By Fram 9 Comments
I know this is about seven years too late, but I was thinking about tension in narrative games, and how easy it is to ruin a good buildup with something as trivial as bad checkpointing or enemy placement. It got me thinking about the last time this was really made clear to me.
It got me thinking about Halo: Reach.
I had a memorable (not in the good way) experience at the end of Halo: Reach that really stuck with me (spoilers follow)
The final level of Halo: Reach arrives on the back of an impressive buildup. The campaign is dark, illustrating the folly of fighting this unknown foe and yet showing moments of true bravery and sacrifice. There's a certain doomy inevitability that permeates this game, making it unique amongst the Halos, I think.
Any way, this final stage shows me my ultimate objective right from the beginning - the Pillar of Autumn. Covenant are everywhere, and I have (according to the story) limited time to get to the ship and deliver Cortana. I'm playing on Heroic (because that's the way Halo is meant to be played!)
Off I go, playing faster, more carelessly than usual. The orchestral score is fantastic, constantly building, constantly driving me forward. Each enemy encounter is now heightened by the knowledge that it's slowing me down - time is of the essence here, and these dudes picked the wrong Spartan to mess with.
Amid the hail of grenades and weapons fire, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the Autumn in the distance, a looming beacon over the battlefield, growing larger as I inch closer. I am having a ton of fun right now.
After tense gun battles and breakneck driving sequences, I finally make it to the flagship. Cortana is delivered, though at a great cost, as I'm the only Spartan left of my team. As the covenant ships converge, I choose to stay on this dying planet and provide cover fire for the Autumn's escape. A suitable, bittersweet end for a brave warrior.
This should have been the climactic scene where I ran to the turret unimpeded, and expertly took down a couple of covenant ships while the Autumn took off just in the nick of time. It would have been awesome.
But that's not what happens. Instead, a covenant cruiser drops off a bunch of enemies between me and the turret. "Whatever, I don't have time for this!" I shout in my mind as the music swells and I rush to meet them head-on. "Time to cut through these fools and get to that turret!"
Turns out "these fools" are tough-as-nails cloaked Elites that don't place much value on dramatic tension. They cut me down instantly. The music stops. A beat passes. Reload.
The music is swelling again! I run up towards the Elites, firing madly and throwing grenades like the badass just-in-time-to-save-the-Autumn Spartan that I am. But now one of them is behind be somehow. Dead. Music Stops. Reload.
This happens a few more times. Like a LOT actually. By now all the tension is gone, I'm frustrated as hell and I just want this to be over. Eventually, somehow, I take them all out with barely enough ammo to spare. I'm relieved, but not enthused. I'm sure as hell not "immersed."
I jump on the turret, ready to take out the last couple of rogue ships - but here's more than a couple. They shoot the Autumn down and it's game over. Music stops. Reload. Motherf...
You see, my turret has a low fire rate and each shot has travel time, so hitting these moving targets before they shoot down the Autumn becomes an exercise in trial and error. Another death. I now know where the third ship comes in from. Another death. Another death. I plot out the exact arc to swivel the turret so that it fires just in time to take out ship four while I reposition the crosshairs over the empty space that I know ship five will soon occupy.
WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING?!?!
30 seconds (maybe a minute at the most) of game time should have passed from the moment I dropped off Cortana to the moment the Autumn broke atmosphere. The dramatic tension that had been so expertly built up over the course of the level, of the entire game, should have culminated in a powerful moment of cinematic payoff. Instead I got half an hour of trial and error, frustration and disbelief, dying and reloading. By the time I finally got it right, it didn't matter anymore, and the poignancy of my final moments alone on a doomed planet fending off an endless covenant horde was shattered.
Halo: Reach got so close. So close to one of those transcendent moments where everything comes together, where everything clicks and feels exactly as it should. Like in a well-crafted film where you realise what the twist is seconds before the main character does, and get to share in their revelation.
But it wasn't that. And even though I can look back now and say I enjoyed my time playing through Halo: Reach, my lasting impression is one of squandered tension. A missed opportunity. A botched payoff.
Maybe I should have played it on Normal.