Narrative Evolved – A Brief Overview of Halo’s Storytelling

Sometimes the internet can shock you. Disturbing imagery is a dime a dozen these days, but the real shocks come when the unexpected happens and hits the headlines. The world is a now a global village and news travels fast – when something happens, we all know.

When browsing a news blog that covered science fiction and fantasy I came across an article that caught my attention. “Crysis 2 Lead Writer Criticises Halo.” I wondered why this story had been picked up by this sci-fi news blog as it seemed rather out of place. Upon further investigation it seems that Richard Morgan, the critic in question, is an acclaimed author. He has great track record of writing popular science fiction and apparently he was hired by EA to head the writing for their big upcoming game.

This wasn’t really surprising. He’s working on a product that directly rivals the Halo franchise. Halo: Reach and Crysis 2 will be released later this year and hearing someone criticise the competition isn’t exactly unheard of.

This was the initial quote attributed to Mr Morgan;

I don’t like the Halo series at all. Okay Halo is not actually bad, it’s just, you know, average. The reason that its fiction doesn’t work has nothing to do with the fact that you don’t get to see Master Chief’s face, it’s because of lines like ‘Okay … I’m gonna get up there and kill those guys’. Halo is full of these bullshit archetypal characters and there’s no real emotional effect. (1)

He made a post on his blog to clarify his comments. He made some additional comments about Halo.

I didn’t like Halo. I didn’t think it was bad, I just thought it was average. But what I did think was that it was a game filled with bullshit archetypes and bullshit gung-ho dialogue. (Going unreported here was the fact that I said the controls (in Halo 3 at least) were beautifully balanced and intuitive, and the game was pretty to look at; but then the same can be said of Tetris, and in fact that’s about the level of emotional affect the Halo games delivered for me (full disclosure – I only played 2 and 3)) (2)

From Mr. Morgan’s perspective, other blogs and websites misquoted him or took his quotes out of context to run a better story. Irrespective of the how’s and why’s of the various stories, Mr Morgan’s quote still stands together with his updated clarification.

I have little need to speak about the merits of Halo’s fiction as presented across the past games in the franchise. Others have walked that path before me and have done such a fantastic job that I would recommend you spend some time becoming familiar with it if you haven’t already.

I do believe that there is room to discuss how that fiction is presented. How information is presented is almost as important as the information itself. A person’s perspective of a story can be altered by its delivery. Video games, being less mature compared to other forms of media, have been liberal with forms of delivery. Its infancy has allowed developers to experiment to varying degrees of success.

With Reach approaching, I believe Bungie is taking a leap forward in their storytelling from the glimpses we have seen thus far. I want to look back at how Halo’s narrative has been delivered to its players (disregarding supplemental material such as comics, novels and the non-FPS, Halo Wars) and how Reach represents the franchise’s maturity and demonstrates how lessons have been learned from previous entries in the series.

When Halo first hit shelves and living rooms across the globe, and gamers started eagerly exchanging stories of epic struggles and victories against the Covenant, much praise was heaped on the narrative for its ability to tell an enjoyable, engaging story that pulled players along. Characters such as Sgt Johnson, Foehammer, and the UNSC marines seem to be almost directly lifted from James Cameron’s Aliens. The location of the game, the massive Halo ring, wouldn’t look out of the ordinary in a Larry Niven novel nor would the sense of being in this strange and far off alien locale. The influences are more than skin deep with hints of sci-fi greats Banks, Rowley, and Stately if you look close enough.

Halo wore its narrative inspirations on its sleeve. It established a universe plagued by an alien invasion and followed humanity’s last hope against total annihilation. It was far from a copy and paste from other science fiction sources, as Bungie developed their own concepts and narrative for the game. Bungie’s universe was colourfully illustrated; a religiously devout coalition of technologically superior invading aliens, a platonic yet engaging relationship between the lead male and female protagonists and a unique visual style that bucked the trend of increasing brown and grey first person shooters.

