Roll on, Requiem! One of my favourite missions in the entire series, it has to be said, which further means that I have a lot to say about it.
Requiem opens with a bang – literally. Following directly on from the disastrous events of Dawn, the Master Chief finds himself in the midst of a series of exploding Covenant vessels as he plummets through the planet’s gravity well and into the Dyson Sphere. This is where we see the stakes get raised alongside the progressive complication of the narrative, John and Cortana are bombarded with both internal and external issues which continue to set up the central conflicts of the story.
Sticking with that theme of familiarity, Requiem’s opening is a perfect reflection of the openings of all three games of the original trilogy – you have the objective of getting to an escape pod to land on an alien world concluding the previous mission, the destruction of a Covenant vessel while John floats through space, and the memorable fall to the surface of a planet which punctuated Halo 3’s opening scene. In fact, going back to how I concluded my previous post about Dawn, this set-up is reminiscent of a line spoken by Sergeant Johnson in that scene.
“Crazy fool, why do you always jump? One of these days, you’re gonna land on something as stubborn as you are – and I don’t do bits and pieces…”
It’s very much in-keeping with that striking theme of going back to basics, mixing together the elements that worked in the first three games but in a different way. With nothing but the sound of flames licking the air from the wreckage of the Dawn, we pan over to John’s assault rifle and his hand. This image is incredibly important…The assault rifle is a subtle little prop that we see throughout the game, we tend not to notice it much because it has been the default weapon in almost every cutscene in almost every game. In Halo 4 though, it’s a means through which John is characterised – the Spartan ‘side’ of his personality, to be specific. At numerous points through the game, we see him confronted by these personal obstacles which force him to come out of his shell a bit, like the moments where Cortana’s rampancy becomes a topic of discussion between them. John can often be seen to turn away from Cortana and awkwardly check his assault rifle, a relatively meaningless gesture because he knows it’s in perfect condition, he knows his weapons inside and out.
The assault rifle is the means through which John is able to fall back into his comfort zone, into being the hero who is looking for a directive – a new objective to physically pursue. It comes as no surprise then to see that Halo 4’s most emotionally charged moments are the ones where John has no physical objective to achieve, where he can’t reconcile his situation with a mission or rationalise things away, but he instead has to confront these obstacles in ways that will change him as a person.
In these moments where John has to openly address his feelings and emotions, his assault rifle is generally nowhere to be seen. The shot of his hand lying next to his weapon, disconnected from it, serves as a nice little visual cue for the scene that follows where Cortana has to tell John that she’s rampant – that she’s dying, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Also, we see this exact same image in the trailer for Halo: Xbox One when John goes up against the Warrior-Servant construct (which may or may not be a War Sphinx). In this trailer, we see John symbolically clinging to any sense of familiarity he can grasp – the battered and torn MJOLNIR Mark VI helmet, the gauntlet, and Cortana’s chip in particular. We see the same image of John making a fist, clutching Cortana’s chip, as a symbol of his resolve to keep him going. Just like what we see in Requiem, he’s just crashed down on an alien planet from orbit and just struggles on because that’s what he was born to do – that’s his purpose as a Spartan, once again affirming that theme of transcending one’s role.John awakens and observes the area around him, taking in the view of the Dawn’s wreckage burning around him. The image of a ship crumbling around John is also important which connects to John’s final moment with Cortana in Midnight at the story’s conclusion, as it shows John’s whole world crashing around him. He’s been on the Dawn for almost half a decade, and just moments after he’s woken up it has been torn to pieces around him. Likewise with Midnight, after Cortana dies the Mantle’s Approach crumbles apart around him – the world literally falls apart for him. It’s very telling imagery, another means through which visual storytelling captures the feelings and emotions of the characters.
Back to the mission, John’s first question to Cortana is asking where they are – again, focusing on a way to provide an objective for himself. Cortana begins her response, but suffers from a rampant episode and ends up quoting a line spoken by Doctor Halsey instead.
