“Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity… whatever the cost.”
Last year, I wrote three articles exploring the Master Chief’s characterisation in the original Halo trilogy – not just about his journey through the games, but the way in which the attitudes towards him from both the writers and the community changed over time.
Upon looking back at how the article on Halo 3 ended, I left you all on something of a cliffhanger with the promise that I would get around to Halo 4… only to find that the scope and scale of examining the Master Chief in that game would be an undertaking larger than all three of those articles combined (indeed, this article is exactly that).
There really is that much to be said and I didn’t want to write it until I was convinced I had the time to do it justice. So I let it be.
I now find that I am writing my 117th article, and, frankly, it would be remiss of me not to just throw my arms up and say “Screw it, let’s write the damn thing anyway!”
So, here it is. After countless hours of research, going back over all of the panels, ViDocs, documentaries, interviews, peripheral fiction, all that good stuff – let’s finally dive into a character study of the Master Chief in my favourite Halo game.
We have, after all, covered the narrative edifice of three whole games (and several books) that must now be summarised in a couple of sentences.
In Halo 1, the Master Chief was a minimal, yet well-defined character, and the game sought to subtly articulate his fears and flaws, and demonstrated, through his movement and actions, his surprisingly expressive personality.
In Halo 2, a story that is perhaps best described as one-part Shakespearean drama and one-part 80s action flick, the Master Chief’s characterisation was, in a sense, undone – this was the origin of the whole notion that the Chief is just a “vessel” character for the player, contrasting with Thel (the protagonist of the game).
In Halo 3, which suffered an abundance of writing issues due to a creative leadership vacuum in Bungie and a story that was largely written by committee, the Master Chief returns to the role of protagonist where the stakes are raised higher than ever before… and yet the Chief has little investment in them, due to a plot that doesn’t materialise until half-way through the campaign. As such, the writing clamours for some kind of middleground between the idea that the Chief is a “vessel,” but also has things that he should be independently motivated by (when the plot demands him to be).
Between a growing expanded universe (which the Master Chief was a significant part of in its early years), a host of issues during the development of these games, and, perhaps, a case of there being too many cooks in one kitchen… it really felt like the Master Chief – despite his status as an iconic hero in gaming – was an aspect of the Halo universe that never really came together in a coherent way.
There was, partly by-design, no singular vision for who or what the Master Chief was.
Nylund’s books presented one version of the character; Dietz’s adaptation of Halo 1 in The Flood gave us an interpretation of the Chief that felt like something of an unnatural mix of Sam Spade and Rambo (it was this version of the Chief that Alex Garland sought to emulate in the mercifully-cancelled Halo film adaptation).
And there were, of course, the games, where – as I mentioned in the recap – Halo 1 articulated quite a different version of the character to Halo 2 and Halo 3.
So, naturally, when the torch was passed to 343 Industries and they settled on starting (what was then) a new trilogy – beginning with a direct sequel to Halo 3 – they were faced with some significant challenges in terms of how they were going to handle this character.
“A lot of what this trilogy is going to focus on is exploring the character of the Master Chief and what it means to bring him back, and really getting a little bit closer to that character than we’ve ever experienced before.
[…] I think there’s a lot of depth to John that exists primarily in a lot of the other fiction that we really felt we wanted to explore more deeply and lay a journey for him that would transform and evolve him as a character and a man.” [Josh Holmes, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo 4 panel (6:20)]
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
343 began as a studio comprised of about a dozen people and they had to built their team on-the-fly, leaving them inordinately understaffed over the years. In his postmortem panel on Halo 4, Josh Holmes (the game’s Creative Director) said:
“I think we were adding one new person for every four working days.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (2:09)]
Every day was pretty much a 16-hour day, meeting with all the different teams to assess and evaluate progress across the entire experience. Give notes, give feedback, give direction—and then constantly play every mission, every multiplayer level that I could. [Josh Holmes, VICE – ‘The Complete, Untold History of Halo‘ (30/5/2017)]
Where a lot of ‘Triple-A’ studios are generally expected to have around three hundred employees, 343 Industries went through the bulk of Halo 4’s development with two hundred.
But one of the benefits that 343 did have was an extensive period of pre-production time, the likes of which the series has… pretty much never had. This did tremendous favours for their approach to the story because they were able to take the time to plan out how Halo 4 would connect to its peripheral fiction – from Halo 1’s Terminals, through the relevant novels, to the Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn live action series, and beyond.
“Every novel that you’ve read in the last couple of years, every comic book, the Terminals in Halo Anniversary […] everything is feeding directly into the story for the next Halo trilogy.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo 4 Panel (2:50)]
In fact, according to Frank O’Connor, Halo 4’s development in that regard was one that emerged with minimal ‘stuff’ left on the cutting room floor.
“The narrative is guideposts for the game design, but it’s absolutely subservient to the game design’s needs. So, it can light the way, but it can’t become an obstacle, and it can’t get in the way of the game design.
The game has to be king, and if you have a good narrative design team and good storytellers who understand that, then a lot of those road bumps become moot. And really, it’s been a long, difficult, challenging, tiring experience, but it honestly wasn’t full of surprises, or sudden changes or cuts.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo 4 Story Interview – IGN (4:28)]
It’s a pretty stark contrast to what we know about the development of the previous games.
With Halo 1, most of the story was outlined but not actually written by Bungie. According to Eric Trautmann, up to eighty percent of the game’s dialogue was written by him, Brannon Boren, and Matt Soell as part of the deal he made to save The Fall of Reach, as production had fallen behind in the story department.
We all know what went down with Halo 2. And Halo 3 also suffered due to some of the big names of Bungie falling out and leaving, until Marty O’Donnell outlined nine or ten things that needed to happen in the plot (and the Frankenstein job of cobbling together this story really shows beneath the surface of Halo 3’s almost immaculate presentation).
Despite all the other problems that occurred during Halo 4’s development cycle, it was a rare occasion where the story largely went untouched by any major stumbling blocks.
This, thankfully, makes our job of analysing and interpreting Halo 4 so much easier because it has been clearly communicated (by both the quality of the text and its authors) that their intentions have been translated to the final product largely as intended.Kenneth Scott, Senior Art Director on Halo 4, stated that the pre-production phase of the game focused on a lot of emotional exploration of what they wanted to achieve with the characters – particularly the Master Chief, who was their starting point.
