Diegetic death in Halo: Reach

19 Sep 2010

Diegesis  Gaming 

Originally posted at https://palfrey.livejournal.com/308858.html

Spoiler warning: Unless you've already completed Halo: Reach, there will be spoilers within. I'm going to spend some time wittering on about other stuff first, but there will be spoilers later on. If you're intending on playing it, I'd advise doing so before reading this. I'M NOT KIDDING HERE. I WILL BE SPOILING THE ENTIRE PLOT INCLUDING THE ENDING.

New vocab warning: There will probably be words here you haven't seen before, or at least haven't explored properly. For some of you this won't be true (congratulations, have a gold star), but for the rest of us, don't worry. They're not that scary, and they actually turn out to open whole new areas of really cool conversation (for heavily geeky values of cool), and I'll be linking to Wikipedia as appropriate and/or discussing the terms.

So a while back I read the article "The Incoherence of Reincarnation: Story vs. Telling in Videogames", which talks about the notion of death in videogames as an extra-diegetic notion in many games. I had to read the Wikipedia article on Diegesis before I could fully get it, but the gist of the argument is this: death in most games is not in fact part of the story, but merely a convention of the storytelling medium.

Diegesis is a fascinating concept, and one it turns out I've been reading about for a bit without really noting it. It separates items of a story that actually occur v.s. things that are used in order to tell the story. So, for example, every time you see a time-lapse montage in a TV show, you know because of the conventions of the media that you're aware of that the montage doesn't actually occur in the story, it's just a convenient way of showing you a long-time period passing without having to take lots of time to do it. All the events during the montage do occur, but they're not regarded as important enough that you need to know more about them than the little we see. There's also stuff that doesn't happen at all, but is used in the telling of the story or required for external reasons e.g. most usages of music in TV/movies; the swapping of one actor for another between series (due to contractual disputes or whatever) and no-one noticing the character getting 3 inches taller; "previously on" segments; etc, etc.

So, in a fair number of computer games, you die every so often. This is especially true in First Person Shooters, but it's true for some others. In most there's some notion of save points, and when you die you get re-spawned back at the last one. The gist of the article was that effectively coming back at a save point is effectively time being rolled back to that point, and then you get to have another go. Maybe you'll screw up a few times more, but eventually you'll get past the nasty bit, and only that version of history - the last time when you succeed - is part of the story. Because you're the invincible superman or whatever, in the official version of history you can't die, because then everyone's got no-one to save them and the bad guys get to win (ok, maybe you're playing Dungeon Keeper, but then we're in a slightly different article). So we die over and over again until we get the nice version of history where good triumphs. This idealised version of history can be thought of as the big-budget Hollywood version of your video game (in general this tends to be a bad idea, but again that's another article). The good guy can have setbacks, can have points where he (unless it's Metroid or Lara Croft, 'he' is pretty much a given for anything mainstream) gets captured temporarily but escapes heroically, and in the end everything gets sorted out.

Halo: Reach was a slight divergence from this, and hence why I'm writing this. So, to a large extent the plotline can be summarised as "super-soldiers make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity" i.e. generic big-budget Sci-fi plotline #52. It was a very fun generic plotline, and the gameplay is lovely, but the very ending of the game was something different. You start off as the newest member of a squad of 6, and everything goes to shit pretty much from minute 1. Other members of the squad die at particular points (staying behind to set off big bombs with dodgy timers, crashing the helicopter-analog into a big bad guy to save your ass, sniper headshot after you think everything's fine, etc), and in the ending of everything you're the only one left and so you've got to stay behind and operate the big gun so the spaceship with all the remaining humans and the vitally important "will save everyone" data gets off the planet.

Here's where it gets interesting. The plot has ended. You've gotten the "finished game" achievement, there's no more objectives, and you're stuck on your own on a severely shot up planet with no hope of escape. A message pops up on screen: "Objective: Survive", and lots of bad guys start turning up. I'm not particularly brilliant at this, but judging from what I saw there will be increasing quantities of bad guys, and sooner or later you die. And then instead of respawning, a video sequence kicks in. Your helmet flies off, and you're scrabbling for a weapon while big bastards with oversized energy swords head at you. You do pretty well, but there's a limit, and you get crushed under the weight of them. This death, unlike all of the others is diegetic. It actually sticks this time, and that's something I've never seen in an FPS.

I was honestly impressed and affected by this. I was kinda tired at this point, and the plotline hadn't been that tight, so I wasn't as drawn in as I could have been, but with better writing this could have been major. Other FPSes have done self-sacrifice as a game ending plot item, but they've always been in the sense of "killing the load-bearing ultimate bad guy and so you're probably not getting out of there", but I've never seen anyone explore it before.

The other cool thing about this was that is was individual. Video games, as an interactive medium are very much an individual experience. Everyone playing the same game sees basically the same plot, but the bits that take longer and where we die and how we solve problems is very personal. In this case, everyone gets to end this a bit differently. I could have just run around like crazy and tried to kite them until I got bored/overwhelmed, but everyone will do things a bit differently and so we get a slightly divergent plot.

There's a lot of novel games coming out these days - Braid, Limbo, Portal - but this wasn't the game I was expecting novelty from. I've played all the Halo games, and with the exception of ODST I've played all of them to completion so I was really quite surprised by this, as in the others they always wanted to do a sequel.

If anyone wants to discuss more stuff like this at some point over a pint or two I'll be very happy to do so, as this sort of thing - critical analysis of video games as a storytelling medium - is something that interests me.

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