“We have asked you to give up your childhood, your family, your future…”
This is, as we know, something that was told to the six year old Spartan-II candidates by Halsey which spelled out their purpose for humanity in the days ahead and what they were giving up. Their childhood innocence would be broken, they would never see their families again, they would have no future. It’s no wonder that this series is called the ‘Reclaimer Saga’, there’s a great deal more to reclamation than just seizing Forerunner artefacts it seems, as this quote perfectly punctuates the journey that John and Cortana must undergo as part of their character arcs. John must reclaim that part of his humanity which has been suppressed since childhood (again, the very first image we see of John in Halo 4 is him as a child, a visual connection between these themes). He must reunite with his ‘family’ – this is open to a number of interpretations, you can argue that Cortana is his family, and by-extension Halsey who was seen as a mother figure to the Spartan-IIs, but you can also argue that the Spartan-IIs are his family too (Fred, Kelly and Linda specifically, his old team) and he must eventually reunite with them. And his future… Halo 4 is all about John’s future, his future as a Spartan, as the instrument of the Librarian’s plan, and as a human being.
Likewise with Cortana, she has had to give up the innocence of her childhood through exposure to all the data she got from installation 04 which almost drove her to madness as she attempted to process it all, not to mention her encounter with the Gravemind on High Charity which left a lasting impression on her character, and now with the very real issue of having to face death. John is her ‘family’, he’s all the family she’s ever needed because she is his guardian – his “princess of light and reason”, as the poem Connectivity in Halo: Evolutions puts it. And her future has been, like it has with John, spelled out for her in no uncertain terms – from the moment she was born, she was doomed to succumb to rampancy, go insane and die.
That’s what this single line sets up for us and our two heroes of the narrative, this journey of theirs was never going to have a happy ending. People often say that knowing the end from the beginning results in a disappointing and predictable narrative, and while that may be the case with some things I really do not think that it’s the case with Halo 4.This brings us to red herrings throughout Halo 4 with regards to Cortana’s rampancy, as this is the first time we start learning about the various ways that Cortana might be able to survive. John asserts that by getting Cortana back to Halsey, she can fix her. In an audio log the player can discover in the Dawn’s wreckage, we get this recorded message from Halsey.
“Catherine Halsey research excerpt – 11 February 2550: The interesting factor here isn’t that H-1 disabled the viral termination code I implanted in her matrix. These metrics imply its success wasn’t just unlikely, but that even the accepted seven-year life cycle estimates may not apply. Thus far, I’ve determined that the unique circumstances of her creation have triggered what I can only refer to as a recessive variant in the AI seed. As her architect, I’m currently at a loss as to the origin of this rogue element. Very curious.“
The accepted seven-year life cycle estimates “may not apply”, Cortana was created in “unique circumstances”, the AI seed has a “recessive variant” not previously seen before, Halsey herself is “at a loss” about this “rogue element”. It all sounds rather hopeful, the keys to her salvation, perhaps? Cortana goes on to tell John:
“Chief… About my ‘condition’? I didn’t want to mention it since it’s a complete longshot, but since you brought it up… It is possible that getting home could help me find a solution to my rampancy.”
“Well, as far as I know, I’m the only AI ever generated from living tissue – a clone of Doctor Halsey, to be precise. It may be possible to recompile my neural net by replicating those same conditions. But that means getting back to Halsey. Soon.”
We’re being constantly led to believe that there are all these possible variants that could change things for the better, that Cortana may be able to avoid this period of turmoil and pain altogether and this lays the groundwork for John’s objective in the first act of the game.Going back to the opening scene for a moment though…
“I was put into service eight years ago.”
