Let’s analyse the Halo Infinite demo’s approach to storytelling

“Spartan, we thought you dead, yet here you stand…”

Now that we’ve had some time to digest everything we were shown for the Xbox Games Showcase, let’s analyse what 343 Industries had to show for Halo Infinite.

From the characterisation of the Master Chief, to the parallels and references across the series, to our new antagonists – there’s a lot to discuss.

Step inside!2020-07-23 (182)For those who need a quick recap, have been living under a Warthog, or just want to rewatch the awesomeness, we were shown three things during the Xbox Games Showcase.

‘Become’ – Step Inside

Halo Infinite – 8 minute gameplay demo

Halo Infinite – campaign gameplay trailer

Each of these has a fairly substantial amount to say about them in terms of how they reflect the stated intentions of 343 to create something of a love letter to Halo by honouring its legacy, as well as what new things they’re looking to bring to the table.


ARMOUR CANNOT HOPE

‘become’ – step inside

2020-07-24 (30)The showcase opened with this trailer which, understandably, got swept aside quite quickly due to it being followed by the long-anticipated campaign demo.

According to Geoff Keighley, this short was directed by Patrick Clair, known for his work on the Westworld titles and last week’s Far Cry 6 title sequence.

It’s a really great piece which showcases the forging of the Master Chief’s MJOLNIR Gen-3 armour, featuring some stunning imagery and a narration from (a younger[?]) Halsey which is definitely worth discussing.

“The MJOLNIR exosuit is now complete. Even though this technology will save humanity in the war to come, I must remind myself: liquid crystal cannot rise on its own. Titanium alloy cannot prevail in the face of extinction. Armour cannot hope.

It all means nothing, until you step inside.”

First of all, I have to say, this might just feature some of my favourite Halsey dialogue ever. “Armour cannot hope,” indeed.

The dialogue here is effectively a summary of 343’s ethos and mission statement towards the Master Chief. It’s all about the person inside the iconic suit of armour.

This premise is sold on what is perhaps my favourite legacy parallel we’ve seen.inf4Halo 4 was a story that sought to deconstruct the Master Chief, which culminated in a literal deconstruction in the epilogue of the game where the armour was prised from him aboard the UNSC Infinity – giving us our first glimpse at the man underneath (in the games).

For more deep analytical ramblings about this, I’d recommend checking out two particular articles of mine: ‘The Master Chief, A Character Study: Halo 4,’ and ‘Halo 4: Crafting a Masterpiece of Character

(Humble flex, but they’re Steve Downes approved!)

So, if Halo 4 was the first movement of that odyssey, about what it means to take off the armour, then Halo Infinite is quite naturally going to be about what it means for him to put it back on.

Deconstruction must be met with reconstruction, and that has been repeatedly cited as one of the core themes of Halo Infinite.

“Our real, concrete, goal was to speak to the theme of rebirth. The pilot resuscitates Chief. Chief brings life and courage to the Pilot. The Pelican is brought back to life by Chief. It speaks to the potential of the world we’re creating. Ultimately Chief is a symbol for that idea. The potential to be greater and to discover something within that makes you stronger. He becomes a symbol of strength and a symbol of human potential without fear.” [Dan Chosich, ‘Halo Infinite: Discover Hope‘]

inf4chiefI have seen some concerns that 343 is just tossing the Chief’s character arc in Halo 4 out the airlock…

There is a degree to which this is understandable. After Halo 5 failed to take his story forward in any meaningful way (certainly not compared to the things we were shown and told before release) and 343’s stated commitment to more ‘classic’ areas of the franchise, some reservation is natural here for those of us who really resonated with that story. I’ve felt that same reservation before.

But I don’t see that at all.

From this trailer and the gameplay demo (which we’ll get to later), what I’m seeing from 343 is a commitment to continuing and concluding that story.

Some debate exists as to whether Halsey’s dialogue in this trailer is a meta statement about you – the player – stepping inside the Chief’s armour, rather than a declaration of the Chief’s own character.

