Orca Reviews the Halo Trilogy Story

Here it begins, a review of the story of the Halo trilogy. To reiterate points made in the inquiry thread, this will only cover what is contained in the original three games, and will be as critical as I can be. I’ll go level by level through each individual game, updating probably once a week, though don’t hold me to that come finals week.

We begin our examination of this story with Halo CE, released November 15, 2001. This game has a very sacred place among fanboys, even though the only saint-worthy thing it did was save the Xbox from launch damnation. Then again, I wouldn’t be here today saying this if that hadn’t happened, so it is pretty important. You could say that the multiplayer aspect of this game is what helped make it a killer app, but we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to look at the campaign, the story mode, the vehicle for the multi-player to exist.

The first level, The Pillar of Autumn, begins with a cutscene:

Pillar of Autumn Opening Cutscene

So, in four minutes we learn pretty much everything we need to know about the backstory in order to follow this game. I’ll explain how that is in a moment.

The opening shot of the game, with the Pillar of Autumn coming down over the camera, is reminiscent of the openings of the original Star Wars movies. This helps to create a feeling of familiarity with the setting already. This is going to be science fiction, no doubt about it. As a result, I highly doubt that this similarity is unintentional.

The dialogue between Captain Keyes and Cortana is what we call exposition, revealing story details to the audience. I consider this a decent example of it. Exposition-revealing dialogue is another staple of science fiction, though usually a bad one. However, this one only takes about a minute or two, so I’m going to let it slide. But from it we learn:

The Pillar of Autumn is on the run.
They are under attack by a superior force.
They don’t know where they really are.

This is literally all we need to know of the backstory. Good stories in other works have worked with backstory just as sparse as this. The Divine Comedy’s sole backstory in the beginning is that Dante is middle-aged and lost in the woods. We’ll undoubtedly learn more as we go along, but this isn’t too shabby for a start.

As a genius bonus, the name Cortana is a reference to Curtana, the sword of Ogier the Dane, a character from the epic poem The Song of Roland. Upon that sword was inscribed: My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durendal. This last name is significant, as Durandal was the name of an AI from the Marathon series, another Bungie product. The parallels here will become evident later. And, as some of you are probably aware, this is not the only time that the Marathon series is referenced in Halo.

The next part of the opening cutscene showcases the forces that are within the Pillar of Autumn. We see marines*, dropships*, and various land vehicles. It’s a pretty sizable force, appearance wise. Sergeant Johnson’s bombastic speech helps give the impression that this is a group ready to fight against the Covenant. All in all, it helps situate us with the universe even better. This single cutscene sets the scene for the entire game remarkably well.

Now we see the player character being taken out of cryo. From this we can probably infer that he is important. You don’t seal up just anyone like this. Almost immediately after being unsealed, the observation deck above is infiltrated by Covenant. This shows us how efficient and superior they are, as they were able to reach even you, tucked away in the bowels of the Autumn.

We follow the remaining technician for a short time, until an explosion takes him from us. Proceeding on our own, we see the crew fighting against the Covenant boarders, and through this we see the reality of the situation, how well humanity usually fares against these hostile aliens.

Gradually, we make it to the bridge, where we are treated to another cutscene:

Pillar of Autumn Bridge Cutscene

And now we learn the title of our player character, the Master Chief. He doesn’t really speak much, though in this cutscene that’s not a bad thing as it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot he can contribute. Since he speaks to Cortana the most, and does so in a more informal manner, we can infer that the two of them have a decent working relationship. They fit together well. We also get the sense that Cortana takes pride in what she does, via her relaying of the battle going on outside, and that she doesn’t like to just leave her work unfinished, via being hesitant about leaving and giving Keyes a plan for landing the Autumn. This is also the first time that the characters acknowledge the presence of a large, unknown object in space in front of them. Wonder is put aside in favor of survival. Another example of how dire the situation is.

We leave the bridge now, Cortana in tow, and begin to actually fight the Covenant. Blowing through group after group of extraterrestrials, we see now the importance of the Master Chief. His equipment and his skills provide a leverage point against the Covenant in infantry engagements such as this. Marines rally about you as you charge on towards the escape pods, showing that this advantage is also a psychological one. Your presence encourages the troops to fight and press onward. This is important for understanding the Chief’s role in the story.

We also continue to see how the Covenant dominate humanity in battle. They use the lifeboat airlocks to secure their boarding craft, meaning that every lifeboat launched is another entry point for them. We see an Elites strike down a lone, defenseless crew member, as well as the lifeboats being blown up as soon as they are launched from the ship. These both show the ruthless nature in which the Covenant is pursuing this war, and through being shown small scale engagements like this we are, in a sense, told that the annihilation of humanity is very systematic.

Eventually we reach a lifeboat, and are treated to the level’s final cutscene:

Pillar of Autumn Closing Cutscene

From this video we learn that lifeboats apparently need pilots. I don’t really understand this. I mean, what happens if the pilot of the lifeboat you ride in dies before they get there? Does that mean that you’re pretty much out of luck as far as escaping from the ship goes? I mean, yeah it’s in space so someone needs to drive it, but why not make the controls simple enough so that just the highest-ranking officer could drive it? This would set up the beginning of the next level a tad better, but I’ll get to that when the time comes.