“AIs deteriorate after seven, Chief…”
The hurt that John is feeling is made so painfully clear to us as Cortana drives that knife into his heart, telling him that she’s going to deteriorate – that’s much more emotive than just outright saying she’s going to die. It implies that the process is going to be gradual, that she’s going to suffer and he’s going to have to watch her go through it all. This is where we’ll pull in a bit of context from the development of the game itself, as the inspiration for the rampancy dynamic of the story actually faced the possibility of being cut altogether if it weren’t for Josh Holmes, the creative director.
Holmes said during Halo 4’s GDC panel that his mother was suffering from severe dementia as the game was being developed. Imagine that though, getting up every day and going to work, sitting in your office, knowing that while you were sat in a room somebody you love is suffering like that. It’s a struggle to hold onto your most basic mental faculties.
“For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign. […] At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story.”
What did Holmes do? He transformed his grief into passion for the writing of the game and kept pushing for the rampancy story to be put in because he had an idea of how to write it based on his own experiences. I think that’s beautifully tragic, it goes to show just how much love and emotion was actually poured into this part of the story. But he also sums up the central premise for John’s role as the protagonist in the game, this is where the Hero’s Journey has taken him and it’s the challenge he has to face.
“Chief is faced with, for the first time, y’know, an obstacle that he may not be able to overcome. Can he not just save the galaxy, but can he save his best friend as well?”
That’s also what this scene sets up for the rest of the game. John promises that he will find a way to fix Cortana, he’s the hero after al – that’s what he’s supposed to do. But Cortana knows otherwise, the expression on her face says it all, really.
“Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep…”
A line that we’ve all heard before, though slightly altered. In Halo 2, John has to leave Cortana on High Charity with the Gravemind while he pursues the prophet of Truth to the Forerunner Keyship which is heading to Earth. She tells him “don’t make a girl a promise, if you know you can’t keep it”. It’s a cathartic moment in Halo 3 where John does manage to keep his promise and rescues Cortana from the clutches of the Gravemind, but it’s a totally different story in Halo 4 and Cortana knows it. It’s not a a promise with the possibility of John not being able to keep it, it’s a promise he simply can’t keep. This conflict between the red herrings pointing to Cortana’s survival and the subsequent catharsis that would result from that is totally shot down at every point in the primary narrative, as Cortana’s condition worsens and worsens to the point where she almost gets John killed on several occasions.John and Cortana’s conversation is interrupted by a Covenant patrol passing overhead, Cortana gives John his directive (“We need to move!”) and gameplay begins – the last bit of the scene is punctuated by John readying his assault rifle.
What’s really striking about this level, and the game as a whole, is how much more interactive it feels in terms of how much John talks. This is where the fun begins for 343 because it’s where they really start to critique the elements of the FPS genre which supposedly immerses the player most – the silent protagonist. John has never spoken in gameplay segment before, but he openly asks questions and addresses exterior parts of the narrative as you progress through the game. John is no longer the stoic, schizoid brick he has been in the past – he’s not a passive vessel through which the player experiences the story, he’s an active participant in the progression of the narrative just like he is in the novels and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that 343 chose to do this.
Before moving on, there are a number of goodies you can come across by exploring the crash site. I’ve already mentioned the Halsey log, but there are two other transmissions made by the Covenant which require examination.
“Non-believers walk the sacred ground. Purge the heretics, so that they do not foul the air of Paradise. The time has come to enter the Great Light. The Promethean awakening is nigh… our reward is at hand.”
This clearly sets up the Covenant’s motivation for the game. They’re here to enact some kind of awakening, something to do with a force called the Prometheans. Requiem has finally opened up and the Covenant are now able to enter the Great Light. The Covenant are going to attain some kind of reward.
The second transmission has been, according to Cortana, on a loop for the last three years every thirty minutes. The Covenant have been patiently awaiting a time where Requiem will open up, the puzzle grows ever more intricate and this “Didact” has something to do with it. While the reformation of the Covenant under Jul ‘Mdama isn’t precisely explained following the events of The Thursday War, we are made perfectly aware of their motivations which adds another layer to the dynamic of the story because it sows the seed for the main narrative to diverge away from Cortana’s rampancy. The Covenant are, and have always been, a MacGuffin in the grand scheme of things – once again, we find ourselves getting that Halo CE vibe as the Covenant are the key to unravelling an ancient mystery.
