UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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.
Having rescued Thel ‘Vadam from the Covenant’s assault on the Elder Council Chamber, Osiris joins forces with the Swords of Sanghelios – but tensions arise between Locke and Thel as some bad blood from the past comes to the fore.
This is our second of three weapons-down missions, and quite easily the best of the bunch! It’s another one of those missions that is as long as you make it, and for the purpose of this analysis I spent a good forty minutes soaking in every possible nugget of dialogue I could.
So let’s get right to it.Let me set the tone right away here: I think that the writing of this opening scene is of the same calibre as the scenes we got in Halo 4. Finally, we have a scene where two characters are just talking to each other, and with no stilted dialogue to-boot (like we had in the scene between Locke and Buck in Glassed and Locke and Vale in Swords of Sanghelios which we covered earlier).
We have a scene where nothing is actually happening here, yet at the same time everything is happening in terms of the characterisation.
I love it.
We open with this sweeping view of Thel’s tent perched atop a high cliff, cutting to Locke walking in and just looking out over the horizon. The music playing lightly in the background sets this tone of uncertainty and also has a distinct ‘Sangheili theme’ if you get my meaning – the tracks that play in the Sanghelios arc do a really great job of capturing this sense of their culture.
This is a moment that Locke has evidently been anticipating with some degree of nervousness, thinking back to his dialogue at the start of Reunion which I talked about (the way he says “but it means going to Sanghelios”), and that tone is conveyed here really well without a single line of dialogue.Upon hearing his thudding footsteps, Locke turns and sees Thel ‘Vadam, the Arbiter, entering the tent. As is very characteristically appropriate for Locke, he approaches this uncertain meeting with a sense of diplomacy, straight-forwardness, and respect.
Locke: “Spartan Jameson Locke, UNSC. Captain Lasky sends his greetings, and thanks you for your cooperation.”
The camera here focuses on Locke’s face, so we get a really good look at the subtleties in Mike Colter’s facial expressions, the way in which he conveys these lines beyond Ike Amadi’s (incredible) voice.
Just like in Halo 4 – you wouldn’t just analyse John based on Steve Downes’ voice delivery, but how Bruce Thomas added these brilliant nuances to the ways in which John would move which was very much in-keeping with how Spartan-IIs are characterised in the books. It had me ‘playing Halsey’ throughout Halo 4 because she was able to distinguish her Spartans based on their subtle movements, it’s really good to see that level of performance put into Locke as well.
He’s looking Thel directly in the eye, you can see that he’s doing his best to come across as honest and respectful, not just because it’s an effective means of getting Thel to cooperate but because that really is Jameson Locke in a nutshell.
Thel, meanwhile, is having none of it.
Thel: “ONI… out of the shadows. The spies announce themselves now, Agent Locke?”
Locke: “I’m a Spartan now, sir.”
Thel: “I know who you are. You were an agent when you volunteered to execute me.”
It’s Thel who comes across as arrogant and presumptuous here, which is also extremely in-character for him, even having developed as much as a person as he has. And then he does something really interesting – he turns his back on Locke.
As if goading him, daring him, to take his chance.
Testing to see if Locke is as good as his word.This interaction highlights a theme which has been extremely prevalent in Halo, which is the duality of names and titles – the conflict of identity within that. It was one of the driving conflicts in Hunt the Truth’s second season when Maya says:
“What terrified me most was after five years of living as Fero, I had no idea what Maya was supposed to think about any of it…”
We see this with pretty much all of the major characters to some extent in the franchise, like ‘the Master Chief’ vs ‘John’. The idea of ‘the Master Chief’ is the role he plays when he puts on the armour, being the hero, whereas John is the person underneath that which Halo 4 really beautifully explored the dichotomy of.
Well, this applies to Locke too, and I finally get to drop quotes from Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed which were not lies or ridicule.
O’Connor: “I think the most important thing about Nightfall was getting to see Agent Locke getting an understanding of what Spartans are – that dedication to duty and honour above all the kind of subterfuge and politics that the Office of Naval Intelligence has built into its DNA. And giving him some perspective on his former career as we bridge that into his future career, which you play in Halo 5.”
Reed: “He is going from being Agent Locke to Spartan Locke. He understands what it means to be a Spartan now.”
We have the dichotomy established here for Locke – Agent Locke versus Spartan Locke.
