How Halo: Combat Evolved Created a Horrifying Twist
Halo: Combat Evolved was a watershed moment in gaming for its innovations in the FPS genre. However, not many people discuss how Halo was able to deliver a twist in a way that completely changed the entire tone and direction of the rest of the franchise.
Developer Bungie Studios made the decision to introduce a third faction outside of Humanity and the Covenant halfway through the game, one that could mean the end of both. They needed one that both sides could worry about equally, and the Flood was the answer to this problem.
However, they needed the player to feel something toward this group. The Covenant were hated for slaughtering people and destroying what little the player knew about the world of Halo. But the Flood required a different reaction. They needed to be feared.
A Surprising Tonal Shift
The mission “343 Guilty Spark” is like no other in the game, and the tonal shift can be felt immediately. The Master Chief is dropped off in the middle of a swamp alone and is supposed to rendezvous with UNSC forces, who found an installation somewhere in the area. Even Cortana isn’t in Chief’s head as she stayed back in a Forerunner installation. While creeping through the swamp, the player’s only guide are a few light sources that help to direct them through the gas-filled swamp. There are no sounds of friendlies in the area.
Before reaching the installation’s entrance, you might only see a jackal or a couple grunts. The player is the most alone they have been since landing on Halo’s surface. This feeling of isolation is made more pronounced by how little the game has used it thus far. It always felt like there were friendlies ready to cheer you on from the sidelines, or Cortana was at least in your head to remind you that you weren’t alone, but here, something’s different. Crashed dropships, weapons, health, and turrets can be seen, but little else — signs of a battle long past.
Eventually, Chief sees a large structure between some trees and fog, but the sounds of gunfire and screaming grunts greet him at the same time. The player might think, “ally forces must be inside; what else could the Covenant be running from?”, so they continue without too much thought to the shooting. The enemies let Chief walk right on by, too distracted by the fear that has overcome them, as he enters the installation to find it empty other than an elevator leading further into its depths.
Arriving on the ground floor, it might seem like the game is returning to normal, but something still feels off. Where are the elites? A small squad comprised of jackals and grunts are huddled around the entrance to the next room, with a few others standing guard inside. The Chief is in one big atrium where a light bridge could connect the two sides. Instead, the player is forced to jump down to an open door. The way back is immediately cut off now. The only way out is (hopefully) forward.
The next room opens to some columns and another door. Here, there’s Covenant blood splattered down the next hallway with elite corpses scattered throughout. Locked doors and a growing curiosity keep the player on the trail forward. However, something else stands out that no other level has had so far: silence. Where are the drums and strings that orchestrated so many previous epic battles? There is nothing. Only the sounds of the Chief’s metal boots as he marches further into the facility.
By this point, the player might be asking themselves a few questions. What could the Covenant have been doing in this facility? Where are the marines? What made the Covenant run and scream earlier if it wasn’t UNSC troops? These questions begin to build with a strange sense of dread as the Chief makes his way deeper and deeper into the installation.
The Power Foreshadowing
The facility is eerily quiet. But in the next set of hallways, the quiet emphasizes new sounds: a pistol cocking followed by a single “pop.” The popping is a noise that has never been heard before and is over before the player can register if they even heard it or not. In the next room, the Chief finally comes across a friendly, but the marine is scared out of his wits, pistol waving in the air in warning.
Shooting at the Chief, the marine screams, “stay back, stay back, you’re not turning me into one of those things.” Turn him into what? What could have driven this marine to shoot at the Master Chief? Something terrible must have happened to both the Covenant and the UNSC here. Things weren’t looking too good, and it seems like the Covenant might not be the only thing to worry about in this universe.
The traitorous marine had to be put down, and on closer inspection, the room is covered in more Covenant blood and corpses. A glass container takes front and center, and a fire is burning in the corner where destruction to one of the catwalks can also be seen. All is quiet after the marine’s yelling though, giving the player time to soak in his words and what they’ve seen thus far in the facility.
The sense of unease is growing more and more intense. The next room is another that’s connected by a light bridge, but this one works. Crossing the bridge brings the Chief to a set of doors that have been blown off their hinges. Inside, a ramp leads down and is covered in human blood. A single marine is seen dead, but the feeling that Chief is getting close is stirring in the back of the player’s mind as more and more evidence of bloodshed is found.
