Correction Appended: Sept. 5, 2007
Kirkland, Wash., is a leafy suburb of Seattle, on the shore of Lake Washington. A banner hangs over the main drag reminding visitors that Kirkland is the home of the 2007 Junior Softball World Series. Not far away stands a large unmarked building. It's oddly shaped, with a domed roof; it used to house batting cages, and before that, it was a hardware store. A security guard sits at the front desk, but he doesn't have a lot to do, because nobody ever comes in--though if there were a sign outside, the place would be mobbed.
There is an invisible subculture in America. Those who belong to it love it with a lonely, alienated, unironic passion. Those who don't belong to it walk right by, uncaring, just as people walk right by that unmarked building in downtown Kirkland. It is the subculture of hard-core video games, and that oddly shaped building, which houses a company called Bungie, is one of its temples.
Bungie makes a series of video games called Halo that are among the most revered in the gaming canon. It's doubtful that many people reading this could say exactly, or even approximately, what the Halo games are about. But when Halo 2 came out in 2004, it did $125 million at retail in the first 24 hours. Since then, gamers have logged almost a billion person-hours playing Halo 2 online. Because it's exclusive to the Xbox 360, Halo 3 is also Microsoft's weapon of choice in its struggle with Sony for supremacy in the multibillion-dollar game-console market. "We're not just dealing with a game here," says Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, which owns Bungie. "We're dealing with a great entertainment property, one that has the potential to be a cross-media property like a Harry Potter or a Star Wars."
For video-game aficionados, the entertainment event of the year has nothing to do with Harry Potter or Jack Sparrow or Spider-Man. It happens on Sept. 25, when Halo 3 will be released, starring a faceless and all-but-nameless space marine called the Master Chief. He's a new kind of celebrity for a new and profoundly weird millennium.
It's difficult to explain the story of Halo but that difficulty is in itself worthy of note. This isn't Donkey Kong. The Master Chief is not an Italian plumber whose girlfriend has been kidnapped by a gorilla. His story is rich and complicated in ways that we're not used to in video games. The Master Chief is a supersoldier, the only one of his kind, equipped with--encased in, really--powerful battle armor. He lives 500 years in the future, at a time when humanity is fighting a group of alien religious zealots known as the Covenant. At the beginning of the first Halo game, the Master Chief crash-lands on a strange space artifact, a planet that's shaped like a ring instead of a sphere and known as Halo. There he slugs it out in a running three-sided battle with Covenant troops and a monstrous, mutating race called the Flood, which happens to be imprisoned there. He also learns about a mysterious and ancient race called the Forerunners, which built Halo .
And so on. The Halo universe is clearly the stuff of pulpy space opera, and the Master Chief is as hard-boiled as they come. Much of the action consists of the Master Chief shooting alien antagonists while swapping Eastwoodian one-liners with his sidekick, a computer program named Cortana who appears as a sexy hologram. But the Halo games also have a curiously lyrical quality about them. They're full of literary touches and evocative phrases--the Master Chief travels in a spaceship called the Pillar of Autumn. The Halo universe is rich in lore--gamers love to be there the way some people love to pretend they're in Jane Austen novels. The action isn't nonstop; instead it includes dramatic beats and even moments of melancholy solitude, with Romantic weather effects and sublime vistas and soaring Gregorian chants. The game has a moody, Wagnerian quality--the Master Chief is dwarfed by towering alien architecture that recalls Piranesi. Halo takes itself seriously as, if not art, certainly a spectacle. But art seems more apt.
The face of the Master Chief is never revealed. His visor is solid reflective gold, like the faceplates of the Apollo astronauts. Halo 's designers see the Master Chief's facelessness as a dramatic device, a way of allowing players to place themselves in the game's leading role, to map their own faces onto that of a blank protagonist. "If he takes off the helmet, he should be you," says Marty O'Donnell, Halo 's audio director. "I mean, that's the big deal. Taking off the helmet is unacceptable." Engineering lead Chris Butcher agrees: "It's your experience. You have to be able to pour yourself into that icon." When nongamers look at the Master Chief's helmet, they see a forbidding, anonymous mask. But when gamers look at it, they see a mirror. They see themselves.
The cliche about gamers is that they're antisocial, if not sociopathic, but Bungie is very much a community. There's a foreign-legion quality to it, as if the company had been created as a refuge for smart people who wouldn't or couldn't fit into more conventional professions. Environment artist Dave Dunne started out as an architect. In a past life, O'Donnell wrote the We Are Flintstones Kids vitamin jingle. Designer Paul Bertone was a structural engineer who inspected bridges. "The people who play Bungie games tend to sense that there's something behind the games that's attractive to them," says O'Donnell. "Then they become fans of the games. And then they become rabid fans. And then they become employees of Bungie."
In return, they give Halo most of their waking hours, which vastly outnumber their sleeping ones. For the past few months, shifts at Bungie have run from 6 in the morning till 2 in the morning. One manager confessed that he was so strung out on caffeine, he had to drink a Diet Coke just so he could kill his cravings enough to fall asleep. The Bungies bring a grinding, jeweler's meticulousness to what most people consider an unhealthy amusement for children. To give me an idea of the level of detail (which is a term of art at Bungie, known as LOD), an audio engineer demonstrates, one by one, the sound of the Master Chief's footsteps, which change when he walks on ice, on gravel, on wood, on rubber, on grass, on sand, on glass and so on. Whenever the Master Chief fires his weapon --he tends to do that a lot--his gun ejects a shiny, jingling shell casing. "We actually are insane," the engineer says, "because we track the impact of each shell casing on each surface. Literally. We ought to be locked up."