When Reach first came out, I remember hearing a lot of praise for its story. I knew it was about a squad of spartans and their role in the fall of Reach, one of humanity's last secure planets that was essential to the Halo universe's war. Of course, hearing about how the game revolved around a close knit squad, I could already predict a lot of dramatic deaths, and attempts at plucking heart strings. The fact that nearly the entire squad died wasn't surprising to me, but I didn't focus on that. I focused on how they died, and how I felt about each death. And unfortunately, it didn't feel right until their sixth try.
Noble Team are the stars of Reach. The squad consists of Carter, their commanding officer, Kat, their technician, Jorge, their explosives and big arms expert, Jun, the marksman, Emile, the close quarters specialist, and finally Noble Six who is the rookie of the group, and the player character. Of course, Six is unnamed for the sake of the player's immersion.
The chemistry the group has is done fairly well thanks to dialogue that helps the soldiers be more than just their jobs. Carter often has to check in with command to get green lights for ideas from his squad, making him a very by-the-books kind of leader. Jorge acts as a translator for the group, speaking and comforting some refugees they find in the story. He becomes the gentle giant. Kat is protective of her tech, and often challenges Carter's authority, befitting her name as a rather "catty" character. Jun seems to be a bit shady, and maybe a bit cocky? Emile appears to be the violent, but silent type. Notice how the descriptions of each character got shorter and more uncertain.
The time spent with each character is far too short before they begin to be killed. This causes a few problems as well. With how early the deaths come, the player already knows what to expect. The player will have less interest in caring for the squad if he already expects them to all just die for one reason or another. Another issue this causes is taking screen time away from development and shoveling it into each dramatic moment, which isn't even done thoroughly anyway. And of course with the characters being shot down like flies, they don't even get the chance to develop enough to care about before they die. You can even see the developers and writers trying to compensate for this by giving the next person on the list to die some extra screen time.
Jorge had his moment with the refugees, and the scientists before dying. Kat had her confrontations with Carter before dying. Carter had a confrontation with Halsey, the head scientist before dying. Emile had a final stand moment with some powerful enemies before dying. Jun didn't even die, the guy just left, leaving his part of the story hanging. All these sequences do, is prepare the player for their inevitable death, it doesn't make them want to live, just guess when.
But let's get into a bit more detail with the actual deaths.
Jorge sacrifices himself to blow up a starship. There's a wonderful scene where he tears off his dog tag, holds Six's hand, and carries him to the edge of the ship before tossing Six out. As Six floats through space and back into Reach's atmosphere, the ship explodes with Jorge still inside. This all occurs while in the first person perspective, as well. It's a great scene that's timed so poorly, the effect is drained almost entirely. With how early this takes place, it makes it feel pointless, and undermined by the idea that there's simply more of this to come. The fact that the act of blowing up the ship did little for them plot-wise doesn't help either. Of course this could be used in a powerful way, a motivation to try and make Jorge's death not in vain. But we already know it is, so the whole scene feels hallow.
Kat is the second spartan to die. And her's is perhaps the most offending of the lot. As the team is running through a corridor, she's shot in the head by a sniper in a ship above them which flies off. She falls, the dramatic music kicks up, and there's a long shot of the team waiting for a ship to arrive, presumably to take her body away as one of them holds her in his arms. The entire sequence is so brief, and sudden it makes it feel like the developers simply decided to cut time here for the sake of the rest of the game. Even if we did have plenty of time to grow to love Kat as a character, we wouldn't even get a chance to grieve.
Jun leaves. As one of the two least characterized Spartans, we aren't even humored with his death. Jun simply leaves the squad at some point with orders to protect a scientist. His part in the story is over, nothing comes of that. He just leaves.
Carter is next. The scene starts with an AI the squad has demanding he seek medical assistance. Blood is on his armor, and his helmet is off. The ship he, Emile, and Six are on is being shot at, and he's piloting. Telling Emile and Six to abandon ship, he says he'll draw fire and give them air support. There's no real suspense here, the scene is set; he is going to die. With as much death as there's already been in the game, any idea of tension of him maybe shaking the enemy off and surviving is simply laughable. You're just waiting for him to blow up at this point. Later in the level a Scarab stands in Emile's and Six's path. Without a chance to get around or handle it another way, Carter quickly throws himself and the ship into the tank-like opponent. With a corny one-liner, and brief encouragement from Emile, he's gone.
To a level, I don't mind the dialogue here, however. They are soldiers, after all. They do expect to die and give their lives for what they need to do to win. So, instead of making Carter's last moment one of hatred, anger, and sorrow, they let it be one of victory and bravado. If there's any bones I'd throw at Bungie through this, that's the one. It makes sense, it feels right. Too bad the timing and set-up, is again, way off. It's just another “there goes another one“ moment for the player.
Emile's death is another mix of some good and some bad. The timing isn't bad, and the set-up isn't awful. While sitting on a large cannon to shoot at incoming ships, he's overwhelmed by some powerful enemies. He's stabbed and mauled before taking some down on his own. Six has to go to the gun himself to use it just as Emile was, and when you do get to the cannon you come across his body. This is important. This gives the player a moment to mourn. Despite how little I knew of Emile and how little I cared, coming across his body still had an impact. It made me stop, and my heart dropped just a bit. And after a heavy sigh, I continued. It was so close to being a great moment, stolen by the fact that when I did stop, I didn't have much to reflect on when it came to him.
After five characters, and Bungie has only scratched the surface of the emotional shock a death should have. After Six man's the cannon, and the VIPs get away to trigger the rest of the events in Halo, he's left alone, his objective complete, and his teammates dead. Reach is lost, but thanks to him and his team's sacrifice there's still hope for humanity to win the war. Their role in the rest of the universe is done. The credits roll.
But Six's own journey hasn't yet ended. Once the credits fade out, we find Six standing in the middle of some torn down buildings. An enemy ship passes by overhead and drops off a group of aliens. The player is back in control and an objective is presented: Survive. With nothing left to do, no one left to protect and fight for, Six has only this instinct left. He won't make his last stand for humanity, for his team, for a future, or a past. He won't fight for Reach, or even just because it's right. Six's last stand is for him, and him alone. It's a moment, one last moment, to just be who he is: a warrior. A warrior in its most purest form.
With enemies coming from all directions, the player is able to live and experience Six's last moments of being a solider. The player fights for as long as he can, killing as many as he can, and running for as long as he can until he's finally overwhelmed. It's a moment of catharsis for both Six and the player, to just let loose and kill everything just because they can, just to prove how strong their own resolve is; counted by bodies.
When the player finally submits to the onslaught we have a scene where Six falls to the ground as aliens surround and overcome him. Some are shot or hit away, until one is able to deliver the final blow. The scene is drawn out, and doesn't provide hope, but instead a point. It doesn't try to be dramatic, because you wanted to live. It's dramatic, because you want to keep fighting, you want to keep standing, you want to survive. And when you die both Six and the player feel the sword pierce into their heart, punctuating the end of Halo: Reach.
The post-credits final stand of Noble Six was a perfect example on how to handle a protagonist's death. It's a moment where the player and character finally meld together. Their motivations are the same, and held in fiery passion. Together, Six and the player have one last moment to truly test their skills, ambition, and will.
Obviously, I found Six's death to be the strongest part in the game, and maybe even one of the best deaths in video game history. It's just such a shame it took Bungie five characters to figure it out.