Failures in storytelling: A scene from Halo 4

by Philtron

So, there’s a thing that amateur writers often do that ruins their stories, and that is to make the universe revolve around their main characters (rather than staying true to the characters, staying true to the situations they’re in, and staying true to the effects of their actions within those situations). Everything always works out for the characters, the good guys agree with them, everyone looks up to them, anyone that disagrees with them is instantly a bad guy, etc. What ends up happening is that certain moments or scenes feel forced or fake because, even if it’s only subconscious, we know something doesn’t fit; we know we’re not looking at a realistic or even sensical world. We all could probably pick out a dozen such instances from movies et al., but one such glaring moment  occurred when I played Halo 4 recently, and I felt like picking it apart.

The Master Chief and Cortana are the buddy cop duo protagonists of the Halo series and in the first game they felt more realized and more like a seamless part of the world they were in. The universe didn’t revolve around them and they weren’t the most important characters in the game. In fact, some parts of the story involved them rescuing characters more central to the plot of Halo than themselves. And that was fine; we weren’t following the story of the Halo, we were following the personal story of MC and Cortana which happened to be a thread in the clothe of the larger story taking place. Then in Halo 2 the nature of the story changed. The Master Chief became the most important character in the story because only he could rescue the universe and so all the events revolved around him (and around the Arbiter but he doesn’t really count). There was no real sense that the events outside the Chief’s range had any importance whatsoever.

What this all culminates in, for me, is one scene in Halo 4 where we encounter a scene that is so illogical, so moronic in its execution, that it is kind of a poster child for bad story writing.

To give you some background on what’s happening: Master Chief and Cortana want to chase after a bad guy Forerunner called the Didact who wants to destroy humanity (because the triple-A game industry has run out of plot devices). After a brief battle between the Didact’s army and a damaged human spaceship called the Infinity, the Didact suffers a minor defeat and retreats. This is the conversation that happens afterwards (although not the scene I’m going to focus on); skip to about 3:32 for the short scene. Notice how the Captain’s reasoning is rational and logical.

Then here’s what happens later. Keep in mind that during the course of the game Cortana has been getting more mentally unstable and she even tells the Master Chief that her growing instability may jeopardize his life, but he’s like, “Naw girl, we’ve got this Tinkerbell/Peter Pan thing going on. Can’t just put an end to that.” So, by this point it’s been clearly established that Cortana is losing her grip on reality. Skip to 0:50 for the start of the scene I want to talk about.

Okay, so when I saw that scene I got pretty upset. The writers clearly want us to see the Captain as the bad guy. He’s yelling, his voice is emotionally strained, he’s speaking with a shortness of breath, and his facial expressions are either weird or arrogant. The problem however, is that everything the Captain says makes sense, and not only does it make sense but its the right thing to do. Cortana just went berserk and short circuited half the electronics on the bridge? And then started mumbling that she didn’t mean to do it? Hell yes remove her data chip from the ship’s computer! I mean, Jesus H. Christ, I’d be less worried if she said she blew up those computer monitors on purpose. But instead she has access to every system on board the ship and is completely losing control of herself. What happens when she has a “whoopsy” and sucks all the crew out of the airlocks in the middle of spaceflight? What the shit is the Master Chief’s loyalty to her going to get him then? Dick all, that’s what. I mean the Captain doesn’t even need to waste time going, “Persuent to article blah blah blah…” All he has to say is, “Kill it!” Hell, he shouldn’t have to even say that. It should be a given. The Commander (the  second in command who looks like a wiener) should already be yanking that data chip before the Captain even says anything. Instead, even as he watches Cortana ramble incoherently, the Commander hesitates for some inexplicable reason. It’s that kind of hesitation that gets your buddies killed in the foxhole you jackass! Cortana’s continued freedom is a huge safety risk to everyone on the Infinity, to the Master Chief, and even to the rest of humanity if she gets captured and reveals human military secrets. And apparently the Captain is the only person aboard the ship who’s got the basic sense to realize this.

Why isn’t anyone on the Captain’s side? Oh, that’s right. Because Cortana and the Master Chief are the center of the universe and everything they do is the right thing, even if that thing should end in disaster for everyone. I forgot about that.

Ordering Cortana to be removed and detained is not the only thing the Captain is correct about. His decision to prioritize escaping the planet and sending out a distress call is also the right thing to do. The ship is damaged, the crew has taken casualties; what if they don’t send a warning and instead go after the Didact and fail? Then the Didact can attack a completely unprepared and unsuspecting humanity at his leisure, right after he’s finished interrogating the insane AI he’s captured. The Infinity escaping and sending out a warning so the rest of humanity can prepare itself, and then requesting backup before taking on an essentially unknown enemy, are not only the intelligent things to do but also the responsible things to do. And yet everyone goes against the Captain (including the writers) simply because everyone has to agree with Cortana and Master Chief who, again, are the center of the universe and can do no wrong even when they’re doing wrong.

The Captain is completely accurate in describing the duo as “an aging Spartan and his malfunctioning AI” because that is exactly what they are and that description is the reason no one should be listening to those two. They’ve been floating alone in outer space for the last four years, that can’t be good for their decision making faculties. Hell, why is anyone listening to the Master Chief anyway? He’s a soldier not a leader.

