Halo's Two Styles of Storytelling
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
Halo is well regarded as one of the best and most successful videogame franchises of all time. However, there seems to be a split in the way the games have been designed through the series, similar to Treyarch vs InfinityWard in the Call of Duty landscape. I believe this unspoken, seemingly unnoticed, internal differentiation between how each Halo iteration tells its story though, is glaring- and in my opinion- the most important ingredient in the Halo formula.
Personally, I am at the same time one of Halo's biggest fans and an ardent critic of the franchise all at once. I'm similar with how I see lots of things. I am in love with Halo: CE and Halo: Reach, they are both in my top 5 games of all time. A very tiny reason I became a US Marine (2005-2013) was because of the allure and badassery of videogames like Halo and Doom always making their main fighting units and central characters 'Marines' in some form. But, Halo 2, 3, ODST (surprisingly), and 4- I felt were heresy. Slaps in the face to the recipe that made the original Halo so amazing. Reach, a back-to-form masterpiece equal to CE. 5 is a tough one though... and I'll explain.
Slight sidetrack here first but to better explain this "both love it and hate it" mentality I have, I'm a huge Ford fan and kind of obsessed with Mustangs to the point where I own 3... but heartily and loudly admit Mustangs were utter jokes for nearly 3 whole decades from 1970-1998. So credit where due, criticism where not, for everything. No biased "I dunno why I like it but it's my team so I do" fanboyisms here.
So, why do Halo CE and Reach do things so right while the rest do things so *unbelievably* wrong? The storytelling. The entire feeling you get from the gameplay, from graphics and mechanics to the sense of being part of the story. The original Halo was a simple premise with a deep story, told from the isolated point of view of yourself as the Master Chief being fed external information (besides what you're seeing and hearing in first person) from Cortana. At its core, it's a bunch of Space Marines being attacked by some ugly, intimidating, mysterious aliens- and you are the lone badass supersoldier left to fight back against this incomprehensibly large and mysterious force of aliens.
That's it. Manly men fighting ugly aliens to save their brethren and all of mankind ultimately. Simple. Beautiful. A masterpiece of storytelling combined with one of the most impressive game engines of its time. The aliens spoke in freaky tongues (apart from the comic relief grunts that were just barely speaking English enough for you to go "haha that's pretty cool" rather than "wait... how do these things speak fluent human English?"). The Marines were outnumbered and outgunned, and all worked together to fend off these clearly superior alien forces.
Then Halo 2 comes along. I remember going to the Flatirons Mall in Colorado and camping out with 3 of my buddies on release night outside the Gamestop in the mall that day. Getting our hands on that badass aluminum collectors edition box at midnight that night was one of the most elating feelings of my childhood. But then I stuck the game in my Xbox.
Title screen, cool. Different vibe, but cool. The whole game was shinier- but blurrier and washed out. Full of weird textures, goofy new mechanics like dual-wielding, 'cheatmode easy driving from GTA3' style physics that let vehicles stop, start and turn on dimes. *Homing* rockets. The gameplay went from traversing the strange, lush landscapes and physics of an alien planet along with fun quirks of an early game engine, to this easy-mode 'aim and shoot' stuff where whoever pulled the trigger first would win. The gameplay and the graphics just lost all the charm of CE, in one fell swoop.
^Ultimately it's subjective, but the shininess and muddiness of everything in Halo 2 (right) compared to Halo CE during live gameplay, allows CE to look utterly superior.
And although those were negatives for the game in my opinion, they weren't dealbreakers. I might have even enjoyed some of them if it weren't for the 'heresy' I'd mentioned earlier. And that is the storytelling. You've now moved from manly 'rip and tear' territory, to listening to the aliens who USED to speak in tongues now speak like Shakespeare- as pretentiously and proper as possible- and start talking about their own ridiculous politics and religions.
Then they introduce the Arbiter- you play half the game as an alien you used to be focused on 'rip and tearing' in the previous game. And that was kind of novel, I won't totally hate on that direction they went... but the problem is it is no fun whatsoever playing as the Arbiter. Alien weapons in Halo SUCK. They always have. They move slow, they overheat quick, you can't keep them and wait for more ammo if you get a useful one, they're just awful. So Arbiting with your covenant guns is an utter chore. Only to be rewarded with more religious and political Shakespeare cutscenes? Then the gravemind! God that thing was a waste of my life, thank lord it was only in the game for a few minutes.
