Halo 3: ODST And The Power of Setting
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
This essay was first submitted on 9/2/18 for an Interactive Storytelling course.
Halo 3: ODST represents an interactive storytelling victory in the FPS field. Through the game’s focus on non-chronological mission structure, and setting, Bungie succeeded in crafting a compelling side story worthy of the Halo name. While the cast of characters is somewhat lacking in depth, Halo 3: ODST succeeds in presenting a grounded, sci-fi noir setting and a non-chronological narrative for the player while at the same time incorporating classic Halo level archetypes complete with warthog runs, aerial battles, and quippy one liners.
Halo 3 ODST is a game oozing with a sense of place and, the tone presented carries a large load in terms of constructing an evocative setting. The tone ultimately serves as table setting for the game’s more standard plot and story beats which often bring their own tones to bear. When the player begins the story mode, the game introduces itself with a Star Wars-esque opening crawl set above a dark and stormy backdrop with hints of a city under siege. This bite-sized opening serves to contextualize Halo 3: ODST as a side story set within larger events in the series timeline. The game reinforces that opening text as soon as your player character comes to six hours after the first cutscene takes place. Night has engulfed the city and rain drops fall incessantly. The player is dropped onto an empty, ruined city block with their squad members nowhere in sight. Cars are strewn about and mangled barricades hint at battles the player missed while their character was unconscious.
Here, within the first fifteen minutes of the games opening, the player is presented the tone through text and then through environmental storytelling. And the story being told here is a story of struggle, and defeat, against insurmountable odds. The environment of the game’s overworld portion supports a tone that illustrates a bleak reality.The alien forces of the Covenant have decimated the city and human forces have abandoned the city. In the skyline, fires rage; the city’s lights flicker and the monitors display only static images. Graffiti evoking apocalyptic themes are scrawled across buildings and alleyways. This overworld section of the game goes to great lengths to ensure that moving through the city is a lonely noir-style experience. The player character is the sole living human during the time between the game’s proper story missions. The humans you do encounter appear long dead and serve as further supports for the game’s setting. Often human soldiers can be found limp with weapons and dead enemies about, hinting at a bloody struggle and making the player feel even more alone.
The setting of this game is one of the most important and compelling factors in its success as an interactive story. The city setting is also utilized in a gameplay sense. The space is full of enemies patrols and the occasional audio log to discover. The city’s clutter and abandoned spaces also act as waypoints to direct the player to and from objectives and areas of interest. This is due to the city essentially having its own character, the Superintendent. The Superintendent is described as New Mombosa’s city-wide dedicated AI system. And the Superintendent serves many functions throughout the game’s story. In terms of setting and tone, the Superintendent is utilized as a framing device during the open world section of the game to manipulate the remains of the city. Throughout the open world, the Superintendent will turn on car sirens, spit money from ATMs, and co-opt television monitors in order to point the player character in the right direction. In essence, the Superintendent acts as the narrator/director of the story. The player character is a silent protagonist, and the Superintendent directs both the player and the game character throughout the world in order to discover what happened to the rest of the protagonist’s squad of ODSTs. The Superintendent represents a strong and successful example of the sweet spot where video game narrative and gameplay meet.
Halo 3: ODST also shines as an advocate for more non-linear storytelling in games, specifically when it comes to chronology and the use of time as a narrative device. Halo 3: ODST’s missions can be tackled in any order that the player desires after the game’s opening. Each of these missions take place at different intervals within the six hours that the player was unconscious. There is a chronological path through the missions themselves but that is not forced upon the player. This means that many of the game’s missions are flashbacks. Most of these flashback missions take place in broad daylight or dusk and prominently feature one of the squads members. After a mission is complete, the player is returned to the “present” time six hours after the game’s opening.
The segmenting of time between the missions and the Mombasa streets is reinforced through the use of the Superintendent as a literary frame. For the player to being each mission, they must first uncover a relic or piece of debris left over from that conflict. Here, the gameplay and story begin to reach another happy, harmonious midpoint. Outside of the game world, the player simply hits a button to interact with the object in question and is then transported in time without much explanation. This initially seems like a contrivance, but the game makes the effort to dispel that notion. In the game world, the Superintendent is utilized to show the silent protagonist footage from hours earlier. Each mission begins and ends in such a way that makes it apparent the flashbacks that the player inhabits are video recordings that the AI was able to gather and then show to the protagonist.
The game’s use of time in its narrative is so effective because the player is uncovering the story alongside the game’s silent protagonist. Each mission is a self contained capsule of fun, classic Halo moments and enough story elements to keep the player moving, but the real magic happens after the mission is over. There is a feeling after each mission that you, the player and the protagonist, are reaching ever closer to finding out what happened to your fellow soldiers. It creates a dynamic wherein the player is working their way through an overarching story, by playing through a number of tight, explosive, and shorter stories. Narrative layering like that is not something that games do very often, and Halo 3: ODST is able to pull it off with a good deal of attention to detail, a carefully thin divide between gameplay and story, and a healthy dollop of tone and setting.