The ornate edifice of the Didact’s combat skin shook and sputtered as the pulse grenade overloaded his systems, and the Master Chief fell at the ancient Forerunner’s feet on the hard-light bridge.
A moment lingered between them, from behind their cold masks – warrior-to-warrior, acknowledging that this battle was over, but the fight, their fight, was far from finished.
No matter how many stars would soon stand between them, fate was, once again, off-centre. The wheel of life had cracked under the strain of the weapon that hissed and roared and sang as its victims were consumed, sent to be digested, and then spat out again – their songs and souls, sublimated and shackled, unlike what they were before – encased now, entombed, in metal and madness.
It seemed as if the twining streams of Living Time stood still for that moment, as the grey hulk of the Didact toppled backwards – his hand still outstretched – and fell into the slipspace abyss.
“Getting back is going to be a problem for me,” Sam said, his voice echoing down the years, as the Master Chief struggled to his feet but found he no longer had the strength to stand. Not like Sam had, when he faced the end…
“Your duty to the UNSC supersedes your duty to yourself or even your crew.” Mendez did not look John in the eye – he was crawling now – as he pronounced the difference between a life spent and a life wasted. Which was this?
“One last lesson. I’m trying to teach you something it’s taken me all my life to realise,” said Catherine Halsey – his hands were on the HAVOK – and it only occurred to him now that she had been pleading with him.
“Don’t let her go. Don’t ever let her go.” It was his last thought as he slammed his hand on the detonator, knowing he couldn’t keep his promise. I let them all down.
This is a journey that I never tire of, sitting down to play my favourite Halo campaign once more, ready to relive all the amazing worldbuilding and emotional beats while preparing myself for the one-two gut-punch that is the last two missions – Composer and Midnight.
Having stormed through the Mantle’s Approach, Scattershot in-hand; timing my shots with the rising beats of Arrival; watching Cortana disintegrate on her pedestal; confronting the Didact (a notable and unfortunate lack of machine guns were involved, despite the button prompt); crawling to the HAVOK nuclear device, to face the end that it is known a Spartan-II is in want of…
…I then sat back to watch the closing cutscenes unfold in all their rueful glory.
All eight-and-a-half minutes of them!
Yes, the ending of Halo 4 is eight-and-a-half minutes long, spanning four scenes that give the game’s story a proper denouement.
But before we get into the real meat
Flood biomass of this topic, about what Halo 4 did so well with its ending (and then what its successors didn’t do so well), we must first go over some literary theory about dramatic structure – specifically, Freytag’s Pyramid.
Given that the aggregation of words towards the latter half of that sentence sounded dreadfully dry, we’re going to be a little bit more exciting by saying a big thank you to Good Ol’ Gustav, but – for the benefit of the Halo universe – we’re giving his dramatic structure a (not so) radical makeover.
And so, I present to you…
This study goes back to the time of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who posited that a play should have a beginning, middle, and end split across two parts – the ‘complication’ and the ‘unravelling’.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, the leading Roman lyric poet (a form of first-person poetry articulating an emphasis on emotions) championed the five-act structure as the ideal form and length of a play.
Freytag is credited with refining a lot of these ideas about the structure of storytelling, and while Freytag’s
Pyramid Keyship was generally meant to be associated with the study of Greek and Shakespearean dramas, which were told over five acts (whereas we tend more towards telling stories with three acts these days), each component of this structure is applicable to stories with three since aspects of the Pyramid Keyship overlap.
I also think it’s particularly useful to talk about these things in-relation to plays because it’s a form of storytelling that scriptwriters for games can really learn a lot from.
As we move forwards, with the boundaries of technology breaking and the intention to take gaming seriously as an art form continues to evolve, these are the things that exist – that have existed for centuries – to inform how we can effective tell those stories.
To provide some definitions of each stage:
EXPOSITION – ‘unpacking’ the story, introducing important background information to the audience (the character, setting, set-up for the plot, backstory, etc).
RISING ACTION – a series of escalating events (across the main plot and sub-plots) that build up to the highest pitch of the conflict, otherwise known as the…
CLIMAX – the central turning point for the protagonist, as we reach the summit of the conflict and tension – typically by confronting the antagonist and answering the story’s biggest question(s).
FALLING ACTION – the final suspense, as the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is resolved and the story begins packing itself up.
DENOUEMENT – the epilogue, unravelling the complexities regarding the plot, characters, conflicts, and themes; showing how the events of the story impacted the lives of the main character(s) and what might be in store for them next one.
Breaking this down into three acts, you have set-up (exposition and inciting incident); conflict (rising action and climax); and resolution (falling action and denouement). This is all Storytelling 101, but I mention it here as a formality for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with it.
Additionally, not all stories conform to this structure, but many do. Likewise, don’t be misled by the Pyramid/Keyship depicting each ‘stage’ as being of equal length, as that is not necessarily the case in any given text.
For a more specific, in-depth look at this, I’d recommend watching Lindsay Ellis’ video essay: How Three-Act Screenplays Work (and why it matters)
In this article, of course, we will be focusing on the resolution – the falling action and denouement – as it applies to some of the ‘recent’ Halo games.
So, let’s examine what makes Halo 4’s ending so damn good…
THIS HARD-LIGHT BUBBLE IS NOT A NATURAL FORMATION…
After defeating the Didact and destroying the Composer, the Master Chief finds that he has been teleported (by way of the ship’s translocation grid, which we previously saw the Didact use as John approaches him on the light bridge) inside a hard-light ‘bubble’ – alone.
With no response at first, it seems as if Cortana is gone, until a warm blue light reflects on the back of the Chief’s armour and he turns to see her standing before him.
