After Pressing Start: Halo CE
Halo: Combat Evolved, the FPS made by Bungie, starts you off with a cinematic in outer space showing people you don’t know, talking about things you don’t understand. That’s okay, though. You’ll figure it out soon enough. The important thing is you’re a cyborg super soldier named Master “the Chief” Chief, you just woke up in a giant spaceship, and there’s not a cup of coffee in sight. There’s not even a waffle bar. You’re gonna have to give someone a piece of your mind.
I’m tempted to make the rest of this article entirely about a fictional Halo where Master Chief is out on a quest for breakfast food and vengeance, but I do actually have a point to make, which is that the initial playable section of Halo sets the stage for the rest of the game using masterful techniques in game design and storytelling.
After you watch the Master Chief wake up from cryo-stasis, a fancy word that means this all takes place in a sci-fi story, you finally get to play the game. It starts with a basic interface and camera control tutorial cleverly disguised as a post-stasis medical checkup.
Afterwards, just like after real checkups, you learn that your ship is being attacked by hostile alien invaders called the Covenant. You must run, weaponless, past explosions and gunfire until you reach the captain of the ship, Captain “the Captain” Keyes.
Some people might see this as a poor decision on the part of captain and crew. Why would they wake up their cyborg super soldier in the middle of an enemy attack and not give him a weapon right then and there? And then why would they make him run defenseless through the already established enemy attack? Good storytelling, that’s why. There are three things this weaponless section of the game does which makes it great.
The first thing it does is tutorial your butt with movement controls, the same way the medical checkup tutorialed you on camera control. Don’t tell me tutorial isn’t a verb or I’ll tutorial your butt on the mutability of language. So, as you make your way through the ship you are presented with obstacles requiring you to jump, crouch, and move in an ‘L’ shape like the horse in chess. This prepares you for all the basic movement tactics you’ll need to survive gun fights in Halo and for the boss fight where Master “Chess Master 2000” Chief is a piece in a life sized chess board.
The second thing the running section does is establish the alien threat first hand. Instead of being told through a voiceover that the Covenant are bad and dangerous you actually see first hand as your people desperately defend themselves against the onslaught, and you personally feel the sting of alien fire on your armor. Despite the danger, the player is safe; you can be hit by enemy fire, but you can’t get killed unless you’re really trying to. Being weaponless also means you don’t have to worry about aiming and shooting. Since you don’t have to actively play the shooting portion of the game you can focus on observing the story while still participating in it. Do you see what that is? You’re actually playing the cinematic! It’s a cinematic where you’re in the thick of things without having any fear of failure. Take note game developers including Bungie: this first section of the first level of Halo is the way all video game cinematics should be done.
The third thing this weaponless run does is establish some important narrative context which sets the foundation for story elements further on.
There’s a concept in screenwriting called “pet the dog”. If you want your protagonist to win over the audience quickly then you should have him do some small, kind act like petting a dog or cat. The idea is that this subconsciously cues the audience to see the character as a caring and trustworthy person, because apparently animals are the final arbiters on who’s good and evil. I think a similar principle applies to the beginning of Halo.
Since you start the game sans weapon you now have a visceral and tangible understanding of why it’s good to have one. You’re probably going to relish the first weapon you get and you’re probably going to think highly of the person who gives it to you. In Halo, that person is Captain “My Captain” Keyes. And he doesn’t just give you any weapon, it’s his personal sidearm. Thanks to the stage set by the weaponless run, this scene subconsciously cues the audience to see the Captain as trustworthy and reliable. He’s not some high ranking Yankee Doodle picking lobster out of his teeth with a silver spoon. He’s the kind of captain that’s got your back; the kind of captain who supports his troops. He’s giving, he’s honorable, he likes his coffee black, and he plays checkers with bullets. He symbolizes humanity’s strengths.
Establishing Keyes’ character as a symbol for humanity itself has important ramifications later, after the Flood have been introduced. In short, the Flood are alien zombies that convert other things into alien zombies. Somewhere near the end of the game your mission is to rescue Captain Keyes from a Flood infested alien spaceship. When you finally find him it is clear that he’s been converted by the Flood and he is actually piloting the spacecraft for them. The symbol of humanity is one of them now. This is an emotional scene that makes it clear how dangerous the Flood really are. The Covenant can kill humans, but that’s all they can do; you can still retain your honor and dignity if you die at the hands of the Covenant. Losing to the Flood, however, means you will lose your humanity, and everything that makes you human will be erased, as it was erased with one of our noblest members, Captain “Honor Coming Out the Wazoo” Keyes.
This is a scene of personal loss and a scene which establishes the true threat of the Flood as an enemy. And the scene wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t like and respect Keyes. And you might not have respected Keyes if he hadn’t given you his own personal pistol. And his gift of a pistol wouldn’t have been as meaningful if you hadn’t run, weaponless, through a battle zone to get to him.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Phil Rejmer. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start