ODST and what might have been
September 28, 2009
For about an hour, I thought this was it. A Halo game for me. A Halo game that could withstand the weight of empathy. A Halo game as devoted to its characters and story as to its brilliant bursts of supercharged combat. A Halo game that blurs the distinction between play and meaning.
From the beginning, Halo's designers have told us everything matters - the Forerunners, the Flood, the Covenant - and the game's lore carefully weaves what has become an episodic mythos. The writers have ensured that all the dots connect, but those dots inevitably feel like window dressing to me. I don't need to connect dots because the game connects them for me. That green A button transports me to the next firefight pronto, and I know (heck, the game itself seems to know) that's Halo's bread and butter.
Halo 3 ODST initially hooked me because it seemed to adroitly dodge the Superhero Conundrum. We must connect to our hero/avatar, but his very nature makes this nearly impossible to achieve via gameplay. His power, the thing that makes him fun, also makes him nearly invulnerable (by Halo 3 Master Chief is essentially a bipedal super-tank).
So the only apparent way to make him interesting is to imbue him with loads of internal conflict. And the only apparent way to convey that conflict is via cutscenes. As Halo/Gears/Infamous et al. have proved, it's cool to be the bad-ass, but that bad-ass is destined to be a brooding cipher, and our attachment to him must come through what we're told about him, not through what we experience first-hand.
ODST appears to escape this trap by putting you in the shoes of a rookie trooper who must navigate his perilous surroundings and piece together what happened to the rest of his squadmates. Vulnerability, environmental exploration, and rising/falling tension are significant factors, far more than they were with Master Chief. A special visor helps locate enemies and resources, but also alerts enemies of your presence. And, importantly, all of your exploration happens at night.
With these design choices, the Halo team has opened the door to a significantly more immersive blend of gameplay and storytelling. Artifacts I find aren't merely power-ups or collectibles; they're bits of story experienced by my squadmates. The environment isn't just a cleverly arranged arena for firefights; it's both my enemy and my friend as I explore it alone. And the peril I feel connects me to the reality of this rookie trooper's first mission, ill-equipped, uncertain, and never far from death. And, as I mentioned, very much alone.
One additional design feature made me feel certain this Halo was the one. The game fractures its narrative into non-linear pieces, situating the player in the shoes of each main character. Rashomon-like, you experience each part of the story from a different perspective, with the rookie functioning as the hub. Each time the rookie finds an artifact, the player flashes to the connecting scene and plays it out to its conclusion. By the time you've located all the artifacts, the strands of the story have come together in a clever feat of storyweaving.
Playing in the shoes of each character alters the player's relationship to the narrative and characters in a way that might have been meaningful. Might have been.
ODST fails to live up to its promise because it takes so many unfortunate shortcuts. Despite the clever way it unfolds, the plot is standard-issue action movie chaff. Sub-chaff, actually. Rendezvous with your squad. Kill some bad guys. Make a getaway. Cutscene. Insert vehicle sequence. Repeat. It's a crying shame the game doesn't take advantage of the enormous possibilities inherent in its design.
And, sadly, the characters run the gamut of complexity from A to B. They're the same bunch of husky male stereotypes we've seen a million times: Buck, Dutch, Romeo, Mickey - I don't mean to harp on trivial stuff, but who comes up with these names? Needless to say, their personalities match their monikers, and that's a real shame. The game seems interested in establishing various points of view, but then fails to vary anything meaningful about these men...aside from the weapons they carry.
There's a woman too. She's in charge, and you may be led to believe the game will pave a new trail here. But no. Another missed opportunity. The boys make a few google-eyed remarks about her before she's captured and disappears until the end of the game. Ultimately her real function in the game is to provide our intrepid rookie with a rescue mission.
Boiler plate wise-cracking dialogue, a cursory love story subplot, and a disheartening sense of being led by the nose through the game finally sinks ODST's ship, and I have to say I'm genuinely disappointed. Some will say I shouldn't be. This is a Halo game, after all, and 90% of its players blow through the solo mode in a day or two and spend the next year on multiplayer. I understand that.
But it's hard not to see this game as a fat pitch down the middle fouled off to the stands. The unrealized promise of its core design suggests how other designers might move the ball forward (ugh, I'm mixing baseball and football metaphors now), so I suppose I'll walk away from ODST encouraged by what it points to and hopeful that other smart designers are watching. In the meantime, can we talk about those review scores?