"This doesn't look like a new game," my son said. This is his first time seeing the remastered version of the first Halo game.
He's right, of course. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in 2014 looks like a game that was released in 2001 and updated for the last-generation consoles. It doesn't look bad, but it does look old. I told him the rest of the games will look better, but if he wants play Halo 4 we have to get through the first three games. It's not exactly a chore.
"You have to move when you reload," I tell him as I wait for him to spawn. "You can't stand still. Ever. A moving target is harder to hit. You're getting wrapped up in waiting for the reload animation to finish, and it's making you a target."
We're pretty strict about what games the kids play, and for how long, and this is the first time my son and I have played a mature-rated game together. He lacks rudimentary skills when it comes to first-person shooters, and I begin to feel like I've been failing him by not teaching him this stuff earlier.
Passing down the Needler
Halo also has its own rhythm, which can be hard to master if you're not used to the series. You have to pour rounds into the Elites, wait for their shields to be depleted, and then finish them off.
I explain how to use the melee attack, and we begin to break down the basics of how to manage large mobs of enemies. I name them and go over how to recognize them at a glance. This is a Jackal. That is an Elite. That little guy is a Grunt. We begin to rate their threat levels and talk about in which order they should be taken out.
You have these strange moments as a parent in a house that cares about video games. I play inverted, and he doesn't have a preference. Do I force my own belief structure on him — as inverted is clearly the one true way — or allow him to choose his own path?
"There's too many of them," he tells me. His lips are pulled back from his teeth as he tries to navigate his way through the cloud of enemies. He begins to grind his teeth, and suddenly I have something else to worry about.
My own teeth have been ground down to nubs, and I'm supposed to wear a mouth guard when I do stressful things, such as play games, write, drive or sleep.
Video games are interesting in that they introduce stressful situations, but you can then pause that situation and talk about ways to deal with that stress. It's a great excuse to positive behavior when it comes to dealing with frustration or adversity. I pause the game for a moment so we can talk about this.
"You can't think of the enemies like a pool of hit points. You're emptying a clip into one Elite, moving away, and then engaging another one," I told him. "I know you're not scared of Grunts, and you really don't need to be, but a single Grunt can still take you out if your shields are depleted."
He asks me what to do, and the moment takes my breath away for a moment. He's a young man about to enter his teenage years. He already knows better than I do about everything, from his school work to his friends. I only have a year or two, at best, before I lose him to the crankiness, aloofness and sense of pride that often comes with the teenage years.
For this moment though, he's interested in what I have to say. This is important to him and, I have to confess, having a son who is good at Halo is important to me.
"Think of it as threat removal. If you focus on a target do not lose that focus until they're all the way down. Then move onto the next one. Do whatever you can to minimize the number of bad guys shooting at you. Keep your forward momentum," I explain. "There's no shame in running away if your shield is depleted. The longer you're operational the more useful you are in the game."
We talk about how to tap the fire button to keep your bursts of fire short and accurate. I explain how using the Needler is different than using the pistol. I explain that when this game was released online play didn't exist yet, so we had to take our systems, along with bulky CRT televisions, over to a friend's house to play against each other.
I have to confess, having a son who is good at Halo is important to me
Halo 2 came out during the early days of Xbox Live, and that changed the culture around the game, and around console first-person shooters in general. You can chart the history of FPS design by playing through the Master Chief collection, and it's easy to forget how influential these games became by introducing the two-weapon, charging shield model of play.
He listens to these stories patiently, but it's clear my memories are about as interesting as an explanation of a card catalog. Remember when you'd go to a library and the names of books were written on pieces of paper? To him that seems fantastical, on the same level as a gaming console with wired controllers, or only local multiplayer. It's a world he was never a part of.
This is why the Master Chief Collection is such an interesting historical document. In some ways playing the game in splitscreen with my son feels like the mornings my mother used to force me to listen to old Eagles songs on vinyl. It was a part of her youth she wanted to pass on, and it didn't exactly take.
Halo is a series I care about deeply and that I can share with my son through this collection, and to my delight he's enjoying the games. I try to hold back from explaining all the lore and background information I picked up from the novels. To the kid Master Chief is just a masked badass, and that's fine.
Halo works just like every grand story in science fiction; it's almost a pantomime. Otherworldly enemies in a religious cult. A faceless, overwhelmingly powerful hero. A legendary, prophesied environment in which to wage war. The themes are broad, giving everything a sense of grandeur and weight. The Halo series sometimes feels like the Dune of video games, and sharing this world with my son made me realize how much I missed it.
"Get ready!" My son yells. He sticks his tongue out. "I'm going to clear out the Grunts, you focus on the Elite." My heart surges. We have three more games to get through.