UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with. While many of the points it makes stand well enough, and the scope of this project remains something I am quite proud of, the way in which these points were made is not satisfactory to me.
I would encourage you to read this rumination piece before diving into this article.
Blue Team is now AWOL, having stolen a Prowler from the now-atomised Argent Moon, their destination bound to Meridian following contact from the ghostly figure of Cortana. Of course, we covered last time that this wasn’t a ghost or an image being used to manipulate John or anything along those lines, as we were told it was pre-release. This is actually Cortana, the great mystery of Halo 5’s narrative and our hunt for the truth has been solved because literally everything in the story has now been contextualised…
To hammer it all home, we start the mission off with an exposition-laden meeting back on the UNSC Infinity between Lasky, Palmer, Halsey, and Roland.You maybe might have noticed that this officially makes three-out-of-three missions in which I have opened up on a negative note. Things aren’t going too well with these openings and this one is the biggest offender yet.
Let’s run over this dialogue bit-by-bit, shall we?
Halsey: “I tried to warn you this was happening! Cortana is no longer an asset, Captain. She is a danger.”
First of all, we’ve got another instance of telling and not showing to the extent that both casual fans and lore fans are on the same page because at absolutely no point have we seen any fiction where Halsey is attempting to warn the UNSC or where she finds out that Cortana is alive.
She storms into the room with this dialogue and I’m left scratching my head. At the time of release, I convince myself “it’s okay, the Escalation finale is going to cover it” because at that point that’s just common sense, right?
You think: “It’s a shame that they couldn’t schedule this to happen alongside the game for whatever reason, but as far as the story goes that is pretty much the only thing Escalation needs to do to service the lead-in to Halo 5’s narrative. Right?”
We’re almost half a year out from Halo 5’s release and we still have absolutely no idea as to how Halsey knows that Cortana is alive and how she accessed the Domain. There has been no media to tie this in with the game, there is no indication that we’re going to get any fiction to tie this in with the game. As I’ve been arguing these last few posts, this is continually contributing to the feeling of Halo 5 being a weird AU utterly detached from all the previous set-up.The dissonance between what we were told —
“I call that the ghost of Cortana,” says franchise development director Frank O’Connor. “Her fate is very obviously clear at the end of Halo 4. The story is really about ‘what effect did Cortana’s sacrifice have on the Chief?’ So it’s not about the dreamlike figure you see. It’s more about the memories and the long-lasting impact that she’s had on him.” [Game Informer, Frank O’Connor interview]
— and the way in which Halsey just matter-of-factly strolls up to Lasky while talking about Cortana being alive is… it’s just so strange to me.
And I adamantly refuse to take this as 343 having to misdirect us in order to preserve a twist. If they wanted to do that then why on earth did they decide to show us Blue Team, the mission that contextualises the entire story, as their gameplay demo during the Game Informer preview last year?
This isn’t just the fact that they lied about it not really being Cortana. They lied about it not really being Cortana, and then they lied about what Halo 5 would actually be about – John dealing with Cortana’s sacrifice, dealing with his own grief, channelled through visions from the Domain. This theme was set up as far back as 2014 with the Master Chief Collection trailer where Thel says to Locke that the seeds of the galaxy’s future are sown in John’s past. This seemed to be tied to that momentous moment in Halo 4 where the Librarian unlocks the genetic gifts she hid within humanity, hence why John is able to receive that vision from the Domain in the first place – but it all amounts to nothing more than a means to get the plot moving.
A plot which has nothing to do with any of the stuff that’s setting it up.
And when John tells Blue Team that Cortana is on Meridian, none of them question how he knows this. From their point of view, John, who has been pushing himself harder than ever before (which Fred points out in the opening cutscene) just fell down a shaft and was knocked out, when he comes-to and just says “she’s on Meridian”… they just don’t react to how he got this information. And they obviously don’t know about the Domain, there’s no way to hand-wave this away. It’s just bad writing.
Quite honestly, I feel rather insulted by all of this. There’s just no logic in telling us the game is going to be something it isn’t, Frankie must surely have known that he was going to be called out for this…
I really just want to highlight that this is not a case of “the story didn’t go the way I wanted it to so I hate it”. I mean, there’s an obvious element of that in there because I wanted Halo 5 to actually meaningfully build on the stuff that had been set up in the fiction from Halo 4, and wanting that is not a bad thing.