This time, at long last, nothing is separating them. It’s as if time itself has frozen, the pacing coming to a standstill – a state of temporal grace – for this beautiful scene.
All that remains is green and blue.
Some articulations of literary theory posit that the end of a conflict ‘restores’ the status quo, but that’s not true at all – is it? At least, it isn’t here. While we have saved Earth from the Composer, that beam was firing for some time and must’ve had some effect, right?
And did you really think we were going to return – in triumph – to Earth, find Halsey, and ‘fix’ Cortana’s condition? Was that to be it? A full restoration of the status quo?
It’s generally a given that the hero will perform the physical act of ‘saving the world’ at the end of the day, that the broad strokes goal of ‘saving humanity’ will be fulfilled, but Halo 4 imposes a cost on that for the status quo of how the stories of the mainline Halo games are traditionally built.
Cortana has made her choice, to die as herself rather than what rampancy would have her become – to exit the stage on her terms.
She saves her best friend one last time, says her final farewell, and sends him home.
In this scene, we not only get the emotional pay-off of this devastating sacrifice, but also a long-term pay-off for something that was seeded by 343’s early fiction, as far back as 2009, in Halo: Evolutions and Halo: Legends…
“Your mother made you separate. She placed a barrier between you and the beings that you would be encouraged to protect, a wall you could never breach. She even let you choose a human to centre your existence upon, a human to care about, yet never considered how you might feel at never being able to simply touch him. Or how he might feel about outliving you.” [Halo: Evolutions – Human Weakness, page 393]
When Cortana says “I’ve waited so long to do that,” she has. She’s waited almost five years (five long years…), which amounts to most of her life, for the moment where she can be freed from the fear that she’s separate – that she’s not enough, not human enough.
This is what it looks like when 343 has a story planned out.
The only thing that could possibly enhance this tragedy is if there were some unique track composed as a tribute to the relationship and growth of these characters, bookending their journey in Halo 4 at the start of the game and the end…
Oh, wait, they did that too!
Going back to Freytag’s Keyship: this is the falling action, in which the tension from the conflict winds down and the story moves toward its conclusion. The hero restores some sort of ‘order’ to the world and makes the return journey home.
The Didact has been (temporarily) defeated, the Composer destroyed, and humanity has been saved – but the Master Chief must now venture forth on his journey alone.
You may recall at the end of Halo 3, at the start of the final mission, the Chief said “We’ll head for the portal, and we’ll all go home.”
Welcome home, John…
The falling action continues at the start of the next scene, with the Master Chief floating in the debris field of the Mantle’s Approach – it was only after Cortana faded away that the hard-light bubble began to shake, as time resumed, and the world around the Chief literally falls apart.
His arm still outstretched, as if reaching for her, the Master Chief drifts alone in silence and perfect stillness.
As an aside, can we appreciate the imagery of the shot below for a moment? In the structure of Compbell’s Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, the hero returns to become the ‘master of two worlds’ – of the ‘ordinary’ world they fight to protect, and the ‘other’ world (which may be a fantastical one, or more of a spiritual metaphor).
Here, the Chief is framed between Earth (‘home’) and the shattered remnants of the alien world he has just left behind. The former is what he’s been fighting to protect for decades, the home of humanity – but is this where he belongs? As a soldier, he’s been raised and trained to deal with conflict that arises from the ‘other’ world, remaining separate from ‘humanity’ as a Spartan.
As a character, there is something of a dichotomy between the idea of ‘John’ and ‘The Master Chief’ that Halo 4 really sinks its teeth into and that dimension of the storytelling is layered in such rich imagery throughout the game…This scene still comes under the falling action, as this is where we actually see the ‘return’ home. After a Pelican dispatched by the UNSC Infinity locates the Chief in the debris field, he is brought aboard where an assembly of Marines and Spartan-IVs stand to attention.
It’s momentous, humanity’s champion and saviour has, at last, returned…
…But it’s not momentous at all.
Even the music, the militaristic trumpets that sound during the track 117, has a distinctly sombre tone as the Chief steps out of the Pelican – the camera positioned at a low-angle so it looks up at the Chief, as if to make him look tall and proud and heroic…
…But it’s plain to see that he’s just tired, an exposed nerve of vulnerability.
It is at this point, as the screen cuts to black and we jump briefly forwards to the next scene where John and Lasky stand together on the observation deck, that I would draw the line between the falling action ending and the denouement beginning (a rather ironic mixture of words).
What this means is that Halo 4 has four whole minutes of falling action, and a further four-and-a-half minutes dedicated to the denouement.
Questions and consequences are key to articulating the ultimate outcome of a story and its themes, which Halo 4 explores through dialogue between the Chief and Lasky, and a final epilogue scene where narration from the Didact sets the stage for the sequel.Standing together on the observation deck, Lasky talks to fill silence (I might add that this is a rather brilliant method of providing exposition about the character’s background).
“Beautiful, isn’t she? I don’t get to see her often enough… I grew up on New Harmony. Attended Corbulo Military Academy. Never saw Earth in person until I was an adult, but… I still think of her as home.” [Thomas Lasky, Halo 4 – Epilogue]
Those who have seen Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn will be well aware that it was the Master Chief who saved Lasky at the Corbulo Military Academy (as one of four survivors on the planet), which adds additional layers to this scene because while the Chief mourns somebody he lost it is somebody he saved against all odds that stands beside him here.
When the Chief finally responds, not breaking his gaze away from Earth, he says:
“Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity… whatever the cost.” [John-117, Halo 4 – Epilogue]
It’s the lesson he learned many years ago, in 2525, when staring out the observation deck of the UNSC Atlas, mourning the loss of the Spartans who didn’t make it through the augmentation process.
