What’s this? Another post within the space of two days?
I wasn’t actually expecting to write another article in such a short amount of time, but I’ve spent some of the weekend going over my notes on Hunters in the Dark for Halo Wars 2-related purposes, and then this morning (now yesterday morning at the time of editing this post for release) I came across this awesome piece of fan art by Jabberwacky on Reddit which clicked an idea in my head.
Well, it wasn’t so much an idea as it was a question.
To what extent could we un-break the setting if we replaced the Guardians with Retriever Sentinels?
Before we get into the discussion about the Retrievers (previously referred to as ‘Strato-Sentinels’), I feel that I should first reiterate a few points about the Guardians to justify the claim that they break the setting.
Note: these will essentially be truncated from the much lengthier arguments I made in the level-by-level postmortem for Halo 5. If you want to read these points in full detail you can find them specifically within the examination of Evacuation, Battle of Sunaion, Guardians, and the Afterword.
Without further preamble, let’s get right to it.
“Speak not of the holy Guardian of Sunaion. Pray only that it remains still. Let it not stir, lest it tear the Halo universe’s setting asunder.”
Once upon a time, the Reclaimer Saga was conceived with three main, interconnected conflicts – from without and within. The fragile reformation of the Covenant, the return of the Forerunners, and ONI (which would tie directly in with the UNSC/New Colonial Alliance conflict).
Osman’s role in ONI’s black ops interference with interspecies politics caused the events leading to Jul’s reformation of the Covenant, leading to the Ur-Didact’s awakening and the return of the Forerunners to the galactic stage. We had both civil issues to deal with and the typical sort of larger-than-life issues that periodically ramps up the scale. I’m not saying it was perfectly articulated by any means, but that was more than enough to fill three whole games with some substantial, quality set-up.
Only, the Ur-Didact ended up being shafted with some nebulous notion that he might be brought back later, because, in the words of Brian Reed on The Next 72 Hours arc:
“When these issues were first conceived, we thought maybe the Didact was going to be in Halo 5.
He was certainly present in the story early on, but as the plan for the next few years of the franchise (books, comics, other games, etc.) took shape, Didact became extraneous to the story we were telling.
We still wanted the Didact alive in our extended lore, because he’s a useful character and we have a dearth of viable named bad guys for our Halo rogues’ gallery. But how to dispose of him for the time being?” [Brian Reed – Escalation Library Edition, pages 293-294]
It wasn’t just that he was declared “extraneous” to Halo 5, but the fiction as a whole over the course of the next few years. The plans they’ve come up with for the upcoming books, comics, and other games (like Halo Wars 2) evidently will not involve him and the reason why he wasn’t just outright killed off in The Next 72 Hours is because he’s “useful”, as Halo does not have a lot of “viable named bad guys”…
Some are hailing the Didact’s imminent return, but I’m not holding my breath.
I’m not entirely convinced about the overarching impact that Atriox is going to have beyond Halo Wars 2 either because we heard this exact same spiel about the Ur-Didact back in the months leading up to Halo 4.
On top of that: Jul was killed off mid-arc (which I’ve talked about to no end), and Osman isn’t mentioned once in Halo 5 – despite her more prominent role in Escalation and central part in ‘reasons why the galaxy is so messed up right now’.
There is no actual structure to the conflicts in the setting any more with the Guardians being introduced the way they were in Halo 5, the previously established framework for the Reclaimer Saga has been derailed and we’re just seeing things get thrown in to pad out a story that was previously conceived to be something a great deal smaller.
There is no interconnected triad of conflicts, there is now only the conflict – the threat posed by the Guardians, under the control of the Created.Every other conflict going on prior to Halo 5 has been rendered utterly meaningless by the sheer scale of the threat posed by the Guardians – to the point where nothing short of a deus ex machina is going to resolve this because the tech level the Created have with all this Forerunner technology, plus the Domain, vastly overpowers literally everything else in the modern setting. When this is the case, you have accomplished one thing…
You have broken the setting.
That creates a singularity for almost every other plot point because you now have the daunting task of forcing it to exist within the framework of the Guardians and the Created. The only reason this isn’t the case with Halo Wars 2 is because it’s literally set outside the galaxy – just as how Bioware had to take us all the way to Andromeda to avoid the onus of dealing with Mass Effect 3’s ending.
What are the stakes when the writers can just decide to shift the scales overnight and say “I know the Reclaimer Saga was meant to be a smaller-scale series of more intimate character stories, but what if we just put the galaxy back in the state it was in the Human-Covenant war?”, which was the stated intention of Halo 5:
“Halo 5 was all about turning the Universe in a new direction explicitly so we could do stories like this.