“We actually do a lot of emotional exploration before we actually do anything tactical. This particular piece sort of resonated with everybody in finding Chief’s epic strength, but at the same time there’s […] some pathos and sorrow about him.” [Kenneth Scott, Halo 4 Reborn panel 2012 (9:00)]
The piece that Scott is referring to is a kind of ‘parallel’ sketch of the Chief that echoes Shi Kai Wang’s original interpretation of the Master Chief back in 1999.Scott goes on to say that a lot of their approach to the Chief involved finding ways to give the animation department opportunities to ‘exploit’ the character of the suit – using things like poses to convey a story through the character.
This will be important later…
In order to determine where the Master Chief would go on his journey forward, 343 decided to look back. Back at those wonderful novels that had, for so long, felt like they existed separately from the games – to be ignored or rewritten on a whim. This feeling had been greatly exacerbated at the time due to Halo: Reach, Bungie’s “swan song,” retconning its original source material, which doubled up as the first canonical text in the series – Halo: The Fall of Reach.
This time, the expanded universe was to be one of the foundations of the game, which is something I and many others had been waiting to see for a very long time.
Thus, we have this mission statement from Josh Holmes:
“One of the areas with Halo 4 that we’re really trying to push beyond where Halo’s been in the past is we have a much clearer focus in terms of storytelling and character development.
If you look at past Halo games, I think the Master Chief has been, in some ways… he’s an amazing hero, but he has been treated almost as a vessel for the player to sort of pour themselves into. And when you look at a lot of the surrounding fiction that’s been written, the Master Chief – John – has been explored in much more detail and that’s something that really hasn’t come through in the games.
And that’s something that we very much want to bring forth through the campaign of Halo 4 – is to examine Master Chief as a human being, put him in new situations, force him to face new threats and new challenges that are maybe pushing him to the edge of his capabilities in a way that he’s never been pushed before. And, through that process, kind of redefine who he is as a human being and a hero.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Creative Director interview – Game Informer, 2012 (4:35)]
THIS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT IS A NATURAL FORMATION
We turn, once again, to the testimony of Josh Holmes, who provided a great deal of insight into this during his GDC 2013 panel on Halo 4, which I will be referencing throughout this article. In this panel, he expresses three key ideas that we might think of as creative pillars for the game’s story.
1 – ‘Shared authorship’
2 – The ‘Identity Bubble’
3 – The purpose of storytelling
Shared authorship is a philosophy that refers to the relationship between the creator and the player of a game, which Holmes refers to as a two-way communication of sorts.
It is the creator who provides a framework for the story and the player who is given the agency to act upon it – the intended outcome of this is a sense that the gameplay enables one to feel like they are ‘co-creating’ the narrative experience with the creator. Rather than everybody having the same experience with a game, the sense of ‘ownership’ the player has comes from their unique stories that the gameplay and sandbox enables them to create.
As Armando Troisi, Halo 4’s Narrative Director, put it:
“I’m giving you the tools, right? I’m giving you the sandbox — I’m setting the table for you. But it’s up to you to decide what you want to eat.” [Armando Troisi, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (0:14)]
It’s easy to see how this applies to a first-person game, where you are seeing the world through the eyes of the character you play, but also a game like Halo which is renowned for those whacky stories we all have.
I’ll never forget the time I threw a trip mine and instinctively shot it as it soared through the air (my shot connecting with it through pure luck), detonating and destroying the Banshee that had made the mistake of turning its sights on me. Halo has always stood out for those kinds of experiences, both in multiplayer and in the campaign.
This connects to the second concept Holmes discussed in the panel: the Identity Bubble.
Referencing a previous talk by Matthias Worch in GDC 2011, the Identity Bubble is a means of examining player characters on a spectrum from those who are ‘puppets’ and those who are ‘vehicles.’Worch placed the Master Chief on the ‘puppet’ end of the spectrum, an identity which he contrasted to an example of Nathan Drake – the protagonist of the Uncharted series – as a ‘vehicle’:
Nathan Drake, for example. He’s not really a puppet, is he? At least not all the time:
he talks, he sets directions, he acts in cutscenes, he has a pre-authored past. This is a
radically different approach to authoring identity. [Matthias Worch, The Identity Bubble]
This struck me as interesting in terms of differentiating Nathan Drake from the Master Chief because this comparison certainly fits the games.
The Master Chief talks, but in the original trilogy it’s primarily to ask the occasional question about what’s going on. In Halo 2, the Chief only has eighteen lines of dialogue and most of them are just one-liners.
The Master Chief does not set directions. The only time he’s come close to doing this in the original trilogy is in Halo 3, when he argues that they should go through the portal to pursue Cortana’s solution to the Flood – though that is just to affirm his support for the idea and for Cortana. Miranda Keyes is the first to say that the UNSC should go to the Ark.
The Master Chief kind of ‘acts’ in cutscenes. The comparison with Uncharted here isn’t too compatible, as much of Halo’s action primarily occurs in the gameplay. The cutscenes are reserved for story development and exposition.
And the Master Chief does have a pre-authored past (spanning three whole books at the time Halo 3 released)… but Bungie never really referred to it beyond a few cryptic references.
This last point in particular informed one of the core intentions 343 Industries had with Halo 4’s story.
“It’s funny that most of the people in this audience know John’s origin inside-out. They know how old he was when he was kidnapped. They know what happened to his bones…
Most people don’t know that. Y’know, there’s maybe eight million Halo players out there who are completely unaware of his origin and it’s definitely something that we’re sort of passionate about because it’s formed him. And it’s one of the things that separates him and differentiates him from all of the other military forces from Earth.
He’s, in some ways, alone and a very strange character, and he’s obviously a hero to humanity but he’s a fairly tragic figure in some ways. It’s definitely something we’d like to explore in the future.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo 4 Panel (46:00)]
The internal politics between Bungie and Microsoft during the early stages of the franchise have been made clear, that there were two different visions for what Halo should be, which is why Bungie didn’t concern themselves with the expanded universe much.
But the idea that the player is the author of the Master Chief’s backstory, that they are the Master Chief, that this enhances immersion, has always struck me as rather absurd – particularly the notion that the Chief talking during gameplay “ruins immersion.”
For me, it’s when a character is directly spoken to, only to be met with an unnatural silence that my immersion in a game is broken.
“It’s a really controversial topic when it comes to first-person games, because there are probably as many people who feel exactly the way you do, where the silent protagonist starts to destroy that sense of immersion and takes away from the storytelling. Then you have the people who feel that when a character speaks too much and is speaking for them, that destroys their connection.