And, well… why does that have to be an ‘either/or’ thing?

Let’s not forget that 343 was saying the same things throughout Halo 4’s marketing cycle as well, about immersing the player in making them feel like the Master Chief.

At the same time, Halo 4 was about putting the Chief in situations where he’s forced to change and discover this burgeoning sense of independence.

There’s the pure empty vessel at one side of the spectrum, say Gordon Freeman, who never speaks and you know very little about him whatsoever in terms of backstory. On the other side of the spectrum you have a very well-defined character, say Nathan Drake from Uncharted who has a complete developed personality of his own and is extremely expressive in every scene throughout the game.

What we were striving for with Master Chief in Halo 4 was right in the middle, and I describe it as a marriage of player and protagonist. There has to be enough space within the character for you to feel you can inhabit it as a player. And also, just from the standpoint of personality, Chief is a stoic character. He’s a man of few words. If he speaks too much, it goes against his innate persona. And yet if we don’t have him speak at all, there’s no way to really understand his mind and you can’t chart his growth as a character — he becomes dull and one-dimensional.

We wanted to find that balance, right in the middle, and we went through a pretty exhaustive process of exploration when we were developing the story, and there were times, like the second mission in the game was one of the first missions that we started building out as the introduction to Requiem, and we started exploring what that would feel like, and through that how we express Chief and Cortana and their relationship together. We used that as the test bed, going back almost two years ago, and there were times when we had an almost completely silent Chief, which is much closer to the Chief of old, and there were times when we had Chief as chatty as you can imagine, where he’d comment on everything with constant dialogue. It was through that process that we found the balance in the middle.

I’m pretty happy with the way Chief comes through because I think you get enough of the character expressed that you can see his growth as a character — not just in the cinematics but in the game as well. And there’s enough of that expression and interrelation between Chief and Cortana, which is really important to the story we’re trying to tell. It’s a personal story set against a larger action story, but you don’t feel, hopefully, like it steps on your toes in terms of the immersion. [Josh Holmes, TIME – ‘Ico Influenced Chief-Cortana Bond in Halo 4, Says Director’ (05/11/2012)]

When we find him in Halo Infinite, he quite literally is alone. From the looks of things, the story is laser-focused on him and the Pilot, which promises a whole new dynamic in terms of characterising the Chief because the person he has to work with and care for is not an AI that slots in his head that is dealing with her mental illness, but an ordinary, vulnerable human being.

Halo 4 was about deconstructing the hero; Halo Infinite is about building the hero back up, and therefore building up those around him to believe again.

Which brings us to…


SET A FIRE IN YOUR HEART

campaign demo

“We’re gonna make it, aren’t we, sir? I don’t wanna die out here.”

inf1This was the meat of the showcase – the eight-minute campaign demo.

Paul Crocker and Chris Lee have talked extensively about how Halo Infinite is really looking to evoke the feelings we had playing Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time, putting a new spin on the familiar.

We see this right from the get-go in this demo, as the Chief and the Pilot are shot down by several anti-aircraft guns and crash to the surface of the ring.

Fortunately, a Pelican is a little more spacious than a Bumblebee escape pod, so the crash didn’t result in the Chief rolling around the cockpit, crushing the Pilot into liquescence!

The difference this scene draws with Halo 1 is that we see this primarily from the Pilot’s perspective, with the camera closed in on him throughout this ordeal.

In Halo 1, it was more centred on the Chief to capture the epic scope of crashing down to Installation 04, but Halo Infinite reframes the moment to capture the ‘reality’ of the situation.

It’s a fun answer to how you make a crash scene more than just a functional crash scene to ferry the player into the next bit of gameplay. The Pilot is shaken, irritable, and hating every second of this ‘adventure,’ juxtaposed by the Chief’s nonchalance of another happy landing he can walk away from.

“We wanted to create a character that is kind of a juxtaposition to Chief. Chief is the universe’s greatest soldier, Chief protects humanity at every point. The Pilot is our most human character we have ever created in the franchise, he is basically the most normal guy we could put in this crazy situation.