And on that subject, not only is Master Chief a soldier, he’s a Spartan, a type of soldier trained from childhood to obey without question. The Master Chief is so obedient that in Halo 1 he obeys a random blue robot ball that pops out of nowhere; then in Halo 2 and 3 he readily obeys the wishes of a giant plant monster that happens to be the King of the Zerg. Considering that track record what problem does the MC have with obeying the orders of a human military captain, the exact type of person he was trained to obey? In fact, going along that same logic why isn’t that female soldier in the background doing anything? She’s also a Spartan, also trained to obey and put all on the line for her fellow humans, so 1) why isn’t she protecting the ship from Cortana when there’s first hand proof that the AI is dangerous, and 2) why isn’t she immediately obeying the orders of the Captain when he tells her to arrest the Mater Chief? She can’t have any real loyalty for the MC since they only just met and… oh wait… that’s right… the Master Chief is the center of the universe. I forgot again.

So, the scene doesn’t really make any sense, the way the characters behave makes no sense, and the portrayal of one character (the captain) doesn’t actually match up what he’s saying with how he’s saying it. So what’s happening here? My theory is that the writers have written themselves into a situation in which to stay true to their fictional world they have to make some sacrifices, but because they are unwilling to make those sacrifices they end up creating a scene that is fake and badly written.

The writers have decided Cortana is losing control of her mind (they probably thought this was “edgy” or “emotionally tense”). They also decided that when dealing with a hostile-first-contact scenario the established protocol for human ships is to escape and send as much information as they can to allies. The writers introduced these points themselves. None of this was forced onto them nor was it a carry over from a previous Halo game. They created these story elements. And whenever a writer makes decisions like these they have consequences. A good writer either accepts those consequences and integrates them into the story or he edits out his additions so he can leave the story unchanged. However, the writers of Halo 4 refused to accept the consequences of their decisions and they refused to reverse their decisions as well. The consequences of Cortana’s insanity is that she shouldn’t be trusted by the other characters because she’s unreliable and she’s wrong in her assessments. The consequences of having the human military in the Halo universe declare “making an escape and sending a warning beacon” as the correct response to new hostile aliens, and has determined that a malfunctioning AI needs to be isolated and dispensed, is that all the characters that are a part of that military organization (the wiener Commander, the female Spartan, the Master Chief) should follow those rules and recognize them as the correct response to those situations. Those are the consequences of the writers’ decisions: Cortana is unreliable and we shouldn’t go after the Didact. But, those consequences run counter to where the writers want the story to go which is after the Didact with Cortana by our side.

Let me reiterate. A good writer would know to make a sacrifice here. Either, a) rewrite the new plot decisions (such as cutting out Cortana’s insanity) so the story can go in the original direction the writer wants it to, or b) keep the new plot decisions and let those decisions take the story in a new direction (such as MC and Cortana escaping the planet on the Infinity according to the Captain’s orders, fighting through a Covenant blockade to warn the rest of humanity, thus setting up the Didact as the villain of halo 5 or 6, and setting up the possibility of Cortana being fixed/healed by scientists now that they’re back in human space). The writers of Halo 4 refuse to make the mature decision and instead try to get everything they want for free. So, even though Cortana is very obviously unstable the other characters aren’t allowed to notice this because if they did then they’d get rid of her and what would the story revolve around then? The Master Chief by himself? They tried that once and he just started obeying a giant plant monster. The writers also want us to think that the Captain is being irrational by following the UNSC protocols so strictly. Except the writers created those protocols as the rational and responsible reactions to hostile aliens and lunatic AIs. So, based on the very rules they created for their own universe the writers have made the Master Chief the one who’s being irrational and irresponsible, and then they just expect that players won’t notice this. In this respect the writers are probably correct. Most players won’t notice the contradictions here; most will think to themselves, “That Captain is such a dick. He should just listen to the Master Chief instead of arguing like a moron.”

But getting back to the point. This whole scene is a sort of travesty in writing. It’s nothing new to video games, and we’ve all seen this kind of thing in bad movies and pulp novels, but it’s kind of ridiculous that a company with as much money at their disposal as 343 Industries, a company that’s able to get animators to create impressively poignant body language and facial expressions, aren’t able to scrounge up enough dough to hire someone who actually knows how story writing works.

I think it’s partly because everyone thinks they can be a writer or a storyteller so the members of the studio pick themselves to write the stories rather than hire someone worthwhile. We can all write and tell stories and we do it day to day so it seems like no big deal. But the type of writing and story telling we do at work or among friends is a whole different matter from doing those things as a craft. Writing as a craft or an art requires discipline, dedication, awareness, compromise, and sacrifice. It requires other things too, but let’s keep the list to five for today. The thing is, when storytelling fails, like in this scene from Halo 4, it is usually because some of these qualities are missing because the writer isn’t a master of his craft. He’s just a regular Joe who thinks that because he does something, like running, in his day to day life that this means he can be an Olympic sprinter. But, I guess you get a lot of that type of thinking no matter where you go.

Anyway, the rest of Halo 4’s story is pretty much pulp shit, too.

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