10 Good Ideas: Halo 3 ODST and Non-Linear Storytelling

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Let’s start this bad boy up with an unpopular opinion: Halo 3 ODST is the best Halo game, period.

This is, obviously, an opinion, and a lot of it has to do with how the setting and the fantasy of Halo don’t really do a lot for me. The idea of being a nigh-unkillable space marine is cool, sure, but the games don’t really execute on it in the way that I like, with enemies being pretty bullet spongey and the player character never really mechanically feeling “like a badass”, especially on higher difficulties and when compared to other “badass space marine” power fantasies like DOOM or Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

ODST has a special place in my heart, however, as a game that I felt like always married its narrative with the Halo mechanics much better than the mainline series. ODST doesn’t pair the protagonist with sick guitar riffs, reverential NPC dialogue, and that one hype battle song (dudun du DUUUUN, dududu, dudun du DUUUUN, you know the one). Instead, the game has this dark, rainy atmosphere, a much more survivalist tone, and a somber, jazzy soundtrack that almost sounds a bit like a dirge.

Matching this mood change is a change in story. Halo games typically follow this plot structure: there’s a big thing that’s very bad. Master Chief goes to that big thing and blows it up. Weirdly, this tends to be both the atomic story element (blow up this Scarab, blow up this AA gun) as well as the greater story (blow up the Halo, blow up the Ark), although “rescue Cortana” gets sprinkled in a decent amount too.

ODST‘s plot, meanwhile, actually largely focuses on a lot of the protagonist, simply called “the Rookie”, stumbling around trying to figure out what happened. You end up finding evidence of your squad’s movements through the city, and finding these items triggers flashback missions, showing what your squadmates got up to in that area. You don’t have to do the flashbacks in order, you just sort of piece them together as you go along.

I have a basically completely unsubstantiated theory about Halo 3: ODST. The game’s materials and promotional content pitch this game as a more “down to Earth” Halo game, with players leaving the shoes of Master Chief, who is a literal super-soldier, and instead finding themselves playing someone who is much more of a normal dude. Here’s my conspiracy theory: the player character is not, in any significant way, powered-down between Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST.

I’m having a hard time collecting concrete numbers to substantiate this theory, but here’s my reasoning: the Master Chief has always actually been kinda squishy in-game, and his “super soldier-ness” seems most supported mechanically by his large reserve of rechargeable shields, meaning the player can afford to run into danger and take some hits. In ODST, by pulling these shields back just a little bit and returning to a health kit system, players still do and take the same amount of damage, it’s just that they’re punished for being more gung-ho.

The main way that ODST creates a tone of weakness for the player is through story and setting elements. As mentioned above, a somber soundtrack replaces a heroic one, the game is dark and shadowy instead of bright and colorful, and perhaps most importantly, the player character is not the main catalyst of the story. Instead of doing all of the really cool things, you see the results after the fact.

Of course, players don’t like not being the main executor of story events, just look at some of the negative responses to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s story, which at times feels like you’re the bodyguard for the protagonist, instead of the protagonist. ODST doesn’t want you to be the hero that saves the day, that’s not the tone it’s going for. However, it cheats: you, the Rookie, aren’t the one who does all the cool stuff, but you, the player, are. You still get to play all of those cool scenes where you drive a Scorpion and you are the elite sniper or whatever, but since those are flashbacks, these scenes don’t create a sense that the Rookie is this sort of super-protagonist in the way the Master Chief is.

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Here, look at a list of the things the player, not just the player character, does in Halo 3: ODST.

  • lead a charge of Marines using a Scorpion tank to pierce Covenant lines
  • defend, and then blow up, an ONI base
  • hijack a Covenant dropship
  • fight a Scarab
  • retrieve and escort a super-important AI

Man, those…sound like regular ol’ Halo objectives, don’t they? Most of those are things that the Master Chief actually does on his own in mainline Halo games. On top of all of that, consider that you’re fighting the same enemies, with the same guns, and they’re going down in the same number of hits.

However, Bungie tricks the players, through the use of music, color, environment design, and narrative design, to “remix” this set of Halo setpieces to feel like a totally different game. When you compare ODST to other Halo games in terms of mission design and raw combat mechanics, not a lot is actually different. However, since the players are taken out of the driver’s seat of the story, narratively, even though they actually 100% are not when you actually look at what the player does over the course of the game, they don’t feel like a world-saving badass, despite doing all of the things world-saving badasses do.

With a few clever tricks of narrative design, Halo 3: ODST tricks players into thinking that what is ultimately any other Halo game is a reserved, quiet, more grounded experience, using minimal changes to repackage the Halo experience into something totally new, and that is a Good Idea.

 

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