John blamed himself for that loss too, and it was Mendez who stood beside him in that moment – though he could not meet John’s gaze as he talked about being a leader; how their duty to the UNSC superseded their duty to themselves; and how there are times where one must ‘spend’ lives, but never waste them.
It is here that John attempts to rationalise Cortana’s death as just that – a casualty of war, a life spent for the preservation of humanity.
But (and Steve Downes delivers this beautifully) his tone is shaky, implying that he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying. He heard what Cortana said to the Didact. She didn’t sacrifice herself for humanity, they just got lucky.
She sacrificed herself for him.
“You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things… Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.” [Thomas Lasky, Halo 4 – Epilogue]
As Lasky departs, letting John have the deck to himself, his gaze still transfixed on Earth, for the first time in the games we hear what might have been spoken aloud or his inner monologue… but it’s met with silence as he’s left to ponder a question he can only answer himself.The denouement (and the story) concludes with a final scene depicting the immediate fallout of the Composer being fired at Earth – the population of New Phoenix, seven million souls, gone.
Aboard the UNSC Infinity, the Master Chief walks down a corridor, fist clenched – a rare physical expression from a Spartan-II – with it being uncertain as to whether this is indicative of his resolve or his urge to lay into a bulkhead.
In the armour bay, technicians have to prise the armour plates from him – literally deconstructing the Chief, piece-by-piece, until the final haunting glimpse of his eyes.
Far across the galaxy, under the light of unknown stars, the Didact makes his case to the Forerunners, who have remained hidden for a hundred thousand years. He implores them to see that the Mantle of Responsibility can belong only to the Forerunners, and humanity is a threat that can no longer be contained – by de-evolving them, by Composing them.
The Librarian’s plans are in-motion now and the only option that remains is to eradicate them before damnation is loosed upon the stars…
For the Reclamation has begun, and all are helpless to stop it.Yes, I am going with the set-up here before it was retconned by Catalog as a speech the Didact made one hundred thousand years ago, which I maintain to this day makes absolutely no sense in any context other than the present.
The reasoning behind this retcon has since become obvious, given that the Didact was deemed to be “extraneous.”
“When [The Next 72 Hours was] 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?” [Halo: Escalation Library Edition, page 293-294]
We’re all familiar with the result of this, which is what it things look like when 343 evidently don’t plan these things out. The contrast with the downright lyrical delivery of the visual and thematic overlap between Evolutions, Legends, and Halo 4 just says it all.
As the first instalment of what was, at the time, announced to be a new trilogy, along with the promise of the Didact being a key antagonist throughout that trilogy, it was astoundingly obvious that this final note in the denouement was set-up for Halo 5.
I’ll return to the Didact a bit later…
Anyway, the point here has been to illustrate (and this is the simplified version – we could just keep going) just how good the ending to Halo 4 is. They had eight-and-a-half minutes of breathing room and gave us so much: from the impact of a major character’s sacrifice, to the immediate emotional aftermath, tying up the major themes that drove this story, and charting the course for where this is all going.
There are still lingering questions, naturally, but, more importantly, there is a clear sense of the emotional resolution to this journey as well.
Investing in your story’s falling action and denouement is just as important as your conflict, otherwise the fruits of your labour with the themes, characters, and setting go unfulfilled. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be long, but it has to be more than just a ‘to be continued…’
The result of that is a very limited sense of progression or accomplishment, which invariably leads to a grumpy and disappointed audience.
And that brings us to the end of where 343 got it so astonishingly right, to Halo 4’s successors, which have been – by my estimation – seriously missing the mark.
NOTHING COULD GO WRONG…
“Haruspis,” I hear you say. “You’ve spent the better part of three thousand words extolling the virtues of Halo 4’s ending in an article with a title that implies you have something negative to say. Get to the damn point!”
Okay, okay! We’re there now!
The problem with Halo’s endings effectively began with Spartan Ops…
As a quick refresher, Spartan Ops (also referred to as Halo: Infinity) was the new mode introduced in Halo 4.
It was an episodic continuation of some of the story beats set up in Halo 4’s main campaign, set six months later, focusing on the crew of the UNSC Infinity and Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant as they fight for control of Requiem.
The mode received mixed reception for a variety of reasons, some of the major complaints were directed towards the repetitive missions, recycled objectives, and the dissonance between the story in the cutscenes and the completely different Fireteam you followed in the gameplay.
343 sort of tried to have their cake and eat it by having the ‘character’ you play as in the missions be your own Spartan for the purpose of Halo: Reach-inspired immersion, but, since that couldn’t translate to the pre-rendered cutscenes by Axis Animation, the dissonance was apparent.
Despite this, I tend to defend Spartan Ops more than most because I think – for the most part – it was genuinely trying to be the best version of what it was. The latter half of the season (Episodes 6-10) felt like a genuine response to some of the gameplay criticisms, and there are some really fun levels and set-pieces.
I really like what they were going for with this mode and I came back every week feeling excited to, at the very least, watch the next cutscene to see the story unfold.
The ending, however, is… quite a mess.
Firstly, a note on what I think is good about it: the final episode of Spartan Ops spans two cutscenes, totalling six whole minutes, which does at the very least contribute to making this ending feel substantial in terms of how it paces its set-up for the next season (which became the comic series Halo: Escalation). It makes good use of its length.
And now, as promised, we return to the Didact.
This is the second good thing (which ended up becoming a bad thing… a very bad thing).
Here, we see Jul hesitate before he inputs the final order to send Requiem into the sun (we’ll get to that), and as he walks away the camera pans up to reveal the Didact’s sigil dominating the frame, the Didact’s theme (Nemesis) blaring over the scene…
Even the positioning of Jul and the Didact’s sigil, aligned with the two great pillars, feels like a promise for the story going forward, saying “This is who and what we’re up against.”
