Alright, I’m going to have to start with a confession. I was not a big fan of Halo: Reach on a storytelling level. Sure, the gameplay was good enough and it had lots of flashy moments and pretty lights. But the characters were as flat as cardboard that fell underneath a steamroller and there’s about as much character development in the game as there is religious tolerance in the Covenant. There were numerous inconsistencies and retcons with the world (like the Pillar of Autumn conveniently landing on Reach) and it has really less a story so much as a mosaic of, admittedly fun, levels taped together with off-brand duct tape. And yet to my everlasting surprise, it’s this game’s final bonus level “There’ll Be Another Time…” which has always stuck with me, even after nearly a decade, as one of the best levels ever in a Halo game. Above “The Covenant” with its dual scarabs, above “Assault on the Control Room” with its wraiths and tanks and even above “The Library.” Ooh, well isn’t that enticing?
A Lovely Little Recap
Let’s start by recapping this level: After delivering the inexplicable Cortana chip to the magically teleporting Pillar of Autumn, after seeing every member of your team die, you sit on the ground and see the ship leave without you. Thanks Keyes, you inconsiderate dick. Unlike just a little earlier there are no more other characters to talk to you and no more allies around you. Instead you are dropped out of cinematic mode into a wartorn and destroyed landscape with one mission: survive.
Hordes of covenant enemies start arriving on their ships. You can barely see in the distance through the thick fog but nevertheless you have one certainty: they’re coming for you. You rush over the ashen wastelands and into blown-out bunkers barely holding together. You shoot, you run, you try to remain alive but more and more throngs of monsters keep coming over the hills, bearing their weapons of hot plasma, shouting in their alien tongue. There might be hundreds or thousands of them and they’re all looking to kill you.
If you’re familiar with the Halo universe, you know there is no point. Reach will fall to the Covenant and, despite what that tricksy little objective says, you cannot survive. It is a story the ending of which you already know. Yet you press on and fight as best as you can. After you start taking significant damage your helmet starts cracking more and more. Like a doomsday clock ticking away the final minutes of your life it is a constant reminder of your impending and inevitable death. You continue fighting a little longer until you fall and the game is over.
“Alright,” you might say, “sounds like a carefree and happy evening, but why is this the best level in all of Halo? Why is it masterful?” Because this level is a synthesis of everything Halo is about. In just a few minutes of gameplay, depending on how good you are, it manages to cut through the heart of the series’ themes. Because Halo is a game series about inevitability.
An Echo of an Echo
When you start up the first game you’re a lone ship drifting through space far away from all help, running from the complete destruction of one of humanity’s most powerful worlds. Its last remaining fortress worlds besides Earth. An entire fleet of alien enemies is pursuing you (and the rest of the Pillar of Autumn’s crew). The very first thing you have to do in the game is abandon your own ship and see it crash down, leaving you stranded and alone. On top of that there are tens of thousands if not millions of enemies after all of you. When you press start on the game you’ve essentially already lost. There aren’t enough rose-tinted glasses in the world to make that shit sound optimistic. But does it sound familiar?
In the broader Halo universe this is true for humanity as a whole as well. Since the first day humanity encountered the covenant they’ve been hopelessly outmatched. Technologically inferior. Humanity’s mighty armies a tiny blip among the legions of the Covenant. Humanity’s number of worlds? Insignficant next to theirs. Humanity’s largest ships? Not a fourth the size. And they have a lot more of them. Our worlds have been slowly obliterated. Each and every one and glassed so no living being could live on their barren surface anymore. We are being wiped out and we are down to our last days as a species, standing before an inexorable war machine.
But it goes deeper. Because this sort of situation is not limited to the present day, we can find a clear parallel in Halo’s history. The war between the Covenant and humanity is merely replaying what has already happened before. The Forerunners fought the Flood for centuries. If the covenant are unreasonable religious zealots, the Flood are much worse. Humanity had little chance to reason with the Covenant, but they were at least an understandable enemy. Doing what they did for goals recogniseable to us: For zealotry, for power, due to the commands of their higher ups. The Flood are nothing like this. They are a mindless swarm that seeks only to consume and assimilate. It has no other goal but to kill everything and it has the exponential growth to do it. The Flood faced down a civilization hundreds of times more advanced and powerful than any human faction or species in the Covenant. But even the mighty Forerunners were slowly stripped down and destroyed, left with only one solution to try to save everyone else: Their own annihilation. In retrospect it was the inevitable end of the encounter.
So now that that’s been clarified, what does it have to do with this last level? These examples, which are three of the most important landmarks of the Halo universe, have their essence captured in “There’ll Be Another Time.” But in a way that’s more personal than ever before. It’s not just your ship’s annihilation, or your species, or your galaxy’s. It’s your own. And as you march towards it you slowly see it crack into focus before you. Reflected on your own helmet. It’s not just that you are outnumbered, it’s that you are alone. It’s not just that the odds are stacked against you, it’s that you already know how the story ends. You already know how this character of Noble Six, whom you’ve inhabited for an entire game, will die. It is the Forerunner-Flood war, the human-Covenant war, the Pillar of Autumn vs. the covenant armada. It is the Halo universe writ small.
This all sounds pretty bleak and depressing, hardly an inspiring message for the kiddies. And it is bleak and depressing. But there is a ray of sunshine ’round this dark cloud. Because of one fact: You fight.
Spartans Never Die
In the first game despite every single one of the odds stacked against you and the apparent inevitability of your defeat, you rise to the challenge. You defeat the unstoppable Covenant armada which wasn’t so unstoppable after all, destroy the ring (thereby stopping the voracious Flood from omnomnoming on the entire galaxy) and escape alive with Cortana. And Johnson, of course. Because the ending where he hugged that elite isn’t canon. I know, I know, major sad. But we will never forget their forbidden love.
In the human-Covenant war, which seemed so unwinnable, you win. Humanity fights on and by the end it stands victorious. More powerful and advanced than they could possibly have imagined and with the elites as new friends at their back, their energy swords sheathed.
The Forerunners fought on too though as you may be able to tell from all the lovely ruins the games feature, they could not defeat the Flood. Despite their heroic efforts they were destroyed. But through their struggle and their self-sacrifice they left the galaxy for other species to inherit and life to bloom again across the Milky Way.
They all stood victorious in the end in their own ways. Because no matter how impossible the odds seemed, no matter how many armadas were thrown their way or how many deaths they suffered, they did not give up. They fought on with all their strength and determination. They fought on through all the sacrifices and the horror and a better world came of it.
In Reach’s final mission you’ve already saved the world by delivering the chip, the only goal given to you is to live. In the end your task is impossible, you know this. You know this from the lore, you know this from the first game, you know this from the impossible hordes of enemies being spewed at you, you know this from each crack in your helmet. You know the planet is overrun by the Covenant and that there are no defenders left. And yet the game beckons you to fight on. It tells you: survive. To not give up, to never give up, even in the face of what looks like inevitable loss. It plants in you some small ray of hope that Noble Six can live on. That if you play the level well enough you will eventually see the last elite fall to your feet and stand looking out over the wasteland victorious.
And that’s why it is masterful. The level uses the visuals of a blasted wasteland, your HUD cracking, its infinite horde mechanic and the fact that you know how the story ends, all of the tools at its disposal towards the singular goal of driving home the point of Halo as a series: No matter how desperate things seem in your life, no matter how dark the times, no matter how inevitable defeat appears to be, so long as you fight on then a better world will come of it. So long as you fight on there is hope.
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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots from the video game “Halo: Reach.” We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Halo was created by Ensemble Studios and belongs to Microsoft.