This is absolutely relevant to the opening exchange between Thel and Locke, as Thel is looking at Locke one way whereas Locke has very much grown since then to become who he is now – just as Thel has, going from Thel ‘Vadamee, to the Arbiter, to reclaiming his name and identity as Thel ‘Vadam.
Thel walks into the room thinking he’s got Locke in a box. Now, there’s definitely a degree to which we can understand why he has that perspective considering the history between them where Locke recommended and signed up for Thel’s assassination, but, as it was (not) so eloquently and tellingly put at the start of the last mission – “things changed”.At its core, I think one of the pillars of Halo’s storytelling is this discovery of inner ‘humanity’, or some meaningful sense of personal growth (which is why I continue to be salty about the fate of Jul ‘Mdama, but that’s for another time).
The titles that these characters are given are intrinsically tied to the way in which others perceive them. But the names are who these people truly are, and that is what this scene illustrates.
We see just a bit of that arrogance of Thel ‘Vadamee return here in how he converses with Locke, the same kind of arrogance we saw in The Cole Protocol in how he treated characters like Zhar and Jora – I recommend going back to reread the book because ‘Vadamee was just awful as a person in general at that stage in his life. Furthermore, a good friend of mine has written up her own lengthy analysis of Thel’s arc modelled on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth which I highly recommend you give a read for enriching your perspective of the character.
Back to the scene, going off these points, there’s another interesting sort of reversal here as well.
The first thing Thel says to Locke is calling him “ONI”, referring to the organisation whose name based on a Japanese demon. Even the name of his team, Osiris, refers to a deity associated with death and the underworld. How fitting it is then that Locke should respond to Thel in this conversation by saying “I saved your life today”, because it highlights Locke’s role in this story.
Randall-037 (Aiken): “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?”
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.
Even 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”. While lacking in meaning and context regarding this story, that does tell 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. Later, in Battle of Sunaion, he also advises Thel about how to avoid the Guardian’s pre-slipspace concussive blasts at Sunaion to protect his people.
And then, at the end of the game, he saves Blue Team. He is staggering on his hands and knees towards the relay device that will cede control of Genesis back to Exuberant Witness, the Guardians wearing him down to the point where he momentarily blacks out. He was willing to give his life to ensure that Blue Team wouldn’t be taken by Cortana.There’s a lot going on under the surface here in the way in which these lines have their double-meanings, how the lines are delivered, how the characters move (or, in Locke’s case, don’t move because he’s called Thel’s bluff on the whole “I’m turning my back to you, go on take your shot” thing), and so on.
I really like this scene, I really like what it does for these characters. This is what a scene that shows and doesn’t tell looks like. We are shown that Thel still has those moments of arrogance resurface, for reasons which are, again, understandable from his perspective so it’s not quite as simple as just saying “he’s arrogant”. It’s “he is put in a situation where his arrogance comes to the surface because of reasons x, y, and z”.
If I were to raise criticisms here, it’s that Thel seems to just know that Locke is after Blue Team when he had no idea in the Master Chief Collection’s bookend cutscenes. And that the dialogue about Osiris’ mission only ever refers to John, not Blue Team, further contributing to the feeling that their involvement in the story is just to serve as avatars for players 2, 3, and 4.
As Morgan Lockhart said in Halo 5’s SDCC panel last year:
“Osiris is having to pursue Chief, and they’re having to seek out people who can give them insight into Chief – and, obviously, Arbiter is one of the few people out there who knows Chief better than maybe he knows himself.”
We really don’t see that reflected in this game, discussion of John, let alone Thel’s perspective on him, barely comes up in the Sanghelios arc which is a real shame because you could have some great dialogue there.And then Cortana suddenly ‘appears’ and very much spoils the moment, and my illusions of experiencing something that is a worthy follow-up to Halo 4 come crashing down as the main plot invades this arc…
It’s a very contrived way of trying to kick the plot back into gear in my opinion, almost like they got to a certain point with the Thel/Locke conversation and had no idea where to go with that so they just said “okay, let’s forget about that for now and get things going again”.
What’s more, nothing is done regarding Thel reacting to this being Cortana, who he met and saw the Master Chief brave a solo mission into the Flood-infested High Charity to rescue in Halo 3. He has one line acknowledging her as “the human AI” in ambient dialogue in this mission and that’s it.
