Onto the third mission of the campaign, titled Forerunner. This marks the end of the first of Halo 4’s three acts in the story, the set-up where we’re introduced to the characters, their relationships, the world they live in, the disruption of the status quo, and so on. The end of the first act typically comes when the narrative hits a turning point where the lives of the main characters are changed forever, we see this in Halo 4 through the awakening of the Ur-Didact.
Generally, the end of the first act leaves us with a question which the narrative seeks to resolve by the end of the game. Forerunner leaves us with a good number of questions which are tied in directly with the main themes of the game, all of which ultimately feed into the Reclaimer Saga as a whole.
“We had to create a situation that was going to knock him out of his comfort zone; the Master Chief has settled into this comfort zone of being ‘the hero’. It’s interesting, early on how we discussed about the hero’s journey, and like ‘how do you have a hero’s journey when he’s already a hero’? The journey is the important part, the growth is the important part, and so really where does he still need to go as a human? That became the key not just the story of Halo 4 but the entire trilogy.” ~ Chris Schlerf, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens
The agenda for what John is to be faced with for the rest of the story is therefore made abundantly clear. For 343 Industries, the question of how to knock John out of his comfort zone and deconstruct his role as ‘the hero’ comes in two flavours in Halo 4 – Cortana’s rampancy, which continues to deteriorate over the course of the story, and the introduction of John’s first proper nemesis, the Ur-Didact. Following on from the end of Requiem, John and Cortana have narrowly escaped their first encounter with the new antagonistic force, the Promethean Knights, while attempting to track down the source of the UNSC Infinity’s signals. They arrive at the core of the Shield World, the sheer size and scale of it all becomes readily apparent as John and Cortana look out over the surface of the Dyson Sphere.
At this point, John has his directive and is absolutely focused on the mission of locating the Infinity – he believes that this is the means through which Cortana’s rampancy can be solved, find Infinity and they can then find Halsey. Upon discovering that Infinity is decidedly not inside the Dyson Sphere, they notice a ‘satellite’ in the centre of Requiem’s core which is amplifying the transmissions sent by Infinity like a relay. John and Cortana contrive a plan to use the satellite to respond, but there is interference being created which is impeding them from directly contacting Infinity due to two beam pylons. Continuing the trend of the previous two missions, we’re given a very similar premise which adds a greater sense of familiarity to the game in this first act which ends up being totally subverted by the mission’s end.On Cortana’s rampancy, we see it gradually begin to manifest itself in this level – in fact, there’s something in every level which serves to show just how bad things are getting for her. AT this early stage, it manifests as static distortion washing over John’s visor as moving through Requiem’s translocation portals increases the load on her systems.
John, uncertain and hesitant in tone, asks if Cortana is going to be okay. She reassures him that she’s “held off rampancy this long”, punctuating her statement with “haven’t I?”. This can be interpreted in a number of ways, as one might see it as being quite manipulative of John in order to keep him focused on the mission – going back to the Prologue where Halsey states that Cortana was a tool designed to maintain his efficiency at killing. Cortana deflects anything to do with rampancy until she slips up and lets something come through, at this point it’s relatively minor things like the aforementioned visor distortion, but she knows how bad things are going to get. Her face in Dawn’s opening cutscene before she awakens John says it all, then when John is awake she puts on that brave smile and pretends that it’s all going to be “like old times”.
This is where we start to see that it’s really not going to be like old times at all. She’s keeping John in-check by providing him with directives, objectives for him to accomplish, just as she always had and that keeps them away from having to face this immensely personal problem openly. Like John fiddling with his assault rifle uncomfortably, this seems to be Cortana’s means through which she attempts to avoid the overbearing weight on her shoulders.
Despite these reminders about Cortana’s deteriorating condition, that’s not actually the focus of this level. Forerunner is all about… well, the Forerunners. It’s the first mission in which we encounter the Prometheans, it exposes us to a great deal of Warrior-Servant architecture and the greater complexity of their designs, it gradually brings the UNSC Infinity into the story, and it introduces our central antagonist for the rest of the game. As you can see, Warrior-Servant architecture has a greater deal of emphasis on circular/spherical shapes to compliment the angular structures we’ve grown accustomed to in the previous games. One might infer that the specific use of this imagery is an almost palindromic reference to the Forerunner Saga, Greg Bear’s trilogy of novels which are deeply connected to the Reclaimer Saga’s story. There’s a sense of that story coming full-circle, as events that came to pass 100,000 years ago are starting to repeat themselves.
