By now, you’re all probably waist-deep in Halo nostalgia following the release of the Master Chief Collection – and rightfully so! The amount of content it has is absolutely staggering, there’s going to be a wealth of things to pick through and I’m thoroughly overwhelmed as I’m trying to get my head around Broken Circle, Nightfall, Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals, the updated encyclopaedia, and so on.
But I’d like to take a moment to look at a very specific scene in Halo 2 Anniversary, putting the awe of Blur’s beautiful cinematics aside for a moment to examine that it’s not just Halo’s combat that has evolved over ten years but the storytelling too.
For this, we’re going to examine the differences between the opening scene of The Arbiter.This particular scene where Rtas establishes to Thel that the lives of his troops matter to him while Thel’s life means nothing is a masterclass in how the subtleties of camera angles and body language can evoke an entirely new interpretation of a scene, even after a decade.
In the original Halo 2, you’ll notice that the shots themselves are quite flat. We see Rtas and Thel on pretty equal footing, sharing the same space in the way the shots are composed. Thel holds Rtas’ gaze when he’s told “their lives matter to me, yours does not”, to which Thel replies “that makes two of us”. It’s a defiant statement more than anything, Thel knows what he is now and Rtas’ “hmm” response is a grunt of respect – it’s like there’s still a bit of that old Supreme Commander who Rtas would have followed to hell and back in there. Above all, it depicts Thel as a character who is still the same confident and capable leader he used to be before the events which led to him becoming the Arbiter. This scene is simple, establishes tension between these two characters, and then moves right along.
But I’d argue that this is a weakness of the storytelling when stacked up against how this scene was reconstructed in H2A. (When you first saw Blur’s remastered cutscenes, were you blinded by their majesty? Paralysed? Dumbstruck?)
The remastered scene here has a wealth of differences in how it’s composed, as opposed to the two simple camera shots of the original.
Thel remains relatively static in this exchange. He looks away from Rtas, avoiding the Spec-Ops Commander’s glare. He’s staring down at the floor like a child being told off by an angry parent. The power dynamic here is crystal clear as we see Thel’s expression sadden when he says “that makes two of us”. He’s been shamed, he comes off as meek, and he’s being used as a suicidal instrument in order to reclaim some level of honour. He absolutely lacks the conviction he appears to have in the original, the defiance as he and Rtas are nose-to-nose.
What’s more, we can see that they simply do not take up equal space in these shots like they did in the original. When the camera focuses on Thel, it’s looking down at him because it’s coming from the perspective of Rtas, and when the camera focuses on Rtas it’s looking up at him because this conversation is causing him to lock up. He looks like he wants to just hunch up and hide, there’s practically nothing of that Supreme Commander left in him. When Rtas grunts “hmm” in response to Thel’s agreement that his life means nothing, it’s more judgemental and aloof than it ever came across in the original.
I wanted to point this out because it really just goes to show how little touches like this can massively alter the way you watch a scene. Keep in mind that this is all the original audio from Halo 2, but it’s being presented in a wholly different way through Blur’s remastered cutscenes. It adds subtle nuance to the development of these characters, making the Arbiter’s redemption arc and renewal of purpose all the more powerful as we see that he starts to stand straighter and his stride becomes much more confident as the game goes on. Much of his relationship with Rtas is told through eye contact, and where he could not meet Rtas’ gaze in this scene through the very one-sided power dynamic that permeates their early interactions, we can infer a great deal more emotional depth from their final scene together in Halo 3 where they are both standing on the same level with Thel offering Rtas comfort.So a big well done to Blur for having such keen eyes for detail, they’ve worked absolute wonders for how Halo’s story is told purely on a visual level and I very much hope to see them working on this franchise in the future.
A most supreme thank you to Greenreticule on Tumblr for getting the discussion ball rolling yesterday which led to this post (I did feel rather guilty that I’d not written anything since my moaning at Destiny back in September), you should most definitely check Reticule’s much fuller analysis of Halo 2 Anniversary as a whole.
You can all go back to playing the Master Chief Collection now…