A Sum of Parts: Landscapes and Storyscapes
Brendan Keogh on how Halo Reach tells its story through its landscape.
On “Nightfall”, the third mission of Halo Reach’s campaign, Noble Six and Noble Three are sneaking through a mountainous area of the planet at night time to reconnaissance on the Covenant strike team. At one point, after saving some local farmers-cum-guerillas, the two spartans trek down a dried-up riverbed towards a Covenant outpost with my next mission’s objective.
The objective is a giant pylon, a device that is helping to cloak the Covenant army preparing to move out over the continent. But I know it is my objective long before the farmers, Noble Three, or Command tell me what it is. The very shape of the land points it out as something significant, something that demands my attention.
The riverbed we march down before the outpost is a deep, rocky chasm with walls reaching up high about our heads. For the most part, we are funnelled down it like a corridor. At the end, we turn a corner to head through a tunnel that will get us back on a path just outside of the Covenant outpost.
As I turn into this tunnel, I am looking right at the Covenant outpost. I can’t see it yet through all the rock, but I can see the pylon. It is framed perfectly in the archway of stone I am about to walk through. Right there, in the way the planet itself frames the pylon for me, I know that this thing is important.
Every time I play through Reach’s campaign, I stop right here, looking at that pylon through the archway, and savour the beautiful, subtle level design. The stone arch is nothing out of the ordinary. In the surrounding environment, it looks completely natural, like it is exactly where it should be. But it also perfectly outlines the player’s next objective through the way the world fits together, the angle on which the outpost is approached from, and the positioning of the pylon.
Using a natural landscape to direct the player’s eyes is not something new to Bungie. They used it powerfully in that opening sequence of the first Halo’s second level, when the player first steps onto the Halo ring. After a level in the close confines of the Pillar of Autumn spaceship, the next level begins in the equally confined crashed escape pod. As the player walked out onto the grass of the ring, a distance structure shoots a blob of blue energy into the sky and, if the player follows it with their eye, they will find themselves tracing the ring itself up into the sky. It’s a subtle way to make the player look up at the spectacle that is the ring-world without ever having to tell the player explicitly: “Hey. Look up.”
There are plenty of other examples through the Halo series and in countless other videogames—probably more examples than I am aware of. Arguably, if this kind of framing of the story through the landscape is done correctly, the player won’t even know they are being directed at all.
Which is why this moment on “Nightfall” stands out to me as a perfect example of it. All the player has to do is walk down a path they need to walk down, and the pylon is perfectly framed, telling me exactly where I need to go next. In a game whose story is all about the planet, it’s fitting that the planet is the one that tells the story.