The Cryptum is the ultimate symbol of this, I think. In the first novel of the Forerunner Saga, Halo: Cryptum, a young and rebellious Forerunner named Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting runs away from his swap-family on Mars in search of ancient Precursor treasures (the Precursors being the long-vanished race of gods who shaped all life in the universe and passed the Mantle of Responsibility down to the Forerunners, as they believe – the truth is much more harrowing, but we’ll get to that in good time). He arrives at Earth, known to the Forerunners as Erde-Tyrene, the homeworld of humanity where the Forerunners exiled us after a war we lost, resulting in our race being devolved back to the Stone Age as punishment. Bornstellar enlists two human companions on his travels who guide him to Djamonkin Crater where tales of ancient treasure have circulated, but discovers that this has all been part of a plan enacted by the Librarian to release her husband from his own exile in a Cryptum.
Ringing any bells? This basic premise is very much echoed in Halo 4’s opening levels, as he is cast away from his people following the events of Halo 3 (due to the intervention of Mendicant Bias), arrives at a world which is a monument to a long-lost war, searches for ‘treasure’ (the means through which he can cure Cortana’s rampancy), and instead ends up encountering the Didact by releasing him from his Cryptum. This sense of thematic resonance differentiates itself from the Forerunner Saga by adding a sinister twist on the Ur-Didact, as he awakens as an antagonistic force this time around following the circumstances that drove him into insanity.It’s even worth noting that when Bornstellar activates the Didact’s Cryptum, his human companions, Chakas and Riser, break the Millennial Seal by chanting an ancient song that the Librarian imprinted them with. Interestingly, it’s a chanting choir that plays in the background when John awakens the Ur-Didact in Halo 4. When the Millennial Seal was broken by Chakas and Riser, the Cryptum emitted an intense flash of light which caused anyone in the vicinity to feel as if time had been suspended – while this doesn’t literally happen in Halo 4, we are certainly made to feel like this is what’s happening as the Covenant and Prometheans completely stop fighting each other as the Ur-Didact dominates the scene with his presence, all while John is completely stripped of his agency in the narrative because he’s held in the Didact’s constraint field.Of course, John and Cortana have no idea about what they’re getting into here. As far as they are aware, the Cryptum is a satellite which has been amplifying the Infinity’s transmissions like a relay and is therefore their means through which they’ll be able to communicate with the vessel. In fact, John is so focused on his objective here with the next step towards curing Cortana in sight, he disregards what she says when she begins to suspect that there’s something going on. This happens on two separate occasions, once when both beam pylons are down and the Covenant head towards the core.
“This doesn’t make any sense! Why would they care about a broadcast relay?”
And the second time is just before John activates the Cryptum, Cortana starts to piece together what’s going on but John is unwilling to compromise.
“Wait, something’s not right–”
“We don’t have time!”
This segment of the level is actually called ‘almost home’, which really serves to reinforce this notion about John’s character. It’s almost like a peek into John’s mind when the words appear on the screen and it’s because of his emotions clouding his judgement that the Ur-Didact is released.In the words of Kiki Wolfkill, Executive Producer of 343 Industries:
“The conditions and the context are what pit a hero and antagonist against each other.”
So, it’s time to delve into some context with regards to the character of the Ur-Didact because this is what pits him against the hero of the narrative. He’s somebody who I think has been greatly misunderstood by a lot of people who haven’t read the Forerunner Saga, seen the Terminals of Halo 4, or paid much attention to the things that he says in the game (because every line spoken by him tells us something new about him, or reinforces an established notion of his character).
First of all, why do I keep calling him the ‘Ur-Didact’? ‘Ur’ is the German prefix for ‘original’, this is applied to his character because there are actually two Didacts, the other one is known as the IsoDidact – he’s the one who fired the Halos, reseeded the galaxy, and lead the surviving Forerunners on the Great Journey. The IsoDidact was originally Bornstellar, but the Ur-Didact performed a brevet mutation on Bornstellar which transferred all of his knowledge, wisdom and experience into Bornstellar’s head.
So who is the Ur-Didact? He is the leader of the Warrior-Servant rate of Forerunner society, specifically he’s a Promethean – the highest form which a Warrior-Servant can mutate to. He was commander of Forerunner military forces during the Human-Forerunner war 110,000 years ago, husband of the Librarian, and the creator of the Shield Worlds as a counter to the Master Builder’s proposal to build the Halo Rings. There was a great deal of political animosity between the Builders and Warrior-Servants, as the latter viewed the Halos as a crime against the Mantle.
