There Are Heroes, and You Aren’t One of Them
Bungie Entertainment, 2010
Cult is a matter of myth. The satisfaction of a good cult is not unlike that of a good in-joke: closer culture creating a closer community of those in the know. In the grand scheme of the video game industry there are numerous markets, but the oldest and most dedicated segment, that of the ‘classic’ or ‘hardcore’ gamer, possesses a cult or subcultural quality. It has its own celebrities, it’s own music, it’s own grand galas. It also has, as many cultures do, its own stories, its own mythos.
To me, this is often the most important part of video games. To call it ‘story’ is not quite right. Mythos means ‘story’, but it also means ‘plot’ as well as ‘legend’. Amongst the nerd-gamer community, it’s likely best known as the word to describe the lurid, nihilistic cosmology of H.P. Lovecraft. And not without good reason. Lovecraft got by on gesturing at an immensity beyond human understanding, giving names to beings he deemed nameless. Mythos, real legend, in a video game has this quality of the immense. The sense that you are not just in a world, but part of it, and that that world is much, much bigger than you. And, as with Lovecraft, much, much scarier than can be easily dealt with.
Bungie Entertainment, the company behind the tremendously successful Halo series, is one of the best teams at giving that feeling of mythos, the first and best example of this being the appropriately named Myth: The Fallen Lords. Little background is given about the world of Myth, a three dimensional real-time strategy game that was remarkable in almost every way. The gameplay camera was controllable within a three dimensional environment; the projectiles thrown or shot by your soldiers (and those of the enemy) arched through space according to a convincing system of physics; the emphasis of the game was on tactics and delicacy, not production and strategic slaughter. It was elegant, technically progressive, interesting. But what made Myth so enthralling for me was its form of storytelling. As I said, there wasn’t a complete history of the world within the manual. The world of Myth was a mystery, but a vast one, its vastness hinted at in the particular way the narrative unfolded.
The frame for the gameplay is the writings of a low-ranking foot soldier, a simple conscripted man writing in his journal, caught in the final gasps of a war that had been raging on for an age, a war his side is losing, against an enemy of limitless and implacable evil. Within the first few missions, the last true bastion of humanity and its allies, the capital city of Madrigal, falls. Things look hopeless. And they stay that way, almost up until the end. There are great heroes, but the narrator is not one of them. And despite the crazy things happening in the intro, the berserker bringing the head to the men in the tent (members of the Avatara, the real power behind the human resistance), you learn about missions later, second hand, as a rumor. You sense there are great forces moving, and you (and the narrator) are caught up in them, but they are like some nameless thing in the deep, a vast not-quite formless shadow beneath the water’s surface.
Within the game itself, the world is made visible through scraps from history books or memoirs of great figures – excerpts from a fictional archive – asking the player to imagine the fullness of not just a space, but a whole timeline. This way of structuring narrative perspective and mood, is something like brilliance. It’s also sleight of hand; the players do the work of fleshing out the missing details. But whether real or imagined, the feeling of vastness is a genuine experience, and one skillfully rendered.
One of the benefits of the veiled story, beyond its creating a sense of immensity, is that it gives the makers of a game lots of room to build out and into future games. A single name dropped in a single line of text, some forgotten hero or distant epoch, can become the seed of an entirely new game. This principle applies to all such narratives of obscurity, Star Wars being a particularly good example. “You fought in the clone wars?” asks Luke of Ben Kenobi. Clone wars? What the heck are they talking about? “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” brags Han Solo of the Millennium Falcon. Meaning… what exactly? Something impressive, so impressive that Han, nor any of the other characters, need explain what the Kessel Run is. But I know, because I am a former Star Wars… uh… ‘enthusiast’, and because I read the new stories growing from the seeds Lucas throws out of the window of his speeding narrative.
