Think they have brought new life and Activision need to realize that going away rethinking something for a few years then bringing us a new game is what works. Not re-hash after re-hash of the same game year in year out. 343 have done a pretty good job. Im sure the next COD will please millions but would please far more if it came out in 3/4 years time not 12 months time
Chris Watters analyzes the storytelling techniques that distinguish the Halo 4 campaign from its predecessors.
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.
An old succesful series game, a new developer .... Hmm ... So familiar, that 's very much likely with DMC and Capcom 's case. But 343 made Chief looks so much more 'fabulous', not a protagonist with drug addiction figure and smoking problem and they call it cool. Nah. BTW, I am glad Halo 4 is such a success.
Also... another thing... reading through these posts I see a lot of people saying that 343 just stole Bungie's baby. I'm sorry... but in my honest opinion... I feel Bungie was KILLING the series. Halo 2 was an unfinished campaign... Halo 3 was a letdown... and ODST was HORRIBLE and BORING. Reach was the only thing to SORT OF breathe new life into an already dying saga, for example, by FINALLY explaining why the dropships changed from Halo 1 to Halo 2, and tying up some other loose ends from the original trilogy. In my eyes... 343 thankfully called DCS and had Bungie's baby removed from their custody!
Great article... however, with that being said, I do not understand how this game garnered one of the lowest scores the series has ever been given. I am a HUGE fan of this game and the storytelling within it. I actually feel that this is the best game since the original Halo.
For the first time since Combat Evolved, I actually felt like I was fighting for a struggling humanity. Sure, coming back to Earth was nice and fighting for the city was great... but its EARTH... with all its defenses and armaments... I just didn't feel like I was fighting for a losing team. Now on Requiem.. I felt the struggle... I felt the emotion.. of Master Chief, of Cortana, and of the Marines who were desperately vying for survival and fighting for a chance to leave a planet and opponent they knew nothing about!
I agree with the other posts on here about seeing Master Chief's face. I believe it should be something that is left to our own personal imaginations. We've all played him and we've all developed our own personal feelings about the man under the mask. There is no reason to ruin that by unveiling the true image.
Nice. I really enjoyed reading this article. Halo 4 is a fantastic game and the storytelling is absolutely the best the series has ever seen.
Fantastic article! I wish we got to see these kind of in-depth analyses from GameSpot more often! Props to Chris Watters.
And I must say, I agree with the points Chris made completely. The only thing I felt like could have been touched on more was how the terminals played a role in the story. They were the backbone of the Didact's character development. They did an incredible job of portraying the origins of his hate for humanity. He was betrayed by his wife for humanity's interests. His entire species was destroyed, in his mind, because of humanity. And now they threaten to disgrace him by taking the one thing the Forerunners have left: the Mantle.
Incredible storytelling, all around.
@KeeseKiller7 Thanks for the props and for sharing your thoughts on the terminals. I think they do reveal some intriguing info, and they are kind of a neat substitution for the exploring you used to have to do to find skulls.
Curiously, I have known intelligent mature women, with professional careers and extensive educations, who have such a child-like voice. It's very disconcerting.
I honestly don't think anything was wrong with the previous halo game stories. Granted, the story was vastly improved, but Master Chief shouldn't talk so much! Any true halo fan would not complain about a faceless character. That's who MC is! It would hurt the deepness of the game if he was revealed.
He represents the hardships and disturbing reality that humanity had to face in the halo lore. And it wouldn't help the story to develop him further, it would hurt it. Instead, have cortana, or another soldier or spartan be the personality while carrying on the adventures of the Chief.
Anyway, I was more disappointed by the lack of explanation, like no explanation of spartan IVs, they weren't even surprised to see that the MC had survived. And why were you fighting the covenant? Why did the didact hate the humans? What were the prometheans? Granted I know most of the answers from studying the lore, but it would've been nice to hear it from the game. Other than that( and MC talking too much) it was an above par story.
If you actually search out the "terminals" within the game, it helps give the back story. The Didact hates the humans for bringing war upon their planet. Humanity was trying to stop the flood and traced a small bit of it back to their planet. The Admiral of the fleet made the decision to kill the inhabitants of the planet in order to stop the spread of the flood... which of course failed... but also killed millions of the planet's inhabitants. This is why the Didact hates humanity.
@GOGOGOGURT I agree with you completely about not revealing the Chief's face
Not many people seem to know this, but if you beat the game solo on legendary for a split second you actually get to see a close up of the chief's eyes. When i first saw it i was initially very surprised, but also excited that after over a decade i finally got a glimpse of the chief's face.
