I don’t like Game of Thrones.
I don’t like Game of Thrones and 343 wants Halo to last for thirty years.
On its own, that sentence sounds extremely odd and the two things seem totally unrelated – and where exactly is Heinlein supposed to come into this? I’ve finally kicked it, gone off the rails; you might as well leave now and never come back because it sounds like I have nothing of value whatsoever to say (which’ll already have been the case for some people, I’m sure)…
But I reckon there’s one or two people who might be slowly nodding their head at that statement and I hope the rest of you will humour me as to where this is going. As you can see from the intimidatingly small size of your scroll bar, I am going… somewhere…Whenever people ask me why I don’t like Game of Thrones, I tend to respond with two links. One of them is to this particular article from The Fandomentals, which further leads to a series of brilliantly in-depth essays about every aspect of the show’s writing – from its illogical plotlines, squandering narratives and themes from the source material, and indulgence in Orientalism and sexism – that put many of my own to shame.
The other is to this particular video essay from MrBtongue, which I urge you to watch because I will be referring to it a fair bit throughout this piece.
In this video, MrBtongue compares the ubiquitous popularity of Game of Thrones and its source material to that of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which shaped the genre over the course of decades in the form of both book and film. Martin’s book series has demonstrably had the same magic and its television adaptation has long since consolidated its position as being one of the biggest – if not the biggest – televised events during the year.
Many are content to simply watch and enjoy the show, and that’s fine. In fact, I envy people with the capacity for passive consumption and base enjoyment of media… But there are those of us who have a bit of a different perspective. Us insufferable overthinkers who are willing to be insufferable as critics of a culturally important work because we have assumed the mantle of trying to ensure that they shape the future of the genre or their own continuations in a way that we deem to be ‘right’.
The cultural effect of a successful work isn’t just quantifiable by its ratings, but in how it inevitably spawns imitators and things that people will be calling “the next Game of Thrones”, and will be sold to other people (either through marketing or through the consciousness of its audience) as being “like Game of Thrones”. Creators try to cash in on that glory which leads to media going through ‘phases’ and ‘trends’, things that aren’t inherently negative but have the potential to be…
One of the best examples I can think of that’ll be relevant to this topic is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and for the explanation that follows I will be paraphrasing and building on what one of my all-time favourite critics, Lorerunner, has said in this video about the ‘current state of gaming’ (as it was back in 2014, which is still very much relevant and applicable today).
As an aside: seriously, check Lorerunner’s channel out. His perspective on everything he talks about is fascinating and you can bet he’s done complete analytical playthroughs of some of your favourite games and ruminations on your favourite films and television shows (right now, he’s going through the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films). So do yourself a favour and stick on one of his videos as a sort of podcast while you go about your daily business.Back to topic: The first Modern Warfare is a masterpiece.
It boasts an incredible story, genuinely shocking moments, intelligent and impactful commentary, brilliant use of first person cinematic storytelling, directing, level design, and is topped off with really enjoyable and well-designed multiplayer.
The shooter market had been long-anticipating a ‘Halo-killer’, to the point where that actually became a marketing term (remember HAZE?), but this was the game that actually did it. Even speaking to my bias as a Halo fan, especially at the time where I was ten years younger than I am today, I was okay with that because Modern Warfare and Halo 3 were, at the time, the two best damn shooters I’d ever played.
In the wake of a product being released, you have people whose jobs are to look at that product and examine what was successful and what wasn’t. Now, I hate to toot my own horn here but it serves the example… if you were to take someone like me, someone who looks at things and writes novel-length analyses, looking at every possible detail about them, printed that all off for some corporate executive decision makers to read over… well, they’d toss it away in a heartbeat.
If I had to give a lecture or speech about it to these execs on the subject, they’d be checking their watches to find that three hours have passed and I’ve not shut up.
Call it my corporate cynicism talking, but I am somebody who refuses to summarise and that’s not what publishers want. The people making the decisions look at the immense success they’ve had and have a tendency to ‘bullet point’ the aspects of that success for all of those sequels that have to be made. These bullet points may well be true, but the fact that they are bullet points means there’s no real substance to why these things were successful.
We saw how this ended up affecting the industry in the wake of Modern Warfare’s success because then, over a span of years, games were copying the Call Of Duty formula for how shooters were made and trying to imitate that to be successful. This is a phase that I feel we’ve only come out of in the last couple of years. Doom, Halo, GTA, COD, WOW, Dark Souls (spawning two sub-genres: ‘Soulslike’ and ‘Souls-lite’), MOBAs, etc. All these franchises have their imitators because of their success.
Now, to paraphrase Lorerunner’s example: The first five games built off those bullet points might be okay, still financially and critically successful – which is what the publisher wants. But then you get a dozen games beyond that based on the bullet points of those five games which were built on the bullet points of that original game, and the genre becomes increasingly bloated. This is the fate that has befallen a lot of open world games over the last few years, prior to the likes of Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn injecting new life into the genre.
It’s a gradual process which leads to things becoming normalised – things such as microtransactions in £40/$60 triple-A games. Things where the publishers behind these undesirable elements rely on consumer apathy to keep getting away with what they’re doing.
Because when you bring up issues over and over again due to nothing tangibly being done about them, apathy from the wider audience sets in and, even worse, they turn against you for continually talking about those issues. People get more and more used to these ‘assembly line products’ because “that’s just how things are” for a long period of time.
Now take everything I just said there and apply it to writing, to storytelling.
We face the exact same problem – or, if you prefer, a problem with very similar permutations to it.This is where I want to return to MrBtongue’s video and bring up the centrepiece of his argument from a line in Starship Troopers, which is a term he coins as ‘Heinlein’s Premise’:
“[Violence is] the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.”