Here we see more evidence of how much of a psychological aid the Chief is, via the soldier asking him if they will make it, and a simple pat on the shoulder from the Chief being enough to quiet him. We also find out that our dropship pilot wears the weirdest helmet ever. I mean, seriously. How does one see out of that thing?

On a more serious note, we also see the Autumn heading in towards the ring. The lack of Covenant ships in the shot itself seem to imply that they can strike from a distance and still inflict great damage, yet another sign of their superiority.

And, with the Chief violating all seat belt laws, the level comes to an end.

As a whole, this level does a good job of setting the scene. We learn our position, what the stakes are, how things have been going up to this point, and we get an idea of how the story will probably progress. It’s a really general feel, but that’s all you need sometimes.

I may try to compress the next two levels into one post, simply because not a lot story-wise happens in the second level.

*insert images of the equivalent things from the Aliens movie here, as this forum won’t let you imbed images, apparently.

> The dialogue between Captain Keyes and Cortana is what we call exposition, revealing story details to the audience. I consider this a decent example of it. Exposition-revealing dialogue is another staple of science fiction, though usually a bad one. However, this one only takes about a minute or two, so I’m going to let it slide. But from it we learn:
>
> The Pillar of Autumn is on the run.
> They are under attack by a superior force.
> They don’t know where they really are.
>
> This is literally all we need to know of the backstory. Good stories in other works have worked with backstory just as sparse as this.

I’ll just pick up on this for now. Halo’s story was so intriguing because it simply told you what you needed to know. The whole game is driven by uncertainty that is only alleviated in pivotal moments. Here are a few examples from my memory (so excuse me if the quotes are a little off) - “Those Covenant fools, they must have known, there must have been signs… There’s no time. The Captain, you’ve got to stop the Captain!!” (Cortana accesses control room), “do you know what that -Yoink- almost made you do?” (Real purpose of Halo rings unveiled), “Chief don’t… be a fool” (Keynes becoming Flood form). The game just gives hints, the majority of the story is shrouded in mystery. For a game this is how it should be, the player is completely immersed rather than an onlooker. The later Halo games relied too much upon backstory and lost the character of the original as a result. Having arrived at a mysterious planet at the end of Halo 3, 343 Industries have the opportunity to recapture this.

Great point. I never really realized that, but I see it now.

> Great point. I never really realized that, but I see it now.

“I totally get it now! God is a flying spaghetti monster!”

> > Great point. I never really realized that, but I see it now.
>
> “I totally get it now! God is a flying spaghetti monster!”

I knew that, along with global warming is causing a decrease in pirating. And calling software theft piracy is a great discredit to the swashbuckling pirates of old.

> > > Great point. I never really realized that, but I see it now.
> >
> > “I totally get it now! God is a flying spaghetti monster!”
>
> I knew that, along with global warming is causing a decrease in pirating. And calling software theft piracy is a great discredit to the swashbuckling pirates of old.

Music to my ears. Did you get the reference though?

Yep. Article about Pastafarianism and Jediism were posted at the HW forums a while back. Jediism came across as a bunch of star wars nerds who couldn’t understand that it was the same thing as Daoism, but Pastafarianism was just awesome.

That’s the topic of the quote yes, but not the reference ;). It’s a quote from a South Park episode.

Oh…I don’t really watch TV…
Internet = TV + more channels - commercial breaks

The episodes are available for free, legally, online as well.

> > > > > > > > Great point. I never really realized that, but I see it now.
> > > > > > >
> > > > > > > “I totally get it now! God is a flying spaghetti monster!”
> > > > > >
> > > > > > I knew that, along with global warming is causing a decrease in pirating. And calling software theft piracy is a great discredit to the swashbuckling pirates of old.
> > > > >
> > > > > Music to my ears. Did you get the reference though?
> > > >
> > > > Yep. Article about Pastafarianism and Jediism were posted at the HW forums a while back. Jediism came across as a bunch of star wars nerds who couldn’t understand that it was the same thing as Daoism, but Pastafarianism was just awesome.
> > >
> > > That’s the topic of the quote yes, but not the reference ;). It’s a quote from a South Park episode.
> >
> > Oh…I don’t really watch TV…
> > Internet = TV + more channels - commercial breaks
>
> The episodes are available for free, legally, online as well.

Stares in awe at giant quote pyramid

Mah thread been hijacked. xD

Sorry! All further off topic posting or additions to the great pyramid of Quote, shall hereby be punished by aslap. A really hard one.

> Mah thread been hijacked. xD

mah bad! Old habits! :wink:

So, we begin our look at the second level of Halo CE, titled Halo.
I’ve never liked the way that the beginning of this level started. I said in the previous part that I thought that the idea of a pilot for a lifeboat was sort of unnecessary, that the highest ranking officer should pilot it. In this case, that would make the Master Chief the pilot. The reason I say this is that I think the level would have a better start if he were the pilot. Say that, when the lifeboat hits the surface, it blows him and the pilot’s chair out the back. You come to, Cortana directs you to the lifeboat to see if anyone survived, you find that no one does, and move on. It’s a small change, but I think it would be a benefit as far as story goes. It would provide a more drastic start, which in turn would accentuate the drastic situation even more. And also would eliminate a needless character.

