I recently revisited Halo: Combat Evolved (part of the Master Chief Collection) and was struck by the symmetry in its campaign. Actually, not just symmetry, but chiasmus. Where you start is where you return, but for the opposite reason.
If you’re not familiar with the term, chiasmus is a literary device for rhetoric, most commonly found (as far as I’m aware) in historical Greek writings. (It’s fairly common in the New Testament, in fact.) The idea is fairly simple:
Here, Idea C would be a central, core, or pivoting point on which the rest of the text is built around; Idea C is the key idea. As such, Idea B and Idea B’ are similar to one another but not the same, and so are Idea A and Idea A’. Obviously this a basic template and there’s more that can be done with the structure. I recommend reading some about it here. The primary rule for chiastic structure is that there be a reversal of logic along with an apparent reversal of words:
“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” (Socrates)
Back to video games. I found that Halo: Combat Evolved has its campaign designed following this device, and I can hardly believe it was accidental. (Spoilers follow.)
The game begins on the Pillar of Autumn, with the Master Chief trying to escape. From there, the player is lead to the ring world known as Halo, working their way into the alien’s command center, hoping to find a weapon useful to stop the enemy Covenant. That is, until the Library, when the secret of the alien world is unveiled and the plan found to be folly. Suddenly, the player’s motivations are turned upside down: this isn’t a weapon to wield but a catastrophe needing to be stopped; the Covenant isn’t the real enemy, it’s the Flood which will threaten the galaxy. And so, from that point, the player is lead back through the same facilities, the same levels, already traveled, fighting a new enemy, heading in the opposite direction, driven by a new purpose. These rooms you’ve seen before have been re-contextualized. Finally, the Master Chief and Cortana re-enter the Pillar of Autumn, this time to weaponize and destroy it themselves.
Here’s the a very simple version of the breakdown.
Escape the Pillar of Autumn
Fight the Covenant to the center of Halo
Discover the secret of the Flood
Fight the Flood off of Halo
Return to the Pillar of Autumn
It’s quite impressive, I think.
Why is it impressive, though? How does structure help video games? Here are a few things I think this device is useful for.
- It reuses assets. This may seem lackluster from the player’s perspective but boy it’s smart for the developer. Halo: CE effectively has five or six maps used across ten missions—and they don’t feel recycled! It doesn’t feel like I’m just loading into the same place or fighting the same enemies over and over (though I am); instead, it feels intentional, like this is where the story is going, how the story is being told, and what I should expect.
- It builds familiarity. Games have a lot of heavy lifting to do teaching their players. What’s the space like? What can I do here? How do I navigate to where I’m going? What are the mechanics between here and there? Beat by beat these questions have to be answered and this sort of parallelism or symmetry offered by chiasmus means players are retreading where they’ve been and what they’ve done. As a player, I know this space, I know how to get where I need to get and what I can do between here and there. This builds confidence, and ultimately, I think, enables more fun. (The Uncharted games do this in almost all of there temples: explore in, get the thing, fight out.)
- It feels intentional. I mentioned this above but I think it’s worth repeating. There’s a lot of power in cohesiveness, making a world or a story feel like it was all intended. This is not a happy accident. Additionally, if the game is following chiasmus closely, there’s a high likelihood the story and game play have a key purpose or message.
After this, I’m left wondering what other literary devices are hidden behind mission designs out there. Kudos to the OG Halo: CE team for putting this together!
This post was originally written and published on August 2, 2018.