Essay contains spoilers for Halo: Reach
Halo: Reach deserved more recognition. In their final Halo title, the veteran developer Bungie combined masterclass first-person-shooter mayhem, thrilling cooperative gameplay, and inspired action set pieces into a sublime interactive roller coaster experience. These tense gameplay moments perfectly complement Halo Reach’s moving storyline to where the game delivers an effective one-two punch of pulse-pounding action and storytelling that hits the player directly in the feels. Halo: Reach’s narrative emphasis on thematic storytelling propelled the title to stratospheric heights that a Halo title hasn’t achieved before or since. Make no mistake: Halo: Reach is the franchises’ finest hour.
Halo: Reach succeeds due to a thematic focus on the nature of failure. In fact, failure defines Halo: Reach’s thematic core. An example of this can be witnessed midway through the game. During this moment, the player controls a Spartan super soldier dubbed Noble 6 who is tasked with a risky assignment. The mission: board a spaceship operated by the invasive militaristic alien alliance known as The Covenant and blow it up with a bomb.
Despite sounding simple, the mission inevitably runs into a severe complication. The bomb malfunctions and needs to be detonated manually. Jorge, a Spartan supporting character, volunteers to stay behind and set off the spaceship destroying explosive. As Noble 6 escapes, we watch as the Covenant battle cruiser explodes and believe Jorge has saved humanity with his sacrifice. The terrific Martin O’Donnell score swells with soft notes of heroism while the camera lingers over the ship wreckage. The scene is a triumphant moment tinged with sadness until it is abruptly interrupted by an uncountable number of Covenant warships exiting slip-space (light-speed) primed to decimate humanity’s remaining fleet and ground forces on the planet Reach. To our horror, Jorge died for nothing.
Of course, this dour tone was predictable. As a prequel to the Xbox’s flagship first person shooter franchise, Halo: Reach’s depressing narrative was a foregone conclusion. Reach, a planet acting as humanity’s Premiere military outpost, had been entrenched in Halo lore for years prior to Halo: Reach’s 2010 release. Whether it’s Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, or Halo 3: ODST, characters refer to Reach solemnly. The planet symbolically represents humanity’s losing battle with the Covenant. Even though the human forces fought valiantly, the Covenant conquers Reach. Humanity loses this round.
Halo: Reach transports players back to this pivotal and somber moment in the Halo mythos. With the player’s prior knowledge regarding Reach’s demise, a tone of solemnity permeates every aspect of the game. Even during lighter parts, Halo: Reach contains a pervasive sense of doom and gloom. Moments of heroism are short lived, and reasons to celebrate are minimal. In this regard, Halo: Reach marks a departure for the series, representing a darker tone differing from prior blockbuster adventures involving the superheroics of series main protagonist Master Chief. As a result, Halo: Reach stands head and shoulders above the rest of the series as a terrific example of interactive storytelling.
Halo Reach’s success is, in large part, due to its main protagonist. Unlike prior Halo main characters, Noble 6 is customizable. While the player never glimpses Noble 6’s face, the player chooses their gender and armor accoutrements like helmet design, armor color, and shoulder pads. The options are admittedly minimal, but the personalizations profoundly affect the story. The customization fosters a connection between the player and the character. The player may even project themselves onto Noble 6. When shooting grunts with the DMR, splattering elites with a Warthog, or calling an airstrike on a Wraith, Noble 6 isn’t just a character, they’re OUR character.
Halo: Reach’s action further prioritizes player input. The levels, while linnear, are large open areas packed with enemies to neutralize, vehicles to drive (possibly fly!), and weapons to pick up. Additionally, Halo: Reach is the first Halo title to include armor abilities. These pick-ups include sprint, deceptive holograms, jet packs, and armor lock that grant the player with more options than ever before, options providing players with new and exciting avenues to interact with the game.
This interactivity is key. Even beyond thrilling the player with blockbuster action, Halo: Reach ensnares the player in the game’s world. Due to the character customization and the player’s ability to influence combat, Halo: Reach creates a link between the player and the game, ensuring that every combat encounter and story beat hits the player emotionally. In a game with a narrative and thematic focus on loss and failure where the lives’ of likable supporting characters like Kat and Emile dwindle like flies, that is a hell of an achievement.
Halo: Reach offers a rare glimpse into a dire moment of the Halo mythos. At its tear-jerking conclusion, Noble 6 accomplishes an objective that ensures humanity may survive and fight another day, yet unfortunately for Noble 6, that’s not today. Our beloved hero, one that we’ve personally connected with all game, was left behind on the now devastated and conquered Reach while human forces escape. The final level offers one goal: survive. As Noble 6, the player fights wave after wave of insurmountable covenant baddies until eventually succumbing and dying. The sequence delivers an emotional gut punch rarely dished to players in a video game.
No matter what, Noble 6 and the player loses. Humanity suffers a devastating defeat. The planet falls. That is the legacy of Halo: Reach, and that experience is a highpoint of blockbuster interactive storytelling as an artform. What an artistic statement.