“Sir, finishing this fight…”
I love Halo 2’s cliffhanger ending.
I loved it when I finished the game for the first time, in the early hours of the morning, while sat – bleary-eyed, tired beyond relief – in the darkened game room at a friend’s house back in 2004. And I still love it now.
When I learned that there was such a huge backlash against Bungie for how Halo 2’s ending had turned out, I was rather shocked. With the advent of YouTube in 2005, I remember watching the viral reaction videos, with hysterically frustrated people literally throwing their controller at their television screen. I never ‘got it.’
The darkness of space twisted, warped, pulsed, and then exploded into a brilliant white light as the fragile walls between normal space and its dimensional subdomain rent apart.
Anodyne Spirit emerged through the slipstream, its divine engines speeding its way towards a planet that its fragmented heart had, over millennia, long yearned to find its way back to – in pursuit of truth, reconciliation… atonement.
This world was once known as Erde-Tyrene.
Within the bowels of the Keyship, finally free from its long sojourn, the Master Chief’s COM systems immediately established a link with the UNSC battlenet.
A tumultuous mess of emergency alerts, evacuation orders, and distress calls filled the Master Chief’s HUD, cycling through the final messages of the countless lost souls aboard vessels that flash-vaporised under the fire of super-heated plasma – detonating into what might have looked like a hundred new stars flaring into existence from the surface of the planet.
“This is Spartan-117, can anyone hear me? Over.”
A familiar voice replied, one which almost drove the Master Chief to feel relief – as much as he allowed himself to feel. Lord Hood was still on Cairo Station, and he was giving the Covenant hell.
“Isolate that signal! Master Chief? You mind telling me what you’re doing on that ship?”
“Sir, finishing this fight.”
It’s been a very long time since Halo 2 was in the limelight. Time has passed, and (inevitably) what’s castigated as ‘the worst thing ever’ one day is looked back on lovingly the next.
Halo 2 is no exception there, with much-derided aspects like playing as the Arbiter and the introduction of the Gravemind being things one can’t imagine Halo without.
The same, however, cannot be said for Halo 2’s ending, which you will still often see at the number one spot on various lists of ‘the worst game endings ever.’
Even various (former) members of Bungie are still beating themselves up over it.
Countless testimonies exist as to why people hate Halo 2′s ending, so I thought I’d talk about why this game’s thoroughly-maligned cliffhanger sits so well with me.
Let’s begin by thinking a bit about Halo 2’s story as a whole…
Halo 2’s narrative structure is interesting because it’s made up of ‘episodes’ the shift between perspectives. The opening scene tells you right from the get-go that this is going to be a completely different kind of story to Halo: Combat Evolved, with the political machinations and civil conflicts of the Covenant taking centre-stage.
The Heretic and The Armoury act as the prologue that establishes the emotional and situational context for our protagonist (Thel) and deuteragonist (the Master Chief) following the fallout of the previous game’s events. The Master Chief returns to Earth as a hero; Thel ‘Vadamee is put on trial and branded with the Mark of Shame.
Cairo Station, Outskirts, and Metropolis make up the first ‘episode’ – the invasion of Earth. What follows from there is a series of ‘two-parters’ (The Arbiter and The Oracle are episode two, Delta Halo and Regret are episode three, Sacred Icon and Quarantine Zone are episode four) that shift between John and Thel’s points of view, leading up to a confluence in the Gravemind mission where the two perspectives intertwine.
As we enter Halo 2′s third act, the narrative structure changes. We start switching between single missions rather than two-parters as the tension reaches its peak, building to its climax where the protagonist’s character arc is resolved and the table is set for the next game.
Halo 2 is a game that is one-part Shakespearean drama and one-part 80s action flick, and herein lies what I think is the fundamental misunderstanding that a lot of people have had with this game.
The Master Chief is not the protagonist.
The Arbiter is.Halo 2 is Thel’s story. If that’s not a clear enough statement made by the start of the game, then surely it was a dead giveaway from the fact that the conversation with the Gravemind was effectively just reiterating Halo 1’s big reveal – the purpose of the Halo rings – but for Thel’s benefit.
