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Power Member - Level 7
This series is about those moments in games that ask us to not just think, but act, and claim full ownership of the consequences of our decisions, as well as the lessons we may or may not learn. This is dedicated to the games that ask more of us as gamers.
This particular entry may seem out of place given the lack of choice in the game I'll be speaking about. Multiple paths, varied solutions, an emphasis on philosophy, or a design flexible enough to give a player autonomy within the game world can gift a moment much more importance then it would otherwise hold given it wouldn't have happened without the player's active input. In truth though, no story within a game is complete until the player adds their voice to the mix, as action is a part of the tale. Still... veteran gamers sometimes find themselves less invested in linear games with pre-scripted events due to the nagging sensation that what they're witnessing would have happened no matter what they did.
Still though, movies, books, and music can grip and move us despite their set nature. As I look back on the massive catalogue of games I've played, this one moment I feel is deserving of some retrospective thought as many never gave it the consideration it deserved. There aren't many linear games out there that through story rather then through scoring made me feel like I could have done better.
Given Halo 4's recent release as well as a wealth of extended universe content that has come out in the intermittent time between, let's take a trip back to a defining moment of Halo 3.
(Spoilers follow for segments of Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, and Halo 3 as well as small pieces of the extended series lore.)
In fast paced action games, characterization has a habit of falling by the wayside. It is not a genre that lends itself easily to the task, and sometimes the audience being targeted isn't as receptive to it as many would hope, looking instead for the next thing to shoot.
Commander Miranda Keyes was very much written like a character you as the player were supposed to like, but weren't given much reason to. The daughter of your former commanding officer in the first game, you end up under her command more out of happenstance then anything else. Stuff blows up, the bad guys are getting away, and guess who's running the nearest ship that's not shooting at you and can give chase? That named NPC from the opening cinematics, Commander Keyes.
Halo 2 was an ambitious game, with many events happening simultaneously. For the first time in the franchise, you actually played as multiple character: not only did you fill the role of the Master Chief, but also The Arbiter, gaining valuable insight into the minds of the opposing force and lending a depth to Halo's overarching storyline. At the same time though, Keyes and Sergeant Avery Johnson were playing a big role within the plot, mostly off camera but for a stray few cutscences. Miranda didn't have nearly as many character moments as her father Jacob. She may have done what was needed in a pinch, stopping this newly discovered Halo array from wiping out all life within its range, but it's harder to fall in love with a character when you don't get to watch them smash a couple lumbering powerful enemies with a prow of a drop ship with an abundance of snark just for the heck of it like her father did while the Marines cheered.
Despite so many contributions, you don't even know the character's fate until the sequel. Not only did she get back to Earth before you, and get put in command of a base, but also happened to be the one that started negotiations toward an alliance with a species formally a part of the enemy Covenant. Quite the dramatic offscreen resume, yet some die hards sadly spent more time arguing over whether she'd received a demotion just because an artist recolored the oak leaves on the collar of her uniform between games.
You knew Miranda was more then willing to put her neck on the line, take up the charge, and wasn't asking any risks of the marine forces under her command she wasn't willing to take on as well. She was the among the last to leave her base when it came under attack, taking up arms and ordering the wounded be evacuated first. These small noble actions gave an impression of the woman, but didn't paint the picture in full.
The real tragedy of the character is that her final moments weren't nearly as tragic as they should have been for many players.
In December of the year 2552, Earth was discovered to be the location of a portal leading to a Forerunner installation known as The Ark. Caught in an impossible situation, humanity had to choose whether to follow enemy Covenant forces through the portal to stop them abusing The Ark's abilities to fire every Halo array in the galaxy thus killing every living thing above a certain level of sentience, or stay on Earth to stand fast against the incoming Flood invasion which was sure to wipe out the planet. The portal was seen as an unknown factor, too great a risk, but due to her faith in the AI Cortana as well as in the Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 (AKA you), Commander Keyes risked her reputation, voiced her disagreement directly to the Fleet Admiral, and volunteered to lead forces through the portal to pursue the enemy. Put into command of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, she led a small fleet to The Ark, working closely with the Sangheili Shipmaster Rtas 'Vadum to push back the Covenant loyalists.
It was a conflict fought on many fronts both in space and on the ground, but eventually the Covenant not only took The Ark's control room, but also had Sergeant Avery Johnson as a prisoner, planning to use him to override the fact that the Forerunner installation's controls were locked for them but not to a human. Upon confirming with the Master Chief that he was too far away to prevent the catastrophe, Keyes crashed the pelican drop ship she had been planning to extract the whole team with into the control room. Alone and outnumbered, Keyes took on the Prophet of Truth's Jiralhanae honor guard with only a shotgun and a pistol. Unable to leave, Johnson urged Keyes to shoot him then herself to deprive the Prophet of the live human touch needed. Due to only a moment of empathetic hesitation, Miranda failed to kill Johnson before taking several "Spiker" rounds to the back, dying swiftly.
Arriving on the scene soon after, the Master Chief was able to stop the firing of the rings after Johnson's simple request to, "save the rest," as he closed his Commander's unseeing eyes. We're quickly caught up in The Arbiter's vengeance on the Prophet of Truth, striking him down for being a part of the corrupt Covenant system that had deluded so many and brought on the whole pointless war. But the most powerful moment for myself within that sequence went mostly unnoticed as it passed quietly in the background between moments of high drama.
As the Prophet breathed his last and the Arbiter had his satisfaction, Sergeant Johnson quietly carried Miranda Keyes from the battle field unto the drop ship she had flown in to rescue him. Her body would not be taken and mutated by the Flood. He may have even intended for her to receive a proper burial on Earth rather than rotting on an unknown world lightyears from home. The many implications behind that final act of respect made by a character so often used as comic relief throughout the series left an impression.
It wasn't until after this moment that content began to surface in books and the like that gave us a glimpse of Keyes' character. She had a difficult youth having been given up by her mother in essence because of your character, the Spartan program taking too much of a toll on her mother's time and conscience. Later in life, she even learned the truth of her mother's crimes, bearing the burden of yet another reason to hate her own flesh and blood and deny any relation. Her father was rarely home; his teaching career didn't last long due to the need for experienced officers on the front lines. Even within the UNSC she faced near constant accusations of nepotism, despite her first assignment actually being considered remarkably bad: assigning someone who graduated from Luna officer candidate school with honors to an unarmed science vessel would seem a waste, at least until she saved multiple UNSC vessels by sacrificing that little ship in the Battle of Gamma Pavonis VII and earned a promotion as well as her first command. Many gamers would never know that by the time of Halo 2 and 3 she believed herself to be the last of her family, her father having been confirmed dead and her mother having been presumed the same. They wouldn't know a lot of things that would have given the sequence much more depth.
So to any of you considering replaying Halo 3, take a moment to consider those moments of tragedy rather then allow them to be lost in the glossy sheen of heroism. They'll give the triumphs that much more meaning.