Halo's Space Opera Storytelling Was Most Effective When It Was Small
While Halo has always operated on a grand scale, playing through the series has me disappointed in how it frames conflicts and characters.
Purely on a whim, I played through every Halo game in the span of a couple weeks simply because I could, and because I never had before. While I owned an original Xbox, I played Star Wars: Republic Commando more than I did a Halo title (thanks ESRB). It wasn’t until The Master Chief Collection, backwards compatibility, and Halo 5: Guardians that I had access to the entirety of the series on one console.
With no real affection for the early Halo games due to coming to them much later, as well as simply never touching Halo 4, I was curious about how they would read today (and especially with Halo: Reach arriving on PC this week). Playing through them all, I was attracted to the various ways that the Halo series framed their conflicts to the player, as well as watching the development of the series and its characters, over the course of 14 years condensed into a little less than 60 hours of playtime.
“I was attracted to the various ways that the Halo series framed their conflicts to the player over the course of 14 years condensed into a little less than 60 hours of playtime.”
Halo: Combat Evolved is our first introduction to the Halo fiction at large and incorporates a surprising amount of it. It introduces us to humanity five hundred years in the future, our war for survival against the Covenant, the introduction of an ancient alien race known as the Forerunners, another threat via the Flood, and the titular superweapon of Halo, which can wipe out all sentient life. All of these elements are easily understood, even if they end up being expanded later on in games and (largely) extracurricular material such as books, comics, anime, and marketing.
For Halo: Combat Evolved, all you really need to know is that Master Chief is a supersoldier, but still a soldier who follows a chain of command. He fights for the UNSC, who are losing a war against the Covenant, a grouping of various alien species. Investing in the war is as easy as recognizing humanity as yourself and how the threat of extraterrestrial genocide would weigh on you. The campaign of Combat Evolved is largely a “coming up with it as we go” form of storytelling. The Halo structure is new, the humans are outmatched by their major enemy, and the introduction of a third faction, the Flood, who consume all organic life, doesn’t help the odds. It’s classic underdog achievement, even if pretty much everyone dies by the end.
Master Chief is largely a silent protagonist, a carryover from the first-person shooter traditions set by DOOM and Half-Life. He has lines, but throughout a majority of Halo 1-3, he is largely silent and lets others, mostly Cortana, vocalize the plot actions for the player to understand and follow along. Due to this, Master Chief isn’t an empty character, but just barely. He and Cortana have a dynamic of sorts, but it’s not something that I cared about. Cortana can be a little sassy and sarcastic, and while it makes her more endearing than the rest of the cast, she is hardly a deep character. For what characterization there is of the Master Chief, he’s a pretty stoic soldier whose only goal is the mission.
An improvisational explosion as Combat Evolved‘s ending fits with the theme of humanity barely skirting by, and the profound sense of loneliness isn’t mentioned explicitly in the text but is felt when watching Chief and Cortana fly off after starting aboard a UNSC vessel full of fellow soldiers.
“An improvisational explosion as Combat Evolved‘s ending fits with the theme of humanity barely skirting by.”
Halo 2 picks up some time afterwards and begins to expand on the motivations of the Covenant’s war with the Arbiter campaign, in which players take control of a disgraced Elite, your most deadly foe in Combat Evolved. Through the Arbiter’s campaign, as well as snippets of Master Chief’s, we get a look into the Covenant and their politics. A religious organization, the Covenant are led by the Prophets who worship the Forerunners as gods and intend to begin the Great Journey, also known as activating the Halo rings and wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy. Their war against the humans is motivated by this religious fervor, though it’s mainly extracurricular material that explains how the Prophets came to power and how their war against the humans is truly due to their knowledge that the Forerunner’s intent was for humans to inherit the Mantle of Responsibility, AKA being top dog in the galaxy. This information is interesting, but irrelevant to the plot of Halo 2, an unfortunate trend within the series that we’ll see later on.
The Prophets aren’t mentioned in Combat Evolved and are added into Halo 2 in order to bring more depth to the enemy, as well as set up their eventual downfall and give the player a goal to work towards with their deaths. During Halo 2, I was very interested in the Brute appropriation of the Sangheili role within the Covenant, the Covenant’s religious foundations such as their source text, how it is interpreted, and the power structure of the various species. Most of this is background noise to the Arbiter’s realization that the Prophets are spewing bulls*** and going to wipe out all life. I wish there was more detail, but at the very least, the game proper does not have a required reading list to fully understand/invest in what it is presenting.
