Dammit, Just Play This! - Halo 4

Hello fellow Giant Bomb fans.

I have been a huge fan of this site for quite some time, but I have sadly not become to integrated into the community (through all faults of my own). I love what the Giant Bomb team has done to foster discussion and intelligent analysis of this awesome medium. I have been trying to do some of my own writing that kind of combines design discussion, personal experience, and review lingo into a single thing. I like to call it "Dammit, Just Play This!" Here is the most recent one; I hope you all enjoy and please leave a comment if like/dislike/agree/want to tear down piece by piece.

Small edit: If you enjoy any of the analysis/discussion of this article, please visit my personal blog Broken Ideasfor more DJPT! entries and some other random writings. Thanks for reading!

There are very few times when I get to renege on a long held belief; something deeply rooted that for some reason I eventually came to see as completely inane. It took a full night of research, about five hours of YouTube videos, and sixteen hours (and counting) of audiobooks. What revelation did I come to?

I like Halo.

Furthermore, I respect Halo.

A new world and a new Chief

I respect what that universe has become, what their writers have done, the complex issues that are dealt with in the way genre fiction only can. Difficult social, ethical, and philosophical ideas are easier to express when it is warring factions within the Covenant rather than a real world analogue. Writers explore a gray area of moral space by obfuscating an actual event with massive plasma infused explosions, loads of bullets, and delusions of grandeur. Avatar immediately springs to mind; ironically tying back into Bungie and 343 Industries’ sci-fi menagerie due to some supposed artistic thievery, which then Ouroboros-style loops into earlier instances of plagiarism.

Pulling it back on topic, being able to evoke some emotionally affecting connections to our society through the vector of the imaginary is not impossible or even completely novel anymore. Modern fantasy and sci-fi needs to have this kind of engagement to keep it from being seen as complete schlock, or unintentional schlock. So, imagine my shock (rhyme and alliteration, my oldest friends.) when I played through Halo 4 and became immersed in the overarching narrative of humanity versus threats new and old, and the more personal story of two severely broken beings coming to terms with change.

What bothers me about Halo is not (wholly) the content of their narrative, but how they actively hold back salient information that enhances the player’s enjoyment. In Halo 4, two characters are introduced that set in motion a couple of the foundational events for the universe, at least for the humans. The Didact and the Librarian, both part of the newly expounded upon Forerunner race, are introduced as the main villain and Oracle-esque figures respectively. But, they come almost out of nowhere and become personified as “The Evil One” and “Helpful yet Mysterious One.” To actually understand these characters as anything more than cardboard standees you actually need to do delve into some of the collectible information from the original trilogy and spend time reading Greg Bear’s prequel novels, Halo: Crytum and Primordium. Only after consuming this expanded universe material do the before mentioned characters become fully realized or even make much sense.

A Prime Evil that Lacks Some Explanation

As novels, Bear’s take on the Halo universe are exercises in world building, meaning there is quite a bit of exposition and glimpses of fleeting action. He has a knack for creating some tense sequences, but a lot of it is in service of more explanation. To his credit though, he is given the task of creating a genesis for the series, while still keeping in mind that there are going to be two other games set thousands of years ahead of his narrative; a precarious situation to say the least, especially dealing with one of the most popular franchises in recent history. So, Bear pulls off something interesting by creating new, albeit archetypal, characters which are simultaneously thrust forward yet sidelined within the game’s narrative. It’s a shame, but sadly common within this series.

Bungie relegated two of its most interesting stories, the tribulations of a scattered ODST team and the doomed fate of Noble Team on Reach, were regulated to a side story and novel/eventual game adaptation. These two arcs fill in some important holes within the main series, like who the hell Cortana is and why there was a freaking SPACETIME HOLE THAT RIPS A CITY APART! (Actually, the main hinge of ODST’s story is the introduction of an information giver that sets in motion the events of Halo 3, but the fates of New Mumbasa and The Superintendent are extremely interesting). Of course, it would be difficult to fit these stories into the main series, but their downplayed importance hurts the overall story. 343 Industries follows in their narrative missteps, but make up for it with possibly one of the ballsiest moves of the series.

