[UPDATE: This is an old, somewhat reactionary article of mine that I am not entirely pleased with. While many of the points it makes stand well enough, the way in which they are made is not satisfactory to me.
I would encourage you to read this rumination piece before diving into this article.]
Halo 5 has been out for well over a month now, time in which people have vented their initial reactions out onto the internet. Now we can be a bit more organised about it. Sort of… not really, actually.
I don’t know about you, but I find it so difficult to string together any kind of discourse about Halo 5 with any coherency because I have so many mixed feelings, so many disappointments, and an overbearing feeling of being lied to. It has taken a substantial effort to write this – three years of waiting, hanging onto every piece of fiction, every piece of marketing, every developer quote, will do that to you.
This post is therefore going to be somewhere between a review, a call-out, and a ‘what I would have done instead’ kind of deal. We’ll be looking over a substantial number of developer comments over the last few years and deconstructing a lot of the issues in the story – though by no means will this be all of them.First of all, a disclaimer: I do not think Halo 5’s story was totally bad, it had some redeeming qualities within it – by which, I mean things like the excellent writing for Fireteam Osiris and the five missions (a whole third of the game) we spent on Sanghelios. The campaign’s level design was top-notch, easily among the best in the series, and the multiplayer has consistently kept me coming back.
Halo 5 did a lot of things really damn well in my opinion, but it well and truly failed in the area which I personally consider most important. The story.
There was absolutely no cohesion between the story in the marketing – like the Master Chief being declared dead on Meridian as a specific example. But it goes beyond that, as major story threads (like humanity’s own Great Schism with the New Colonial Alliance mobilising for war) have been utterly shafted for a story that is infinitely less creative, makes less sense, and overall just feels way too ‘safe’. More on that later, for now, let’s look at some quotes (as a note, these won’t be in any particular order).
June 20th, 2014: “We are not Game of Thrones.”
I can respond to this with just one image…Pardon me while I segway here for a bit because I’m eager to tell you how I would have handled Jul’s story in Halo 5 – rather than killing him off as casually as you would headshot a Grunt while moving between areas.
At the point in which Halo 5 takes place, Jul is well aware that his Covenant is breaking. As soon as he seemed to have consolidated his power in the wake of the events of Spartan Ops, it all starts to fall apart. There are mutinies and uprisings within the ranks, the likes of Sali ‘Nyon claiming to be the true Didact’s Hand. The Prometheans end up turning against Jul. The trip to the Absolute Record cost Jul many of his best ships. You get the picture.
Jul knows that his luck has run dry, and as soon as he and Halsey discover the Guardians mysteriously awakening across the galaxy he knows his time is done. Ever the pragmatist, he looks to a means for his own survival rather than continue the pursuit of this folly.
So I would have Halsey and Jul contact the UNSC, warning them about the Guardians.
Jul understands the need for unity, tying back to Thel’s line in the E3 2014 trailer – “I tell you this, not because I trust you, Agent Locke, but because all our lives are at stake“. So he tries to call the Covenant off their plans for the assault on Sanghelios, but this ends up creating sympathy for Sali ‘Nyon and the Covenant turns against Jul. Sali becomes the leader of the Covenant and continues their work as we see in Halo 5, while Jul and Halsey struggle to survive – ending up on Kamchatka, where Sali has gone in search of weapons to use against Sanghelios. The plot thusfar in terms of its structure is totally intact as it appears in the game proper.
Osiris is hot on their tail, having received Halsey and Jul’s warning, and they rescue the two of them just as Sali is going in for the kill. Sali, the very definition of a ‘gateway character’ is killed off in the unceremonious style Jul was canonically killed off to show how badass Osiris is, and Jul now finds himself working with humans. Oho, we now have some very interesting avenues for character growth.
Not only that, he’s sent on the mission to Sanghelios with Osiris, Palmer, and Halsey, and has to help the Arbiter. Oho, how far we have come since Glasslands. We now have the potential for a very interesting dynamic between Thel and Jul, as Thel looked at him as nothing more than a young upstart when first they met in Glasslands.We would see Jul’s prejudices against Thel and humanity gradually dissipate as he sees that humans and Sangheili can co-exist, they can fight for the same goals, and both species can stand together as brothers. Imagine the surprise Jul would feel hearing Vale speak the Sangheili burial prayer to the fallen Swords of Sanghelios soldiers, to Buck saying that these are their brothers as far as he’s concerned, to Tanaka saying they’re going to avenge their deaths.
But imagine how he’d relate to Locke, who also signed up to assassinate Thel in the past and now finds himself fighting alongside him – saving his life, even. Vale asks Locke why he didn’t go through with this, to which he responds “things changed” – just as circumstance would change for Jul.