Bungie played it safe with how it delivered Halo’s story. When players weren’t playing out a specific task or fighting in a particular engagement, the reassuring voice of Cortana would relay pertinent information that the player would not otherwise have access to, informing them of what was going on around them and how they should proceed through the game. Other times the gameplay flow would cease completely as a cut-scene plays, usually at the beginning or end of a mission. These cut-scenes served both as a reward for players’ progress and as a tool to help give players an idea of the perverbial bigger picture, a perspective not often as easily conveyed through the gameplay itself.  A prime example of this would be the brief scene before the mission The Silent Cartographer, which is a good demonstration of the balance struck between cut-scenes and play.

The mission opens with the main character, Master Chief, being flown to an island and dropped off into the heat of battle. Suspense builds up as the player sees the battle below whilst orders are given and the mission’s objective explained. This serves as a fantastic method of preparing the player for the intense struggle ahead and informing the player of what is needed to be done. Although most of this level and its narrative are played out in the gameplay sandbox, occasional cut-scenes are used to reveal important information to the player – such as enemy ambushes, or to instill a sense of scale of the location which the players finds themselves in.

Contrary to the approach of many different video games, Halo rarely attempts to spoon-feed the player with overt instructions and tutorials on “how to play the game”.  Even tasks such as calibrating the controller layout itself is built into the dialogue of the surrounding characters, helping players stay immersed in the world, and not reminded that they happen to be saving the world from their couch.  Players follow the gameplay flow itself in order to find direction.  Seeing, hearing and experiencing the entire narrative of the game firsthand. This storytelling method is one of the game’s primary strengths. There exists a lack of ambiguity in this method, the game directly feeds the player all the necessary audio and visual cues and feedback needed for progression. This can also serve as a point of criticism for the game. There’s no hidden narrative content to be found no matter how hard you seek it out, no breadcrumbs to follow that might lead down a fictional rabbit hole.

Halo didn’t innovate in how it delivered the story to the player. The method used was, and still is, pretty common. However, it did use this method extremely effectively and successfully. The sense of awe and wonder at the beautiful alien environments, the companionship of Cortana, the feel of isolation and terror fighting the menacing Flood – Halo delivered. It succeed in spite of the shift of the game’s change in format – from Mac/PC to Xbox, from genre – from RTS to FPS and in the face of mounting criticism from a sceptical press and from a public known to favour familiar experiences over new ones. Having originally intended to deliver most of the narrative in text instances, Bungie managed to successfully tell the story in the standard of modern video games, through intelligently placed cut-scenes and via the gameplay sandbox.

On paper, Halo 2 was ambitious. It needed to be. Halo had become one of the world’s biggest gaming franchises practically overnight. It needed to be more than simply a sum of its parts. It needed expansion.

It’s only fair to note here that it’s widely accepted that Halo 2’s development was difficult at the least and hellish at the most. Bungie has gone on record to explain how and why Halo 2 didn’t live up to initial plans that they had for it. You can’t judge a game on unrealised ambitions whatever they may have been. Halo 2 went on to push the franchise to new heights of success but the shaky course of its development is clearly evident in the published game.

The “Halo” universe has an overarching story that was well thought out before “Halo 2.

We have roughly 600 years worth of “Halo” fiction, and we know what happens inside of that universe at any given time. The [“Halo 2”] story itself only existed as notes and was really fleshed out. We know ultimately, at least in the “Halo” universe, where humanity came from, where it’s going to, at what point in time it comes in contact with The Covenant [the villains in “Halo”] and what happens well beyond that. “Halo 2” picks up literally right after “Halo 1.” But there is still plenty of story in and around that. And you can see some of that in the three novels we have.

Pete Parsons (3)

Halo had a pretty self-contained story. The ending was particularly satisfying. You stopped evil alien plans and saved the universe surrounded by explosions and triumph. You saved the day.

Clearly Bungie had a choice in how to continue the story and this choice would further dictate any other Halo games that would come after. It was decided to continue the story in very direct manner and set not too long after the events of the first game. Players wanted more Master Chief and more shooting aliens, and they would receive it.

Like its predecessor, Halo 2 has straight-forward movies, scripted mission-dialog, but we’ve done a better job this time around at infusing all aspects of the game (the environments, the characters, the combat dialog, etc.) with deep, consistent context.

Joe Staten (4)

However Halo 2 represents a significant milestone for Halo’s narrative. Whilst the narrative’s delivery would closely resemble the first game, the direction of the narrative would expand exponentially. This was going to be a significant risk. With the troubled development of Halo 2 in mind, Halo 2 could have potentially been a disaster for the franchise.

