Saturday, October 25, 2008

Check It Out! In the Sky! Is that... IMAX? (Halo)

Originally written for Halopedia.

On August 21st, 2007, just over a month before the release of Halo 3, Bungie hosted a special preview event at the better of the two Seattle IMAX theaters to showcase some of the great capabilities of their upcoming game to a limited number of fans. I was lucky enough to be one of the 790 people to get into the event, and though I made an initial write-up here, I will now write a more formal and thorough article to cement the facts in my mind and to share with the users of Halopedia.

I first found out about it from a Bungie.net post. I think I was on the #halopedia IRC at the time, idle while checking it out and half-wanting to get back to the chatroom. In any case, I wasn’t paying my full attention. The post described a special event happening that night, and I was like, “Okay, cool… Anything else?” Then I realized that the event it was describing was within driving distance and it was actually possible to make. I was just like, “Whoa.”

However, I then decided it was probably too good to be true. Still, if I could hypothetically make it, was it worth just giving up on? I decided I’d just run downstairs and ask my mom about it, knowing that the odds were against it and I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I went down to the family room, where my mom was sewing while watching TV, and tried to ask as nonchalantly as possible if it was an event we could go to. My take on nonchalant, however, was to scrunch a load of information into a quick, monotone statement, and I’m afraid I came out as less than indifferent. To my surprise, she said that it was possible, that the schedule for the night was clear and that she was up to driving to Seattle.

Now that the event had entered the range of Actually Possible, she sent me back up to read the Bungie announcement more thoroughly. Turned out, everyone had to send an RSVP to a Microsoft email address, so I did that and gave my mom’s name in case it was necessary. It turned out not to be, but you never know.

Everything was looking good, so we drove down to Seattle. We used to frequent the Pacific Science Center (the location of the IMAX theater) as a source of homeschool fieldtrips, so we knew the terrain and were able to park pretty quickly in a nearby parking building. When we went to pay for our parking spot at the box, we ran into a guy who was clearly a gamer. I don’t remember if he was wearing a specific video-game-related shirt or if his attire was just that stereotypical gamer geek look, but it was obvious he was there for the Halo 3 event. Knowing I would be too intimidated to speak to a total stranger, my mom made polite conversation with him so I could enjoy it by proxy – definitely appreciated. He asked for some mundane information, like how to get to the PSC from there or some such, and we left him to pay for his spot.

Once we got up the hill to the block that had the PSC, we automatically joined what was clearly a line. However, after looking around a bit, it was clear it was not a group of gamer-types. Liberal hippie-types might be a better description. My mom ventured to ask a couple of people in line if it was for Halo. I was a bit paranoid about asking them, afraid of their reaction in response to hearing us ask about a shooter game when all these characters let off an ‘anti-war’ feel. While ironic for supporters of peace to react violently, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Zealots and hypocrisy, you know. Fortunately, my fear was unfounded and the woman just answered “Uh, I don’t think so,” in an honest, neutral voice. “It’s a [some name] concert,” someone nearby explained. “Oh, okay.”

So we went around the other side of the block to a line that was clearly made up of geeks and gamers, teenage/college boys and such, the odd girl among them. “Is this for Halo 3?” The response was affirmative, and we stood in line to wait. As we had shown up early, it was quite a long wait. Fortunately, I’d brought my iPod with me and just stood there listening to a Queen playlist while staring at an enormous poster of Ichiro Suzuki hanging from a building across the street.

Eventually, the skies darkened, and a couple guys from Bungie started walking around and talking to the people in line. At first I was like “Oh, yeah, sure you say you’re from Bungie. Now, anyone could put on a Bungie shirt and walk around a Bungie event and say you work at Bungie!” but then they pulled out some real merchandise soon to be sold on Bungie.net and at Penny Arcade. I was then like, “Oh my god… I think they might actually be Bungie…”

It says in my initial write-up that I thought one of the Bungie guys might have been Frankie. I don’t remember the details that well at this point, so I’ll trust my past self and say that I may have recognized one of them as Frankie, who definitely did show up for the IMAX part. Of the items they showed was a Master Chief shirt of some kind, though all further detail has been lost into the abyss of my mind.

