Friday, October 24, 2008

Not Very Original... But It Works (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia.

Since Halo first came out, it has been cited for revolutionizing the first-person-shooter genre with a new form of gameplay as well as an in-depth storyline. Certainly it contained some original gameplay design, such as only being able to hold two or three weapons at any given time. However, despite its epic and convoluted storyline, the plot itself is not entirely original, borrowing from clichés and making homage to other media.

By far the most notable homage is to the Marathon series, Bungie’s previous science-fiction trilogy. Numerous plot elements present in Marathon were brought over into Halo. For instance, the protagonist is a cyborg who starts out trying to repel an alien conglomerate comprised of slavers and their slaves while being directed by a series of AIs, one of whom growing increasingly rampant as the story goes on. Bungie themselves consider Halo a “spiritual sequel” to Marathon. In addition to paralleling plot elements, various references are included as Easter eggs.

Apart from Marathon, a large body of Halo is in homage to the Alien series of films, especially the second movie Aliens. Artistic style such as the design of the Pillar of Autumn was inspired by the utilitarian, claustrophobic space present in the Nostromo of Alien. The entire subject of the Flood appears to be inspired by the similarly metamorphosing “xenomorphs” of the Alien films. In particular, the level in which the Flood is first revealed highly resembles the atmosphere of Aliens when the xenomorphs first appear to the marines.

The marines featured in Halo: Combat Evolved, essentially the same unit repeated over and over again, bear a strong resemblance to the marine unit featured in Aliens. Their personalities are all based around that of the Aliens marines, and certain dialogue quotes the film. Halo character Sergeant Avery Johnson was based on the Aliens character of Sergeant Al Apone, each shown ostensibly killed when the aliens attacked.

Though Johnson’s fate was ultimately expanded upon in the Halo expanded universe, elevating him to the status of main character, his origins are rooted in what is a very stereotypical character. Sergeant Al Apone was, essentially, nothing more than the traditional “black guy” role in an ‘80s action film. This is a hard role for the Johnson character to escape, though Bungie managed to deepen the character by giving him a backstory in Halo: Contact Harvest. When he gets killed at the end of Halo 3, his weakness is realistic (not wearing an energy shield) and does not fill the “black guy” cliché of being the first one to go, that honor going to Commander Keyes.

Commander Miranda Keyes, introduced in the second game, is somewhat of an anti-cliché herself. Though she is female, Bungie thankfully did not go in the direction of making her overly sexually attractive as they did with Konoko, the star of their previous game Oni. Miranda breaks stereotypes by being something of an action hero with her stunts to retrieve the Index (twice), as well as rescue Johnson by flying a pelican through a wall (though that mission didn’t end so well). Like Johnson, her death is realistic, humans being at a colossal disadvantage against the Covenant. Her presence, continuing the Keyes-ness of the game, is fairly unusual, but is more a product of Bungie’s corny storytelling rather than an actual cliché.

Cortana, on the other hand, fulfils several clichés. Most notably, her avatar design does cater to the heterosexual male crowd with an overly sexually attractive female appearance. On the up side, Bungie offers her/Catherine Halsey’s backstory to potentially explain her appearance – something that wouldn’t be expected from most sources. Cortana also fits the role of damsel-in-distress in Halo 3, her rescue being the player’s goal for much of the game. On the other hand, the stereotype is updated with her having spent her time in the belly of the beast coming up with a way to defeat the Flood for a good long while – you wouldn’t get that from Princess Peach (yes, I’m aware of the irony of that statement). Cortana also shows her layers throughout the course of the games and books, taking her past such simple clichés.

In conclusion, Halo draws from several sources, both in intentional homage and in the form of simple cliché. The original content is most certainly deeper than that which derives from other media or stereotypes. This, however, does not necessarily distract from the enjoyment. Halo is a fun romp overall, even with (and indeed because of) its occasional stereotypical or corny bits.

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