Players would come face to face with a new main character, the Arbiter and experience the game from this new, alien perspective. The Covenant, the mysterious, menacing alien threat to humanity would be opened up to player. Some of their history and culture would be revealed and the player would gain insight into how this dangerous coalition of aliens was organised and a look at their motivations. We find out that our actions in the first game have consequences and are shown a wider scope of the inter-galactic war that serves as a backdrop to the entire Halo series.

Halo 2 lived up to Staten’s promise of “infusing all aspects of the game with deep, consistent context”. The game’s universe felt bigger and our role within it felt much more important. The Covenant developed into a multi-cultural society tainted with a dogmatic religious devotion with internal rebellion and political maneuvering.

The success of broadening the scope of the story in Halo 2 was, I believe, one of the reasons why the game almost fell apart and development suffered.

Whilst the game largely retained the mixture of interactive storytelling through the gameplay sandbox and smart use of cut-scenes, the constant switching between characters badly affected the overall flow of the game. The game was hyped up to be the Covenant invasion of Earth and your struggle to defend it. From a narrative point of view, the game sets the player up to expect this as you rush from an engagement in Earth orbit down to back alleys of a metropolis fighting against a seemingly unstoppable enemy. Suddenly the player is whisked away and narrative switches up between the Arbiter and Master Chief – who do briefly meet up before advancing separately. It doesn’t work as cohesively as the first game.

The narrative breaks down, not because of a lack of content, but an overabundance of it. There are simply too many story threads for the average player to follow from beginning to end in a single play through of the game. It is almost as if the game is crushed under its own weight. It’s filled with just too much story.

Not everyone sees an overabundance of content being necessarily a bad thing. It’s not. But I believe the game did suffer because of it. A single example would be the cliff-hanger ending. Especially in light of these words given in an interview before the game was released.

But for those who would have preferred less cliff-hanger and more closure, I’d say this: Bungie has always carefully considered the thoughts and opinions of its fans.

Joe Staten (4)

This looks like an apology in advance from Staten who expected fans to be displeased with the game’s ending. If fans didn’t like the ending, they weren’t alone.

The game was not supposed to end at that point in time… it kind of left a bitter taste in our mouth.

Frank O’Connor (5)

The final mission of the game has you controlling the Arbiter fighting against Tartarus who serves as an end game boss (the inclusion of a “boss” type encounter, counter to the general Halo design, still leaves a bitter taste). The mission ends and the story advances back to Master Chief’s perspective where it abruptly ends. Taking the main character and placing him out of reach in the game’s final moments was a horrible decision and many players felt cheated by the sudden halt to the story’s natural progression. It was later revealed that the game was meant to end with Master Chief and players controlling him for a tenth and final level, but this had been cut near the end of the game’s development – if players felt that the Campaign was rushed and incomplete, it was.

Despite Halo 2’s failure to deliver a strong narrative sequel to the first game, Bungie was able to overcome some of the game’s shortcomings with some of the game’s strengths. Halo 2’s multiplayer mode exploded the game’s popularity whilst allowing it to reach new audiences. The gameplay was polished and refined and the sandbox still had that smooth layer of polish that Halo fans had come to expect. Despite the novels published beforehand, Halo 2 was the key to expanding the universe of the Halo franchise. The focus of “infusing all aspects of the game with deep, consistent context” was a gamble that paid off, maybe not for the Halo 2 campaign experience, but for the franchise overall.

Halo 3 represented a return to form for Bungie, the hard lessons learned from Halo 2’s development paid dividends with Halo 3. Whilst it missed the launch window for the Xbox 360 console, Halo 3 would be the defining FPS on the console.

I think the cliff-hanger ending of Halo 2, whilst disappointing fans at the time, was one of the main contributing factors to the fan’s anticipation of the game. Simply put, everyone wanted to know what the heck happened next. How was Master Chief going to save the Earth, stop the Covenant and put an end to the unstoppable Flood?

