Warning: This post contains some widely known albeit significant spoilers for Halo: Reach and Left 4 Dead 2’s “The Sacrifice” campaign.
Anyone at all familiar with the lore of Bungie’s Halo franchise already knows the fate of the Spartan heroes of Halo: Reach. Not a single Spartan makes it off Reach alive save the Master Chief, savior of the universe. Similarly, Left 4 Dead 2 fans already know Bill’s fate, the grizzled old man of the first Left 4 Dead, before playing through “The Sacrifice,” the game’s latest DLC that features the campaign that leads to his fateful demise. Knowing the tragic outcome of both Halo: Reach and “The Sacrifice” allows players to experience a unique and potentially powerful finale. Yet, in arriving at their respective conclusions, Reach and “Sacrifice” both take significantly divergent paths, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Knowing their audience would (by and large) be aware of the fall of Reach, Bungie flaunted the imminent threat of death throughout their game. Reach creates dramatic tension by having players wonder not if the Noble Team crew will die, but how and when. The titular planet is utterly enveloped by Covenant forces. The amount of slaughter visited upon Reach and its denizens is readily apparent in nearly every level. The tone of the entire game is somber, contemplative, and bleak. If it were not for existing knowledge about the Master Chief’s fate, I dare say that few players would walk away from Reach inspired to continue the Halo experience. And rightfully so — there are more than a few occasions where all hope seems lost for Noble Team.
Nevertheless, the cast of Reach are portrayed heroically. The team of Spartans are aptly named, each committing their own “noble” sacrifice towards making the universe safe. Jorge (my favorite Spartan for obvious reasons) surrenders his life in a moment of explosive glory, as do most of the other team members. When it is Noble Six’s turn, she and the player are already accustomed to the idea of dying for a greater good. If anything, her sacrifice is part of Noble Team’s collective sacrifice on behalf of the Spartans of Reach.
The events leading up to Bill’s death in Left 4 Dead 2, on the other hand, do not define a narratively rich experience. In fact, players can actually ignore L4D canon by having any player besides Bill sacrifice him- or herself for the team. Accordingly, there are no hints about anyone’s death scattered about or particularly contemplative moments during the “Sacrifice” campaign. Player foreknowledge aside, any particular character’s death is sudden and without warning. While the zombie apocalypse could be considered just as disparaging at the fall of Reach, the campaign is tonally consistent with all the other existing L4D campaigns. There is no reason to believe, prior to the actual sacrifice, that the campaign should be more meaningful than any other.
That being said, one could argue that the sacrifice in L4D2 is more meaningful because it is not entirely predetermined. During a four player run of the campaign, a decision must always be made regarding who will actually make the sacrifice. Doing so is not a particularly difficult task, but it does require some fast reflexes and a good head. The sacrificial player must jump off a slightly raised bridge and make a dash to a generator, dodging tanks and zombies along the way. The success of the entire party depends on this one individual, and the pressure surrounding this action can be exhilarating. With a single act, the sacrifice has sudden and apparent value.
Appearing after the credits, the “Lone Wolf” level of Reach inserts the player into Noble Six’s last moments. Increasingly large numbers of covenant forces appear in the ghastly ruins of a settlement while the player takes one final stand. Although Noble Six certainly takes down some enemy forces with her, the actual death scenario is less meaningful than most of the game’s other deaths. At this point, Noble Team has already delivered the important package to its destination and seen the Pillar of Autumn safely take off. Yes, her actions were sacrificial and dramatic, but her actual player-controlled death is vapid. There is no singular moment of success during Lone Wolf, just prolonged moments of putting off the inevitable. Unlike L4D2’s latest DLC, Reach’s moment of sacrifice is more monotonous than memorable.
However, the moments before and after Lone Wolf are quite moving. Reach allows players to contemplate the efforts of Noble Team and the importance of their collective sacrifice in Halo’s longer story arc. The events of Reach actually make Master Chief a more interesting and compelling character. Conversely, “The Sacrifice” offers no time before or after the character’s singular action to imbue the story with meaning. Upon reaching the temporary safety of the raised bridge, players literally have just a few seconds to decide who will die for the others before a flood of zombies descends upon them. Also, getting to the generator takes just a few moments and when the button is triggered, the game immediately fades to a cutscene of the sacrificial player being mobbed by zombies. L4D2 demands immediate action and offers players no sense of catharsis.
The respective sacrifices of Halo: Reach and Left 4 Dead 2 each fail where the other succeeds. Perhaps “The Sacrifice” would benefit from a prolonged moment of contemplation and decision making before an appointed player ran a gauntlet, saved the day, and played out their moments personally and intimately. Likewise, perhaps if players could have spent Noble Six’s final moments in a more recognizably meaningful way, Lone Wolf would have been as dramatic as its subsequent monologue. Both games allow to us to experience an interesting and unique moment in gaming, yet both fall short of depicting the truly “ultimate” sacrifice.