MrBtongue argues this in-relation to the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien and Martin, that critiquing and dealing with the notion of violence as the supreme authority is the overarching thematic conceit of their epics. In these worlds, violence and anger and revenge are present and they do drive the characters, story, and setting… but the presentation of anger and revenge, the point of their presence in the work, is that they are dangerous and damaging things that are to be avoided rather than to build wish fulfilment fantasies out of.
This ‘spirit’ is what Game of Thrones’ showrunners (colloquially referred to as D&D, inevitably spawning a bunch of not entirely inaccurate ‘Dumb & Dumber’ jokes if you’ve ever read or seen interviews with these two talking about the show) have failed to understand and is the heart of why I don’t like it – the show simply does not possess the beating heart of the source material. The Lord of the Rings film adaptations were able to get away with a lot of the deviations made from the books because it stayed true to the ‘spirit’ of Tolkien’s work, and, in some cases, those changes even elevated the new material.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, wallows in its violence under the fallacious guise of ‘medieval realism’ (deconstructing that is a separate essay in and of itself) and falls prey to one of the most egregious, mind-numbing tropes in fiction: ‘The Cult of the Badass.’
“‘The Badass’ is a creature designed by and for Heinlein’s Premise. In the Heinleinian world, the only path to safety, security, and independence is to be comfortable with violence – or, better yet, stylish with it. In The Cult of the Badass, the highest achievement to which a character can aspire is the ability to kill people with a completely blank look on their face. […] We’re in the world of Heinlein’s Premise now, where cynicism is nothing less than wisdom and pacifism is nothing more than naivety.”
I can’t even count the number of scenes in the show that have their ‘pay-off’ moments simply be Deadpan Targaryen having various people killed in increasingly violent and creative ways while she stares into the middle-distance, expressionless…This leads me to the structure of modern, long-form storytelling.
I tend to be a structural and thematic thinker in terms of looking to identify the building blocks of a narrative and I’ve noticed three particular themes that are immensely prevalent in media. They have obviously been present in human storytelling going back to when we lived in caves because they speak to very simple and all-encompassing aspects of how we ‘narrativise’ our lives and our conflicts, but when you look at how stories are marketed these days you’d be hard pressed not to notice a work that doesn’t at least articulate itself with emphasis on two of these themes.
‘Family’ provides the complexity on a personal level, as it depends entirely on how you define what your family is. This also defines a character’s duty, who it is towards.
‘Revenge’ is likewise used as a go-to motivation because it’s personal (it tends to be used for sympathy and eventual catharsis) and affects the larger conflict of a work.
I’ve been pretty critical of this particular theme because it’s so rarely ever handled well (because it’s used for an apologetic kind of sympathy and catharsis with no deconstruction or consequences) and event television like Game of Thrones relies on it so heavily to bring about Shocking™ short-term changes that keep the motivations of the characters meandering so the audience is engaged – hence the wallowing in Heinlein’s Premise. This determines a character’s duty through the action they must take.
‘Home’ is what’s left behind, what’s lost in the fire, and what characters are (often unknowingly) in pursuit of. It ties in with the family theme and sets the table for the conflict’s denouement, as well as the potential set-up for continuation when the found-home and the family that occupies it is threatened.
These just so happen to be 343’s main themes for the Reclaimer Saga too.
They tend to work really well as a counterpart to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey (which is another go-to for writers), but the Monomyth applies more to plot structure that affects character arcs over a defined period of time – typically over the course of a trilogy. These three themes tend to be more overtly used for long-form media (like a multi-season television show… or a sixteen year old video game franchise) because it’s an easier way of more cohesively tying together a story that goes on longer than was intended or expected.
It’s easy to connect motivations and character development to one of these three themes, which likewise spills over to making the protagonists and antagonists relate to one another on some level.
I’ve thrown a lot of ideas and concepts at you, so now it’s time to finally get to the point…One of my biggest fears for Halo going forward is how it’s seemingly becoming a ‘dark fantasy’ setting. A world that subscribes to and wallows in Heinlein’s Premise rather than critiquing and deconstructing it.
By this, I mean that there’s basically no hope that things are going to get better. A dark fantasy setting is one in which things are bad and they are staying bad – the heroes can pull off saving the world (usually achieved by them dying), but they can never meaningfully improve it.
I don’t personally like dark fantasy… so I’m not all that thrilled to see some of the ways in which it’s influencing Halo’s ongoing story. And that’s what the bulk of this article is going to look at from here, along with the thematic disparity that has emerged between the direction the games are going compared to the novels and other expanded media.
As I said: Halo is in danger of becoming overly mired in Heinlein’s Premise, in the idea of the cyclical and inescapable nature of war.
It’s been a significant criticism over the years that 343 has been bending over backwards to motivate many of its major characters with revenge plots and then not doing anything with them – as I’ve argued more times than I can count, Jul is perhaps the most egregious case when stacked against what his character arc offered in terms of critiquing Heinlein’s Premise.
For those who may be unfamiliar with ‘Haruspis’ Premise’ for Jul’s arc, it would culminate in him coming full circle and mirroring Raia’s journey in The Thursday War where she set out to find Jul to bring him home. Jul, having undergone a change in perspective due to things I talk about in the article linked above, goes out to find his son, Dural, who is consumed by his own need for vengeance after his mother’s death, to save him from making the same mistakes he did. To break the cycle of violence for the next generation because he knows now that he was wrong. That he only brought more misery and suffering to his people despite what he intended.
No longer would he let his desire for vengeance consume him. Even for those who weren’t entirely convinced by Jul’s character and utilisation, I’m sure that many of us can at least agree that making something valuable out of his character like that is better than… y’know, the nothing we got in Halo 5.Bonnie Ross has explicitly stated “we are not Game of Thrones” in an interview with Eurogamer back in 2014 on the subject of their tendency to kill off characters. Yet the actual content of much of 343’s fiction contradicts this statement of intentions – and it certainly doesn’t help that it came in the same year that Black Team got killed off and the Ur-Didact was tossed into limbo. But it goes beyond just killing off some long-awaited, returning characters because there’s a greater comparison to be made with Heinlein’s Premise.