It was not Bungie’s best work, but they nailed a unique aesthetic

I imagine when the metaphorical keys were handed from Bungie to 343; there were probably some words of wisdom exchanged concerning the massive Fabergé egg at stake. My guess is the last bit went something like “Whatever you do, don’t mess with Master Chief.” Not as a threat; more a warning. Longtime fans of the series have a certain affinity for the hulking green giant and the little blue woman in his head. They are two sides of the same coin; stoicism and sarcasm, brawn and brains, they make a fully rounded character. So what do the new curators of Halo do? They mess with Master Chief. More specifically, they create a reflexive narrative of anxiety and change mirrored within the player and their own development team, by attempting to change the most central of characters.

Trying to find evidence to whether the arcs for this new Halo trilogy started with Bungie or 343i can get quite difficult. What we do have is many interviews speaking to the pressure of making this new game, but also about how they wanted to have a more personal narrative that delves into the suit and pulls out the remnants of John-117. They start to break down the psyche of Master Chief, deliberately calling him a possible sociopath and questioning his heroic attitude. They try to muddle the sacrosanct relationship between Chief and Cortana, and push this one dimensional character into something more.

Alright, time for some close reading. Let’s use this English degree I so desperately worked to obtain, while steering around spoilers. In the most basic sense, the player shares in the Master Chief’s struggle to save the deteriorating/changing Cortana/franchise. The plot device of “rampancy,” an affliction that affects all AI’s in the Halo universe which causes them to “think” themselves to death, sets up danger and constancy of change. 343 stepped into this situation knowing they could not do the same thing, but drastically altering the design formula or tone would devastate the fan base. Throughout the games ten hour runtime, Cortana continues her downward spiral and Master Chief continues to profess that “I can fix this.” All he wants is to continue being a soldier, to continue with Cortana, to stay the same. 343i admits to aping the introduction of Halo: Combat Evolved in its most recent effort; a grand statement that everything is hunky dory, until they start letting their own art and creativity to bleed in; they let change happen. In the same way Cortana’s degradation is telegraphed, so are 343i’s design sensibilities. Cortana’s outbursts become more prevalent, which visually distorts the player’s UI and aurally alters the normally snarky female compatriot into a distorted mess. This graphical trick constantly reminds the player, on a basic level, that all is not well, instilling the motivation to set it right. New enemies with their own idiosyncratic tricks present interesting changes to Bungie’s traditional combat puzzles. Furthermore, the constant push for change plays into the underlying romantic arc of Chief and Cortana, that still builds this interesting meta-narrative. The climactic moment between Chief and Cortana has lines that sound like dialogue between the fans and writers. The desperation of trying to keep everything intact and the catharsis of finally letting go; 343i creates a narrative structure which aligns Chief’s desire for stasis with the player, while invoking the developers’ anxiety in semi-sacrificing the sacred cow. It allows all parties, in-game and out, to revel in disquiet; to stand at a precipice and feel change. In my mind, it is a brilliant discussion of the development process and fan expectation in this medium; all while being solid entertainment.

The most interesting part of Halo 4”s narrative, and for some incredible reasons

Almost 1400 words and I haven’t touched how the game plays or what most people play Halofor, the multiplayer. I am going to ape basically every reviewer who has touched this game; hey, do you like Halo? Then you are going to like this new one. There are subtle and not so subtle changes; there are influences of Call of Duty and Uncharted, there are new enemy types and new weapons to blow up basically everything. It feels fantastic and playing online is still a blast. Whatever graphical magickery they pulled did the trick. It looks leaps and bounds better than Halo: Reach and makes amazing use of facial scan technology and performance capture during cutscenes. A strong visual style compliments the nearly outstanding sound design. Guns sound enormous; when a rail gun shot connects with the target, the auditory and visual report signals to the player that “yo, what you just shot at is gone.” My only issue, and it can become quite annoying, is 343i seems to have adopted Bungie’s problematic mixing style. Sound effects and music can be a little too loud during in-mission briefings, and there is no audio setting to alter the mix. A frustrating but ultimately minor issue relative to what the game achieves.

Alright, so I think I have made my point for why people should play Halo 4; why it is a simultaneously glorious yet frustrating narrative experience. Will this universe be lifted up among the pantheon of the sci-fi genre? Probably not. But, 343i has created a supremely satisfying game that comments on the culture that it inhabits.