“You wonder what forced me to enter the Cryptum. It was my refusal to agree to this plan even in its early stages. With all my being, I fought against the design of these infamous devices, and for thousands of years forestalled their construction. But my opponents finally won. I was reprimanded by the Council, bringing shame upon my rate, my guild, my family. Then I became the infamous one—the conqueror and saviour who refused to listen to reason. And so, I vanished.”
During the Forerunner-Flood war, following his awakening at the hands of Bornstellar, the Ur-Didact ended up getting captured by the Master Builder – his arch political rival who was responsible for his exile on Earth in the first place, as the Ur-Didact lost the political struggle to cease creation of the Halos. He is put into suspended animation on a derelict vessel with some of the Master Builder’s other rivals and stranded in a Burn, a star system which has been totally overrun by the Flood. His vessel drifts into the clutches of the Gravemind who performs unspeakable horrors on his mind, he becomes a puppet of the Flood and is sent back to the Forerunners to instigate dissent in order to ease the Flood’s path to total victory.
“Humans drowned out entire civilizations with the Flood. They brought this horrific parasite to our people. Had we acted quicker, had we taken what was rightfully ours, we could have cut off the infection at its source. Know this: the universe will now be turned star by star, world by world, organism by living thing, into even more of a tortured mockery than it already is. Look what it’s done to me! Everything it touches is afflicted with madness. It has touched me. I am myself mad! […] We gave the Precursors reason to retreat into madness. A passion for vengeance. And the Gravemind gave it all right back to me. I am filled with that passion, that madness, that poison! If we fire Halo, we lose everything.”
At this point, the Ur-Didact felt compelled to perform another mutation on himself in an attempt to gain immunity to Flood infection, he blames humanity for the Flood’s arrival at Forerunner shores in the first place. He’s infatuated with the belief that the Halos must not be fired and that there are alternatives to their use, but in the process of his mutation he botches it and emerges as even more deformed and mentally unstable than he was before. In Halo: Cryptum, Bornstellar tells us that Forerunners who fail their mutations are hushed up by their families and cast out of Forerunner society, not to mention the fact that brevet mutations (which are a more rapid exchange than ordinary mutations) carry the risk of a great many more complications that the Ur-Didact evidently succumbed to.
“I had heard of failed mutations, of individuals hidden in special family enclaves and restricted to menial tasks. Not an attractive prospect.”
This is linked back to a comment made by Splendid Dust of Ancient Suns in Halo: Cryptum, he establishes the fact that there are younger Forerunners who are beginning to break away from traditional mutations and experimenting with more natural patterns.
“I am part of a new pattern. More… natural. Some call it atavistic. But rather than being subjected to many mutations over a matter of centuries, we undergo an economical series of changes over a single domestic year. Our endpoint is less rigid, less distorted and ornamental.”
“Who’s we, Councilor?”
“We come from Builder families, mostly, but a few among us are Warrior-Servants.”
Be wary. The Didact would of course object to this deviation from tradition. At least, I presumed that was the cause of his reaction.
Splendid Dust continued. “This leaves us with fewer inherent distortions of both anatomy and mind. Fewer prejudices… some say, less imprinted wisdom, as we have fewer mentors. We were in fact supposed to supplement that deficit with studious use of the Domain, but that’s difficult now. I feel the loss.”
This illustrates the issues presented by the mainstream ways through which Forerunners advance themselves, and that even the Didact would not approve of this break away from tradition. Because brevet mutations require a ‘mentor’ to perform the ceremony, the student inherits the prejudices with the ‘wisdom’ of their mentor. It’s clear that the Ur-Didact’s failed mutation was just another cause for his descent into madness, as he was already afflicted with the Gravemind’s influence. When we get to Reclaimer, we’ll talk more about the Ur-Didact’s actions at the climax of the Forerunner-Flood war and his use of the Composer, as those are not directly relevant right now, but at this point you should have a fairly rounded idea with regards to the early context and foreshadowing that we were given in the Forerunner Saga.
As for the relevant Terminal in which you see the Ur-Didact’s failed mutation, you can check that out here.Back to the scene at hand now, let’s talk about the dynamic of the relationship between John and the Ur-Didact because it’s something filled with these subtle nuances of expression which receives a good deal of development through the game – even though the Ur-Didact himself is not always directly present.