What is Halo 2 about?
It’s about Thel’s journey from disgraced Supreme Commander, following his failure to protect Installation 04; to Arbiter, an assassin for the Prophets; to the one who uncovers the lie at the heart of the Covenant and forms an alliance between the Sangheili and the UNSC in the wake of the Great Schism.
Statistically, the Master Chief has more missions than Thel (though it is a pretty decent split between them), but his involvement in the story is… actually pretty negligible.
As far as the human side of the story goes, they have practically no agency in any of the events that occur throughout the game – with one exception. The Master Chief kills the Prophet of Regret, which is the trigger cause of the Changing of the Guard, resulting in the Great Schism.
But the Prophet of Truth was already planning for this anyway. The Chief just gave an inevitable event a little bit of a push. The Great Schism itself has nothing to do with humanity, the narrative focus is placed on the Covenant’s stagnant theocracy.
They might be winning the war against humanity, but they’ve been disintegrating from within all along.
That’s ultimately the point – the Human-Covenant war was never going to be strategically won by the UNSC through superior firepower, it was because of politics.What emotional stakes are there for the human characters in Halo 2, as well?
For the Master Chief, it’s having to leave Cortana behind. This happens at the end of the penultimate mission of the game, setting up the emotional context for Halo 3.
And, if you really want to push it, there’s one or two mentions of Miranda Keyes living up to the legacy of her father. That’s… about it. In terms of the actions committed by the Master Chief and the rest of the human cast, there’s nothing all that notable.
The Chief blows up a Covenant ship at the end of Cairo Station. From a writing perspective, that’s irrelevant – on a functional level, the ship exists solely to be destroyed in that moment.
The development of the tension comes from Solemn Penance – the Prophet of Regret’s ship – making it to the surface, having one other ship present doesn’t inherently present any more tension beyond the nebulous idea that there’s more Covenant around.
It’s a similar case with the Scarab. There’s no reason given as to why it is where it is or what it’s doing. Without any context, it has no actual relevance to the plot and you’re essentially just blowing it up because it’s there. Halo 2 manages to cleverly disguise that dissonance with its mix of excellent gameplay, level design, and so on.
The human characters spend most of Halo 2 simply following the Covenant characters around, trying to keep up with their actions, without ever really driving the narrative themselves.
I don’t say that necessarily as a criticism, that’s just how it is. Humanity is not the focus of this game, they’re just another lens through which we experience the disintegration of the Covenant.
HUNT THE BEES
From the first announcement trailer, through the E3 2003 demo, to the TV spots… they all foregrounded the invasion of Earth as the primary draw of the game.
Naturally, one cannot blame people for feeling like the game’s advertising was quite ridiculously out-of-touch with the actual campaign experience. It was. And those feelings of disappointment can only have been exacerbated by the fact that humanity is such a passive narrative aspect of Halo 2’s story – I get that.
For me, however, I cannot think of anything that would excite me less than a Halo story that’s solely focused on the Covenant invading Earth (I say that as somebody who holds Halo 3: ODST as one of my favourite games in the series, because Bungie emphasised the unique, noir-esque atmosphere and the contrast of the Rookie’s lonely wandering through the wreckage of New Mombasa with the more bombastic flashback missions).
It certainly doesn’t help that the Master Chief gets scaled back to be a complete non-character in Halo 2 either.
One of the biggest things that draws me to the Halo series is its alien worlds and environments – its detailed backstory, its exploration of this grand and epic mystery that we’re tentatively dipping our toes into. I tend to regard Earth and the whole UNSC side of Halo to be one of the least interesting aspects of it.
When I finished Halo 1, I used to think to myself that it would be awesome to experience the game from the other side – invading the Pillar of Autumn, kidnapping Captain Keyes, unleashing the Flood. That was something I hoped I’d see one day (so I do have a bit of a soft spot for Halo: The Flood – the novelisation of the first game).
