343 didn’t need to do much to succeed with Halo 4, and although they have some areas that lack, they did a few things right. For one, they have a good basic tutorial section, making the player learn to look around, interact with objects, move, melee, and shoot, all in controlled environments before allowing progress. And while the ladder-climbing section of this tutorial was extremely odd, I believe it’s justified in the end of the game (though still awkward). Unfortunately, the story, while perhaps not badly written or acted, was based on a bad premise, featured stunningly lame characters, and an overall rather disappointing plot; but I don’t want to spend my time on critical discussion of non-game-bound features like these. More importantly, the story given to move gameplay forward was composed primarily of obviously meaningless trivial tasks, in a classic, Doom-style key/door set-up.

Red Key / Red Door

Throughout the entirety of the game, but especially in the beginning, it is only the distant, large-scope objectives that matter—find the Infinity, stop the Didact, gigantic, obvious goals like that. One level lower, we find things like ‘turn off the shields,’ and one level lower than that, ‘destroy the three shield generators.’ What it becomes is a huge story that we kind of care about, but are disconnected from, and then a lot of techno-babble-justified little tasks we have to do to move forward. And honestly, it feels like they may as well just tell me to find the three pieces of the key to open the door to move to the next room. 343 even lays out the levels as three portals leading to three areas to complete three identical objectives, followed by the opening of a bridge or elevator to the following zone. It’s exhausting, obvious, and boring, and it drains the meaning from my actions.

Climbing the Ladder

Early on in, in the first few moments of the game, the player has to climb a ladder using quicktime-esque controls that seem contrived and tacked-on, like something that shouldn’t be there. The perspective changes, you have to dodge falling obstacles (so not relevant to Halo’s gameplay), and in cooperative mode, the second player is temporarily removed from the game. For a long time, it seems like that first intuition is right: if there are more events like that throughout the game, I don’t remember any until the very end. It isn’t until the final moments that the ladder scene is vindicated; because the final boss fight takes place in an extremely similar style. And that’s what I think the ladder scene is for: preparing the player for the final boss, priming them so that it is the first scene that feels out of place, and not the last.

But why make the last boss quicktime? For one, most shooters don’t lend themselves well to high-health enemies, especially not Halo, where a lot of the design revolves around making you feel like an unstoppable badass. But other games have done it: Borderlands does it, so what’s the benefit to the quicktime boss fight? Well, one complaint about game narratives is that while most narrative media (novels, films) speed up as the plot moves forward, the opposite tends to happen in games: they instead become more difficult, resulting in the player being stymied more as the story becomes more intense and their desire for narrative satisfaction increases. It can be extremely frustrating to be at the final dramatic moment of a game for days, or even weeks, while you are unable to defeat that last boss. Worse, people will quit games right at their climax because that last boss is just too hard. It doesn’t get a lot more disappointing than that. And often, that most difficult final moment will require dramatically different skills and play-style than the rest of the game has inculcated—generally a bad idea in game design.

With Halo 4 though, the lead-up to the last boss, that last level in the Didact’s ship, instead acts as the high-point of difficulty. Since it’s a relatively long level with many checkpoints, the player can progress incrementally through it, unlike in frustrating boss fights. Additionally, it continues the gameplay structure of the rest of the game, requiring only an incremental improvement in the skills required for every other level, rather than an entirely new skill-set. And when we do actually reach the Didact, instead of putting the narrative on hold, 343 makes sure that the final moment plays through, smooth and intense. Like the flag-jumping and castle-entering at the end of a Super Mario Bros level, much of our control is removed, and we are allowed to watch as we’re rewarded with a narrative capstone.

Overall, the end scene feels right, and it does wonderful things for the narrative flow of the finale; but the ladder scene still felt so wrong. Was it worth it?

November 12, 2012