It’s like, imagine if you were going on the adventure with Chief – how you would feel as you were watching.” [Paul Crocker, Haruspis – ‘I was invited to a Halo Infinite media briefing with 343, here’s everything I learned…’ (23/07/2020)]

(Would you look at that, I can source myself for official developer quotes now!)

I think it’s notable that we’re seeing 343 talk as much about relating the Pilot to the player as they are the Chief, while he’s obviously still an individual with agency and personality. They can do it for him, and they can do it for the Chief as well…2020-07-23 (28)On the characterisation of the Master Chief for Halo Infinite, Crocker has said:

As to whether or not we should expect a chattier Master Chief, a la Halo 4, or a more ‘strong and silent type’ performance from veteran Spartan-117 voice actor Steve Downes, a la Bungie’s original trilogy, Crocker said, “I think it’s probably somewhere in-between. We are definitely leaning more towards the strong silent type but there is quite a strong emotional core that involves him being a lot more vocal.” [Paul Crocker, IGN – ‘Halo Infinite Villain and Story Details Revealed’ (23/07/2020)]

Where this has raised red flags for some, to me (and I hardly need to cite my credentials as a fan of Halo 4!) this… makes sense? And there’s the promise of a “strong emotional core,” with a whole aspect of the story (Cortana) which we’ve not seen anything about yet and how that will be resolved.

The Chief is going on this journey with a brand new character that he’s got no history with – a character who broadly represents ‘humanity,’ towards which there is some degree of tension and distance the Chief feels in how that applies to himself.

He doesn’t have the same established and unique relationship with the Pilot that he has with Cortana and Blue Team, with whom he could be more ‘chatty.’

It’s therefore justified that the Chief is a bit more reserved in his interactions with the Pilot with regards to what he says, that approach to characterisation is wholly appropriate given the context here.

Considering that Halo Infinite is a new story, this spiritual reboot for the series, made to be welcoming to a new generation of players coming in with all these questions and mysteries, it makes sense to align the player a little more with the Chief by making him a tad quieter, and then build on his characterisation as an individual over time.

“Chief and the Pilot are in exactly the same position as the player when the game starts. […] They don’t know what’s happened. They’re learning what’s happening, together.” [Paul Crocker, IGN – ‘Halo Infinite Villain and Story Details Revealed’ (23/07/2020)]

By no means does this have to mean that it’s disregarding Halo 4, in fact I’m far more convinced that Halo Infinite will do more to honour the Chief’s arc from that game.

Again, what we’re hearing from 343 on this topic is no different to what was said in the interviews around Halo 4.

He was always kind of an interesting mix. And people missed him, right? They didn’t say ‘I miss being the Master Chief,’ they said ‘I miss the Master Chief.’ He always had a bit of a personality — he’s stoic, and brave, and a great leader. I think sometimes people think of him as a vehicle for their own heroism, and so they miss that, too. We’re not suddenly going to have the Master Chief spouting long monologues. Most of the storytelling and depth is going to happen contextually. He’s still going to be stoic, brave, and heroic, and actually fairly quiet. The events around him will define what you learn about him. [Frank O’Connor, VentureBeat – ‘Interview: Frank O’Connor on why 343 Industries changed Halo’ (10/06/2012)]

2020-07-23 (45)Another big win here is the fact that Bruce Thomas is returning as the mo-cap actor for the Chief.

Bruce was first cast in this role for Halo 4, where the A Hero Awakens ViDoc really foregrounded what he brings to the character in terms of giving the Chief greater expression in his movements (something that only Halo 1 before it had really played with).2020-07-26 (4)While it’s Steve Downes’s irreplaceable vocal talent we hear, the performance capture of the Chief – the nuances of his movements, the way that characters react to him – is all down to Bruce (as well as the great direction of Brien Goodrich and the team).

Bruce Thomas: “I like to express myself. I freely do it. I wholly do it. I enjoy it. And so pulling back on all of those instincts is what required to play him.”