Halsey comes in with Palmer and tells us we gotta get the plot moving again, Locke now turns to Thel and lays the situation bare – you have the firepower and resources to help us. Thel, however, remains cautious because the end of the Covenant is what he’s been working towards for years and while they are content to lay themselves at his feet following the deaths of their leader he is unwilling to engage them until he is certain that the Swords will win. Again, very in-character. His goal is within sight, but he’s not rushing towards it just yet.
And we then get a wonderful shot where Halo’s three most controversial and divisive characters are in the same frame.We get to the gameplay now within Thel’s camp and oh boy there are some treats scattered around here. Let’s start off by talking about the visuals because this is really interesting to think about from an artist’s perspective.
Actually, let’s backtrack a bit first to what I talked about in the Swords of Sanghelios post regarding each of the locations in this game and how they’re presented to us as very hostile places.
I was thinking about this before the game even came out because of a little game you may remember called KOTOR 2, which remains absolutely incredible even in-spite of all the unfortunate cuts that happened in its development cycle. In that game, the writers purposefully had each setting portrayed in such a way to convey the main theme of the game which is that the galaxy is wounded in some way – that it’s wrong, it’s broken. That feeds into everything from the environments, to the situations people find themselves in, to the characters and their arcs – the likes of Atris, Kreia, Hanharr, Bao-Dur, and many others should come to mind for those of you familiar with the game.
So I went into Halo 5 with a question in my head as to how exactly 343 would go about portraying the setting itself, considering the state the Halo universe is in after all these devastating wars and conflicts that have been going on. And it actually seems to be something 343 had in mind when they were crafting these worlds you visit.As I said in the last post:
Kamchatka is an icy wasteland of a world which was meant to be a node to the Domain – a world which you might consider to have been ‘broken’ in the millennia the Domain has been out of commission. Its harsh environment is matched by the piercing blue lights and empty grey corridors of the Forerunner structures that inhabit it. Even the art book refers to it as “an unsettled world, too harsh for most life […] of little interest to any but the most intrepid adventurers”.
Then we have Argent Moon, another broken location. The bio-weapon being tested there ended up killing everybody aboard, the ship’s AI going rampant and terminating itself. Likewise with the environmental design, lots of very tight corridors and dark spaces showcasing this derelict vessel devoid of life.
And then there’s Meridian, do I even need to explain this one? It’s a glassed world and the stories we find in the various missions in that arc explore that. Here’s a quote from Kory Lynn Hubbell from the art book:
“If there’s no plausible story behind something, it shouldn’t be there. For example […] we wanted a fountain. Through multiple discussions, we decided that maybe a fountain isn’t the best fit for a mining town. So we have a tree instead. You have this very bleak landscape with all these industrial buildings around, but then there’s this fake tree in the middle of it. It’s almost comedic, but it’s also logical – if you’re forced to live in a barren landscape but have the technology to simulate nature, it’s logical to do so.”
Bleak and barren glasslands with very temporary industrial prefabricated buildings that people are living in while they work to restore this world, it reminded me a lot of Telos from KOTOR 2 actually and the whole sub-plot that revolves around the Ithorians and Czerka Corporation regarding the restoration efforts of the planet.
Next we have Genesis, a Builder world constructed, similar to Kamchatka, to serve as a node to the Domain. It’s a world designed around very fractal formations, buildings and plants fragmented into different weird shapes of geometry and, according to Darren Bacon in the art book, was designed specifically to be a contrast to Sanghelios.Which neatly brings me to Sanghelios itself…
If you have the art book, I encourage you to stop reading at this point and take another flick through. And if you don’t have the art book, I recommend you invest in it because while it provides a much more limited insight into the creative process than Halo 4’s art book did, it’s still got incredible pieces in it and some great snippets of commentary.
The level of thought and detail that went into designing Sanghelios is astounding. Darren Bacon brings up the process that Glenn Israel did in designing the environments by asking himself what the hands of Sangheili look like, how they would write, and how that would ultimately inform the look of their architecture which is very rounded, very circular, lots of aesthetically pleasing curves which calls to mind this mixture of Indian, Islamic, and Mongolian architectural designs with a science fiction layer on top of that.
The circular patterns of their structures call to mind water ripples overlapping each other as they expand outwards. And there’s this seamless fit of the natural environment with the architecture as well which has very much been a part of the lore going back at least as far as learning about ‘Vadam Keep in The Cole Protocol.
