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Monday, July 22, 2024

'Halo' Almost Ended My Relationship. Now, We're Playing Again

If you’ve been with your partner for long enough, you don’t even need to hear them clear their throat before you know they’re about to speak. After I clicked on the Halo: Master Chief Collection and waited for it to install on my PC, I noticed a stillness in the air. I looked up and saw my husband looking at me with trepidation. “On a sunny day in Berkeley, I played this game for eight hours straight,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I was there.”

I wasn’t precisely there, of course. I was in the next room, growing restive. If you’re a certain age, there’s no way you don’t know about Halo. Halo was the Xbox killer app, an utterly absorbing first-person shooter with amazing gameplay in an immersive world. It spawned sequels, franchises, even a TV show.

Even if you didn’t know anything about video games, you knew about Halo. You knew about Halo even when you specifically didn’t want to know anything about Halo. The entirety of my single life spanned the eight years that Halo was dominant. Halo was my enemy. I hated Halo the way Taylor Swift hated popular cheerleaders. Halo is the game that almost made me and my now husband break up.

If you live, or have lived, in proximity to a gamer without being a gamer yourself, you probably know what it’s like to consider a game your personal nemesis. Maybe it was Halo or Gears of War. Today, it might be Fortnite or Apex Legends. The easy thing to do here would be to write from the perspective of a wronged partner. While there’s some debate over whether video game addiction is a real mental illness, most people who study it agree that the games’ compulsive allure is a cause for concern.

It would also be easy to write about the toxicity in gaming that drives women away. I don’t dispute that this exists, but it hasn't been a factor for me. Both now and at the time, my now husband and his friends did everything they could to encourage me to join in.

In an embarrassingly ironic turn of events, gaming has become one of the primary ways that my husband and I now spend time together. Seventeen years after I issued a passionate ultimatum that he simply had to stop playing so much, I finally discovered that it’s fun to have a hobby that we can both participate in together at home. Before we had kids (and a global pandemic), we might have gone rock climbing or mountain biking together. Now we log on after the kids are in bed and yell, “Strafe, motherfucker, strafe!” at each other.

Both my husband, and everyone who knows me, has asked what took me so long. Seventeen years after the fact, it’s hard to figure out why I couldn’t bring myself to play. As best as I can figure it out, here is what stopped me:

Gaming is physically hard. Gaming requires an incredible amount of fine motor control. If you’ve played video games your whole life, you might not even realize that moving joysticks and pressing buttons to coordinate moving, shooting, and camera angles simultaneously is difficult. If you don’t own a console yourself, it’s hard to ask for a turn to practice.

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I’m also prone to motion sickness. The disconnect between the fast, immersive motion on a screen and my sedentary body is a lot for my poor inner ears. When I can, I play by standing up and moving around, and I generally adjust after two or three sessions. But you need to be pretty confident in your companions if you occasionally jump up and barf.

Game design is not intuitive. As in every medium, game designers tend to make consistent decisions that fans can anticipate. After you’ve watched enough movies, you know when a movie director wants you to look over a character’s shoulder.

If you’re an even moderately experienced gamer, there are probably a lot of things you know that you don’t even know you know. If you’re a newbie, asking questions that are so obvious is embarrassing. How do I get out of this room? Find the door that looks weird. Yes, but weird how? How do I pick up ammo? Walk back and forth over this dead body. What? That’s not how you go grocery shopping in real life?

The game wasn’t right. This last one foiled me for a long time. I just didn’t think I would like Halo. Everyone who knew me also assumed I wouldn’t.

People who know me personally usually suggest story-based games, like Firewatch or Kentucky Route Zero. While I appreciate the artistry, the slow pacing makes me fall asleep. Mario Kart bores me after about 15 minutes. After years of dabbling, it turns out that I’m only fully engaged when I’m in adrenaline-stoked fear for my life. It was as big a surprise to me as anyone else that I loved first-person shooters.

That brings me back to the present day. As I started to catch up on games that I’d missed and listened to people rave about, like Fallout New Vegas, Bloodborne, or Skyrim, it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that I had never once played my husband’s favorite game. He never raved about it. I spent the last 10 years not thinking about it.

When you’re young, a lot of things seem very black and white. There are good people and bad people; most decisions are a blunt yes or no. Relationships are binary. They either work or they don’t. If you’re with someone long enough, though, you might just discover weird serendipities in the big gray murk that surrounds all of those big decisions. The biggest thing that happens in the course of 17 years is the development of trust. It was finally fine to suck.

If it was a delightful surprise to my husband that I suddenly decided to get into gaming, it was also a surprise to me that he barely remembered Halo—not as much as I did, anyway. The aliens had seared themselves into my brain, but to him, it was just a game. Also, he played it 17 years ago.

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“This doesn’t look familiar at all,” he said, as the intro to Halo: CE Anniversary started playing.

“You don’t remember which one it was?” I said. “Was it Halo 2?”

“Maybe?” he said. As millions of people know, the Halo series is … pretty great. The story moves swiftly, and the gameplay is fun. I was shocked by how great a 10-year-old game looked, how long life can be, and also by the fact that the game that almost torpedoed our relationship is now one that we’re finally able to play together. “We should probably start at the beginning of the series and play them through consecutively,” he said. And then maybe check out Doom.


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