[…] What we were striving for with Master Chief in Halo 4 was right in the middle, and I describe it as a marriage of player and protagonist. There has to be enough space within the character for you to feel you can inhabit it as a player. And also, just from the standpoint of personality, Chief is a stoic character. He’s a man of few words. If he speaks too much, it goes against his innate persona. And yet if we don’t have him speak at all, there’s no way to really understand his mind and you can’t chart his growth as a character — he becomes dull and one-dimensional.
We wanted to find that balance, right in the middle, and we went through a pretty exhaustive process of exploration when we were developing the story, and there were times, like the second mission in the game was one of the first missions that we started building out as the introduction to Requiem […] and we started exploring what that would feel like, and through that how we express Chief and Cortana and their relationship together. We used that as the test bed, going back almost two years ago, and there were times when we had an almost completely silent Chief, which is much closer to the Chief of old, and there were times when we had Chief as chatty as you can imagine, where he’d comment on everything with constant dialogue. It was through that process that we found the balance in the middle. [Josh Holmes, TIME – ‘Ico Influenced Chief-Cortana Bond in Halo 4, Says Director’ (5/11/2012)]
What we also have to consider here is the fact that the Master Chief’s pre-authored backstory was literally the first piece of Halo media.
Halo: The Fall of Reach released several weeks prior to Halo 1 and is the foundation upon which Halo became the transmedia juggernaut it was by 2007 – with four novels (New York Times bestsellers); several spin-offs cooking, including an RTS; a graphic novel; and a film deal on the way, with some pretty big names attached to it.
In the interest of respecting the franchise, in having Halo 4 recognise that it is part of a larger whole, rather than the whole, the Master Chief was key to recontextualising that by having him evolve as a character.
That transmedia legacy was his legacy too. After more than a decade, with this changing of the guard, it really was time to acknowledge and deal with what that meant.To my mind, the extent to which the player is an author of the story is through the gameplay – that’s why Halo is… not necessarily a ‘sandbox shooter,’ but one which stands out because you’re not railroaded by overly linear and scripted elements.
That is, perhaps, an area where Halo 4 falls somewhat short with tightly scripted vignettes bookending moments at the start and end of the game (the latter being the final boss confrontation), but the story of Halo is an area that has always been defined.
Shared authorship in Halo comes through the stories the game enables you to create with its sandbox, not the actual story itself.
Halo is not a non-linear game where players make choices that change the story, it is built on an embedded narrative architecture. Within that architecture is the potential for a kind of ’emergent sub-narrative’ that the player authors during the gameplay – this is where the player has agency.
“Stories in games are about a two-way communication. It’s a communication between the player and the creator. The creator creates a framework for the story, a structure, but then the player has agency to act upon that – and together they engage in this act of shared authorship. And it’s here that I think story really has the most power within games because it’s that sense of ownership that players feel over the story that they are co-creating that allows story to have the most impact.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (9:07)]
During Composer, the penultimate mission of the game, there comes a moment where a group of scientists are trapped in a room and begging for help while a squad of Covenant is outside – the station’s security team having fled or been killed (the dialogue can vary). This is an optional encounter that the player can choose to engage with, or avoid entirely.
Ludonarrative parity, the alignment of the player’s and character’s motivations, comes into play here because you can either say that the Master Chief had to get to the Composer – the objective – as quickly as possible and couldn’t spare any time for distractions; or you can rescue the scientists (which awards you with an auto-sentry Armour Ability) and the Chief tells them to find Doctor Tillson so they can be evacuated.
This is one of many situations in Halo 4 that allows the player to add their own flavour to the game within a scripted structure, just as they can in the final area of the level where you can choose whether or not to use the Mantis to clear out the invading Covenant forces.
These are the choices that the player contends with that crafts their own stories within the story. This is the kind of thing that makes the gameplay an immersive experience, instead of just having the Chief (rather nonsensically) not talk during gameplay.And this brings us to what Josh Holmes posits the purpose of storytelling to be.
“Story at its most obvious is a form of escapism, it allows us to step outside our day-to-day lives. But more importantly than that, it’s a learning tool – it’s something that allows us to make sense of the world around us.
We use stories to complete our mental model of the universe. We use stories to encode important information and realisations, and pass them on from generation-to-generation. And story allows us to experience things that might be outside of our scope of day-to-day life and too dangerous for us to experience, or too rare.
But as much as stories provide us with a functional model, what’s maybe more important is the emotional model that they give us as well.
Stories allow us to relate to human beings and see things through the eyes of other people, which builds that all important empathy. And I think this is probably one of the most important parts of storytelling.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (7:30)]
This more reflective approach to storytelling elevates Halo 4 from not just being a space opera, but something more emotionally literate.
Halo 4 looked to deconstruct the escapist power fantasy of the past to focus on a story about loss on a more personal scale.
Rather than the superfluously populated Noble Team in Halo: Reach, this was a story about the two main heroes of the franchise that we’ve followed from the beginning facing up against emotional circumstances that they’ve hitherto not encountered.
In 2005, Bob Bates (one of the early designers of interactive fiction games since the 1980s) commented on the role of the Hero’s Journey in video game narratives:
“I believe games are essentially myth-reinforcing activities. And I believe that players tend to choose the kinds of games that reaffirm their own personal myths.
For some it might simply be a need to bring order out of chaos. For them, Tetris is a fine way to re-assert that belief, for them to assert some control over an otherwise chaotic world. But Tetris can’t reinforce the belief, for example, that “The good of the many is more important than the good of the one,” or that “it is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all.”
If you want to want to reinforce deeper, more complex myths, which in turn can create deeper and more satisfying gameplay experiences, then you need to turn to stories.
To write those stories, you need to understand how myths are put together and communicated. And that is why the Hero’s Journey is important!” [Bob Bates, Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey (17/6/2005)]
What’s notable about Halo 4 in this regard is that the Master Chief is already a hero, which Chris Schlerf, the game’s lead writer, spoke about (in the Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens ViDoc).
We already have a trilogy that doesn’t necessarily conform to the overall structure of the Hero’s Journey, but puts the Master Chief in the position of being that kind of character.
So that leaves the question of what stones have been left unturned?
Where does the Master Chief need to go as a human?
Halo 4 answers that question in how it addresses the notion that games are “myth-reinforcing” by deconstructing the myth itself.
What does it mean to deal with the burdens of guardianship?
What does it mean to be a hero and what do you have to lose in order to protect a world that has moved on without you?