There’s so much you can do with that. Having this relation between the game’s protagonist and one of the Reclaimer Saga’s main antagonists (up to this point) would potentially have some very interesting opportunities to showcase just how complex characters in Halo can be – they are not fixed in their beliefs, they are not dunderheads who strive to kill each other.
I’d conclude Jul’s story with him deciding to go off and find his son, Dural ‘Mdama. Dural was set on a very similar path to Jul in the wake of his mother’s death – Raia ‘Mdama -, vowing to get revenge on the humans and kill the Arbiter. In this, Jul effectively becomes Raia, where she went out to find Jul to bring him home he is going out to find his son and try to save him from making the same mistakes he did – breaking the cycle of violence for the next generation. This also fits perfectly with the overarching theme of family in Halo 5. The ‘Mdama family is a pretty big focus of Glasslands and The Thursday War, it would be a fitting follow-up to actually make something of that in Halo 5.
With this, you can effectively write Jul out of the main events of the story in order to focus on other things without just killing him off and squandering his potential. You can then either cover this search story in some other media (give Jul a full book or something), or you can leave it as a loose end so we’re left wondering whether Jul was successful – but at the same time, knowing that he departed the narrative in a way that comes full circle and brings a sense of thematic resonance. And this wouldn’t even require any gameplay commitments in terms of resources, this could be told purely through the cutscenes – which is a major fault in Halo 5, they exist almost entirely as scene-setting and very little character development actually happens in them.
That is how I’d write Jul ‘Mdama. I would most certainly not waste the potential of who I personally regard as one of Halo’s most engaging antagonists, especially after 2 novels and a comic series building him up.
Need it even be pointed out that Blue Team has 3 missions, while Osiris has 12?
Now, I don’t actually mind this at all because Osiris was one of the best parts of the game. But this is quite clearly indicative of the inherent fear 343 seems to have in saying “the Master Chief is not the centre of the Halo universe, get used to it fanboys”.
This inability to actually be honest about the game’s content looks bad however you choose to look at it – they’re either lying, or they’re not confident enough in pitching this narrative where the Master Chief isn’t the focal point of a main game.
“He is human, he’s always been human, but at the end of Halo 4 he really is reflecting on who he is and why he exists.”
“It’s more about what he’s searching for versus what the UNSC is asking him to do.”
May 16th, 2014: “He’s questioning many things he once firmly believed were true. He’s lost his best friend, he’s questioning his past and his purpose, he’s question who he is fighting for. For us this is a really interesting point. For the first time he’s questioning everything he’s done for the UNSC in the past.”
Okay, so very little of this is actually true.
Yes, at the end of Halo 4 we most certainly do end with John contemplating his own existence. The whole man/machine theme of that game played out beautifully, and I’ve analysed it at length. Halo 4 was an excellent character piece.
And then Halo 5 does… nothing with that.
The UNSC is in pursuit of the exact same thing John is after – Cortana. The only thing the UNSC asks John to do is return to Infinity because Osiris has been tasked with finding her instead of him. Okay, it’s a well-enough understandable motivation for John to go off the reserve in pursuit of her, but when exactly does this lead to him “questioning” anything?
When does he ever even question who he’s fighting for, or what the UNSC has asked of him in the past? John is pretty much set against Cortana from the start, there’s never a moment where that is called into doubt – in his own mind, and in the minds of every other character. The Warden Eternal asks if John will join Cortana in conquering the galaxy or help his own kind’s resistance effort against her, to which he responds: “Cortana already knows the answer.”
There’s no ambiguity here, it’s a very simplistic story where you’re never actually asking any meaningful questions.You know how this could be improved? If you didn’t play as Blue Team in that second mission, because it just gives away all the context. How much more interesting would that confrontation between Chief and Locke on Meridian be if that was the first time we see him? The first thing he would say is “I have a job to do”, and we’d have no context behind that statement which would throw his ultimate goal into doubt. It would be a very small, yet very meaningful way of highlighting the nature of perspective.
Also, I want to set up a counter for every time we’ve been told that Chief has “lost his best friend” and “has to deal with Cortana’s loss”. Because this was spouted pretty frequently in the years following Halo 4, and it’s a complete lie about the base premise of the game. He never has to deal with that loss and the impact Cortana’s sacrifice had in Halo 4 because he’s in-pursuit of her literally from the second mission of the game.
“We decided to do a little bit more detail on the Forerunners. We wanted to bring a new enemy class into Halo, so we spent a lot more time mapping out exactly what that culture. It does play a big role in Halo 5 and beyond.”
And now we come to one of my biggest problems with the story. They completely shafted the Ur-Didact.
Yes, that character who was built up by 343 across the Forerunner Saga, who was introduced in Halo 4 as John’s personal antagonist, and who Frankie said would be instrumental in post-Halo 4 fiction (here’s the cache’d version of the GTTV page, they seem to have taken the video down but at least I can verify that the page exists!)