In terms of presentation, it is understandable that Bungie decided to play it safe. Halo 3 was meant to be the finale to the long running story and it needed to tie up many loose ends. In light of that, Bungie pulled the scope of narrative back – players would only follow one perspective, no more jumping around between characters’ viewpoints. This allowed them to focus on resolving the story around the main character with everything unfolding peripherally.
Bungie would surprise fans twice with Halo 3’s narrative presentation. One was welcomed by fans with open arms, the other – not quite.

In addition to the established mix of narrative progression interwoven between sandbox gameplay and cut-scene delivery, a third format was introduced to convey key information to the players. The screens colours would darken and change hue, the first person perspective would zoom out wildly before becoming fixed in a mutated fish-eyed perspective. A character, the Gravemind, would boom out a speech whilst the player’s controls would become distorted, slowed down, and sluggish.

These “scenes” would occur infrequently throughout the Campaign and across various levels, with one level in particular containing numerous instances of it. The combination of the skewed perspective, horrible controls, and the fact that it occurred during gameplay, meaning players couldn’t choose to skip them, made for a really horrible addition to Halo 3’s tighter narrative. Forcing anything on a player, particularly relating to the story, must be handled with care and due attention and these instances just felt out of place. These felt like an experiment that meshed cut-scene and gameplay together that went horribly wrong and is easily the single biggest misstep that Halo franchise has taken in terms of narrative delivery.

Tucked away, hidden deep inside of Halo 3’s levels lay some beautiful secrets. They were portals of knowledge and windows into a deeper world. Bungie decided to tip its hat in the direction of its hardcore, devoted fans with the Terminals.

Whilst the narrative flow within the context of the Campaign missions is complete by itself, the portals serve as both a parallel story running concurrently with Halo 3’s main plot and also as a standalone narrative entity which additionally provides fans with a deeper insight into the franchise’s lore. The terminals represent the deeper layer that fans have been wanting for many years. They needed to be discovered. You had to wander off the expected route through the game to find them and even then you needed to be able to piece together the story from the separate entries. Some of the Terminals even rewarded players for playing on higher difficulties with additional content.

Halo 3 represented the conclusion to Master Chief’s story even if the door wasn’t fully shut. A graceful final act that benefited from the games that came before and took small experimental steps to change the narrative status quo and overall an impressive and satisfying conclusive chapter in the Halo franchise.

With Master Chief’s trilogy concluded, Bungie had the option to take the franchise in any direction, as they had complete freedom over this universe and the options open to them must have been vast.

Even before the idea to build a game based around Reach came about, a lot of other concepts were explored, up to and including a proper ‘Halo 4,’ where Master Chief was going to wake up from cryo-sleep and we were going to tell that story.

Brian Jarrard (6)

It is also important to note that after Halo 3 shipped Bungie had bought itself out of its ownership from Microsoft. Contractually they were certain to continue to make at least one more main Halo title. Understandably the studio must have wished to do new things and face new challenges. I believe this change of ownership and the very public declaration that Bungie wanted to pursue its own destiny had an influence over the design of its next two titles.

Halo 3: ODST was the next shipped Halo game from Bungie, originally announced as an expansion to Halo 3 (Halo 3: Recon), the game ended up as a full retail product.

Development started around a year ago by a small team at Bungie but over the course of development it got a lot bigger than we were anticipating. We thought of it more as an expansion and then it grew well beyond that. We didn’t really talk about it until E3 this year, and it’s something internally that Microsoft saw and said “What are you talking about – this is a full game.”

Lars Bakken (7)

Despite this, the game wasn’t given the full development time, support, and manpower that has come to be expected from a full Halo title. Lacking a proper new online multiplayer mode and with a relatively shorter campaign compared to the main trilogy games, the smaller development support was quite apparent. However, from a narrative perspective, ODST represents Bungie most ambitious title to date.

Perhaps with a smaller title there was less risk in experimenting with a different narrative structure. They could afford to significantly change the status quo and if the fans didn’t take a liking to it, it could have easily been written off as a failed one off project. The game was not a failure.