^That gravemind was the epitome of everything I hate about the 'Shakespearean religion-focused Halo speeches'. I can't even explain how much it rubbed me the wrong way during its lone cutscene.
And then Halo 3 releases, and somehow kept going with that direction from Halo 2. More nerdy, more shakespearean, more politics, more religion, more 'someone smudged the camera lens' graphics. Just building on top of everything that Halo 2 took away from CE. And so few lush environments, I can't remember any big open-world green levels like CE had in these games. It was all yellow, all desert or caves or night areas. Then the brutes! My god the brutes. Now you've got a bunch of goofy looking Chewbaccas speaking just as pretentiously as the Elites in the mix? No thanks- time to hammer that 'skip cutscene' button.
ODST though, I had hope. I really wanted to love this- I mean playing as a human Spec Ops guy? I was an active duty Marine at the time, this was right up my alley! But nope. B-movie cheesy acting and dialogue in every cutscene. More fighting shakespeare-speaking aliens. More smudged camera. More bland, desert-y environments. This is the game I lost hope with and just stopped bothering with Halo for a few years after.
WARNING: Incoming segway. Skip past the italicized text to get back to the direct Halo opinion:
The reasoning behind my anger towards these directions they took, I think just roots back to what I enjoy as a person. I am not a fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, LOTR, anything with magical or goofy and unrealistic future/alternate timelines. I tend to gravitate toward, I guess, more gritty and realistic styles- even if they are fantastical. But they need to be... manly, I suppose if it comes down to it.
If your protagonists are rag-tag squads of 5' nothing little men and women and animals with long flowing hair (eg. every example from above) and gaudy/non-standardized uniforms, I'm just not gonna be interested. When you start shooting at people using a wand, or a phaser, or something that a slow-moving beam of multi-colored light has saunter over to if the victim is dumb enough to stand in its path... again, no interest.
This does come down to style as a critical component that'll contribute to whether I enjoy something or not. Back to the Ford (car) analogy from above- I will personally prioritize style over substance the majority of the time, proudly. If you have a monstrous and gorgeous looking car, and it can barely pull its own weight but looks and sounds cool doing it, I'll take that over a 1000HP Civic or even a fancy shmancy over the top Ferrari. So gritty, back-to-basics combat following historical and tactical references rooted in human history (like the Marines in Halo), is my thing.
Also, so from Star Wars. Let's take the shiny, flamboyant one-of-a-kind C3PO, the resistance idiots and jedi's that dress up in rags, Chewbacca the stupid bear-muppet. You've instantly lost my attention simply because they all look so damn dumb.
^These are not the types of heroes I can get excited about. (L- Star Wars, C- LOTR, R- Star Trek)
I feel the same way with videogames- the more personalization they bring like in Battlefield 5 and the CODs before MW2019... with their colorful mohawks and cybernetic arms and unique uniforms- you've taken the cool factor and submersion of being part of that battle and made it a joke. So you start getting a bunch of Elites with their own special stupid tacky armor, and Chewbacca-looking Brutes, and Grunts all with non-standardized uniforms or looks, and you've recreated the rag-tag Star Wars style. PLUS you've got the slow-moving colorful fanciful useless plasma weapons! The perfect "screw this game" combo for a guy like me.
^These ARE the types of heroes I can get excited about. (L- Battlefield 3, C- Terminator 2, R- Halo: Reach)
I don't wanna get too off track but just a couple more examples. Terminator 2 is my favorite movie of all time. Command & Conquer Generals is my favorite RTS. They're both sci-fi takes on a semi-realistic reality. They both fit in with tons of other scifi genre movies and games, of which I don't enjoy 80% of like C&C: Generals or T2. But it's because of their gritty, realistic, 'manly' natures that I appreciate them so much. The C&C factions are based on early 2000's real life areas of the world. Terminator 2 was an exceedingly well told story about a reality that may not even be all that far off.