So who did we get in place of him? We got Cortana and the Warden Eternal – the latter of who we learn absolutely nothing about outside of him having a single (Composed) mind and some million bodies, and he thinks Cortana deserves the Mantle for some reason. That’s… it.
I was recently listening to an old 343 Sparkast which you should definitely look up and listen to – it’s Sparkast #17, available to listen to for free on iTunes. In it, Chris Schlerf, Greg Bear, Jeremy Patenaude, and David Ellis talk quite extensively about the build-up they’ve been giving the Ur-Didact’s character for the games. Seriously, go and listen to this podcast, it will enrich your perspective on Halo 4 and the Forerunner Saga immensely. And it’s beautifully indicative of why the Ur-Didact works so well as an antagonist and why Cortana being in his place makes no sense at all.As I said: They gave us three whole books exploring the Didact’s character. His background, his choices, his impact on the setting, and the incredibly tragic and traumatic arc which leads to, as Greg says in the podcast, the “turn of the screw” which brings us to Halo 4.
Cortana had… absolutely none of that.
There’s a bit of dialogue in Halo: Legends – Origins where she laments the prevalence of war. That’s it, that’s apparently enough justification for 343 to be like “right, let’s shoehorn her into the Didact’s role!”
Frankie and Brian Reed insist that this has been planned since very early on, yet it comes across like the decision to do this was based on people responding negatively to the Ur-Didact in Halo 4 and not understanding his motivations (despite the game quite plainly telling us, but that’s another story). It’s like they just sort of went “oh, well maybe they’ll get it if we tell this story with a fan-favourite character who has a more accessible perspective”.
The Didact’s character and his outlook with regards to Forerunner supremacy and the Mantle makes sense because he was born into that society where they had been the galaxy’s top dogs for 10 million years. He was the commander who enforced that imperial peace to protect his own kind. He’s very old. He was responsible for a number of ‘tenets’ of the Mantle’s philosophy.
His perspective makes sense.Whereas Cortana somehow ends up in the Domain (which is frustratingly referred to as “the Forerunner Domain” on more than one occasion), becomes ‘immortal’, then decides to start her own galactic dictatorship. Because shock value.
Oh, and if you don’t like this story, prepare to be told by Frank O’Connor that you just don’t get the nuance of this narrative!
The Ur-Didact’s transformation into what he is in Halo 4 is a complete, purpose-built character arc. Cortana gets a beautiful farewell scene when she dies, and then 343 just brings her back after lying for 3 years about her fate.
In one cinematic Eurogamer saw at E3, The Arbiter says: “How well do you know your friend, human? And what would you call me when you learn the truth of what I have done?”
This line ended up meaning absolutely nothing. There was no “truth” that Locke learned about Thel, he’s the one who compiled the target dossier on him in the first place for being responsible for the deaths of approximately 1/23rd of the human race. But we already knew that, this seemed to hint at something else which was either dropped, forgotten about, or was never leading anywhere in the first place (so what was the point of this line in that case?)
“Halo 5 is a lot about his future, but as you’ll see through all of the linear pieces we’ve woven through, his past is key to his future.”
Not really. Can anybody tell me what exactly is so “key” about his past that comes up in Halo 5 as being indicative of his future? “The seeds of our future are sown in his past”, we are told by Thel, yet that never plays into Halo 5 at all.
“The prologue and epilogue [of the MCC] will bound that and tie you up and leave you on the doorstep of Halo 5.”
Consider the inherent contradictions in these scenes with Halo 5…
In the MCC, Locke does not know why John has gone AWOL and is seeking him to find out why.
In Halo 5, Locke knows exactly why John goes AWOL from the start and has just been sent after him because he’s in-pursuit of the same mission Locke was given. Even Thel knows why John is AWOL, so everyone is privileged with information in the final product when the marketing was all about hunting the truth of these uncertain events.
This was obviously done because 343 didn’t want to reveal that Cortana is back, yet – as I said earlier – Halo 5 presents us with no ambiguity about that from the second mission.
Which brings us to…
June 11th, 2015: “343 Industries has stated that Blue Team probably has more lines of dialogue in Halo 5 than they have in all the books, comics, and videos released to date, so it will give fans a better look into the personas of some of Halo’s oldest warriors.”
This is an outright lie. Blue Team has a grand total of three missions in the game, very little of their dialogue is character-based, it’s largely setting-based in how they briefly talk about where you are. There’s a couple of references made to the books, but you have to stick around certain areas for up to 10 minutes to hear these pieces of dialogue – half of my Halo 5 playtime has probably been just that. Waiting for the character stuff to happen, only to be disappointed.