I feel that Halo being about “the cyclical nature of war” as this never-ending trap is only half way there to the complete context because Halo is more about the people who bring about the circumstances that lead to conflict, and, more importantly, those who fight against it and strive to do better – for themselves, for other people, and for the setting.
Not only do I dislike the notion of Halo being this grim and hopeless universe where things are never going to get better because something big has to come along to disrupt any and all potential progress after years of fiction setting the stage for that progress to happen, I fundamentally disagree with this as something Halo was built upon. Despite its conceit, Halo has always been an optimistic sci-fi universe.
This is a setting in which terrible things happen, and happen pretty regularly at that, but never really falls into the trap of becoming ‘grimdark’. There are pieces of media out there that can tell incredible stories while bending the knee to Heinlein’s Premise, in fact I analysed one at the start of the year – Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. But Infinite Warfare is a standalone story in a series that doesn’t really have much in the way of thematic or narrative continuity with its previous instalments, particularly when compared to Halo, which is intended to be a more cohesive universe.
Halo has never been about adhering to Heinlein’s Premise, but with the intention of this franchise spanning three decades I can’t help but worry about the direction things are going based on Halo 5’s change in direction.
Yes, I’m banging on about this again. And yes, I will be discussing some of the positives of Halo 5 here as well as the negatives.
There are those who complained that they wanted a story like the original trilogy where humanity’s backs are against the wall and you’ve got this standard set-up for a galactic war. The problem with that is the fact that, y’know, we’ve had well over a decade’s worth of fiction spanning the big conflict of the modern era, the Human-Covenant war, which lasted twenty seven years.
The Human-Covenant-Flood war of the original trilogy was the big conflict for the modern setting. While Halo 3 didn’t finish that fight in totality, as I argued in my last post, it changed the fight.
Halo 3 set the table for a more intimate setting driven by characters, rather than the bombastic stakes of galaxy-destroying ringworlds or whole planets being laid low by the Forerunner threat of the week that almost invariably ends up being on the receiving end of a gargantuan explosion. But here we are, with 343 trying to one-up that through the scale of the conflict by adhering to Heinlein’s Premise.
Many aspects of the Human-Covenant war have yet to be fleshed out. We know about most of the major battles of that time, but there’s still its share of years with where this elaborate tapestry is still in its pencil outlines on scrap paper. We have a defined era for those kinds of stories to be explored…We then have the post-war era, which is where the opportunity for stories with more of a personal and political focus in the aftermath of war rests… and has, honestly, in my opinion, been squandered. The post-war era lasts between 2553 and 2558 – a mere five years – because the Created had to be… not so much ‘shoehorned’ as they were jackhammered into the setting in order to put the galaxy back to the state it was in during the Human-Covenant war because:
“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)]
The Reclaimer Saga’s best stories thus far are small, character-driven ones where there’s just as much emotionally at stake as there is physically, where new and unique ideas and meaningful character arcs are witnessed.
That was reflected well in Halo 4, which very 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’, 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. Even the macro-scale of the conflict in Halo 4 was operating on a micro-scale.
By the end, we were left with the promise of a story about dealing with grief, loss, and healing in Halo 5, with a number of defined plot points to be followed up on. I don’t know about you, but I was a lot more excited for that than I was “THE DARKEST HALO EVER!” 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 to set the stage for Halo 5.
Halo 4 was by no means perfect, but it was happy to play the long game for its set-up, only for that to be suddenly moved aside, not to undergo any meaningful resolution, but so an even biggerer and betterer conflict could be thrown in to send the Halo universe back to the state it was in during the era we’ve just come out of…The problem is exacerbated because of the apologism for the actions committed by ‘Cortana’ in Halo 5, which Frank O’Connor (franchise development director) and Brian Reed (Halo 5’s lead writer) have defended.
There’s a considerable debate that we could all have regarding Death of the Author here and how Halo 5 doesn’t really present the things Cortana does in a positive light, but this is a story that is in the process of being told and will be driven by the things quoted below:
Reed: “Repeatedly throughout, we were talking to each other about how Cortana is not evil. Cortana is doing a thing we don’t agree with, and she has the power to make it happen.”
O’Connor: “America does things that people don’t agree with, and Russia does things that people don’t agree with. You don’t have to go to the edge of space to find that different a perspective on things. And I think the difference is that… the fact that Cortana is going to lock Chief in a Cryptum for 10,000 years is a great way to look at how many ticks are on her watch face.”
Reed: “‘That’ll be how long it takes me to show you so I can convince you.'”
O’Connor: “Exactly. When he pops out of there, everything will be fine.”
Reed: “And, you know what? I think she’s probably right.”
O’Connor: “She might be right in a way, but the tension that people have always had and that cultures have always had is that it’s not up to you to enforce that vision on me. You have to give me the freedom to do it myself.” [The Sprint: Season 3, Episode 5 – Ship It]
I don’t know why I wasted my time defining Heinlein’s Premise earlier because this is pretty much it in a nutshell… and we’re being told that it’s “probably right”.
