In defense of Halo’s Library

, | Features

(NOTE: The following article originally appeared online for Gamepro three years ago. I’m running it again now because I’m hoping there’s something even remotely this good in Destiny. Fingers crossed!)

Depending on who you ask, The Library in the original Halo is one of the most reviled levels in all of videogaming. It features infinitely spawning enemies, long empty stretches of repeating level design, and none of the cool tactical combat against smart AI that has characterized the game up to this point. If Halo were to include a dialogue option like the Modern Warfare games — “This game features The Library, which may offend some players. Would you like to skip this level?” — many of you would select “yes”.

At which point you would miss one of the greatest levels in all of videogaming.

After the jump, that’s right: one of the greatest levels in all of videogaming.

I just played through The Library for the first time in ten years, courtesy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. The graphics are remastered, but the gameplay is exactly the same (with one important exception that I’ll explain later). In case you haven’t played Halo lately, let me refresh your memory about what The Library is. At the end of the previous level, Master Chief met a funny little robot named Guilty Spark 343 who basically says they have to avert a terrible disaster by plugging a key into a console. So they teleport into the next level to get the key, fighting their way along a circuitous route through a stack of huge circular chambers stocked with infinite monsters. Why didn’t they just teleport to the key directly? Don’t ask. It’s a videogame. You might as well ask where Master Chief keeps his grenades.

The Library is a fantastic piece of work from Bungie on four levels: storytelling, level design, gameplay, and even character development. In terms of storytelling, The Library is as good as it ever gets in the Halo games. This is the big reveal about the true purpose of Halo, progressing from Master Chief’s discovery of a helmet to what could have been the genocide of all life in the galaxy, all in the course of a single level. It begins with the story of Private Wallace Jenkins’ squad, told from a cutscene consisting entirely of helmet camera footage. This is a found footage horror movie heralding a late-game zombie apocalypse.

What you eventually discover at the end of The Library is that Halo’s story isn’t about the humans fighting the Covenant. Instead, it’s about a zombie apocalypse of such epic proportion that the entire galaxy has to be destroyed to stop it. The halo itself is one of a chain of superweapons that will detonate and destroy all life, starving the Flood of hosts so they can’t spread beyond the galaxy. This is a motif from zombie movies where the military has to nuke someplace to contain the outbreak (Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 Return of the Living Dead is perhaps the best instance of this). Here is the same sentiment, but with zombies so powerful, so inevitable, and so unstoppable that only a massive scorched earth policy can contain them. But, in this case, a scorched galaxy policy. It’s a great reveal, and it makes Halo a tidy self-contained story about what the characters discover about a specific place.

And here’s where the level design in The Library comes into play. Previously, Halo has let you see glimpses of the halo’s inner workings, with trips through tunnels and sorties a few rooms deep to press buttons. But The Library finally gives you a sense of how vast the interior is, and how deep it goes, and how pointless it seems. It’s actually linear, of course, and it repeats itself a lot, but this isn’t a level about showing you scenery. You’ve gotten plenty of that up to now, so quit whining. The Library is about plunging into the inscrutable guts of a massive alien structure. If it seems big and tedious, that’s the point.

Anniversary’s slight but significant gameplay adjustment addresses this. The level design does everything it can to fool you into thinking it isn’t as relentlessly linear as it actually is. At times, you have to drop into a sunken area and run down a long narrow hallway. Other times you aren’t sure whether to go left or right at an intersection while you’re being attacked from all sides. The idea is that you’re supposed to follow Guilty Spark, which wasn’t easy. He’s a little guy, barely a blue firefly. He usually hovered overhead, which meant you had to stop shooting long enough to look up. Given the nonstop pace of the Flood constantly rushing at you from various directions, looking up could be fatal. Sometimes you just had to run backwards without paying attention to where you were going and where Guilty Spark had gotten off to. So you died and reloaded and played the same section over again. Checkpoints back in 2001 were so, well, 2001.

