Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Halo 3 Ended a Trilogy

I liked Halo--the first one. It was a game about space, discovery, science-fiction. It was about saving the human race, killing aliens, exploring a mysterious new world, escaping alive in one piece--discovering something unique, leaving it behind and having changed something along the way.

It was a story about the hero's journey. We are Master Chief, in the human fleet, minding our business, trying to do the best we can to keep Earth a secret from these nasty Covenant aliens. But they attack our ship, we get thrown off course, and crash on a mysterious alien world which turns out to be an artificially constructed ring (a Halo, get it?). We grab our assault rifles, join forces with our comrades, rescue our captain, explore this ring, discover that it goes deep for (hundreds of?) miles, and try to find a way to escape. Eventually this means we blow it up, and in a thrilling final sequence we barely escape as the last soldier or alien alive.

But six years later
in 2007, Halo 3 seems to have forgotten what made it so great in the first place. Halo 3 isn't about a journey, the battle for people we care about, or even survival against an unstoppable foe. Instead it's about repetitive action and bad space drama, barely excused by a setup of invasions, war, explosions, and ancient alien technology. It's a game that's lost a sense of self, what it's trying to achieve or convey to players. It's a game that tries to be too many things, and in the end, isn't left with much anything at all.

It first started in Halo 2, when it tried to portray both sides of this intergalactic war and have us empathize with our enemies. The game had us control a new protagonist, the Arbiter, who previously killed humans but then decided to rebel and stop the other Covenant aliens. Then the true villains turn out not to be the covenant, but a council of evil snail-like aliens, which is spearheaded by an even more evil snail-like alien who wants to activate an ancient alien technology in a remote part of the galaxy that will inevitably kill all humankind and probably the universe.

Alarm signals started to go up when we were watching long cut-scenes about aliens incapable of human vocal tracts speaking in English and debating space drama unrelated to what we thought was a story about Master Chief. This is raised another step in Halo 3 when the Flood, the zombie-like creatures in the game, proceed to join forces with us, speaking to us through animated tree-branch-like appendixes hanging out of their deformed mouths. This is the equivalent of the zombies and headcrabs in Half-Life 2 deciding to ally with Gordon Freeman and doing so by speaking to him with sensible English dialog. In Halo 3, the dynamic relationship between the Flood, the Covenant, and Master Chief constantly shifts until all understanding and sympathy is lost in the process.

The gameplay in Halo 3 consists of romps through different locale throughout Earth and beyond, but the setting is barely made important other than the fact that we are always chasing someone or something related to the end of the universe. Contrast this to the goals in Halo 1, which are progressive as we discover with our friends, the other human soldiers, where we are, and what we are trying to achieve. First there is the discovery of the Halo, the map room, and then the control room, each adding deeper layers to the story and our overall goals. Halo 3's goals consist more of locations--the game wants you to be here, and then there, which is briefly explained in a voice-over and pitched with a few key terms, such as "Ark," "Covenant," or "High Runner," meant to alleviate the fact that there is no progressive reason for you to be at these locations other than for convenient action sequences.

Interrupted by these segments of action in Halo 3 are meaningless monologues by Cortana, whom we have since been separated from in Halo 2, who spouts bits of information without any real purpose. These aren't like the audio logs in BioShock or the propaganda in Half-Life 2, which enrich the world and enlarge our sense of immersion by detailing important backstory and enhancing characterization. Halo 3's monologues consist of phrases such as "I am your light, your savior. I knew you," or "The way it ends is foreseen. You know this to be true." These segments are more like bad poetry than any pertinent story development. Furthermore, these segments actually slow down time in the game to a crawl and steal control away from the player, getting us further annoyed by hampering our progress in between actual gameplay.

There were one or two moments in Halo 3 where I felt that sense of meaning in the original Halo. It was when I jumped into an Orca (the flying helicopter thing, like the one in Avatar), and two other human soldiers jumped on the side of the wings, and we proceeded to do something related to one thing or another. But the point is we were part of a larger battle. The game wasn't about me killing endless enemies with a large assortment of weapons. The game at that moment was about achieving a series of goals with your human comrades, as part of a larger battle against a horrible foe.

As a whole, Halo 3 lost this sense of meaning for me. It appeared to be a game constructed for the sake of itself--for action, closure, and the fulfillment of the marketing of a popular sequel. Halo 1 was about something, even to the smallest degree: discovery, survival, camaraderie. Halo 3 wasn't about this; rather, it was about the immediate, the superficial--action for the sake of action, an ending for the sake of an ending--a game that existed just to exist.

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