10 minutes later i regretted ever seeing it.
To put it simply some things are better left to the imagination. Over the years we've all kind of developed our own ideas of what the chief's face looks like, to reveal his face now would not only hurt the character going forward, but it would lessen the experiences we've all had throughout the original trilogy. The helmet is Chief's face, it's the one we've known for years, and it's one of the most recognizable icons not just in Halo, but in the entire gaming industry.
Other than that little reveal i will say 343 did an amazing job with the characters, I can't wait to see where the story goes in halo 5 and 6.
Also, i have to give a proverbial pat on the back to Chris Watters, this was a very well written article, well done sir, well done.
This guy (author of the article) has not read even one of the Halo Universe Books specially those that came out before the game, the Forerunner Saga: Cryptum and Primordium, and there is one more still to come out. Many of the doubs he has are answered in those books. I.e. The physical difference between the Didact and Librarian is because of the role they had in forerunner society; The Didact was a warrior servant and the Librarian was a Life Shaper. If someone dares to call him/her self a Halo Fan, It is for sure they know all there is to know about the Halo Universe (what has been released so far of course). How come someone would dare to write an article about something he knows nothing about?
@klykhorkina If you wanted an article from someone who knows every bit of Halo lore, you shouldn't have read one by a person who writes articles about tons of different games. Not to mention, the article is about how the storytelling is gone about in the game. It would be stupid to not mention a small hole because he already knows the answer from the books. That's not the point of the article.
And being a Halo absolutely does not mean you know everything about Halo. That's just ridiculous and you should get that out of your head.
@klykhorkina because some of us bought a videogame, not a book hobby.
Pretty much agree with everything said here. I was left wanting more and thinking about the questions the end of the story raised. Ive played all Halo games except for Reach and frankly can't recall any story in any of them except maybe ODST (which had more to do with the voice actors than anything else). As my Gamer\tag motto now states Halo4>Halo3. Just copy that and replace Halo3 with every other Halo game.
Wow, that prologue is CGI? I thought the interview was live action. Now that's good graphics! I am no film critic, but presentation aside, there is nothing remarkable about the content of the prologue. I assumed all Spartans were engineered from the first 5 minutes of the original Halo, though to be fair I assumed he was genetically engineered. Engineering, mental and physical conditioning included, is the new sci-fi cliche. At least there is no scene with a fat kid getting shot because he couldn't keep up in the marathon.
I was a lot more interested in the interviewer. What's his angle? A mere crusader for morality would be so boring, but the doc suspected he was after other information by coming at her sideways. Now I am hooked. I must learn if he plays a greater role in the game.
Very well written article, being a die hard fan of Halo since the begining, it's nice to see Halo 4's story being credited as setting a new bar for story telling. Each Halo game keeps revolutionizing video games. From defining FPS shooter games on consoles, to defining Xbox Live, and now re-inventing the way stories are told. Halo will always live as the greatest game franchise in history. Bungie started this incredible world and 343 was given the torch. Can't wait for more Halo, starting with Halo 5!
SPOILER : Am rooting to see arbiter back in Halo 5, though not as a playable character the way Halo 2 did it but as a sidekick that helps in combat the way Halo 3 did. I like the arbiter :)
@fourclawrider I would like to see a side story like "Halo: ODST" was.
@fourclawrider SPOILER: In the anime series Halo:Legend, Arbiter is dead in a duel. But that might not be part of the canon though.
That's not the same Arbiter as in Halo 2 and 3. The Halo Legends Arbiter's name was Fal 'Chavamee. Arbiter from Halo 2 and 3 is named Thel 'Vadam. Arbiter is a title. When one dies or is killed the title is given to another.
A new life, more like crush me and made me cry like a little child. The ending was so fitting but damn, I'm sad!
Very interesting article and well written Chris, though I can't help but take issue with the fact that you give 343 the credit when Bungie has clearly set the stage for the opening prologue of Halo 4. For those who have extensively followed the Halo canon you would be aware the Bungie took great care to establish these "shades of grey" pertaining to Dr. Halsey and the Spartan program. In fact Dr. Halsey's journal (included in the collectors edition of Halo 3) goes into pain staking detail with regards to just that.
I would argue that the intro to Halo 4 is more the remnants of Bungie's baby than 343's.
