A Tiered Critique of Reach's Story

By: General Battuta
Date: 9/26/10 2:25 pm

This will be a three-tiered critique of Reach's story. The first is a criticism of the basic level, the dialogue writing. Dialogue writing is the brick the whole edifice is built of.

The second is a critique of Reach's plot and character design.

The third is a brief commentary on Reach's position with respect to the other games and the expanded Halo universe.

I want to make it clear right up front that I am not a big fan of Reach's dialogue, character or story writing, and that I consider Reach to be Bungie's weakest story effort because of these factors, not because it differs from Nylund's The Fall of Reach. I fully expect Riceatron to miss this paragraph.


Reach's dialogue has its moments. Its absolute best moments are when the characters don't speak English. When Jorge speaks with the civilians in Winter Contingency, the dialogue gets out of the way and allows the superb animation and body acting to speak. There was nothing more touching in the campaign than Jorge comforting the civilian girl.

It has many more bad moments.

Reach dialogue is redundant. "It's the Covenant, sir!" "Yeah, we realized that about forty Covenant kills ago."

Reach dialogue is truncated and over-processed. That's partly an audio engineering issue, but it's also partly the lines. Play the beginning of Winter Contingency and I think you'll see an effective demonstration.

Reach dialogue clumsily deploys military terminology. "We're being pursued by enemy tangoes!" O RLY?

These may seem like nitpicks. They're not. Every time a line of dialogue comes to the player with a flaw like that, it reminds the player that this is dialogue, written by people at Bungie - rather than actual people speaking to each other in a vivid world. Who is this ONI spook talking to me in Sword Base, and why should I give a crap? Why isn't Carter giving me orders?

My biggest issue with the Reach dialogue is that it's not dense with information about character relationships. Emile and Jorge set up a nice dynamic in Winter Contingency, one that never pays off or goes anywhere. Kat and Carter have a good interaction in the cave before LNoS. Yet most of Noble's dialogue consists of brief meaningless snippets of jargon.

Remember the Chief meeting Cortana? "No thanks to your driving, yes." Entire Cortana/Chief relationship conveyed right in that line: fun, flirtatious, a little war-weary. In Reach we get "This is Jun, Noble 4, Emile, Noble 5." This delivered while the two interchangeable armored figures walk out the door, making it impossible to tell which is which unless you read publicity material ahead of time!

Here is what we learn about Noble: Jorge is a good guy with a connection to Reach. Emile is grumpy and isolated. Jun talks a lot. Carter is serious and always follows orders. Kat is a cynical hacker who is mostly used for exposition.

They are in those same places at the end of the game, and they're dead.

At least nobody told me to go To War.

Plot And Character Design

Reach's plot is a mess. I'm gonna keep this simple and distilled.

The story opens with an opportunity for an Insurrectionist encounter that examines the ambiguity and dark side of the UNSC. This opportunity is dropped after one line of dialogue.

We find that the Covenant are already on Reach. They have taken out a comm relay.

Nobody asks how they get to Reach. Nobody asks where they are geographically concentrated, or in what strength. Certainly nobody tells the player any of this. Next thing we know Sword Base is under attack.

Wait a second. A small force in Visegrad is one thing. But now the Covenant are attacking Sword Base? In what strength? Where did they come from? Where are these dropships deploying from?

Why is the massive military machine of Reach not immediately acting to track down the source of the Covenant incursion? Why does the narrative never ask the questions the player did - "Where did they come from? How did they get here? How many are there?"

Nightfall. We sneak into a Covenant controlled zone. Wait a second, COVENANT CONTROLLED ZONE? The Covenant has occupied territory on Reach, and the UNSC has not already assaulted it at division strength, with warship and aerospace support?

This is the Covenant. They burned dozens of colony worlds. They're on Reach, which they weren't even supposed to know the location of. Why is nobody agitated? Why are we calmly doing some light recon with Jun, instead of setting the whole planet on alert and commencing massive evacuations?

The appropriate atmosphere didn't come along until Exodus.

And there's another problem. The Fall of Reach doesn't begin until after Long Night of Solace.

Noble Team quite plainly spends the first half of the game dealing with a Covenant scouting party. Then you sit out the main invasion and (presumably) Covenant planetfall, and come back in in time to oversee the last dregs of the evacuation.

The Fall of Reach Happens Offscreen

What the heck?

You blow up the supercarrier. You fall from orbit as the main Covenant fleet arrives. When you get to New Alexandria, it's all over but the shouting - main combat action is over.

And that's just a disappointment. We don't get to play the Fall of Reach. We get to play through the foreplay, and clean up a bit of the resulting mess. But for all that Noble blew up a 25km supercarrier, they had no impact whatsoever on the invasion proper.

(Sure, futility's a nice theme, but the same narrative time could have been used on something equally futile but also directly tied to the fall of Reach).

The Halsey arc from Sword Base kicks back in for the last two missions, but it's disconnected and reduces Noble Team to couriers that enable the Master Chief's heroism. It works, in terms of giving the game meaning related to the rest of the trilogy, but it doesn't give Reach any internal meaning. What happens at the end of Reach is only valuable in relation to the other games, which makes Reach a bit of a narrative parasite.

I've touched on character design already. Noble Team is a set of static figures, whose arcs largely come in the ways they choose to die. I don't ask too much of Bungie, but I think they could have cut or combined two Noble members and done a much better job. Carter, for example, is utterly meaningless to the story; Kat should have been the team leader.

Reach and The Fall of Reach and Other Stuff

The Fall of Reach, Nylund's novel, comes up over and over again because it was a better story.

Now what's so puzzling about Reach, the game, is that it goes to great pains to avoid contradicting The Fall of Reach. There's that huge gap in the middle of the game where the Fall itself happened, during which time Noble Six is hiking to New Alexandria. The book can fit in there.

Reach-the-game also takes pains to move Halsey to CASTLE Base, so she can be found there in First Strike; and to make repeated reference to factors established in The Fall of Reach, like insurrectionists, the orbital MACs, and the buried Forerunner artifacts we saw in First Strike.

And then it goes and makes a few peculiar changes that don't add anything to the story.

You can argue that game supercedes books. But the changes feel extraneous. I don't really care that the game contradicted the book; I care that it did so for no good reason. Why split your formerly loose-but-coherent canon in twain for no reason?

And wait, hold on. Vast swathes of Halo 3 contain VERBATIM QUOTES of The Fall of Reach. Verbatim! How can you pretend The Fall of Reach never happened when the climax of your own trilogy acknowledges and uses it?

This contradiction does something dangerous, which is establish that all the peripheral investment we Halo fans makes - our books, comics, Waypoint articles - could be tossed aside at a whim. That's a bad precedent. And that's the only reason I worry about these contradictions.

Oh, and the fact that they SUCK. :D

Halo: CE implies that Cortana and the Chief know each other well and are sort of flirtatious buddies.

Halo: The Fall of Reach implies that Cortana and the Chief only met days ago, and are mutually suspicious. Contradiction.

Halo: Reach introduces a THIRD contradiction by suggesting that Cortana was only shipped to the Pillar of Autumn moments before it departed. And don't tell me that Cortana was splintered! That's all well and good, but it's from a Halsey Journal included in the Legendary addition, rather than being explained in the game where it would actually matter to players.

I'm out of steam. That's all for now, folks!

I'm doing a legendary playthrough right now. I'll try to jot down all the dialogue that really bothers me.