You know how the rest of this song went. From the sounds of it, we’re lucky the Didact actually ‘survived’ the events of The Next 72 Hours.
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?” [Escalation Library Edition, page 294]
Jul’s Covenant was winning the battle for Requiem. Jul had a large fleet and thousands of Prometheans at his disposal, as well as the advantage of having been camping in the planet for six months while the UNSC played their War Games.
The act of sacrificing a whole planet – a Shield World, at that! – to take out a single UNSC ship, even if it is humanity’s best, simply does not speak to the scale of tactical thinking Jul would have. Yes, he had what he believed to be the whole of the Janus Key, but he also had a whole world under his command that simply was not worth sacrificing for all it offered.
It is clear that these orders came from the Didact himself, just like the Durance – the Didact’s Gift – which Jul had acquired (a plot device which doesn’t really go anywhere, we never find out what Jul was going to do with it).
However, we know for a Word of God fact that this is an area that not a lot of thought went into…
“We couldn’t figure out how the story ended. Room full of smart people, all with storytelling skills and the resumes to prove it, and we could not tie a bow on this story in the outline stage.
Then Frank O’Connor says, ‘Maybe Jul just drives Requiem into the sun.’
And we all laughed, because that was so wonderfully absurd. A half hour later we still didn’t have an idea of how the Requiem adventure ended. Eventually we let Jul drive Requiem into the sun because, come on. That’s pretty awesome, throwing planets into suns.” [Brian Reed, The Halo Bulletin #87 (27/2/13)]
Herein lies the first major issue that 343 has had with their endings.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall during this meeting! To be sat broodingly in a shadowy corner as the fate of one of the most unique settings in the series is so jovially hand-waved away after such a great confluence of talent went into building it in the first place.
(It’s all very well me criticising these decisions without positing my own alternative, which is why I wrote an article specifically on that back in 2016: Requiem Ruminations.)And it gets worse…
“Poor Catherine Halsey. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a monster. A war criminal. A woman who kidnapped and killed children because she thought the ends justified the means. But then we come along and chop off her arm simply because we wanted a spot of ambiguity in her final line. In the original draft, she was shot, but in one piece. Jul asked her what she wanted, she said, ‘Revenge’ and everyone knew she meant on Palmer and the crew of Infinity. But we didn’t want that. Halsey is a woman who is always saying two things at once. To end on a note from her that was so clearly defined just felt wrong.
So I chopped off her arm. Now she glances at her shoulder before answering Jul’s question and you have to ask: Who does she want revenge on? Palmer? Jul? Everyone?
I wrote the words late one night around 2am.” [Brian Reed, The Halo Bulletin #87 (27/2/13)]
I’m going to go out on a limb here (couldn’t resist!) and say that it’s really quite clear what Halsey means in the final moments of Spartan Ops, regardless of her dismemberment. Reed even notes that it’s quite clear-cut in the original draft, where she’s “in one piece,” because… that’s the direction the story is pointing things. That’s just how writing works.
So what ambiguity does Halsey’s chopped-off arm add?
Halsey isn’t going to hate Jul for cutting it off and saving her life, for doing what was necessary in the moment; if she’s going to hate anyone, she’s going to hate Palmer for putting her in that position in the first place (and, by extension, Osman).
So we’re right back to square one – it’s Palmer, which is further built on in Halo: Escalaion where she labels her “Osman’s attack dog.”
Regardless of the situation, we knew that she was going to play Jul to achieve her goals for the simple fact that she has more freedom with him than with the UNSC, so cutting off her arm achieves nothing in the narrative. It adds nothing. And it’s never brought up again, except for one line in Halo 5’s first mission where Osiris speculates about it in a way that barely acknowledges the actual context.
Vale: “I noticed in the briefing Dr. Halsey lost her left arm. When did that happen?”
Locke: “Jul did it. No idea when or why.”
Tanaka: “Reckon it wasn’t an argument, or he’d have cut off her head instead of her arm.” [Halo 5: Guardians, Osiris]
And I do feel compelled to criticise the delivery of this scene and its complete lack of subtlety, how it’s so obviously framed for Shock Value™.
I mean, they really milk it. The music takes on an eerie, sinister tone, and the camera’s gaze stays level with her bloodied stump as long as possible just to drive home “LOOK! HER ARM IS GONE NOW! DID YOU NOTICE HALSEY DOESN’T HAVE AN ARM?!”
In the five years that have followed, in which we’ve had several story arcs in the Escalation comic series and a game that is allegedly a sequel to Halo 4 (in which Halsey is prominently featured), nothing has been done with this.
It’s as if everybody, including Halsey herself, has just forgotten about it.
And that’s another major problem with the ending to Spartan Ops: it’s frivolous.
Whether it’s tossing one of the most interesting and unique settings in Halo into the sun as the result of a joke because none of the writers knew what to do with it, or maiming Halsey for the sake of non-existent ambiguity, it’s really quite clear that this was the product of a rough draft at 2am.
Advice: if your scene is thoughtlessly built on momentary Shock Value™; disability being used a punishment for a character, no matter how much of a “monster” you think they are; and using disability purely for villainous aesthetics, you need to rewrite that scene…
EVERYTHING HAS GONE WRONG
Where the quality of the writing itself in the conclusion Spartan Ops was… lacking, at the very least it was structurally sound (thinking again back to Freytag’s Keyship), spread over six minutes to let the story wind down with both falling action and a denouement.
