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Halo ODST as a storytelling experiment

Creating a compelling world, in any entertainment media, is a bit of a tricky thing. You need *something* something that people find compelling, and oftentimes it turns out to be the oddest things.

I’ve been watching Dr. Spaus play through Halo: ODST for about a week now, and I do have to say, the guys over at Bungie, and Microsoft, and whatever other 3rd party usper-secret dev teams they’ve pulled in under their umbrella of secrecy repeatedly and consistently surprise me.

Creating a compelling world, in any entertainment media, is a bit of a tricky thing.  You need *something* something that people find compelling, and oftentimes it turns out to be the oddest things.  Like the "Fred" supposed rise to power on You Tube, or the runaway success of Seinfeld, a “Show about nothing”.  The natural thought, when you are paced with one of these runaway successes, seems to be “Hey!  Let’s make more!”…

And it’s right about there that everything goes swiftly down the toilet.

So when faced with the news that Halo: ODST, a spinoff, essentially, of one of the *most* popular videogame franchises of recent years.  A game that has build a universe rich enough to spawn books (written by notables like Eric Nylund, whose “Signal to Noise” remains one of my favorites) and even almost a movie (apologies to Director Peter Jackson, I think we *really* dodged a bullet when that deal bit the dust, especially since it spawned District 9).  And it has Microsoft behind it to boot, which means, as far as deep pockets go, money should be no object when it comes to expansion.

But history shows us this is not the case.  Sometimes just chucking money at an IP is the worst possible thing you can do.  And chucking money at a spinoff of an IP is almost double-dooming it from the start.

So like I said before, it was with some trepidation that I pre-ordered this game.  I brought it home, fired it up…  and was sucked in.

Not by any new and nifty ways of killing scores of alien invaders.  Not by the newest coolest vehicles or a bigger and badder suit of armor.

I was sucked in by the story and, more specifically, the way it, and this small group of characters is handled.  Now, I’m going to speak in somewhat general terms here.  I haven’t yet finished the game, and I certainly don’t want to get all spoiler happy, because the really cool thing about this game, to me, is the cinematic quality of how this story is being laid out for us happy gamers.

I could go nuts about the art end of the game (since, after all, that’s my field of choice) but I’d rather talk about emotion.  The game puts us in the shoes of the semi-anonymous “Rookie”, the presumably least experienced member of the ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troops) chosen to be dropped into New Mombasa right after the slipstream even from Halo: 2.  As is inevitable in stories of this type, your character gets separated from the others, you wake up, all alone, and have to figure out just what happened.

And this is where it gets interesting.  This is where it goes from a simple run-n-gun sniper in the dark type game, mowing down the hapless Covenant troops like so many highly agitated ducks on a lake, to what is, essentially, a mystery novel.  Almost a noir-ish type scenario (probably heightened by the jazz-type piano music they play in the background as you wander the city as The Rookie).  You are following, by a space of several hours, the actions of the *rest* of your team. 

So every so often you come across an artifact, a piece of evidence that shows you that they *were* here, hours ago, and each time you find one of these pieces you switch perspective.  The level ends and you are placed in the shoes of your other quad-mates as they came through before you.  The same environment, lots more enemies, different time of day.  You can see how the artifact you found relates to the action your character missed out on, and you get to play through those action sequences.

These bits played out, in the shoes of Buck (voiced by Nathan Fillion of Firefly and Castle fame) or Dutch (voiced by Adam Baldwin, also of Firefly and Serenity fame) are a wholly different animal.  You are part of a team in these scenes, there are other people shooting the Covenant right along with you.  The cutscenes show these guys working together, part of a tightly knit group (and the meme that has already been set in our minds by these tv shows is clearly triggered, hearing them reprise similar personalities in ODST).

So when you cut back to the Rookie, back in the dark clutching your little artifact of that lost adventure, you feel totally and utterly alone again.  You feel isolated, you feel left out, out of touch and you are desperate to find the next piece of the story.  It is a keen sting of loss like you will not find in any other game out there.  Coupled with that is a somewhat bitter feeling that, whatever the outcome of all this may be, it’s already been decided. 

Like stating through a long lens at events happening on a planet a thousand light years away and knowing that those people, those events were long dead and gone before you were even born.  They give you that feeling quite deliberately, it’s calculated, just like the decision to hear your character get that high-pitched cry of pain after the third or fourth hit to your health in a row.  The connection in the FPS genre games is usually one of competence.  It’s one of power.  You are the baddest m**erf**ker to come down the pipe since Rambo.  Your guy or gal (though the “grunt” of injury is common) never *really* makes you feel like they’ve been hurt, not in the physical sense.  But by drawing us in this far, by isolating us in the dark and then giving us glimpses of the light, they are giving us a connection we never had with the MasterChief.

So why do I care, you might ask.  Whats so important about a game that actually yanks you around by your emotions?  Not just the more primal, “I am HERO, hear me roar!” type emotions, but ones that tie you into the characters just a little more deeply?  You’ve likely been hearing for a long time about how games and entertainment have been heading for a convergence of sorts.  About how the age of truly interactive storytelling is right around the corner? 

I think Halo: OSDT has hit the nail on the head here, somewhere.  They’re at a point where they understand how to map out your emotions through the course of a story, something that games has been notoriously loath to do.  I think they’ve just given us the next piece of that immersive puzzle, and now that it’s “been done” the shine is off the risk, we’re going to see a lot more of it because it’s now a proven, successful experiment and as such publishers are going to back it a heck of a lot more in the future.

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