I’d grown up seeing countless Earth invasion films – from your big-budget blockbusters like Independence Day, to Peter Cushing’s Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
It had all been done, whereas Halo grabbed and held my interest because it presented something far more unique, which Halo 2 dialled up to eleven by making the focus of the story the emotional growth and Hero’s Journey of an alien character.
I’ve often wondered whether my opinion would change, whether there was something I was missing that would suddenly click in my mind to make me go “Ah, that’s what they meant,” but it’s been well over a decade since Halo 2 came out. I still regularly replay the campaign, and it’s still one of my favourites.
To me, Halo 2 is a rare instance where I’m glad the final product didn’t reflect the marketing. I think it’s far better for what it is than what it was initially pitched to be.It rather saddens me that Bungie does not look back fondly on Halo 2 at all. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, various members involved in the development of that game are still beating themselves up about it whenever it’s brought up in an interview – such as the relatively recent article ‘The Complete, Untold History of Halo’ from VICE.
JOE STATEN: We ended up completely cutting Halo 2‘s third act, which was brutal and horrible, and something nobody wanted to do.
PAUL BERTONE: This was the absolute worst possible way to do something with a group of creative people.
JOE STATEN: We had this great third act wrap-up of Master Chief and the Arbiter coming together and defeating the Prophets and discovering The Ark, and this deeper secret inside of it. But it was so above what we could possibly do from a production point of view that it fell apart. There was meant to be a mission where you were fighting on top of The Ark, like it was uncovered like it is in Halo 3. So you’re fighting multiple Scarabs, going through a trench run to make your way into it. We had it all modeled out, we had it all massed out, this big structure with Scarabs sitting on top of it.
MARTY O’DONNELL: All that stuff was going to culminate and end on Earth. And it was going to be the end of Halo. We had no plans to do another game after this. It was like: this is how Halo ends.
MARCUS LEHTO: That was the thing that I take away from Halo 2 more than anything else. It was a tumultuous time in our history, when things got so bad between leaders not working well with one another that it threatened the existence of the project, the quality overall and the existence of the studio. And it’s somewhat evident in the fact that Halo 2 didn’t really wrap up right. It kind of left you dangling on a thread. It felt disjointed.
MARTY O’DONNELL: I was still confused when they came out of the clubhouse and presented it to the team. Joe said, “Okay, here’s how the ending’s going to go. We’re going to do this and this and this and…” And I’m like, “Wait, Joe, are you saying that the last person you play in Halo 2 is the Dervish? And when you get to the end it shows a cutscene with Master Chief going back to Earth saying, ‘I want to finish this fight,’ and we run end credits?”
He said, “Don’t worry, it’ll work!” I said no, it wouldn’t. People will be throwing their controllers at their TVs. We’re going to make it look like you’re about to be Master Chief going to Earth to finish this fight. And then you want me to climax the music, go to black and run credits? I couldn’t imagine a more horrifying ending.
If you search for “worst endings in the history of video games,” you’ll see Halo 2 right up there. It was like, this is worse than the ending to Back to the Future Part II. I could not believe what we were doing. But we had gotten ourselves into this bind, and there was no way to change it.
JOE STATEN: We had all thought, and hoped, this is going to be like The Empire Strikes Back. That was a cliffhanger, and nobody freaked out when Luke was just on a hospital ship and nothing got resolved at the end. It’ll be just like that. Well, no. Empire did a whole bunch of other little cool things that made that okay, which we didn’t do.
I do respect that Bungie had this ambitious vision for how they wanted to handle Halo 2, how disappointed they were that they had to cut all this stuff they’d laboured over – how they ultimately weren’t able to achieve what they wanted and the trauma suffered by one of the most devastating crunches in the industry’s history…
But I honestly think that the story in the final product is about as close to perfect as it could possibly be.
Much ado is made about the cliffhanger and the expectations revolving around finishing the fight on Earth, but I can’t help but feel that, from what they’ve described, this would have detracted from Halo 2 if it had been left in.
