In all likelihood, the first time you encounter an Engineer in Halo 3: ODST, it’ll be in the open world — in the dark, occupied streets of the futuristic African supercity New Mombasa. It happens early in the game. Your player character, “the Rookie,” tries to get their bearings after being marooned, separated from their squad and fully alone. You come upon a Brute: the ape/hippo/asshole hybrid aliens serving as the Covenant army’s shock troopers. It affixes some sort of harness to a creature you’ve never seen in the Halo games before. A blue-pink egg-shaped mass of chitinous plates and wiggling tentacles, it seems strange next to the militant aliens of the Covenant. Less humanoid, more… other. As the Brute finishes his work, he narrates it, and it becomes clear that the harness is a proximity bomb. If you get too close to the creature, it will explode.
You learn, later, that these beings are called Engineers (or huragok, if you’re an expanded universe obsessive). Part organism and part technology, these docile aliens are defined by their facility with alien machines. They fix things, they find things, they tinker and map and modify. The Covenant has brought them to New Mombasa to look for something, and once you see that first one, you’ll soon encounter many others — drifting over the ruined city, leaving mysterious glyphs next to points of interest, flitting constantly toward the next curiosity. This is the first Halo game in which they appear, and, notably for their role as an enemy alien race in a first-person shooter, they are completely docile.
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In real life, war is full of people who aren’t supposed to be there. Civilians and various non-combatants — medics, chaplains, technicians — are inevitably caught in the crossfire of any armed conflict. International humanitarian laws like the Geneva Conventions exist in a meaningful part to codify the basic moral treatment of these non-combatants during armed conflicts. Though the core, overriding stipulation is that they’re not to be harmed. Military video games, despite attempting to simulate armed conflict in at least semi-realist terms, rarely deal with the question of non-combatants. When they do, it’s usually in scripted terms defined by the rules of the game world. Civilians appear here; don’t shoot them. If you do, you get a game over.
Notably, games like the newest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare make tense segments out of demanding the player to correctly identify civilians, doling out punishments if they fail. But few games consider non-combatants as a core part of their systems. In video games, as opposed to real life, they’re an exception, an unsettling suspension of the normal “fun” of the fight.
Not so in ODST. The Engineers appear as an organic part of the game’s small open-world, flitting around in tandem with patrolling groups of standard Halo enemies: Brutes, Grunts, Jackals. They function as a sort of passive support for whatever enemy units they’re near. Engineers provide temporary energy shields that absorb additional damage, making whatever you’re facing that much more dangerous.
But on their own, they’re entirely passive. They will never set off an alarm, or find a way to attack, or do anything other than mind their own business. And how you respond to them is up to you. There are no systemic penalties for actually killing the Engineers. Nor are there any benefits to leaving them alive. Like on a real battlefield, there are no referees there to stop you, in the heat of the moment, from breaking the rules of war.
But you learn things, about the Engineers, as the game progresses. ODST‘s story ultimately centers on a single Engineer who defects from the Covenant and secretly helps you during your exploration of the city. Hints are strewn around that, perhaps, all the other Engineers are helping this one, that none of them are willing servants of the Covenant. That they’re slaves. As the Rookie, finding audio logs and observing them in action, you have an opportunity to understand these beautiful, odd creatures as victims.
Here’s something that can happen while you wander the streets of New Mombasa as the Rookie: Escaping an approaching enemy patrol, you find a hidden door to a private atrium, a small garden between a number of buildings whose purpose you don’t know. In the Atrium are a group of Engineers, prodding at some sort of monument or relic in the garden. If you turn on your enhanced vision mode, you can see beautiful, shimmering glyphs they’ve drawn, marking the place in a language you nonetheless cannot understand. They float high above the ground, luminescent, staying at a distance where you can safely pass without their proximity bombs detonating — killing you all. You find the other exit and proceed on your way, and they on theirs.
Here’s another: You find an open plaza patrolled by a couple Engineers and a handful of Brutes. Curious, you press into the area, blasting Brutes as you go. When the last of them dies, you’re surprised by the sound of explosions all around you. These Engineers weren’t wearing proximity bombs — they had dead man’s switches. With the Brutes eliminated, you’ve accidentally killed the Engineers. The peaceful creatures crash into the ground in bursts of blue fire.
Each of these experiences, if responded to attentively, serves as a lesson in what the Engineers are and how to treat them. It’s one of the most experimental things Bungie ever tried in the entire Halo franchise: an object lesson in mercy, in coming to understand why the conventional gamer wisdom of “shoot the medic first” is more a war crime than good advice.
It’s such a daring gesture, in fact, that the other characters you play as hardly get the memo. During the game, you occupy the perspectives of other soldiers in your squad. They respond to the Engineers in a way more stereotypical of military shooter protagonists. They’re xenophobic, frightened, and making decisions with their weapons first. In one instance, late in the game, you are forced to shoot four Engineer charging pods — barracks, basically — to create an explosion in order to escape a dangerous situation. It’s unclear if these pods are occupied. If they are, they’re the only Engineers you’re required to kill in the entire game. If you’ve been paying close attention during the Rookie’s segments, it’s a wrenching moment — one the character you’re playing as is entirely ignorant of.
But you have the opportunity to be better. One thing you do as the Rookie is collect a series of audio logs, telling a story about a woman in New Mombasa as the Covenant first invades. Late in these audio logs, you learn more about the Engineers and begin to receive cues about the member of the species who wound up defecting. When you finally encounter this Engineer, there are two possible cutscenes that play. In one, the Rookie draws a gun on the non-combatant out of fear. In the other, which only plays if you collect all the audio logs, the other character accompanying you draws a weapon instead. The Rookie stops them, deescalating the conflict before it gets violent.
This is the opportunity Halo 3: ODST gives you. The opportunity is to learn, to be better and more merciful in your carrying out of this fantasy interstellar war. The Covenant might present one of the most justifiably fought enemies in science fiction: a fully genocidal campaign to eradicate humanity right down to our home planet. But the Engineers aren’t a part of it. They don’t want to be. They’re not here to wage war, and you don’t have to shoot them.
So please, don’t.