Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Ask many Bungie fans what they think makes their favorite games different than others, and you might get an answer like "addictive multiplayer". From a perhaps smaller, but no less dedicated or vocal group, you might get "the story" as an answer.

Not everyone agrees.

Dallas News technology writer Victor Godinez thinks videogame writing has a long way to go, and points up Halo 3 as an example:

Halo 3 is a lot of fun to play, and the multiplayer will likely go down in history as a truly great technical masterpiece.

But the single-player mode was a confusing muddle from a plot perspective. Every time this complaint pops up, legions of fans rush to point out this or that video explanation of the plot on YouTube, or they suggest you go read the Halo novels or scour Bungie's Web site for plot clues.

No.

The game should be a self-contained and comprehensible artistic work. The fact that a game with Halo 3's development budget (which it's safe to say was in the tens of millions of dollars) ended up with such a cut-rate story shows there's still a limited pool of writing talent in the industry.

This probably deserves (and will likely get) a longer and more detailed response, but I'd say that the Halo series of games stands well alone, aside from support materials like the novels, but not separately from each other.

So as a series of games, I think it is a self-contained and comprehensible artistic work. However, Halo 3 makes about as much sense in isolation from its prequels as the Return of the King would all by itself, which is to say, not a whole lot.

Halo 2 and Halo 3, to be comprehensible, depend on the previous games, and this is only natural and acceptable. I'd argue that Mr. Godinez-- who writes about games on his blog-- either didn't play the first two games, or didn't pay much attention when he did.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I find this weird. This isn't the first time I've heard of a member of the press being "confused" by the story and I think you're last point pretty much sums it up. I'm more of a single player Halo person anyways and I thought that Halo 3's campaign really took a run at Halo 1's and personally thought it better in some respects. Mabey it's because I care about the story so much that I read the books on the side but I never really found the story to be confusing before the novels came out anyways.

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I think that while i respect halo's storyline to a reasonable respect and think this reporter was being a bit melodramatic. I do consider halo's storyline as a whole to feel a bit incomplete.

This is a bit of a tangent overall as i think that the obvious argument here is that he seems to fail to realise that if people want a completely inclusive work of fiction they don't play something's sequal. They play the first game or a one game story. Sequals are to give fans of the first game more of what they love. And storyline wise fans tend to love stuff that refers to and builds off of their previous experience without spending it's time coddling to newcomers.

Trained in guns, not doors!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I fundamentally disagree with the position that a "game should be a self-contained and comprehensible artistic work" because such standards are not set for other mediums of art such as TV, movies or books and as such cannot be used to say that games have a long way to go before being considered art. If you suddenly watch Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King or Episode 5 of Season 3 of Lost you will be quite lost having missed much of the back story and not achieve the complete experience that the author/director was hoping to achieve. However, is that the arts fault that you are isolating a single element of it and attempting to achieve complete understanding based on it? No. That is akin to complaining that a single pixel on your screen does not give you a good idea of what is happening on the rest of it. Thus the fact that the reporter was too lazy to to educate themselves on the background of Halo is not a sufficient reason for him to complain that the story did not fit neatly into a ten hour single player experience.

That being said, the beginning of Halo 3 was a bit jarring with no explanation as to why I was suddenly in the middle of a jungle (I had to go back a watch the last Halo 2 cut scene and it all came rushing back to me.)

Additionally, I do not feel that Halo is the best example of art in the gaming universe, merely one that is very near to my heart in the same way that Star Wars is not very deep or even that complex of a story yet is captivating for millions of people.

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I have some followup comments by the author of this article and will be posting them soon.


Rampant for over se7en years.

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Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I wonder what this guy had to say about Portal?

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Dunno. Check his blog for something on Portal, seems likely he'd have at least mentioned it, if not reviewed it.


Rampant for over se7en years.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Hi, this is Victor Godinez, the author of that column.

I actually said in that same piece that Portal has a great story. While there are all sorts of inside jokes for Half-Life fanatics, casual players who've never picked up a crowbar certainly would have no trouble appreciating the taught, witty story in Portal.

And for the record, I beat both Halo and Halo 2 (on legendary). I don't think I played anything but Halo for about six months after the Xbox came out.