It’s really some incredible design, matched very much by their use of colour for these environments which has these hues of red, beige, ivory, blue, green, and orange – later purple as well at Sunaion. In terms of colour symbolism, which I talked a lot about in my analysis of Midnight for Halo 4, for artists these represent a lot of the things that are thematically up in the air in the Sanghelios arc. I often fear when games are going to use a desert environment that it’s just going to look unimaginatively bland, that it’s just ‘a desert environment’ that has been put there to be a desert environment rather than something that thought has gone into.
You don’t have to take two seconds in these missions to see that this isn’t the case here.
It’s such a contrast to the rest of the locations in the game. Where they are all harsh, uninhabitable, destroyed, or alien environments, Sanghelios looks and feels warm and inviting.
I mentioned in the last post that Sanghelios very much gets the ‘Earth treatment’ in this game, which is to say that in a lot of sci-fi, Earth is treated like it’s the centre of the universe and everything important ultimately revolves around protecting Earth at all costs while other major worlds that are either as important or more important in-universe are shafted (*resentfully side-eyes Mass Effect 3’s ‘TAKE BACK EARTH ad slogan*).
It’s ridiculously refreshing to see an alien world get that treatment, and at the start of the credits 343’s message says “we’ll see you on Sanghelios”, so we can infer that this world we’ve taken part in liberating from one of the main enemy factions is going to be a major setting for Halo 6.I really should talk about the actual level at this point, right?
One thing I like about this mission is that there’s actually a proper kind of motion to it in terms of the Sangheili and Unggoy characters moving around and talking each other – it appears that Thel has employed Unggoy not as cannon fodder, but as runners in his camp for status reports and updates.
However, with that also comes a sense of annoyance that the likes of Thel and Palmer are entirely static in terms of their location and they don’t have any pathing to have them interact with the common troops around the place or Halsey – this would have been a great opportunity for them to have actual dialogue together but they don’t. And, again, the lack of female Sangheili here when we’re supposed to be seeing them in combat roles is detrimental, especially when (as I said in the last post) you would not have to design specially unique models for them.
Not to mention that you can’t actually talk to these three major characters outside of the mission objectives, which could have easily remedied Thel not talking about John in the cutscenes by giving you the option to hear about that history from Thel’s perspective here.
Another criticism of these weapons-down levels is that there is nothing really to do beyond listen to dialogue, which I definitely agree with. I’ll talk more about those particular criticisms when we return to this space in Before the Storm.One of the most interesting series of dialogues is between the Sangheili medics and their patients. Anyone even remotely familiar with Sangheili lore knows that medics and doctors are despised, looked down upon as bringers of dishonour because they spill blood (regarded as the very essence of a Sangheili’s honour) outside of battle.
In one interaction, a patient says he would rather die than receive aid.
Wounded Sangheili: “I would rather take my own life than let you touch me!”
Sangheili Medic: “That life is not yours to take. You belong to the Arbiter, and he believes you are worth repairing.”
Wounded Sangheili: “I refuse to be shamed by a… medic.”
Sangheili Medic: “Then die, coward! Fail the Arbiter and have the shame of your dereliction follow your clan for generations.”
The medic doesn’t actually let him die, but you really get a sense of just how foolish this belief that medics bring dishonour is, which is compounded on by the next interaction between two medics.
Sangheili Medic 1: “‘Mdama Keep… their plasma blades burn less intensely, harder to cut armour but the injuries are more grievous and do not cauterise.”
Sangheili Medic 2: “So the blades leave Sangheili alive, but too wounded to fight?”
Sangheili Medic 1: “Most choose suicide to preserve their honour.”
Sangheili Medic 2: “Making any wound a death blow… Barbaric!”
This is an interesting tidbit of lore that speaks to the desperation of the Covenant, that if they are not able to outright kill then they will create weapons that will exploit the ‘Sangheili mindset’ about honour so they will take their own lives if they get injured.
That’s… really quite dark, and it exemplifies how self-aware Thel has become regarding some of the toxic beliefs of his culture. Lives that can be saved should not be wasted because they think they will be dishonoured, it’s something which is also discussed in one of the mission intel logs from Cham ‘Lokeema:
“‘To spill blood outside of battle is a great dishonour’. Words burned into all Sangheili since they were young, and to me. And for a time, I believed. I watched my brothers die around me and never dared give aid. ‘Stitching a wound closed brings dishonour, setting a broken bone brings dishonour.’ Words of the ignorant who never saw undetonated Needler rounds pulsing beneath a brother’s skin. If shame is the price of compassion, so be it.”