Then, finally, the line started moving. My excitement started to flare up at this point. The announcement on Bungie.net had said that it was a first-come, first-serve deal and not everyone should count on getting a seat, so I was a bit nervous. However, we managed to buy two tickets to the IMAX theater, so that was it; we were in!

I’d been to the IMAX several times before, so I knew my way around the place. The theater was still decorated for Harry Potter. To a casual observer, it would have looked like we were all lining up for the Harry Potter movie.

We ignored the snack bar, or maybe it was closed, and lined up at the entrance. After a few minutes, more Bungie guys showed up and passed around these nifty Master Chief stickers made up of all these little hexagons so that they caught the light at different angles. Neat.

One of the Bungie guys started taking pictures of the people in line. “You guys are going on the website,” he said in an enthusiastic almost sing-song ‘get excited about this’ manner. “On Bungie.net,” he added, notably skipping the ‘dot’ part. My mom slipped aside to let me get in the picture. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever posted the pictures. If they do/did, I’m the overweight guy in a dragon shirt who may or may not look like a girl.

So, then the doors opened, and we were rushing to get good seats. We ended up sitting on the lower middle section of the right side (our right facing the screen). The Bungie guys were walking around setting things up, and I managed to get a pretty good look at a few of them.

Frankie was there. Bald guy, shorter than I expected, but real. I most remember being stunned by his color, just the incredible range of color in his face. Not to say that he was a rainbow or anything, but when you see pictures of him on the site you don’t get the full range of colors as you do in real life. The most hi-res photos cannot capture the wealth of detail that the human eye can, so even though I was able to recognize him, he was Frankie as I never knew him.

And I was like “Oh my god, this is Frankie.” I was standing in a room with Frank O’Connor. And it was stunning because it was like I had the sudden realization that Frankie was a guy, a real human guy. His colors were at an incredible resolution, and he was actually moving around, talking to people, and moving equipment around. Not that I thought he was a male S1m0ne or anything, but it’s one thing to know Frankie as the community figure on the net and quite another to actually see him as a human being walking around.

Here he was, this Bungie god and then suddenly I had this enormous respect for the guy. I knew him as the Bungie guy on the net, but he was this real employee with amazing talent. He was a man with the kind of skills that allowed him to get a job with Bungie Studios, a professional video game developer owned by Microsoft. He was a god among men, really.

You know, on the net you start to see things out of perspective. All data starts to blend together and it sort of becomes hard to separate fiction and fact. On the web you are anonymous but for the text you reveal, which shapes people’s perception of you, and people fall into roles. On the web, Frankie is a wacky spokesperson that is entirely made up of these less than perfect images and the text he produces. However, seeing him in person made him real to me.

I wasn’t the only Frankie fan there. Some guy in the upper left area of the seating bellowed out, “We love you, Frankie!” This prompted someone on my upper right to call out, “That guy is gay!” In response, Frankie (on a microphone) made a comment like “There are a lot of Muggles here tonight…”, which elicited laughter.

Around this point, the IMAX screen was showing the set up screen for Halo 3 campaign, with an absolute giant Master Chief and Arbiter towering over us. I remember pointing at the characters and giving my mom a very basic explanation of who they were. After fumbling around a bit with the Xboxes, Frankie started narrating what they were doing: They were going to play co-op on Tsavo Highway, with him taking the first player role of Master Chief to be shown on the IMAX screen. Meanwhile, the other guy (I’m thinking it was Luke Smith) was going to play alongside him as the Arbiter.

The theater darkened and the show began. I was so unbelievably excited at this point. I got to see real Halo 3 footage on a giant screen, and it looked awesome. I was tied between wanting to just sit back and enjoy it and wanting to make a note of everything for Halopedia. I ended up mostly just watching it, though I tried to remember interesting details. (Hey, that one Marine sounds like Mal! Nah, couldn’t be…)

While the game urges you to move as quick as possible, Frankie kept the pace leisurely to allow us to truly appreciate the spectacular caves. When you play the game on the TV, the caves look cool, but seeing them blown-up to such a degree and still hi-res is just so awesome. Frankie jerked his Warthog around violently during the last part. We laughed because it looked like he couldn’t control it (an understandable conclusion given how unwieldy it was in the first game), but I think now that he was just trying to lose his Marines.

They played through a few of the battles, mostly just to show off the graphics and certain features. Frankie specifically bumped into a hanging rope to show that the rope does indeed move as you brush against it. I remember becoming really excited as I recognized specific Covenant races and saw different types of Brutes with their new armor. I’m not sure if they specifically pointed out features of the Covenant. I know at one point after a battle, Frankie just faced his partner as he fired and reloaded to showcase the animation.

At one point, Frankie decided to show off a plasma cannon. I was just staring in awe at the graphics and didn’t recognize the turret as anything other than “Wow, beautiful purple gravity lift thing – super cool!” He mounted it and swiveled it to its limits. He made a comment like “This is pretty good… but not enough freedom of movement.” He snapped the cannon off its base. The theater then erupted into a big cheer of “YEAH!” It’s kind of silly, but it really felt empowering, like we were collectively claiming our freedom of movement with that turret thing.

They moved on to the entrance to the highway, noting the shield that can’t be shot through. After eliminating the enemies, Truth began his ominous sermon, and I basically got goosebumps. This was the epic Halo storyline playing out on an epic screen/sound system. Then the CCS-class Covenant ship soared over our heads on that massive screen and it truly felt epic, like it really filled the sky. It’s awesome on the TV, but on an IMAX screen it’s truly fantastic.

At this point, Frankie decided we’d had enough of a teaser of the storyline and, after pointing out the Forerunner dreadnought in the distance, had a quick melee battle with his co-op partner before bringing things back to the menu. Having shown us the campaign, he then showed us Forge. As it loaded, he noted the beauty of the Halo 3 loading animation, made by Adrian Perez. Again, this is one of the things you can truly appreciate on an IMAX screen. That swirling Halo animation is really pretty and peaceful, almost like something out of Fantasia, and you really don’t appreciate it as much when it’s all bunched up together on a TV screen.

Now, I had been neglecting my Halo 3 coverage, so I didn’t really know about Forge despite it having previously been announced on Bungie.net. So, I was pretty shocked and amazed when my study of High Ground was interrupted by Luke changing into a Monitor and making stuff appear in the map. I was just blown away by the new feature, and marveled at Bungie’s genius.

Next, they showed off their saved film capabilities by showing a match they had on Sandtrap. The graphics were just unbelievably gorgeous and it was hard to take in it all at this point. As a team of Choppers rolled toward the structure, Frankie showed how he could jump from person to person to see everyone’s actions. He paused it as one guy grabbed a heavy weapon (I’m thinking Rocket Launcher or Missile Pod), to point out the red laser tickling his feet. “People tend to go for the power weapons,” Frankie noted, “Because people are fundamentally stupid.”

They stopped the show at this point, but answered a few questions from the audience and then revealed a Halo 3 Legendary-edition case shaped like the Spartan helmet. They said that one of the ticket stubs had three Frankenstein images stamped on it, and that whoever had it would be taking home the case (without the game, of course). However, it seemed that the guy who got the lucky ticket had thrown it away or something, because no one came forward. As a back-up plan, they gave it away to whoever was sitting in seat G-7. If you notice, G is the seventh letter in the alphabet.

And then, unfortunately, it was over. People started walking out. We decided to wait a little while to let the crowd pass through. This allowed us to notice several people getting their ticket stubs signed by the Bungie guys. I was willing to just leave with my memories, but my mom pointed out that Frankie was right there and I might as well. So, I hesitantly approached him and handed him my ticket stub and a pen. He was nice and quickly scrawled out a little Mister Chief alongside his autograph.

On my way out, I saw some guy getting his chest signed by a Bungie guy. Though I was trying not to stare, I overheard “I'm going to use your nipple to dot the I. I totally am. Dude, hold still.” Once outside, we had to wait a bit for the crowd to clear, during which my mom started talking to a PSC employee. According to him, some people had shown up as early as 10:00 AM, and some had come from as far away as Portland and Austen.

The event was truly magnificent. I remember muttering, “I can die happy now…” It was a physical manifestation of my somewhat abstract Internet obsession come to life in a way truly awesome. The word awesome is thrown around a lot, but this was truly awe-inspiring. Way to go, Bungie. You guys are artists.

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