Wanting internal narrative consistency and for promises to be delivered on by developers is not ‘entitlement’. If you’re going to mislead your audience by verbally selling us a product that is the polar opposite of the product you’re physically selling to us, then every bit of backlash against that is justified.
Halsey: “She has accessed the Forerunner Domain, a galaxy-spanning network that allows her to control whatever devices caused this damage.”
Before anything: I called the Domain’s return to the modern setting back in June 2014. Please allow me this moment to dejectedly pat myself on the back. I say dejectedly because its integration into the setting in this game is awful.
Now, a lot of you are probably going to say that I’m nitpicking here, which is entirely your prerogative, but the line ‘Forerunner Domain’ grates on me every time I hear it – and it’s said a few more times throughout the game as well. I really take issue with a good number of things that are encapsulated by these two words.
For those of you who have read the Forerunner Saga, you know that the Domain was the heart of Forerunner civilisation and has been referred to on one or two occasions in Combat Evolved Anniversary’s Terminals and Halo 4. The nature of the Domain was unknown even to the Forerunners throughout the millions of years they had access to it, and was only revealed in the final moments of the Librarian’s life as the Halos were fired.
The Precursors have existed for a very long time, allegedly from before there were stars. They have lived in many forms over the years, sometimes they’re transsentient gods, sometimes they’ve been locked to their worlds. Sometimes they’ve gone extinct, but they have always come back. They are the heart of the mystery in the Halo universe, something utterly unknowable.
At some point, the Precursors found a ‘reserve’ and built their semi-immortal structures around it. Within the Milky Way galaxy was a physical node to a reserve that contained the “life patterns” of one hundred billion years – the Domain. And the final twist of the knife at the end of Silentium is that the Domain will be destroyed by the firing of the Halos, that victory will not be sweet for the Forerunners over the Flood because in firing the rings they are destroying not just their own history (their species’ soul) but that of countless other wonders as well.
A lot of people have come to the conclusion that the Domain is therefore a Precursor creation, but even that isn’t certain. All we know from the dialogue we have is that the Precursors found this reserve and wrapped it in their architecture, which, to me, says that it might well be something else even more alien than we yet realise. The Domain is its own independent consciousness, bound by its own esoteric rules that it has the capacity to sometimes break. It was trying to ‘save’ the Forerunners millions of years before the Flood was even a thing but can only relate knowledge which is already known – in this particular case, it was the research that a Forerunner of the defunct Theoretical rate called Boundless had undertaken on the voyage the Forerunners had once made to Path Kethona.
She got too close to uncovering the truth behind the purpose of that voyage and the act of genocide that took place there, this was during a time in which Warriors were running the Ecumene and were not yet Warrior-Servants. The Domain kept trying to push the discovery of Boundless’ research for millions of years following her assassination-by-sabotaged-Cryptum. Eventually, the Librarian discovered the truth, but at that point it was too late.
This particular part of the narrative in Silentium is referred to by Greg Bear as the ‘spiritual imperative’ within the story. It comes from the Sparkast that he was a guest on with Chris Schlerf, Jeremy Patenaude, and David Ellis just before Silentium released – I advise you listen to it because it will add a wealth of substance to your perspective on Forerunner lore from the collaborative minds behind it. It’s Sparkast #17. You may feel a sense of wistful joy in reflecting on the time in which honest advertising, complex interweaving of lore, and telling great stories were higher on 343’s list of priorities. I’ll drop the relevant quote from Bear here anyway:
“There’s that biological imperative and the legal imperative and the moral imperative, and then there’s the spiritual imperative as they’re trying to figure out what this great mystery – the greatest mystery of all – which is, in a sense, talked about in Silentium.
Which is: what is Domain? What is it really?
And, at the end, we begin to discover what Domain is. And, again, it adds that turn of the screw to the story of ‘what have we done here?'”
The greatest mystery of the Halo universe, the fount of all of its history and living knowledge, the keystone of the Mantle, the most beautiful thing to be destroyed by the Forerunners… was watered down into a single incorrect sentence.