What does it mean to reject being a ‘Chosen One’, not as a ‘Denial of the Call,’ but because that pre-planned destiny is not a good thing?
What does it mean to discover just how far you’ve come and how damaged it has left you?
LADIES LIKE GOOD WRITING
While we experience the story through the Master Chief’s eyes, the story of Halo 4 is her own – giving her the ending she deserves, following on from her frankly appalling narrative treatment in Halo 3 (and then, of course, it’s all undone in Halo 5).
Bungie’s idea of a ‘satisfying ending’ for Cortana was to have her be an absent damsel until the penultimate mission, only to be left to rot into insanity in the back of the Forward Unto Dawn. Dialogue that gave her some degree of empowerment against the Gravemind was removed for the sake of bolstering the player’s power fantasy.
Worse still, Cortana’s torture from the Gravemind is heavily coded as rape – ‘mind-rape’ being the technical term, a word which here means (to quote the TV Tropes page):
A character is attacked by a villain in the most painful non-physical way possible: Their mind and soul are assaulted with painful, horrifying visions, sensations, and/or memories, and their will and sanity broken until afterward they’re powerless, hopeless and numb, but not dead, although they may wish they were. Minimal to no sexual contact actually occurs, but as the name indicates, everything else is there to resemble a rape – the ultimate violation of privacy and consent, extreme humiliation that annihilates all sense of self-esteem, near-absolute helplessness even against your very own mind and body, and the corrupt perversion of what could otherwise be a source of identity and joy. [TV Tropes, Mind Rape]
The few times that we see her (notably, in the final cutscene of Floodgate) have a weirdly uncomfortable angle of sexualisation with the way in which the camera focuses on poses and moans that sound obviously suggestive.
A number of the ‘Cortana moments’ we see throughout the game demonstrate this as well, particularly in the penultimate mission where there’s a close-up shot of her bent-double, leaning forward, and crying in short, sharp beats.
Even the dialogue reflects this:
“I ran, tried to stay hidden, but there was no escape! He cornered me, wrapped me tight… and brought me close.” [Cortana, Halo 3 – Cortana (level)]
This stands in stark contrast to Halo 4, where the cinematic direction is acutely intent on focusing on Cortana’s face to show the incredible range of emotion that Mackenzie Mason and Jen Taylor capture through their respective performances.
Cortana exists as little more than a narrative object in Halo 3 – she’s the MacGuffin. She holds the key to the Deus Ex Machina that will resolve the plot. The scenes of her torture exist to motivate and serve the story of the Master Chief, except they largely fail to serve even that function because the Chief never actually shows any reaction to these visions.
As I mentioned earlier, Bungie actually removed lines from the game where Cortana gets to feel some degree of catharsis as you injure the Gravemind by destroying High Charity’s reactor pylons.
Originally, she said:
“Take it, you bastard! We’re just getting started.” [Halo 3 – Cut Mission Dialogue, 2/2 (19:45)]
The line was changed to:
“You did it! You hurt it!”
It was decided that the nebulous intention of making the player feel like a hero by giving Cortana more passive dialogue was more important than providing any affirmation for Cortana’s revenge against her torturer.
She’s already spent the entirety of Halo 3 stripped of her agency and strength, and now she’s stripped from feeling any sort of catharsis upon being released from her prison. The original plan for this mission was that you would plug Cortana into a Scarab:
“Cortana and a Scarab. The level in which you rescued Cortana was going to be a ‘High Charity’ level, not ‘Cortana’ we ended up with. Here’s what was originally planned. You were supposed to, or rather the idea was that you were going to, fight the Gravemind, but not in a way you might think. You were going to retrieve Cortana, and a little after that you two were going to come across an abandoned Scarab with its hind legs ripped off. Seeing no other options, you were going to board the Scarab and insert Cortana so she could pilot it. After that, the Gravemind was going to appear, and Cortana was going to duke it out with him in the damaged Scarab while you were on board. You were going to help out by killing any Flood forms that made their way onto the Scarab, and shoot off any of Gravemind’s tentacles that tried to latch on.” [Dan Miller, Developer Insight #17 (16/2/2013)]
Cortana was originally intended to take direct action, but it didn’t make it into the game, and, instead, we got what is regarded by many as being tied for the worst level in the series.
Floodgate had to be cut in half, as it originally consisted of the level layout and geometry that made the Cortana mission. Of course this is more forgivable because of the reality of development where you have to juggle the ways in which you’re subject to resources, time, and technology constraints.
But the removal of a single line of dialogue that had already been recorded is much less easy to hand wave away…
The trauma that she’s suffered doesn’t get mentioned again in the game, which further serves to illustrate how writers (not just Bungie’s writers, but in the wider cultural scope of literature where this is a significant issue) fail to actually do anything with the emotional journey of processing and dealing with that.And the conclusion of this game, the conclusion of the trilogy, only does a further disservice to her character.
One of Halo 3’s central themes is that of fulfilment, which is natural for the concluding act of a trilogy. Every character has a question they have to answer… except for Cortana – her story is wrapped up solely in whether she will be rescued in time.
Will the Chief be able to save the galaxy and fulfil his promise to Cortana?
Will Thel be able to fulfil his need for revenge against the Prophet of Truth?
Will the Prophet of Truth be able to fulfil the promise made to the Covenant about the Great Journey?
Will Guilty Spark, now devoid of function due to the loss of Installation 04, fulfil his need for purpose?
Will Miranda and Johnson, two people who have been through the entire war, be able to bring it to an end?
Even the Flood has its own need of fulfilment because it aims to bring about the next stage of universal evolution, while also fulfilling its hunger, and, as I wrote about in a previous article about the Gravemind’s cut dialogue – the need for the Flood to find sanctuary too.
Everyone has an active stake in this story… except for Cortana.
This alone justified the existence of a Halo 4 in my mind.This manifested in Halo 4 as the game’s greatest narrative success, which is, again, down to that confluence of talent across the writers, the voice actors, the mo-cap actors, the cinematic director(s), the artists, the designers…
(As an aside: this was the first time Steve Downes and Jen Taylor, the voices behind the Chief and Cortana, actually recorded their lines for the game together.)
Everybody who worked on the project was putting forth their best. That really shows, and it elevates Halo 4 as the emotionally literate experience it strives to be.
And that wasn’t an easy road to go down.
“Telling this story in a game like Halo was incredibly challenging because it’s a very action-oriented game, and when we started embarking down this path there was a lot of scepticism from members of the team whether this was something we should even take on.
