Late to the Party: Halo (Part V)

Warning: the following contains excessive amounts of rage, vitriol, and misanthropy.

The Library is the most commonly-bemoaned section of the entire Halo franchise, as well as being considered one of the more frustrating, ill-advised levels in all of video gaming, right up there with the Water Temple. I’d heard complaints about The Library before, though never anything specific. I can only assume now after having played it that everyone just didn’t want to talk about it any more than they had to. I can’t blame them, but damn I would have liked a bit more warning.

The Library plays out as follows: The small floating ball, who goes by the moniker 343 Guilty Spark (yeah, that name isn’t suspicious), guides you through a series of vaulted-ceiling hallways that are positively overrun with insane amounts of Flood. You proceed through these hallways until you reach one of these large doors, which 343 will then open (very slowly) before you move on through to the next hallway.

You then continue to do this until the stars fall from the sky, time ends, and the Rolling Stones finally die.

While I doubt the developers intended this to be quite so applicable in a meta sense that’s nonetheless the way things worked out.

My trigger finger actually started to hurt during this segment. When a video game causes me more discomfort than actual prolonged range sessions with real firearms there’s a problem.

There were a lot of problems with this section. The level design was pretty terrible and not particularly interesting to look at, and when it all looks completely identical and your only guiding beacon is a very small, dark-colored orb floating above your normal field of view it becomes very, very easy to get lost. You can’t even rely on the whole “go towards the enemies” strategy I usually employed because the Flood also love to spawn behind you during this sequence. They literally come out of the walls, funneling out of what I can only assume are Flood delivery chutes that don’t appear to serve any purpose besides to throw enemies at you. This only exacerbates your difficulties with directional orientation as you’re constantly spinning in circles, backpedaling, and generally running around like a maniac shooting at everything that moves.

But the biggest problem by far is that it all goes on for too long. While I wasn’t running a stopwatch or anything it’s safe to say that this took me the better part of an hour to complete. That’s approximately 45-60 minutes of frantically jumping around a series of copy/pasted corridors firing at brown blobs, half of which explode when killed and create more brown blobs. Unless you’re a masochist, nothing I just described should sound like any sort of fun to you. But it just goes on and on and on with unrelenting, unabashed, and unnecessary padding to draw the game out when by this point it’s apparent that it has nothing left to offer except more shooting.

I should make it clear at this point that out of all the little bits at play here, none of them were what I would call actively or insultingly bad; it was just that it was incredibly tedious. I’ve burned dozens of hours in RPG inventory sorting over the years but The Library is probably one of the most soul-sucking things I’ve ever had to do in a video game.

I’ll admit, by now I was in a very bad mood and I’d probably busted out my pretentious monocle to supplement my critical hat, but I think that we really are stumbling upon some very major problems with the story and characters at this point in particular. So I’m sorry if the hate and bile is going to go on for a little bit longer, but this is important for really taking apart Halo’s narrative and determining how it holds up (and don’t tell me that I’m not supposed to think too hard about Halo’s story; there’s a rather robust market for the continued novelizations and expanded mythos of the series so that excuse isn’t gonna fly with me).

You see, here we enter a big room and retrieve a small key-looking object. 343 identifies it as the Index, and purports that it’s what we’ve been looking for and why we just fought our way through six quadrillion Flood to get to this point. If that’s the case, then why don’t I remember anyone ever mentioning anything about an Index up until now? As far as I can tell the first mention of it comes as we’re picking it up, which seems too little too late to be introducing what is apparently a major plot item. Now, maybe 343 mentioned it on the fight over but I think you’ll forgive me if the sound of my incessantly-firing shotgun drowned that out. We did not hear about how to destroy the One Ring or get briefed on the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port while riotous explosions drowned out the exposition: this is the kind of stuff that we really need to hear and understand if we’re expected to have any stake in the narrative. I did not, and so I was not, and felt very confused and detached when 343 starts sounding off about how important this thing is and Master Chief just accepts that at face value.

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. We teleport back to the control room (because Guilty Spark can do that, I guess) and Cortana immediately flips out and starts whaling, both verbally and physically (insofar as an AI can), on 343. For about a solid minute the two of them argue back and forth about… something. Really, it’s not very clear what they’re fighting about. We can assume it has something to do with the Index we just retrieved but they don’t really say that. Instead they just fire vague accusations back and forth at each other while Master Chief stands there presumably slack-jawed under his helmet. 343’s assertions that protocol was followed and everything is fine, and Cortana’s criticisms that it’s a bad idea lack any sort of context and we the player have no idea what’s going on so we can’t realistically be invested in what’s happening. It’s kind of like walking into the middle of an argument between two people discussing which version of a popular song is superior, but they only ever refer to the song as “it”. You feel alienated, confused, and have no stake in what’s being talked about.

This is most likely the result of one of two things: first, it’s a problem of inadequate peer review and discrepancy of writer and audience knowledge. The writer already knows his story, and as such all of its pieces make perfect sense to him even if they’re not adequately connected within the presentation of the story, so he’s largely incapable of seeing where holes in the narrative exist because his knowledge as the creator is filling them in automatically. Or, (and this is more likely based on what happens next) this is the last awkward attempt to preserve some sense of drama or mystery before the big reveal. Which is:

Halo is a weapon that lacks a targeting system. It was designed and implemented as a last-ditch weapon to destroy the Flood and everything they used to propagate themselves: that is to say, organic life. You can’t just tell it to target only the people you’re fighting because it’s designed to indiscriminately obliterate all life in the known universe.

And Master Chief nearly pushed the button to make it happen.

He does this without asking any questions, seeking any clarification, or even appearing to hesitate. He heard the word “weapon” and figured it was just another rifle: pull the trigger and solve all your problems, ignoring the fact that it’s a massive, alien-designed construct the likes of which we’d never seen before. The only intelligent course of action would have been to consult Cortana on what she’s been able to glean from Halo’s systems (and we see right here that she obviously has figured out Halo’s purpose), or just point-blank ask 343 what Halo does. If someone handed you the detonator for a plastic explosive charge, you’d ask them what it was attached to, what the yield was, and (here’s the big one) would there be any innocent bystanders? In this scenario, when the innocent bystanders in question include every living thing in existence you start to get the impression of how huge a mistake you almost made. And it wasn’t a mistake made through deception, hubris, or other dramatic elements, but it was just because Master Chief grabbed firm hold of the idiot ball and refused to let go.

I address Master Chief as “my character” in the above tweet, but I realize now that that’s a poor way of looking at things; Master Chief can’t be “my character” to any player because he’s too busy removing all player agency from the narrative. Being an idiotic brick that’s too preoccupied murdering everything in sight doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for audience identification, and it was because of this that I really dropped out of the game. I was annoyed by a lot of stuff prior to this, but this was the moment at which I was forcibly ejected from the story and the game as a whole.

See?

Anyway, I recognize that this was probably a little difficult to read and I apologize for that, but this seemed to be where all of the concentrated suck got stored away to be unleashed on the player all at once, and I did not set down the controller in a very good frame of mind. With any luck, things won’t be quite as painful in the remainder of this series. Though I make no promises.

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