It’s great to see this evolution in the cultural mindset of the Sangheili, these dialogues do a lot to flesh out the Sangheili as a species of differing beliefs rather than a hivemind conglomerate who are all bound by tradition and never question things which is the impression I think some people get when not an awful lot of Sangheili-oriented fiction has offered much in the way of deconstructing their culture and perspectives.Another intel log comes from Kholat ‘Khebrem, a Sangheili linguist with some very specific goals for what he wants to do following the end of the Covenant.
“Anthropological linguistics log, Kholat ‘Khebrem speaking. Our history is lost in a haze of lies and myth. As the Covenant ends, I wish to relearn what we’ve lost. But the eroded and half-ruined glyphs in this place are maddening. Fragments of words dance before me. Here, ‘prophecy’, and here ‘reunite’ or ‘restore’. Then a warning, something about ‘responsibility’ and ‘a great drowning’. I could study here for years.”
I like this idea that the history of the pre-Covenant Sangheili is just as much of a mystery to them as it is to us, we are effectively making these discoveries and interpretations alongside them rather than having it told to us like fact file knowledge. In ambient dialogue, Vale says:
“This architecture… this history, it’s irreplacable. And the Covenant are willing to sacrifice it to their ambitions.”
For a player such as myself who wants to spend hours thinking and talking about this sort of lore, this only provides extra incentive to kick the Covenant off Sanghelios for good.
Regarding ‘Khebrem’s log though, a number of elements in this dialogue should ring some bells in the heads of lore fans, little things we might be able to draw together.
We can obviously infer ‘responsibility’ to refer to the Mantle of Responsibility, that much is obvious – you can’t walk over the threshold of a Forerunner entryway without being reminded of the Mantle. So that we can very much take as a given.
What interests me is this mention of prophecy because in the Forerunner era there wasn’t really any sort of superstitious belief in such a thing. There was, however, one very literal prophecy which came from the Timeless One when the IsoDidact murdered it at the end of Primordium.
“The decision is final. Humans will replace you. Humans will be tested next. […] It is the way of those who seek out the truth of the Mantle. Humans will rise again in arrogance and defiance. The Flood will return when they are ripe – and bring them unity. […] Misery is sweetness. Forerunners will fail as you have failed before. Humans will rise. Whether they will also fail has not yet been decided. […] We are the Flood. There is no difference. Until all space and time are rolled up and life is crushed in the folds… no end to war, grief, or pain. In a hundred and one thousand [years]… unity again, and wisdom. Until then – sweetness.”
And the mention of a ‘great drowning’ calls to my mind my old Ragnarok theory, but if I’m going to be honest with you I have largely given up on theorycrafting for Halo in the wake of so many major plot points being thrown out the window. I no longer feel that connecting the dots is a worthwhile pursuit because the writers can and have just decided to drop all the stuff they’d previously been building up so they can introduce something new that had next to no real precedent for introduction. That is the sad reality of where I’m at with the franchise…Anyway, another great bit of dialogue comes from Thel as one of his officers raises concern about humans activating the Guardian, even though he no longer follows “the old ways”, the provocation of such an act is clear. To which Thel responds:
Thel: “That discomfort you feel, that betrayal… I am depending on it.”
Sangheili Officer: “Sir?”
Thel: “The Covenant soldiers will hear the Guardian wake from its slumber, they will look up over the bodies of their brothers, through the smoke of their burning city, they will look to the horizon as their holy idol rises from the sea and forsakes them. And that is when the Covenant dies.”
Great dialogue, and great delivery from Keith David.
Thel isn’t just gunning for a tactical victory, but a symbolic one as well – when everything the Covenant believes comes crashing down upon them. For the Guardian to forsake them in their final hours will not just defeat them, but will utterly discredit them.
Such symbolism is likewise considered in quartermaster Lhero ‘Merok’s intel log.
“We camp below the titans of old, the stone warriors meant to guard Sunaion against us, I suppose. Or are we retaking Sunaion from the occupying Covenant, with the titans at our backs? And when the great Guardian awakes, will it save us, or forsake us? My head swims. I long for problems that can be solved with a plasma grenade.”
And deeply affects Rhu ‘Vrath.
“When I joined the Swords of Sanghelios, I remained loyal to Jul ‘Mdama. Today, I had my chance to kill the heretic, the false Arbiter. He was readying his armour. My hand fell to my weapon, then I saw the mark branded on his chest. He bears the mark, yet at that moment, I felt shame. His eyes caught mine and I looked away. It is strange. Perhaps there is more to him than I thought.”
