air crackled with rifle shots and plasma fire. Then, as the chaos reached a crescendo, spectators gathered at an abandoned quarry to witness the arrival of humanity’s greatest hero: a seven-foot tall super-soldier known as ‘The Master Chief’.

The occasion for all these theatrics was not, of course, a real alien invasion. Instead, the Liechtenstein takeover was an elaborate publicity stunt to celebrate the launch of Halo 4, a new blockbuster video game.

With a bigger budget than most Hollywood films Halo 4 is very big business. Previous games in the Halo series have sold around 46 million copies altogether, generating hundreds of millions of pounds through sales, spin-offs, merchandise and marketing deals.

Halo 4 has had rave reviews from the critics and looks set to be a major hit. But what explains the game’s huge appeal to fans? The setting – a galactic war between human soldiers, fanatical aliens and an insane artificial intelligence construct – is epic in scale, but not as convincing or well-written as the stories you might find in a good novel or science fiction film.

But what games can provide, which books and movies lack, is the direct connection that comes from actually controlling the story’s action hero. The Master Chief is a faceless warrior – his expression always hidden by his armoured visor. He rarely speaks. No moment of calm or emotion is allowed to interrupt his relentless advance as he mows down hundreds of alien opponents.

And this facelessness is not an accident of writing but a deliberate game design choice. The silence of the Master Chief is meant to allow the player to identify more closely with the digital hero they control. The game is not just the Master Chief’s story; it is a story that can be seen through his eyes.

Hero or zero?

This, say game designers, is what makes video games such a fascinating and important new artform. No other medium, they say, allows people to really live a story rather than just passively experiencing it. Now everyone can be the Master Chief, and save the world.

But there are some who find this idea slightly terrifying. When Halo 4 comes out tomorrow, millions of young people around the world will queue up to spend hours inhabiting the virtual body of a faceless, emotionally stunted killer – a vacant creature who is more like an automatic death machine than a man.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather play a blockbuster video game or watch a blockbuster film? Why?
  2. Why are there more games about killing than there are about healing? Is that a bad thing?

Activities

  1. Write down a one sentence philosophical definition of the word ‘hero’.
  2. Write a pitch for a video game that you think might become a real hit. You should describe the setting and characters for your game as well as the basic gameplay mechanics.

Some People Say...

“Killing aliens in video games makes you more violent in the real world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Video games are so boring!
I’m afraid there are many who disagree. Games in theAngry Birds series, the most popular game franchise around today, have been downloaded an incredible one billion times.
It can’t be good for people to play so many games...
Scientists do worry about this. Certainly the amount of time people spend in virtual worlds doesn’t help with the West’s obesity epidemic. And there are concerns that video games encourage violence.
I knew it!
On the other hand, some studies have found that gamers have better hand eye coordination and concentration than non-gamers, so it’s not all bad.

Word Watch

Liechtenstein
The Principality of Liechtenstein is a tiny but wealthy country in the European Alps between Austria and Switzerland which became independent after the Napoleonic Wars, two hundred years ago. It is still ruled by a Prince, the billionaire Hans-Adam II.
Plasma fire
Plasma weaponry is a common feature of science fictional universes. In real physics, the word ‘plasma’ describes a state of matter (like ‘solid’ or ‘liquid’) in which particles are superheated and ionized (i.e. given an electrical charge). One famous example of a plasma ball is the Sun.
Medium
A ‘medium’, in this context, is a form in which information can be transmitted and understood. Film, theatre, newsprint and radio are all kinds of medium. This is why news organisations are often called the ‘media’ (a plural form of the word ‘medium’).

Subjects

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