Halo 4 starts out with a bang. Not the combat bang of hostile aliens boarding your ship in Halo: Combat Evolved, and not the literal bang of Master Chief crashing to Earth in Halo 3. Halo 4's bang is a cutscene that features the quiet interrogation of a scientist, and yet it is the most intriguing, the most stirring, and the most exciting start to any Halo game yet. It reveals, informs, and foreshadows, but its most powerful message is this: Halo is in new hands, and in three minutes, they've raised the storytelling bar for the entire franchise.
Note: This article contains story spoilers for the Halo 4 campaign.
Setting the Stage
The Halo series is no stranger to dramatic openers. Halo: Combat Evolved begins with the calm before the storm, giving you a few foreboding moments on the command deck that soon give way to a fight for survival. Halo 2's dramatic juxtaposition of the honoring of Master Chief and the shaming of a defeated Covenant general broadened the scope of the story and foreshadowed an unlikely partnership. Halo 3's crash-to-earth scene was perfunctory, with only a cryptic quote from Cortana touching on the narrative tension of her separation from the Chief, and Halo Wars, though technically impressive, was a purely expositional introduction to an unfamiliar struggle and a new cast of characters. New characters also featured heavily in Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, establishing the camaraderie that carried throughout those campaigns. While universally functional and often exciting, these cutscenes were almost entirely focused on placing you in the Halo timeline and sending you on your way.
Those Halo games were all developed by series creator Bungie (with the exception of Halo Wars), but Halo 4 is the work of 343 Industries. The new stewards of the Halo universe don't waste any time setting a new standard, and Halo 4's opening cutscene differs from its predecessors in a few key respects. It's a prologue and, as such, is separated from the rest of the game both structurally and narratively. It doesn't segue into the first mission. It doesn't star the main protagonists or antagonists. It's not even clear when or where it takes place. Yet despite this disconnection, the video does a stellar job of giving you crucial information, creating dramatic tension, and foreshadowing events to come.
First, it reintroduces the Spartans. A few exquisitely rendered clips and some lines from Dr. Halsey (the scientist being interrogated) are enough to demonstrate their remarkable combat prowess. Clearly, these soldiers (and by extension you, the player) are heroes. And yet, by the time you know that, you also know that they were taken as children, kept in isolation, subjected to invasive medical procedures, and to some degree, brainwashed. The interrogator criticizes the Spartan program in a sneering and accusatory tone, but you can see that he has a point. This creates tension, and now the conflict between the shadowed interrogator and the brightly lit doctor doesn't seem so black and white. For a series that has long hung its narrative hat on clear-cut conflicts, these shades of gray are new and intriguing.
Halo is in new hands, and in three minutes, they've raised the storytelling bar for the entire franchise.
Then the interrogator pushes further and targets Master Chief himself. Halsey's defensive stance shifts from professional to personal as she refers to Master Chief by his given name ("What does John have to do with this?"). This change makes her seem more human and, in turn, humanizes Master Chief, who is an otherwise stoic, borderline-robotic protagonist. Furthermore, her indignation mirrors our own, whether we've personally rescued the galaxy before in a Halo game or just learned a minute ago that Spartans saved humanity. How can you criticize the person responsible for preventing your extinction? The interrogation sparks an emotional reaction that deepens your involvement in the story and also reveals something important: humanity has moved on.
Critical reflection on wartime actions usually comes after said war is settled. When the Spartans were staving off the Covenant, no one worried about why or how they came to be, as Halsey points out. But the passage of time grants a broader perspective, and digging into the history of the Spartans reveals some uncomfortable truths. Foreshadowing is another key part of this cutscene, and the tension surrounding the Spartan program, as well as Halsey's assertion that Spartans are "humanity's next step," both come back around in dramatic scenes later on. Even her final words in the prologue, "Do not underestimate [the Spartans], but most of all, do not underestimate him," are echoed by Cortana in the climactic confrontation at the end of the game. These kinds of connections create a thematic cohesiveness that pays dividends by making key scenes more powerful and dramatically resonant. The prologue has no direct connection to the campaign that follows, but it primes you to be more invested in the story, the characters, and the world.
Looking the Part
The prologue makes one other thing immediately apparent: Halo 4 is a fantastic-looking game. The extraordinary detail and subtle animations that bring Halsey to life make her a more vivid character than she was in Reach and make the Spartans featured in those clips seem powerful, deadly, and larger than life. The character models in the campaign proper aren't quite as crisp, but they are still remarkably expressive and able to enrich any interaction. Chief's first encounter with fellow Spartan Sarah Palmer, for example, has only one line of dialogue ("I thought you'd be taller"). But in those few moments, we see her ogling a quasi-mythical hero, recognizing him as one of her own, giving him a sly smile of pride and recognition, and then throwing him some sass. The fleeting exchange establishes Palmer's character and gives another perspective on how Master Chief is viewed among humanity, resonating with the prologue and leaving a lasting impression.