While it ended on a poorly-conceived cliffhanger (but one that made sense given that Spartan Ops was approached as an episodic television show), the direction of the story was crystal clear – with the conflict over the Janus Key set up and Halsey pursuing the Absolute Record on the Librarian’s instruction.
And that brings us to Halo 5.
Goodness me, it’s no exaggeration when I say that I have literally written a novel of criticism – positive and negative – on this game (my level-by-level analysis alone was longer than the first three Harry Potter books) and there’s still more to say about Halo 5’s many sins… but, again, we’re focusing on the ending.
Let’s quickly recap what we’ve covered so far.
Halo 4’s ending was a masterclass in how to write an ending with strong falling action and a meaningful denouement. Its already veritable quality is bolstered by its stunningly rich imagery; the intelligent use of framing; and, of course, the emotional performances of the mo-cap and voice actors, which cannot be understated.
Spartan Ops’ ending was deeply problematic on a number of levels, which ultimately comes down to the (Word of God confirmed) absence of thought on the part of the writers – from Requiem’s destruction, to unwriting the set-up wit the Didact, to Halsey’s ill-conceived maiming.
However, over the six minutes in which Spartan Ops’ ending plays out, there is a distinct sense of an arc that will have huge ramifications for the setting and characters in the long-term (even though, two years later, that too ended up being unwritten).
There isn’t any falling action because once the conflict is resolved, when Blue Team are rescued from the Cryptum, we then cut to a scene aboard the UNSC Infinity with Roland and Lasky where “[Cortana] and the other AIs are shutting down everything, from Earth to the Outer Colonies.”
Instead of winding down, the scale of the conflict ramps up to encompass the galaxy. This is not inherently a problem, but the keystone of building this bridge is the way in which it is delivered.
That delivery falls quite flat when it is punctuated with a lack of meaningful character interaction, with the Master Chief and Locke exchanging two lines between each other:
John-117: “Where’s Cortana?”
Locke: “She’s gone, sir.”
This is an example of what has been termed a ‘nonversation’ – a conversation devoid of purpose and meaning.
Pitched as the central conflict of the game, there is no emotional resolution between the Master Chief and Locke… because there is no real conflict either.
All that advertising and marketing that went into framing the difference in perspective between these two characters amounted to a single fight scene at the end of the fifth mission that has come to be regarded as a ‘drunken brawl’.
Locke: “My mission is warranted – bring down a verified traitor.”
Chief: “I’ve made my choice, my path is clear.”
Locke: “Our greatest threat is believing in a hero.”
Chief: “I believe in completing my mission. At all costs.”
Locke: “I believe in protecting humanity.”
Chief: “I believe great threats require great sacrifices.”
Locke: “I believe in taking down a traitor.” [Halo 5: Guardians – Believe teaser]
Chief says that he has made a choice, one which makes him out to be a “verified traitor” to humanity. We see more of a philosophical difference established between Chief and Locke, as the latter decries the notion of belief in heroes – that, at the end of the day, these are people and we are all equally fallible.
There’s also the suggestion here that Chief is going up against a great threat and that sacrifices are going to have to be made. Locke is driven by protecting humanity, while Chief is being driven by his mission.
The mystery is what that mission is.
“What you fight for isn’t always the same as who you fight for.” [Vladimir Scruggs, Halo: Escalation – Issue #3]
This is the set-up for a conflict that could have had some cathartic emotional resolution between these characters, just as we witnessed the eventual confluence and alignment of purpose and perspective between the Master Chief and Thel in Halo 2 and Halo 3.
But all that’s there to be said between the Master Chief and Locke at the end sum of this journey is “Where’s Cortana?”
At the end of Halo 4, as we covered earlier, the dialogue is layered and nuanced, and so fundamentally human, as John and Lasky have a conversation about loss and how that connects to their differing perspectives on what it means to be a soldier.
As the credits began to roll, my mind was – like John’s – reflecting on the journey I had just been on and tying together its beautifully constructed character studies. That was enabled by a well-paced ending that paid just as much (if not more) attention to its falling action and denouement as it did its conflict and climax – setting a course for the future in the background, while tying up its emotionally resonant themes in the foreground.The UNSC Infinity flees into slipspace as a world (later confirmed to be Earth) is hit by a Guardian, with Lasky saying that they’ve got to run until they find a way to fight. We cut to black, then pick up the next scene – jumping straight to a thirty second long denouement – an unspecified amount of time later on Sanghelios.
Halsey steps forward and says “It took you long enough,” as if it’s some kind of really clever callback to her line at the end of the first mission where she says the same thing to Locke… and then the game just ends.
“It’s all the beginning of something else. […] Branching out the universe and making it bigger than just Chief and Cortana, which, for fans of the novels, they know we’ve got this big universe full of adventure. Giving that to the gamers, now, is my favourite part of it. And… the very last scene is pretty good!” [Brian Reed, Halo 5: Live – Story Roundtable (October 26th 2015)]
This was uttered at the eleventh hour before the release of Halo 5, and at this point they were still maintaining the idea that Cortana is dead and not coming back.
(As an aside: I do not intend to pick on or attack Reed personally in this article, that isn’t the kind of critical conduct I want to display. The reason he keeps cropping up is the simple fact that he said these things.)
The focus, instead, is going to those other characters now – Blue Team, Osiris, Halsey, and so on… but that wasn’t true, was it? Cortana is not only back, but she was brought back from the dead to be the main villain. Each of those new characters and the storylines that emerge end up being either dropped or framed by the lens of Cortana taking over the galaxy.
The conflict we were made to be invested in, between the Chief and Locke, ends up being punctuated with the final line between them: “Where’s Cortana?”