This is especially interesting because we know that the Covenant has been seeding spies in the ranks of the Swords, all of whom have been unsuccessful, but Rhu ends up having a change of heart the moment the opportunity to kill Thel presents itself upon seeing the Mark of Shame.
And then Thel looks at him, Thel, who is an intelligent person and would surely pick up on this Sangheili’s body language, and says nothing. Does nothing. He silently gives Rhu a second chance without broadcasting it, which is Thel in a nutshell – the same Sangheili who offered Tartarus, the one who tortured him and gave him the Mark of Shame in the first place, a chance to join him when Thel realises that the Sangheili and Jiralhanae have been subject to the lies of the San’Shyuum.Speaking of which, another log from Thon ‘Kemtra offers a great deal of admiration towards Thel’s actions.
“We set camp within sight of Sunaion. Audacious, but brilliant. We Swords of Sanghelios are united under no less a warrior than the Arbiter himself. He who exposed the countless lies of the San’Shyuum, and drove back the Covenant. The Arbiter shapes our future with deference to our past. ‘Let us never forget those who have journeyed into the howling dark and did not return,’ he once said. Have you ever heard such wisdom?”
I love this, that Thel would have echoed those words famously spoken by Lord Hood during the memorial service at the end of Halo 3. It speaks a lot to the overlap between Sangheili and human culture, which Buck and Vale talk about in ambient dialogue.
Buck: “I thought Sanghelios would be… different.”
Vale: “You’d be surprised how much we have in-common with the Sangheili. For instance, they place huge importance on family and honour. What could be more human than that?”
Again, we have this central theme of family coming up. This occurs in another ambient conversation between Buck and Locke.
Buck: After all Halsey did to the Master Chief and Blue Team – and when they were kids no less – after all that, she still acts like she cares about them.
Locke: Psych eval says that Halsey thinks of the Chief as her son. She has a motherly attitude towards all of her Spartans.
Buck: I’m glad I haven’t read that psych report. Not sure I’d ever feel clean again.
Halsey thinks of John as her son and she wants to see him again. Y’know, with this, I just can’t help it… my mind turns to Jul ‘Mdama.
With the Covenant’s end as one of the big game-changers in this game (regardless of it since being undone), you’ve got to make that interesting in a way that isn’t just some battle. Jul is unique because he reformed the Covenant to achieve his own ends, not because he’s a believer – he’s not, he’s introduced to us in Glasslands as an atheist. He was out for revenge for his wife and sought out the Didact to accomplish this, manipulating his way into raising up a new Covenant.
Having his arc culminate in a deconstruction of the whole revenge plot (which Halo has plenty of) would be so much more interesting than just unceremoniously offing him to show off Locke’s combat skill.
Having Jul come to realise that he was wrong – wrong about Thel, wrong about humanity, wrong about thinking these two species can’t co-exist together – and then go on to find his son who has himself sworn vengeance against humanity, mirroring Raia ‘Mdama in her search for Jul in The Thursday War to bring him home, you end up with a far more thematically satisfying conclusion which can effectively write him out of the plot without needlessly killing him.
This idea of characters going out on these journeys to find someone and bring them home is a clear theme – John pursuing Cortana to bring her home, Osiris pursuing John to bring him ‘home’ to the UNSC (which Locke says to Thel in the Master Chief Collection bookend cutscene – “I’m going to bring him home”)… The ‘Mdama family was the progenitor of that theme in the Reclaimer Saga and it’s like the writers didn’t even recognise or understand that.
And you wouldn’t even need to devote much in the way of resources to tell this story either, which I’ve been constantly mindful of in suggesting these additions to the game to help flesh out its story and characters. It could be done in the mission intel logs and in dialogue in Thel’s camp during the Sanghelios arc. A couple of voice files and Jul’s model (which he has, he has an in-game model as evidenced from the Osiris ending cutscene) put next to Halsey in one or two missions, that’s all it would take to give him an ending befitting of what had been built around his character.
The end result is the same – if you don’t want to use him, then you’ve given him an avenue out of the main series of events and you can leave his fate ambiguous, or return to it in a book or something somewhere down the line to provide closure with a more personal story. Either way, Jul going out to find his son Dural would be symbolically indicative of Jul breaking the cycle of violence, of revenge, that led to him reforming the Covenant.While I’m in this particular critical mindset, I’ve got to bring up something else as well…
The Unggoy named Dimkee Hotay who sits and chats to his Sangheili friend was a wonderful wonderful addition, I loved his dialogue and very meta commentary, with one exception.