The format of the game remains almost identical to each of the previous Halo games – confident and intelligent splitting of the narrative between the cut-scenes and the action. This seems to be the Halo formula as laid down by every entry in the franchise. The game, set between important points in the trilogy story, takes place during the events of Halo 2 and just before Halo 3. Whilst the trilogy took players on vast journeys across alien vistas and strange new worlds, ODST confined the story to the city of New Mombasa and the immediate geographical area surrounding it. The main character, the Rookie, would be confined to the main city area (acting as a “hub” area, the first time such a mechanic has ever been used in a Halo title) and would progress through the story from his perspective in the city. ODST’s biggest departure lies within the flow of the narrative itself.

The game used the setting of an important point in the Halo trilogy story as a backdrop to tell a brand new story and introduce new characters. The story would be entirely self contained. You would be introduced to the main cast of characters at the very start and follow them to the conclusion of the story. No cliff-hanger ending and no mysteries left to be explored in a sequel.

What makes ODST stand out is how the story unfolds. The game starts off with one of the most impressive action cut-scenes in any game. You are the new member of an elite squad of soldiers and you are sent on a dangerous mission. The mission goes wrong and you awake many hours later in the city below. The story of the game focuses on the Rookie and his attempt to unravel the mystery of what happened to the rest of his team. In the hub city you are given a map and locations are clearly marked. Upon investigating these locations, flashbacks are triggered and you learn the fate of each team member. You play out these segments of the past and game returns back to Rookie in the present.

What makes this game unique is that you can choose to play any of the missions in order you wish. You have the freedom of choice to either let the game suggest the order of missions or take control of the situation yourself. This means that the player ultimately has control of the narrative flow and places responsibility for understanding the narrative, outside of linear constraints, completely on the player’s shoulders if he or she wished.

This is a significant departure from the standard A to B to C linear format of every previous Halo title and in light of the self contained story, and is something this game would only properly achieve because of its stand alone nature. It could afford to present the narrative in a slightly more complicated fashion as the narrative itself wasn’t dependent on any other external source. You didn’t need to play any previous Halo title to follow this story.

Additionally, ODST’s hub world was also used as a laboratory for two more new types of narrative experiments.

In the Halo trilogy, for the most part, you had Cortana informing the player about crucial information within the in game environment that the player would not have otherwise had access to. She’d inform you of a trap or ambush ahead. She would tell you where you had to go and what you had to do. ODST took that element away from the player and almost immediately achieved the feeling of isolation that it had set to accomplish. As the Rookie you are lost and alone in an abandoned city plagued by constant Covenant patrols. You needed to be informed, in some form, of what to do and where to go, and Bungie came up with a unique solution, the Superintendant.

Unlike Cortana, the Superintendant had little to no abilities to interact directly with the player. He would never tell you to directly go to a certain place or look for a specific item. Instead he would use the environment to inform the player. If the player was near a point of interest, the Superintendant would make phones ring, car alarms would be set off, warning lights would flicker, public safety announcements would be played or traffic barriers erected. This tied plot progression, and thus narrative progress, much more closely to the gameplay sandbox than ever before – a more mature method of delivery for getting important information to the player without having to explicitly state it.

The third and final aspect of ODST’s narrative content is Sadie’s Story. Similar to the Terminals in Halo 3, Audio Logs are scattered throughout the New Mombasa city hub. Each new log found unlocks the next part of the story, told via the use of audio and accompanying artwork. The story is separate from the main plot of the game but does run concurrently with the events found in the game. Unlike the terminals, the audio logs are pointed out to player directly. The player is encouraged to track each of them down to complete the story and there is a great abundance of them to be found.

Whilst the story the audio logs tell isn’t some great mythical relic of ancient times or some greater over-arching broader plot happening in the background, it does serve to bring the background setting, that of the Covenant invasion, into a tighter, more focused ordinary person’s perspective.

ODST retains the traditional Halo narrative template whilst at the same time taking unique liberties in how it presents this narrative to the player, giving the player more freedom and more direct control. It’s clear that ODST doesn’t make many assumptions about player expectations, giving the player a choice to follow the path laid out or strike out on their own. The end result is tighter, much more satisfying experience with multiple layer of depth. Whilst maybe lacking the subtleties and sense of vague, deeper mysteries, it succeeds in what it sets out to achieve which is all the more remarkable considering the limited development spent. A creative milestone for the franchise and notably one of the successful narrative experiments in the Halo universe, ODST succeeds where it could have easily failed. Set deep within the fiction of past Halo titles, it starts and concludes its own plot with its own unique characters within Halo’s familiar framework.

