I always disliked shooters. Not only was I bad at them, but the narrative setting of shooters, at least the ones that stick in my memory, was off-putting to me. You see, I was born in Berlin. I have always been proud of being born in Berlin; I see it as home, and it was always what made me unique amongst my peers. Unfortunately, in Britain in the 90s, there was still a lot of animosity towards Germany because of the Second World War, and even being born in Berlin made me the target for some pretty nasty bullying when I was at school. As such, when Medal of Honour and Call of Duty took the genre by storm into the early 21st Century, I wanted very little to do with them.
Unbeknownst to me, on the 19th June 2000, Microsoft announced that they had acquired a still small and relatively unknown game studio called Bungie to make a game called Halo: Combat Evolved, a flagship title for the highly anticipated Xbox console.
I was 9 years old when Halo was released, and my parents quite rightly stopped me from playing it until I was a little older. Still, the game almost immediately had my attention, and 18 years on in retrospect, I still hold it as one of the greatest and most important pieces of story-telling in gaming history.
Halo opens in the 26th Century, as a United Nations Space Command starship called the Pillar of Autumn escapes the utter destruction of a planet called Reach at the hands of an alien collective, the Covenant, which has deemed humanity an insult to its gods. When the Covenant follows the Pillar of Autumn away from Reach, the crew of the ship are forced to crash land on an alien ring-world of unknown origin.
While trying to rescue the survivors, the primary character known only as Master Chief, a super soldier aided by an AI called Cortana, learn that the Covenant believe the ring-world to be a weapon, and have named it ‘Halo’. Fearing that the Covenant might use Halo to continue its holy war against humanity, the UNSC try to stop them, and in doing so learn the ring’s true purpose. It is indeed a weapon, meant to wipe out all sentient life in order to starve and therefore stop a parasite known as the Flood from spreading across the universe. Master Chief and Cortana are just able to destroy Halo before it can be activated, though many of the UNSC crew lose their lives along the way.
Breaking Down the Plot Points
To understand what it is about Halo that makes it really stand out with its story-telling, we must first examine its plot points free of its setting. We begin with the story of a crew stranded while escaping from a heavy defeat in a long-running war; a band that is immediately split up and separated with the reemergence of their enemy. This split leads into the task behind the first third of the single-player campaign; a character’s determination to rescue those forced to crash-land on Halo, in an effort not to leave anyone behind.
Next we come to the second part of the story; as the player character rescues his commanding officer from the enemy, we learn that they believe it is a weapon, and the story transforms into one of stopping the enemy from using that weapon against our protagonists; the people we are supposed to root for.
Then the tension is ratcheted all the way up as we discover that Halo is indeed a weapon, to be used by an ancient force against another ancient force; a last resort to ensure total victory, at great cost for a greater good. This weapon, we’re told, must be activated; it is the only way to stop the otherwise unstoppable force that threatens everything.
This of course leads us into our finale, where against the odds our protagonists manage to save everything from the immovable object and the unstoppable force (ignoring the post-credit sequence in which the antagonist, 343 Guilty Spark, is shown to have survived the explosion of Halo). The protagonist winning out when the stakes are at their highest is the pinnacle of dramatic action-packed storytelling, used to finish stories since the literal dawn of the human race.
The Subtleties that make a Classic
One might look at these points, outside of the context of the game’s settings and without the innovations that drove the shooter genre forward for the next two decades, and ask, “Well what’s the big deal?” And you would not be wrong to ask that question. None of these plot points are unique to Halo, nor to contemporary storytelling. And this, in and of itself, is what makes Halo so special.
For a moment, let’s consider when we are. The year is 2001. Al Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on American embassies in Africa are fresh in people’s minds. The destruction of the Twin Towers in New York are very fresh in people’s minds. Beyond that, wounds from four decades of the Cold War with Russia are only just healing and, as pointed out at the top of this article, the atrocities of the Nazis are still very much unforgotten.
With this game earmarked to be a flagship title for a console set to compete with Sony’s Playstation in the American and European markets, it would have been very easy for it to start on an American or British warship, stranded in the North Sea or Pacific Ocean after a major defeat to the German or Japanese navy. It would have been very easy for them to stumble across a weapon the Nazis or Russians thought to use to end the war in which it was set, real or otherwise. It would have been easy for this devastating weapon not to be turned only on the United States, or Great Britain, but on the entire western hemisphere, or even the world, to show how dangerous terrorist groups like Al Qaeda truly are.
Every one of these possibilities would have captured the imagination of the target audience, and may well still have been critically acclaimed for capturing moments so important to our global history. Indeed, other games of the time took this approach, and regardless of their quality, for all of their efforts a great many of those games have now been forgotten. Why? Because after Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, after Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan, people were tired of hearing about how much the 20th Century sucked.
This is why story-framing is so important. Halo tells the same stories we’ve heard countless times, but by removing it almost completely from reality and framing it as an alien conflict in the still distant future, Bungie were able to tell it in a way that not only captured the attention of their target audience, but also brought a whole new audience to the genre; people who were tired of hearing these stories, and people like me, who were unhappy with the fact that wide-spread media was playing into the inherent divides caused during and by these historical conflicts. That single and simple change, giving themselves a setting over which they had total control, allowed Bungie to tell unoriginal stories in an original universe, with unique characters like Captain Keyes, Cortana, Sergeant Johnson and, of course, Master Chief to drive those stories forward in a refreshing way. In fact they were so successful in doing so that it spawned an entire franchise of games, books and short films whose storytelling is still beloved today.
And when you think about how divided we were at the turn of the century, and remind yourself of Halo’s setting, the second of its subtle but important messages appears. I don’t accuse any company of deliberately trying to drive people apart, but it is an inherent part of telling stories about historical conflicts. If you play a game set in World War Two, you are naturally reminded of the crimes the Nazis committed. If you watch a film about the Cold War, you are naturally reminded of the cultural differences between the Western and Eastern hemispheres that were milked so much by politics in the late 20th Century. It is incredibly easy for people to take those memories and turn it into bitterness.
Importantly, Halo’s setting is one of a united Earth. Like in Star Trek before it and Mass Effect after it, in Halo’s lore, we have put aside our differences and progressed into the future together. When the Covenant does eventually appear, we as the protagonists focus on what we have in common, while they as the antagonists focus on what makes us and them so different. Once again, this is hardly unique, but it is still noteworthy, not only as a part of the continued effort from science fiction to remind us that the real enemy of humanity is our own division, but because this reminder is still so necessary nearly twenty years later.
When I did eventually play Halo, I fell as deeply in love with it as I suspected I would. It’s hard to call the story-telling completely original, but it is woven together in a beautifully crafted and incredibly well-paced manner, with compelling characters, fantastic dialogue, breath-taking music and a rich lore with leagues of space for new creators to work in. I always disliked shooters, but Halo is one of my all-time favourite games. And when I look back on it, what I look forward to re-experiencing with it’s upcoming PC re-release, are these two incredibly subtle puzzle pieces that, at least in my view, make Halo: Combat Evolved a true literary classic.