But Anniversary adds little blue arrows on the floor pointing the way. It’s hard to imagine playing The Library without these arrows. I should cut the haters some slack if their hate is based on the confusing layout. In fact, I briefly had the idea that I’d play through The Library with the original graphics, which you can swap out at any time by pressing the back button. That didn’t last. I needed those blue arrows. So I might accept that The Library minus Anniversary’s new blue arrows deserves its reputation.

But even if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you not appreciate The Library’s gleefully reckless gameplay, where every wildly thrown grenade is almost guaranteed to ragdoll a handful of monsters? The Library is difficult, and it’s a dramatically different kind of difficult than the rest of Halo. It plays like an old school shooter, along the lines of Doom. It reminded me of Left 4 Dead with the way you have to stay ahead of the mob and carefully manage your reloading. Halo came out at a time when zombies were the shambling loners we saw in early Resident Evil games. No one had dreamed of doing Romero justice yet, and Danny Boyle’s fast zombie revolution in 28 Days Later was still a year away. Yet here was the Flood, running along behind you, swarming around you, overwhelming you, sometimes even shooting guns and rocket launchers, sometimes in bug form, or sometimes a pulsing bipedal egg sac ready to explode, or most often a dysmorphic version of something you’ve fought against or fought alongside. Halo was the first game to bring about its own zombie apocalypse. Half-Life’s head crabs were a small scale step in that direction. But Halo managed it on a much larger and more effective scale. And they did it on the first Xbox. At launch.

It’s worth noting that although the shotgun appears in the previous level, The Library is where it comes into its own. The Flood aren’t shielded, so they’re ideal for a slow firing, hard hitting, kinetic weapon. After the first Halo, the shotgun will be nerfed forevermore. Enjoy it here with all its insane stopping power and medium range effectiveness. Balance? Tuning? Pshaw. It’s a freakin’ shotgun in a level full of space zombies.

So what’s all this guff about character development in The Library? First there’s Guilty Spark, who you’ve just met. He’s a great variation on the friendly droid/rogue AI trope, and at times through the level, he’s both. This little imp could be a will o’ the wisp leading you astray or a guardian angel. He drifts away to unlock a door, leaving you with your back to a wall holding off the endless wave of Flood. Has he left you to die? Oh, no, the door’s opening — does it have to open so slowly? — and here he comes again. And is there any moment more glorious than the appearance of Guilty Spark’s Sentinels? At last, help. At last, you can breathe while those lovely sun-colored beams do the heavy lifting. Along the way, he is an honest, cheerful, and conscientious narrator, dribbling bits of story out as you play. Don’t worry if you missed something because you were busy shooting. You’ll probably be playing this section over again, so you can hear it next time.

I love the interplay between Master Chief and Cortana at the end of The Library. At last he arrives at the end of the level and for a brief moment, it seems as if Cortana, who’s been acting a little strange, has turned. What happened to her while Master Chief was away for the last few levels? Why is she trying to stop him from saving the station by inserting the key into the console? Why does she actually call him an idiot? Is she going to be the new villain?

Of course, she’s not. Cortana has discovered the true nature of the station. Master Chief has to physically come between Guilty Spark and Cortana, highlighting his position in the dilemma. These are just programs. He is the actual actor, but up to now, he’s just been a dupe. Like the soldier he is, he blindly followed Guilty Spark’s instructions, carrying the key to the ignition, perfectly willing to turn it and therefore activate the halo and wipe out all life in the galaxy. Oops. I can imagine Master Chief at some intergalactic Nuremberg claiming he was just following orders.

Later, the Halo games will fall so in love with Master Chief that they will turn him into an infallible war hero, more demigod than soldier, as noble and earnest and dull as befits any videogame protagonist. But for this brief moment, he was the dim and well intentioned warrior dude whose shrill female consciousness had to whip him into shape. There’s something delightfully domestic about how Cortana can’t believe how dumb and trusting he is. She may be bitchy, but she’s right enough that she has every right to be bitchy. This is the climactic moment at the end of The Library: the long-suffering wife who can’t believe what a dope her husband is.

After a decade of hearing gamers kvetch about The Library, I was convinced I simply didn’t remember how awful it was. As I played through Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, I fully expected to hate it. Instead, I was delighted to discover what I think is one of the great levels to grace a videogame.