Having Halo 2 culminate in a triumphant battle for Earth that would be the final end to the series would’ve been a very strange tonal shift from the rest of the game’s narrative.
By the end of the game, Thel discovers the truth about the Halo rings – that they’re not divine engines to godhood, but weapons of mass destruction. He learns that the Covenant religion is a lie (which tension is built around from The Arbiter and The Oracle missions), and rallies the Sangheili in the wake of the Great Schism to take the fight to the Jiralhanae and stop Tartarus (Thel’s personal antagonist) from firing Installation 05 while also building an alliance with humanity.
Where I argued that very little is accomplished during the Master Chief’s ‘episodes’ throughout the game (functioning more as an additional lens for the worldbuilding aspects and the central conflict), you comparatively achieve a lot as the Arbiter and it all builds up to a satisfying crescendo by the end.
When you write a cliffhanger, you do it with the obvious knowledge that the story is not finished. So a good cliffhanger needs emphasise an emotional resolution, which is exactly what Halo 2 does.
The alien who burned Reach and declared he will continue his campaign against humanity finds himself fighting alongside and forming an alliance with them.
The commander who lost her father on Installation 04 – who fought Thel’s forces, no less – and the sergeant who has fought the Covenant from the very first days of the war… they’re the ones who instigate this cross-species alliance. That means something.
And the final confrontation between Thel and Tartarus in Installation 05’s control room is similarly loaded with emotion because the very first thing that Thel does, in spite of all the awful things Tartarus has done throughout the game, is reach out a hand in the name of reconciliation.
This was the Jiralhanae who branded him with the Mark of Shame, (frequently) insulted the honour of his fellow warriors, betrayed him by blasting him down the Library’s chasm into the clutches of the Gravemind, murdered Sangheili in the immediate outbreak of the Great Schism…
And yet Thel’s first reaction to seeing Tartarus at Installation 05’s control room was to reason with him, try to talk sense into him. Because the Prophets had lied to them both. He understood that they had all been manipulated, and they had the chance to do better.
This is what I personally consider to be one of Halo’s definitive moments.To speak of Halo 2 Anniversary’s updated cinematics for a moment: When Thel tells Tartarus “The Prophets have betrayed us,” he lowers Guilty Spark and lets out a growling exhale, and you can see that he’s genuinely pondering what Thel and Spark have told him.
That growl isn’t in the original. He lowers Guilty Spark, but the way it’s played off makes it seem more like he’s pretending to lower his guard before launching Spark at Johnson. In Halo 2 Anniversary, he genuinely seems to stop and think.
And then he reacts instinctively against it because his loyalty, for a second, wavers.
Tartarus looks at this moment as the final test of his faith, with ‘the heretic’ using words to try to get into his head at the moment he’s so close to being the one who fulfils the Covenant’s promise and starts his brothers on the path of the Great Journey.
It’s a wonderful, subtle little bit of characterisation that makes one wonder what the galaxy would look like if Tartarus had actually joined with Thel.
People talk about the boss fight (which I personally enjoy), but nobody ever seems to talk about just how powerful the scene that precedes it is and the statement it makes about what Halo, beyond just being a video game, is trying to say.
It is because of this scene that I have never understood the backlash against Thel.
I think he’s one of the best things that happened to this franchise and I’d like to thank Joe Staten for fighting so hard to tell his story in Halo 2.With the alliance between humans and Sangheili formed, Thel’s character arc reaching this critical point, the Halos all being primed and ready to fire from the Ark, Cortana staying behind on High Charity (which has been taken over by the Gravemind), and the Covenant heading back to Earth… I’m simply not convinced that the original ending cooked up for Halo 2 could have satisfactorily resolved any of this.
These are the plot points meant for a whole other game. These are not third-act plot points for a middle instalment, these are the kind of narrative beats which necessitate the format of a trilogy.