That exception is the jab at the fanbase who reacted negatively towards the fate of the Ur-Didact in The Next 72 Hours.
“I knew the Didact, he said like three words. Three! He said ‘I can’t be Composed’.”
Sigh… now, I know this is a joke, but with the Didact not being in this game and being mentioned in the story a grand total of two times, this is reopening an old wound for me.
For context, from July to September in 2014 we had the arc in Escalation known as The Next 72 Hours which took place in the immediate aftermath of Halo 4 where John reunites with Lord Hood and Blue Team after arriving back at Earth. This arc has been pretty universally criticised by the fanbase and it suffers a lot of the same problems Halo 5 does, but one of the most egregious issues was the ending where the Ur-Didact is Composed.
Of course, this was something that had to be clarified by Brian Reed (the writer of the arc) and the Waypoint universe entry for the Didact because the comic made it look like the Didact had just outright died. We all brought up the line from Halo 4’s Terminals following the Didact’s failed mutation:
Ur-Didact: “The procedure is a failure, I am still susceptible to Flood infection.”
Warrior-Servant: “That leaves only the Composer…”
Ur-Didact: “It will not work on my new form.”
Reed then specified on Twitter that he wrote that line himself when he, Chris Schlerf, and Morgan Lockhart were co-writing the Terminals together. And then he said:
“I think it’s funny how a few folks have suggested we’d bring Didact back in the comics just to kill him off 2 issues later.”
I wish I’d screenshotted the Tweet because since Reed took his account down the link obviously no longer works, but that is what he said.
Y’know, Mr Reed, I think it’s funny that you did this to Black Team and Jul ‘Mdama without batting an eyelash (I don’t, as I’ve articulated this was just dumb). I mean, when you look at this image, as the segment of Installation 03 he’s on is dropped down to a planet and is burning up on re-entry, when it has been written that the Composer will not work on him, what conclusion exactly do you think we’re going to come to?
Mr Reed further assured us that “there is a plan” for him, but amidst all the other lies we’ve seen with Halo 5 I have absolutely no reason to believe that this was the truth. They did to the Didact what they did to the Janus Key and Absolute Record, just had him zapped out of the setting so they can clear the stage of everything they’d built up over a period of about half a decade to make way for this Created storyline. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for not taking you at your word when there’s been an awful lot of lying about the fundamental premise of your story.
So this line of Dimkee Hotay’s did not make me laugh, did not make me think “oh yeah, back when we knew so little!” in the wake of the Didact having more involvement in the Reclaimer Saga. No, this was simply analogous to opening up an old wound to rub in some more salt because they have done literally nothing with the Didact’s character since The Next 72 Hours.
I ardently refuse to let this go, this is in 2016 what it was in 2014: Fucking bullshit.I had to take a little break after that because I wasn’t in a mood where I wanted to offer any complimentary analysis after something which hit so close to home regarding one of my favourite characters in the franchise…
Let’s talk about something good so I can get back into the mindset.
The two Sangheili pictured above with the damaged Banshee – you can talk to them, and if you’re playing co-op then dialogue changes depending on which member of Osiris does so. If you’re Locke, he offers a suggestion as to what might be wrong with the vehicle to which the Sangheili will respond “that is not the problem, human”.
However, if you’re playing as Tanaka then she identifies the actual problem with the Banshee and the Sangheili is impressed, saying he likes this human.
Nice little touch there for reinforcing these particular character traits, as Tanaka is the engineer of the team.
Near to these Sangheili is an intel log from Halsey:
“Catherine Halsey, status update. I’m playing along with your protocol here, Thel. If the Four’s bring me an active Constructor, I can interface with the Guardian. It will receive Cortana’s signal the moment it activates and initiates slipspace, but I think I can make sure it leaves the sea before it jumps. I’ll get it in the skies over Sunaion, like you asked. In return, send me some assistants with brains in their heads. And loosen this damn security! I’m not going anywhere.”
Some people have expressed puzzlement about Halsey’s attitude here and her perceived unease around the Sangheili, to which I would point to the fact that she’s spent the better part of a year with Jul ‘Mdama and his Covenant soldiers where the only thing preventing her from being killed was Jul’s word.