Kiki Wolfkill: “Imagine that translating to a 3D model with huge armor, and making sure that personality of Chief’s movement come through that armour, which is really critical. And that really came down to Bruce’s acting, his physical stature, and really his physicality as he went though all the performance.”

Josh Holmes: “You will never see his face, or hear his voice, but all of the other actors that are playing off of him have received so much from him in their performances.” [Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (4:55)]

There’s more – far more – to the Chief’s characterisation in Halo 4 than just “He talks more now.” It’s a confluence of talent across all areas of storytelling.

There are so many things that aren’t scripted, or might exist purely conceptually that lack ‘humanity,’ until they actually touch an actor and their instincts take the character somewhere new.

For example, look at the way the Chief shifts his posture when he tells the Pilot that they’ll search for a working Condor when he gets back – “together.”

There’s a measure of both certainty and discomfort in that motion, as he sort of has to deal with the Pilot in a way that acknowledges something of an unspoken debt. As the Pilot reminds the Chief, he was the one who found and saved him.

As far as I’m concerned, from what I’ve seen thus far, this is not an abandonment of the Chief’s character arc from Halo 4.

Maybe we haven’t arrived here in the way we expected, after what Halo 5 did (rather, what it failed to do), but this is a natural place for that arc to go.2020-07-23 (144)This brings us to our new antagonist for Halo Infinite, War Chief Escharum.

The first comparison that comes to my mind with Escharum is a character in the Forerunner Saga who we meet in Halo: Cryptum, called The Confirmer.

The Confirmer was an old Promethean, introduced to us as an old friend and mentor of the Didact, who fought in the Human-Forerunner war.

After the war and political dismantling of the Warrior-Servants, the Confirmer was put in charge of monitoring the San’Shyuum (who had fought alongside humanity but surrendered, cutting a deal with the Forerunners), whose system was placed inside a ‘quarantine shield’ – a system-spanning Dyson Swarm.

For the next twelve-hundred years, the Confirmer languished here, in the shadow of their once-great victory.

Sound a bit familiar?

“But, without challenge, I grew weary. Lost. Alone.

But, here you now stand.

This is my last fight, a true test of legends. Our story will outlive us both. Set a fire in your heart, Spartan! Bear your fangs! Fight hard. Die well.”

Incidentally, when the San’Shyuum rose up against the Forerunners after many years of planning, it was Installation 07 (the very ring we’ll be setting foot on) that was fired to quell their rebellion – as ordered by the Master Builder.

(And while the Confirmer was alone for twelve centuries, Escharum has barely been able to handle a few months!)

These parallels don’t necessarily have to come up in the game or translate into any direct meaning, but it adds a nice bit of texture for me as somebody who is very deeply into the Forerunner Saga. The patterning of these ‘echoes’ of previous events extends across the series, into places both rewarding and unexpected.

Given what Paul Crocker has said, about Escharum being “connected to The Banished in a fundamental way,” one wonders what more there is to learn about this old warrior.

That ending sequence also introduces us to the villain of the story: a Banished leader named War Chief Escharum, who is the leader of The Banished on this Halo ring and “is connected to The Banished in a fundamental way,” according to Crocker, and proclaims this Halo ring as his last stand, knowing that Master Chief is coming for him. [Paul Crocker, IGN – ‘Halo Infinite Villain and Story Details Revealed’ (23/07/2020)]

2020-07-23 (141)As I noted in my previous article, Escharum is a unique antagonist for the Chief to fight.

When I think of those who I regard as the best antagonists in Halo (the Prophet of Truth and Gravemind in Halo 2, and the Didact in Halo 4), there’s a common thread between them in that they all talk down to the Chief – they have this sense of being ‘higher beings.’

Even with Atriox in Halo Wars 2, we are introduced to him absolutely steamrolling three Spartan-IIs, crushing Douglas’s helmet in his fist, and telling them “Run, little Demons!”

Escharum, on the other hand? He is so excited to be fighting you!