First of all, just look at John’s immediate reaction to the Ur-Didact’s awakening. Right off the bat, he looks over cover and then immediately attempts to hide himself – we get the impression that there may even be an ounce of fear in the way that he shifts backwards into cover. The Didact’s armour assembles around him and he assumes control of the Promethean Knights with a swing of his arm, demonstrative of the sheer power he has.The Covenant forces bow down to him and Jul ‘Mdama cries out the Didact’s name, as was confirmed in one of the Waypoint Bulletins.
Jul ‘Mdama comes onto the stage here. Again, he’s a character the hardcore fiction fans know, but is completely new to gamers. But he’s also another one of those seeds we plant in the game that doesn’t sprout until much later. It’s almost impossible to spot the first time, though (intentionally, by the way), since you’re sort of really paying attention to everything else going on in the world, but when Didact wakes up and declares “so fades the great harvest of my betrayal,” you see the Elites all falling to one knee – including Jul ‘Mdama, who shouts “Didact!”
Thus, the question as to how Cortana knows the Didact’s name is answered. She’s heard it twice already – once in a Covenant transmission in the previous level, and once now upon his awakening.The Ur-Didact then disintegrates John’s cover and grabs him in a constraint field. People have likened this to some kind of Force Grip from Star Wars, but it’s technology that we’ve seen in Halo going all the way back to Halo 2 where Tartarus’ hammer, the Fist of Rukt, is augmented with a personalised constraint field which he uses against Guilty Spark and the Arbiter on a number of occasions throughout the story. The Forerunners are also masters of anti-gravity as they are a Tier 1 civilisation, it’s really not that hard to believe that their most powerful military commander would have what the Forerunners would consider such a basic piece of technology.
Again, this is to highlight just how powerful the Ur-Didact is compared to John – this is not an enemy he can defeat by any conventional means. We were told back in Halo CE by Guilty Spark that John’s armour barely classifies as a Class-Two Combat Skin, the Ur-Didact’s is closer to a Class-Twelve.The Ur-Didact proceeds to deliver a monologue which spells out his feelings towards John and humanity as a whole, as well as his attitude towards the ‘lower’ races.
“So fades the great harvest of my betrayal… Even these beasts recognised what you were oblivious to, human. Your nobility has blinded you, as ever. The Librarian left little to chance, didn’t she? Turning my own guardians, my own world, against me. But what hubris to believe that she could protect her pets from me forever. If you haven’t mastered even these primitives, then man has not attained the Mantle – you ascendance may yet be prevented. Time was your ally, human… but now it has abandoned you. The Forerunners have returned… this tomb is now yours.”
So, like I said, this tells us a number of things about the Ur-Didact. He mentions his “betrayal”, referring to the Librarian imprisoning him inside Requiem 100,000 years ago, and there has been a “great harvest” since then where humanity has arisen once more as a dominant space-faring civilisation. He establishes that the Librarian, his wife, has had a major role to play in the events we’re experiencing – she turned his “guardians” (the Promethean Knights) and his whole world against him, but it was only a temporary measure. He refers to humanity as her “pets”, something which he does in the Forerunner Saga as well to refer to Riser and the human sub-species of Chamanune.
“Little human, I know your kind. You are of ancient form. I asked you be preserved, because you are peaceful yet full of cleverness. Worthy pets to amuse and by low example to instruct our young.”
He then turns to Chakas, the Hamanune of whom the Spartans and modern humans are descended from, and says.
“But you…” He swung his finger around to Chakas. “You are too much like the humans who nearly wrecked my fleets and murdered my warriors. My wife has taken liberties. She provokes me.”
He stretched out his arms. The armor flashed. “You provoke me.”
Chakas’ face clouded but, wisely, he said nothing. The Didact seemed to rethink any violent action. His arms dropped and the armour returned to a state of protection.
We see an almost exact reflection of this reaction towards humanity from the Ur-Didact in Halo 4, the difference between these two periods of time is the Ur-Didact’s state of mind – as in, it is still tainted by the Gravemind’s influence. The Librarian locked the Ur-Didact away in the hope that his mind would connect with the Domain and heal him of this affliction through a long period of meditation, that he would arise from the Cryptum and lead humanity on their path to attaining the Mantle, but the Domain was destroyed by the Halos and the Ur-Didact was left to stew in his own insanity for 100,000 years instead.The Ur-Didact also exhibits negative sentiments towards the Sangheili, referring to them a mere “beasts”. It’s interesting because at this point he sees everything and everyone around him as a mere tool to be used, Cortana even says that John was simply used as a means to release him from the Cryptum following this scene.
“That ‘Didact’, he manipulated infinity’s signal to get us to release him!”
