Friday, September 10, 2010

Halo: Reach as epic

One of the things that fascinates me most about the epic traditions of the world is the way bards naturally sing their tales within cycles. The Greek word κύκλος just means "circle," and the cycle with which I'm most familiar—the ancient Greek one—is usually just called the ἐπικὸς κύκλος "epic circle." Every other oral epic tradition that I know of, whether the Japanese monogatari or the French chanson de geste naturally forms its tales into a circle of stories, each one having its beginning in medias res and its ending de mediis rebus (out of the midst of things) in order that another tale may be told, once again in medias res. Around the tales, just over the horizon, lies the whole story, never to be told completely, always to be glimpsed, night after night, as long as you have a bard around to give you those magic glimpses. Even the Iliad and the Odyssey, freakishly long as they are in comparison to what could actually have been sung in a night, only give us pieces of the puzzle, with their references to other tales, to be sung by other bards, like the stories of Heracles and the stories of the War at Thebes.

Epic cycles thereby create a particular species of a well-known literary trope: ring-composition, which is probably best defined as a story ending where it began, although there are also more technical definitions that involve higher degrees of narrative. The idea that the stories of epic return whence they came is an essential element of the hold they have over us, one we can also see in contexts like Lucas' "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . ." and now in Halo: Reach, which ends both where it (Halo: Reach) began and where it (Halo, in the form of Halo: Combat Evolved began).

I won't spoil how exactly this happens right now—though I plan to revisit it once the game has been out for a few months--, but in what I found a striking series of epic moments I got to play not just the end of the game I was in, but also the beginning of the game I was in and, even more, the beginning of the game I had played years ago. When the 24th book of the Iliad foreshadows Achilles' death in the lost epic the Aethiopis, the feeling of eternity, and of continuity with the lived experience of the audience, is no stronger than it is when we catch site of the Halo ring at the end of Halo: Reach.

The symbolism of the circle itself adds a great deal, despite its imprecision: unlike a ring, no story can really end where it began, because something has happened. Between the feeling that things stay the same and the feeling that things change, a conflict played out on an enormous scale, lies epic, whether ancient or modern. Eternally, we feel, will live the heroes' glory in the bards' traditions—even, or perhaps rather especially, when those bards are we ourselves and our participation in the tradition of that glory will live on after we are gone. Changing and evanescent as is our own particular contribution—the stuff that happens, and happens differently, every time—it plays its part in the eternal circle.

(Plus, ringworlds are just really cool. Larry Niven knew it, and so does Bungie.)

In this next section, I'm going to be engaging in what I consider some mild spoiling—mild because I think anyone who knows the Halo cycle would have no trouble guessing basically what happens in Reach, and to those who don't know the Halo cycle these details are essentially meaningless. Nevertheless, if you like to come to your games entirely fresh. . . well, why are you even reading this?

Cortana, the artificial intelligence who guides the player through Halo 1-3, takes on a role of extraordinary importance in Reach, despite only speaking at the end of the game. From one perspective, Halo: Reach is actually, in its entirety, about Cortana. Cortana's role takes the player of Reach from thematic concerns of the eternal circle and the return to the beginning to the more immediate epic concerns of getting the job done, both in the sense of fulfilling the duties imposed upon a Spartan and in the sense of playing the game in a fashion competent enough to get Noble 6 from point to point within it. The figure of Cortana both binds the game-narrative together as an integrated whole and serves as the narrative metaphor for the onward-pressing mechanics of a shooter: she is the reason to keep going, to keep shooting Covenant and pressing on.

It's almost as if (meaning, I want to argue but don't have the critical courage to go all in and say that) Cortana is the Helen of Halo. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the figure of Helen of Sparta (aka Helen of Troy) has a strange and potent relation to the bardic tradition. When we see her on the walls of Troy, she introduces us to the Achaean kings. When we see her in her bed-chamber, she is weaving a tapestry that depicts all the deeds of the Achaeans and the Trojans. When Hector berates her, she says that she knows she's terrible, but that everything has happened in order that they all become aoidimoi "song-worthy." When we see her in the Odyssey, strangest of all, she claims to be the only true match for Odysseus' intelligence, setting up a comparison she is sure to lose to Penelope but which makes Penelope a new, better Helen (remember that like Helen Penelope is faced with a ton of suitors; Penelope's job is to make sure she gets out of it better than Helen did).

Cortana is a person and yet not a person, a character and yet not a character—and always your way into the heart of the Halo story. "Now would be a very good time to leave!" rings in the imaginations of every player of Halo: CE, and her words at the end of Reach, over-the-top as they may seem, are just what Helen might have said about the heroes of homeric epic: "We will remember your courage."

Cortana's role as the Helen of Halo is all the stronger because like the Iliad Reach is about dying nobly. The broad meaning of the Iliadic tradition turns on the idea of the beautiful death—beautiful specifically because it is a death undergone in order to win the kleos that comes from dying for honor and duty without reference to one's own interest (as Achilles fights because he is duty-bound to his comrades to fight, despite acknowledging that Helen isn't worth fighting for). In Reach, your player-character's identity as Noble 6, part of Noble Team, is only the tip of this self-sacrificial iceberg.

We should not turn away from a fundamental problem here: I'm a guy on a sofa, not a Spartan giving his life to save humanity. Indeed, the very interactive nature of the practice of playing Halo tends to emphasize, rather than cover over, the enormous gap between pretending to be Noble 6 sacrificing himself and actually dying nobly: when the game ends, we're still on the sofa.

Being there on the sofa, like sitting in a bard's audience, though, finally connects Halo and games like it to the epic traditions they have reawakened: through them we become integrally involved in deeds we could not possibly realize in our own lives, but which we must acknowledge our longing, and perhaps our duty, to attempt. From this dynamic comes those frequent epic moments when a hero performs a deed no one alive "now" could do: we are not epic heroes—it is for us merely to try to be like them. The Halo cycle calls us to great deeds by making us part of a story of which, in the end, we feel ourselves only to be weak echoes.