Home > Essays > War on a Different Scale in Halo 3: ODST

War on a Different Scale in Halo 3: ODST

By Tom Dann

ODST was a major departure for the Halo franchise, being the first Halo shooter not to feature Master Chief as the main character. The Chief has, from the beginning, been synonymous with Halo. Along with this character change comes a considerable overhaul of the campaign style for the expansion; structurally, atmospherically, and thematically.

The Master Chief represents a large piece of videogame discourse: the main character. The Chief, like may other protagonists, is faceless and largely personality free: he’s a videogame icon thanks to his stark design, but as a character he is no more than a vessel for the player to inhabit and control through the game world. This, in a way, draws the player further into the game, allowing themselves to inhabit Spartan 117. Increasingly, videogame protagonists are characters in themselves, with personalities, motives and pasts. Both approaches work well for different people. Halo 3: ODST mixes both approaches together in a uniquely structured campaign.

ODST occurs about the same time as Halo 2. The shockwave caused by the Prophet of Regret leaving New Mombassa is the catalyst for ODST: a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers are sent off course and scattered as a result of the subspace jump. The player largely takes the role of Rookie, another faceless, personality free character. Rookie wakes up 6 hours after the crash, alone in the darkened streets of New Mombassa. His story involves uncovering clues as to the whereabouts of his squad, and what they’ve been up to. Locating said clues unlocks more traditional sripted missions, allowing the player to take control of a particular squadmate.

The ODST cast is made up of several military stereotypes: the strict leader with a heart, the cocky sniper, the geeky pilot. These stereotypes are utilised to bring the squad to life. The wider range of playable characters gives the story a greater level of realism: typically game narratives are pushed forward by the player’s character. This gives the player a greater sense of importance in the game, that the story is focused around them. Conversely, in ODST, the use of multiple characters suggests a world existing beyond just the hero. Each mission presents a snapshot of a larger conflict, bringing to attention each character and their personal role in the events. No war has been won by just one soldier.

This idea of games focusing on a single character is challenged in the Rookie’s sections of the game. Despite the greater number of characters, Rookie’s sections of ODST are saturated with a sense of loneliness. Obviously, these sections are undertaken alone, but the music and the dark, abandoned streets build up to create a unique atmosphere. Rookie’s search for his squad evokes film noir, with the detective searching for answers. The music shares similarities with Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, bringing with it further ties to the detective genre. This is a stark contrast to the traditional Halo campaign, all sci-fi and military gusto. As Rookie, you are alone, and you are vulnerable.

Even the city is presented as a character in and of itself. The idea that cities have lives of their own is not a new one, and ODST taps into this by providing a Computer AI which runs New Mombassa. Cutscenes are frequently intercut with CCTV footage, suggesting the city is watching Rookie’s progress. This makes sense: if ODST is a story about war on a personal level, which personality has been affected by this conflict more than the nearly desolated city?

So, ODST presents us the micro view compared to Halo’s traditional macro view. The game reminds us that in war, no matter whether on a local, national, global, or interstellar scale, its effects filter right down to individuals. Buck and Dare’s love story, while a little on the clunky side, shows this. They bicker and fight but are obviously perfect for each other, and would do well if not for the war. The collectible audio logs, despite not telling as coherent a story as they could, demonstrate the plight of a young girl as she desperately tries to flee the destruction. War affects far more people than just soldiers. Too many action games focus too much on gleeful destruction, and ODST is a satisfying change of focus. There is action, yes, and plenty of it. The setpiece where you defend a platform from an aerial assault, or where you have to manouevre a scorpion tank through the city streets spring to mind. But the narrative focus is on a small group of characters, and their little roles in this great, big war. As Charlie Kaufmann puts it in his film Synecdoche, New York, every supporting character is a main character in their own story.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

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Categories: Essays
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