At the bottom of the ramp, a cutscene begins, a dead marine falls into the Chief’s arms, and a strange insect-like sound is heard. The strangeness only keeps escalating. Chief enters the room, ensures the area is secure and checks one of the marine’s recorded camera feeds. A recording from a Private Jenkins, his feed shows everything that the UNSC squad did leading up to their arrival in the room.
These elements all help to put particular visuals and sounds in the player’s mind as they’re playing. The things that they had seen so far, coupled with the strangeness of this level, is creating a sense of unease, but it’s also cueing things up for the climactic reveal. The most important element in horror is its pacing, and Halo: Combat Evolved is using it beautifully here. All of these elements stand out because of the lack of the familiar while also giving the player enough time to think about them. The player soaks it up, only to begin to place all the pieces into place during the final moments.
A Powerful Reveal and Its Consequences
Jenkins’ feed shows when Johnson and Keyes’ squad found an elite in the facility that had been ravaged in a way they had never seen before. The next scene shows the marines breaking into the room that Chief is currently standing in. One marine says, “these Covenant worked pretty hard to lock it down,” in reference to the door before opening it and the entire squad enters. The room is seemingly empty. The marine’s video sways back and forth as he inspects it for himself.
Another marine breaks the silence and says, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and then a distress signal comes over the radio screaming: “We have contact. Lots of contact… They aren’t Covenant.” The squad doesn’t have much time to figure out what just transpired before they begin to hear an insect-like noise. The same noise Chief heard before he entered the very same room. Soon, little blob creatures, Flood spores, bust down a door and assault the squad. Jenkins doesn’t move and is soon overcome by the Flood spores, ending the transmission.
The player is back in control of the Master Chief, but now the terrible realization of what has transpired fully hits. A new enemy that’s even more terrible exists, the Covenant must have unwittingly unleashed them in the facility, and they are in the same room as the player. The Chief sees the bloody remains of the members of the squad that couldn’t make it out and notices that the door he entered is also locked. There is no escape for now, and before long, more spores are busting into the room from all angles, coming at the Chief.
Though the spores might seem like they are easy to dispatch individually, they are just the warm up for the real threat, the combat forms. The Chief gets his first look at these as they bust their way in from the original door he came in through, opening a way out. The combat forms are hulking malformed elites, which helps to explain what happened to the enemy leaders.
The Flood infect host bodies and bend them to their will in hopes of covering the universe in their putrid form. All the bodies that the player noticed on the way in? Those can all be enemies, whether they’re human or Covenant. The facility that seemed completely empty is now the opposite, and the player is smack dab in the very center of it.
This build-up to the reveal of the Flood is one of the most important and impactful for the series. Bungie needed to find a way to introduce this third faction, but they also needed to give a reason as to why the player should care at all. The Covenant were hated because they were seen as a race that wanted human extinction so they could continue controlling the universe. It appeared to be a battle for territory and technology.
It wouldn’t be interesting to have a third faction with similar motives, but by having them be feared by both factions, they appear to be an even greater threat, especially as they are seen to overpower them so easily and include elements of body horror that can send shivers down anyone’s spine.
Bungie didn’t need to develop a well-paced, suspenseful and scary level for the Flood to be successfully received, but they did. By making 343 Guilty Spark a slower, quieter, and stranger level than all that preceded it, Bungie was beginning to highlight important factors that would heighten the sense of dread throughout and make the grand reveal all the more etched in the player’s mind. The lack of music emphasized sounds we never heard before, like the insect-like noise and popping of a Flood spore.
The slower pace encouraged players to ponder what could be going on here and notice that enemies weren’t acting like they typically would, leading them to seek out these answers. The environment as a whole had an even more alien and formidable air to it compared to the installations on the level “Halo.” Each decision played on player expectations and made them aware that something was not okay up until the final found footage reveal that told the terrible secret right where Chief stood.
This revelation that there were essentially zombies in the Halo universe could have felt incredibly cheap or unwarranted but Bungie choosing to shift the tone of the game and build up to the reveal makes it feel more grounded within the universe of Halo, while also creating a memorable experience for the player. Halo: Combat Evolved proved that horror can be done in any game, no matter how it begins or how it ends.
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