What I Liked About Halo 5’s Story

I’ve made absolutely no secret about the largely negative feelings I have towards Halo 5’s story – a story which we were outright lied to about on its base premise.

But I’m not going to talk about that today.

I shall still my wrath because I actually do have a fair number of good things to say about aspects of the story, the campaign in-general – things which I think were handled very well. While the story is definitely a net-negative for me there are still things in there which were well written and I want to see more of down the line.swords47I’m going to start of with a controversial point. No, the controversial point:

Fireteam Osiris is the best thing about Halo 5’s story and one of the best additions to the Halo universe in the last 14 years.

There, I said it.

I laugh at those of you who close this article immediately after reading that sentence.

I think Osiris are a wonderful cast of characters and I love that they had the spotlight in the game (though, of course, if I were in charge of telling this story I’d split Halo 5 into two games where you play as Osiris for all of one and Blue Team for all of the other). Their missions were by far the most interesting, the most fleshed out, and the most grounded in fleshing out the setting of the Halo universe – but more on that later. In talking about Osiris, I want to focus on two characters in particular because I feel that they’re the most underappreciated.

Jameson Locke and Holly Tanaka. I was actually considering dedicating a whole article to discussing this alone because I have a lot of lovely things to say about these two, but here’s something of a condensed version of my perspective on them.locke4I’ll start off with Locke, the galaxy’s ultimate cinnamon roll.

Where I’ve criticised the bait-and-switch nature of the marketing, I love how Locke turned out in all of this. It’s beautifully fitting with what was actually built up in Nightfall (regardless of the negatives about that, I think it did an excellent job with Randall and Locke).

“And in their final moments as a soldier, you know they will have to answer the same question you did in yours: with your life, would you only create death? Or, with your death, would you create life? That is my question to you, Commander Locke. How will you die? And for what?” [Randall-037 Aiken, Halo: Nightfall]

Whenever you think about Locke and his actions, think about this quote from Nightfall because this really is the central theme of Locke’s overall arc – I feel confident in predicting that even at this early stage.

Locke is a guardian (heh) angel of sorts. There’s so many interesting reversals that surround his character.

Halsey was slated to be executed by order of Serin Osman, head of ONI. Now Locke, a former-ONI agent, comes into the picture and his mission is to save her from Jul. The opening words of the game are from Halsey at some point in the future saying to Locke that ONI will order him to “kill us both”, so that in itself tells us that this question of Randall’s is going to be relevant at a later point.

Locke, as an ONI agent in the Human-Covenant war, recommended killing Thel ‘Vadamee, and signed up to be the one to do it. When they actually meet, Locke saves Thel’s life as he and the Swords of Sanghelios are losing a fight against the Covenant in the elder council chamber. He also advises Thel about how to avoid the Guardian’s pre-slipspace pulse at Sunaion so as to protect his people.

And then, John… the marketing says all there is to say about the conflict between these two. But then, think about that final run at the end of the game where Locke is staggering towards the device which will give Exuberant Witness control of Genesis again, he’s practically on the verge of death as the Guardians wear him down with their energy blasts.

In that moment, Locke’s final act would be to free John and Blue Team from 10,000 years of imprisonment within a Cryptum. He saves humanity’s greatest heroes so that they may live to fight another day rather than be forced to watch Cortana instigate her dictatorship over the galaxy – powerless to respond.

There’s a beautiful and very fitting irony to how Osiris, the name of his team, is the god of the dead, yet it is life that they keep on giving.h5g13Locke is a character that I feel I’ve been on an odyssey with, in the space of a year I feel he’s been defined a great deal better than the Master Chief in the last 14 years because of the dissonance between his portrayal in the games and the books up until Halo 4 sorted that mess out. Locke has been purpose-built as a character and I’m more than happy to see him take centre stage when the writing for him is so strong.

People have been calling him “bland” because he’s quite subdued in how he communicates with others, but I feel like that’s really coming from people who aren’t pouring much thought into his character. People criticised Mike Colter’s voice work back in 2014, but his motion-capture performance game is strong. He’s an actor first-and-foremost, the subtle shifts in his expressions are on-par with Mackenzie Mason’s work as Cortana in Halo 4. Ike Amadi layers on a voice brimming with character even when he’s not saying much, it’s how he says it and how Colter’s facial acting combines together to make his performance so believable and his character so genuine.

