Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a model for preserving videogame history

Developer 343 Industries announced the Master Chief Collection to a small gathering of press in a basement meeting room at Shutters, a pristine and impossibly well-appointed beachside hotel in Santa Monica. Shutters reeks of nautical class; picture the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port suddenly opened as a public accommodation. Deep leather couches, a faint odor of sandalwood in every goddamn room. Paula Patton walked out behind me as I was leaving. We waited for our cars together at the valet stand. That kind of shit. Among the loose assemblage of journalists in attendance, plied with top-shelf liquor and savoury Kobe beef sliders, the common understanding was that we had been summoned to hear the first details about the ardently anticipated fifth chapter in the Halo franchise. We were disabused of that notion within minutes of the presentation’s start. After some mystical bromides about Master Chief’s journey and a screenshot of what will presumably be the box cover, we were informed that Halo 5: Guardians, won’t ship until fall of 2015.

Halo 5’s delay is old news now—purposefully so—but that day at Shutters the announcement confirmed that feverish speculation over 343’s cryptically phrased projections for the future of Halo in the media and at E3 2013 had been justified, and the XBox One would host no canonical Halo title until roughly two years had elapsed since the console’s launch. Considering Halo’s still-undisputed place as the flagship title and saving grace of all three  Xboxes, this was a stunning revelation. In the wake of this news, the Master Chief Collection was treated almost as a salve, a consolation prize, a shiny object to keep Xbox One owners busy until the imminent release of Guardians. And so I grabbed a farewell slider and walked out onto the beach pondering a basic question: why does Master Chief Collection exist? Is it a cash grab? Is it straight-forward flaccid fan service? Or might it be something more?  

As videogames earn wider acceptance as a “capital A” art form, they will continue to confront difficult, complex and controversial issues that other major art forms have already dealt with. If Gamergate has communicated anything, for instance, it is that the seemingly simple task of defining the constituency of “gamers,” those who make and appreciate videogames, is fraught, and painful, and riddled with vitriolic partisans. This should not surprise us. The struggle for definition and identity is both a sign the maturation of an art form and an unholy fucking mess. So while some of the particularities of videogames’ struggle with the “constituency question” may seem, at times, silly or modern, the struggle itself is neither inconsequential or new to art. Don’t believe me? Just watch My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary in which the paintings of a 4 year-old girl throw the modern art establishment into a too-familiar shit fit about the definitions and boundaries of abstract expressionism, a style that has existed since the 1940’s.  

Another one of these tasks, and probably an equally thorny one, will revolve around how that constituency—however ultimately defined—chooses to understand and represent its past. What will be the history of videogames? Is it the story of the triumphant rise of an entertainment industry, the organic spread of a counterculture, the increasing cohesion of a computer-based art movement? The answer to this question will have a lot to do with the individual legacies and hagiographies crafted around the games that comprise the pantheon of videogaming.  And in crafting these legacies, developers and studios will face a challenge that many other art forms haven’t.

Technology’s innate sense of linear progress gets transferred into the games. 

Videogame developers, much more than, say, painters or architects, associate their games—their art—with the technology that made it. Because of this, technology’s innate sense of linear progress gets transferred into the games themselves. As technology becomes more powerful, this logic goes, images are clearer and more real, motions are more lifelike, sound designs are more lush and varied, and games become “better” than the games that came before them.This is why the industry has traditionally marketed new releases using terms like “graphic upgrades” or “improved physics.” We don’t often see musicians or filmmakers employ the language of linear progress this way, even though technological leaps in the world of cinema or music similarly expand and enhance their ability to realize and execute their ideas. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “games are getting better” exuberance, but it complicates the question of how to contextualize and appreciate games from bygone eras by obscuring their intrinsic, if lo-tech, artistic value. If film buffs applied the same logic of technological progression to classics, the Criterion Collection would have reissued The Third Man in color.

The curators at 343 Industries seem to understand that the industry’s insatiable appetite for the new could readily lead to the degradation of the old. Master Chief Collection is, then, a blueprint for how to carefully calibrate a balance between the veneration of a classic franchise and the next-gen bells and whistles that its audience is conditioned to demand. In fact, several of the features of the collection that initially struck me as the most superficial and “cash grabby” seem, now that I’ve spent time playing with them, like examples of admirable restraint. The best example of this is a button that allows players to toggle back and forth between the graphics of the original games and the higher-definition, more detailed, 60 frames-per-second experience of the remastered version. I remember watching this feature being demo’d and thinking, “That’s a neat parlor trick,” but as I’ve actually been playing through Combat Evolved I keep hitting that fucker. Snapping from the crisp visual language of a modern game to the contrasting, almost low-poly original atmosphere of a level like the Pillar of Autumn feels like leafing through a historical document.

That the best of these features impact the original games only in slight and reversible ways is exactly the point. And so it is with the curated campaign playlists that beckon you to disappear into Legendary gunfights for the better part of a day, and the mix-and-match multiplayer lobbies sporting charnel grounds from across a decade-and-a-half. These are suggestions, not commands. These are expansions, not improvements. This is the way a mature community preserves its treasures, by taking the time to overthink it. Because not fucking up a classic is harder than it looks. Halo might be pointing the way again—this time into the past.