Calling it the ‘Forerunner Domain’ is outright misleading, I have honestly lost count of the number of people I’ve talked to that think the Domain is something the Forerunners made.
Others have said that surely nobody in the modern universe would know that the Domain isn’t something more than Forerunner, but we can say for certain that that’s not true – Silentium itself is a narrative framed through data strings pulled from a Catalog carapace and a damaged Monitor. Therefore it is known, so there’s no excuse for this being misleading. What’s more, we’re never told how Halsey even knows about the Domain. Again, we assumed this would be in Escalation’s concluding issue but it wasn’t. This is the first time Halsey ever says the words “the Domain” in 14 years, and she’s been written to say them like she’s known about it all along.
What’s more, this is so easy to fix in terms of presenting the complexity of the Domain to new players…
“She has accessed the Domain: a galaxy-spanning information network that goes beyond the Forerunners and allows her to control whatever devices caused this damage.”
You don’t have to pump the sentence full of exposition with these deep revelations in the Forerunner Saga, you literally just have to accurately convey what the Domain is.
Forgive me, I’ve been sitting on that rant for a long time because the presentation of the Domain through the game’s dialogue is downright pedestrian.
Roland’s dialogue here has some interesting implications, it actually ties in nicely with what we saw at the end of Saint’s Testimony.
“You created Cortana, Doc, and now you’re throwing her out the airlock with these accusations! You think she tricked the Master Chief into abandoning his post? Respectfully, sir, to what end? Why is Cortana the problem?! Because she refused to die when she was supposed to?”
An apt question for a better-told story, I think.
AI rights is a topic of intrigue that hasn’t really been explored much, it’s been on the periphery of a lot of fiction and Saint’s Testimony was the first to really dive into the philosophy of that.
Roland had something of a defeatist attitude towards his own existence in Saint’s Testimony, saying that AIs will never truly be human and that rampancy will one day claim them all. So his rush of emotion here upon learning the Cortana has apparently transcended both makes a lot of sense, saying that this is bigger than just the Master Chief going AWOL – this is a major shift for AIs within this setting. This is some pretty good stuff, it raises some interesting questions, and, within the framework of the kind of dynamic that humans and AIs had in the Halo universe (which is tossed out the window in this game) it felt like it was the start of some positive developments that would shake the foundations of the setting in some meaningful ways.
And then the scene just… ends.
This is one of those definitive Cold Tea scenes. Y’know, where you make yourself a really nice cup of tea that you’ve lovingly prepared and are about to get into… and then something else comes up that makes you forget all about that tea because you’re focused on the other thing. And then you return, upon suddenly remembering it’s been sitting alone in the kitchen for the last fifteen minutes (or three years), to find it’s gone stone cold and tastes horrible.
That’s this scene. It’s cold tea. And it doesn’t help that Roland ends up being wrong and Cortana is the problem, but that’s a discussion for later.We then cut to a very stilted scene between Locke and Buck. I’ve praised the writing for Osiris but some of the writing in this scene really comes across like it was written without any clear intention as to what they wanted to convey.
The first issue here is that we don’t see the scene where Osiris is told that they’re going to hunt down Blue Team. As I’ve said about a few scenes in previous missions, this feels a lot like panel-jumping in a poorly written comic book. The meat of this story and how the characters react and respond to things happening is just missing.
Second issue: Why is this a scenario where only Locke and Buck are shown reacting to their mission?
Why were Vale and Tanaka not in this scene? Why did the writers decide that it was more worthwhile showcasing the perspectives of Locke and Buck rather than fleshing out the whole team’s outlook on being sent after the legendary Blue Team?
I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers to give you other than “bad writing”. We’re not shown Osiris being told that this is their mission, we’re not shown their immediate reaction (which would be a good opportunity to show Locke dropping that mask of stoic professionalism for a moment rather than “you’re not the only one here because of him”), and we’re literally missing half of Osiris’ perspective on the matter. This is supposed to be the act where the writing is devoted to fleshing out the characters, yet it obscures the two who probably need it the most at this point.Saying all that, I do like that Locke is kind of playfully practical here. Buck is waxing rhetoric about how they’re even going to bring Blue Team in, so Locke decides to throw the armour restraint at Buck rather than explain it to him. Again, look at Colter’s expressions which come through beautifully with the motion capture – he’s coming across as stoic and professional in what he says, but his expression speaks otherwise.