I am very invested in Locke’s character and where his arc is going. Regardless of the outright lie about the philosophical difference in perspective that set him and John against one another, what we actually got in the game was really bloody good in my opinion.lockelook3Next up, Holly Tanaka.

“Quiet, self-reliant, and unfazeable, Holly Tanaka has no close friends, and rarely fraternises with her fellow Spartans. She is a founding member of Fireteam Osiris together with Jameson Locke, though even he does not know her well. This reticence to connect with others is a result of her traumatic experience as a survivor of Minab’s glassing in 2550.” [Halo 5, limited edition character cards]

This is something that comes up several times in the game and is the foundation upon which her character is built. We’ve seen her origin story in The Glass Horizon arc of Escalation (one of the best stories in a largely rushed and disappointing series) and while it’s obviously not necessary to understanding her character it does do a fair bit to enrich your perspective on her.

Holly has a very strongly defined, but also very subtle arc through Halo 5. It’s by no means telegraphed as a main part of the narrative, but it’s absolutely there.

Compare the above quote to how she gradually comes to behave in the game and the bond she comes to share with the rest of Osiris. There’s a beautifully positive family dynamic between them, they’re all there for each other as emotional support even though they are this brand new team still getting to know one-another. The Meridian arc of the game really does a good job of showing how shut-in she is. She’s blunt, but occasionally she has these moments where there’s an out-pour of history – like when Vale says that Meridian is “pretty” in its own way, prompting Holly to bring up how she grew up on Minab. Before that, she’s quite tentative – asking whether anybody wants to “say a few words” prior to their jump down to Kamchatka’s surface. She gradually starts asking questions and finds that she’s not met with the way others (like the marines in The Glass Horizon) would dismiss her, Osiris treats her as a member of the family.osiris18Jumping from that point, the scene that stands out to me is the beginning of the battle of Sunaion where Locke calls Osiris to form up as they’re about to drop and Buck asks to take a moment – asking Holly to say a few words.

Notice how she can’t stop smiling at this, and she shares in the joke about Buck buying them all the first round of drinks when their mission is over. She opens up about her past when you’re on Meridian, she’s in on the squad’s banter, she teaches them about independent colonial ‘etiquette’ (which also serves to help flesh out the setting and our understanding of different human perspectives from a group of ordinary people), she agrees with Buck when he says that the Swords of Sanghelios are their brothers and says it’s time to give the Covenant some payback for slaughtering their allies.

She does not come out of Halo 5 with “no close friends”. She does not come out of Halo 5 “rarely fraternising with her fellow Spartans”. She does not come out of Halo 5 with her team knowing nothing about her.

Holly Tanaka comes out of Halo 5 with a family, and she embraces her capacity to open up to the people around her because they genuinely care.

Again, this is another instance of well-crafted, authentic character-building which just really gets me invested.

The Forerunner architecture was on-point!

Earlier this year, I wrote up a pretty lengthy post analysing Forerunner architecture and its evolution through the games. This was largely a response to those people who were complaining about Requiem looking so different to the architecture we’d seen in the past, to which it is important to note that Requiem is the oldest Forerunner installation we’ve ever been to in the games (it pre-dates even the Human-Forerunner war, well before the Halos were even conceived by the Master Builder). In addition, it’s particularly significant that Requiem is a Warrior-Servant installation, whereas the Halos are Builder constructs – two very different societal castes, very different histories, very different kinds of cultural evolution.

When I learned that we were going to a Forerunner installation as a major part of the story in Halo 5, my instinct was to spend my time playing xenoarchaeologist to take note of the architectural nuances and see what rate it belongs to – in the hope that the artists at 343 would not just make the Warrior-Servant aesthetic a uniform style.

Of course, as the game confirms, it’s a Builder installation – this was something that came up a few times actually, so 343 was clearly building this world and the story around it with that in mind. I really think that the artists did a great job of respecting and building on the more ‘traditional’ Forerunner aesthetic.

I mean, note how similar this structure in the Gateway is to the Relic tower from Halo 2.genesis16Where Warrior-Servant architecture tends to be more top-heavy and rounded with lots of disconnected floaty bits of geometry, the Builders have very triangular, more connected pieces (though circular pieces are present, it’s more of a centrepiece kind of design).