“Master Chief isn’t an empty character, but just barely.”
With the stakes high and a “win” in Halo 2 that barely felt like one, Halo 3 is all about triumph. This is best exemplified by the music that plays during the final mission. We return to Earth and, from here, make the final push against the Covenant and Flood forces to end the conflict that we were introduced to in Combat Evolved. This isn’t to say that humanity is making gains, as your Earth hideout is attacked and abandoned quickly, and you end up leaving Earth yet again for a Forerunner structure, this one much larger than the previous Halos.
With the help of a tentative alliance with the Elites, as well as temporary pacts with Gravemind and 343 Guilty Spark, you eventually kill the final Prophet, fire an unfinished Halo replacement ring to destroy the Flood, and barely escape the blast into unknown space. Though there are deaths, most notably Miranda Keyes and Sergeant Johnson, the ultimate victory results in peace for Earth and the end of the Covenant/Flood threat. Master Chief reunites with Cortana and is put in cryo to be woken when he is needed once again, a fitting end for the trilogy.
“The real highlight of ODST though is something not really talked about at all when conversations of the game occur, and that is the audio drama Sadie’s Story.”
Spinning off of Halo 3 is Halo 3: ODST which removes Master Chief entirely and instead focuses on the antics of a squadron of ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) who drop into New Mombasa during the events of Halo 2. The main playable character, Rookie, is knocked out and awakens later that night and moves about the city streets finding evidence of his companions’ adventures leading up to their eventual reunion, and the game’s finale.
The Rookie and his ODST squad’s journey is largely about a small group trying to make do with a s***ty situation, in this case the siege of New Mombasa as well as securing and extracting a Covenant intelligence asset. Despite the dire situations that the ODST squad find themselves in, they dole out quips that gives the overall campaign a lighthearted feel, despite the night sections’ somber tone. Even when Romeo has his chest pierced in battle, it never feels like a real threat and it isn’t treated like one.
The real highlight of ODST though is something not really talked about at all when conversations of the game occur, and that is the audio drama Sadie’s Story. This is accessed in pieces during your nighttime skirmishes in New Mombasa as a collectible. The city’s AI, Virgil, will guide you towards your objectives, and also leaves bits of audio recordings of a daughter looking for her father amidst the havoc of the war.
I hate that this is a collectible that’s actually kinda hard to find; I had to watch the last quarter of the story online after finishing the game. The audio includes still images (which brought me back to watching Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies’ cutscenes) and are generally about 90 seconds each. Throughout the audio drama, Sadie encounters various characters in the city, and though her time with most are fleeting, they are effective enough to leave me with remorse over their fates, especially when it is revealed that Sadie’s father was killed near the end of the story.
The final conversation between Sadie and Virgil is affecting, with Virgil–the last vestige of her deceased father–urging her to move on via recordings of the various people featured in the storyline. With each episode being a little over a minute long and being distributed as a collectible, I’m surprised at how affecting it was to me.
“Reach is a somber Halo game through and through.”
Released in my sophomore year of high school, Halo: Reach was one game that I didn’t get around to until two years later in 2012, when armed with disposable income and a failing community college career, I finally bought an Xbox 360.
Much like its marketing tagline, from the beginning you know the end; Reach is a somber Halo game through and through. None of the quips of ODST can be found here: this is a game about the loss of Reach and the deaths of Noble team. Its handheld and diegetic camera perspectives lend it a documentary style presentation, as if this is a story being pieced together post-war, which is strengthened by the post-credit speech by Dr. Halsey, creator of the Spartan program.
Joining the squad as a silent protagonist, you get paired up with different members of the squad in order to build up some affection for them before they are killed off. Jorge, the largest and oldest of the squad, is the most effective and the first to die. He endears himself to the player early on by sympathizing with the Reach natives and being coldly rejected by Halsey in a cutscene. He sacrifices himself to detonate a bomb and destroy a Covenant supercarrier, only for a larger fleet of enemy ships to appear and lay siege to Reach.
