How playing Halo 4 is like being Odysseus

The Odyssey isn’t just a story. It’s Odysseus retelling this story of the adventures he undertook. True to the nature of the epic poem, Odysseus takes poetic license with details. At Play the Past, Roger Travis argues that players of Halo 4 have a similar retelling each time they pass through the game’s final gauntlet.

Odysseus, in his bardic reformulation of his own story, makes it very clear: the monsters are at the base of the same clashing rocks through which the Argo passed. When Odysseus tells the story, he elaborates, adding the monsters that will, in the transformation of the Maw in HALO, become the Flood.

The player of HALO is doing what the bard of the Odyssey did, in elaborating the ruleset of the gauntlet to fashion him or herself in performance. Every time he or she makes a run through the Maw, his or her performance is a different version of the gauntlet ruleset, a different recompositional performance–a different fashioning of self. The game casts the player’s performance against the mythos of HALO, in which what Katherine Hayles calls the technogenetic spiral of cybernetics is admirably evoked, if less than adroitly elaborated: in the HUD through which all the game’s first-person action is performed, Master Chief as player-character embodies the game’s basic interactive mechanics’ in a diegetic troping of the cybernetic enhancements that make him a Spartan super-soldier. Through this troping (that is, through the HUD) the player performs within HALO‘s ruleset and interprets that ruleset in what I would call degree zero of the humanities. The benefit of the rules-of-the-text reading is that it allows us to relate the performance to the ruleset, by describing the performance as itself an instantiation of an elaborated ruleset, as the bards of the Odyssey elaborated the ruleset of the gauntlet when they transformed the Symplegades into Scylla and Charybdis.

Seems like kind of a stretch, but consider how The Odyssey was originally a performance-only event. There were probably many versions of the story, and the one we have today is a conglomeration of the best ideas—a little like a “let’s play” best-of video. Halo just needs to find its Homer.