What Halo Taught Me About Writing

This post has two purposes. One, to talk about what makes Halo one of the greatest games ever, even today, with all the new games that have come out. Two, to point out what I realized when I started playing it again after all this time.

It’s all about the difficulty settings. Halo is almost three games in one. That’s how big the change is when you change the difficulty.

First, of course, is Easy. Easy is essentially an interactive movie. There’s a nice, comprehensive tutorial, all of your enemies have attended the Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy (meaning they’re horrible shots), and killing them is as easy as a headshot or a burst to the chest. Yes, there are harder enemies, and yes, you can die (usually only if you rush through an area and get surrounded), but as a whole, Halo is just a movie that you happen to direct on Easy.

Then there are the middle difficulties, Normal and Heroic. These two difficulties are the ‘real game’ difficulties. Both have real challenges, with Heroic obviously offering more of them, and with a higher maximum difficulty for any given encounter. Starting in Heroic, the Marines, who were never that helpful to begin with, become essentially useless. The Covenant can mow through your Marines like a scythe through wheat. Even the lowly Grunts pose a serious threat to your companions, which leaves you to be the true hero and play a real, challenging game.

And finally… Legendary. Playing Halo on Legendary is a completely different experience than any other difficulty, and it knows it. This is what the game says on the difficulty selection screen for Legendary:

“You face opponents who have never known defeat, who laugh in alien tongues at your efforts to survive. This is suicide.”

You might think they’re exaggerating. They aren’t. Legendary has no tutorial. From the moment you begin, when your boots hit the deck plating, your life is in peril. Before the game even gives you a weapon, you’re forced to dash through the exploding ship, past groups of aliens, any one of which can kill you. When you finally get your weapon, you come across a fight between several Marines and a handful of Covenant.

The Marines can’t be saved. It’s all you can do to save yourself. This fight, like every single fight in Legendary, is a serious, deadly, tactical battle between you and a squad of alien warriors who work as a unit. Even the Grunts can easily kill you, nevermind their role in weakening and distracting you for the Elites to kill.

Speaking of Elites, they are not simply opponents. Every one of them is a rival. In a one-on-one fight, even the weakest blue Elites will kill you. Your only chance of survival is surprise and position.

All this might make you think that Legendary is too hard. Why would you play a difficulty where you are all but guaranteed to die at least once at every checkpoint?

For the thrill. When the game is truly Legendary, every alien that falls to you is a mighty triumph, every new checkpoint a major hurdle overcome. Those moments when your grenade flies just right, clearing a fortified position, or when you hit a Spec-Ops Grunt between the eyes with a pistol from over a hundred yards, those moments make Legendary more than a game. Playing Halo on Legendary is truly an epic saga.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything. It dawned on me that these difficulties could easily be translated into books.

Easy books are those fluff books, the books that make you feel good without really teaching you anything or letting you get anything out of it. They may be entertaining, but they aren’t memorable. They may become hugely popular, but there’s no real meat to them.

Normal and Heroic books are the majority of books that stick in people’s minds. They’re a good, solid story, with a deeper meaning. Well-written, good characters, good plots, hard choices, the works. These books are the ones people seek out and recommend to their friends, with longer lifespans than the Easy books.

Then there are Legendary books. Legendary books are The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia. The works of Charles Dickens. The Count of Monte Cristo. Books that are ‘classic’, with powerful meanings and messages, infused with masterful storytelling and life-like characters. Authors who achieve ‘immortality’ are ones like these, who write Legendary books.

If something is Legendary, whether a book or a game, then every challenge your hero faces is real and threatening.  Not to say that he won’t have small issues to deal with as well, but the book or game won’t be relying on those small issues to fuel the book’s plot.  Legendary works deserve the epic combat music Halo plays before every major fight.

I don’t know about you, but I want my books to be Legendary.

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