In case you hadn’t noticed, observed, or even guessed, I kind of like talking about Halo. Especially Halo 4. Halo 4 left me with a lot to talk about, more so than any of the previous instalments, with regards to the lore, thematic value, emotional intensity and character arcs.
So it should hardly surprise you to learn that I’m going to provide an in-depth analysis of the whole game, level-by-level. Let’s begin with the Prologue, as it’s traditional for the opening to be treated as a level itself. Not to mention the fact that the Prologue is an essential part of establishing the tone, the themes and general atmosphere of not just the game, but the Reclaimer Saga as a whole.
If you need your memory refreshed, watch the cutscene here.The game’s opening (which is by far the best since Halo Wars) shot is of a room filled with pods, you can clearly see that they’re filled with children which any fan of the series will recognise as something straight out of the novels – the fact that the very first shot of the game was something straight out of the novels got me more pumped than any of the other games, full integration of the story from the books with the games was long overdue.
You may also notice that each of the pods is shaped like a MJOLNIR helmet which can be interpreted to hold a vast range of symbolic implications. A Spartan’s helmet is, after all, their most definitive feature because we rarely ever see their faces, but here the ‘helmets’ are all transparent and allow us to see the children sleeping inside them – as opposed to the polarised gold visor that hides them. What I would interpret this to show is how the Spartans at this point are still ‘human’, it’s clear that they’ve only been recently kidnapped because they’re all still 6 years old so they haven’t been broken by the training yet. This is what John’s character arc is looking to return to, those deeply human traits which allow him independence and thought outside of what he’s been indoctrinated to focus on – the mission.This is, of course, where the six year old Spartan-II candidates are sleeping. The camera pans in on our iconic hero, John-117 (the Master Chief), who stares at the camera with an almost defiant look in his eyes. This shot is incredibly important when contrasted with the very final shot of the game, these are the only two times we see him properly unmasked in the games – once as a child, and once as an adult. This immediately establishes 343 Industries’ choice to delve further into the character of the Master Chief, deconstructing his role as the protagonist of the series by exposing his humanity.
I’ve noted before how the tagline for Halo 4 is “WAKE UP, JOHN”. This is a reference not just to his awakening after the 5 years of waiting for Halo 4 (4 years, 7 months and 10 days in-universe), but his awakening as a person. Make note of the ways in which the opening and ending of the game are linked, Cortana’s first line in Halo 4 is “wake up, Chief” while her last one is “welcome home, John”. The smallest things imply a great sense of progression, from being referred to by his official military rank to a sentimental farewell. The point is that John has not yet undergone his transformation of character at the start of the game, he’s still the stoic, schizoid brick he was in Halo 3 – but by the end of the game, he’s somebody who has undergone a complete transformation and it has broken him. We’ll definitely be seeing more of this in the future.It’s then revealed that this was a flashback in the mind of Doctor Catherine Halsey, one of the best-written characters in all fiction in my opinion. Everybody who is familiar with her character has an opinion on her and the things she’s done, from the moment you see her appear you just know that she’s going to steal the scene. Her flashback of all the children she had kidnapped for the Spartan-II project is a clear visual establishment of the guilt she feels for what had to be done to them, but you’ll notice that John is the one who is singled out which is very telling because 343’s very visual style of storytelling lends itself to multiple interpretations. I felt it drew a really interesting connection with Halo 3’s opening where Cortana (who is based off Halsey’s brain) talks about how John is different to the other Spartans.
“They let me pick, did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted… You know me, I did my research – watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn’t, something no-one saw but me. Can you guess? Luck…”
What punctuates this speech, however, is the question that Cortana asks afterwards.
“Was I wrong?”
In Halo 3, she’s not wrong – not one bit. John manages to keep his promise to her as he rescues her from the clutches of the Gravemind, but Halo 4 is in-part a story about how John’s luck is running out and in the end we see that he can’t keep his promise to her (and Johnson) which is a major part of how he’s broken by the things he experiences over the course of the story.
Going back a bit to the opening shot in relation to Cortana’s dialogue, it’s interesting to note how all the other children are asleep but John is awake. He’s singled out in a room with 74 other people. This ‘show, don’t tell’ style of visual storytelling is pulled off beautifully in my opinion, there’s a great deal more subtext one can pick up on with Halo’s visual elements which I’ll be looking into as we progress through each level.Back to the cutscene, we see that Halsey is being interrogated by a mysterious figure who is silhouetted by the lighting so we don’t know who he is. He’s questioning Halsey about the history and ethical implications of the Spartan-II project. This cutscene really begins to show that there really are just so many facets to how Halsey is received as a character, her actions can best be described by the phrase: “You can’t come back from the things you’ve done”. Halsey is not purposefully evil, nobody can ever claim that she was out to do evil deeds and experiment on children just because she could because there are whole books where she talks about the guilt she feels for her actions – the thing with Halsey is that she does not let her guilt define her, she believes that she did what had to be done.
