Storytelling 117 – The Successful Narrative Evolution of Halo
It’s no coincidence that many of the writing team from Bungie for Halo have now written novels. Without trying to be condescending or arrogant, anyone can write a book. But to write a good book, imply relationships and create something spectacular requires understanding of storytelling. To suggest that this is any different in video games would be naive. The evolution from a love letter to the science fiction tropes and characters of the 80s, with nods to iconic literature, might have made survived the first game well. But as soon as Halo became more than just one game, the challenge was not to let the rich universe they had created down. Many different series in television for example have the problem of crumbling under their own weight. Without watching it myself, I am reliably informed that Lost is a good example of this.
With the limitations of the technology of the time, compared to now of course, this need to tell something entertaining is paramount to creating an enjoyable video game. It always has been and if we are honest with ourselves with any of the franchise lust/technologically blinkered vision, the problem with modern computer games. Which is sad because we all like games, we all appreciate the ridiculous sacrifice of man-hours to complete such a graphical opus and we certainly want to spend our money on them. But, and I’m going from the traditions of point and click LucasArts mastery all the way to Lego Harry Potter with this one, you need a good story if you want to make a good game. Otherwise the artists, and they are artists, will strive for hours to create a collection of pretty pixels that end up being YouTube clips. Even sports games, let’s take the FIFA series as an example, employ some form of narrative to keep the game entertaining. You have the personal narrative of besting your friends but there are Ultimate Team and Manager modes where you are basically writing your own fantasy football story with you as the great architect of it. In fact any career mode in any sports game is a narrative. Be under no illusions, this is a very interactive narrative device that the earliest of board games employed. Is the joy of winning at Monopoly simply winning? Or is it the recalling of how you carefully planned and plotted where to build your Hotels and how employed tactics to create your own empire?
Halo rose to the challenge of a potentially limited one off premise to create a ten game saga and an incredibly rich universe. Which is ultimately why I keep coming back to it. In fact I will go on record as saying I wasn’t really interested in Halo 4. I am now, having been brought it and completed it for all its worth. But I failed to see how a new trilogy for the Master Chief would benefit the story of the Halo Universe. I was happy to leave this spectre, this hero in the eyes of humanity, tragically floating endlessly in space waiting for a rescue that would never come. Because, by Halo 3, the joy for me wasn’t just playing a good game, it was seeing how it ended. I was happy because the Chief and Cortana were together and they were where they needed to be, as they were right at the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved: On standby. I enjoyed that the games continued though as the obviously rich source of material the Halo Universe had coined was now ripe for the picking. Halo 3: ODST received a lot of criticism due to it being basically an add-on repackaged as a independent title. But I firmly believe it is the best Halo game. The narrative structure of flashbacks, snapshots and detective work was beautifully played against the artistic vision of the game itself. Dark, desolate, broody and above all, lost. Halo Reach answered some questions about why the Spartans were created and how this war started. It could have used the incredible story that Eric Nylund wrote about the Fall of Reach detailing the programme and the growing of John-117. But it didn’t. It used the universe to its advantage to create arguable a better story for video gaming. Everything that has been done throughout the Halo’s has been useful in sustaining and creating this great fiction. Which is why the series has spawned so many sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and live action features and adverts.
Take Grand Theft Auto 4 for example here of useful/non-useful in-game narrative. Girlfriends can be a useful element in its game play. They give you some bonuses when you need them. In the narrative however, they mostly benefit nothing to the overall story of the game. They allow you to play the game with a relaxation on difficulty but to this great American Dream that Niko Bellic is slowly discovering, they become an irritant to the player. It’s your judgement as to if they are worth the investment of time and stress in the game but the fact that they do isn’t because they make the game harder to complete or affect your playing ability. It’s that they take you out of the story and create another one that you feel you don’t need or takes things needlessly too far. Their inclusion is useful to the nuts and bolts of driving down the street being annoying tailed by a policeman but not to what you’re actually invested in, the story of Niko Bellic. Which is why the follow up Halo games are good. Because by the end of Halo 3, also in part thanks to a stellar cast who bring these roles to life and great musical direction, the narrative arc of the Master Chief is done, but you are invested in the Universe it’s created. You want to stretch your legs and know more. Reach out and become a part of it, more than just from behind the amber visor of the super solider. You feel like you’ve been assimilated into the ethos of Halo’s fictional future and that is very a powerful thing.
The successes for this are simple, well they sound simple. They are in fact incredibly difficult and taken utterly for granted. The first is the relationship, dialogue and evolution between the Chief and Cortana. Something that Halo 4 does very well is point out this weird duality between the two of them that one is a machine and one is human, yet the reversal of this is the basis of the relationship. They are in love, partners, paternal, and completely symbiotic. The exciting thing is that this dissolving of their dynamic in the future Halo games will change the Chiefs character exponentially and how 343i handle this. But there is something so natural and endearing between the two that has held the games together where they are involved. Secondly is Halo 2… Yes, Halo 2. This game expanded the universe successfully when, ultimately, it didn’t need to. But it did and we are thankful. The religious nature of the covenant, their society castes, the civil war, the flood, the destruction of humanity, the sheer cinematic quality and scope of the entire game really helped the series, and arguably video games (Half Life not withstanding), out of a hole to really remember how important story is to any entertainment experience. The switch from cheaper alternatives to give a game its full scope (actors, writing, development, concepts, even the inclusion of an orchestra over computer-synthesised music) lifted the console market into a new era and challenged a lot of conceptions on what actually makes a good game. Without Halo 2 being so well produced, in all regards, most of your blockbuster games wouldn’t be as good.
Of course, the universe is still key to Halo, or it is at least perceived to be. It’s not just a cult following of fans like television shows get. It’s an important part of people’s hobbies. For many years in the future, generations will recall how good they used to feel after playing a Halo game and how they don’t make them like they used to anymore. The universe is the most important part of that. Comics, movies, soundtracks, novels (although someone should really re-novelise The Flood. No offence to Mr Detiz but it was pretty rubbish) have all expanded the universe. I’m sure at some point in the future; someone will give a Peter Jackson that blank cheque to create a film trilogy. Because the source material is so rich, it would be very hard not to be able to create a decent script. I could do it and I would do it. I could even see how Halo could become a couple of television mini-series. Halo in the past 11 years has evolved in every sense, not just in narrative. Now it is taking a fresh evolutionary turn with the new trilogy. Everyone is aware that 343i can create a very good playable game. But what we really need is a great story. Halo 4 had some hints of one, but ultimately was quite forced and felt slightly stagnant in how it handled progressing the story compared to the previous games. We have another 2 games, and presumably a new console to launch, with these titles. We only hope, as fans and I as a critic, that 343i will be up to the task of carrying out the audacious narrative arc they are embarking on.