Finally, regarding the argument by another commenter that it's unfair to expect games to be a self-contained artistic work, while books, movies and TV shows aren't held to the same standard, I respectfully disagree.

For example, every Star Wars movie begins with the famous scroll with "the story so far," while every Lost episode begins with "previously on Lost." While, obviously, most viewers are long-time fans, the writers also know that they can't abandon new viewers.

Anyway, I hope that helps. It's nice to see an intelligent discussion going on here. I was expecting more "you suck!"-style comments!

Regards,

Victor

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Victor wrote:

Hi, this is Victor Godinez, the author of that column.

[snip]

Finally, regarding the argument by another commenter that it's unfair to expect games to be a self-contained artistic work, while books, movies and TV shows aren't held to the same standard, I respectfully disagree.

I do as well. I don't have any problem holding games to the same standard. I just think Halo does hold up pretty well in this regard. That doesn't mean some people won't be confused sometimes, or wish they were getting more hints.

Victor wrote:

For example, every Star Wars movie begins with the famous scroll with "the story so far," while every Lost episode begins with "previously on Lost." While, obviously, most viewers are long-time fans, the writers also know that they can't abandon new viewers.

Yes, but I'd say that while those are two examples of works that do include such summaries, there are plenty more that don't, such as the aforementioned LotR films. Personally I can't think of a game that does that kind of plot rehash.

Despite all the recent attention, stories in games are still treated not as the main event but as a sideshow. Games are planned around the idea of what the player will do if they don't care about the story and want to skip straight to playing. There are players who hate cutscenes and skip them every time they see one.

So perhaps it's fair to assume that Bungie felt most gamers who cared enough about the story to want to see what happened next familiarized themselves through other means-- the game manual, the Legendary edition extras (Halo 1 and Halo 2 cutscenes, annotated by Bungie studio heads) and that other players, who only wanted the gameplay, could rush straight ahead without being impeded, and wouldn't mind if they didn't really understand what was going on.

As for the two examples-- heck, I'd suggest that Star Wars didn't really need it (at least episodes IV-VI) because the story is very basic and straightforward, drawn in broad strokes, with only the single "twist"-- that Vader is Luke's father. The prequels probably needed those crawls to set the stage for the more convoluted (and infinitely more boring) story they tell, but Lucas would have been better off leaving them out and making the story make sense first.

Victor, if you don't mind, I'm going to fold in here the comments you sent me via email:

Victor wrote:

I think there were several areas where the Halo 3 plot fell short. First, I think there should have been a "previously on Halo" montage at the beginning. While I played through and beat both Halo and Halo 2 several times, it had been three years since I last played through Halo 2's singleplayer mode. I would wager that a lot of Halo 3 buyers were in the same boat. Particularly, I could barely remember why Cortana was no longer with me or why the Arbiter was helping me. And that giant blob/plant thing from Halo 2 was confusing enough the first time around. And I played the first two games! Imagine someone buying Halo 3 who had never played the first two. The plot would have been completely incomprehensible.

To start and the end and work backwards: In principle, I agree. It's impossible to understand the full significance of the events of Halo 3 without the previous two. However, I tend to think that as a company that produced three creative works that are direct sequels, there's a limit to the degree they can and should be expected to make each episode self-contained. As a game, it is self-contained. For those who only need enough story to justify aiming a gun somewhere, it works. For those who want to peek behind what the designers are doing and see the "big picture" that even the Chief doesn't see, no amount of summary would help-- you need to play all three games, more than once.

I'd think the aim would be to make a game good enough that if the player hadn't already played Halo 1 and 2, he'd want to buy them-- not to include a crib sheet with Halo 3 so they could get by without it, and spend extra time doing it. I don't suppose it would have translated into more sales, for instance.

That you don't remember about Cortana I do find surprising, because the real reasons were the cause of so much (fruitless) speculation. Her excuse-- having to remain behind to blow up In Amber Clad, thus destroying High Charity and killing Gravemind-- didn't seem to make sense. People were suspicious.

Also, Frankie mentioned Cortana being "in the clutches of the Gravemind" in every interview for about a year, so it was hard to forget...

