Needlessly Long Musings on the Story

By: Hawaiian Pig
Date: 9/17/10 6:25 pm


Alright, let's be clear up front. Reach is a fun game. It has solid gameplay and is fairly challenging, even for the steeliest of Halo veterans out there. But many have claimed that the game's story was "unmemorable."

Expressing why this is the case can be quite difficult. But just for kicks, let's give it a go, shall we?

Like ODST, Reach has many missions where "nothing actually happens." In typical video game fashion, you spend a lot of time running around doing mostly arbitrary tasks that are explained in some contrived manner.

I mean, did you really need to wander around the hub world piecing together the events for the past few hours when Dare simply hails you to get the party started? Or did I really need to turn on this comms array, or shut down that shield generator, when all I end up doing is delivering a package?

In the grand scheme of things, not really, right?

Well, not exactly.

With ODST and Reach, Bungie has time and again expounded their aim to "bring the player closer to the ground." After the glorious galactic romp that is the Halo trilogy, it seems Bungie's writing staff decided to try their hand at a narrower scope.

The idea was to jump feet first into hell... to get down and dirty and to see the war from the perspective of the thousands who fought and died. After all, not everyone is a stoic hero with his finger on the latchkey.

But with a narrow scope comes great responsibility: whatever you narrow your focus on better be damned interesting.

Event Horizon

Like any good video game with a story, the majority of levels in the Halo trilogy move the plot forward in some way.

Whereas the original Halo advanced a series of large scale events that flowed together, Reach presented a series of smaller events that, in the end, seemed utterly disjointed or insignificant.

If we condense both stories down to the bare essentials, this becomes readily apparent:

Halo

  • We come across mysterious ancient ring world.
  • We crash land and our captain is captured.
  • We rescue our captain and discover that the ringworld is a weapon
  • We split up, our captain to search one area, and we search another...
  • We find the controls to the weapon and find out our captain is in grave danger
  • Holy crap there's an unforeseen menace down here... and hey, what happened to our captain...
  • We make a new friend and he helps us kick start this weapon into overdriv--oh shit, doublecross! It was gonna kill us all
  • We stymie our new foe and devise a new plan:
  • We blow the damned thing up!

As you can see, there's clear flow from the top down; the events before directly influence the events that come. Throw in the occasional twist, and you've got yourself an interesting series of events.

Reach

  • There's a downed comms array, we need to check what's up.
  • Oh crap, it's down because the Covenant are on Reach
  • A lot of military handwaving occurs to find out that:
  • There's a big cruiser here, I guess we should take it out...
  • We take it out, but holy crap here comes more!
  • ...well now I'm separated from my group, let me help some civilians, I guess
  • *beep beep* The Doctor will see you now. She's got a mission for you: Deliver a package that can turn the tide of the war
  • You deliver the package and die

When it comes down to it, not a whole lot happens in any coherent manner. There's a big cruiser, you take it out, then you help some civilians, and, unrelated to all of that, you finally do something significant to Halo's overall story arc.

But of course, that's not the point right? This game isn't supposed to advance or enrich the overall Halo story arc right?

No, instead, we're supposed to enjoy this presentation of a planet's fall... a planet whose fall gives rise to our original hero's galactic space opera. We're supposed to feel engaged in the atmosphere and feel connected to the characters. We're supposed to feel as though turning on that AA gun was part of a greater concerted effort to keep the planet from falling... even if it was just some AA gun.

So Bungie narrowed the scope and decided to focus on developing this atmosphere.

Honestly, why they couldn't do this in addition to telling a coherent and compelling story whose events logically follow one another is beyond me. It really was a bit of a cop-out to have Halsey suddenly page you toward the end for a secret mission. Isn't that really familiar?

In spite of the largely insignificant story it tells, Reach is supposed to make me feel like I'm part of a band of SPARTAN-IIIs who are doing their best to stave off the annihilation of a world.

I can dig that, I guess. It's not the buffet of glorious Halo intrigue that I'm used to, but it's colourful at least, right?

The question is... does it even do this well?

Honestly, I'd say it's hit and miss.

Team Spirit

I've made a bit of a realization about the Halo trilogy with the new perspective these two latest games provide:

Without the grand scale and widely varying locales, without the constant flow of interesting events, without the room for wild speculation, mystery and intrigue, and without the feeling that the universe rests on my shoulders... the characters of Halo... well, they'd fall flat.

Let's take the Arbiter for example. How do I know that the Arbiter is a proud Elite warrior? Why do I feel a sense of respect for him toward the end of the series? Why did I enjoy fighting alongside (or as) this beast who was once my enemy?

Do I know he's a skilled warrior because someone told me they read his dossier that's riddled with black ink? Is it because he spouts phrases you would expect of a proud warrior?

