James Cameron's Aliens is a science fiction masterpiece, a perfect blend of suspense, horror and action all rolled into a seamless tour de' force. Now, the title of the article is probably making some of you wonder why I'm talking about a film involving xenomorphs. Remember William Hudson in the film, played by Bill Paxton? GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER! Yeah, that guy. He beat his chest the entire first half of the film, bragging and boasting about his skill in combat. But when the shit hit the fan, he reverted into a crying child. The point being, is that those who speak the loudest are often the most inexperienced.
This goes for all walks of life in all professions. I've worked with a number of high profile business', and every so often I find myself in a room filled with executives. Some were loud mouthed, and thought if they shouted enough their opinion would be proven right. Those individuals never bothered me, or intimidated me. However, the man or woman who sat at the end of the table steadily flipping through a binder, wearing a low profile black suit and tie...Those are the individuals that put me on edge the most in those board rooms. Because if they have to speak, you know the entire situation has changed.
As they say, actions speak louder than words. Within the games industry there are two examples I can point too, ironically the two franchises that changed the first person shooting genre forever. DOOM and Halo. Their protagonists do not speak often, they do not brag nor do they boast of their skill. They have a job, they do it without hesitation and with brutal efficiency. If you are their friend, you are strengthened by their mere presence. If you are their enemy, they are death incarnate. There is no reasoning with the DOOM marine or John-117, no conversation to be had. If you have done wrong, or evil, your end is upon you.
This is what makes the silent protagonist so magnetic and appealing to gamers. You can both inject yourself into their shoes through the immersion of your character not speaking and as an added bonus the silence makes you, the player, feel as though the universe you inhabit is morphing to your actions. To write a silent character is difficult, because you cannot rely on speech to convey their emotions or actions. You must use their movement, interactions with the environment and (the most difficult aspect) make their representation meaningful.
So now we stand at a great narrative divide within the Halo franchise. John-117 has become more vocal, and his character speaks more often within the games. You can argue he was always vocal in the extended universe, but novels are much different than interactive media. In my opinion, this portrayal of John-117 undermines what made his character so compelling within the games, taking away the very thing that made Chief, the Chief. Halo in this way can learn so much from DOOM, a franchise that has after over twenty years, never had it's protagonist say a word. The DOOM guy doesn't need to, he doesn't need to utter a single letter of the alphabet. And that makes him, in my humble opinion, this generations throwback to greatness.
Shell By Shell, Limb By Limb:
Every time I boot up my old Packard Bell PC from the 90s (I still have one of those ancient things) and throw in my old floppies of DOOM I'm stepping back into a character that still to this day, resonates within me very deeply. DOOM guy doesn't say much, he doesn't talk and he doesn't interact with many people. His best friends are a rusted two barrel shotgun, a gas powered chainsaw and a weapon capable of melting your face off across the room (BFG-9000.) I don't have to worry about the DOOM guy ever saying things like "I'm down!" or "I need help!" Help comes in the form of two to the face, one to the legs. When his health is damaged there is no beeping "shields are down" audible cue, just his bloodied face in the HUD. Bruised and beaten, but not dead. Even at 1% health the DOOM guy has the will to continue, the rage to kill every last demonic soul in his way. That to me, speaks more than his character ever could.
The new DOOM is a game I am still gushing over, a month post-release. DOOM took its protagonist and
rather than change him, took what was so positive about him and enhanced it. No longer is the DOOM guy an unknown silent soldier, but an undying soldier of wrath born in the depth of hell itself to combat it. I wont spoil the story, or his character because you all should really experience this masterpiece for yourself, but I will give you a little taste. Without him ever saying a single word, without reading one sliver of lore from the codex you learn his origins. He is wrath, the avatar of undying an un-quenching rage set upon this realm as a plague against all who dwell within hell. Demons feared him so much they once entombed him in a massive crypt with his armor and wrote markings warning of his release, lest all of hell be consumed in blood. The writings told of a time where the skies rained demonic blood as he cut a swath through hell itself. That's right, hell itself is terrified of the DOOM guy.
You learn all of this, without him speaking a word and without reading one sliver of lore. You experience this through his actions and his interactions with the environment. Each little thing he interacts with, you gain more knowledge of who he is and where he has come from. By the end of the game I felt more attached to his character than I ever have with John-117, or any other character for that matter. Others have felt this exact same way, as well.You don't need a loud mouthed character to know his story, you only need a character that can articulate well. And in the end, that makes a far more interesting character than one who expositions him/herself to death.
As I tore through hell as the DOOM guy, shotgun shell after flying limb after vaporized BFG-9000 remains, I knew who I was playing as. I've always known who he was, as far back as 1993.
I don't know who I'm playing anymore in Halo; when I step into the boots of John-117.