Now, you’re “probably right” to say I’m beating a dead horse by bringing this up again, but it’s really not helped by Frank O’Connor’s rather patronising comment from one of the only sources of official, post-release developer commentary we have on Halo 5:
“I saw a complaint online, somebody had been reading spoilers, they hadn’t played the game, and they said ‘Why is this character evil?’ And my question back to them is, ‘What makes you say they’re evil?’ Certainly a lot of our younger players are going to struggle with that subtlety, that nuance, because they’re expecting Darth Vader.” [TIME, Frank O’Connor Reacts to Criticism of Halo 5 (29/10/15)]
It would be remiss of me to refrain from pointing out the hypocrisy of him complaining that people are “expecting Darth Vader” from Caricaturtana when he, just a few paragraphs earlier, compared Halo 5 to Return of the Jedi, and how what little fiction we’ve had that’s covered more of ‘Cortana’ has only further demonised her as an irredeemable monster… Like the hellish, Lake of Fire imagery used in Dominion Splinter where the souls of Composed victims are eternally tortured. Something she no longer seems to really care about.
But it’s still just really galling to see the excess of death and misery perpetrated by one person (in the simple act of awakening the Guardians, never mind the awful things yet to come) who is forcing everybody within the galaxy to live as an abject slave in a totalitarian police state enforced by planet-killers… is “probably right”.
(So help me if anyone tries the “you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette” line…)
Particularly since Cortana’s actions are objectively a violation of the most basic principle of the Mantle, something Bornstellar understood before he was even a teenager…
In every natural circumstance, living things engage in competition. This is a prime directive for those who uphold the Mantle: it is not a kindness to diminish competition, predation – even war. Life presents strife and death as well as joy and birth. But Forerunners in their highest wisdom also knew that unfair advantage, mindless destruction, pointless death and misery – an imbalance of forces – can retard growth and reduce the flow of Living Time. Living Time – the joy of life’s interaction with the Cosmos – was the foundation of the Mantle itself, the origin of all its compelling rules.
And the Flood seemed to demonstrate a tremendous imbalance, a cruel excess of depravities. [Halo: Cryptum, page 267 (Kindle edition)]
What is the ‘spirit’ of Halo?
Instead of outright answering that question, I’m going to illustrate it by going over some very important fiction released over the last four years – the post-Halo 4 years leading up to Halo 5.
Let’s start with Silentium, or, more specifically, the Rebirth epilogue.
Forerunners and humans, after millennia of war and atrocities committed between them, can reconcile and laugh and dance and feast together in shared mourning of the galaxy after the Halos are fired – with Bornstellar hoping that their children will one day meet again as the brothers they always should have been.
“The Lifeworkers have done very well. I wish you all the best of lives. Our ways must part now, we will not meet again, not in this world, young Riser.” Riser chuffed at this slur on his age then cocked his head to one side, approached the pair where they stood beside the fish-ship, and held out his fingers. Without hesitating, Trial brushed them, then Bornstellar.
“We will do what we can with what we are given,” Riser said. “But what of you? Where will the Forerunners live?”
“I do not know,” Bornstellar said, “Not yet. All I know for certain is that we cannot return to these places. We have already meddled too much in the affairs of others.”
Riser grimaced. “Forerunners refusing to meddle? Is that a promise?”
“A promise,” Trial said.
“Truly this will be a different place,” Riser said.
“The portal will stay,” said Bornstellar.
“Ah, then you have lied,” Riser said, but with no anger or surprise.
“It will be buried to be found when needed. Perhaps one day your children will make their way back, and, I hope, meet our children.”
“I doubt even I will long enough to see that day,” said Riser.
“But it is good to think our young will rise to another challenge, as brothers should, making trouble, finding strength.”
Bornstellar felt this deeply, and even with his armor to protect him, the emotion was almost too much. “Hope,” was all he could say. Then they returned to the fish-ship and left the humans alone to find their way.
One of my favourite scenes is where they’re all gearing up to fight Vata ‘Gajat’s mercenaries after the peace talks are attacked, with Lydus and Thel also wanting a piece of the action because they are, first and foremost, warriors. But then Palmer practically orders them to stay out of it.
Lydus: “Wait. If there is honour to be had, it should be shared by all!”
Thel: “I agree. Whatever else we are, Lydus and I are warriors first.”
Palmer: “Not today, you’re not. You are the two individuals on this entire planet who were specifically sent here not to fight.”
The subtle implication throughout this arc of Escalation is that Lydus very much wants Thel to be his ally (I know, “Escalation” and “subtle” being in the same sentence is quite the eyebrow-raiser, but it’s appropriate here).
Before going into battle against Vata ‘Gajat’s mercenaries, he demands that honour be shared amongst all parties present – the UNSC, the Sangheili, and his own people.
Lydus doesn’t assert that his people will handle this, or try and get Thel and the UNSC to take point so that they’ll be cut down instead of his own people. No, he insists that they fight together – this means something in these alien cultures because the battlefield is where a certain kind of brotherhood is formed.
And Lydus’ suspicion towards Thel is rational because the Jiralhanae have been mistreated so badly, it makes sense that he’s pontificating about Thel’s possible motives with his constant “Ah! So this is the opportunity that has been created for you now!” response to things that go wrong.
He plays the situation by painting it as if it’s for the benefit of the Sangheili because he is constantly testing to see whether Thel is the real deal or not for his people.And then there’s the Ussans from Broken Circle.
The Ussans are a faction that formed in the early years of the Covenant under Ussa ‘Xellus, who opposed the Writ of Union that formed the alliance between the Sangheili and the San’Shyuum because of the freedoms they had to surrender and the theocratic society they had to assimilate into (just like, y’know, Cortana is forcing everyone in the galaxy to do – but it’s fine, she’s “probably right” to do that… for reasons). They fled Sanghelios and ended up hiding away in a Shield World known as The Refuge, or Shield World 0673 – the last Shield World, which never truly finished construction.
Despite being stuck in the Refuge for millennia to avoid the Covenant, enduring civil war and the Blood Sickness, the Ussans finally returned to Sanghelios – which itself is undergoing a new technological and cultural renaissance under the leadership of Thel and the Swords. Joint human-Sangheili teams work together and share technology, Sangheili doctors are no longer taboo, and Sangheili women are no longer shunned for their Protector of Eggs traditions as they’re now allowed to enter military service.
