November 13, 2012

(SPOILERS) Wake up John, I need You.

((These is my thoughts on Halo 4s story, while I don't go into great detail about the inbetweens, I detail the start and the end. PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN'T PLAYED HALO 4 YET AND PLAN TO.))

Halo 4 could of been the most expensive failure in the history of gaming.

Its founding studio; Bungie, arguably gave Microsoft the fighting chance it needed to successfully launch a console in a competitive market and Halos legacy burned bright for over ten years. Nowadays the Master Chief is as recognisable to younger generations as Darth Vader and Halo is still considered by many to be a trend setting, genre defining example of FPS on console.

After such a long running success, Bungie had other worlds to forge and parted ways with Halo, handing duties to 343 Industries- an in house Microsoft founded studio made up of hardcore Halo fans and the best of the best in the industry.

Their first game was to be Halo 4.

Following in the footsteps of giants, with a million hearts hanging in the balance- 343 had decided to bring back the Master Chief and Cortana. They had exclaimed a new trilogy would begin. This quite rightfully caused concern amongst fans- Bungie had created this world and could any one else ever understand it as well as they could? Could the gameplay ever be as refined?

Halo 4 as it happens is a complete triumph.

The key to that triumph being, above all else, the story.

Whilst I have no doubt in my mind that had Bungie wanted one more go at the Halo franchise they would of made similar strides in polish and refinement it is with complete confidence that I feel 343 have taken the story in directions they'd have never dared go.

Halo has always had a vast interesting lore, lore that for unfortunate reasons appears always just under the surface of what the games give us. As each Halo game arrived from Bungie, that hidden lore bubbled a little further to the surface but never enough to take the helm. It's especially curious that Halo:Combat Evolved opens with very little in the way of introduction, simply throwing us into the boots of a Cyborg-like solider and told bad things are going down. This isn't necessarily a flaw- certainly, no one can deny Halo games have succeeded far beyond measure on the strength of such focused and realised gameplay.

What this design choice left was questions, questions about the bigger picture and although many of these questions were eventually answered, the way in which they were presented were so passive and easy to miss. There was a story told but never clearly enough to fully appreciate unless you had a second look. This lead to a lot of gamers, fans and otherwise, claiming Halo has no story. 

Once more- Halo has always had a story, just right under the surface.

Fans of the franchise found lore a plenty in the expanded universe through books and comics, spin offs and even animations. Fall Of Reach told the story of the origin of the Master Chief, the story that perhaps one would of expected to be told at the beginning of Halo:Combat Evolved. It expands with great detail his life before and leading right up to those events and whilst it was by far the most interesting and fascinating element to the lore of Halo- it was never properly acknowledged in the games themselves. 343 have taken great strides to bridge this gap. It's both rewarding as a fan who has read the books to have that knowledge accepted and fascinating to new audiences to have a far better insight into the human element of the main character.

And the human element is quite the theme running through Halo 4. It's a heartbreaking story of the fragile nature of human existence, casting lights on the Master Chief and more importantly- Cortana, that reveal just how human they really are. While the story beats along at the familiar Halo clip, it offers so much more substance and context, rewarding progress with another glimpse into the complex relationship of a man who is treated like a machine and the only friend he has left.

Longtime fans are well aware of the importance of the character of Cortana, both in story and out. As a gamer she has always been your eyes and ears- feeding you information vital to your success, whether it be a warning of oncoming danger or a beacon to light the way. Cortana is an essential element to being in the boots of the Master Chief and a defining aspect of Halo. 

In story, she is his friend, his ally. She is all that keeps him human and whilst he is her caretaker we often see that she is not unlike a mother to him. They have a bond of trust that is unconditional- a bond born in the fires of war as they have earnt that understanding of each other through countless battles. 

Master Chief is a human made into a machine, Cortana is a machine made into a human. They were made for each other. 