We wanted the galaxy to be big and scary and dangerous in a way that it really has not been for our heroes in a while. There’s a threat level now potentially on-par with the Covenant in its glory days, but unlike them, this threat knows everything there is to know about us. Even something as basic as traveling from one planet to another is once more a deadly proposition in the Halo Universe.” [Brian Reed, Canon Fodder – Issue 89, The Fall of Leaves, 23/9/2016]
(I don’t mean to just single out Reed in this article – he’s just the one who has been saying these things…)
When you look back at the statements made in the Halo 4 panel at Halo Fest 2011 when the Reclaimer Saga was in its infancy, particularly Josh Holmes’ comments about this being intended to be a smaller kind of trilogy more focused on the Master Chief’s journey (which was echoed in 343’s marketing through 2014), it paints a very different picture to where we are now.
The Human-Covenant-Flood war of the original trilogy was the big conflict. It set the table for a more intimate setting driven by characters rather than the typical bombastic stakes of things like whole planets being laid low. But here we are, some 5-6 years later, and 343 is just constantly trying to one-up themselves through the scale of the conflict which I find has been consistently detrimental. Some of the Reclaimer Saga’s best stories in the modern setting are the likes of Last Light, Shadow of Intent, Saint’s Testimony, Smoke and Shadow – small stories where there’s just as much emotionally at stake as there is physically, where new and unique ideas and meaningful character evolutions are witnessed.
Halo 4 purposefully dialled the scale down: it had a small cast of characters and focused on more personal stakes. The Didact was conceived as John’s first true ‘nemesis’ for the Reclaimer Saga, the main emotional draw of the story was about Cortana struggling with rampancy and coming to terms with mortality. There’s still the bombastic space opera stuff with the threat posed by the Composer, but that served more to accentuate the character drama and worldbuilding than to be the main focus of the narrative the way the firing of the Halos was in the original trilogy.
By the end, we’re left with the promise of a story about dealing with grief, loss, and moving on in Halo 5, with a number of defined plot points to be followed up on (all of which are dropped). Halo 4 still managed to tell a story where the galaxy is “big and scary and dangerous in a way that it really has not been for our heroes in a while,” with new foes that posed a threat “potentially on-par with the Covenant in its glory days”. And it didn’t have to break the setting to do that. It did it as a slow-burn effect by confining the main events of the campaign to Requiem, then gradually expanding the consequences of the events that happen there to the galaxy at-large by the end of Spartan Ops.
That’s what the Reclaimer Saga needed to be, following on from the events that defined the landscape of the setting in Halo CE–3. Smaller, character-driven stories like what we’ve been getting in the books dedicated to building up the characters and the setting for its next big fall when the Flood eventually returns, as the Forerunner Saga set up.
Then you have a natural segway into the ultimate underdog story, as you’ve established the value of the world you’re fighting for rather than just telling you to fight for it.343 started off with a solid plan for the Reclaimer Saga, but now we’re at the point where I honestly could not tell you what the Reclaimer Saga is even about – and, if these company reviews on Glass Door are to be believed, it seems 343 probably couldn’t either:
“Right now there’s some ambiguity as to the direction the overall franchise will go. There are big plans, but the communication of those plans has been a bit slow. That said, management has been working on better communication.”
So much for having this all supposedly planned out, eh? I can’t pretend to know the inner-workings of 343, but it’s hard not to take this as being indicative of the Created coming out of nowhere to pad things out while 343 decides on an actual direction – particularly since so many integral members of the narrative team seem to have left over the last few years during the most critical stage of a new story arc’s development (the aftermath of the first act).
I’m not going to quote all of the reviews on there, but it sounds like poor communication and a lack of transparency from management about where things are going is a recurring theme with a lot of employees – who are themselves talented and passionate, but obviously having to work their best with what they’re given. I find this interesting because many of us in the community have felt similarly. You may have to make an account on there to see all the reviews, the process takes about a minute and only requires an email activation – you don’t have to actually put any details of yourself on there.
Anyway, back on-topic: the Reclaimer Saga has got a couple of overarching themes that are occasionally put into stories that currently seem to have no direction, or are arbitrarily run straight into the ground when somebody up in management decides that we need to drop the baggage of what’s actually been established and go in a totally new direction.
The Guardians are wholly representative of this issue. This is how they’ve broken the setting.I’ve spoken before (in the linked articles at the start of this post) about how I’m not all that keen on the visual design of the Guardians either.
And how they really lack a sense of presence throughout a great deal of Halo 5 (with the exception of Evacuation), just hanging idly in the skybox.