The second instalment typically tells a much darker, character-driven story, and the grand resolution is left up to the third instalment. I don’t think Bungie really needed to try reinventing the wheel by having a third-act resolution in Halo 2, when the game, as it is, already has a three-act structure.
Halo 2, for me, dealt with everything it needed to and I think that the Halo universe is better for things turning out the way they did.
I am, of course, somebody who was rather disappointed by Halo 3, and it’s a reflection of exactly what I was afraid would happen with Halo 2 if it had followed through on the marketing premise of defending Earth.
FULL CONTACT SAFARI
What happens in the first half of Halo 3?
Without any context as to why, the Master Chief lands in a jungle and he fights some Covenant to get to a human base, where he fights off some more Covenant. They blow up the base and the Chief drives away with the survivors, while fighting off some Covenant.
After that, he brings down some anti-aircraft guns while fighting off some Covenant and then they activate the portal. At this point, we’re approaching the start of the fifth mission (just four more to go) and all we’ve done is move from place-to-place to fight Covenant simply because they’re there.
The plot has yet to materialise and next to nothing has been done with characterisation or character development. It’s a huge step backwards from Halo 2’s writing.
The first act goes on far longer than it needs to, accomplishing very little in terms of the actual narrative which can so easily be fixed (like the Covenant capturing humans so they can actually activate the Ark – which doesn’t actually make sense in the first place because the “divine wind” of the Halos was supposed to usher the Covenant to godhood, so why is Truth so intent on twiddling his thumbs at a place the Halos won’t affect?).
This then leaves us with a grand total of two missions on the Ark, and a further two to wrap everything else up.
Is this at all representative of what we were supposed to be excited for with Halo 2? To some extent, we know it is (except the Ark was originally intended to be the portal structure), but we also know from the VICE article that Halo 3 had its own issues during the writing process…
MARTY O’DONNELL: For a while Joe [Staten] physically wasn’t in the studio or working on Halo 3. We were trying to figure out who was going to write the story. We tried a couple different story committees. It was really difficult.
When the story committee was done with their outline, they brought us in, the seven of us who were the leads or on the board of Bungie, and gave us the whole story. Everybody else was like, wow, this is going to be good. This is going to be great.
But I was like: “No, this isn’t going to work.” Where was Ron Perlman and (the character he voiced) Lord Hood? Where was Miranda (Keyes)? We never followed up on her story. I mean, maybe we didn’t necessarily enjoy the Miranda part, but you can’t just let these things drop. And there was nothing surprising. Nothing happens.
JAIME GRIESEMER: The Halo 3 story was written by a bunch of guys in the middle ground saying: “I want to do it this way but I can’t explain why, and I’m not sure my idea’s better than yours so I’m just going to defend it loudly.” You know, no reasons why, so it’s just a shouting match. But there’s nothing you can do to resolve things.
At first there was a lot of, how can we recapture Halo with Halo 3 and kind of undo a lot of things we did with Halo 2? My opinion is always that you can’t go backwards. None of the fans want you to go backwards. You have to go forward, in the right direction. So that sent us spinning. When half the team is trying to go forward and half the team is trying to go backward, you’re going to just spin in place.
Perhaps this is easy to say in retrospect, but it seems to me that it was for the best that the whole Earth invasion part wasn’t in Halo 2 because even after having a span of years to work it out for Halo 3… it was still something they clearly struggled with and is by far the weakest part of the game.
O’Donnell said that he drew up about nine plot points that needed to be in Halo 3′s script, eight of which were crammed into the last half of the game.
I don’t particularly care about how well-realised the spectacle of a virtual battlefield is, like the one we saw in the E3 2003 demo, if it’s devoid of any meaningful context. And that, to me, is the first half of Halo 3 in a nutshell.To wrap this up, I think that the affective filter people have towards Halo 2 comes from looking at the game from the wrong angle – perceiving it as the Master Chief’s story.
If that’s the lens through which you view Halo 2, you’re going to come out of it unsatisfied because the Master Chief’s side of the story functions primarily as a means to explore the setting – not to drive the plot.