It’s an interesting statement of the kind of damage living in that circumstance would do, and on top of that I think Halsey and Thel are two characters who would very naturally clash with each other – which we’ll explore more in Before The Storm.Saving the best two logs for last, Vari ‘Damat’s “notice me senpai” attitude towards Thel, and Vel ‘Trokaik’s love poem…
Vari ‘Damat: “I’m stationed so close to the Arbiter, and… gods, I have never felt so nervous. I set about polishing my armour straight away, but then thought the Arbiter might frown on such vanity. In battle, should I fly my Banshee to the front and show my skill, or would he see that as recklessness? I’m petrified. I would recuse myself from battle, but that would definitely disappoint him, would it not?”
Vel ‘Trokaik: “Erase previous recording, begin new recording…
I saw you standing at your ship,
with armoured hand on armoured hip,
both my hearts began to pound,
so lovely was what I found,
I love your brightly shining armour,
human named Commander Palmer,
I wish that we–
What are you doing here, Grunt? What are you laughing at? I will tear off your arms!“
I was cackling with laughter when I first heard these, they’re brilliant.
Vel’s poem also raises an interesting question about things going forward regarding interspecies relationships, which is something that hasn’t really been explored as a thing yet. With Hunters in the Dark, a lot of people shipped Usze ‘Taham and Olympia Vale for the very close bond they form over the events in that book, and we’ve seen other friendships form with the likes of ‘Henry’ and Rimmer in The Mona Lisa – Henry is so wonderfully described as patting Rimmer whenever he’s talking about him to the other humans.
I think that as the landscape of the setting changes, this might be an interesting avenue to explore. Of course, I fully expect a number of cack-headed fools to say “BUT HOW WILL THEY HAVE SEX?” as if sex is some inherent requirement of a relationship… but that’s another conversation for another day.Meeting with Halsey, she tells Osiris that the key to interfacing with the Guardian and giving it the coordinates from the Meridian Guardian (even though, ultimately, all the Guardians are going to Genesis anyway). We’ve not actually seen Constructors in a game since Halo 3 where they made minor appearances on a couple of multiplayer maps (like Construct), so it’s nice to see them return.
Speaking of things from previous games returning, in ambient dialogue Vale asks Buck about his relationship with Veronica:
Vale: “I meant to ask, Buck: Did you get any word to Veronica before we left?”
Buck: “Yeah, but she’s working so I don’t expect she’ll hear my call for a few weeks.”
Vale: “How does that work? Veronica and ONI, you’re both always at opposite ends of the galaxy…”
Buck: “Works fine, times we’re both in the same place make up for the times we’re not.”
I find this to be an interesting little insight into both of these characters. Vale knows about Buck’s relationship and personal life, as well as Veronica and the fact she works with ONI – so there’s a sense of familiarity there between these members of the team.
And, if you’ve read New Blood, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Buck and Dare make up for their lost time when they’re in the same place…Another humorous little moment comes from the singing Unggoy sat atop the camp’s overlook.
Unggoy: *singing* Where sun and moon and planets roll, and stars that glow from pole to pole.
Locke: Interesting song.
Unggoy: Thanks! Human prisoner used to sing. I thought maybe practice, sing with him. But then he was in corpse pile… So, no singing with him. Happy to sing to you though!”
What starts out nice and innocent and cute turns into a very macabre bit of black humour, which is brilliant. A lot of people wanted a return to the humour the Unggoy brought to the series in all the games other than Reach and Halo 4 where they didn’t speak English, this was a criticism that was listened to and the end result is very telling in how the writers were having fun with these little bits of dialogue.
I very much hope this stays, that ‘Unggoy humour’ is a quirk in Halo’s writing that makes it stick out a little bit more, I think. And it’s endearing.
With that, I think it’s time to wrap this up…
On the whole, this is a mission where you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. I’ve watched playthroughs where people have just gone from objective A to objective B without paying any mind to all this rich dialogue and then complain that the mission was really short. I don’t personally hold that as a fault of the weapons-down missions, these hub areas are supposed to be for exploration and giving the writing much-needed time to breathe. But there are definitely improvements that should be made if 343 intends to keep these missions as part of the formula which we’ll discuss in due course.
Definitely a net-positive in my book, even with the issues that are present it’s easily one of the high points of the campaign. It does a lot for the setting and worldbuilding of Sanghelios for both the intrepid lore fan and somebody totally unfamiliar with them, for those willing to take the time to listen they’ll find that a lot is accomplished here.