You might know what the clone wars were too, if you watched the prequels, themselves proof that sometimes things are better left unsaid. Such is the risk of filling in that mysterious space narratives of obscurity rely upon for their mystique. The latest installment in the Halo franchise – Halo: Reach is just such an audacious endeavor, a promised telling of the story of the Fall of Reach, the event that directly precedes the events of the first Halo. It is, like Star Wars Episodes I-III, a prequel, and such ventures always carry with them risks – risks that can invalidate the expectation, if done poorly.
There’s a lot of story here. Humanity is at war with an alliance of alien races called the Covenant, which is theocratically dominated by a race of so-called ‘prophets’ who have deemed the human race heretics. Their purpose is purely genocidal (xenocidal, technically). The Covenant M.O. is one of planetary scorched earth, the ‘glassing’ of human colonized worlds, in which high powered plasma weapons are used to reduce the inhabitable surfaces of a world to blasted glass. Up until the events of Reach, only minor colonies have been struck. This game marks a crucial turning point, in which the colony of Reach, a major military headquarters for the United Nations Space Command (the good guys, more or less), is discovered by the Covenant and attacked. The defense of Reach fails. This is one of the first things one learns when playing the original Halo. The first game’s events directly follow the Fall of Reach, an event that is about as central to the mythos of the Halo universe as any other. And Halo: Reach is Bungie’s swing at representing that event, making it playable.
So, of course, if you have played Halo at all, you know you’re going to lose Reach. And Bungie doesn’t shrink from this fact. The opening cinematic for Reach is not of the planet before the Fall, but afterwards, with entire cities burning, whole continental landmasses transformed into cracked, blackened glass. And a helmet, its visor cracked, resting in the midst of one such newly-burned wasteland. Whose helmet? Yours. The next shot is first person perspective (the perspective of almost the whole playable game), your gaze, looking down into the still-whole visor of that same helmet, before your hands lift that helmet and set it over your head. The story of Reach is, we can see from the outset, a simple one: how does your helmet get there? How do you die?
On the whole, Halo: Reach tends to rely pretty heavily on its doomed, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ style narrative arc. There is heavy emphasis on the nobility of the military, how it redeems killers by making them heroes, how esprit de corps makes fighting men (and women) a band of brothers (and sisters) for whom selfless sacrifice is the only acceptable ending. Such methods of turning defeat into victory are tried and true, and rhey work in a Saving Private Ryan kind of way. All the destruction can be worthwhile, all the lives lost need not be lost in vain, if you complete your mission and do so with the ethos of a true solider-hero. Kind of hum-drum, though not without a certain ambiguity: in the first mission, your squad responds to what they first believe to be a rebel attack, indicating not everyone is such a huge fan of the long arm of the law, of which you are its gauntleted fist. Ultimately, though, this game becomes a last stand, as the last mission indicates. It’s only objective: ‘Survive!’. And, pitted against literally endless waves of enemies, it’s an objective you can’t complete, one you know you can’t complete, because your helmet must end up in that scorched desolation. The narrative demands your blood.
This last mission, the unwinnable one, is actually more of an epilogue. Success in the mission before is what really matters, the point of contact with the parent narrative. The narrative function of Reach, as a prequel, is to make Halo possible. Your team, winnowed down to its last members during the preceding missions, delivers the coordinates to the titular location ‘Halo’ into the hands of the captain of the vessel that the first Halo opens up on. The next step of the plot – the first of the real plot of the original Halo – is made thanks to your death in Reach. The opening scene of the first game is, in fact, reproduced in Reach as a reward for success. You see the narrative you are laboring to make possible begin, a deeply satisfying experience for a long-time Halo player, an adept of the cult.
We see, then, a startling move on the part of Bungie, a way they have skillfully avoided the dangers of prequel-writing that Lucas bumbled into during his new trilogy. Reach‘s success comes from inverting the structure of the central games, such that the myth alluded to, the vastness gestured towards, is the main story. Where Halo‘s 1, 2 and 3 rely on obscurity to give them grandeur, Reach relies on the grandeur evoked by the original Halo games, without attempting to be the grandeur Halo obscurely refers to. If the narrative of obscurity is a sleight of hand, then Reach is a shell game. What you were looking for is elsewhere, in the games you already played.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.