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Halo 4: An excellent story, terribly told


Dang, but the holidays went by quickly. This year, or rather last year, I spent my vacation at home and took the time to catch up on some games that , for one reason or another, I just could find the time to play. So Red Dead Redemption finally got some time in the ole PS3, along with the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and lots and lots of Tekken Tag Tournament 2. Cos my kids love it, my Wii also got dusted off and I managed to squeeze in some Wii Sports Resort and other assorted Wii related waggle-a-thons as well. The only really current game I played was Halo 4, at the badgering insistence of my brother, who desperately needed someone to discuss the plot with.

He was sorely disappointed, since my reaction was not nearly as enthusiastic as his, the plot of Halo having left me entirely confused. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic game that’s well the dent it puts in your wallet. From a purely gameplay perspective Halo remains a forerunner - pardon the pun - in the genre. Gameplay is intense, visceral and very satisfying. But dear lord is the story ever a let down, a confusing mess of a narrative, arguably worse than the story of Uncharted 3.


Cortana through the versions

My reaction to Halo 4, as a narrative piece, is that it’s a great story told badly. [Possible Spoiler Ahead] The story of Halo 4 is basically to threads running in parallel to each other: 1) It’s the examination of the relationship between Cortana and Master Chief and 2) It’s another battle to save the earth/galaxy/universe/whatever from a big bad of some description. That first bit is actually handled pretty well. That the Chief and Cortana’s feelings for one another run deeper than just soldier and support AI has been hinted at in the previous, trilogy but the pair's current circumstance in Halo 4 really allowed for that plot element to be played up more.

Faced with the possible mortality of Cortana due to Rampancy, a condition known to afflict AI’s older than eight years, finally we have a situation where the stakes in the fight are little more personal for the Master Chief. It’s not just about saving the world for its own sake or because he’s a good soldier and that’s what he was built for, it’s about saving the woman he loves. It’s an unusual take on the Chief and leads to some plot points that sees the Chief acting contrary to how we would expect.  Plus, I also just liked the idea that the Chief is this human, who is incredibly machine-like, discovering his own humanity thanks to the potential loss of a machine. Irony indeed.

That element of the games plot is laid out pretty well, thanks to good dialogue and brilliant voice acting. Great stuff. But it totally gets ruined thanks to how bad element two is executed.


Who is the Didact?

There are a number of issues at play here, that all come together to make the player go: “I don’t understand what’s happening.” One of the contributors to the confused state of the player is that the game’s writers assume the players know certain elements of the game’s lore, that they couldn’t reasonably be expected to know. There is a wealth of books, comic books and animated productions that delve into the expanded back story of the Halo universe, that deals with the origins of the Covenant and who built the Halos and why and the story of Halo 4 assumes that all the players are familiar with this back story. They’re not, so writing your story with this expectation is unfair, because it means that a large part of your audience isn’t going to know what is happening. For example, the primary villain in the game is a being called the Didact. Who is the Didact? I don’t know. And that's not a problem, in and of itself, shrouding a villain in a bit mystery can be a useful thing, but then you can’t have you characters behaving as if they know who he is and what his about. There are a number of instances in the game, where things are introduced and the characters carry on as if they know exactly what’s going on, but at no point in the game are the events actually explained.Why? Because if you read such-and-such a novel about Halo you‘d know what was happening. Any story that expects its audience to consult outside sources for it to make sense is simply badly written.

The other issue, with the game are instances of just outright bad story telling. Without getting into specifics, at the very end of the game, Master Chief detonates a handheld nuclear device that he is holding in his hands... no reasonable explanation if offered for how he survives this. None. He just does via the power of the plots. There are other instances of this, but that one is the most glaringly obvious.

There is a good story in the game of Halo 4, it’s just that you have to look outside Halo 4 to find it and you have to overlook a lot that happens in the game itself to accept.

As I said, it’s a good story, just badly told.

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