Victor wrote:

I also think bringing the Covenant on to your side against the Brutes made for an unnecessary plot element. The game is about Master Chief, and I think shifting part of the narrative onto secondary characters detracted from what I, as a gamer, wanted to experience: Master Chief kicking alien butt. But Bungie made that decision to split the story in Halo 2, and were hamstrung in Halo 3, even though they clearly tried to limit the Arbiter's involvement.

Hmm. There I have to disagree vociferously. For one, the story is not about the Chief. The chief is a standin for the player. Fans can and do argue about whether or not Bungie's device of keeping the Chief a cipher in order to allow players to more easily identify him works or not. Ultimately, the Chief-Cortana relationship is something that's central to the story, but I find the Arbiter's story more compelling.

From an emotional perspective, his journey is more personal and authentic. At the end of the day, the Chief is a super soldier who is following orders. Things try to kill him, and he kills them first. About the most compelling thing that happens to him emotionally is the end of Halo 2, where they take away Tinkerbell-- I mean, Cortana.

The Arbiter has a much deeper story. He began as a high ranking enemy. Stripped of his rank for failure to stop the Chief from destroying Halo, he is tricked into being sent on a series of missions that are not entirely what they seem, only to be betrayed at the end and finding out he'd been fooled all along. Gravemind scoops him up and puts him back into play, with a chance for revenge against the Prophets who machinated his downfall and the Brutes who executed it (all the while stopping Delta Halo from being fired, which suits Gravemind and the Flood as well as Chief and the humans just fine for the time being). The Arbiter's unraveling faith in the Great Journey is a catalyst for the war that erupts between the Prophets and the Elites after a truce of a few hundred thousand years.

In fact, these are the elements that really lend any depth at all to Halo's story. The fact that an alien species which begins as a hated enemy becomes a valued ally-- that they become "humanized"-- is the thing that I think rescues Halo from being just another war-glorifying shooter. It brings some appreciation for these characters to know that they are not war-mongerers. They were not looking for a fight. Humanity was looking to protect itself, and the Covenant believed it had been tasked by God with doing a certain thing-- a thing which humanity stood in the way of. The arbiter unravels this lie and allows the Elites and the humans to stand together against the Prophets.

Victor wrote:

On the flip side, I really think Bungie should have given Master Chief more to say. Give him more personality, or at least a greater role in explaining the action. This guy is supposed to be the central hero, and he barely has a dozen lines of dialogue in the cut scenes.

We did a count, actually, he gets about 150 words per game. Which admittedly, is not much. I always just considered it a part of his character. Cortana, as the artificial intelligence, gets most of the "explaining" tasks, and where she doesn't, Captain Keyes and later Commander Keyes get that duty. This is to their detriment, I must add; Commander Keyes had nearly all emotion removed from her role in the story and she was left with dry exposition.

As a foot soldier, the Chief wouldn't be making any explanations and would only be getting one when it was absolutely necessary for him to do so; so I don't really have a problem with him being reticent. It's his character.

Victor wrote:

Finally, and this is almost more of a technical element, but I felt that the voice narration and dialogue in Halo 2 and Halo 3 were less crisp and clear than in the original Halo. Much of it came off garbled or muffled, and I had to strain to make out what the characters were saying. I haven't seen that complaint anywhere else, so maybe it's just me, but I really felt like I could hear what was going on much better in the original game.

This I haven't heard before, although there have sometimes been complaints that people couldn't hear what Cortana was saying over the sound of something shooting or exploding. Did your gaming setup change at all between the three games? Halo is supposedly tested for everything from little stereo TVs all the way up to 5.1 surround systems, but is really optimized for the latter, which is what I've played all three on, and I don't remember having that kind of problem.

Victor wrote:

Anyway, I hope that helps. It's nice to see an intelligent discussion going on here.

Thanks!

Victor wrote:

I was expecting more "you suck!"-style comments!

Regards,

Victor

Not that kind of site Smiling

Thanks for your insights.


Rampant for over se7en years.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I'd like to comment, keep in mind I'm only speaking about what is presented in the games.