I’m not sure whether Brian Reed was referring to the reunion scene or the Legendary ending when he spoke about “the very last scene,” but I have to disagree with the notion that any of this ended up being “pretty good.”
What we got here was three-and-a-half minutes of jarring, insubstantial scenes that accomplished little in terms of substantially tying together anything that actually happened in Halo 5.
This contrasts with Halo 4, where the scenes that comprise the ending flow logically and emotionally into one-another. The Chief is recovered by the UNSC, followed by a conversation with Lasky, ending with the beautifully symbolic scene of the Chief’s armour being removed as the Didact’s narration sets up the next game’s conflict.
Halo 4 didn’t even need a Legendary ending, the writers evidently knew that another scene would’ve been superfluous. All that changes is whether or not you see the Chief’s eyes; the conclusion is satisfying regardless, as it is focused on the journey’s emotional pay-off.
The only emotional resolution in Halo 5 is given to Halsey (who serves the role of a secondary character in this game) when she sees John again, before ending on another cliffhanger – just as Spartan Ops did.
For a little more on that, I recommend Dildev’s article – Halo 5: Who Deserves Resolution?Yes, Halo has had a cliffhanger before that went down as being the most infamous endings to a game ever… but I completely disagree with that.
To quote from a previous article of mine:
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 lied to and manipulated, and they had the chance to do better by themselves.
This is what I personally consider to be one of Halo’s definitive moments. [In Defence of Halo 2’s Cliffhanger]
Just as important as a strong narrative structure for an ending – your falling action and denouement – is how you use those to craft moments of emotional resolution for your lead characters.
Since the Master Chief and Locke don’t have that, their interactions – their ‘nonversation’ – feels empty, and the rest of Blue Team and Osiris don’t have a word to say in it either.I do have something positive to say about this ending as well, though.
For Halo 6, I am looking forward to potentially having an intimate, scaled-down series of character moments and confrontations on Sanghelios.
Now that most of the ‘titans’ of the setting are all in the same place, there are going to be residual tensions and things that have gone unsaid between them; it’s going to be interesting to see how that alliance works out.
That interests and excites me.
But the fact remains with the product we have that Halo 5: Guardians simply feels like ‘Halo 5: Part 1‘ in all the wrong ways.
After unwriting pretty much every major plot point and character beat in Halo 4 to make this story with (*shudder*) the Created possible, it ends just as it gets to the story it really wants to tell. We’re now going on two-and-a-half years from Halo 5, in which time there’s been a spin-off game (Halo Wars 2) and a wealth of fiction in the novels and comics, and yet there’s still no sense that this story has actually gone anywhere.
Rather than opening up doors to tell new and innovative stories with new and interesting characters, I find that Halo has been giving those new and interesting characters overly repetitive and formulaic stories that refuse to do anything with the setting’s status quo.
This is not just an isolated issue with Halo 5, but has affected a lot (not all, but enough to be noticeable) of the stories told in the novels and comics.
And that brings us to…
OFF THE GAME, THROUGH THE BOOKS, NOTHING BUT CLIFFHANGERS…
I love Halo Wars 2.
I really do. Honestly, you have no idea how much it revitalised my love for Halo, coming from Halo 5 – my lowest point as a fan of this series.
At some point in the coming months, I hope to finally get around to writing the story postmortem for Halo Wars 2. The notes are all pretty much done, the ‘era’ of story content concluded with Rise of Atriox, and I’m eager to dive into analysing and critiquing the campaign. It’ll have a few sour notes, but overall it was quite a symphony!
Well, I guess there’s a sliver of that to be had here as we discuss the ending.
The cliffhanger ending.
The cliffhanger endings.
Yeah… so, every story told in the games since Halo 4 – through Spartan Ops, Halo 5, and Halo Wars 2 – has concluded with an imprudently short ending where it feels like the story just… stops.
I feel, at this point, that this is definitely something to be concerned about…
As a recap on statistics: Halo 4’s ending was eight-and-a-half minutes long; Spartan Ops’ around six; and Halo 5’s three-and-a-half.
Halo Wars 2’s ending, in-comparison, is four minutes long. While it isn’t all that much longer than Halo 5’s, its handling of the ending’s structure is greatly improved.The thing about Halo Wars 2 is that it’s an appropriately ‘small’ story, focusing more on its characters as they navigate their way through a relatively simple plot.
I spoke earlier about emotional resolution, which is what Halo Wars 2 provides in a really interesting way. Revenge is one of the key themes of Halo, indeed I’d say it’s one of the top three thematic motifs that occurs in all of fiction – particularly in a lot of modern mass-media entertainment because it’s an easy go-to, short-term motivator for characters.
Typically, it’s a villainous character who is built with the motive of revenge. The Ur-Didact, Jul ‘Mdama, and countless other characters are examples of this, but, in Halo Wars 2, it is instead given to one of the heroes.
Isabel watched helplessly as the Banished stormed through her research facility and slaughtered the humans on the Ark, people she thought of as her family.
When the Spirit of Fire crew start planning to go on the offensive against the Banished by taking down the Enduring Conviction, this plot point is driven by Isabel’s desire for revenge. And she succeeds, using the ship’s energy projector to glass a Banished base on the surface of the Ark – breaking the installation’s one ‘rule’, not to damage the Ark itself – which leads to a swarm of millions of Sentinels bringing the ship down.
Admittedly, I think there’s some issues to pick here in that they could have manoeuvred the story to be about capturing the Enduring Conviction instead of destroying it, using the same method Cortana used to gain control of the Ascendant Justice in Halo: First Strike; that is to say, venting the atmosphere from the ship, suffocating the Banished aboard.