The backstory behind the Spartan-IIs is brilliantly written, it’s one of the most controversial aspects of Halo’s lore because it’s such a morally grey area. Halsey had 75 children kidnapped who were brainwashed, indoctrinated, tortured and guilted until they became everything a Spartan needed to be – ruthless, totally obedient, efficient killers who were conditioned to believe that they were the one thing that stood between humanity and extinction. This is why Halo 4 is the game that defines John because this is the first time in the games that we see him break away from his training and become a more independent person. Whereas the previous games generally had you following the orders of a superior officer, John spends most of Halo 4 alone with nobody but Cortana and outright refuses to comply with Captain Del Rio’s orders (more on that when we get to Infinity and Reclaimer).The cutscene transitions between shots of Halsey’s interrogation and various other snippets, such as a battle being waged between the Spartans and Covenant forces. Just look at that shot there though, it’s an absolutely genius piece of cinematography when it comes to establishing things solely through the visuals. In the background, we see a small human city on what appears to be an ordinary day with people going about their everyday business. But then we see the Covenant vessel slowly move towards it, it’s very Star Wars-esque with the low-angle shot because it implies a great sense of dominance. Any Halo player can look at this single shot and knows immediately that humanity is outmatched, a notion which is solidified by the appearance of the ventral beam and the thousands of smaller ships which start pouring out of the CAS-class assault carrier towards the surface.Again, we see scenes of utter devastation as Banshees bombard the streets filled with innocent, helpless civilians – one of whom thinks he’s managed to escape the carnage until…It’s at this point that the Spartan-IIs appear and hold their ground against the Covenant. A lot of people have noted some canonical inconsistencies with this scene with regards to the armour the Spartan-IIs are wearing, but this scene can quite easily be seen as a purely symbolic depiction of the Human-Covenant War.
There’s no indication whatsoever as to what year this is set in, what planet this invasion is happening on, or any detail whatsoever. It’s a universal depiction of how outmatched humanity was until the Spartan-IIs dove (literally) into the fray and took the fight to the Covenant. Given the context of the scene itself, Halsey and the Interrogator talking about the Spartan-II project, it makes perfect sense that this would be used to visually demonstrate just how important they were to the war. This also makes things quite clear to any new player who is just joining the series or is generally unfamiliar with the lore outside of the games, the visual elements of this scene are there to be ‘read’.The Interrogator talks about some of the psychological issues that the Spartan-IIs faced as well, as a result of their torturous years of training. The Spartan-IIs developed mild sociopathic issues, they experienced difficulties with socialisation when it came to making friends (or even just striking up conversation) with other humans. The Spartans were tools designed specifically for warfare, the dichotomy between man and machine is established here which is perhaps the most important theme of Halo 4 – this will be a recurring thing in just about every single post, i should think.Halsey, retorts that the records show that Spartans demonstrated efficient behaviour operating in hazardous situations. We’re then treated to an absolutely awesome little snippet of a Spartan taking on a Jiralhanae Chieftain, I have a little ‘headcanon’ that this is a continuation of the ending of Halo 3’s Starry Night trailer where John leaps into combat with a group of Brutes.The theme of man and machine is fully-formed now, as Halsey states:
“I supplied the tools to maintain that efficiency.”
At which point, we see Halsey symbolically handing over Cortana to John which lines up exactly with the lines Halsey says. This is one of the most important parts of the game, as Cortana, like John and the other Spartan-IIs, is referred to as simply being a “tool” designed to satisfy a particular purpose – in this case, to maintain the efficiency of the Spartans and their ability to kill. This establishes at least a part of the journey that John and Cortana undergo in Halo 4, as these two “tools” are put together and began to break away from their function to discover their own independence and humanity.
Finding and embracing one’s humanity, embracing the fact that you can be independent, is a hugely important factor when it comes to the AI characters in Halo. What we see in almost every AI character in this franchise that doesn’t have an objective is that they’re able to embrace their humanity – they’re allies because they have desires, and the independence, and the will to actually pursue them. This extends to Forerunner ancilla as well (the term ‘ancilla’ alone, meaning ‘slave woman’ in Latin, is significant as it relates to how easy it was for the Forerunner Ecumene to fall apart, but more on that later), Mendicant Bias being the most notable example of this.Halsey discovers that the Interrogator is asking her all these questions because they’re looking to replace John – who has been missing in action and believed to be dead for almost half a decade at this point. The Interrogator wants to know if Halsey believes that the Master Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken. It’s at this point that the scene introduces another theme into the story which will be expanded upon over the course of the Reclaimer Saga, the genetic destiny of humanity.Halsey notes:
“Your mistake is seeing Spartans as military hardware. My Spartans are humanity’s next step, our destiny as a species…”
Again, this ties back to the idea that one must break apart from one’s intended function to become independent, as Spartans, like AI, are much more than just military hardware. This theme is deeply connected to the Forerunner aspect of the lore, as Forerunners were capable of performing mutations on themselves which totally altered their physiology – in a ritual performed under the light of stars, the mentor would imprint the younger Forerunner with their wisdom and experiences which would help them mature into a new form. There are a good number of comparisons one can draw between the Spartan augmentations and Forerunner mutation, especially with the introduction of the latest class of Spartans – the Spartan-IVs.To solidify this notion, we see a Spartan-II (possibly John) emerging from the battle in front of the Marines behind him. It’s an almost biblical image as this one great figure leads his people out of the battle and they all follow him, 343 has said on numerous occasions that their intention with Halo 4’s story is to deconstruct the role of John as a hero and to really provide an in-depth look at the Hero’s Journey monomyth which is so often found in literature. What makes this different, and therefore makes Halo 4’s narrative so unique, is that John is already a hero. He’s regarded as a legend by humanity, his service number (117) is scratched into the hillside war memorial in Voi and he’s widely seen as the saviour of humanity.
The Hero’s journey is summarised in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
This is what Halo 4’s Prologue sets up, a new Hero’s Journey cycle where John transitions from the status quo of the last 4 years (being in cryo sleep on the Dawn) and, through the will of external forces, ventures into a world of supernatural wonder (Requiem) where fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won with John returning from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on humanity. While the narrative does follow this convention in how it’s structured, it is the evolution of John’s character which is so wildly divergent from this very blanketed definition of the Hero’s Journey.How this is all done, I’ll be deconstructing over the next few weeks as we go over each and every bit of Halo 4’s main story.
Strap yourselves in, Spartans. This is going to be a long ride…