Or is it because we see him fall from the highest ranks of the Covenant armada, get utterly betrayed by his former leader, and rise up and inspire his people to revolt?

Take a guess.

Few things say brother-in-arms like that moment where the Chief and Arbiter stand back-to-back in the Ark's control room. The strength of this scene is not simply a result of that badass pose they strike, but rather due to all the shit the two of you have gone through. From his defeat at Halo, through his fall from grace, through his realization that the great journey was a lie, to the ensuing revolution he begins, I got a firm sense that the Arbiter was more than just a gun at my side.

Really. Here's the kicker: Character development is most often a direct result of the trials and tribulations that occur in light of the events of a story.

You don't read a book for a description of a character; you read a book to see the character experience a set of events and change in light of them. That's what makes them interesting.

So when your game has very few significant events, your characters are left to develop through small ancillary exchanges.

That, or you outright just tell me what I should think about your characters.

One of the moments that best demonstrate this is when Noble Team comes across some farmers in the first level. Emile gets short tempered and hostile in this exchange and Jorge immediately chimes in to diffuse the situation. Speaking their language, Jorge shows compassion, and we get a glimpse at the kind of person he is. To boot, there are some children cowering inside the house and the moment gives you a great sense that the planet is more than just a battleground; it's their home.

This exchange does nothing for the plot, it doesn't advance anything significant, but it adds character. One could argue that the game is full of moments like this, but you'd be hard pressed to find many more.

Jorge's development as a character is probably the best handled in the game. Unlike the others, the player isn't berated with overt comments that announce his qualities to you through a megaphone. We actually see Jorge emote on various occasions, be it interrogating a daughter of a dead man, talking to Halsey, floating above Reach in space, or sacrificing his life.

Interestingly enough, the latter is a major event in the game. Funny how such events have the potential to develop character.

In fact, there was a meaningful event that could have certainly provided our characters a chance to strongly emote that was unbearably mistreated:

So there I was right? I'm on Reach, investigating a downed comms array. My commanding officer says that it was probably taken out by the local insurrectionists, when suddenly, I hear something up on the roof... What is that? Oh?

There's a skirmisher outside the window.

It's the covenant and they're on Reach.

What does my team have to say about this?

Jorge: Here we go.

Really?!

That was it?! Here's an opportunity to depict a full scale invasion of a planet by the Covenant, and how do you do it?

The sound of scampering feet on the steel roof over my head?

What is this, Left4Dead?

And what's the reaction of our characters to Covenant invading our most heavily fortified military world?

Jorge: It's the damned covenant.

Emile: Cheer up big man, this whole valley became a free fire zone.

Incredibly. Whack. Woefully missed opportunity.

But I've digressed...

It's through a character's actions, and meaningful interactions, that we find depth. Jorge gets this on a few occasions, but the other members of Noble...

Should they be so lucky...

In attempting to shoehorn some personality into these characters, not only do we end up with a rag tag team of cardboard cutouts instead of believable people, but we undermine the development of the atmosphere upon which Reach's story so precariously depends. This happens throughout the game, but I've decided to pick out a few gems that felt like someone was slowly pushing needles into my eyes, all the while telling me "Hey, I'm pushing needles into your eyes"

Carter: Me, I'm just happy to have Noble back up to full strength. Just one thing. I've seen your file. Even the parts the ONI censors didn't want me to. I'm glad to have your skill set, but we're a team. That lone wolf stuff stays behind. Clear?

Noble Six: Got it, sir.

Jun: Welcome to Reach.

This line basically reads like: Hey man, woah, woah, woah! I know you're badass, but can you dial back the awesome just a bit, we're trying to work together here.

Oh, and in case you didn't know. You're playing Halo: Reach by Bungie Studios.

Hell, this whole cutscene was better handled in the trailer; Jorge gives a subtle nod to Pegasi, and Jun says "You picked a hell of a day to join up." That would have been easier to stomach, but it still doesn't do away with the Mary Sue treatment of Noble Six.

Now dialogue was never Halo's strong suit...

But really...

Kat: Question of my life. If the question is when will this station be back online, two weeks, earliest. This is plasma damage. All major uplink components are fried.

Carter: Two minutes is too long.

Kat: "Which is why I'm splicing into the main overland bundle to get you a direct line to Colonel Holland... You're in my light, Commander.

Oh? Some technobabble? Did we mention Kat is real techy? How interesting that the major uplink components are fried... Hey, get out of her light and let the woman work dammit.

This scene is about as excruciating as the one where Kat borrows Emile's knife to write nothing on the ground.

Obviously, this doesn't advance the plot; instead, it's clear that it's meant solely to develop her character. But what's the development? All it tells us is that she's some boring sci-fi cliché: The Technology Specialist. Just about every member of Noble aside from Six and Jorge get this treatment.