I encourage you to watch the Osiris scenes paying close attention to Colter’s facial acting. There’s a lot of subtlety that he gives Locke’s character that aren’t particularly telegraphed by the scenes, but they’re absolutely there.
At the same time, the question has to be raised: Why does Osiris only have one armour restraint?
There’s something of a pattern you may have noticed while playing Halo 5 which I touched on in the last mission analysis, but Blue Team are practically inconsequential to this game. Additionally, while this was a nice tie-in to Hunt the Signal, it would have served the story better if this scene had all of Osiris together and Holly Tanaka’s role as the engineer was telegraphed by saying that she made some modifications to the armour restraint’s design.
Buck says that everyone is going to hate them when they learn about Osiris’ mission, which is another cold tea moment because nothing ever comes of this. Now, this may actually have been something that was planned because, based on design work done by Paul Richards, there was actually going to be a weapons-down mission on Infinity. It seems to have been pretty extensive because there are fast travel terminals on the map layout.We know that Halo 5 “started bigger” than what we ended up with, which is obviously just the nature of game design but in the case of Halo 5 and the campaign in particular it’s more than evident that a lot is missing.
When I first played the game, I thought to myself that this must surely be where we’ll see Vale and Tanaka give their perspectives on their mission. Just like with the start of the last mission, there’s time passing in which critical character-centric scenes can be had.
And they just dropped that ball every single time.
It doesn’t help that the live action launch trailer where Osiris was depicted as making landfall on Meridian showed Locke and Tanaka sharing a very meaningful gesture – booping his helmet against her own.I’ve got to say that I would have been so much more positively inclined towards the stilted Locke-Buck scene we were just show if this had been shown in the game. What an excellent contrast that would have made as a display of character, showing us that momentary glimpse at how Locke loves his team. Remember that specifically from Nightfall, this is the kind of person he is. To Locke, a team is a family. It’s not just why he’s a leader, it’s why he’s a good leader, and the idea of family is one of the core themes of the Halo universe as a whole.
To go back to Greg Bear’s comments from Sparkast #17 with Schlerf and Patenaude, saying:
GB: “I think the whole Halo story evolves out of conflict within a huge galactic family, which now includes us. And so this family controversy continues, which means your actions really do have consequences – you don’t know who you’re related to when you’re fighting them.”
JP: “It’s interesting that you talk about galactic family, even with your smaller family you have arguments and everything – especially, I think about my older brothers who’ll fight amongst each other like we hate each other. But anybody from the outside messes with us, immediately we have like a unified wall like it’s us and them – very clear. And when we’re first introduced to the Halo universe, humanity had a very solid wall against the Covenant. The Covenant itself was pretty solid, you had some cracks that were starting to show and those broke wide open in Halo 2.
GB: “The back-and-forth between the Librarian and the Didact is that she, to fulfil her version of the Mantle, must reach outside the family. The Didact has a strong sense of who the family is – it’s the Forerunners, that’s who we’re here to save. The Librarian must preserve life, and for the Forerunners to have inherited the rule of the Mantle she must do that thoroughly. And so what’s coming up is, for her, an immense crime just in and of itself. And yet, she’s married to the man who’s going to be setting this up, and yet he also opposed it.”
Everyone but Tanaka has come from a history where interpersonal relationships have been a key part of how they grew as characters – Buck with Alpha-Nine and the horrible events that tore his team apart, and Vale with her joint human-Sangheili mission to the Lesser Ark where they saved the galaxy. Locke in Nightfall as well, it was a story all about the fickle nature of those relationships and how easily they fall apart, and how alliances can be made with people you don’t expect and don’t even get along with. It has been central to how these characters, how a lot of characters in general, are built.
They’ve all come from backgrounds where they’ve maybe relied on other people and had other people rely on them.
Except Holly Tanaka.
She grew up on her glassed homeworld where the only person she could trust was her father. She was trained in guerilla warfare, she learned how to be a lone wolf and survive on her own.
And here she is now, on her way to another glassed planet which is going to trigger a lot of emotions and memories that she’s worked hard to bury deep. This is why Locke’s ‘head boop’ gesture is so meaningful, it’s telling her that she’s not going into this situation alone this time and that her team are there for her. She has people she can rely on now, even if she doesn’t quite know that yet.