Now the thing about Requiem is that it has a ton of beautiful environments, ranging from vast Forerunner spires floating over a city with lush green forests and waterfalls, ominously ethereal cathedral-like structures slowly being reclaimed by nature, bridges covering large rocky chasms and so on. Let’s take a break from this rather heavy emotional stuff to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, shall we?That’s enough scenery porn for you, we’ve got a story to talk about and feels to… feel.
Upon reaching one of the spires, we see that the Forerunner architecture is gradually being reclaimed by nature. The floor has great patches of grass, the clearly structured angles of the walls are disrupted by rocks. There’s a very clear mixture of organic and synthetic textures, this is a huge aspect of the story because the ‘man vs machine’ conflict is a constant presence throughout the game and has been ever since the Prologue.
Before anything, it’s important that we actually talk about the Forerunner architecture on Requiem because it’s quite different to what we’ve seen in previous games. While the generic concepts of what makes Forerunner stuff look like Forerunner stuff, we’re seeing the architecture of a whole different rate (or, if you prefer, caste) of Forerunner society.
Each Forerunner rate has extremely distinctive architectural styles. The vast majority of architecture we’ve seen from the Forerunners has been from the Builders, they were the dominant rate in Forerunner society and the creators of the Halo installations (which was vehemently opposed by the Warrior-Servants), so it makes sense that we’ve seen more of the Builders’ architectural style. Meanwhile, Halo Wars and Halo 4 show us Warrior-Servant architecture, and the Keyship we see in Halo 2 and 3 is a Lifeworker vessel. Then, you’ve got other architectural styles from other Forerunner rates which have even more divergent elements, such as the Miners who have constructs like the Gatherer.The Gatherer bears a great number of similarities to what Bornstellar describes Miner vessels to look like – aesthetically displeasing with groups of of grapplers, lifters, and cutters on their underbellies. Forerunners also used stone to craft some of their temples which can change shape and form, like the Temple of Abiding Truth that Phillips is in when stuck on Sanghelios in The Thursday War. This sort of thing was also seen on Delta Halo during Halo 2, but in an inert form.
Forerunners don’t just have one style of architecture, the same way we don’t have one style of architecture. It varies greatly across cultures and time, and the Forerunners have been around for over ten million of years as a space-faring race. We have seen the smallest glimpse of what they’ve built in a time period of about 10,000 years. We’re obviously going to be seeing things which are a departure from that as we see deeper into their society and technological capabilities, so that’s why the architecture in Halo 4 looks quite different. In the Return of the Forerunners ViDoc, Kenneth Scott (the former art director of 343 Industries) states:
“There’s a degree of animalistic fierceness that maybe you didn’t see in previous games…”
Returning from that little tangent, we find ourselves once again going back to familiar territory, as we’re led to a Cartographer which is a well-known, tried and true narrative device used in Halo CE and Halo 3 to establish the setting in concrete terms. Cortana picks up a mysterious signal at the beginning of the level and it’s gradually cleared up, revealed to be from a human vessel called the UNSC Infinity which seems to be inside the planet just like John and Cortana. John sees it as his chance to get Cortana repaired, so they use the Cartographer to try to locate it.While inside the spire, you can interact with a particularly important piece of Forerunner history, society and culture – the Eld symbol. It has been plastered all over Forerunner constructs since the first game and we finally have a direct translation of what it means.
“Guardianship for all living things lies with those whose evolution is most complete. The Mantle of Responsibility shelters all.”
