It’s about the end of the game. Spoilers.
If Reach can’t be Band of Brothers it would probably settle for Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war story stocked with no name characters with different colors of armor and distinctive accents. They are soldiers and they do soldier things. No one explains why they’re doing their soldier things in great detail, so we don’t always know why. But we do know these things are important! If we don’t turn on this thing, or move that thing, people are going to die! And sometimes you’re just running along and then your buddy gets sniped in the head and she’s dead mid-sentence. That really happens! Please forget the electric shields that deflected countless sniper bullets for the past six hours. Please ignore the alien sniper casually hanging out while his buddies are nuking the city.
Maybe those complaints are disingenuous. Videogame rules work different in the cutscenes. Even if that’s not a great excuse, we’re used to it. So let’s ignore all the logical disconnects and accept that, hey, her super armor suit had a bad day, and that sniper didn’t mind the radiation. Letting these niggles go doesn’t change that the bigger issue: we don’t care that the she died. We barely know her name. We didn’t notice she had a robot arm for three missions. She was the information specialist, maybe? We assume this because there are two scenes where she’s hacking a computer to get a door closed/opened.
So when we beat the game Bungie has a big scrolling credits and I’m thinking “I appreciate the thank you, but the only reason I kept playing is because you made a gun that shoots homing grenades and that is the best gun ever and I kind of forgot about the story halfway through.” Oh well. It’s a plot based on a book with a sixth grade reading level. I’ve played games made from worse. Cutscenes were break times where I could get another beer.
We wait until after the credits because there’s usually a stinger. Anyway, we’ve been chatting about Battlestar Galactica for the last forty five minutes so why stop now? We’re dropped back into first person, not a cutscene. A new mission objective pops up on our HUD. During the game they might as well have permanently etched “Current Objective: Push the Next Button” at the top of my monitor for all the difference it made. I stopped reading objectives right quick because I know, as with every other Halo game, going straight ahead will eventually get you to the next level.
This time it actually is different. It’s not “push the button.” It’s just one word: survive.
There, at the end, I felt like I was fighting a hopeless battle. During the game I remember the characters talking about how they were in a hopeless battle, but I never felt that hopeless. I was shooting plasma pistols and battle rifles like every other Halo. We play co-op. Ludicrous and ill-advised actions are safeguarded/encouraged by the respawn system. Death is not a big deal. Now, trying to survive, my traditional head-on tank-killing bravado was nowhere to be found. I holed up in a shack and scrounged for a plasma pistol. I took damage and my visor cracked. Grunts were less silly, more scary. My girlfriend died. I didn’t last much longer. We watched our friend’s last stand. There were no respawns.
Bungie games do not want for tone. ODST’s desolate city is proof of that. They gin up august names for spaceships like “The Truth and Reconciliation”, and “A Monument to All Your Sins” is the best achievement title ever. They made squid-faced aliens in purple suits look cool. But I can’t remember the name of Ron Pearlman’s character, or which guy was Noble 3, or what the plant monster was trying to do in Halo 2. I remember tromping through New Mombasa streets at night, dark alleys lit by blaring police sirens. I remember crashing my helicopter into a walking battle tank and destroying that thing from the inside out. Maybe that’s what videogames are about, not cutscenes. Maybe I don’t need a story, at least not one in so many words. It’s four days later and I don’t remember the story of Reach, but I remember its final word.