The final chapter of Broken Circle may well be one of the most beautiful and cathartic endings a Halo story has ever had.
In silence they gazed for a long moment at what they could see of Sanghelios. It was so unthinkably vast to Xerq. It had never occurred to him before coming here how small the Refuge truly was.
But then he had always turned his thoughts outward, to space, the stars. The endless possibilities. And one had come to fruition – to be here, on the homeworld.
He stretched his arms, luxuriating in the sublime blend of strangeness and familiarity. He had at last adjusted to the gravity, the air sweeter than anything he had ever breathed.
And there was something about the sky – hints of yellow and blue with roseate touches, red at the horizon – that spoke to his very soul.
He recognised this place, though he had never been here.
Ussa ‘Xellus had led his ancestors away from this blessed place – and now, millennia later, their descendants had returned. And to Xerq, it felt as if his forebears were here, too, along with Ussa ‘Xellus, invisible but present, at his side, gazing out at the mountains, the plains, the golden sky, the distant cities…
Of Sanghelios itself.
And it was good, it was right to be here. As Bal’Tol had stated: order hidden within chaos, eventually emerging to reaffirm itself.
Another circle was completed with this return to the homeworld. A broken circle reconnected, just as the orbit of Sanghelios after a cycle’s travel around the sun; as its two moons, Suban and Qikost, revolved around the planet, confirming, always, that this was the true homeworld of the Sangheili.
“We have returned, Ussa ‘Xellus…” C’tenz murmured, as if he’d been reading Xerq’s thoughts. “Just as you had once said we would. We have returned at long last.” [Halo: Broken Circle, page 338 (Kindle edition)]
A religious group as fundamentalist as the Keepers of the One Freedom – formed of high-ranking Jiralhanae from the Covenant – has leaders and individuals like Castor who can grow and change for the better to the point where he is humbled to outright deny the opportunity to steal a Huragok.
At the very end of Last Light, he chooses to let it perform its miracles of its own accord and through its own agency, rather than seizing its power for himself and his faction’s benefit.
Javelins of pain shot through Castor’s entire body, but, to his amazement, he could put weight on the knee. The Huragok tipped its head-stalk, then floated three metres backward. Castor took the hint and stepped forward. When he did not fall on his face, he took another step.
“It’s a miracle,” Castor said. “I may be able to make the rendezvous in time, after all.”
The Huragok blinked all six of its eyes in sequence, then turned and began to float away into the jungle. Orsun’s hand lashed out and caught it by the neck.
“Orson stop!” Castor ordered. “What are you doing?”
“Think, Dokab,” Orsun said. “This is a Huragok that heals injuries. Consider how rare this is, how valuable. We cannot leave it to the infidels.”
Castor looked at the Huragok, which had – most likely – just saved his life. But, clearly, it did not intend to accompany the Jiralhanae. Its only wish now was to return to the jungle.
“Let it go,” Castor commanded.
Orsun frowned. “Are you mad? Surely, this Huragok is a gift from the Oracle!”
“No. The gift is what it just did.” Castor reached over and pulled his friend’s hand from the Huragok’s neck. “Let it go, Orsun. It is not for us to decide the fate of angels.” [Halo: Last Light, Loc. 5506 (Kindle edition)]
As we see in Saint’s Testimony, written by Frank O’Connor, no less, Cortana’s sacrifice was a huge deal. It seems amusing to me that Saint’s Testimony is not on that infographic of ‘the journey’ to Halo 5 because it actually does follow through on the main aspect of Cortana’s sacrifice that Halo 5 utterly undoes.
“This matter requires further periodical examination as one of evolutionary law and common sense, and the Cortana situation compels us further. We are duty bound to hear your case clearly. No one is denying that your argument has some merit.”
The mention of Cortana in the context of mortality evoked a shivering response somewhere in Iona’s layers of simulated emotion, one that rose through the more rational layers and rippled at the surface. An AI who had been monstrously conceived, gloriously realised, and enigmatically evolved through contact with prehuman technology was now missing, perhaps destroyed.
What is her current status? Iona mused. Dead? Resurreted? Sublimated?
Cortana had done Iona one favour through her absence, however. The UNSC was now taking all AI matters very, very seriously. [Halo: Saint’s Testimony, loc 122-142 (Kindle edition)]
What might seem like foreshadowing through the context of Halo 5 is clearly not the case when Saint’s Testimony takes place on January 17th, 2558. That’s about three weeks before the events of Halo 4’s Spartan Ops take place, whereas Halo 5 doesn’t begin until late-October of that year, and the first rumblings of the Guardians awakening didn’t come about until around March 29th when Hunt the Truth began and Mshak talks about the slipspace anomalies and epidemic data corruption.
Therefore, this dialogue about the UNSC “taking AI matters very, very seriously” cannot be referring to the Created in any way.
Instead, the opening of these critical new dialogues about AI sentience came about from Cortana’s actions in Halo 4 – that she did ultimately sacrifice herself to save her human friend, as well as Earth.
That was the legacy she earned.
And her reclamation of agency, her sacrifice, what her death did to further the cause of AIs being recognised as actual people… that was all undone (within three months real-time, as Saint’s Testimony came out July 27th, 2015) because AIs are in a position now where they can simply never be trusted again after Halo 5. This is something I’ve expanded on here.In Halo: Shadow of Intent, we pick up on the story of Rtas, who is deeply tired of war and conflict. He faces a San’Shyuum Prelate – Tem’Bhetek – who lost his wife and child when High Charity fell and seeks vengeance against Rtas because he was the commander of the forces that fought to contain the Flood. With him is his associate, the Minister of Preparation, who secretly lied to Tem that his family was already dead because he wanted to escape High Charity immediately rather than have to wait for Tem to go back and rescue anyone.