They both incorporated tons of amazing looking, standardized units you could train up with brute strength and style (no one can convince me the T-800 isn't the coolest looking robot design of all time- alongside the T-600). The physics engine that allowed you to do anything you wanted similar to Halo in C&C Generals made my heart melt. In fact, the comparison Generals to C&C and Starcraft are a lot like Halo: CE and Reach vs the rest. You take manly realism and compare it against far-fetched, goofy scifi with game engines that only allowed for limited and strict gameplay outcomes each and every time.
^Command & Conquer: Generals vs Starcraft 2. They're in the same game genre, made by the same company and a related game engine, but are two extremely different aesthetics. From real-world vehicles and technology, to fantastical, neon, magic and goofy alien technology.
Okay, so back to the point here. I'll have to make Terminator and Generals posts in separate articles. This is why I love Halo and hate Halo 2, 3 and ODST... but what about Reach?
Reach is the most on-point execution of getting back to form I can remember in videogame sequels- about the same to me as Super Mario Bros 3 following up SMB2 (2 wasn't really a Mario game, I don't care what anyone says... it just wasn't good). It brought back all the manliness, all the best parts of the gritty alternate future we could believably face, and told it again only from the standpoint of you and Noble team.
Not a single English-speaking Elite or Brute. A whole squad of Spartans?? And speaking and acting and dishing out pain in a professional, non-B-movie ODST cheesy way?? PLUS a revamped physics engine and stunning graphics? Oh, and awesome class boosters (eg overshield, invisibility, sprint, etc) for multiplayer? I can't explain how well they hit this game out of the park.
Halo 4, I don't even remember. I'll have to play it again before I condemn it, but I recall getting into it, I remember the final level, but seem to have wiped the content of the game out of my mind. I hear it's bland... but the Halo community also seems to adore 2, 3, ODST and there seems to be a noticeable faction of Reach haters too so I'll take that consensus with a grain of salt.
Halo 5 I actually just finished a week ago for the first time, and I will admit it was not bad at all. You get to play as two Spartans, one being the Chief himself? VERY NICE. The story wasn't too bad, I like positive endings so Cortana being the bad guy kinda threw me for a loop but that's hardly something to complain about. The graphics, the engine, the voice acting, all very very very good stuff.
The biggest complaint I had was the cutscene where Chief fights Locke... and for one, Locke should have peed his pants the moment he came into Chief's vicinity. But two, we're supposed to believe, entertain, or maybe even route for this new pompous little idiot Locke to give Master Chief any kind of fight whatsoever?
Let alone one where he CRACKS CHIEF'S VISOR? That was the biggest joke in Halo history I have to say. But it didn't take away from the game enough to lose my thumbs up.
It was a solid entry in the series, the weapons are great, the story, the visuals, the gameplay, all above average for a modern videogame. But not a favorite game by any means, and doesn't hold a candle to CE and Reach. It does beat out 2-4, but that's not saying much from that aspect.
Really, my biggest gripe isn't so much the storylines themselves but they way they tell the stories from Halo 2, 3 and ODST. If they just retained Halo CE's iconic "WORT WORT WORT"s the Covenant had, and either made us read subtitles when aliens talked or had Cortana translate live for you when you're playing as Chief, I think I would've had a very different opinion of the series even with all the other gameplay and story-based flaws I covered here.
I understand how the Covenant know English, apparently they needed to study "the language of the unclean" for various reasons to fight and understand humanity better. But they could have done it so much better than through soap opera-like, over-acted Frasier Crane-like pretentious asshat characters that are more fluent in English than humans themselves.
My question to the Halo community, is why is the fanbase cool with both styles of this storytelling? They seem to diametrically opposed to people like me that I can't understand how you could love BOTH the manly and the nerdy Shakespeare styles in these entries equally.
All in all though, Halo is a groundbreaking series that's responsible for a lot of fond memories and has even shaped my own personal life (eg. becoming a Marine) in its own way. All the hate I have for it is just calling it how I see it- but Bungie and 343 are full of some of the most cream of the crop game development teams we've ever had.
Thanks for reading this far if you have. I've always wanted to write this opinion (literally since Halo 3's original release) which kind of explains why it's so wordy... ~15 years of thoughts on this topic finally written out. Here's to Halo, may there be many more decades of titles to critique and make memories with.