It is difficult to know where to begin writing about Halo’s story; I became enthralled in it from the very beginning. When I came upon the fan site HBO, I read through all of the entries in the Halo Story Page. I even made a few submissions of my own. I went to the HBO Forum and began engaging in wild theories and speculations with fans even more captivated than myself. It was a very enjoyable experience. Halo’s story seemed to lend itself to that kind of discussion.
But why is that so? It is difficult for me to quantify it. I cannot easily express what makes the story in Halo so fascinating. When I considered whether 343 Industries captured my interest in Halo 4 in the same way Bungie did with previous Halo games, I began to wonder what exactly got me so hooked in the first place. The universe? The characters? The conflict? Rather unintuitively, the combat?
I cannot think of a better way to find out than breaking down the story level by level to try and glean from the parts what makes the whole so good. So why not join me as we awake from our slumber aboard the Pillar of Autumn?
The Pillar of Autumn
While watching the introduction cinematic, the first thing that hits me like the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies is the music. Martin O’Donnell did a fantastic job with the soundtrack in Halo. The music sets the mood like nothing else could. Upon viewing the ring, seeing the Pillar of Autumn approaching, and hearing that music, you cannot help but get chills.
Looking at the scene from a new player’s perspective, the exchange between Captain Keyes and Cortana does enough to let players know the ship tried to run away from something but was pursued by the Covenant. When the sirens start blaring, you know things are about to go from bad to worse. Watching the Marines prepare for evacuation gives the player a sense of just how massive the ship is. There is a huge cavernous space filled with Scorpion tanks and Warthog jeeps. Numerous Pelican dropships are docking to load up with Marines.
Then of course there is the waking of our protagonist, the Master Chief. When the camera focused on the armored behemoth within the cryo tube, I know I could not help but get excited to take control. A new player does not know exactly who the Master Chief is, where the armor came from, or any other details surrounding the SPARTAN II program, but, for the moment, he does not need to. It is enough for the story to know there is an emergency going on, things are desperate, and that green armor looks badass.
Then of course we watch as this exchange occurs:
“TECH 2: You’d better get to your evac group, Sam!
TECH 1: Affirmative. I just have to reset the computer and I’m outta here! *banging on the door* Oh god! They’re trying to get through the door! Security! Intruders in Cryo 2! No, please don’t-AHHHHH!!!
TECH 2: Sam! Sam! C’mon, we’ve got to get the hell out of here. This way!”
There are explosions occurring all over the ship, fires scattered through hallways, enemies shooting at NPCs and the player, all while the player can do nothing except run due to a lack of guns and grenades. At one point, the player will likely run head first into an Elite in a dark hallway. The Elite gives a mighty roar but turns to face the Marines firing upon him. I jumped back the first time that happened to me.
The whole experience while running towards Captain Keyes does a fantastic job of showing how life and death the situation really is. The instruction given by Keyes does an equal job of showing desperation.
“Which is where you come in, Chief. Get Cortana off this ship. Keep her away from the enemy. If they capture her, they’ll learn everything: force deployment, weapons research . . . Earth.”
When the Master Chief is finally given a gun, finally given a chance to defend himself and push the enemy back, it invokes a strong emotional response. When I entered the cafeteria after meeting with Keyes and saw the Marines struggling to defend the bridge, I wanted to save them all. The details of who the Marines were fighting for, who Cortana was, where the ship was, etc., were unimportant. I knew I had to get Cortana safely off the ship. And that was enough for the first level.
“They’re using our lifeboat airlocks to attach their boarding craft . . . we go out and they come in. Clever bastards . . . .”
We also learn the Covenant is not foolish and has advanced technology. At this point it should be clear that humanity is facing a losing battle. The fear the Marine displays while exiting via the escape pod also drives the point home. As the player begins careening towards Halo’s surface, a Marine ask what the player is likely to be wondering at this point:
“STRAPPED-IN MARINE: What is that thing, Lieutenant?
PILOT: Hell if I know. But we’re landin’ on it.”
The beautiful landscape of Halo is a very sharp contrast to the bland interior of the Pillar of Autumn’s corridors. It looks so incredibly peaceful and utopian. To greet the ring-world with death leaves a very bitter taste in the player’s mouth. Trying so hard to save the Marines from the last level, only to have the ones in the escape pod die out of your control, causes the player to snap out of any enchanting spell Halo’s visuals may have cast.
There is a horde of aliens pursuing the humans from the Pillar of Autumn. This is not a vacation. Cortana is kind enough to help us move along.
“CORTANA: Warning. I’ve detected multiple Covenant dropships on approach. I recommend moving into those hills. If we’re lucky, the Covenant will believe that everyone aboard this lifeboat died in the crash.”
The majority of the level is dedicated to saving the Marines who successfully escaped from the Pillar of Autumn. The number of Marines who survive is directly related to how effective the player is at stopping the Covenant. It really helps the player feel like he is humanity’s last hope. The Marines are woefully outmatched in weapons and armor. It is unlikely most of them would survive without the Master Chief’s intervention.
The player learns about events that move the story forward through statements made by Cortana.
“CORTANA: Warning. I’ve picked up reports that the Covenant have located and secured the Pillar of Autumn‘s crash site. The good news is the Captain’s still alive. The bad news is that the Covenant have captured the entire surviving command crew. Let’s hurry and find the final lifeboat, so we can link up with the rest of the survivors.”
Then a bit later:
“CORTANA: New traffic on the Covenant battlenet! I’ve found Captain Keyes! He’s being held on a Covenant cruiser, the Truth and Reconciliation, a ship I disabled before we abandoned the Autumn. The Truth and Reconciliation touched down on a desert plateau roughly three hundred kilometers upspin.”
I enjoy it when events take place outside the player’s direct purview. There is a fine balance between making the player feel like she is just a small part of a large over-encompassing world, and making her feel like no one can get anything done unless she does it herself.
Think of how most novels are typically structured. Rarely do you follow the protagonist exclusively. The reader’s focus shifts around the novel’s universe to observe events taking place elsewhere. I much prefer this style of telling stories in games as opposed to one where every event happens with the main character.
Truth and Reconciliation
I love this level. Unfortunately for present purposes, I love it because I enjoy sniping in my FPS games more than any story-related element. The story progression occurs when the player has finally rescued Captain Keyes.
“KEYES: While the Covenant had us locked up in here, I overheard the guards talking about this ring world. They call it… ‘Halo.’
CORTANA: One moment Sir. Accessing Covenant battlenet. (Pause) According to the data in their networks, the ring has some kind of deep religious significance. If I’m analyzing this correctly . . . they believe that Halo is some kind of weapon. One with vast, unimaginable power.
KEYES: Well . . . that’s true. The Covenant kept saying, ‘Whoever controls Halo controls the fate of the universe.’
CORTANA: Now I see . . . I have intercepted a number of messages about a Covenant search team, scouting for a control room. I thought they were looking for the bridge of a cruiser I damaged in the battle above the ring. But they must be looking for Halo’s control room.
KEYES: That’s bad news. If Halo is a weapon, and the Covenant gain control of it, they’ll use it as a weapon and wipe out the entire human race. (Pause) Chief, Cortana. I have a new mission for you. We need to beat the Covenant to Halo’s control room. Marines! Let’s move!”
With that relatively short exchange, the player finally learns that Halo is not god’s own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine or a giant hula hoop. I am a bit surprised to realize that this level has so little story in it. The reveal that Halo is a weapon is certainly significant, but it is almost overshadowed by the need to rescue Captain Keyes.