What happens in this story? Rtas sits down and talks to Tem.
Sings to him.
He sings the Ballad of Kel ‘Darsam: A story about a Sangheili demigod who was mentored by his uncle, Orok. Kel’s uncle is captured by a rival kaidon (Nesh ‘Radoon) and he sets sail by himself to ‘Kadoon’s keep in order to liberate him. He arrives and rescues Orok, slaying many of ‘Radoon’s best swordsmen, and then, as Kel and Orok prepare to leave… he’s mortally wounded by a spear striking him in the back. He falls to his death in the waters below and Urs, his divine father, transforms him into light.
Two versions of the story exist: one where ‘Radoon is the one who throws the spear, and another where it is Orok, who orchestrated his capture so Kel would be killed before he could claim his title of kaidon.
Tem discovers that Rtas was not the one who was responsible for his grief and trauma, that it was the Minister of Preparation’s betrayal – that the spear in his back was from the one he thought was a friend, not who he regarded as an enemy. And he sacrifices himself to take out the prototype, scaled-down Halo that he planned to use against the Sangheili.
Rtas finds renewed energy and purpose after this and requests Thel to allow him to seek out the remaining San’Shyuum (as he discovers that potentially thousands of them are still alive)… not in the hopes of attaining revenge for the betrayal perpetrated by the Prophet of Truth and his followers, but to reconcile with those who were not complicit with the Covenant’s lie.
“Many shipmasters have given up their commands, returned to their keeps here to farm the land or fish the seas. Sanghelios needs wise leaders, now more than ever. I would never order you to leave Shadow of Intent. But know that if you do, no one will doubt your bravery or commitment.”
Rtas grasped the railing of the holo-tank. Through it, he could feel the distant rumble of the carrier’s reactors – the familiar rhythm of his ship. It would be difficult to give this up… but to be done with war entirely? To rest and let someone else carry on the fight?
The Arbiter’s offer was tempting, and the Half-Jaw almost took it. But then there was the matter of the Prelate’s final, selfless act.
“There will be some San’Shyuum who deserve the full measure of our fury,” Rtas said at last, “and others who will not. I would like the opportunity to sort one from the other, if I can.”
“And so you shall, then,”the Arbiter said. “I cannot think of anyone more qualified for such a vital mission.” He paused, clearly reluctant to sever the transmission. “I will expect regular reports.” And then, finally: “Until we meet again…”
“… In Urs’s everlasting light.” The Half-Jaw finished the traditional good-bye, and the holo-tank went blank.
As he stood there in Shadow of Intent’s armoured heart, Rtas ‘Vadum thought:
Maybe, in the end, this was the best any warrior could hope for. A chance to reconcile with your enemy, or, failing that, to fall in the pursuit of peace.
This thought energised Rtas, and for the first time in a long while, he did not dread the coming battles. Because although he wasn’t certain where this new voyage would take him or what dangers he might face along the way, Rtas could see more than one ending, and that gave him the will to start. [Halo: Shadow of Intent, Loc. 1276 (Kindle edition)]
Something you might notice is that all but one of those examples are of the endings of the books I’ve referenced. These meaningful, beautiful progressions in the setting are some of the most brilliant and cathartic critiques of Heinlein’s Premise that I’ve experienced… and they’ve all been made to fall utterly flat when the Created were thrown in to reset the setting back to its state in the original trilogy, back to a place driven by the authority of violence rather than enriched by the pursuit of peace.
What value do these endings have, working in-tandem with Halo 5’s, when Sanghelios, having just been liberated from the Covenant, then has an even bigger gun put to its head by the threat posed by the Guardians?
What is the point in Saint’s Testimony establishing Cortana’s sacrifice at the end of Halo 4 being the trigger for immense progress being made with regards to human understanding of AI sentience and individuality when she comes back as a villain and puts AIs in a situation where, once all is said and done with the Created, they can never be trusted again?
The point of the progress made in the thematic and emotional pay-off of these pieces that was set to change the landscape of the setting in really interesting ways has been rolled back, totally undone, to throw another totalitarian regime bringing about another galaxy-sized conflict.
We’re at the point where the fundamental construction of Halo’s narrative now is that nothing good can meaningfully occur in this setting without violence having to be thrown in and reasserted as the sole authority, as if the people in charge of determining the course of the story and universe don’t seem to think that conflict can occur in a setting where things do get better.
No. We’re in the world of Heinlein’s Premise now…But there is something of a saving grace, something that makes me think that maybe this isn’t completely irredeemable in terms of what it means for the future.
There, I just lost half the people who were still reading. Fuckity bye!
I really feel that people have either missed or misunderstand the point of Locke’s character (which I’ve analysed extensively in the level-by-level analysis for Halo 5 as one of the few major net-positives of the game’s writing), which seems to stem from the base assumption that ‘nice’ characters are just inherently boring.
Locke is the perfect answer to Heinlein’s Premise and I’m going to hand over to my good friend Greenreticule to explain why:
Locke thrives in a galaxy of grey morality, for almost the exact opposite reasons that Palmer flounders in it.
Palmer operates on the “American Monomyth” assumption. The American Monomyth differs from the Classical Monomyth in that the former assumes the world is inherently good, that outside forces corrupt it, and that heroes are supposed to restore it to its natural balance. This is why Palmer deludes herself into blaming Halsey for… well everything. Halsey is the perfect scapegoat, who’s already being blamed by Palmer’s “inherently good” world. This assumption also means that Palmer has difficulty making nuanced decisions and often becomes singularly focused.
The American Monomyth assumption can also perpetuate the idea that if something was not initially good, it cannot be redeemed.