Combat Evolved, Characterization Revolved:
John-117, up until Halo 4 was mostly silent. Sure he said a few words here and there, mostly because he had to. Until DOOM guy he interacted with many other people, who asked him questions he had to answer. But his answers were short, to the point and impactful. In Halo 2 John-117 was so well portrayed I have since to find an instance in the Halo universe which I feel nails his character so perfectly. So many short, but great quotes spoken, that complemented the situation at hand. "Giving the Covenant back their bomb." or "When I'm done with Truth... Those few words said more than an entire narration would have, and the actions which followed those words made his character even more impactful. Halo 2 will always be, in my mind, the perfect portrayal of John-117.
I felt his being more vocal in Halo 4 was actually a blessing in disguise, as well. For the first time in the series John-117 had a personal stake in what he was fighting for, Cortana. It made sense for him to be more vocal and to question authority. But, true to his nature, he spoke only when necessary and what he had to say was always on point.
Halo 5, I feel, took what made his character (like DOOM guy) so appealing and abandoned it entirely. John-117 spoke much more than he needed to, in situations where it felt awkward and unnecessary. One instance was during Genesis when at inappropriate times he would come in over the comm to expose something about Cortana or the Didact. What was portrayed in the novels, Blue Team being a fluid almost perfect machine of war just wasn't there. What we received instead was a banter filled squad that felt out of touch with their characters. John-117 spoke more in Halo 5 than he had actions within the game. Even during the crescendo of he and Locke's fight, a moment that should have had him silent, he continued to speak about Cortana. He didn't have to say a word, we knew what he was thinking. It felt like the godawful Harrison Ford narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. The final cut of the film removed all narration, and now is considered one of, if not the most, impactful science fiction film of all time.
In the writing business, if you have to have your characters tell you what is going on, then you have poor characterization. Simple as that.
"So, You Have Returned...":
At the beginning of the new DOOM four words are spoken to you as you wake from your tomb. The first words you have heard in many decades, "So, you have returned..." That was all that needed to be said of DOOM guy, you know the rest and exactly what those words mean.
At the beginning oh Halo 4 you hear three words, "Wake up John." You know what that means, nothing more needs to be said. You pop the latch, and you are John-117 once more.
In Halo 5, the first words you hear have nothing to do with John-117 and really nothing to do with anything save for it you were privy to the Escalation series of comics which were in of themselves poorly written. You get a long winded exposition of why this team no one has ever seen up until this very moment is doing what they are doing. What a jarring, poor way to begin a game in a series that has always been more than the sum of its words.
I could tell you everything that desperately needs to happen with Halo's narrative, I already have for the most part in my other articles. But I don't need to say anything, no one does. What Halo needs now more than what any words could express, action. Microsoft needs to hire writers who need not brag about their resumes in an HBO interview, but writers who can sit down and create impactful characters without needing blatant acknowledgement. Writers who craft worlds and individuals who inhabit them not because they are told, but because it is their passion and are content with their own mastery of the art form. 343i needs to realize that their core fans are not the MLG players who will only be around for a short time, but the ones who have followed this great journey from the beginning.
Science Fiction author David Brin once told me over lunch that what makes a great character is not what they say, but what you make them do. John-117 doesn't need to tell us what he has done. When he speaks, it is because he must not because he chooses. Just as DOOM guy never speaks a single word, because he doesn't have to. What hell itself speaks of him, is all we need to hear to know he is an unstoppable engine of death who Satan himself weeps tears of cowardice at.
I want to play Halo 6, but not at the expense of John-117 loosing much of who he is. To understand his character you need to, as 343i's marketing even states, walk in his shoes and watch his actions. Why then, is the marketing so disjointed from the writers? Why did Halo 5 force feed words into John's mouth, instead of writing him meaningful actions? I don't know. But what I do know is that the core fans who are around now, may not be there for much longer and 343i may have to adopt a model like ActiVision has with Call of Duty, which is the release to release fan retention. Replace the old, with the new.
I know 343i wants to cultivate a strong fanbase and please both new and old alike. But you can't do this with talk or with words, you must do so with action. Like with John-117 and DOOM guy, you must show your determination and skill to continue to shape this franchise we so dearly love.
After I beat Halo 6 I want to say, "So, you have returned..."
And you all will know, exactly what that means.
A Halo fan since the beginning, 2001. Also a games industry consultant, writer, and educator. These are my thoughts, praise and advice concerning the past, present and future narrative of the Halo franchise.
Halo, all assets within, characters and merchandise are property of the Microsoft Corporation and is developed by its subsidiary 343 Industries.
I do not own, claim to own or retain any rights to the Halo franchise. This is a fan based work, and is strictly non-profit.
All other images, articles linked, materials and franchises that are not strictly specified as my own are property of their respective owners.
A More Complete Look At The Halo Franchise
Written, Researched, Produced And Published By Halo-Nation member "Synth Samurai"
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