And how their only tangible effect on gameplay is lowering your shields in ‘scripted’ segments, whereas Hunt the Truth portrays Guardians causing epidemic data corruption, seismic activity, and fluctuations in gravity – Dasc Gevadim, his Triad followers, and parts of the environment start floating when a Guardian rises in the second season.
It was a sadly missed opportunity to not have them actually cause things like fluctuations in gravity that would change the way you might experience a combat encounter in-gameplay. You could have that done through audio and visual cues as well where stuff like computer monitors would show signs of corruption before the next pulse caused gravity fluctuations.
And the Guardians didn’t see even a hint of pre-establishment in Forerunner fiction, to the point where they seem to do more to detract from it with regard to stuff like the Warrior-Servants being looked down upon as violators of the Mantle for being the ones who go to war against the Forerunners’ enemies (especially since the Guardians aren’t attached to any specific rate).
Overall, I feel that the Guardians are a decisively net-negative addition to the Halo universe.
So here’s what I’d do differently.Retriever Sentinels were evidently used by the Miner rate in Forerunner society to… well, mine planets, terraform them, collect resources and minerals, and build other such constructs.
In recent chronology, for instance, we know they were used to mine the Ark’s Foundry in order to create Installation 04B, and then they were later deployed to repair the damage done to the Lesser Ark by Installation 04B’s premature firing at the end of Halo 3 on the order of 000 Tragic Solitude – the Lesser Ark’s Monitor, formerly Splendid-Dust-of-Ancient-Suns.
“I have seen them before, when we were on the Ark – we witnessed them mine the installation’s moon in order to fabricate the replacement Halo.”
“So it’s a mining device?”
“Our records indicate that it employs an artificially produced gravitic force to remove minerals from a planet’s surface. Those minerals are used to build Forerunner structures and installations.” [Hunters in the Dark, loc. 1638 (Kindle edition)]
They can use artificial gravity beams to tear off whole chunks of a planet, which also cause major shifts in weather like hurricanes and other kinds of seismic activity. We see this described really well in Hunters in the Dark when they start pouring through the portal from the Ark and begin the process of strip-mining Earth.
But, and this is the key… They have drawbacks as well.
Retrievers aren’t intended for combat roles, so they don’t have shields. Some were given actual weapons, which could play into their part in this hypothetical Halo 5 where this means they have to effectively coordinate roles to adapt to combat.
They’re also only about 500 metres long, which makes them larger than the Covenant CRS-light cruisers we see in Halo 4 and 5 (which still manage to impose a sense of scale on the skyboxes), but they’re also about half the size of the SDV-class Covenant Corvette. Like we’ve seen with many other Forerunner constructs over the years, though, in various methods, such as with the Onyx Sentinels, Prometheans, War Sphinxes (etc), the Retrievers can combine together to make larger forms.
The Retrievers have effectively overwhelmed the human forces at the Excession.
There is no victory in sight, and every second more cascade out from the portal. What the machines lack in strength and resiliency, they more than make up for in numbers and firepower. Some of the Retrievers even combine to form larger machines.
Despite the spectacle of power that is brought with the Home Fleet, it is not enough to stay the Forerunner machines’ incursion. [Hunters in the Dark, loc. 4568]
When used offensively, as we see in Hunters in the Dark where Tragic Solitude sends the Retrievers to Earth, they can be deadly. They decimated the UNSC’s Home Fleet, but that was because the Retrievers greatly outnumbered them. With a unified force of humans, Sangheili, and whatever other faction – they can feasibly be taken on.Additionally, given the size of Retrievers, another potential benefit is that they could be made into a playable space – a vehicular boss battle of sorts. Imagine something similar to the battle with the Kraken in Enemy Lines where you’re in a Phaeton (or on the ground with multiple paths and heavy ordnance because sandbox gameplay is always nice), but fighting something that can actually move and fight back with more than just Shade turrets.
In space, the new Retreivers’ numbers and speed gave them a distinct advantage. On the surface, however, the Mayhem might have a chance. Granted, it was no nimble fighter, but N’tho didn’t have many options at his disposal.
He was having great difficulty believing that their attackers were entirely automated. It should have been a simple effort to outmanoeuvre or overwhelm them, and yet the Retrievers were engaged in a pitched battle that rivalled anything N’tho had experienced during the war on the humans. They attacked in a concentrated fashion, almost as though controlled by a single pilot.
[…] As Mayhem banked hard to centre upon the remaining Retrievers, the two machines suddenly connected and quickly became one. Although somewhat similar in shape to the individual Retrievers, this new machine was even more problematic, dodging and twisting away from Mayhem’s blasts. It seemed to take on the benefits of both Retrievers’ speed and weaponry, with no noticeable drawbacks.
A detonation resounded from deep within the Mayhem, and the weapons officer shouted, “We have lost the main cannons!”
