June 13, 2008


> — Vociferous @ 11:50 am

The first of the three core elements is the environment, which instinctively begs a number of questions…

  • How does an environment really affect an encounter?
  • How should a player be able to interact with the environment?
  • How should enemies interact with the environment?
  • How does an environment set the mission’s mood?
  • How can an environment make an encounter enjoyable on a player’s first attempt, or, better yet, how can an environment make an encounter enjoyable on a player’s 50th attempt?

At its most basic form, an environment offers a variety of practical things which steer the high-concept direction of a given encounter. It can create cover, it can remove cover; it can allow for mobility or it can stifle it. An environment can isolate combat, it can provide a place for combat to move chaotically free or it can do both, simultaneously and sequentially – depending on the mission’s design.

The beach assault on The Silent Cartographer is one of the most highly-touted encounters in Halo, despite it only lasting a matter of seconds.

In Halo: Combat Evolved, there’s a definite spatial change between launching a Warthog over the verdant fields and foamy rivers of the second level, Halo, and plunging into the dank depths of the parasite containment bunker found in 343 Guilty Spark. One has an open environment with hills and berms giving way to vehicle interplay and large-scale skirmishes, while the other offers close-quarter, physically intensive corridor-to-corridor combat. Both can offer satisfying conclusions, but ultimately, what dictates it being enjoyable is almost always choice.

During Assault on the Control Room, another oft-touted encounter occurs when you approach the first Wraith blockade of the trilogy. It begins with the player marching across a bridge which swings above a sprawling icy cavern. Immediately, a Pelican comes in hot, being pursued by Banshees. You drop the enemy fliers and tear across the bridge platform into the other structure hidden behind the canyon wall. After a brief collection of battles, you once again emerge into the same canyon, but now you’re on its floor looking out over a massive frigid environment.

These Marines will certainly find a shallow grave unless you intervene; thankfully the environment will offer you about half a dozen ways to do this.

To the far left are the Marines amongst a patch of tall evergreens, trying to take potshots at their enemies. Also to your left and only a few meters out of your grasp is a turret with a Grunt, not yet aware of your approach. Directly in front of you, a quarter of a klick away, is an Elite who quickly mounts a nearby Ghost. There’s another Grunt-armed turret on a ridge to the right with two Jackals barreling across the foreground toward the Marines, their plasma pistols brightly primed. And in the distance, a Wraith is blocking the only way out of this place.

Assuredly, if you hide and watch the events play out without intervention, you’ll see the Marines perish and then the Covenant will begin looking for you. From an objective standpoint, we already know what is required of us. We have to protect the Marines and neutralize the Covenant threat. As simple as that sounds, immediately, the player can choose from a variety of actions to begin this encounter:

  • They could attack the nearby turret Grunt.
  • They could make a run for the Marines.
  • They could take out the Jackal pair and move toward the Wraith.
  • They could engage the turret emplacement on the far side ridge with the M6D pistol.
  • Or, my personal favorite, they could launch a single plasma grenade at the location of the Elite, lighting the bastard up before he can grab his Ghost.

The choices here are offered by the environment. If this was a narrow corridor, an empty series of rooms, a structure with a lower ceiling or even a smaller variation of the same design, the entire encounter would completely change – and ultimately, cease to exist. But in this environment, freedom of choice is alive and well. The field, the hills, the rocks, the outlying canyon walls and a number of other factors become the blackboard for this experience. The player can tell the story of this encounter. They can build it the way they see fit.

They are the architect – they design the war.

As a preface to the Flood, you’re inserted into a sinisterly murky swamp which sets the stage for the horrors ahead.

Choice is incredibly important within the environment’s layout and this is often what separates a decent encounter from an amazing one. If an encounter lacks the freedom of choice, then its potential for the player to own and personalize the experience is eliminated – all that is left is the repetitive system we’ve come to expect from many other shooters. With the consistent inclusion of choice, the Halo series has separated the average encounter from being a systematic and predictable procedure to being an elaborate and evolving masterpiece of the player’s own making.

But choice isn’t the only result which comes from an environment’s function or purpose within an encounter.

While in this particular scenario you are being thrown into a battle by simply emerging from a corridor, in others, you’re actually the one picking the fight. Within the first few moments of Truth and Reconciliation, you realize that you’re in complete control. You and your squad of Marines may be marching into Covenant territory, but this time you have the high ground and the weapons to prove it.

The covert sniper insertion is a hallmark of Halo: Combat Evolved; so impressive, in fact, that it was emulated rather closely in Halo 3.