We arrive at last to Bungie’s final entry in the Halo universe. Whilst not yet released, it would be unfair to come to any definitive conclusions or judgements about the game. Thankfully, we do have room for speculation and analysis of what has been revealed and we should take a look at what Bungie is setting out accomplish with the game.

Halo: Reach is not a continuation of Master Chief’s story. Similar to ODST, it is self-contained and will have a natural beginning and end that aims satisfy anyone that follows its story. Unlike ODST it does have a full, complete development cycle. With a proper development cycle comes the burden of expectation. Can it afford to be as experimental as ODST? I doubt it. But what it can do is take a single story and tell it, beginning to end, without the responsibility of having to keep in line with multiple plot threads and character arcs.

It doesn’t have the burden of continuing a story like Halo 2 and 3 had to carry. It was a true burden for us when we were making those games, because we sometimes wanted to do something but couldn’t because the story wouldn’t let us, or we had to support this giant steamroller of a story. Reach allowed us to start afresh. We came up with a number of campaign experiences which engaged the player – brand new and exciting, and different from the usual ‘I walk into a space and fight a number of AI’. That’s the foundation of what we’ve been spending so much time building, but we’re adding brand new experiences throughout the campaign, and we continue to give players something new around the corner.

Marcus Lehto (8 )

Another indication is given that the approach to creating the story has also evolved with Reach.

The approach we took to the campaign is a major turnaround from how we did it before. Earlier on we came up with a modular story, a wrapper, and instead of trying to write a linear narrative for the story that missions have to adhere to, we lived with the wrapper for a while and came up with a bunch of crazy ideas for missions and then fit them into the wrapper. Ultimately, the story can’t stay modular for ever, it’s got to solidify. We’ve ended up with a very different feeling to story and game as a result.

Joseph Tung (8 )

Little of Reach’s campaign has been seen to date with few exceptions. The initial reveal of the game allowed journalists to see one of the earlier missions in the game in a very early, rough format. More glimpses were seen through officially released documentaries and follow up articles. Just a short while ago we got another insight into the Campaign with the reveal of one of the levels which included space dog-fighting.

One of the most reoccurring comments is the new approach Bungie is taking for the game’s cinematic and cut-scenes. This is a possible high risk change. Every previous Halo game has relied heavily on the expected mixture of in-game events in the gameplay sandbox and cut-scenes to deliver the story. Changing this status quo, even marginally, could have serious consequences.

Some of the changes for Reach are subtle and others are much more apparent. One of the biggest improvements comes from the enhanced use of motion capturing. Characters now move smoothly in a realistic fashion, the weapons in their grip look like have a real weight to them. Watching characters jump around the environment, you notice the models crouch and react in a realistic and believable fashion.

The change in the presentation of Reach’s cut-scenes goes hand in hand to the overall changes that are being made to the game. Bungie wishes to present a darker, grittier feel. The Covenant will be more menacing than they have ever been – we will no longer understand their words and speech. They will be more alien than ever. There will be a sombre tone to everything in Reach, as the marketing headline put it, “You Know The End.” We do, the Covenant invasion is successful, millions perish, the planet falls, and the surface gets vaporised from orbit annihilating everything. There will be no happy ending; Master Chief won’t be saving the day.

It’s this dark tone that Bungie is attempting to translate into the game and infuse every aspect with it whilst retaining the familiar Halo sense of identity. Not an easy balancing act.

The sense of being in the midst of a wider war is another major goal for the team at Bungie. From a storytelling perspective, it’s the biggest shift in tone we’ve seen from the series. Gone are the long, sweeping camera shots of previous Halo games, replaced by a cinematic tone that evokes up close and personal war journalism. If there’s an airborne shot, it’s because there’s a ship filming from above, if a scene has the camera moving low along the ground at high speed, it will bump and jar like it’s being held in the hands of a runner.

Game Informer (a)

Despite the game being largely held behind closed doors, from what we have already seen, this change in tone is already apparent. For example, the E3 demo leads us across a beach fighting against Covenant forces. As the player made it inside the Command Base on the opposite side of the beach we had our first introduction to space combat. This new gameplay element was framed with a beautiful cinematic.