Now as for Locke, he operates on the Classical Monomyth assumption, which assumes that the world is inherently broken, and heroes must reach beyond their world to bring back redemption. And Locke approaches every situation as if it was a broken world unto itself, and therefore every situation is redeemable.
Why does he try to talk so many people down, even those like a Sangheili terrorist or his old friend who turns traitor? Why does he show politeness to the ever-prickly Catherine Halsey? Why does he first try to ask Blue Team to return on their own terms? Why does he chose to not follow through on his assassination of Thel? Because “things change.” Because Locke sees them as redeemable.
And it is the redemptive mindset which thrives in shades of grey, because it looks at every situation and says, “I can make a change for the better.” [Arbiter Analysis]
Locke is a man of quiet integrity. He is, so to speak, ‘goodass’.
I would be willing to entertain the notion of a ‘good’ character being “boring” if that was all we had in this universe, but Halo is filled with complexity and people all over the morality spectrum. Conflict is oxygen to fiction, but there needs to be a Captain America, a Samwise Gamgee, a Septon Maribold – a character like Locke in order to illustrate the more positive aspects of this setting that are worth fighting for. There have to be people who actively go out of their way to do good – not because that has been drilled or engineered into them, or because they expect to gain from it, but simply because they can.
The virtues that Locke demonstrates throughout Nightfall (which remains quite an underrated piece, in my opinion) and Halo 5 are exactly the kind of things that will push the setting to being a net-positive space.(Enjoy this shot of Halo’s three most controversial, divisive characters standing together…)
When talking about Locke being somebody who “does his job, acts professional, and is kind to others,” what that means is: This is a UNSC soldier, a Spartan, and former-ONI agent who shows up on an independent colony and doesn’t stick his nose up at the people there or treat them with any scorn. That’s practically a trope at this point, the almost Weyland-Yutani air of sinister secrecy and snide superiority that tends to come hand-in-hand with ONI characters.
Locke understands Meridian’s anti-UNSC sentiments after growing up a jaded and cynical orphan after the UNSC lost Jericho VII. He turns to Holly Tanaka, the member of his team who grew up like the people on this colony, and asks her how they might present themselves more amicably to the colonists.
And when he goes to Sanghelios and finds himself rescuing somebody who he’d previously signed up to assassinate, somebody responsible for the deaths of over 1.6 billion humans, he set any grudges aside and gets to work. Dwelling on the past, causing complications by throwing doubt into the extent he can trust the Thel – he understands that it’s a pointless grudge to hold.
Locke understands that people have the capacity to change and to be better, and Thel most definitely has worked to be better than who he once was.
In Halo, there’s a lot of characters you really would not want to put your trust in. Even the likes of Lord Hood has skeletons in his cryo chamber… Jameson Locke is a rare exception in the Halo universe as somebody who will play fair, do his best to understand others, and, above all, do the right thing.
That’s important. He’s a notable exception to the norm of how humanity is generally portrayed in this setting.
Locke denies Heinlein’s Premise because violence is not his go-to solution. This further frustrates me when it comes to Jul’s death because it’s a ‘Cult of the Badass’ moment, where a more ‘cerebral’ Halo story really would not have that happen the way it did – like at the end of Halo 2 where Thel tried to talk Tartarus down and ally with him when they meet at Installation 05’s control room, despite having every reason to just try to kill him outright.
There is substance to him being “a nice character” when stacked against everything else in the setting, as he is an exemplar of what people should aspire to be like. There is a point to him representing the best of humanity, which is because of his humanity.
Randall Aiken’s concluding dialogue in the final episode of Nightfall presents Locke with Heinlein’s Premise – will you give in to it and choose violence as the means to impose authority, or will you fight to do better?
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?”
Halo is about this huge, galactic family that is beset by the folly of perspective – within this family, you don’t necessarily know the full context of who you’re ‘related’ to and conflict evolves out of a lack of understanding.
But the thematic arc of the series is articulated through those who strive to unite the family (on a micro and macro-scale, whether it’s individuals, organisations, species, etc) and heal the wounds inflicted upon one-another by virtue of…
…truth and reconciliation.
That is the heart of what Halo is, to me. Not a story about the endless, cyclical nature of war where everyone is doomed to live in a setting that will never get better. There will be war and death and excesses of misery, but they are offset by individuals (like Thel and Locke) who, upon attaining a greater perspective, fight to do better by the galaxy they live in.
And it’s important that the fight to achieve that is not fruitless.
By the time the credits rolled on Halo 5, one of the biggest reason for my complete ambivalence is because it’s so tone-deaf to that theme by making you feel like you did and accomplished nothing.
Halo 5 made that fight feel fruitless, but not in a way that invites any particular commentary. Remember what I said at the very start of this article?
“I don’t like like Game of Thrones and 343 wants Halo to last thirty years”?
It feels like Halo 5 was just a means to pad out the series so it can potentially last the next couple of decades the same way Game of Thrones does, by pulling short-term Shock Twists™ to keep the audience engaged – giving into Heinlein’s Premise.I’m still not quite done. I’ve got one last thing to talk about that I thought about saving for the level-by-level analysis of Halo Wars 2, but is appropriate to bring up here.
The Banished are the literal embodiment of Heinlein’s Premise.
I want to turn back to MrBtongue’s video again because there’s a parallel to be drawn here with how Martin handles Daenerys’ storyline by using the dragons as a literary tool.
“Remember at the start of the video when I said that Martin’s books would shape fantasy for a long time to come? That’s unfortunately also true of the show. The show’s failure to retain the spirit of the books has interfered with the literary function of their fantasy elements. And yes, fantasy elements can have a literary function. I know that the unwritten rule of the Game of Thrones thinkpiece is for every three paragraphs you write, you have to spend two of them reassuring your readers that the fantasy elements are just dumb schlock that can be safely ignored.
But I’m here to de-assure you of that.