There’s a tendency in fiction to just blow up stuff that’s useful, which is the fate of the Enduring Conviction. I would point to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare as an example of how this is done right, as the final act of the game picks up with you taking command of the Olympus Mons, going to the enemy’s home turf on Mars, and steamrolling through their fleet with their own flagship. It’s one of the game’s most memorable moments.
The thing about revenge as a narrative device is that it’s often at its worst when used as a means of fulfilment of a character rather than a means of deconstruction…
What I think differentiates decent writing from great writing is that we should be made to feel uneasy and conflicted by Isabel’s desire to indiscriminately kill whatever Banished happen to be in the area when she enacts her vengeance. That’s how you construct a more layered and complex character arc. We root for Isabel, we sympathise with her, but the way in which she gets that fulfilment is through killing.
In Halo Wars 2, Isabel gets her revenge and then sort of ends up being shuffled to the side for the last three levels of the game. So while there is some emotional resolution in terms of Isabel fulfilling her desire for revenge, there is no exploration for what that actually means for her. The story carries on as if it’s business as usual.
Since this isn’t really the appropriate place for it, I’ll talk more about my ideal rewrite of this plot point (which gives Let ‘Volir more to do) in the Halo Wars 2 story postmortem.Back to Halo Wars 2’s ending and Freytag’s Keyship, we get some literal falling action as Anders launches a segment of the newly constructed Installation 09 (where the Banished troops are massing) into space. This, of course, links back to the Halo 1 Anniversary Terminals, where, “for amusement,” 343 Guilty Spark experimented with spacing contained sections of Installation 04.
The sting in the tale is that Installation 09 is just seconds away from entering slipspace and being sent into the galaxy, to the Soell system, with Anders still on it and no time for her to escape.
This is a strong beat in the writing of the falling action because of how this shift is presented. Where the scene begins with the Banished’s defeat and the tension of the physical conflict decreases, the scene then emphasises more of an emotional turn of events with the ‘loss’ of Anders. We know her value to the Spirit of Fire, her absence is felt.
Likewise, falling action is the stage where the hero makes the return journey home. That is exactly what happens here, but with a twisted layer of dramatic irony (a term which here means ‘when the audience knows something the characters do not’).
The Spirit of Fire crew believe that the UNSC will come to rescue them once the distress signal goes out, but they don’t know (and we do) that Anders is actually heading into the belly of the beast and she would’ve been better off staying on the Ark…
Halo Wars 2 is a story bookended by loss. At the front end, it’s Serina’s final farewell and the nod to Sergeant Forge’s empty cryo pod; at the back end, it’s the loss of Anders – her expertise, and her friendship with Cutter, was a defining aspect of what made the Spirit of Fire’s crew more like a family. This moment is a strong confluence of talent between the writing, cinematography, and Gideon Emery’s performance as Cutter because we see that all play across his face in the immediate aftermath of Anders’ departure.
And then he gets back to business, saying that they have a lot of work to do before Anders gets back. He’s got faith in her, believing – without hesitation – that she’ll succeed.
This emotional beat is what really saves the ending for me, as it is followed by cutting to Atriox, grumpily standing on the edge of a cliff, looking over his huge army… and then, nothing.
Goodness me, it would be lovely to have a Halo game that doesn’t have an ending that so overtly compartmentalises it as a ‘first act story’.
I understand that 343 wants to open up a lot of doors for future storytelling opportunities, but I feel like the crux of the issue is that they’re going about it the wrong way.
The overuse of cliffhangers in every story after Halo 4 feels trite. 343 managed to tell a complete story with meaningful closure in Halo 4. It then spun off into a separate story with different characters in Spartan Ops, expanding the universe in some meaningful ways… but they’ve not really been able to replicate that since.
An issue I have, from the perspective of a fan, is not knowing whether these things that 343 sets up are going to amount to anything. As they demonstrated with Halo 5, they can just unwrite all the major story and character beats and arcs of the previous game, as well as ignoring the things they’ve further been dealing with in the extended universe’s fiction.
It hasn’t left the best impression…
Big things happen at the end of Halo Wars 2, but I’m left wondering whether those things are for the benefit of the continuation of this story, for Halo 6, or whether they’ll amount to anything at all.
Either way, the nature of being a story fan is that one has to wait years in order to see if there’ll be any pay-off. Halo Wars 2 is a game that we waited a long time for, from 2009-to-2017. To then have a story that so abruptly ends by effectively saying “STAY TUNED FOR ANOTHER COUPLE OF YEARS!” (both in its main campaign and the Awakening the Nightmare expansion) doesn’t feel all that satisfying to me.
Oh, yeah, Awakening the Nightmare similarly ends with the story screeching to a halt – the Flood are ambiguously defeated and Atriox grumpily gazes off into the distance.Cliffhangers absolutely can be good, but, like any narrative device, they should be used sparingly, and with thoughtful reference to your economy of storytelling.
Some years ago, in an interview about Halo 4, Frank O’Connor said:
“We’re not going to eliminate the idea that you can have a ‘cliffhanger thought,’ or premise in a story, because those are actually useful. They’re satisfying.
Y’know, at the end of Star Wars, the Death Star is blown up and you understand that’s the end of the Star Wars story, but the Empire isn’t defeated and the Rebel Alliance isn’t victorious. It’s just done one small battle in a greater war. We will definitely use that tact at the end of Halo 4. So you’ll understand there’s been an ending, but you’ll also understand the saga’s just beginning.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo 4 Story Interview – IGN (September 21st, 2012)]
I feel that some perspective has been lost as to what exactly it is about those ‘cliffhanger thoughts’ and premises that makes them satisfying.
That the player’s emotions are at the mercy of the writer(s) is a particularly significant gambit when writing a cliffhanger, as demonstrated by the general reaction to Halo 2 where some very upset people ended up putting their controllers through their televisions.