By the time the Chief and Cortana catch up to the Prophet of Truth in the third act, they’re too late. Johnson and Miranda have been taken and Truth is on his way to the Keyship, which is preparing to go to Earth.
As far as Joe Staten’s The Empire Strikes Back comparison goes, this is Leia, Chewie, and Lando catching up to Boba Fett just moments too late to rescue Han.
This really leverages the tension of the conflict because the entirety of the UNSC’s side of the game is about trying to keep up with the Covenant. They’re no longer a MacGuffin, as they were in Halo 1, for the Forerunner side of the story and how it all led to the Flood being unleashed. In Halo 2, the Flood broke out of containment on the ring long before you end up there.
No, the Covenant are actually driving the plot this time, and that’s largely down to Thel’s actions and the missions he’s sent on – recovering Guilty Spark, who then tells the Prophets how to activate the ring, who then send Thel to get the Activation Index and then betray him.I find Halo 2’s ending narratively satisfying because the central conflicts of the game are resolved by the end, and they’re resolved by (and in-tandem with) the protagonist’s character arc, because Halo 2‘s conflicts are personal ones.
You’re not just fighting against ‘the Covenant’, ‘the humans’, or ‘the Heretics’, like you were in Halo 1. In Halo 2, you’re fighting through hordes of those proper-nouns to get to an individual.
Sesa ‘Refumee, Regret, Truth, Tartarus – the conflicts all revolve around them. And all of them, except Truth, are resolved in Halo 2 in order to service the character arcs and the plot’s progression.
The landscape of the Human-Covenant war changes by the end of the game. For it to end on that note makes the change feel like it really means something, rather than just being another bump on the road. It emphasises its importance as something that will make Halo 3’s articulation of the conflict fundamentally different to how it’s been.
That, I think, was definitely one of Halo 3′s stronger aspects with its storytelling.Everybody loses something by the end of Halo 2 as well, or is in imminent danger of losing something, which has short and long-term implications beyond what a single game can deal with. A story such as this begs to stand by itself so that it might be better contrasted by a follow-up which focuses more on what these characters gain by working together.
The very opening shot of the game is the wreckage of Installation 04, visually setting up how Thel ‘Vadamee is about to lose everything.
Humanity lose what Earth represents, as this final bastion that the Covenant could never touch – having purged all record of its existence countless times through the Cole Protocol.
The Master Chief loses Cortana, leaving her behind on High Charity.
The Sangheili lose their place in the Covenant and their religion is exposed as a lie (which will have huge ramifications for their history and culture in the long-term).
The Covenant lose High Charity, their holy city, which has been the seat of their power for thousands of years… yet they’re also closer than ever to achieving their goal of firing the Halos.
And the only one who stands to gain from all this chaos is the Flood, which has reared its ugly head as a threat to the entire galaxy once again.All these high-stake gambits, political manoeuvrings, and galaxy-ending threats are grounded and substantiated by experiencing it from the perspective of our protagonist – Thel – who has lost everything and been put in a position where he has to claw his way back to the top, while being immediately affected by all of these things.
And you root for him to do that. When Sesa ‘Refumee starts telling Thel about the Covenant’s lies, you realise that the ideal outcome of Thel’s character arc is that he effectively becomes Sesa – the ‘Heretic leader’ – and fights on the side of good.
And when he does, when Thel finally sees everything that’s happening as it truly is, and all the major power players for who they truly are, he realises that he has a choice. Not to just zealously follow the orders of madmen with the keys to doomsday weapons, but to do what’s right…
To make peace with the people whose families he put in the ground and face a common enemy they share – to forgive, and work to be forgiven, for all the wrongs committed in the name of a lie. Because that’s how Halo 2 really ends.
It’s not about the cliffhanger, the promise of a new adventure where we “finish the fight” – the prospect of getting another Halo game certainly never seemed disagreeable to me.
The ending of Halo 2 is a definitive moment in the series that illustrates what Halo is all about.
Truth and reconciliation.