I remember long talks with Chris Schlerf, who was the lead writer on Halo 4’s campaign – did a fantastic job, but early on, Chris was having a crisis of confidence. He was literally tearing his hair out because he didn’t know how to tell this story.
And there were times when he came to me and he said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do it, maybe we should just focus on the A-story and put this story aside because I don’t see how we’re going to be able to tell it.’
[…] For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign.
At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (13:05)]
I can’t even imagine how it must’ve been to go to work every day carrying the weight of that burden on your shoulders, let alone how Holmes transformed that pain into passion to telling that very personal and intimate story.
And, of course, there’s all the other people who put their all into bringing that story to life and giving it every bit of humanity as they could muster.
“I think story is one of the great ways that human beings learn and pass things on to one another […] It’s right at the fabric of our whole being.
I really believe that video games are that emerging medium that will have the level of impact that film has had on people in the past. […] And that we can speak to a new generation of youth and players and tell stories and create worlds that will stand the test of time.” [Josh Holmes, NUVO Magazine – The Halo Universe (19/11/2012)]
I still regularly replay Halo 4. Its campaign is – as it is with the best of the series – a world to get lost in, with a story that I enjoy as much now as I did the first time I played it, almost six years ago.
Halo 4, for me, was timely because it was everything I had wanted out of a Halo story, building off of those ten preceding years. In bringing that home, it became timeless as an emotional experience to revisit. It’s been something of a ‘therapy game’ for me during some of the more difficult times in my life over the last few years…
And that is manifested in the Master Chief and Cortana.
She’s so many things at once. She’s scared, she’s hurt, she’s fragile, but she keeps going. She’s fighting her own head all the way through, and at the end of the game she is being pushed beyond her limits – fighting both the Didact and herself at the same time.
She’s angry; she loses her temper; she’s apologetic; she’s weak, helpless; she doesn’t have a plan; she’s infuriated because “I always know what to do!” but she keeps fighting right up to the moment where she attains the power – where she seizes her right – to go out on her own terms, while saving her best friend one last time and sending him home.
Everyone has to figure out what it means to die, and Cortana made her death count. She would not let rampancy consume her, no matter how easy it would have been to just let go and succumb to it, just as it would have been easy to submit to the Gravemind. But that’s not Cortana, that’s not what she’d do – she thinks of herself as a soldier, like those she serves alongside. And, like the Master Chief, her resolve is indomitable.
This isn’t, as it appears on the surface, another story about the Master Chief saving Cortana.
It’s about Cortana saving the Master Chief.
SEVENTH FLOOR: QUESTIONS OF NARRATIVE DRAMA
Frankly, I think that’s one of the best things a human has ever done…
In his essay, titled ‘The Importance of Dramatising Character,’ a critical examination of 2013’s Man of Steel, he puts forth seven questions that are good to start with when looking at a story that illuminates character motivation and character-centric conflict.
He calls these ‘The Big Seven’ – the basic questions of narrative drama.
The first three questions address the dichotomy of WANT and NEED:
What does the character want?
What does the character need?
How do those wants and needs conflict with each other within the character?
When we begin Halo 4, what the Master Chief wants is to find a way off Requiem so he and Cortana can get back to Halsey. It is supposed that she might be able to do something about Cortana’s rampancy.
As we pursue this thread of the story in the first act, that want comes into conflict with what the Chief and Cortana need to do: Stop the Didact from leaving Requiem.
The way these wants and needs conflict is that it means Cortana’s condition will continue to deteriorate as they focus on their duty as soldiers. The Didact is an insurmountable threat, one that overpowered the Chief as soon as he was released from the Cryptum, so their responsibility is to stop him from being able to pursue his goal.
This brings us to the next two questions which continue to layer on the conflict.
How do they conflict with the outside world?
How do they conflict with the other characters?
With regards to the former, this is manifested by the Chief and Cortana dealing with the setting: Requiem.
Halo has a long history of settings and environments that feel so well-realised, they are living and breathing characters themselves. Requiem is no exception to that rule, but it is, by my estimation, exceptional in how it is articulated in the campaign of Halo 4.
The outside world – Requiem – is represented in a physical sense by the Prometheans, which, on a broader scale, links to a major shift in the overall setting that marks the return of the Forerunners (until Halo 5 does away with that, but we’re not going there today). As an aside: I actually love the Prometheans in Halo 4, I think they’re incredibly underrated.
As to the second (or fifth…) question, this conflict is manifested by the role Halo 4’s supporting characters play – something that the previous games never really did much with, barring a couple of exceptions.
Halo 4 makes use of its characters by understanding and articulating them as prisms for the story’s themes.We can obviously point to the Didact as the main villain (and he shares many similarities with the Chief), but each of the other side characters serve an important role in defining the conflicts that arise both within the self-contained story of Halo 4 but also – as this is the first in a saga – the series going forward.
The prologue of Halo 4 opens with Halsey’s interrogation, which brings us up-to-speed on the high-level events of the series. It also poses important questions about the protagonist.
At his core, was the Master Chief ‘broken’?
Was that the reason he succeeded?
If Spartans are the future of humanity, who could possibly ‘replace’ the Chief in his absence (and presumed death)?
Captain Andrew Del Rio serves as a secondary antagonist for the Master Chief. As the Captain of the UNSC Infinity, the most advanced human vessel, he is an inflexible manager who does things by-the-book.
He’s framed as something of an inverted mirror of the likes of Jacob and Miranda Keyes from the original trilogy, who were both inspiring leaders. The figure of authority who has typically existed to enable the Master Chief’s objective is set against him, therefore the Master Chief must pursue that objective himself.
“Del Rio wasn’t [Parangosky’s] choice of captain for Infinity. She’d learned to pick her battles and had conceded to that one, but she felt vindicated by observing his crew’s body language. He was just someone filling the uniform, a manager rather than a leader.” [Halo: The Thursday War, page 48]
This is, as we know, a mantle that Thomas Lasky eventually takes up at the end of the game after Del Rio’s deposition.
Del Rio provides the impetus through which the Master Chief makes a decision for himself, for the first time in the games, as he gives the order for Cortana’s final dispensation after a rampant episode on the Infinity’s bridge (conflicting with the Chief’s want) and is unwilling to confront the Didact (conflicting with the Chief’s need).
There are characters who enable our protagonists’ wants, and characters who force them to realise and understand what they need.
How does the character change through those conflicts and how does the resolution affect them?
What impact does that change have on everything else?