The Halo series may stand by itself, and you don't REALLY need to go to the books for help. The thing that gets me is the fact that it would seem that with the direction Bungie took the Halo series, the arbiter is really the main character; the master chief doesn't really have a character arc at all. Most of the characters in the game are simple. None of the human characters are really deeply developed, and none are really forced to wrestle with their belief systems or otherwise engage in inner struggle. All of the conflict is external. However when you look at the Arbiter, he is the one who is redeemed in the end, struggles with what he thought was right, and ultimately sets things right not only with his beliefs, but helps stop the large external conflict in which the stories are based. None of the human characters have much deep interaction; it's all about setting up the action. The Arbiter however, engages with other elites in such a way that it reveals who he is, what he stands for, and what he has to lose. In the end, if you look at all of the characters, only the Arbiter arcs and has internal conflict. Quite simply, the rest of the characters are pretty boring.

Cody Miller

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

While Victor can have his own views, it seems to me that his argument about what Star Wars does and what Lost does to update viewers doesn't always hold true. The best reviewed movie(s) since Titanic were the Lord of the Rings movies, and none of those contain anything that would show you what happens in previous movies (except for occasional flashbacks, but they only last a few seconds). Plus, I haven't played Halo 1 in over 4 years, yet when Cortona said, "Keep your head down, there's two of us in here now, remember?" I remembered that instantly from Halo 1.

But one thing I was confused about... why are the Hunters and Grunts against us now? They were with the arbiter in Halo 2.

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Frye7 wrote:

But one thing I was confused about... why are the Hunters and Grunts against us now? They were with the arbiter in Halo 2.

Well, there are two kinds of answers to that. The gameplay reason, which is why Bungie made it that way, and the story reason, which is some rational explanation as for why this may have happened within the fictional universe.

The gameplay reason I think is pretty easy to figure out. With humans, grunts, elites and hunters all on one side, that leaves only brutes, jackals, drones and prophets to fight against. Given that the only prophet you ever see in combat thoughout the three games is Regret, that basically leaves you with only three species to fight against, each of which were not fan favorites. Some people disliked the unvarying, bullet-sponge Brutes of Halo 2, the unfair legendary jackal snipers of Halo 2, and the plasma pistol swarm of death that was Halo 2's drones.

Bungie might have kept some of each species on both sides, as they did with Grunts and Elites in the Arbiter missions of Halo 2; but that means creating different appearances for each and then dealing with some players who still don't see the difference.

Putting powerful units like Hunters on the player's side also always causes balance issues.

Rather than deal with those issues for the sake of the fun of having some grunts and hunters fight with you, they chose to put all species except the Elites allied with Truth and the brutes.

Story-wise, we can imagine several explanations for this, although Halo 3 itself does not offer any.

All grunts and hunters sympathetic to Arbiter and the Elites may have been eliminated or remained on Delta Halo or nearby. They may have opted to return to their homeworlds by any means necessary rather than assist the Elites in attacking the Brutes further. They may have reconsidered. The hunters and grunts that form part of Truth's forces may not have heard of the events that transpired on Delta, so the Elites fighting against them may be a bit surprising.


Rampant for over se7en years.

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Anonymous
Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

I love Halo 3. No console game, in my opinion, offers more varied, enjoyable, or intuitive gameplay. Yet I don't consider Halo 3 the Game of the Year, the reason being that I found the writing flat.

The problem, I think, is best illustrated by the character of the Arbiter. As Cody Miller reminded us, in Halo 2 the Arbiter was a compelling figure. The cutscene where the Prophets anointed this disgraced, tortured, Elite commander to fill this mysterious, ancient post called "the Arbiter," was, I thought, the best of the series aside from the introduction of the Flood in Halo 1. The voice acting was superb, the dialogue well-written, the story-direction interesting. And as Halo 2 continued, we saw the Arbiter's eyes open as he gradually realized that what he--nay, his entire civilization--was fighting for was a lie. That's powerful stuff. But in Halo 3, the Arbiter is a flat character, a mere sidekick who absorbs bullets and reminds the player of his or her goals. I understand that most fans wanted to play as the Master Chief. That's fine. We didn't have to play as the Arbiter again. But certainly Bungie could have continued developing the Arbiter through cutscenes like the one I've described above. The climactic scene where he finally kills the Prophet of Truth merely scratches the surface of the possibilities. As I played through the campaign as the Master Chief, I sometimes found myself hitting the Arbiter as if to say, "wake up, buddy...you're more interesting than this!" What a waste, I thought, of the marvelous voice-acting talent of Keith David.