So major props to the art team for picking up on these design nuances, they did a really nice job of differentiating the architecture of these rates when they could have made Halo 4’s style uniform. They didn’t, they put the extra effort in as far as I’m concerned, and it makes the places you encounter feel so much more authentic to the universe.

Speaking of which…

The effort put into the ‘small-scale’ storytelling and worldbuilding is astonishingly good.

Next time you play Halo 5’s campaign, specifically the Sanghelios arc, turn off the voice and sound effects and just let the music play as you move across this gorgeously realised world. It’s a great ambient experience (also props to 343 for including this long overdue feature), and it works for Genesis too. Less so for Meridian because it’s more grounded in a human sense of reality, whereas Sanghelios and Genesis are alien worlds where the importance of ambience is dialled all the way up.

Another controversial feature in this game are the non-combat levels, and to be quite honest I do not understand why. I remember when I was playing Alien: Isolation last year, a game which has whole levels devoted to setting the tone and building up the overall atmosphere of the setting. And I thought to myself “Halo really needs to do this”, and then it did. And I think they did it really bloody well.

Hunting for audio logs, listening to ambient conversations, talking to various NPCs, exploring these areas for all their little details and nuances… it was an amazing addition to the campaign formula and I really hope they continue with it in the future (they did actually have a non-combat mission on Infinity planned). I love games with hub areas, it’s part of why I love ODST so much – it creates atmosphere, it sets the tone, it lets you take time to breathe and explore. And that’s exactly what the second act of a story is supposed to do in a nutshell: flesh out the setting, build on the world these characters inhabit.swords43Likewise, the Sanghelios arc of the game was one of the most compelling stories in all of the games. While there were a few missed opportunities for cameos – like Lasky saying he’ll “make arrangements” to go to Sanghelios, it would have been great to have a cutscene with Lord Hood and Serin Osman arguing over Osiris going on this mission to help liberate the Sangheili (when Osman is part of the reason the Sangheili are even in this position) – I really think that this is what saved Halo 5 for me.

Halo has attempted to give you that feeling of being amidst all-out warfare in the past but has consistently been held back by time constraints and technological limitations, think the Halo 2 E3 2003 demo on Earth. Reach likewise didn’t do a particularly good job of it either in my opinion, with the exception of New Alexandria.

But the battle of Sunaion is the first time they absolutely hit the nail on the head with this. The music, the combat encounters, the skybox, the novelty of fighting alongside Thel and the Swords of Sanghelios, mowing down hordes of Covenant and Prometheans as you were in this fight to bring about the final end of the Covenant (which 343 are already undoing, but that’s a topic for another day)… I can’t stop replaying this mission, the Sanghelios arc as a whole is clearly where the main bulk of the effort was put in by the team designing it and they did a fantastic job.

One other thing I wanted to off-handedly mention was the ridiculous controversy over Halo 5 being rated T rather than M. Lo-and-behold, ended up being nothing more than pre-release drama people were stirring up and had absolutely no effect on the game – but then, anybody with an IQ above room temperature knew this would be the case.

There are some really dark moments in Halo 5’s smaller-scale stories (I’m talking things like intel logs, ambient dialogue, and such) which had a great deal of impact. Like at the end of the Meridian arc when you’re on the space elevator with the survivors who made it with you while the Guardian prepares to depart and is causing widespread destruction. Then, as you’re well up the orbital tether, you hear a woman on the comm who has just turned up and found that everyone has already gone.

She’s been left behind.genesis26To conclude on this point, to which I dedicate all the nuance and detail of my opinion:

The opening of mission 13 is the coolest fucking opening to a Halo mission ever.

That about does it for this piece.

Halo 5 is still a net-negative for me in the story department which I’ve explained in-detail, but by no means is this a complete failure of storytelling. What Halo 5 does right, it does so well. But what it does wrong, it does in the worst possible way. That is a very frustrating binary for what could and should have been the best Halo yet, again, from my perspective, but that didn’t end up being the case.

All the same, there is still enough in there to keep me coming back and replaying – this isn’t even getting into the greatness of the level design and enemy AI, among several other things in the campaign I really liked (Exuberant Witness <3).