He talks the Chief up, telling him to “set a fire” in his heart as they throw everything they have at each other – these two legends to their people battling their last.

We just don’t see enough of this kind of antagonist! This is the kind of unique energy that the Brutes bring – that the Banished brings – to Halo.

When Escharum meets his enemy, he gives them a motivational speech!

Hell, it seems Escharum is more excited to see the Chief than the Pilot ends up being!Halo-Infinite-2020_Ascension_Demo_Campaign_07_1920x1080I love the Prometheans, and I’ll go to bat for them (in Halo 4) any day. In fact, I have: ‘From Peter Jackson to Halo Infinite – A Rumination on the Prometheans

But the Prometheans have never aroused the same kind of energy and excitement that we’ve seen ever since the Banished were announced. Like the Flood, the Prometheans are quite ’emotionally narrow’ in terms of what they represent – tragic, horrifying, and frustrating for many.

Like the Flood, there’s so much more to do with them. I think it’s absolutely fair to say that 343 has not committed to the Prometheans, they have not seized the opportunity to tell interesting (or, indeed, any) stories with them… but with everything that’s on the line for Halo Infinite, perhaps this isn’t the appropriate time for 343 to double-down here.

The Brutes aren’t nearly as innately self-serious. They’re fun and silly, but they also retain the potential to be viscerally harrowing and gritty when that’s called for. There’s just a lot more to play with, which is fitting for the kind of game Halo is [perceived as], and what Infinite is striving to be.

I think it’s understandable why people gravitate towards that more than the more esoteric horror of the Prometheans and the underserved areas of the lore they’re tied to.

And just as the Pilot is framed as representing ‘humanity,’ Escharum, too, represents the virtues of bringing the Brutes back to Halo after their decade-long hiatus.2020-07-23 (203)Another thing that really stood out to me here was the music, which always bears talking about when it comes to Halo.

The music we heard in this demo was composed by Gareth Coker (best known for his breathtaking work on the Ori games), who joins Curtis Schweitzer as the co-composer for Halo Infinite.

In this demo, we hear two variations of the Halo theme.

The first plays when the Chief activates the elevator and stares out over the stunning vista of Installation 07. It sounds like a new take on that classic Halo theme we’ve been hearing since 2001, capturing that epic sense of scale, majesty, and awe.

This scene with Escharum is the second time it plays, as the camera moves ‘through’ the hologram to the War Chief’s face.

You might have noticed that it bears a significantly greater resemblance to the variation of the Halo theme we hear in Halo Wars 2’s soundtrack, which is fitting, of course, because that’s the game which introduced us to the Banished and really nailed down a lot of the sonic texture to their faction (which I really hope we hear more of in Infinite).

It’s just another hint at how Halo Infinite is looking to pull from all areas of the series. I think a lot of people have interpreted 343’s mission statement here as pertaining almost entirely to Halo 3, but hopefully this has demonstrated that isn’t quite true.

Which brings us to the last thing I wanted to talk about today…


SAVIOUR. DEMON. PREY.

campaign gameplay trailer

2020-07-23 (191)This one-minute trailer is short and sweet, there’s not a whole lot of story content to analyse that isn’t really known from other sources – but there is one thing…

We hear a little more dialogue from Escharum, who says:

“Spartan, we thought you dead, yet here you stand. Humans call you their saviour. The Covenant, ‘Demon.’ The Banished, ‘prey.'”

I thought this worth mentioning because it parallels this soldier of machine and nerve with his flesh and faith counterpart, Thel ‘Vadam – the Arbiter.

Remember the trailer for Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals?

There is a unique bit of narration from Thel, talking to Locke about the names he has been given throughout his life.

“I have had many names in this long war. The humans knew me as ‘Destroyer.’ To the Covenant, I was Supreme Commander. The Prophets named me ‘Arbiter.’ And your Master Chief calls me… ‘friend.'”

I thought this worth bringing up because 343 has effectively made this something of a recurring motif, tying in with what Escharum says at the end of the demo – that their legends will outlive them both.

