Critical Intel

Critical Intel
What Really Bugged Me About Halo 4

Robert Rath | 22 May 2014 17:00
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Partly it's a problem of imagination. When you hear this story, you imagine the epic and apocalyptic. Titanic armies. Boiling plagues. King Arthur riding with his spectral knights. Nobody imagines Arthur coming back in their own time - even during the Blitz they didn't - because our minds can always conjure a situation worse than our current one. And as a storyteller you're never going to top what people imagine. The reason we tend to deal in post-apocalyptic worlds rather than apocalyptic ones is that if you try and film or describe an apocalypse, you always come up short. In fact, the most popular apocalypse description in the western world - The Book of Revelation - still works precisely because John of Patmos worked in such broad strokes that the reader fills the gaps with their own imagination. This story of the sleeping messiah runs, in essence, on anticipation.

So what happens when, like Halo 4 you wake King Arthur up?

First, you quickly find that wanting is better than having. Once the hero returns, there's no longer any reason to hope for his return, meaning you rob the story's emotional core. Second, you suck the air out of the drama - now that he's back, there's no reason to wonder whether the prophecy's real. But perhaps most deadly of all is that you now need to stage a return so extraordinary that it does justice to what people pictured themselves, and that's difficult.

Halo 4 gets a pass on the hope and drama for commercial reasons. Would I have liked it if Master Chief faded into the background of the series, a legend that new protagonists aspired to? Yes, I'd have preferred that. His return might mean more if it happened longer down the line when, for example, newer established characters were at risk. But let's be honest, that wasn't going to happen. No one seriously believed John 117 wouldn't be back in Halo 4.

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn master chief

But while that's understandable, what Halo 4's story really failed to do was change the game world when its hero returned. That was the one interesting part of the story - you could imagine Master Chief waking in the future to find a different place than the one he left, with people who're stunned to meet a hero from history. Instead, he wakes up four years later and faces off against a threat that - let's be honest here - doesn't seem all that more dangerous than the last one.

It seems like 343 recognized this problem, since Halo 4's drama comes not from the Promethean threat, but from Cortana confronting her mortality. That paid off big as a dramatic choice, but was jarring compared to the tone Bungie established in Halo 3. We went from a narrative about a great hero returning, to one about helping a friend find meaning in disease and death. It's like telling a story where King Arthur awakes and, instead of saving Britain, holds Morgan le Fay's hand as the chemo wears her down. It's a touching story but it's incongruous. It doesn't acknowledge what came before, and an audience can sense that.

Even if you weren't aware of exactly what the problem was, I can bet you felt like something was a bit off as you played the game.

This tonal difference doesn't diminish Halo 4 in my eyes. If anything, finally putting a face on the problem lets me acknowledge it and clear the distraction from what is, otherwise, a solid entry in the series. But this tone shift - and the feeling of wrongness it created - should be a lesson to 343 as they move forward with Halo 5: Guardians.

The audience never goes into a new installment with a clean palate, and as a result, the fourth course should always compliment the third.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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