The flat treatment of the Arbiter in Halo 3 is, I fear, emblematic of most of the writing in the game. The second most interesting character in the series, Cortana, is gone most of the time, only to interrupt the gameplay on occasion with oblique mental messages. This, I think, is an annoying plot device that doesn't really contribute much to the narrative. Surely there must have been a better way to handle her character. Thankfully, we have some real emotional possibilities with the deaths of Miranda Keyes and Sergeant Johnson. And yet here, again, the potential is largely unrealized. The animators did a good job expressing disbelief and sorrow through body language, yet the characters stand in almost mute silence, offering cursory last words or expressions of sympathy, but nothing really compelling.

There are cutscenes, to be sure, that I enjoyed. Commander Hood's dejection is palpable after the arrival of the Flood on earth. I like the all-too-brief flash of humor when the Master Chief, upon rescuing Cortana, says he'll 'shoot his way out, mix it up a bit.' The final scene in the game between Cortana and Master Chief is quite touching, and reminds me why I like the two of them together so much better than apart. All in all, though, there is nothing really all that memorable.

For an example of what a game can accomplish story-wise, look no further than Half-Life 2 and its sequels, Episode One and Episode Two. These games build tension superbly, culminating in stunning, unnerving conclusions more effective than the installment endings of any movie series of which I'm aware. The final scene in Episode Two is, hands-down, the most moving scene in any video game I've ever played. That's not to say that Valve always gets it right. The first few hours of Episode Two, wherein Gordon Freeman crawls through a cave not unlike the intestine of the "Cortana" level in Halo 3, almost killed the game. But ultimately the gameplay of the later levels, the characters of Alyx Vance and Eli Vance, and the wonderful voice-acting of Merle Dandridge and Robert Guillaume, made for a terrific experience.

Despite my reservations about the writing in Halo 3, I love the Halo series and have been saddened at the thought that this might be the end of the Master Chief, at least for Bungie. (Of course the legendary ending of Halo 3 indicates it may not be.) On further reflection, however, I think it might be good for Bungie to work on a different intellectual property right now, even if just a spin-out of Halo. Halo 3 is a profoundly conservative game. That's good insofar as Bungie preserved, resurrected, and/or improved the worthy gameplay elements of the first two installments. In terms of narrative, however, I think Bungie played it a little too safe. Halo 3 nicely wraps up the story arc of the series, but it doesn't take any significant risks, certainly none to equal the introduction of the Flood in Halo 1 and the introduction of the Arbiter (not to mention the Gravemind!) in Halo 2. I'm glad Bungie didn't bungle the final installment of the series, but I'm disappointed they didn't do more with the story. If they concentrate on a different intellectual property, perhaps the studio will take greater risks again.

Thanks for all your work, Narcogen.

Geomancy

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Wow. With what seems like everyone saying, "Halo's story is rehashed" and "Halo has a muddle story," I think Bungie should put on every game from now on, "Read novels before playing game."

But they all seem to be complaining about Halo this and that. I don't think I've ever seen an article or thread that talks about the issues of other games. Like say, COD4 or GOW.

Like srsly wtf.

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Re: Dallas News: Halo 3's Story A 'Confusing Muddle'

Yeah, I mean I agree with that, but GOW and COD4 are different games completely from halo. Those games are totally just based on killing things and different ways of killing things. Possibly People who play those games think differently about shooter storylines, and say that there should be less of it and more blood. People who follow Halo closely Probably, oh, I don't know, aren't sociopaths? And maybe enjoy a good storyline with intriguing cutscenes. Like some who play MGS that are used to GOW hate the cutscenes and throw the games away immeditely. Not saying those games are bad, no, not in any way, It's just that people who play those games most of the time are not storyline people. If I'm wrong, Sorry.

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