I was chatting the other night with a friend while we were playing Halo and we started talking about the approach to storytelling and back history taken by the game. N has never read or viewed any of what I call the extended media around the Halo franchise. As a result, his reactions to certain key events or personalities revealed along the way are markedly different to mine.
I’ve been a relative latecomer to reading the various novels – many game tie-ins over the years have been lackluster across the industry in my opinion – but when I heard that 343 were intending to use the latest crop of novels as a launchpad for the new game, and saw that they were getting people like Greg Bear and Karen Traviss to write them I started keeping an eye out for them. Greg Bear’s series of books are set deep in the history of the series, but are hugely relevant to the events of the new game, while Karen Traviss’ book Glasslands acts to tie together the previous novels and set up the situation revealed in the new game.
On top of that, the Forward Unto Dawn webseries was released in the five weeks leading up to the game’s launch – a high quality live-action series that does a lot to set the tone of the latest part of the series and introduces a new key character who interacts with the Chief during the game.
This all adds up to a lot of back story that pays off for me when playing the game, but as my friend pointed out, it also seems to have led to some lazy storytelling in the game itself. I can entirely understand his point. There are certain key moments and reveals in the Campaign that fall flat without knowing the back story. Instead of saying “Oh no, its the ****** inside that *******, now it all makes sense”, it becomes – “Oh… that’s what’s inside that piece of scenery… he looks powerful. Guess he’s the bad guy.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the game and losing many many hours playing it online, discovering codes and terminals to unlock weird and wonderful things, but from a storytelling point of view it does all feel a bit rushed. Using the minimally spoilery example above, for example, the material used in the Domain Terminals could have been used to flesh out and foreshadow the existence and nature of the Big Bad, or to have clue the player in after the reveal to add an emotional resonance to things. The Chief, after all, has a history of accidentally nearly triggering large extinction events, so the way the Big Bad is revealed is entirely consistent with previous games – but unlike the original Halo, not so much effort is put into explaining why this is a Bad Thing. The Chief becomes even more of a reactive cipher than before. He is fighting the Big Bad because there is a Big Bad to be fought.
While I hope that the plan and consequences are picked up in the next game. While its obvious that a huge amount of care and attention has gone into the game play and the technical elements, it is a shame that there is this feeling of a missed opportunity. Other minor niggles like being unable to drill back into medals or make theatre clips and screen shots from campaign or spartan ops sessions just add to a very slight sense of “humph” – but then I think we’ve been spoiled by just how superior Bungie’s previous handling of these features has been.
I’m sure I’ll ruminate more, but for now I have a Haggis cooking and some creamy mashed potatoes to prepare. Catch you all later…