The imagery used invokes a direct comparison to the real space industry of modern times, of the Apollo rocket launches, and of space shuttle lift offs. It’s powerful and striking especially when we have real world parallels to directly draw from. The cockpit views look almost exactly like the views from internal cameras on modern military jet aircraft. It looks real and believable. It looks like it’s from the future, a future, real and gritty, that stems directly from where are right now. We keep visual records of our own achievements and looks like Reach may succeed in capturing that sombre tone. Clearly attention is being paid so that we can draw from our experiences what we would expect to see and how would we expect to see it if it was really some tragic event in our own future.

The change in tone extends all the way down to the characters. These Spartans are no longer blank faces hiding behind reflective visors. We see the real humans underneath the armour. We are no longer isolated from everyone else and we are a member of a team, expected to work as a member of that team.

There is still much left to see, to find out and experience. Will there be something similar to the Terminals/Audio Logs in Reach? Will Bungie experiment any further with non-linear narrative approaches? If anything, Reach already demonstrates Bungie’s confidence in their ability to convey a story. They can afford to take risks as by now they know what has and what has not worked before. By taking this game outside of the main franchise trilogy, they have given themselves more room to be creative than ever before.

The Halo games have demonstrated an unusual dual approach to storytelling; conservative progression and experimental risk taking. Whilst in one regard the Halo “formula” has become standardised and codified in every single game yet with this new game they’re taken steps to go outside this comfortable box and experiment with a variety of methods designed to present either a different direction for the narrative to take or a separate narrative that runs in either parallel to or concurrent with, the main plot.

Halo debuted with a strict narrative that was at odds with its open-ended gameplay that somehow remained both enjoyable and satisfying. As we have seen the franchise has taken Halo in many new directions, lessons have been learned, risks have been taken. Refinements have been added at every step of the way and fans have come to expect the bar to be raised higher with each new entry in the series.

Slightly Live

Sources, References and Links

a) Game Informer February 2010 Issue

A special thanks to HaloGAF’s Self Induced, HBO’s GrimBrother One and Stephen Loftus, and everyone else for their assistance and patience.


  1. Cailus
    June 30, 2010

    A very interesting and thorough piece of writing-although exactly how 6000 words is “brief” defeats me. 😛

    I agree with you for the most part. One of the things Bungie are masterful at is atmosphere, and you’ve detailed many of the ways that they communicate it. Over the years, they’ve tried to balance their brilliant atmospheric work with more character-driven story. I think they really over-compensated in Halo 2, but succeeded in achieving a more natural balance in Halo 3. ODST, as you say, was experimental, but in terms of atmosphere and characters, did more than previous titles. Halo Reach looks set to attempt yet more, and I can’t wait to fight in that epic battle. =)

  2. cn
    June 30, 2010

    interesting post, pretty much covered it all for me, thanks.

  3. July 1, 2010

    Nice job!

    It’s strange, I never personally found the Cortana/Gravemind transmissions in Halo 3 to be a problem. It actually was this jolting reminder of what I was fighting for when I was so far away geographically from Cortana and Gravemind. It made Cortana’s separation much more portent, in my opinion. 🙂

    I really liked what you said about Halo 2 and its ‘crushed under it’s own weight’. That’s a great way to put it while respecting it and being honest about it at the same time. I’ll remember that one!

  4. Capac Amaru
    January 7, 2012

    I feel that the Arbiters part in Halo 2, if Halo 2 were made today, would have been spun off into its own game, much like ODST.

    I’m interested to know how you fit Reach into this analysis now that it has been released. I for one found Reach an even more confusing mess than Halo 2. When I got to the end of Halo 2 I thought “damn cliffhanger wtf is gonna happen next and how long do I have to wait” When I finished Reach I could only think “what the hell just happened”

    It didn’t help that the ending of the game was totally destroyed for me when I tried to escape the Covenant at the end only to be told to ‘Return to the battlefield… 10… 9…”

    You aren’t waiting to die in the correct place, please go back.

  5. September 13, 2012


    You will be relieved to find out that the Halo 4 release date is the 6th November 2012.. Im so excited to know that it will be coming very soon… Find more about the Halo characters.

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