As for the rest of Halo 4 the narrative really falls apart. The Didact is introduced to us as just some pissed off Forerunner whose aggression towards humanity boils down to no more than "my civilization could beat up your civilization!" Even the terminals found through out the game do a very poor job of explaining why, after a hundred thousand years, he wants to imprison the human race. In fact his sole reason for doing so would have been to stop the flood... who have already been stopped. Overall he is no more than an excuse to shoot guns in space, as the real story told is that of the Master Chief and Cortana. Which quite frankly could have been told without any shooting in space at all, but that would not have made a very good FPS.
343 through a pretty cutscene just regurgitated the characterization of Dr. Halsey that Bungie had already established and then ran out of ideas.
@Tetsuro343 I don't see how 343 "regurgitated" Halsey's characterization. They portrayed Halsey's 50 shades in ways that haven't been done before. Yes you've read it, but the incredible CGI doesn't just make it look pretty. It lets you learn everything about her 50 shades-ness just by looking at her face. Also, keep in mind that not everyone read the journal.
I also felt like the terminals did quite a good job of explaining the campaign events. Especially the Didact. They portray why he hates humanity. He believes they are the sole cause for his species' death. He feels that it's his responsibility to destroy humanity. He's not just a schoolyard bully. In his mind, he practically HAS to destroy them.
@Tetsuro343 I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and I appreciate you chiming in here! It's interesting to consider how much of Halo 4's story is just 343 reaping what Bungie sowed, but I think the way they told it reflects a level of storytelling that Bungie never really achieved. I really like the more complex, more personal tack that Bungie took in ODST and Reach, and I think 343 ran with that theme and took it to new heights.
@Tetsuro343 I'm pretty sure that it was Microsoft who got the ball rolling for the Halo books to be made in the first place. Not to mention Bungie kind of sh** all over the established cannon with Reach.One of Bungie's failings, at least in my opinion, is that they never really delved into material from the books (with the only real exception being Cortana's dialogue in 3). As for the Didact, he does not want to relinquish the Mantle of responsibility for the galaxy. He cannot accept that the time of the Forerunners has ended.
@gutsallover @Tetsuro343 Not to mention the Didact wife betrayed him for humanity's sake. it can also be said that the opening cut-scene was a nod to Bungie and the established lore and for all we know the Didact wasn't aware that the flood is gone or if they are truly gone it could have come from another galaxy.
@Tetsuro343 343 is composed of quite a few ex Bungie employees, as well as some new faces, and that's an accurate summation fo the prologue, core priniciples taken in new and interesting directions (i was just glad all the Spartans in the cutscene were wearing identical armour, it was an important theme in the book, as well as tying into the cult of the chief as it were)
Fantastic article. I've always felt that the Halo games were a step above all other first-person shooters in terms of story, but Halo 4 was just something else. It told a story on multiple levels and made great use of foreshadowing and juxtaposition, far more so than any of its predecessors and competitors. The only Halo game which really competes in the ambition of its story is Halo 2 with the humanization of the Covenant and the introduction of the Arbiter, but Halo 2 lacked narrative closure and there was no personal level to the story being told.
I want to see an article here that compares the work of 343 to that of Bungie. Bungie needs to be knocked off their high horse.
@Vodoo too early for that......bungie created 6 successful halo games while 343 have made only halo 4
Halo Wars were developed by the now defunct Ensemble Studio, not Bungie. Get your facts right Chris.
@Grimkillah Whoops! Good call, and thanks for pointing that out. I think I just got caught up in describing all the intro cutscenes, but should've just stuck with the first-person shooters, it seems.
I think everybody is just in awe because it's the first time since Halo: CE that the storytelling and writing in the series have been generally good. Not only that but the gameplay has improved moderately too.
The Halo series has never failed to impress me, although the game play was somewhat repetitive in the past games the story telling was always excellent always leaving us gamers very emotional. But Halo 4 was beyond that. By the end of the game I was so emotional the game made me feel different. Usually when I finish a game I such as CoD's story it makes me feel normal and kind of happy that I finished it but not Halo, 343i has done a superb job. Chris, well done with this article. Its quite excellent and insightful. And for all of you who keep saying Halo 4 is like previous games, I guarantee you it is not. I highly suggest you borrow the game from someone and play the story you will be blown away.
A difficult, albeit necessary departure from the Halo we know and love. While the core gameplay is much the same, facets of the game itself make the game vastly different from its predecessors, and the story is one such difference. Am very excited to see more from this developer. Also, a very interesting article, well done.
Halo 4 was a really great game. Nice article too. The Didact was kind of a creepy fellow if you ask me, but he's my new favorite villian!