The Didact studies his foe and then discards him, tossing John away like a ragdoll, showing that he does not recognise John as the kind of warrior he considers an equal to himself – unlike the Lord of Admirals 110,000 years ago who he regarded as his “finest opponent”.
This is also the first instance we hear of humanity and the Mantle, as it is the primary theme of the Reclaimer Saga – as if the name ‘Reclaimer Saga’ didn’t give that away in the first place. This sets up the Ur-Didact’s motivation in the narrative for why he’s working against humanity, he sees that we’re at a point where our ascendance to the role of guardianship can still be halted because he believes that the Forerunners alone should hold the Mantle of Responsibility – as is corroborated by numerous quotes across the Forerunner Saga, Halo 4, and the Terminals.
> “The Mantle of Responsibility for the galaxy shelters all, human. But only the Forerunners are its masters.”
> “Humanity stands as the greatest threat in the galaxy. Refusing to eradicate them is a fool’s gambit. We squander eons in the darkness, while they seize our triumphs for their own. The Mantle of responsibility for all things belongs to Forerunners alone.”
> “The humans were not meant to protect others. The Mantle of Responsibility for all things is ours, and ours alone.”
> “They took the Mantle of Responsibility upon themselves, and in so doing, they brought the sickness to our shores.”
> “This quest to fulfil the Mantle has haunted me my entire life. And for countless millennia, we have failed to realize the one truth that could have saved us from the beginning. The Mantle isn’t to be inherited by the noble, it is to be taken by the strong.”
> “Humans would have prayed to this. Everywhere they found powers and forces, in oceans and rivers, in trees, in animals-even in rocks. Forerunners pray their sorts of prayers only to the Mantle. Who, then, is more deserving?”
Thus, the conflict between the Ur-Didact and John is set up. It reveals that we are embroiled in a small part of a much larger story, one which spans conflicts going back ten million years in the lore which is gradually unfolding in the games.The Ur-Didact departs from Requiem’s core through slipspace, the core becomes unstable and John has to escape. In classic Halo fashion, we find ourselves in a race against time to speed across the vast landscape of a Forerunner installation as it tears itself apart in order to get to safety – again, interweaving that sense of familiarity while juxtaposing it with wholly new elements.
At the same time, the UNSC Infinity has been caught in Requiem’s gravity well as it followed the Forward Unto Dawn’s distress beacon – the same beacon which was dragged into Requiem earlier on. We hear a series of frantic transmissions from Captain Andrew Del Rio as the infinity begins its forced descent.Upon reaching a portal which leaves John at the top of one of Requiem’s mountain ranges, we see the Infinity emerge through the clouds on a collision course with the planet’s surface. This once again demonstrates the sheer power of the Forerunners, as the Infinity is established to the most advanced vessel ever constructed by humanity since the fall of their empire 110,000 years ago, but it’s still barely able to hold up against the Ur-Didact’s world.Speaking of the Ur-Didact, his Cryptum materialises behind John. John readies his assault rifle for combat, but appears to be completely awestruck by the vessel that towers over him.What’s interesting about this shot is how it’s paralleled in the trailer for Halo: Xbox One where John faces another massive Forerunner construct. Even now, 343 continues to demonstrate their propensity for parallel imagery which instils a sense of awe, mystery and uncertainty. In this shot, we see the Ur-Didact scan the area around him (including John) and then he just zooms off to pursue the Infinity – again, it illustrates that he does not yet recognise John to be a credible threat to him. What this offers is a stark contrast to the relationship that develops later in the game where the Ur-Didact does come to respect and even admire John as a tenacious, cunning, and resourceful warrior.
That just about concludes my thoughts on Forerunner, the end of the first act of Halo 4’s story. The central conflicts of the story are now set up, along with the questions which acts two and three must address. Can John defeat the Ur-Didact who seeks to prevent humanity from attaining the Mantle, while also reuniting with humanity, reconciling himself with his own sense of humanity, and save Cortana from her deteriorating condition?
John really does have the weight of the world on his shoulders, as Armando Troisi of 343 says that he often thinks of John as analogous to the figure of the Greek Titan, Atlas. Lindsay Lockhart also commented on the importance of the theme of guardianship across all areas of the Halo universe.
“We’re really examining what sorts of burdens a guardian carries. […] In a way, Chief is a guardian, Cortana is Chief’s guardian, the Forerunners were the guardians of their own universe. And they might have to make a decision not everyone is going to agree with, and that some people might condemn.”
Thus, the end of act one shows us the beginnings of how these themes are going to gradually be developed which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next part of this analysis.