To me, Halo 3: ODST doesn’t feel like Halo.
Let me rephrase: the story of ODST doesn’t feel like Halo.
The audio drama embedded within the game – Sadie’s Story – feels like Halo. The missions with the Rookie at night feel like Halo. But what our primary emotional hook to the game is supposed to be – Buck and Dare’s relationship – does not feel like Halo.
Now the word “feel” gets tossed about quite a bit in terms of changes or new installments to a franchise. Does the soundtrack to Halo 4 “feel” like Halo, now that it’s no longer Marty O’Donnell’s work? Or what of the new armor styles in Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. Or the way the story is told? Or the mechanics of the games? Or the presence of key, underlying themes? Or…
There are a thousand different ways something could “feel” like Halo or any other franchise, and barring morally-objectionable reasons, all of those are valid, if subject to disagreement. The feel of a franchise can be as slippery a topic as genre; there’s no hard and fast rule, and lines often blur between definitions.
So what do I mean by something not “feeling” like Halo, and why, as a result, I don’t think the story of ODST is an example of good science fiction?
Sorry Buck. The Nathan Fillion Charm only goes so far.
To add on another disclaimer: I don’t think ODST has a bad story. It’s nothing revolutionary, but neither is it offensive or broken, and the lens through which it’s told is good science fiction. In fact, I think ODST has a more solid story than Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and parts of Halo 5: Guardians, all three of which consider to be better science fiction than ODST. And the key distinction for this is context:
Can the story exist, fundamentally unchanged, outside the context of the parameters of the genre or franchise?
When I was but a wee lass, I asked my mom why she didn’t like science fiction, to which she replied that the genre was all bells and whistles. Flavorful flashes of tech that didn’t need to be there for the sake of the story, and their inclusion worked only to distract from the characters.
At the time, that seemed awfully unfair to me. What about Star Wars? The story wouldn’t be the same without lightsabers and the Force and the Death Star. Later I would realize, that was the point, because after all, my mom does like Star Wars. Star Wars isn’t a general story with some fantastical elements slapped over it for the sake of aesthetic. It requires those trappings of science fiction (or space fantasy – remember, genre is slippery) for the characters and the story to make sense.
In a similar vein, Sadie’s Story, the audio drama within ODST, cannot exist outside of the Halo Universe. The relationship between the city-wide AI and Sadie is irremovable from the story; that is its emotional core. Even the Covenant threat, which at first seems that it could be replaced by any significantly-large invading army, becomes an important detail when the alien Huragok begin playing a role in that core relationship. In order to have the same story and themes play out, you would have to create analogous proxies to things specific to the Halo canon.
Likewise the lens with which ODST’s story is told is good science fiction. The night missions with the Rookie explore a very specific section of the Halo canon. That feeling of smallness against a larger, more powerful threat that you are facing down alone. The mechanics and level design of these missions essentially acts as a microcosm of greater Human-Covenant War. The emotions prompted in the player act as a reflection on humanity’s state in this specific universe. More meaning can be drawn from these missions as a result of it’s connection to the Halo canon.
As for the ODST’s story itself, the emotional relationship we are meant to connect to, doesn’t need Halo to exist at all.
The Rookie may be our primary viewpoint character, but the story really belongs to Buck. It’s between him and Dare that our character conflict is established in the first cutscene. It’s the possibility that he lost her and then later the possibility that she’s alive once more that are supposed to provide the emotional stakes. And it’s their moment of reconnection at the game’s end that is framed as the audience’s emotional catharsis.
And none of that is tied to the specifics of Halo. Replace ONI with any intelligence agency, the Human-Covenant War with any war, the AI-specific mission with any retrieval mission, and the ODST arc between Buck and Dare is unchanged. Nothing is added to the story by being a part of Halo, and no new understanding of Halo is added to the canon by the story.
As I said, the story itself is not a bad story. It’s serviceable, and I’m certain that it resonates emotionally with others, and my own lack of emotional resonance is due primarily to preference. As such, I do not feel it’s my place to break down the gritty details of what specifically works and what specifically does not for the telling of this particular story.
All I know is that the story of Halo 3: ODST doesn’t “feel” like Halo to me because it does not rely on the specifics of Halo canon to exist. And I believe good science fiction uses the specifics of the genre (or franchise) to tell stories that could not exist otherwise or to give us a new perspective on stories we’ve told before.
Good science fiction is reliant on context.
As for whether or not good science fiction produces good stories, that’s something we can either examine on a case-by-case basis or simply invoke Sturgeon’s Law.