Because nothing really happens to them, we don't learn much about the main characters outside of moments like these. And it's moments like these that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Honestly, most of Noble Team's dialogue is simply objective based. The most interesting dialogue in this game actually comes from various marines and officers who help build atmosphere (more on that later).

I mean, what else do we really know about Kat? A pretty good test of character design is to try your best to describe the character. The more significant things you can say, the better.

Rest assured, I've got a lot more to say about Cortana or the Arbiter than I have for every member of Noble Team.

I have to think that a narrow scope doesn't necessarily mean an insignificant plot. Just because we're not dealing with things on a galactic scale doesn't necessarily mean your characters can't experience change. There's no interplay between a protagonist and antagonist, and there aren't any real emotional or psychological obstacles for our characters to overcome. The biggest problems our characters face are solely action based: there's an objective, and we have to complete it.

Halsey: Are you a puppet or a SPARTAN?

You said it, babe.

What can you honestly say changed about each character from the beginning of the game to the end?

Rated For Atmosphere

I will say that, atmospherically, Reach does a stellar job of illustrating... well, the fall of Reach.

The level designs and set pieces really make you feel as though you're fighting for survival on an embattled planet.

When the UNSC Savannah offers her assistance despite having her "wings clipped," only to get shot down shortly thereafter, you really feel like things are barely holding together. There are plenty of small things that encourage this feeling.

Next time you fight up the beach on Long Night of Solace, as you enter the base, stop and turn around. The battle continues outside. A Pelican drops off a ton of UNSC troops who are armed to the teeth, and if you hang out here, the Covenant waves don't seem to stop. You ultimately have to leave it, but like dummy battles you can see off in the distance on other levels, it's things like this that make you feel like you're part of a larger war.

Of course, there's another missed opportunity here: At the beginning of Tip of the Spear, we get teased with that moment every Halo kiddie has dreamt about for as long as we can remember:

One massive-as-fuck scale battle.

holyshitomgicanteventellwhatsgoingon

Now I'm sure that didn't pan out because of hardware constraints, but I don't think there was a single moment in the game where I fought alongside a friendly vehicle. You do this in Halo 2 in Mombasa and in Halo 3 on The Covenant, and goddamn, do those sections feel large in scale (Two Scarabs, holy shit!).

Nevertheless, as far as the majority of the game is concerned, you certainly feel like you're desperately fighting a losing battle.

There are countless examples of this. Helping civilians on Exodus and New Alexandria certainly developed a feeling of hopelessness with respect to saving the planet; even if it was just something to do because you got separated from the rest of the team and ultimately the plot itself.

A cohesive story aside, these missions stand out the most in terms of setting atmosphere and give you a great chance to see civilians of Reach. When your falcon flies over battles occurring down below, you not only realize that you're losing the battle, but that you can't really help... you can only delay the inevitable. If I were more emotionally engaged, I'd have felt moved.

The thing is, Reach has a heck of a lot of these little things that build the atmosphere, but really lacks it where it counts. Only those intimately familiar with the Halo universe will be able to set aside the lack of compelling story and characters to really appreciate these small things (and yes, I do appreciate them).

But at the end of the day, when the characters fall flat, and when the things you do involve running around between ultimately arbitrary objectives, it's hard to get emotionally invested. I don't think Reach is gonna be turning Roger Ebert's head.

Would it have been so difficult to ensure that everything maintained a logical flow? Some simple things could have made the events make more sense. Perhaps the big cruiser that we first came across was digging for the artifact that Halsey was researching. Suddenly the two events are meaningfully linked, and the game is that much more cohesive...

The games of the trilogy did this with ease. Why is it that this game feels like "Halo: Random Crap That Happened on Reach?"

Now, it's very likely that the books, or something in the legendary journals, will link together all of the events that occurred in the game. But as far as the actual game is concerned, it's not much more than a collection of events that occurred to some boring characters. At best, it's a tale of perseverance in a handful of soldiers. Maybe that would be compelling if those soldiers weren't bland and, thus, died unceremoniously (1).

All I Need To Know Is, Did We Lose 'Em

On the whole, I was completely underwhelmed by Halo Reach's story. When I completed everything, I was ecstatic about all the cameos and subtle nods to existing Halo canon (2), but I couldn't name a single moment that stood out to me.

I couldn't say "Remember when this happened? And how about this."

I was left kind of dumbstruck. And if not for the halo-heart-string pulling cameos, I don't think I would have had many nice things to say (3).

The Halo trilogy is loaded with a lot of these iconic moments, and despite multiple play-throughs, I still can't pin a moment here that really stands out.

I guess, at the end of the day, when it comes to Reach's story, the question is:

Am I gonna place this on the shelf alongside the Halo Trilogy or ODST?

I think we both know the answer to that.