When we talk about the story of Halo, we usually talk about characters, settings, and overarching plots. Less often do we actually talk about the mechanics of how those stories are delivered. A bad story competently delivered remains a bad story, but players fundamentally underestimate how the less-visible parts of a game impact our perception of the story, and the game’s campaign as a whole.
At release, it’s fair to say Halo 4 had a mixed reception regarding its campaign. Many of the complaints could be summarized in a word—”confusion”. Confusion as to why players were still fighting the Covenant, confusion as to who the Didact was, confusion as to what the Librarian was trying to convey. These days, as the Halo Cycle® churns on, Halo 4 has been reappraised by a lot of fans, and the story I think has been seen as much stronger than it was when it launched, particularly regarding the Chief-Cortana relationship. Part of that more favorable reception is down to the usual power of distance and sentiment from a work we revisit. But another part may be that we’ve simply become used to the elements that bumped and shocked us on first playthroughs, and contributed negatively to those initial impressions.
One part of Halo 4‘s campaign I considered a weakness at the time, but which I never really sat down to quantify, is down to continuity. Sure, there’s the visual continuity of Master Chief waking up in different-looking armor on a completely different-looking ship. But there’s also a matter of temporal continuity—how players understand the experience of moving throughout the game’s setpieces, and how the break between missions and the handoff to and from cutscenes to player action is handled.
To demonstrate how this is so effective and important, let’s go back to Halo: Combat Evolved. The first game’s campaign is a masterpiece of spare storytelling told well, and its mission continuity is crucial to that. The game opens with a cutscene aboard Pillar of Autumn, with the player character Master Chief being woken from cryosleep. When the cutscene ends, the Master Chief and surrounding characters are in the same position in gameplay as the cutscene. We understand no time has passed, and we aren’t disoriented by the change from third-person to first-person camera movement. This kind of deliberate seamlessness is found throughout Combat Evolved‘s cutscenes. In many vignettes during missions themselves, the camera even zooms into the visor of Chief, making it clear as gameplay begins whose body we inhabit and experience gameplay from.
The mission structure itself is no less deliberate. One thing the game does brilliantly, and no Halo campaign since has done as well, is ground every mission in a specific time of day. When players land on Halo in the second mission, the lighting is cool like morning. By “Truth and Reconciliation”, it’s nighttime. It’s understood that it’s a new day for “The Silent Cartographer” and “Assault on the Control Room”, dusk and nightfall for 343 Guilty Spark, a long night for “The Library”, “Two Betrayals”, and “Keyes”, and then “The Maw” takes place on a new day.1 The time of day works in concert with the themes and arc of the story.
The continuity between cutscenes and missions is also purposefully used to help give a sense of momentum and continuance. When it skips from night to day, such as “Truth and Reconciliation” to “The Silent Cartographer”, it’s a setting and time shift that is underlining the sense that this is a new chapter in the story. Almost every single mission opens or closes with a clear method of transport—the Autumn, escape pod, Pelican dropship, Spirit dropship, Pelican again. The Master Chief never just appears somewhere for the next mission—even in cases like the opening to “The Library”, “Two Betrayals”, and “Keyes”, the movement to the next mission space takes place with an on-screen teleportation courtesy of 343 Guilty Spark or Cortana. The player is never asking, in the back of their mind or the front of it, “how did I get here?”2 It helps prevent the campaign from feeling like just a shooting gallery of interesting spaces to fight in, even though that is fundamentally what it is.
While it’s never accomplished as successfully and completely, the same principles of continuity through storytelling extend to Bungie’s other games. Notably, Halo 3: ODST uses a puzzle-box approach to its flashbacks; in nighttime segments the Rookie finds an item that triggers a flashback to the daytime. These daylight missions go from morning to dusk and underline exactly when they occurred, even if you experienced each trigger out of the “intended” order—you don’t necessarily even need the subtitles that tell you how long it’s been since you dropped when the visuals are driving that timing home. Another element the campaigns use to great effect is telling a story through background scenery, especially starting with Halo 2. In missions like “Delta Halo” and “Regret”, “Quarantine Zone” and “Sacred Icon”, “Uprising” and “High Charity”, the player character’s progress through the space is telegraphed by distant goals—the central temple where Regret is holed up, Delta Halo’s Library, the Halo’s Control Room. Even after long periods of play when these goals aren’t visible, they constantly pop up to give the player feedback and a sense of progress. Story is told or reinforced through environmental cues and the very mechanics of how the story is delivered.