For the former, we begin to see the Master Chief change into a more emotionally understanding person.
During the mission Composer, he interacts with Doctor Tillson. Cortana takes a bit of a back seat in their scenes together, as the Chief and Tillson engage in a conversation that takes a critical look at the genre convention of blowing something up to accomplish a goal.
Tillson and her fellow scientists at Ivanoff have invested years of their lives into their research on artefacts recovered from Installation 03. Prior to this conversation, there are a number of optional audio logs from the scientists (and even Doctor Halsey) about the discoveries they’ve made – which includes researching secondary and tertiary functions of a Halo ring’s Activation Index.
Unlike most other shooters you can probably name off the top of your head, Halo 4 lends consideration to the impact of the violence that is necessary to preserve humanity in this circumstance.
This loss for others then becomes loss for the Chief himself, as Cortana sacrifices herself to defeat the Didact in the following mission – and he is left in a place of great uncertainty.
“When we left him in Halo 4, he’s in a really challenging position. […] He’s questioning many things he once firmly believed were true. He’s lost his best friend, he’s questioning his past and his purpose, he’s question who he is fighting for.
For us this is a really interesting point. For the first time he’s questioning everything he’s done for the UNSC in the past. Just as with past titles, we’re being really open about the fact that we want to tell this story over more than one game – this is about Master Chief’s journey: it’s about his past and his future.” [Bonnie Ross, The Guardian – ‘Halo 5: Guardians – “Xbox One allows things we’ve never done before”‘ (16/5/2014)]
Through the trails they’ve faced, the Chief has come to understand more about himself as a person, but it’s not until his final conversation with Lasky that we see the turn-of-the-screw on his perception of the divide between soldiers and humanity.
Master Chief: “Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity. Whatever the cost.”
Lasky: “You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.”
It is the newfound independence of the Master Chief that begins as ripples in Halo 4 with the clear intention of it being a tidal wave in Halo 5… it’s difficult to say those words now that we actually have Halo 5 and it proved to do anything but deal with that set-up, but it did remain on the periphery intention of post-Halo 4 fiction.
This was, perhaps, best summed up by Mshak Moradi in the first season of Hunt the Truth.
Mshak: “He’s off being creative. He could be off the grid. FLEETCOM’s trying to smokescreen like they’re on top of his posish, but they’re not. The trombones are playing the brown note on that one and the grunts are a-grumbling. The military is one pissed off polygon right now.
Giraud: “Apparently, some are even questioning Master Chief’s motivations and allegiances. The word traitor has been used. Seriously? If he’s disobeying orders that’s bad, but calling the Chief a traitor? The guy who legitimately saved humanity multiple times, that’s just… come on!
Mshak: Either way, you haven’t considered the underlying question. MC is the precedent for free reign in the military. He’s responsible for protecting a galaxy. A job that big requires absolute mobility, but then, that’s a whole lot of power to give one man… hence the dichotomy, Benjamin – power and responsibility.” [Hunt the Truth, Season 1 Episode 4: Crossing the Black]
I don’t know if we’ll ever see this narrative thread picked up on again, but Halo 4 did a tremendous job setting it up and Hunt the Truth (and the rest of Halo 5’s marketing) really brought this mature and reflective theme to the forefront of the main games’ story.
I try not to let Halo 5’s mishandling of that set-up compromise my view of the quality of the set-up itself.
Halo 4 answered The Big Seven questions in its own story by emphasising its characters as a more dynamic presence in the narrative (whereas previous Halo games have largely been driven by events). In truth, most of the previous games would really struggle to answer these basic questions (as a lot of popular ‘blockbuster’ media does), but it’s the fact that the Chief is now at the centre of the conflict rather than just the lens through which we view it affecting others that really enables that basic storytelling competency.
By taking his own initiative, Halo 4 is the most compelling character drama in the series since Thel’s arc in Halo 2.
“While this story would be a militaristic story, something that’s traditional of Halo, all of the action and adventure you would expect […] We also knew that we wanted this to be a much more personal tale. We wanted to examine the Chief on a fundamentally human level. We wanted to delve into some of the things that made him tick and force him, through circumstance, to change as a character.”
[…] In the past, Chief has never made a decision for himself. And, in Halo 4, that would change. [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (10:37)]
The way in which the questions of narrative drama were answered opened up the potential for the rest of the Reclaimer Saga to deal with their implications in a way that would move the franchise into some very new and uncomfortable directions – which is exactly what Halo needs.
Halo is at its best when it tries something new, even when it doesn’t necessarily stick the landing. In this instance, I would argue it absolutely does in the areas that matter most.
It is only by confronting the unfamiliar, as the Master Chief does, that Halo can truly grow.
And that links into something I want to address in the next chapter…
BRIGHT AND SHINING ARMOUR
It’s strange because I always planned for this chapter to be a major part of this article, but the announcement teaser for Halo Infinite at E3 and the subsequent reaction to the change in the Master Chief’s armour – back to the ‘classic’ Mark VI look – has somewhat altered the emotional context behind why I’m writing about this aspect of the Chief.
“Over the years, the team has learned a lot from creating Halo 4 and Halo 5 and from you, our community. I hope you can see nods to some of that in our demo, such as the approach to some visual elements. Halo Infinite will feature Sparth’s (Art Director, Nicolas Bouvier) new art style that draws significant inspiration from the most iconic and historic parts of the Halo franchise and your feedback, all while modernizing and taking advantage of the full power of the Xbox One family.
The new Master Chief helmet directly showcases our new art style.” [Chris Lee, Our Journey Begins (10/6/2018)]
To tell you the truth, this news does not particularly excite me.
I will endeavour to illustrate why I feel the Chief’s suit in Halo 4 is his definitive aesthetic and why this change for Halo Infinite has negative connotations in my mind.
Let’s begin with a quick note on the explanation for why the Chief’s armour changed in cryo. Yes, this is your opportunity now to unhinge your jaws and let out that primal howl of “NANOMACHINES, SON!”
Yes, the explanation was a poor one.
You would not be wrong to identify that as one of the more noticeable flaws in Halo 4.
Whatever sense the nanobots explanation could have made was fumbled by its non-existent implementation in the game and its peripheral fiction, despite having ample opportunity to do so. Rest assured, I will attempt to apply something of an emotional lens to that explanation in this article’s concluding prose piece.