This degree of subtlety makes every cutscene richer by communicating more information about the characters involved and making them more relatable. Aboard the Infinity, conflict simmers between a domineering captain and a reluctant first officer without either ever raising his voice to the other. When Chief is forced to take drastic action in a scientific research facility, the lead scientist is fully compliant, yet her despair at the prospect of losing her life's work is written all over her face. Halo 4's technical prowess heightens the more dramatic moments as well, but for all the perilous situations that arise throughout the campaign, the most heart-wrenching moments are between Master Chief and Cortana.
This drama is, in part, intensified by Cortana's new look. Her appearance has evolved over the years, steadily growing more naturalistic and less ephemeral. In Halo 4, she looks more solid than she ever has, and more feminine as well. Her more-pronounced curves are certainly eye-catching, but they serve a purpose; Cortana is more physically active than she has been in the past, and her various poses and postures communicate a lot about her state of mind. Her expressive facial features are even more noteworthy. Big eyes, full lips, and a soft, rounded chin amplify her expressions and emotions, creating the sense that the vulnerability she has shown in the past (most notably in Halo 3) is much closer to the surface this time around.
Breaking up the Band
Chief and Cortana's relationship has never been a traditional boy-meets-robot story.
This is fitting, because Cortana is in trouble. AI constructs have an expiration date in the Halo universe, it seems. As the years draw on, a condition called rampancy encroaches on Cortana's processes. Her thoughts multiply, stressing her system and making it harder for her to maintain internal order. In short, she's dying. Her smart, snarky facade begins to crack, and we probe into her personality like we never have before. In a memorable scene, she laments that though she can know an artificial sun isn't real for hundreds of reasons, she'll never be able to feel that it isn't real. This echoes the cliched yearning for humanity that many artificial intelligences have expressed in other works of fiction, but because Cortana is staring down the barrel of mortality, her sadness has a sharper edge.
Of course, Chief and Cortana's relationship has never been a traditional boy-meets-robot story. After all, whose face have you seen? Whose knowing smiles, whose wide-eyed terror, whose fierce urgency have you seen expressed in the most human way? Cortana has always offered a lively counterpoint to Chief's stoic determination, and the fact that the AI acts more human than the human soldier is a clever duality that has existed in Halo since the beginning. But in Halo 4, her looming rampancy causes Cortana to stray deeper into the realm of human emotion. From the first moment you see her, she is filled with trepidation, knowing that she will have to tell Chief about her degenerative condition. When she finally tells him and he immediately comes up with a plan, she replies shakily, echoing a famous line from the past, "Don't make a girl a promise you can't keep." Her voice is unsure, but it's not the Chief that she's doubting.
Throughout their many trials and tribulations, each has doubted the other's crazy plan at some point, but they have rarely doubted themselves. Now Cortana is unsure of herself; she sees the specter of death looming, but even with the Chief at her side, she doesn't see a way out. Worse, as their struggle wears on, we see the Chief himself begin to falter in his resolve. Cortana's self-doubt is getting to him, and his discomfort is palpable. This is a deeply unsettling shift in the dynamic between these two protagonists, and Halo 4 illustrates how fundamentally disruptive it is in a number of ways.
Using Every Tool in the Shed
Cortana's struggle with mortality is one of the core conflicts of Halo 4, and the game uses a variety of methods to convey the seriousness of this threat. As the two explore the Forerunner planet Requiem, we see that Cortana's trepidation has not dissipated now that they are taking action. A breathy, reluctant "Okaayy…" in response to Chief's confident reassurances tells us that she is trying to convince herself to believe him, and to have hope for her own future. Her response is almost an afterthought, squeezed out as she struggles to reconcile her fatalism with Chief's determination. It's a brief moment, but it illuminates her fragile emotional state in a way that anyone can understand. It's also a notable departure from the kind of clearly articulated voice acting we are used to hearing from this character, making it especially jarring for those who know Cortana well.
As the campaign continues, Cortana's emotional fluctuations get bigger. At one point, she lashes out at Chief for inquiring how much longer it will take her to open a door. She apologizes, and Chief brushes it off, but she won't let it go so easily ("It's not nothing."). Aboard the Infinity, she has a more serious break in composure when confronted with the obstinate captain, and this manifests as a shouted outburst ("I will not… let you leave…THIS PLANET!"), a flicker of red in her normally bluish-purple coloration, and a pulse of energy sent throughout the command deck. We've seen Cortana get fired up and change color before, but never as dramatically as this. Such visual divergences grow even more severe later in the campaign, as the integrity of her avatar is fragmented even further to show just how far rampancy has encroached.
Cortana's struggle with mortality is one of the core conflicts of Halo 4.