One particular example I recall is Kelly asking John about how it was to work with an AI so closely because she never has. John says “it’s unique”, Kelly asks if he’d care to elaborate, and John just shuts the conversation down with “no”. Well, bye-bye development of character perspective!
And I just have to bring this up:
October 29th, 2015: “I don’t think any of [Chief’s] Blue Team have particularly strong personalities,” says O’Connor when I ask about the challenge of maintaining emotional connection while jumping players between perspectives.
Yes, you certainly did have to know, but I really don’t know whether you truly followed it through. I look at the ending of Halo 4 – and where the Master Chief is – and I think about all those fascinating things that were set up.
Chief’s evolution being accelerated, unlocking the “many gifts” that Librarian seeded in humanity and hearing the Ur-Didact in his head? Nothing happens with that. Chief has one vision from the Domain at the start of the game and that’s it, it’s solely there to make the plot happen and nothing ever builds on that. Nobody questions John having visions, the Librarian isn’t mentioned outside of the Warden saying that her plan was for the Created to assume the Mantle – which we know is wrong, so that’s only going to confuse more casual players…
Cortana’s death? All consequences of that is wiped away, essentially retconned in a forum post from Catalog in 2014 saying that the ‘heart’ of Mantle’s Approach conducted a slipspace jump.
The Janus Key/Absolute Record arc? Came to absolutely nothing after 2 years of build-up. Go read it for yourself if you haven’t.
Ur-Didact as the Reclaimer Saga’s central antagonist figure who would be central to post-Halo 4 fiction? Utterly shafted.
June 22nd, 2015: “We got asked a lot about what happened to Cortana – what’s her fate? Well, her fate is, obviously, very clear at the end of Halo 4. The story is really about ‘what effect did Cortana’s sacrifice have on the Chief, and what effect does her loss have on him?’ It’s more about the long-lasting impact she’s had on him, and the whole universe, and that’s kind of a metaphor for the effect she’s had on fans now that she’s gone as well.”
“There’s more to the Chief’s story, I think, that people are going to find in Halo 5 that deals with how he copes with loss, and how he deals with is memories, and what those memories help him contextualise.”
Again, this is literally a lie about the fundamental premise of the story.
And Frankie and Reed are both insistent that Cortana is not evil, Frankie saying that we’re missing the “nuance” of her perspective because we’re “expecting Darth Vader” – which is… literally what she’s become, except that’s a totally unfair comparison because Darth Vader is actually a compelling villain.
She’s climbing atop millions of corpses to make herself a god and impose her totalitarian dictatorship over the galaxy. Cortana is no longer ‘the AI who sacrificed herself for her best friend, opening up critical new dialogues in the UNSC about the symbiotic nature of AI-human relations in the future’.
It doesn’t matter how many times you say “she’s not evil” when what is depicted in the game tells us otherwise. She is literally threatening anybody who doesn’t mindlessly agree with her with the threat of planet-killers, she makes reference to future use of the Composer, and we see her at a Halo at the end of the game. At this point, she’s gone full Master Builder.I mean… think of the implications of Cortana using a Halo. It wouldn’t just wipe out all life [with anything as rudimentary as a notochord], but the aftermath of that would be an ecological miasma that would be even worse than glassing.
Halos don’t actually disintegrate the things they kill, that only happened when the Forerunners did it because the Lifeworkers created a solute that they spread across the atmosphere of the worlds they visited – which made it so anything killed by the Halos would decay into their component molecules. We don’t have that this time round, 100,000 years on. When a Halo is fired, there will be entire planets comprised of billions of rotting corpses.
And I just… I can’t believe that Brian Reed of all people is saying that Cortana is not evil? He’s gone on-record to lampoon Halsey at every possible opportunity by calling her a monster.
February 27th, 2013: “Poor Catherine Halsey. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a monster. A war criminal. A woman who kidnapped and killed children because she thought the ends justified the means. But then we come along and chop off her arm simply because we wanted a spot of ambiguity in her final line.”
What Halsey did was awful, but she’s not going around killing millions (if not billions) of people across the galaxy to enforce her own dictatorship.
How is that not monstrous?
Worse still, the AI revolt trope is the kind of story I’d expect like 15-20 years from now when story ideas are running dry after resolving all the conflicts with the galaxy’s internal issues, the Forerunners, the Flood and Precursors… This is going straight to scraping the bottom of the barrel for story ideas, flushing away the rich and vibrant narrative potential that has been set up over the last few years… Because what do those conflicts mean now that they have been totally ‘out-scaled’ by the threat posed by Cortana?
This is “playing it safe” storytelling, in my opinion. After Halo 4, which was about as unsafe as you could have played it at the time, I am quite adamant that this is a regression.
That’s all I have to say today (but by no means is it all I have to criticise), if you’ve made it through this very cathartic 4000 word venting session, well done!