Having recently played ODST for the second time, I can still say with confidence that it's my favorite Halo simply due to its narrative. Of course, if you were to ask me the before to explain why, I'd honestly be stuck in just saying the structure. I couldn't tell you why the structure worked so well, the theme it carried, and what it does for the player. I'd almost leave the impression that you could impress me with that kind of narrative technique despite its use. Now, after about five years, I can do all of that. But in doing so, I can't help but see where it fell short of being something more than just the beatnik of the Halos.
In ODST, the main character is Rookie, the newest member of the squad. He is silent through the entire game, and only becomes a vital role to the game's sub-plot at the end. Even then, however, his role is to simply act as another gun or driver for the more important characters in the sub-narrative.
Early on in the game, the squad gets scattered as they drop into an invaded city. The Rookie is knocked out for several hours, and wakes up lost and alone in the city. The plot, at this point, is simple: reunite with the rest of the squad.
As the game begins, the player, as Rookie, is introduced to the city they came to. Being several hours after the initial invasions and battles, the city is dark and generally silent. Deep neon lights dot along buildings in a jazzy green or red that stand out along a lot of black, and dark iron. It's a color combination I can only describe as a war-torn poetry club. The music adds to this, by clashing with the tone of being alone in a warzone with a dreamy piano tune accompanied by low brass and strings.
The low tension, yet mysterious atmosphere almost feels disneyesque. There's a sense of wonder that comes over the player- a child like desire that demands to slowly stroll through the streets and take in the low lightning and dark towers as just another mystery to solve. The idea of being attacked or harmed is almost out of sight, and the player feels more relaxed. They end up craning Rookie's head around, not minding the lack of action or speed as they soak in the world around them, a world that's all too inviting to tell you a wonderfully fantastic tale.
This is when the theme is starting to get pushed. Rookie isn't a desperate, scared, and battle hardened vet looking to find his squad and save the day, he becomes something smaller and more naive. Rookie becomes a child lost in the expansive and dark woods behind his backyard. He's lost, but unafraid. He's focused, yet curious. Little trinkets he finds, become artifacts from a great warrior from long ago. Shadows are mysterious woodsmen or monsters, hiding and watching him as he travels through, but scared and hesitant of the strange thing in their woods. Everything he finds tells a fantastic story, despite how trivial the object may be, and that's where the rest of Rookie's plot comes in.
As Rookie wanders the rest of the city, he comes across items of interest that relate to his squad. He uses these items to follow their trail and eventually reunite with them. Whenever Rookie does find an object of interest, the player is temporarily taken out of the shoes of Rookie as one of his squadmates to experience what happened to them when they were scattered. This tells the story of how they came together, and then accomplished their mission from each member's perspective. While this does well to serve the purpose of fleshing out the squad, and organically giving players the typical Halo experience, this could also be interpreted as a part of Rookie's own character.
When Rookie finds an object, his interactions with the object can be seen as somewhat childlike. He'll get scraps of metal to poke at a hanging rifle, he'll jump on a broken turret and aim it around, as a child would play pretend. The idea here is Rookie is drawing his own conclusions, and while what the player sees during the flashbacks to the teammates could be very well how they transpired, they are also in huge contrast to Rookie's own situation. There's a lot more shooting, explosions, bravado, and drama. The term unreliable narrator comes to mind when thinking of these sections. Like how many children would over dramatize an object they find, the Rookie could very well be doing the same. Maybe his squad didn't kill that many aliens, or had so many close calls. Maybe one just took a fall and got hurt, or tripped and lost his gun.
It's a journey of discovery where a person can only understand so much thanks to the little they find, and due to these findings, their imagination runs wild. The game feels less like a war simulator, and more of just a lost simulator. Discoveries carry a lot of weight, and constantly bring you towards something familiar that's buried in all the mystery the city holds. It's a story that illustrates value on what we know, and how it can affect our perception of realities. These realities can be very fantastic, and exciting. Maybe not true, but the point is they cause us to create our own narrative and expand on what may or may not be real. And sometimes we need those fantasies to keep moving, and to hold out hope for finding our own familiar security- to find home.
Rookie could have assumed at anytime that his squad had died on arrival, or killed in action, but he didn't, because he created narratives that kept him motivated. They kept him alive.
Now with all of that said, you might be in agreement that Halo: ODST
did have quite the story to tell, right? Well, it's all the more sad
that the game abandons this approach as soon as Rookie does find his
squad. Nothing is talked about, but the currently front-running sub-plot
of saving a specific alien due to its knowledge. While this plot
doesn't necessarily come out of nowhere, it does undermine all of
Rookie's story before hand. Rookie's experience never truly feels
complete and concluded, despite him achieving his goal. The focus is
quickly changed to a very forced and cliche love story, as well as the
rescued alien. And this focus is so strong, it makes me feel like that
Bungie only did it to remind the players that ODST was a Halo game.
It's such a shame that such a much more interesting narrative had to be sacrificed for the sake of the source material, which did well to simply act as a base for the rest of ODST and Rookie's story. It's almost offending how quickly Rookie is tossed aside for two much less developed sub-plots.
If Bungie had somehow kept to Rookie's story of simply finding his way home, I think they would have been able to make ODST stand out more in the Halo crowd. It was the first game to not feature Chief, and instead emphasized on the struggles of the human characters. This let us get closer to Rookie already, and his journey felt much more human than anything else in the franchise. Maybe it wouldn't be considered the best game in the series, but I believe many more people would appreciate it, had it stuck to the path.
It's a bit ironic, and also quite sad, that a game about being lost, ended up lost in the shadow of it's older brothers.