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"The game starts with this music - this Gregorian chant," said Partha Chattoraj, 35, a lawyer, trying to explain the sophistication of the Halo enterprise. He remembers being excited about Halo 2 for more than five months. He'd considered camping outside a game shop with his friend the night before its release, but had to work late. "Humanity is in its last gasp," he said, continuing his rhapsody. "There's a sense that the Covenant are about to be victorious. It's a survival game, but the objective is to survive and save humanity."
"It's killing and shooting - that's all it is," scoffed his fiancée, Kathy Palmer, 33, who manages a watch company, and shares Mr. Chattoraj's one-bedroom apartment. "It's like you're 'saving the world' - but you're always blowing things up."
Ms. Palmer, who's pregnant, needs her sleep, but the Xbox is in the bedroom, so Mr. Chattoraj - who, both agree, is kind about turning the thing off when Ms. Palmer requests - hasn't been able to play much at all lately. He might have been better off keeping his Xbox in the living room, but he can't: too much damage had been done to his plasma-screen TV in there - from playing video games. Mr. Chattoraj bought an LCD TV, for the bedroom. (Note to Halo addicts: No plasma TV's for you - the device is damaged by repeated Halo sessions.) So most nights, if Mr. Chattoraj is able to sneak in an hour of Halo in between planning for his wedding and working, it's when Ms. Palmer is away on business, or hanging out in the living room with friends (he also brought it along once on a Cape Cod vacation).
"I'm like, 'Can you lower that?'" Ms. Palmer said. But from the male perspective, the appeal of Halo is obvious. The options are limitless: You can play a narrative, movie-like game alone or with a partner in which you fight for the universe; or play with friends, in which you all just shoot each other; or play online, where you shoot friends and teenagers across the country. It's a way of keeping in touch with long-lost pals, a gamer's dream, a teenager's paradise! It's also the overworked urban male's refuge.
"He works so much," Ms. Deppe said of her Halo-addicted boyfriend. "I let him have his fun when he can." Ms. Deppe said it's when he plays with his friends - and she comes along for the day - that she begins to feel like a useless appendage, surrounded by chortling man-boys. "When he's alone, it doesn't bother me; he plays video games and I paint," she said. "But when he's with his friends and they play together, I think, 'Why am I here?' They make weird faces; their mouths start to hang open a little bit; their heads sort of go back and forth."
Truth be told, most women - even those most audibly annoyed - are good-natured about their partners' Halo fetish; and most men, some slightly embarrassed by their obsession, expressed concern over whether they were driving their girlfriends totally mad. The Halo habit is comic, but there's something curious about modern city-dwelling Americans, who pride themselves on living in a city because of the abundance of out-and-about pleasures, wanting to stay inside in front of the TV, knocked out and drugged up on the sedentary finger-clicking that defines the modern video-game experience.
But how different is it from the woman who, say, loses sunny Saturdays to a marathon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
"It's akin to reading a book. It really is - you do it for the same reasons," argued Alexis DeLaRosa, 30, a freelance graphic designer, actor and screenwriter. His girlfriend has played Halo, and he argues, as others do, that Halo can be a very sociable game (you can hook Xboxes together and up to 16 people can play at once; Halo parties are not uncommon). "And it is like movies and novels were to other generations - some people just take it too far. There are times, when I get a brand-new game, where I lock myself up for an entire week."
Mr. Chattoraj, the attorney, described how he used to gorge on Halo when his fiancée went out of town for business. "I would start playing on a Friday night and play until 8:30 the next morning," he said. "It feels like you were out partying. You think, 'What have I done? I didn't sleep - I feel sick.' I've actually thrown up from motion sickness because I get too close to the TV - not uncommon with first-person shooter games, because things are moving around and you're ducking and jumping, but you're really just sitting in one place. Kathy had a friend over - they were in the living room, and I was in the bedroom - and the friend was leaving. She poked her head in, and I had total tongue sweat. As soon as she left, I ran into the bathroom and projectile-vomited."