But perhaps no visual manifestation of her decay is as ingenious as the effects manifested on the heads-up display. Aiming reticle, shield meter, radar screen, and various loadout indicators make up this functional, ever-present part of your view. Small, windowed videos of ally communication and red flashes that let you know you're taking damage are about as dynamic as the HUD usually gets, but not in Halo 4.
In a quiet moment early on, the HUD flickers and shorts out for a second. Master Chief's surprise mirrors the your own, and then Cortana explains that she is responsible for the disruption. Wait, that's Cortana too? All of a sudden, the very foundation of your Halo experience is in jeopardy. If you can lose the HUD, what other vital systems could be compromised by Cortana's deteriorating condition? She is wired into your sense of sight, integral to the most important way that human beings experience the world. Forget opening doors and translating alien glyphs; if she goes away, how will you see?
This question cuts right to the core of Master Chief's identity and makes you ponder the depths of this symbiotic relationship. Where does AI end and Spartan begin? What is each without the other? These questions aren't simply left up to you to ask; Cortana herself asks Master Chief to figure out which one of them is the machine. Halo 4 dramatically vivisects the bond between these two in a way no game has previously, leveraging even the most mundane element of the video game experience as a storytelling tool.
Plotting the Trajectory
The rampancy crisis isn't the only danger that Master Chief and Cortana must face. Halo 4 also has a trilogy to launch, and for that, you need antagonists. In another first for the series, Halo 4 introduces a single enemy with plans to destroy humanity and the power to do it. Even from his spherical prison, the Didact is able to manipulate Master Chief into freeing him, and once he does, Chief appears powerless to stop him.
Though regularly confronted with seemingly insurmountable odds, Master Chief has always been the single most powerful being on the battlefield (the formidable Gravemind had his Flood minions do the fighting). His encounters with the Didact make him seem as powerless as Cortana is in the face of her onrushing rampancy. Their mutual weakness binds them closer together, reinforcing their bond and making their struggle more desperate than ever before. Each is individually outmatched, and it is no longer enough for Chief to lean on Cortana or vice versa. They need some serious help.
This help comes in the form of the Librarian. Though both she and the Didact are Forerunners, her smooth skin, flowing garments, and blue color palette contrast starkly with his tortured visage, menacing armor, and orange aura. Her voice is soft, empathetic, and plaintive; his is hard, condescending, and implacable. Here, clearly, are two forces that have opposed each other for centuries, the two sides of the grand battle for humanity's fate in which you are now a pivotal player. In previous Halo games, the Forerunners were mysterious and distant, represented solely by the artifacts they left behind. By bringing them out of the past and into the present, Halo 4 creates strong ties to the previous trilogy while charting the course of a new conflict that doesn't require prior knowledge to appreciate.
Of course, it certainly helps to be familiar with Halo lore. The Librarian rattles off revelations of the past interactions between humans and Forerunners, exposing a fascinating wealth of mythology in one fevered speech. You can get the gist of it, but it's all a bit too much to digest in one cutscene. This fire hose of exposition could have fared better as a more measured flow, and this is one moment when Halo 4's storytelling seems to stumble. The Librarian's history lesson deals with the origins of individual characters and entire races, but it comes and goes in a whirlwind, offering intriguing information but leaving a swath of new questions in its wake.
Thirsting for More
For as much as we love to know things, we also love to be left wondering.
Origin stories are a unique source of fascination, as they promise to reveal the simple beginnings that gave rise to fantastic circumstances. We like knowing the trajectory of things and putting events in a line of causation, perhaps because it lets us more easily imagine our own path to greatness. While previous Halo games have shrouded both the recent and the distant past in mystery, Halo 4 begins to pull back the veil in meaningful ways. At various points throughout the campaign, Halo 4 touches on the origins of Master Chief, Cortana, the Didact, and humanity itself, revealing some truths and some connections, but still leaving much to the imagination.
For as much as we love to know things, we also love to be left wondering, and Halo 4 gives you plenty to think about. The fates of Master Chief, Cortana, and the Didact are natural sources of intrigue, but Halo 4 is careful to plant more seeds for speculation. Who is the audience in the post-credits monologue? What is the Mantle, what powers would it grant humanity, and why do the Forerunners fear it so? Will we see the barrier between the digital and organic realms bridged? And what is the true origin of humankind, if not what we previously believed?
Many Halo games have left you curious to find out what happens next. Halo 4 does this too, but it also cultivates your interest in the mythology of this fictional world by actively engaging with the mysteries of the past and the visions of the future. This is one of the hallmarks of great stories: they inspire us to dream their worlds long after we have disengaged from the source material. They urge us to mull over what we've just experienced and provoke us to ponder what might come next. On an intimate scale and on the grand stage, with elaborate animations and simple visual cues, from before the game begins until after the credits roll, Halo 4 weaves an engrossing, emotional story in a way that outstrips any of its predecessors, and many of its contemporaries. It's a beacon of storytelling in video games, one that will hopefully be used to guide others to create similarly great experiences.