Epic Life: Back to Bungie 3

With the notion of playing HALO as doing humanities broached, it’s time to discuss the precise nature of the humanistic study in which HALO-players engage. Several times already I’ve alluded to the fashioning of Western selves. In this post, I’ll read a single performance moment of HALO: Combat Evolved within a rules-of-the-text framework as an act of self-fashioning. I’ll describe it as an occasion for cultural effects that emerge both synchronically and diachronically, that is both in the performance and in the ruleset, and, above all, in the relationship between the two.

At the end of that game, the player must drive a warthog (a jeep, more or less) through a gauntlet of enemies to an escape vehicle, with a timer running. The simplicity of this gauntlet, called “The Maw,” belies the complexity of its humanistic discourse, and the apparent ridiculousness of calling it an occasion for that humanistic discourse makes it an ideal example both for illustrating my point and for testing that point’s merits.

The rules of the text reading of the Maw begins with the recognition that the narrative trope (the gauntlet) of which the Maw is an example is a very old narrative form. Indeed as a variation of the aristeia, the gauntlet is a species of perhaps the oldest epic narrative form in Western culture. But the more immediate narrative model in epic for the gauntlet is Odysseus following in the footsteps of Jason making it through those clashing rocks called the Symplegades (“striker-togetherers”), or in Odysseus’ terms when he tells the story to the Phaeacians, Scylla and Charybdis. So the first thing to recognize is that when a player of Halo guides the Master Chief through the Maw and to the finale of the game he or she is participating in an epic tradition of the gauntlet that goes back at least to the Symplegades in the original version of the story of the Argo.

If you haven’t read the Odyssey lately you may be surprised at the direct connection I’m making between the Symplegades and Scylla and Charybdis, but 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.

To apply this understanding of the rules-of-the-text to more current events in the HALOverse, in beginning the campaign of HALO 4, I must admit to a feeling of sameness: same warthog, same hovering purple gun platforms supporting jackals shooting at it. Epic rulesets change very slowly, which is why we may have in the battle books of the Iliad authentic (if highly refracted) recollections of military technology like the chariots used as taxis. Will the warthog go away, as the “Reclaimer Saga” (the subtitle of HALO‘s next few parts) gets going? Probably not, but perhaps its importance will diminish, just as the chariot’s importance clearly did in the Iliad‘s ruleset.

There must have been many sub-par performances of the Wrath of Achilles, wherein the bards’ audiences heard yet more about outdated and, worse, hackneyed combat maneuvers; indeed, many of them are probably enshrined in the Iliad as we have it. But the basic starting point of humanistic discourse was always–is always–there.

The only remaining question is whether we can call the bard and the player humanists, despite not having PhDs. In my next post, when I return to my other old practomimetic home, BioShock, to extend this epic-life-rules-of-the-text methodology there as well, I’ll suggest that we can identify a performative moment when a player crosses over, through ethical reflection, from unawareness that he or she is engaged in humanistic discourse, to an awareness of that engagement, even if he or she (or “professional” humanists) wouldn’t call it that.

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