The ending of a text is one of the main things that sticks with you after you’ve experienced it. I recall a conversation I had with a friend last year after we watched Ex Machina for the first time, and he said to me: “Y’know, I don’t think I’d care to remember this film if it ended in any other way than the way it did.”
And he was right. It was a well-constructed film throughout, but our reaction to the ending led to a long conversation afterwards about the ethics of certain decisions that the characters made (I’m omitting any names from this in case you’ve not seen the film, no unnecessary spoilers here!) and what the future implications might be of the more ‘philosophical cliffhanger.’
The ending of Halo 4 sticks with me for more reasons than I could articulate in an article that dedicated three thousand words to explaining why it’s great…
Even Halo: Reach, which is decidedly not one of my favourite games, has one of the most incredible endings I’ve ever experienced in a game. That final stand Noble Six makes, followed by Halsey’s eulogy and the restoration of hope for the future, is truly one of the best denouements in the series.
But when it comes to Spartan Ops, Halo 5, an even Halo Wars 2, I feel like I remember them for all the wrong reasons.
For the positives they have, they are overall net-negatives in my eyes and the repetitious formula of ending each successive Halo story in that way, with little-to-no closure, is a pervasive problem in the storytelling of the series post-Halo 4.
LADIES LIKE GOOD ENDINGS
There are, of course, production realities to keep in-mind. In the case of Halo Wars 2, it’s the fact that Blur cutscenes are ridiculously expensive to make – I totally understand and accept that as a limiting factor to some of the things that I would ideally like to see.
Beyond that, too, there are lots of moving parts to these projects that we’re not aware of. I don’t want to play ‘armchair developer’ because, as somebody with no experience in that field, it’s just going to make me look like an idiot to even try. I have to admit my own fault in having done that before, phrasing an idea for my ideal way a level would be articulated as “Why didn’t they just do this?!” like it’s easy.
It is often the case that these things come about from circumstances beyond the control of the writers, as games are a very fluid medium when it comes to the need for rewrites.
On the other hand, we can only critique what we’re given, right? I can approach these things as a writer, storyteller, and critic.
What we’ve got is a series of endings that share a number of recurring problems, one of them being the result of (by the lead writer’s own admission) a complete lack of thought in the writers’ room. This will baffle me for the rest of time…
Others share serious pacing issues. This comes down to a lack of regard for the structure of a good ending, which is – in the case of Halo 5 – tied to larger problems surrounding the basic premise of the story itself, leaving no space for the kind of emotional resolution its main characters need, with cliffhangers that have no cycle of anticipation and closure.
To round this off, then (At last, you may think), what I think Halo 6 really needs – regardless of my own enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the story it’s going to tell – is to double down on the resolution, on the latter end of Freytag’s Keyship.
There’s a lot to learn from Halo 4’s economy of storytelling where its ending is concerned, with its mastery of structure, pacing, presentation, delivery, and emotional resolution.
I sincerely hope that 343 won’t forget about the things they did right, and that they will try to build on them by the time Halo 6 comes around.
You know the music, 343.
Time to dance.
THE THIRTY YEAR LONG DAY
But the bridge seemed… strange without her. Without the way she danced between the holographic displays, conducting symphonies to an orchestra of battlefield statistics; muttering half-finished thoughts under her breath; grinning from ear-to-ear as she suddenly solved a problem she’d put to the back of her mind the previous week.
“So, Mr. Captain, sir, what do you think ‘loaded for bear’ actually means?” She had asked as they were just a few hours out from Harvest.
“Serina, it means that tomorrow is going to be a long day.”
And it had been.
Except it hadn’t been a day, had it? Not really. To the Spirit of Fire and her crew, ‘yesterday’ was almost thirty years ago…
Yesterday. After five long years of fighting, Harvest was theirs again and they were damn well going to make sure the Covenant knew it.
Yesterday. He was staring down at Arcadia, squinting at a viewscreen, and felt the heavy footfalls of the Spartans as the camera showed them throwing themselves at the enemy.
Yesterday. The floor tremored at his feet; the planet below opened its great metal maw, and swallowed them – its belly a world, an impossible world, turned inside-out.
Yesterday. He was back on Reach, arguing with his father, and then they were hugging. He was turning down a promotion; he was hating himself for looking at Terrence as a son; he was suspicious of an incorrect date on a Valentine’s Day email; he was strapped into his chair, reminding himself to breathe, as the sun blazed brighter than ever; he was paying his respects to an empty cryo chamber; he closed his eyes, and then he was awake, and the war was over… but they were further from home, yet closer than they’d ever been.
Somehow, all those days, spread across his life, were just yesterday. It had become thousands of days, all of them, impossibly, yesterday.
“Captain…” Isabel’s voice brought Cutter back from the ocean of memory he had been momentarily drowning in.
“The other teams are clear?” Cutter exhaled, not turning to face her.
“Yes, sir. ETA to the Spirit of Fire is five minutes.”
“Bring up the map,” he said. To business. “We have a lot of work to do until she gets back.”
The holo-table displayed a topographical map of the Ark’s surface. Cutter leaned forward and looked up, and he saw Atriox at the other end of the table – those blood red eyes filled with rage as he plunged his fist into it.
And Cutter saw the barest shape of tomorrow…
A battlefield, the broken skeleton of a ship, and the last of what they had to throw at one-another. And they were both on that battlefield, he and Atriox, hoping for a miracle: that Anders would arrive, with the UNSC fleet in-tow, to save them all at the last minute.
James Cutter hoped that when tomorrow finally came for him, he would steel himself and walk into the storm.