And that brings us to Halo 4. In comparison to the examples discussed, the game suffers from a consistently fragmented mission continuity that bleeds into the understanding and enjoyment of the moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s not the core issue with Halo 4‘s storytelling, but it’s a consistent element that undermines it. Its first and second missions clearly emulate Combat Evolved with the awakening from cryo and descent to the Forerunner installation. But the game starts running into problems soon after, particularly in how often it uses (or abuses) the teleportation system established on Requiem, and how it lacks some of the same tricks that previous Halo games used to give a sense of progress to the in-level stories, as well as the wider one being told by the campaign.
Arguably the high point of the game’s campaign is “Forerunner”, in which Master Chief is dumped via a teleporter on a platform overlooking the innermost shell of Requiem. This is one of the very few times in the entire game in which the campaign will develop a good use of space (even though the exact mechanics of what is “up” in the shield world can be a bit confusing.) The goal is clear: reach the ‘satellite’ in the center of the space after clearing the interference created by two pylons on opposite ends. While the Chief reaches each pylon and satellite via more portals, after successfully clearing each pylon the Chief returns to the original starting platform, allowing them a visual demonstration of how they are closer to their goal. It even allows sharp-eyed players to spot the Cryptum before they are teleported up to it, letting “in the know” players in on the secret. But then things start stumbling. After Chief accidentally unleashs the Didact, the Forerunner tosses Chief aside and then slips away as Chief makes a wild jump. When the cutscene ends, we’re inexplicably on the surface of Requiem’s inner core. Did Chief fall a couple miles (again?) Was he teleported? It’s unclear.
In the next mission, “Infinity”, Chief meets Lasky in a cutscene at a doorway. When gameplay resumes, the player starts at the end of a completely different doorway heading out to a completely different and new part of the map. There’s no clear connection to the area the cutscene just took place in, and no clear indication of the passage of time. There are even two unharmed marines joining you who weren’t in the previous shot. At the end of this part of the mission, you clear an LZ to summon a Pelican… and then are whisked mid-mission by Pelican via a black screen and a line of voice-over to another firefight in a new area. Gone is the sense of reward found in missions like “Sacred Icon”/”Quarantine Zone” of moving to a distant location you’ve spotted before—in this case the trapped Infinity. Instead, after an initial look at the beginning of the mission, you’re just zapped there. It robs players of some sense of reward.
These issues continue with greater frequency from here. “Reclaimer” has a singular set of goals from the outset—disable some particle cannons and the gravity well trapping Infinity—but again there’s not much in the way of a visual progress to that goal. After the revelatory cutscene with the Librarian towards the end of the mission, the Chief pops out of another portal to find themselves right in the midst of the game’s final firefight by the gravity well.
Whereas Combat Evolved fundamentally treated cutscenes like short interludes integrated into the rest of the video game, Halo 4 often treats them more like filmic cuts, with negative results. Many cutscenes literally slam a door on the viewer at the end, cutting the resultant gameplay off from what came before. This tension between gameplay and cutscenes is not just one found in Halo 4—games like Uncharted famously have tremendous discontinuity between their gameplay and cinematics, where the player characters shrug off dozens of rounds with no problem but are incapacitated as needed by a single shot when player control is taken away—but it’s one that tends to hurt Halo more, given that it generally does a good job on relating information outside of those cutscenes as well. The actual construction of cutscenes themselves are hardly the most fundamental of problems with Halo 4‘s storytelling, but they essentially work as a force multiplier.
343 generally improved on these issues with Halo 5, although the game still doesn’t have the easy flow of Combat Evolved—and perhaps that’s impossible, given that it had a galaxy-spanning scope. That brings us to Halo Infinite. There have been rumors that the game uses the “no cuts” technique a la films like 1917 or games like God of War, and the recent gameplay preview did not necessarily confirm or debunk those rumors. But it does have a seamless transition from cutscene to gameplay, a first for the franchise, and one that helps avoid the pitfalls of the usual schism between non-interactive and interactive elements. With its open-world approach to mission design, Infinite is already blazing a new trail for Halo—and perhaps it can improve on some of the franchise’s storytelling approaches in the process.
- Technically, according to the official timeline, ”Halo” takes place over four days, not three; Halo/Truth and Reconciliation take place on the 19th of September, Silent Cartographer, Assault on the Control Room, and 343 Guilty Spark the 20th, The Library and Two Betrayals on the 21st, Keyes and The Maw the 22nd. But there’s no way to tell that it’s daytime during The Library, so it’s irrelevant for the player’s understanding of time. ↩
- Same as it ever was… ↩