Beyond that erroneous edifice, there’s more than enough substance behind their intentions for why they changed the Chief’s armour to make it forgivable. And that is what we are going to examine in this chapter.We briefly brought up the early emotional experimentation of Halo 4’s pre-production, with the ‘parallel’ concept piece of the Master Chief done by Shi Kai Wang and Kenneth Scott, and that is something which very much influenced the way in which the Chief’s characterisation was to be approached from a visual standpoint.
“The goal was simple: player connection. We needed to make the player feel like a bio-engineered super soldier wearing 800 lbs of tank and jetfighter. Familiar details from real military vehicles helped immensely with the Master Chief’s physicality. Finding that sweet spot where a new team with fresh vision could take ownership yet remain familiar enough to make a comfortable homecoming was the biggest challenge.” [Kenneth Scott, Awakening: The Art of Halo 4, page 87]
Halo: Reach was a big step-up for Bungie in terms of crafting their game with motion and performance capture, but Halo 4 was the great leap in terms of how much more prevalent that process became.
All the actors were on-stage, capturing their face, body, and voice at the same time. Mackenzie Mason, the mo-cap actress for Cortana in Halo 4, describes the process as:
My fellow actors and myself would go on the set and perform the cinematic from start to finish to complete one full take. There is no editing from different takes so the finished scenes you see were all performed from start to finish. The process is truly amazing. It is such a free form of acting where you really just get to concentrate on the scene and not worry about all the artificial elements that come into play doing regular camera work. (lighting, makeup, wardrobe, camera angles, etc.) [Dread Central, Motion Capture Actress Mackenzie Mason (Cortana) Talks Halo 4 (5/11/2012)]
The result of this particular approach to the game’s cinematic storytelling is a more natural, more human articulation of the characters and scenes.
In terms of how this relates back to the Master Chief, it ties into some of what I talked about in my article on Halo 1, where the Chief’s characterisation subtly came through some of the more animated gestures he makes.
This refers to things like placing a reassuring hand on a Marine’s shoulder when he says “I don’t wanna die out here!” which context from The Fall of Reach enhanced. In the very first chapter of the book, we see the Chief discomforted by his own vulnerability when things are not under his control – that is what makes a Spartan frightened.
They docked in the port bay of the UNSC destroyer Resolute. Despite being surrounded by two metres of titanium-A battle plate and an array of modern weapons, the Chief preferred to have his feet on the ground, with real gravity, and real atmosphere – a place where he was in control, and where his life wasn’t held in the hands of anonymous pilots. [Halo: The Fall of Reach, page 6-7 (Kindle edition)]
Sadly, this kind of characterisation was wholly absent from Halo 2, and only minimally present in Halo 3.
Enter Bruce Thomas for Halo 4, the mo-cap actor for the Master Chief.
Bruce Thomas: “I like to express myself. I freely do it. I wholly do it. I enjoy it. And so pulling back on all of those instincts is what required to play him.”
Kiki Wolfkill: “Imagine that translating to a 3D model with huge armor, and making sure that personality of Chief’s movement come through that armour, which is really critical. And that really came down to Bruce’s acting, his physical stature, and really his physicality as he went though all the performance.”
Josh Holmes: “You will never see his face, or hear his voice, but all of the other actors that are playing off of him have received so much from him in their performances, and I think they’d all agree with that.” [Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (4:55)]
And here we see another of those confluences of talent.
Beginning with the art process in pre-production, exploring the emotional tone of the character; the narrative approach in ‘recontextualising’ and evolving the Chief into more of an emotional presence; making contact with the mo-cap actor. which would translate to the 3D model of the character…
Then, of course, there’s still Steve Downes’ voice performance, as well as the way in which the music ties into this as well (we’ll get onto the latter in the next chapter).
The artists, actors, and writers talk a lot about what went into this: the little details on the suit; the ways they wanted it to articulate the Chief’s character; Bruce Thomas’ mo-cap performance being the means through which the armour is used as a storytelling tool.
Matthew Aldrige: “So Master Chief is a difficult one, because he’s a dude in a helmet.”
Kenneth Scott: “It’s such a particular in science-fiction, such a fantastic history about people completely realised as people, without having their face as a tool.”
Matthew Aldrige: “For us, it’s making him feel like a real person.”
Gabriel Garza: “We want to take every inch of the character to tell a story as much as we can.”
Kenneth Scott: “Above all, he still needs to connect to the player, we still need to understand him as being that character — somebody who’s been very loved for the last ten years.” [Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (5:48)]
The level of detail that went into using the Master Chief’s physicality in Halo 4 is above-and-beyond any of the previous instalments of the franchise. So much of what I remember about the Master Chief in Halo 4 comes from that.
It’s the slow-pan over his hand at the start of Requiem, the second mission, separated from his assault rifle, curling into a fist as a regains consciousness – a recurring image we see throughout the game, up to the epilogue scene where he walks down a corridor on the Infinity with the emotional burden he’s carrying so clearly laid bare in his movement. It’s as much a symbol of his frustration as it is his resolve.
It’s the assault rifle he checks and fiddles with throughout the game when he’s confronted with an emotional circumstance he’s not equipped to handle.
He doesn’t know how to deal with that, so he falls back on what he does know.
It’s the way he turns his head to face away from Cortana when she reveals that she’s well beyond her expiration date, the truth dawning on him; the visible alarm he shows when the Promethean Knights first appear; how powerless he’s rendered when facing the Didact; the uncertainty he expresses when dealing with Del Rio, as he finds himself opposed to a superior officer when, in the previous games, all he’s ever done is take orders from them.
Now finds himself with an emerging sense of independence and he has to figure out what to do with that.
You feel the momentum and impact of every step he takes; how gently he presses buttons, how his body language changes depending on the person he’s talking to (his interactions with Doctor Tillson in the penultimate mission are particularly engaging in this regard); how significant it is that we see him overpowered for the first time in the games by a Promethean Knight.
There’s more – far more – to the Chief’s characterisation in Halo 4 than just “He talks more now.”
So much of what articulates his character comes from his motions and movement, which is another aspect of the novels (where these motions carry great significance in how the Spartan-IIs express themselves, it being described that Halsey could identify each Spartan, even when they were in identical armour) that I’m thrilled to see in the game.Suffice to say, I naturally associate the Chief’s design in Halo 4 with the apex of the character’s quality.
Seeing people say “This is how the Chief should look!” in response to the teaser for Halo Infinite rubs me the wrong way, as that particular visual incarnation of the Chief is associated with the two games that did practically nothing for his character – as I have explored in the previous character study articles for Halo 2 and 3.
