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I wasn’t always a gamer. Although I spent much of my childhood clutching 8-bit console controllers and dumping paper route income into arcade cabinets, in my early teens I lost interest in games. In fact, during the formative years of my early adulthood, from 15 to 25, I hardly played games at all. I blame my father, at least to an extent. He was a college art instructor. When, as a typical adolescent, I found myself casting about for meaning in the world I found it the same place he did: the arts. I turned away from the pixelated imagery of late 1980s games and toward the sumptuous, intoxicating beauty I found in art books and museums. Games still interested me, but they seemed crude by comparison.

Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit my father’s artistic gifts. I couldn’t draw, paint or sculpt as he could. But, as I discovered near the end of high school, I could take photographs, and I took to the darkroom like a fish to water. I learned to love the amber glow of the safelight and the smell of the chemicals in which my prints soaked. In college I landed a TA position that gave me 24-hour access to the university darkroom. I spent years obsessed with the hobby, blissfully ignorant to the rise and fall of the 16-bit console era and the golden age of the adventure game.

College ended, though, and with it my artistic aspirations. I landed a solid day job that left me with little time to take or print pictures. The further I pursued the hobby, the more expensive it became. A marriage, mortgage and child later and photography just didn’t fit my lifestyle anymore. I needed a new hobby, one that didn’t take me away from home.

In the late 1990s I bought my first new PC, after subsisting for years on my parents’ hand-me-down Macs. Not long after, I stumbled into a gaming store to see what my computer could run. I followed the clerk’s advice and walked out with a copy of Half-Life. Apart from being a superb shooter, Half-Life was a visual experience unlike any I’d discovered in my artistic pursuits. It was fluid, evolving and enveloping. It took me into and through another world. I had no idea game design and technology had come so far, and I was completely hooked.

I’ve since spent the last near-decade as an avid gamer, chasing similar experiences. I’ve been overjoyed to discover them in all sorts of games, across every platform. My real-life photographic pursuits have fallen by the wayside, but I’ve turned into a screenshot junkie. I love gaming imagery. I compulsively gather screens as I play games, and I sometimes buy gaming magazines solely for the pictures.

I picked up Halo 3 last week. I’m extremely taken by its endlessly customizable multiplayer playground. I’m marginally impressed by the story campaign. But I’m absolutely enthralled by the game’s Theater mode, which, as it happens, has reawakened my photographic sensibilities and given me a whole new outlook on the game.

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Halo‘s Theater allows me to view, edit, save and share movies of my gameplay. From brief multiplayer skirmishes to hour-long campaign efforts, my recent outings are all preserved on the 360’s hard drive. I can follow the events from a first-person view, just as I did as I played the game. Or I can detach the camera and explore the action from any angle I choose, pausing, slowing, fast-forwarding and even rewinding the action. And – here’s where it gets interesting – I can take high-res screenshots, save them to my hard drive, and later download them onto my PC via my bungie.net Halo 3 service record.

Since I discovered the Theater, I’ve been obsessed with screenshotting my Halo 3 adventures. The process mimics real-life photography in so many ways. The right lighting is key, for example. Camera placement is critical. Timing is essential. I’ve been so caught up in snapping shots I’ve found myself making other traditional photographic considerations, including many that don’t even apply to the Theater’s screenshot camera: Would a wider-angle lens make this shot better? What if I could open up the aperture to drop the field depth, isolating my subject against the background? Would a slower shutter speed, and the resulting blur, add a sense of motion and speed to the scene?

There’s only so much creative control the Theater photography offers, but the benefits of the system are incredible. In real-life photography, you’ll never be able to freeze and rewind a scene, or examine it from every possible angle like you can with Halo 3‘s camera. In some ways, it’s an action photographer’s dream. You never miss a shot. The exposure is always perfect. Your subject is never out of focus.

Including the Theater mode is a gutsy move on Bungie’s part, considering how easily it allows players to discover and document flaws or glitches. I’ve occasionally found visual effects that aren’t quite rendered in the correct location, for example, or noticed some clipping or other minor flaws. But for the most part, Halo 3, to its creators’ credit, typically looks more incredible in stop-motion fly-throughs than it does at its standard breakneck pace.

As I’ve carefully maneuvered my camera through former games I’ve realized just how much of Halo 3‘s artistry I’ve missed. I always loved the way real-life photography gave me a new appreciation of my subject. The same happens as I’m snapping images from Halo 3. Where once I saw a standard sci-fi shooter with somewhat generic art design, I now see a painstakingly detailed world.

I burned through Halo 3‘s entire campaign without once examining the intricate instrumentation of the Ghost’s control panels or the lovely, cerulean ripples of plasma that sparkle around the barrels of its cannons as they fire. I never really appreciated the fleeting crackles of yellow energy that dance, weblike, across players’ bodies as their shields go down. I didn’t notice the precision of the animations that unfold as one player sticks another with a Spike Grenade.

I’m sure Bungie envisioned player galleries filled not with carefully framed works of in-game art, but with documentation of especially impressive, humiliating or humorous kills. Still, I’m willing to bet they also wanted to let players discover and appreciate what they might otherwise miss. It’s all too easy or overlook a game’s creative and artistic details, especially in a frenetic action setting where the primary goal is to kill or be killed.

I don’t expect Halo 3‘s Theater mode to produce a bumper crop of high art, given the scope of the game’s subject matter. Even my own in-game photographic aspirations have been limited mostly to capturing cool combat moments. Still, I’m grateful that Bungie took the time to include the feature, and I’ve no doubt it will ultimately serve to underscore any number of creative and technical accomplishments that might otherwise have been overlooked. Hopefully, other developers will follow suit. Halo 3 certainly isn’t the only game whose world would benefit from a closer look.

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