This, of course, is the infamous nighttime sniper insertion; the player is being set loose to rain down death from above on the unsuspecting enemies below the ridge line. They outnumber you, out-power you and it is a certainty that there are more of them to deal with when you’re finished here. That being said, there’s something elegant and exciting about being dropped into a stealth operation, moving silently in the darkness while keeping the enemy in one corner of your eye and your allies in the other.

This element is mood, and the gnarled hillside of this particular mission has it in spades. The trees are alien and bare, the rocks are pale, and looming ominously above you is a Covenant battlecruiser, your eventual destination in the mission. In this encounter, you feel like a blood-hungry predator eyeing your oblivious prey amongst the brambles. With the sniper rifle you can surgically remove the Covenant infantry, one punctured skull at a time – weeding through the enemies in whichever manner suits your plan.

Easily one of the most popular and iconic environments in all of Halo fiction, the site of the first major encounter on Installation 04.

Throughout the Halo series, you’ll notice a large range of emotive environments, all of which transmit very interesting and distinct moods. These, in turn, drive the direction and the emotional experience of an encounter – and over the course of the game, each environment contributes to the emotional experience of the entire story.

One of the most popular examples of this concept has the player staring out of a Pelican’s cargo hold, while the dropship soars above a vast ocean. The UNSC craft spins about, revealing the beach of an island which is crawling with Covenant infantry. You emerge from the hold alongside a squad of Marines and sprint headlong into the entrenched enemy encampment, weapons firing from both sides. And for a reward, once the violence has subsided and the Marines prove victorious, you receive a Warthog with the entire island to explore.

Although the battle may last for only a minute or so, an assault of a beach, almost always carries the iconic feeling of invading a foreign place for a greater purpose. The beach of The Silent Cartographer is no different. In many ways, this one encounter is a window into the soul of not only Halo: Combat Evolved but the entire trilogy – in its heart of hearts, hasn’t Halo always been about good people invading an alien environment in search of salvation?

While on paper it may sound a bit campy, the reality for every gamer is that if an environment can convince you of the experience, then it has succeeded in telling a story. While Halo is categorically not realistic in art style, the emotional impact which the trilogy’s environments can generate is absolutely palpable. From vividly colored Covenant vessels to ethereal Forerunner landscapes, from parasite-infested lairs to a forsaken Earth City – Bungie has championed the methodology of making an environment evocative.

The final and possibly most significant part of an environment’s role in an encounter is proper compartmentalization.

We’ve talked about having choice give you control of an encounter. We’ve talked about mood driving the emotional experience of an encounter. But really, those two items are vital only in as much as the battleground has been compartmentalized for warfare. If an environment is not conducive for the type of combat being offered, then it doesn’t matter what choices are at your fingertips, nor does it matter how intriguing the terrain is – the environment would be inherently broken.

What is compartmentalization then?

In this sense, it is the division and placement of enemies throughout an encounter or series of encounters which determine flow of the battle.

A tangible example of this concept is Halo, the second level of Halo: Combat Evolved. Even before the player climbs into that first Warthog, he is already dealing with dropship after dropship as they unload Covenant infantry in waves. The dropships don’t simply release all of the enemies into a pile at once, but rather sequentially place them at key locations and in widely differing terrain. By creating this separation and diversity, the player gets a chance to recover and carefully consider strategic options, while taking a short jaunt to the next batch of enemies.

Spirit dropships were used frequently in Halo: Combat Evolved to help with the pacing and compartmentalization of combat.

After acquiring a Warthog, the player has a very specific objective: search three specific zones in the adjacent ravine for Marine survivors and defend their locations until support arrives. Once again, it’s the player’s turn to choose where to go, how to get there and what to do when they arrive.

Upon eliminating the embedded enemies in any one of these three zones, the player then awaits Covenant reinforcements. In waves and in different locations, Spirit dropships lower the alien infantry onto the battlefield, forcing the player to respond to those specific changes in real-time. And once you’ve succeeded in protecting the Marines in the first encounter, you proceed to whichever of the two remaining zones you wish to engage in next.

Acquiring your first Warthog in the series and using it to retrieve the Marines from the adjacent valley is a genuine example of the environment facilitating an enjoyable series of encounters.

The entire level is perfectly compartmentalized and works with both choice and mood to provide an extremely authentic series of encounters; all interlocked, all exciting and all completely replayable. When something like compartmentalization of enemy placement is complimented by both choice and mood, an environment becomes a crucial dynamic in the creation of an encounter.

This article is not to say that Halo: Combat Evolved, or any other Halo game, is devoid of problematic environments or is absolutely perfect in this respect. That is obviously not the case. It is to say, that when an environment in Halo does what it should do during a battle, it will often be an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience – regardless of whether the player survives it or not.

Enjoyable enough, in fact, to play it over and over again…


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