Death is everywhere in Reach, and it all culminates in the final level after the credits where the player fights waves of Elites until their final, and permanent, death. It is a great end to the Halo game that I still find the most affecting in terms of its characters and overarching story.
“A majority of the affection that players had for Cortana and Master Chief, up to Halo 4, was mostly filled in by the player themselves or through non-game text.”
After the conclusion of the original story arc from Combat Evolved, Halo 4 does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making Master Chief and Cortana a pairing that I’m invested in. The previous trilogy had the Chief rarely speak and aside from his affection for Cortana, there wasn’t much to him at all.
Halo 4 attempts to rectify this issue, quite literally with the ending cutscene after Cortana’s climactic sacrifice. In it, Master Chief calls back to a line from Cortana: “Before this is over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” He makes his way to a platform where various Spartan IVs are having their armor removed and proceeds to step into one, symbolizing that he is more than just the armor that we have always seen him in. It cuts to black before you can see his face, however, negating any sense of Master Chief as an actual person and not a faceless void for the player to occupy.
A majority of the affection that players had for Cortana and Master Chief, up to Halo 4, was mostly filled in by the player themselves or through non-game text. It is her loss that players mourn at the end in order to mirror Master Chief’s. Showing his face would sort of shatter that silent protagonist ethos of the player as the character, but also robs the Chief of his humanity. 343 Industries was unable to surmount the series’ mythos surrounding his face, even when it would have been in service to the game’s greater themes.
“Halo 4 was entirely devoted to building up to Cortana’s death, and Halo 5 just casually reverses it so that she can become the new villain.”
This entire series leads to, for now, Halo 5: Guardians, a massive misfire in terms of its campaign. Six new characters are introduced (if you’ve only played the games like I have) and nowhere near enough time is given to make you care about them at all. Master Chief is back but no longer the player character you spend the most time with. Buck reappears from ODST but is now a Spartan. How that happened requires you to read some books or just accept it and move on. Both Roland and the Covenant remnant leader you kill at the end of the introductory level were both introduced in Spartan Ops of Halo 4 and have no real introduction here. Previous games required the player to read additional text for a full understanding of its background workings, but this just takes it to another level entirely.
Adding insult to injury is the reversal of the entire dramatic arc of Halo 4 by bringing back Cortana. Halo 4 was entirely devoted to building up to Cortana’s death, and Halo 5 just casually reverses it so that she can become the new villain. AIs are unhappy about the whole short lifespan thing, and thanks to the Forerunner technology, can now live forever and create peace through imperialism (AKA Guardians who will destroy planets who resist her rule). It’s all serviceable, but the campaign just feels like it is all over the place.
“Halo has a wealth of fiction, as evidenced by the many novels set within its universe, but it’s mostly gestured at within the games themselves.”
Finally playing the series in its current entirety thanks to The Master Chief Collection and Halo 5: Guardians, I find its renowned single-player campaigns lacking. I’ll always have affection for ODST and Reach, thanks largely to the way their somber moods were solidified by the music. That’s not to say that the mainline games didn’t have great music, especially Halo 3, but the bombastic space opera setting never quite clicked with me.
Master Chief was a void, much like Gordon Freeman and his nonexistent relationship with Alyx despite what Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 & 2 would have you believe. I know 343 Industries is criticized for “ruining the franchise” and though I don’t think their entries have the strength of the original trilogy, even those aren’t these grand masterpieces we like to think of them as.
Halo has a wealth of fiction, as evidenced by the many novels set within its universe, but it’s mostly gestured at within the games themselves. All of these games could dig into interesting topics if those topics didn’t generally exist as background noise to the repeated “enter room, shoot enemies, move to the next room” gameplay that makes up a majority of their playtime.
I don’t necessarily fault this to just Halo: I fault the video game medium at large, a place where story exists in the margins. From Combat Evolved up through Halo 5, the delivery system of plot within the series has remained mostly the same: intro cutscene, maybe some dialogue during a mission, end cutscene. For all the advancements in fine tuning, aiming acceleration, and display resolution, we still can’t seem to come up with a way to deliver story without resorting to a half hour of gameplay bookended by cutscenes.