This is the first mention we get of the Mantle in Halo 4, having been previously referenced as a major thematic concept in Halo 3’s Terminals. I have written a concise, 1000 word long essay on the Mantle which you can check out here to avoid dragging this analysis out longer than it needs to be. The Mantle is what humanity is meant to ultimately reclaim by the end of the Reclaimer Saga, to assume guardianship over all life in the galaxy to protect it in all of its diversity and ensure the natural flow of Living Time. While John and Cortana have this very personal story focused on the transcendence of their established roles, they are both a part of this greater story that encompasses the Halo saga as a whole.This is also the first glimpse we get of Halo 4’s antagonist, the Ur-Didact. As John exits the Cartographer, the holographic display behind him distorts and reveals his glyph. It’s evident that he’s doing something behind the scenes, but that doesn’t become clear until the next mission. But if this image tells us one thing, it’s that John and Cortana are walking into a trap.Just prior to reaching the cathedral, you stumble upon the first of the game’s seven Terminals. Upon locating it, Cortana says:
“This node is caught in a loop trying to access something it’s calling ‘the Domain’, an offworld data repository of some kind, though I’m only able to extract bits and pieces of the complete exchange… I’ll log it for investigation later.”
The Domain is hugely significant in the Halo universe, something that we’ve only really learned about in the last three years but it’s something that is directly connected to the history of the Forerunners and the Precursors. We’ll cover the Domain in more detail in the next post, as it’s a central part of the Ur-Didact’s character, so, like Cortana, I’ll log this for investigation later.
What this Terminal does depict, however, is the Covenant fleet massing outside of Requiem for the last three years and their discovery of the Forward Unto Dawn which (as we know) leads into the events of the game and the Shield World’s opening.The tension begins to rise as Cortana attempts to locate the source of the Infinity’s transmissions, the system responds with the Reclaimer glyph – something which we’ve seen, like the Eld, plastered over a lot of Forerunner architecture. This glyph is used to represent a species who has been chosen to inherit the Mantle, in this case it’s humanity – a conclusion which John comes to himself.
“That’s the kicker. It’s the Forerunner symbol for Reclaimer.”
“Humanity… That’s got to be Infinity. Can you get us to those coordinates?”
The Reclaimer glyph was largely a cause for the Human-Covenant war in the first place, as the Prophets of Truth, Regret and Mercy (who were then recognised as the Minister of Fortitude, Vice Minister of Tranquility, and Philologist) discovered Mendicant Bias in the Keyship on High Charity who told them that the Covenant have been misinterpreting the glyph for thousands of years. They believed that it meant ‘reclamation’, anything associated with it was a treasure of Forerunner origin for the Covenant to rightfully inherit, but it actually means ‘Reclaimer’ and specifically pertains to humanity – the race championed by the influence of the Librarian who imprinted humans with a genesong which is gradually being unlocked.Before John and Cortana can identify the location of the Infinity, they find themselves interrupted by the sudden arrival of the Promethean knights – the game’s new antagonists. In this scene, we actually see John be visibly alarmed, possibly even frightened as this new threat phases in and out of the cathedral. Unlike Cortana’s rampancy, the Prometheans are a physical threat and obstacle that John must overcome and even then we’re seeing him hesitate. We actually see his fight or flight instinct kick in as he inwardly debates with himself whether to jump into the portal that Cortana has opened, or to stand his ground and fight. Of course, it only takes Cortana to provide him with a directive, as the brevity, desperation and confusion of her telling him to just “go!” triggers his immediate compliant reaction.So that’s about it for Requiem. To reflect on this post, these are the things we’ve covered so far: Parallel imagery, the establishment and development of core thematic concepts, the Covenant’s motivations, red herrings about rampancy, Josh Holmes’ role in crafting the rampancy story, the assault rifle symbolism, scenery porn, parallel objectives, 343’s deconstruction of the FPS genre, Forerunner architecture, the Mantle, the Domain, and what it means to be a Reclaimer.
That’s rather a lot to take in for one mission that the rest of the game continues to iterate on and develop. You thought this was over? Truth be told, we’re just getting started…