N’tho quickly ran through his mind all of the options available against this newly combined, augmented Retriever. And with that, he gave the only order he could think of:
“Ram it.” [Hunters in the Dark, loc. 1977-2016]
What the Retrievers essentially give us is a central Forerunner threat that does alter the landscape of the setting in a way that proves dangerous to everyone, but doesn’t break it the way the practically invincible Guardians do. These constructs do have actual, tangible and exploitable limitations – which they can also adapt to. But they’re not invincible – they can be fought, they can be destroyed.
Not only that, but the Retrievers have actually been an established as part of the lore since before Halo 3. You may recall the IRIS campaign, Halo 3‘s ARG, where The Cradle of Life depicts the prehistoric human name N’chala observing Retrievers building the portal at Voi on the order of the Librarian.
Halo Wars and Halo 4 introduced the Warrior-Servant style of architecture, which I have lengthily analysed and discussed in previous posts, and even been vindicated of more than just looking too deeply into things in Canon Fodder (the articles on the matter are: On Forerunner Architecture and Ruminations on Halo Wars).
Halo 5 went back to recreating the Builder aesthetic (the extent to which it was successful in doing so is debatable, but there are actually a few areas distinctly inspired by Halo 2 and Reach so I’m giving the effort a net-positive). There are also lines in the final mission that seem indicative of stuff about Forerunner rate politics between Builders and Warrior-Servants being intended to be more prominently featured, as discussed here, presumably back when the Ur-Didact was in the game and not considered “extraneous”.
But we’ve not really seen Miner stuff before in the games…
The map Solace in Halo 4 was a Miner installation that had a particularly unique appearance we’d not seen before, but that’s pretty much the extent of it (the Threshold Gas Mine is debatable).
In Cryptum, Miner vessels are described as such:
The mining ship was an ugly thing, sullen, entirely practical. Its belly was studded with unconcealed grapplers, lifters, cutters, churners. If the master of this craft so desired, its engines could easily convert all of Djamonkin Crater into a steaming tornado of whirling rock and ore, sifting, lifting and storing whatever components it wished to carry back.
I hated what it stood for.
I hated it all. [Cryptum, page 49-50 (Kindle edition)]
We have also seen a similar kind of construct depicted in the short comic series Halo: Blood Line, featuring the definitely still-alive and not-pointlessly-killed-off Black Team.
On the moon of the Line Installation they’re on, Black Team encounter Gatherer constructs which possess similar features to what is described in Cryptum – though, they have been repurposed for the Conservation Measure as they’re used to collect biological specimens for transportation, study, and eventual cataloguing.
Retriever Sentinels also reflect that description. So, not only would this functionally benefit the story in terms of not breaking the setting – while also presenting a potential opportunity for a new kind of boss battle in gameplay – it would also expand the artistic palette of the Halo universe by diving more into the ‘so-practical-it’s-terrifying’ kind of Forerunner aesthetic.I feel like the Guardians are something that could have been handled a lot better than they were.
You wouldn’t necessarily have to get rid of them in order to make them work. For instance, in one of the Halo 5 rewrites I’ve got in my head, they’re awakened but not actually used – leading to a power struggle between the various factions to control individual ones, escalating the Cold War state of the galaxy through mutually assured destruction on a technological level. But it’s clear to me that using the Retrievers in their place would greatly undo the damage their sudden introduction has done to the overall setting.
As I’ve said regarding the praise I’ve given the Banished, the key to credibly escalating the conflict (not breaking it) is to introduce a threat on a scale that’s big enough to devote a particular focus to, but not large enough that they dwarf all the other conflicts going on in the setting.
That’s what it seems like they’re going for with the Banished, and that’s what they should have gone for in Halo 5 – what the use of Retrievers would ultimately have enabled.
While I intentionally go out of my way to talk about the positive stuff within that at whatever point I can, these last few posts have still been weighted more towards what I don’t like.
I intend to cut down on that a bit because one of my ‘rules’ for this blog is to not get bogged down in negativity and save that for other discussion spaces. There’s a line between criticism and overwhelming negativity which I feel I’m running the risk of crossing. This post was just a bit of a brainwave that struck me that I wanted to write, which unfortunately necessitated unloading the baggage of some of my more scathingly critical Halo 5 articles again.
We’ve had some great fiction this year with the likes of Mythos, Fractures, and the recently released Smoke and Shadow (I LOVED this book – 343, bring Kelly Gay back to write more). And I do genuinely look forward to seeing what lore we’ll get from Halo Wars 2, Warfleet, the three full novels (Envoy, Retribution, and Legacy of Onyx), and whatever else we get next year.