It’s small, but it’s another thing that really shows 343’s commitment to echoing the legacy of this series. Sometimes this manifests in ways that are obvious (the visual style), and sometimes it is in the more obscure corners that 343 is well-known to pull from.


A LOVE LETTER

2020-07-23 (212)In defining their approach to Halo Infinite, Paul Crocker has said:

“We really approached this whole thing as a love letter to Halo.” [Paul Crocker, VGC – ‘343 explains how it’s “rebooting” Halo with Infinite’ (23/07/2020)]

Given that this game is being positioned as a platform for the future of the series, the last mainline release for the next ten years, this approach certainly makes sense.

While we are aesthetically seeing inspiration being primarily drawn from the Bungie era in terms of the visuals (though, let’s not do a disservice here, there’s a solid mix of all eras here as well), the storytelling is very strongly drawing from 343’s own pedigree with Halo 4 and other areas of the series as well.

Hopefully this article has helped to illustrate some areas that you might have missed, to paint a more complete picture beyond many peoples’ primary focus in looking at how it looks more like Classic Halo™.

I still have my reservations, particularly where Cortana is concerned. Coming back from what Halo 5 did, which I regard as the absolute nadir of this series, is a pretty tall order, but everything else? It’s ticking a lot off my personal wishlist.

With less than a handful of months left to wait, I can’t wait to see what other echoes and parallels across the series there are – as well as what’s brand new that 343 has to bring to the series.


GALLERY

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5 thoughts on “Let’s analyse the Halo Infinite demo’s approach to storytelling

  1. I definitely didn’t understand people’s comments/anger toward how their developing John-117 especially emotionally; it just seems like the next logical step in his development since the loss and now betrayal of Cortana and I’m guessing reassignment Blue Team (most likely after Shadows of Reach event), as you stated the familiar faces he is comfortable to interact with are gone and now must adjust to interacting with humanity which if I’m not mistaken (please correct me if I missed an obvious source) in one of the novels he admits to not being able to do so, 343 is now looking at the venture of bring him out of that shell in a new light/opportunity. I love the Banished leaders (except for maybe Decimus who seemed like a loud pompous boss henchman you were happy to kill off early), from the hilarious Yap Yap THE DESTROYER to my favorite and mysterious Colony each is unique in what they bring to the Banished in their strength and development, so I really hope Escharum is fleshed out not only in terminals but cutscenes and enemy dialogue not just another boss henchman we put down quick so we can get to Atriox. Lastly, I really hope the enemies are still in development seeing the old Covenant Empire/’Mdama’s Covenant colors on the unggoy minor and imperial and Sangheili minor had me negative sighing a bit all units, vehicles, and weapons need that rough, yet distinguishable aesthetic the Banished had in Wars 2, I’m not against a flashback cutscene or two displaying old colors and looks but if they keep it the way it is it looks disjointed in my opinion.

  2. I thought you’d mention it here, but since you didn’t, I’ll bring it up–Downes’ performance of the line, “You’ll be safe here.”

    There’s like an energetic drop off there that reads as almost… forlorn. Like he’s holding onto something. Like he’s carrying everyone he’s lost.

    I can’t help but wonder if that was direction, or something Steve picked up on his own due to what’s to come in the story. He’s like, “I’ve said it a million times before, and it hasn’t always been true. But this is what I do.”

    Putting the armor back on, indeed.

    It was the way he said this line more than anything that filled me with hope that they are 100% picking up where the direction of Halo 4’s storytelling left off.

  3. The story showcased in the trailers has really gotten me pumped. But honestly, the gameplay really leaves more to be desired, and that’s another aspect of Halo I absolutely adore. After watching Favyn’s video, I’m very skeptical about this game’s success and longevity. Which is exactly why I am desperately hoping the storytelling in this game is astounding, as at the very least, it’ll have the one thing that defines the franchise as a whole: a narrative of heroic virtue driven by mystery, suspense, and revelations.

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