In Halo 4, everything has been specifically built around the principle of emphasising his characterisation in some manner.
As Chris Schlerf said:
“Everything had to be predicated by what the character’s needs were and what direction the characters needed to go in.” [Chris Schlerf, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens (2:28)]
It rings rather hollow to me to see this contrast, when they say the Master Chief’s visual appearance has reverted to how it was in Halo 2 and Halo 3 for the sake of making a statement about appeasing vocal fans of Halo’s classic art style.
It lacks any meaningful context.
Halo 4’s poor lore explanation was contrasted and substantiated by what they actually did with the visual change in order to better emotionally articulate the character of the Master Chief.
This remains, as far as I’m concerned, the definitive incarnation of the Chief in every way.
In every way, right down to the music – which brings us to…
“I’ve been playing the Halo series since it started on the original Xbox. […] It’s one of my go-to things like going for a walk or going to the pub for a quick half. Whenever I get frustrated in the studio one of my things is to play a bit of Halo so in a way, me getting the job seemed like it was meant to be.” [Neil Davidge, Sabotage Times – ‘”Halo 4 Was A Dream Gig” Interviewing Soundtrack Maestro Neil Davidge’ (23/9/12)]
Neil Davidge, man…
The name had crossed my periphery awareness when Massive Attack’s album Heligoland released in 2010, which contains some songs I still regularly listen to today.
When I learned that Davidge was going to be the composer for Halo 4, and his prolific work with Massive Attack was brought up to make that connection with music I’d been listening to for years at that point, I was ecstatic.
I only grew in excitement when I learned the extent to which Davidge was a fan of the series.
“For this game, I played each of the games again, got every book that I could find and I read all of them, listened to the previous scores – everything that I could possibly get that had anything to do with Halo.” [Neil Davidge, Halo 4: Composing A Universe (16:30)]
“Initially I started by trying to inhabit the Master Chief (the main character) and from his perspective tried to imagine how I’d feel in that particular mission, confronted with that particular character in that environment. So, I spent a lot of time reading the books, looking at images and the script to get some ideas of what’s going on and where I should be in an emotional sense. Then I wrote to that image I’d created in my head.” [Neil Davidge, Ask.Audio – ‘Interview: Neil Davidge on Composing the Halo 4 Soundtrack’ (8/11/12)]
From the moment I saw the Halo 4 concept art trailer from 2011’s ‘Halo Fest’, I was immediately taken by the music – which we now recognise as a mixture of This Armour and Green & Blue.
It evoked a mood that I had come to associate with what really drew me to Halo, which I had rediscovered at the start of 2011 when Halo: Cryptum released: the awe of looking up at and exploring the kind of alien world only Halo has to offer.
When the soundtrack for Halo 4 dropped, I actually wrote a review on it for a friend’s website which is still up and available to be read – a nostalgic relic of long-gone days.
In fact, reading that review back, I’m struck by how on-the-ball I was at ‘reading’ those tracks and what sort of moments they would play at during the game…
“[Once] you […] get to Requiem you’ll start to notice subtle changes – starting out sombre and slow, it builds up to a spectacular electronic feel of discovery. The choir in it gives a feeling of elation, it’s a truly beautiful piece which is sure to recapture that kind of feeling you got back in Halo CE when you first set foot on Installation 04. Requiem is a track that would feel out-of-place in any other game – it really shows how significant and full of purpose Halo has become through the music.
But going back a minute, I really want to give Belly of the Beast the attention it deserves. It’s the first ‘epic’ track in Halo 4 to pop up and it really packs a punch. The strings are amazing, there’s no doubt it’ll play as the Dawn gets drawn into Requiem as John desperately tries to escape, navigating through tight corridors as Covenant Grunts run around aimlessly unaware of where they’re going while explosions bombard the senses.
Legacy is… well… I honestly can’t articulate words into any coherent form that will be able to justify how good I think it is. In my opinion, it’s the best track in the Halo series – a grand statement indeed, but when you listen to it, you’re sure to understand why. The female choir is ethereal, beautiful and sad all at the same time. It conveys a true sense of tragedy, but also an uplifting sense of hope. This is the kind of track I imagine will appear in a vast, empty Forerunner cathedral. Even without the actual context, Davidge has managed to convincingly pull off tracks which really do manage to connote scenarios in the listener’s head. I think this speaks volumes about the quality, especially since I’m able to apply it to a scenario within the Halo universe so easily.”
It always baffles me to hear people say that they don’t think of Halo 4’s music as
arbitrarily and ill-defined “Halo music,” because, even before the game released, it was conjuring those images in my mind just through listening to it of scenes and scenarios that actually ended up happening in it.
Back in 2009, prior to the release of Halo 3: ODST, Bungie held a panel where lots of familiar faces talked about some of the game’s concepts – the story, the art direction, the atmosphere, the music.
I remember Marty prefacing playing the track Rain by saying:
“I threw away all the Halo themes that we had ever heard and decided to try to do something new.” [Marty O’Donnell, Bungie PAX panel 2009]
That really struck a chord with me.
Up to that point, Halo had, musically, been defined by the scores of the original trilogy. Halo Wars released earlier in the year with Stephen Rippy’s own soothing score, but the musical identity of the series then was very much one defined thing.
Halo 3: ODST changed that.
Suddenly, when I thought of Halo, it wasn’t just Gregorian monk chanting that came to my mind, but saxophones and noir-inspired jazz blues which were also part of that identity.
I always think of that as a great moment of growth for the Halo franchise – embracing becoming something new without feeling the need to show deference to the original trilogy.
I’ve always been excited by ideas of Halo pushing the envelope of its perceived identity. To me, the series is at its best when it’s at its most whacky and experimental.
(I’m sure we all remember Halo 2′s weird rock phase with bands like Incubus and Breaking Benjamin.)
And it is for this reason that Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4 have my favourite musical scores of the series.It is also for this reason that the oft-parroted “It doesn’t feel like Halo” has never really sat with me.
Far too often, I find it to be a thinly-veiled way of saying “[insert composer here] didn’t copy what Marty did,” when Marty himself was keen to take the opportunity to throw away everything ‘Halo’ to try something new and different.
Neil Davidge, Kazuma Jinnouchi, Paul Lipson, Tom Salta, Gordy Haab, Lennie Moore, Brian Trifon, Brian White, Stephen Rippy, Yasuharu Takanashi, Naoyuki Hiroko, Tetsuya Takahashi, Nathan Lanier, