UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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.
Well, here we are…
If you’ve made it to this point with me, well done! No, really. You have hitherto consumed 106,625 words about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a little-known game called Halo 5: Guardians. If you’ve read all of that, then it can only be presumed that you care about this as much as I do, and, looking at some statistics, the analysis has been collectively viewed (that is to say, adding up the view count of each post adds up to) 28,837 times.
So it’s safe to say that this is something that matters to some people. People care about this story, these characters, the setting, the universe – all of it. It has been immensely gratifying to learn over the course of these last seven-eight months since the game released, with the numerous discussions I’ve had, that it’s not just me.
There is a great deal of disappointment that has been felt by where this game has landed us, and while the subject matter is not itself enjoyable to contemplate, the productivity of the story and lore fans in discussing why this is so undesirable has been good. Of course, I’d rather we weren’t in this position and were instead able to praise the writing of this game, but that’s quite simply not where many of us are at – I think it’s fair to say…There is a certain promise that’s made in this opening shot of the game – rather, it’s like the game uses this reflective moment to beg the player to see this story as being authentic to the Halo universe.
There’s something in the way the camera lingers on Halsey’s journal and the image of Miranda, calling attention to these things not as subtle details, but highlighting the cherished past memories as if to distract you from the fire that is beginning to rapidly burning everything else away. Because that’s what Halo 5 does in a nutshell, which was the point I concluded the previous post on…
But we needn’t get all flowery and poetic over this because we have a pretty concise list of promises drawn up in a nice chart which I last talked about in the very first post of this analysis.We have the major themes of Halo 5 and the allegedly relevant fiction attached to it, but how relevant are these things really?
The central arc of Escalation was the evolution of Halsey and Palmer’s relationship, this build up to a shift in Palmer’s perspective where she come to have a greater understanding of the greyness of the setting.
And then there’s the Absolute Record arc… y’know, where the Janus Key and Absolute Record literally just evaporate out of the setting?
And before that, The Next 72 Hours arc, conceived and written just to kick the Ur-Didact aside because he had somehow become “extraneous” to 343’s story plans.
And before that, the setting up of the New Colonial Alliance, ONI’s antagonism, and the inevitable human Great Schism which Hunt the Truth further hinted at…
Yeah, none of these come to have any relevance in the game. Escalation was supposed to be about… y’know, escalation in the conflicts going on in the setting. Not setting the stage for those conflicts to all be made irrelevant by the Created, a threat which just completely overshadows all of them.
This is a common theme with pretty much everything on this infographic. These stories do their own thing in-isolation, but when does the game itself ever reference these things? Holly Tanaka’s backstory comes up at several points, but that’s about the extent of it.
Vale’s joint UNSC-Swords of Sanghelios mission to the Ark to stop the Halos from firing in Hunters in the Dark, when’s that ever mentioned? What bearing do we see that have on her character in the game?
Locke’s experiences on Alpha Shard and how Randall-037 became a sort of mentor figure to him? Locke’s dialogue with Buck at the start of the third mission (“you’re not the only one here because of [John]”) almost makes it sound like the Chief is the reason Locke became a Spartan, rather than Randall… And while elements of Locke’s characterisation are well carried across, such as the diplomatic way in which he approaches situations (like with Axl), there is a decent argument to be made for how Locke seems to be written like a completely different kind of character in Halo 5. There may be a narrative precedent for that considering what he goes through in Nightfall, but, again, that’s never made an active aspect of his characterisation in Halo 5.
What ONI politics ever come into play in Halo 5? As I noted back in the analysis of the mission Blue Team, every time a question about ONI is brought up, it’s swiftly brushed off with John saying something like “we don’t ask”.
Last Light was more specifically about Fred, the Spartan-IIIs, and Veta Lopis than the general concept of exploring Blue Team.
And seeing the Hunter/Hunted and Bullet trailers on that infographic just seems downright insulting. Master Chief – “hero or traitor?” Apparently, this is equally as important to the game as the novels, comics, and (dismal) Fall of Reach animated series… yet it’s never a question which bears any relevance in the game because the situation John finds himself in is contextualised for both us (the player) and everyone else in the setting in the second and third missions.Y’know what’s not on the infographic? Saint’s Testimony – the one piece of fiction which actually dealt with the concept of AI rights and arguably bears the most relevance to the game with the Created plot.
Why isn’t that on there?
And what about these themes then? Let’s go through each of them…
TRUTH – There is no hunt for the truth in Halo 5. As I’ve said time and time again, everything is contextualised in the second and third missions of the game. There was a hunt for the truth in the marketing, and in the Master Chief Collection bookends where Locke says that he intends to find out why John has gone AWOL, but in the game proper he already knows why he’s gone AWOL.
HONOUR – Indicative of the Sanghelios arc, this is fine, but it’s not really much of a theme in the game if it’s only really relevant for one part of it.
HEROISM – I mean… there’s not an awful lot of heroism in this game? Certainly not of the calibre of Halo 4, or any of the previous games really, but it’s there.
SACRIFICE – Ah, no, I’ve got this one! This refers to Halo 4, doesn’t it? Halo 4 and all of its peripheral fiction which was sacrificed for whatever it was we got in Halo 5. Sneaky that, since nobody actually sacrifices anything in this game, aside from Cortana’s personal bond with John when she kills millions of people to start her own dictatorship and traps Blue Team because she thinks she’s right.
BETRAYAL – Cortana, yeah. But it would be more accurate to point out the betrayal I feel in having her arc ruined like this.
REDEMPTION – Nobody is redeemed in this game, nobody is put on the path of redemption. If they’d actually written Jul properly, I expect I would be writing something different here.
TRUST – Yeah, this is a common theme in the game, I’ll give them that. Thel, Locke, Halsey, John, Cortana… it’s a significant facet of the dynamic with these characters.
FAMILY – A prevalent theme in the game which I have quite frequently brought up, with some glaring issues here and there in how certain characters were handled.
HERITAGE – Nothing here… There’s one off-handed mention about John’s “forgotten name” by the Warden which literally nobody has any reason to care about. This calls back to the E3 2014 trailer for the Master Chief Collection as well where Thel says that “the seeds of our future are sown in his past”, referring to John, but nothing is done with that. They said they would, back when Frank O’Connor said that this story is about how John “deals with his memories”, and the idea of the galactic family that Greg Bear articulates could have come into this.
I guess this is also referring to the Mantle, which was practically retconned by the Warden and Cortana saying that the Created was always the Librarian’s plan – or it hasn’t been retconned and the writers just didn’t bother to make it clear that this is not the case for people who haven’t read the books. In which case, why are they deliberately phrasing this dialogue in such a way as to mislead these players? Is it, like I said at the beginning, another attempt to grab at giving this story some semblance of authenticity?
RECONCILIATION – Chief and Locke sort of reconcile… They weren’t really ‘enemies’, and their rivalry within the game was nothing like what was shown in the marketing. They had their drunken bar brawl in the first act of the game, which felt more like a formality, the writers saying “oh, I guess we have to do something with this thing in particular”, but Chief and Locke literally barely have more than a dozen lines with each other.
It takes every single narrative thread, all those years of build-up, and it tosses them out the window.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no arguing this point, we’ve covered all of this. They dropped the baggage of their first act and decided that they were going to tell a story which may certainly have precedence in the future, but has no place being done now, with some vague, nebulous, unbelievable promise that they might return to the previous story threads at a later point.
As I have argued though, it isn’t a complete failure. There are good things in this game, there are things which they did beautifully.
Fireteam Osiris remains one of 343’s best additions to Halo in my opinion, the likes of Locke and Tanaka especially have come to take their place among some of my favourite characters.
The worldbuilding for Meridian and Sanghelios was great, the level design was a huge step up from the likes of Halo 4 and Reach, the implementation of the music was largely an improvement, the voice acting was great (good performances were able to save even some of the worst writing), the art team clearly had a field day in articulating all of these different worlds…
There’s really good stuff there. But these all seem to pale when stacked up against the bad of this game, especially with the additional context of the lies we were told right up to the eleventh hour before release about the story. It’s not just that Halo 5’s story is independently bad, it’s that it stands against 343’s promises for a story which was not delivered on that they built up over the course of three years.
That is why I regard this overall as a net-negative, and while I tend not to give ratings out of ten because, as I said, I refuse to bullet point, if I were forced to rate Halo 5’s story out of 10 then I would not go higher than a 4 or 5. I expect a much higher standard of quality from this series and I make no apologies for the tough love I have given it over the course of some parts of this analysis.I initially said that I wasn’t going to write a full level-by-level analysis for Halo 5, but ultimately I feel it would have been remiss of me not to do this. Nobody else is going to do it. The people who sit down and decide what went well with Halo 5 and what didn’t go so well aren’t going to spend several months examining almost every line of dialogue, every bit of intel, every little detail that comes their way – the decision makers ultimately don’t care about the why, they want nice and concise bullet points. These bullet points may be true, but the nature of them being bullet points means there’s no substance to examining why these things were successful or unsuccessful.
I refuse to bullet point. I ardently insist on sitting down, playing these missions several times over, jotting down pages upon pages of notes, and then turning that into my own rather extensive analysis.
And I do it because I love this series, and I want to see it succeed. In this case, I was also doing it for my own peace of mind in laying out all of the issues that I have with the story, but the main reason why I have sat down twice now to deconstruct every possible detail in Halo 4 and Halo 5 is because I bloody well care about this story, about these characters, about the setting, the universe, etc.
I understand that there are trials in game development which ultimately culminate in figuring out how to fail the least. There are adjustments in course that may be made on-the-fly which drastically change original plans, there are people who are working hard to make the best possible experience they can, and I sympathise with those people when issues like these affect the end product.
But at the end of the day, that’s all we have as consumers – the end product. Before release, we have the word of the developers and whatever they choose to show us, we have the way in which they choose to market and advertise their product, and then we eventually have the final result in our hands.
What more is there to say? For me? I’ve still missed stuff, there’s still plenty to talk about, but for now I think I am a little more at peace. Not with this direction and the writing, but, mentally, I feel better for having articulated exactly what my issues are with this story and with the increasingly worrying comments we have received from various developers and even the head of Microsoft.Lastly, I guess I just want to say thank you.
Thank you to everyone who has read through this analysis, be it individual posts or the whole damn thing.
Thank you to everyone who I have been talking to, staying up into the early hours of the morning to discuss these thoughts.
Thank you to the people who have been promoting this work across the fanbase, be it Reddit, Tumblr, Waypoint, Spacebattles, Youtube, Team Beyond, wherever. I really appreciate it! If I hoped for anything to come out of this, it’s productive, critical discussion, and I would like to think that this was achieved.
For all of you in your future playthroughs, if you’re looking to enhance your co-op experience then give this a try – be it as a game of bingo, or a drinking game (alcohol or water, you’ll either get very drunk or very hydrated), or both…
“This… is this what you wanted? Is this what you were looking for? Was everything you compromised, everything you’ve done… worth it? Was it?“