But I digress. As it is, the level opens up with us coming to in the lifeboat, everyone else having perished in the impact. We go outside to pick up weapons and are treated to our first sight of the main setting of this game, this massive ringworld.

The idea of artificial rings in space, with life-sustaining biomes on the interior side, is nothing new to science fiction. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is probably one of the best early examples of the concept.

It’s at this point that I kind of want to jump right out and say that Halo is derivative, since this is a fairly simple level and it affords me a decent place to do so. Now, before pitchforks and torches get raised, let me add to my statement and say that I do not mean this in a negative light. You can have a derivative work and it still be good. I say that, for this first game, Halo is a good example of that. It takes concepts from other places, ringworlds from Larry Niven, marines and equipment from Aliens, and puts them together in a neat package. The similarities are obvious, but not glaring, making for a pleasing combination.

So anyways, Master Chief moves away from the crashed lifeboat up into the hills, tricking the Covenant into thinking that everyone aboard died in the crash. Why that matters is irrelevant, as the pair of Banshees accompanying the dropship attack you anyway and there’s a full contingent of Elites and Grunts in the hills.

Further back in the hills you find a structure where a group of marines are fending off a Spirit dropship. After helping them fight off the troops it drops, Sergeant Johhnson comes and informs you of the situation. It boils down to the fact that things are pretty dire and whatnot, but if you can hold that position it’ll be all right.

Right here I’m going to use the magical powers of text fast-forward and text-condensing to skip ahead to the next point that has some relevance to the wider plot. The Master Chief has saved the group of marines, or let them all die horribly, or killed them if you’re that kind of player. Then he gets in the Warthog and he and Cortana go spelunking in the big artificial tunnel. They need a bridge to get across a gap so Chief goes up on a platform and just turns one on. That’s a major plot point in and of itself. We’ve already established that no one knows just what this ring is, so by proxy we are unfamiliar with its technology. So how is the Master Chief able to turn on the fancy light bridge? It will actually not get explained later, which I will explain later, and we can’t look to the book that says it “just felt right”, so it seems really out of place.

So anyways the Chief and Cortana continue on and we learn from her monitoring of communication channels that Captain Keyes survived, but has been captured by the Covenant. Cortana talks about organizing a resistance of some kind. Why do we need a resistance? Resistances are usually formed behind enemy lines out of the remnants of a conquered people. They’re also called insurgents at times, like recently. What Cortana wants to do is not so much a resistance so much as a “form some kind of organization so we can get out of Dodge”, or in military terms, a regroup and retreat.

More textual fast forward. So we rescue three groups of marines, and decide that the best course of action is to save Captain Keyes. This is a dumb tactical move, even if they know what Covenant ship he’s on, where in it he is, and if he’s still alive. I’ll break it down like this. If they need him to be the commander, well that implies that there’s no regular chain of command that would take over in his place in a situation such as this. At the moment the Chief seems to be the highest ranking officer, because he seems to outrank Sergeant Johnson and has Cortana in his head telling him where to go. At this point might have been a good idea for there to be some actual command, maybe the Chief taking the role of a ground commander and continuing on with trying to get everybody home. But that would actually require character development on the part of the Chief, and as we’ll see, that’s something he doesn’t get in this game.

My next point on the ill-thought out nature of this plan. It is highly probably that you will lose more soldiers going in to rescue Captain Keyes than you will rescue alongside him. They don’t even know if anyone else is worth rescuing aboard that ship to justify all the dead marines. For all they know the Covenant could have tricked them into trying to go after Captain Keyes by saying that they had him. Now, I know later that Cortana is able to monitor Keyes’s lifesigns remotely, but they couldn’t apparently think to put it in here as some way to track where he might be in the ship, leaving you to wander through it until you find the right block of cells. But like I said, the Covenant could be onto the fact that Cortana was monitoring them. Imagine busting into the cellblock to save Keyes, seeing him standing there in the center of the room, then watch in shock as an Elite decloaks and guts him with a sword. Then all of a sudden about fifteen more Elites decloak all around you. Whoops. Fell right into that, didn’t you? Oh look, now the Master Chief is dead and the Covenant have Cortana. Cue the Mario death music.

In all seriousness this isn’t too big of a deal, but I still ask what makes Keyes so worth saving that they’re willing to risk the lives of many marines for this one man. I mean, it’s not like he’s Admiral Cole or something. So far all we know is that he’s the captain of the Pillar of Autumn. We’ve been given no clue as to if he warrants actual importance.

I think it’s also become quite obvious by this point my level by level analysis has gone right out the window in favor of just nitpicking major plot points as they come along. I think I’m going to stick with this for the time being. If anything now my insomnia is going away. So if this put you to sleep, don’t worry. It did the same thing to me.