Honestly, whoever wrote that commercial has a stronger grasp of these characters than the actual writers. A lot of live action promotional material ends up not being ‘relevant’ to the games, but in terms of building up these characters I think that leaving out a scene inside the Pelican on the way to the space elevator where Locke and Tanaka share that moment was downright criminal.Here’s some food for thought: if you were in charge of structuring Halo 5, would you put the Meridian arc first or the Sanghelios arc first?
I ask you to consider this because I think this actually changed in development. Back in 2014, in the time leading up to the Master Chief Collection’s release, Bonnie Ross told us:
343 has also added new prologue and epilogue cinematics to the entire Master Chief Collection. “The trailer you saw at E3 hinted at a new character and a mystery that’s going on,” Ross teased. “The prologue and epilogue will bound that and tie you up and leave you on the doorstep of Halo 5.” [Eurogamer, Bonnie Ross interview]
Leave us on the doorstep of Halo 5, eh?
Suffice to say, this didn’t happen. We began on Kamchatka, then went to Argent Moon, now we’re on Meridian, and we don’t go to Sanghelios until the eighth mission. The way the MCC bookend cutscenes set things up, Sanghelios was going to be the starting point.
Adding to that…
In the bookends: Thel doesn’t know Locke is after John. Locke doesn’t know why John is AWOL and says that he intends to find out what John is up to, why he left, and where he’s gone.
In Halo 5: Thel knows what Locke is up to before they’ve even said more than two words to each other. Locke knows everything about the Master Chief (what he’s up to, why he left, and where he’s gone) because the entire narrative is contextualised within its first two missions.
The live action trailer The Cost likewise showcases a reflection of the first piece of concept art we saw of Halo 5 of Infinity hanging over a human world.In the trailer, they very deliberately linger on this image of the UNSC Infinity ablaze, heavily battle-damaged.
Why would they put something like that in there if it’s not going to be reflected in the game at all?
Infinity doesn’t actually do anything in Halo 5’s campaign, and looking at the fact that there was a planned mission on the ship I’m inclined to say that this is indicative of something major that was cut out and that Meridian was going to be the second act of the game rather than the first.
Meridian just makes a lot more sense to me, even within the existing narrative framework, being the second act. The confrontation with John would have a lot more weight behind it if it wasn’t one of the first things that happens in the story.
On the critical side, I think this mission is emblematic of a pretty significant issue 343 has when it comes to building levels. They really seem to forget at times that Halo’s campaigns are supposed to have memorable gameplay segments as well as stories, and the Scorpion run in this mission is a key example of that.
You have this open area where you clear out the enemies and Governor Sloan loans you a Scorpion (alternatively, you can run up to the roof and steal it). You are then put on a linear, straight, and narrow uphill path where a grand total of two groups of enemies spawn along with some turrets.
There’s no music playing, there’s no fanfare given to the first tank section of the game. It’s irreverent, and I think that’s a big mistake.
When I think back to the previous games, the first time you get a Scorpion is a moment. Even thinking of just the original trilogy, Assault on the Control Room, Outskirts, and The Ark have their Scorpion segments not be “oh and here’s a Scorpion, carry on”. It’s “here’s a Scorpion, let’s put on some badass music and give you lots of vehicles and stuff to blow up!” I was replaying this mission today to prepare for this analysis and the bit where I got in the Scorpion was met with complete silence. The slow roll up the hill was met with silence. The stand-off outside the gates of the civilian sector were the Prometheans are about to break through the defensive lines was met with… silence.
343 really needs to improve in this particular area because it just feels mindless. There’s no atmosphere built up here, it’s just mindlessly ploughing through groups of cannon fodder enemies to get to your objective without any actual feeling. That’s my big criticism of this level in terms of its gameplay design.But wait! I do have some positive things to say as well.
In the opening courtyard area, there are a number of different ways you can approach the encounter with the Promethean waves.
You can activate the defence turrets and stick around the area to wipe out every last enemy to defend the citizens of Meridian station and wait for the gate to open, earning you some measure of thanks and grudging respect from Governor Sloan.