I always intended to write this as a way to balance my view on the story because there are a multitude of positives to talk about, so if you think that I absolutely hate this game in its entirety based on that last article I wrote about the Mass Effect 3-tier lies we were told… I don’t, but those missteps are going to haunt the future of the fiction for years to come.

8 thoughts on “What I Liked About Halo 5’s Story

  1. Thanks for writing this. While I tended to agree with most of what you stated in your previous article, I personally really dislike reading anything where the majority of the content is negative.

    Again, you’re a great writer, so please keep doing what you’re doing.

  2. The biggest take away impression I have of H5G is that there were at least two teams of staff working on the narrative and they were not talking to each other and in fact were pulling in different direction.

    As you have said, what 343i did well in H5G they have done exceptionally well, but what they did wrong they did wrong in the worst possible way.

    The environments, sound design, game mechanics and animation were staggeringly good. The game play held together, but some felt forced in to me (specifically the Blue Team missions).

    Overall, despite some very good elements of the game, I feel disappointed and to some extend let down – H5G could (and should?) have been so much more that it is. And the most annoying thing is that it took 343i 3 years to create this game and decide that Cortana should return and be the primary antagonist; which makes next to no sense to me on either count – being the antagonist or simply returning for that matter.

  3. I was largely indifferent towards Osiris (save perhaps Buck – But he seems to have really mellowed out since ODST. It was more like Nathan Fillion was playing himself) but you provided an excellent character breakdown on Locke and Tanaka: Some really good points made there.

    As a fan of Eric Nylund’s novels though, I can’t help but be fond of Blue Team. Their stoic and formal dialogue might not set an impression on anyone who doesn’t know them, but the level of familiarity between them gave the feeling of a close-knit family. Really wish 343i at least had, y’know, half of the game focused on them, but oh well.

    The non-combat missions… eh. I don’t dislike them, and I’m all for world-building, but they just felt like filler to me. You could remove them and almost nothing would change.

    Totally agree with you on the mission 13 opening, though – That was pretty damn awesome.

  4. This is a good read, and I’m glad that you’re seeking to assess both the good and the bad in the mix of Halo 5: Guardians.

    As for my own opinion, I can’t say I found Tanaka that compelling of a character. The issue, for me, is that despite the writers giving her a backstory and a distinct personality, she lacks something more important: a motive. We don’t see what her reasons are for going on this mission to hunt Blue Team. Does she admire the Master Chief? Resent him for not saving her colony? Trusts Locke to do the right thing? Is trying to rein Locke in?

    The comic writer Scott McCloud put it best in ”Making Comics”: “We can add to a character’s personality all we want — make them kind-hearted or witty or sentimental or neurotic — but it’s only when they start to WANT something that those traits are set in motion and given a purpose.” Tanaka lacks that, and her arc doesn’t seem well written either (when does she ever act antisocial?) That’s some of the reasons I flat out forget she was even in the last arc of Escalation. So to me, Tanaka’s not very interesting, though she had the potential to be.

    I agree about Mission 13’s opening, but I wish they had made it longer and more difficult. The big thing about it for me is, that section is the closest we get to the opening cutscene of the game. Had they put in more enemies, ground-poundable vehicles, dropships flying by we could jump into, it would’ve felt just like living that setpiece. But they didn’t.

    1. Motive is definitely something that wasn’t really taken into consideration outside of the marketing campaign and that one scene with Locke and Buck where the latter says that everyone is going to hate them for being sent on this mission. This is why, in my head, if I were to rewrite Halo 5 I might consider having Blue Team be the ones sent to find John and bring him back to the UNSC because you the explanation for that is literally on the surface – they’re family, they have a long history with John, OF COURSE they care about where he is, HOW he is, and what he’s seemingly doing.

  5. Another great read. You really are a great writer, and I think it would be cool to see you write a novel (or even work on a game) since you understand Halo so well.

  6. Looking back at this, it’s funny you mention you wish there was a cameo from Lord Hood and Serin Osman. According to Brian Reed, he originally wanted the first part of his story in Halo: Fractures(Rossbach’s World) to be at the end of Halo 5 as a cutscene, but it didn’t make it in. (Both Lord Hood and Serin Osman would’ve appeared in it, and we would’ve seen the destructive nature of a Guardian.)

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