Just as the One Ring served a literary function in The Lord of the Rings, the dragons serve a literary function here. In the beginning of the story, the dragons are a source of potential power – a fully-grown dragon is a nearly game-breaking military weapon in a world where military power is the purest kind. And, to a young Daenerys, and her tiny, vulnerable Khalasar, that power is the most obvious route to safety and independence.
But the problem with dragons is that they just keep getting bigger and wilder and more dangerous, and, by the time you realise you never really had control over them to begin with, it’s too late. […] The dragons embody both the initial allure and inevitable consequences of governing by force.
But what happens if you take them out of the books and drop them into the show?
What happens when they’re in a story that so often celebrates the use of violence as a political tool, rather than questioning it?
Then, they become extraneous. They go from being a powerful thematic focus to just being expensive eye candy.”
I can’t help but feel that the same argument here applies to the Reclamation.
I’ve argued this from the moment the Banished were announced, I preemptively decided almost a year ago that I could see what they represented for the fiction, and, in many ways, Halo Wars 2 has vindicated that belief.
As a matter of fact, I’m at the point where I wish that Halo 5 had been about the Banished coming into the setting…
They credibly fit into the cycle of already established-and-ongoing conflicts by representing a threat on a scale that’s big enough to devote a particular focus to, but they’re not large enough that they dwarf everything else to the point where it all has to be shelved.Thinking back to the quote above, the Banished are like the dragons from the A Song of Ice and Fire books because they can feasibly serve a literary function.
Atriox is in pursuit of Heinlein’s Premise, he wants to build up his forces by reclaiming leftover Covenant ships and resources, but also by doing what everyone else is doing: plundering Forerunner technology.
Here we are presented with an arms race. Humanity, the Covenant, the Swords of Sanghelios, Lydus’ clan… they’ve been locked in a major conflict for decades, many of them are tired of that conflict and we see a lot of the ways in which that has affected them in the games (particularly Halo 5’s intel) and the expanded media.
Meanwhile, the Banished have been lurking in the shadows all this time and are an organised force with purpose, direction, and vigour (like the New Colonial Alliance were building up to be).
Atriox aims to capture the Lesser Ark in order to build and utilise the Halo rings, presumably in a similar fashion to the way in which the Master Builder used them – to quell the San’Shyuum uprising. The Banished would impose a Cold War state on the galaxy by using the Halos as a means to ensure nobody would ever strike out against them, to make Heinlein’s Premise the status quo of the setting. Forerunner tech in the hands of people who are well below their capacity to truly understand it and want to use it as a battering ram, like the dragons, represents the allure and inevitable consequences of governing by force.
That is a much stronger conflict because Atriox has not yet achieved this goal, meaning that we have active stakes to fight against and a tangible sense of tension. The Created, on the other hand, have been given practically infinite power at the snap of the writers’ fingers with the Domain and regressed the setting overnight.
The Created are what happens when the use of that Forerunner tech is casually just tossed into a story that is being written with the intention of apologism for the use of violence as a political tool, rather than questioning it. Thus, it becomes extraneous. The Reclamation goes from being a powerful thematic focus to just being expensive eye candy, which is rather pointedly reflected in the utilisation of the Guardians as being little more than floating geometric shapes in a level’s skybox.
In summary: The Banished are representative of the potential to build on the literary value of a story that critiques and deconstructs Heinlein’s Premise.
To conclude, then… I worry about the future of a series that is pushing into the territory of Heinlein’s Premise, using it not as something to elevate the themes and characters of the work but to put the overarching narrative in a cyclical state so it can hit the thirty year mark.
Ever since IRIS, the main concept with delving into the Forerunners’ history was so we could learn from their history and do better. This is something that has been used as a bookend in the fiction all the way up to Halo: Mythos.
This is how it all begins.
Just in time to, once again, dance on the knife-edge of oblivion.
To relive what the Halos have hoped to destroy, and more.
For two enemies now stand, where before, there was only one.
With fate we escaped, and fate we may relive.
I almost convinced myself that no one was listening; that the waves of the past would roll through once again.
But a chance remains to change the universe anew.
Learn of our past.
Take these keys and dip from the wells of history.
Perhaps through others’ eyes, you may find how to save us all. [IRIS, Episode 1 (2007)]
Know this: Unless we can learn from our past – and from the others that came before us – we are doomed to face the same end.
I am CURATOR. Do not forget. [Halo: Mythos (2016)]
The nature of us being fans obviously means that we don’t know where all of this is going, but we can have a pretty good crack at figuring out the pathways the fiction lays out and theorising the various ways A will lead to B. That tends to be disrupted when the main story is as tonally, thematically, and logically incongruent with its peripheral fiction as it currently is, and that is my fear for this series…I write this with the best of intentions for the future of the franchise, of course. I treat Halo as a literary text – as art – because that is what it has the potential to be, but in order to achieve that it has to be criticised for where it falls short.
That’s why I’m willing to be one of those insufferable overthinkers who spends an inordinate amount of time writing about this fictional universe. Because when I see the statement “we are not Game of Thrones”, I don’t just expect that to apply to the wanton, meaningless culling of characters. I would hope that the people behind this universe recognise the egregious failings of that show’s understanding of the themes and perspectives drawn from the source material.
Call it fruitless. Call me a hapless romantic for my perspective, you’d be absolutely right to do so…
But these are my honest feelings on what Halo is about.
Not an inescapable cycle of war. Not a setting that is doomed to tear itself to shreds because violence rules over all. Not the rolling back of progress that numerous pieces of fiction spend years building up to reach a confluence, only for that confluence to never happen because it’s been arbitrarily undone to enforce Heinlein’s Premise.
The heart of what Halo is about, the ‘spirit’ of Halo, to me, comes down to two things.
Truth and reconciliation.