Or, you can steal a sniper rifle, head up to the high ground and snipe a generator for the gate which is blocking your path forward to the first Warthog section because of the lockdown. Doing so will net you a more negative reaction to Sloan as you vindicate his perspective on the UNSC being thugs who are only out for their own interests and he’ll call you out on this at least two more times throughout the level. Tanaka will also reprimand you for this, which, as I said in my post on the first mission, is very indicative of her selfless nature as she insists that Osiris stays behind to help the townsfolk first.
This is excellent, this is really good design. I honestly can’t even bring myself to shoot the fence open, I stick around and fight off the Promethean waves because it’s a well designed encounter with lots of different weapons scattered around the place, it gets you some great character dialogue, and I just can’t bring myself to let Tanaka down like that…
When the area is clear, Sloan asks if the Spartans were responsible for clearing the place, to which Locke responds:
“We just helped, Governor. Your people did a lot.”
Another wonderfully indicative line for Locke’s personality. He’s not out for glory or to rub it in the faces of the people of Meridian that he’s a Spartan and inherently superior to those around him, he venerates the ordinary people who have found themselves well out of their depth and took up arms to defend themselves. Locke is quite clearly a thoughtful and respectful individual who pays mind to the others around him, credit where credit is due to the writing here because of how this situation can play out differently through the dialogue based on your actions as the player. Again, really good design here.The last thing left to talk about really is the intel found throughout this mission, I saved this for last because I have absolutely no complaints to raise here. These are really well written, I’m not going to quote all of them but the Evelyn Collins logs deserve particular attention.
Evelyn Collins: Meridian, Day 1: “It’s a hell of a thing, to return to your home… find it completely different. Ruined. I couldn’t prepare myself for the cold feeling that struck my heart when that elevator rolled down through the planet’s atmosphere. The world I knew… was gone.”
Evelyn Collins: Meridian, Day 5: “We started… cutting through the glass today. Making a road to a site they’ve picked out to set up a shanty town they call Meridian Station. I’m starting to wonder if I can do this. Most of the folks here are signed up for the profit. I’m the only one that’s here trying to take something back! But there’s just so much… I look out on that sea of glass and I… I wonder if it can ever really be done.”
Evelyn Collins: Meridian, Day 17: “Today I found myself working alongside another former colonist. Tough old broad named Lorie, Told her about what I’d been feeling. She laughed in my face! She told me, ‘Sister, you gotta forget about what Meridian was, and think about what it could be.’ I like that. So now, when I chip away the glass, I picture a new world we’re making.”
In three short logs, we get a beautifully rich insight into an ordinary person’s mindset as they’re coming back to their homeworld after it has been glassed, what business they’re getting up to, and the perspectives of her co-workers.
Evelyn is overwhelmed by the unrecognisable husk of a home she has returned to, but she’s driven by her (perhaps naive) sense of idealism that this is her chance to take something back. To reclaim something from her past. But when she understands the perspective of the people she’s working with, how they’re looking to the future of Meridian, she’s driven by the mental image of her positive contribution to making Meridian a new world.
I said that the second act needs to build on the setting and they really did a good job with this in the Meridian and Sanghelios arcs. There are more logs on the history of Meridian itself, from giving us facts and figures that really help to substantiate the overall sense of authenticity of these corners of the Halo universe. These kinds of stories from the ‘ants’, or the ‘mundanes’, the civilians, is essential and Halo 5 did a great job with the intel logs based around those kinds of people.
It’s wonderfully refreshing to see this in a game rather than being relegated to the books, comics, and other expanded universe stuff like Hunt the Truth. Hats off to 343 for not just doing this, but doing it well. There’ll be much more discussion of that to come in every mission, so you can rest assured that this isn’t just doom and gloom.That about wraps up everything I have to say about this mission, ended up being a lot longer than I’d anticipated so well done if you’ve not gotten sick with some of my incessant negativity.
Honestly, I wish I didn’t have this much to criticise, but I just can’t sit in silence when it comes to the way that much of this game was written.
The next analysis will be on the first of the three weapons-down missions where there maybe won’t be as much story content to analyse, but more discussion on the way in which the setting is built and some positive arguments for why I think the weapons-down missions are a fantastic addition to the franchise.
Until next time, Spartans!