What makes 343 such successful storytellers is their profound understanding of these two characters, using what has long since been established in the expanded universe- they tell the story of Cortanas rampancy. Essentially an illness all Artificial Intelligence endure beyond seven years of service, as Cortana herself explains- all AI will eventually "think themselves to death."

It's the perfect device to strip the Master Chief of his achievements. He is a hero through three games, he is a character who inspires awe from his comrades and fear from his enemies, we know his legacy- we've played his legacy. Yet none of that matters any more that Cortana is dying.

What must be commended is the emotion we see, for the first time ever, from the Chief throughout this Journey. We see the fear and doubt in Chief as the story progresses, his slow realisation that he may not be able to save the only person left who matters to him.  We see him fight to win yet another war but also all at the same time, lose a war in his mind. And we see Cortana herself, eventually lose her mind. We see her no longer the sharp witted, sassy AI and instead a frail, fragile and vulnerable woman scared for her life.

Cortanas confession of the fact is met with immediate action from Chief, who exclaims it's not the end, if they just find Cortana's creator, Doctor Hasley "She made you, she can fix you." Cortanas reaction to this is a very telling glimpse into the future of the story. "Don't make a girl a promise, if you know you can't keep it." The last time Cortana told us those words, Chief had to leave her behind at the end of Halo 2 and he kept his promise of coming back for her mid-way through Halo 3. 

However, this course of action laid out by the Chief at the very beginning of the story remains in our minds. Perhaps conditioned by the stories of Halo past- we believe that maybe eventually the story will take us back to earth and eventually we might find Hasley before this takes over. It's a very clever move to plant this seed to toy with our minds, making the eventual outcome of the story so much more meaningful and shocking.

The final scene of Halo 4 is what solidifies its story over Bungies, while the very pillars of the gameplay remain the same, polished and remastered from the genius that birthed them- the story is a very brave one. It's one that leaves very real emotions that play on the mind enough to write all of this.

Link, if you'd like to see it again.

The symbolic beauty that layers the scene is staggering, with the energy field around the characters creating what is clearly suggestive of rainfall; a common element brought through to highlight emotional scenes. Cortana approaches Chief in what appears to be an almost human form and she immediately silences the Chiefs confusion with harsh facts that are hard to hear.

The Master Chief never removes his helmet, nor is it possible to even have a hint of who he is underneath and yet in this scene his emotional delivery is heartbreaking. His words crack as he almost breaks his cold faceless persona, instead choosing words that paint the clearest picture of denial. "That's not- we, we go together!" And as Cortana shares a moment of physical contact, that has an incredible impact and meaning, The Master Chief says the word "Please" and in a single moment he is no longer a hero, he is just a man. Cortana shares nothing but a smile and says goodbye to not only the Master Chief but to us as players. And as she utters her last words "Welcome Home, John" the debris from around the energy field floats into view, crashing around him- symbolizing his world being destroyed as the only friend he has left leaves him.

It is a profound scene, a scene that tugs at the connection we have with the Chief- mirroring the impact of this moment. 343 set out with Halo 4 to humanise the Master Chief and they succeeded in that goal beyond measure. 

What magnifies this moment is how much more we heard from the Chief throughout the course of the story. Not only did he speak his mind much more but he stood up for Cortana on multiple occasions- disobeying direct orders from his superiors for her safety. He began to show sides of his character that suggested we may begin to see more of John and less of Master Chief. Cortana's death resigns this almost immediately, with the final epilogue scenes showing that the Master Chief is back to his man-of-no-words routine, symbolizing that he has lost all of that humanity she inspired in him and whilst this is a disappointing development- it's a bitter sweet commentary on their relationship and it makes perfect sense.

The heroes journey is a core concept that has been applied to almost every story, from origins of defeat, to overcoming great peril to eventually becoming a Hero. Halo was interesting because we were the Hero right from the start, Chief never went on a Heroes journey- in Halo 4 he begins one.

Bravo, 343!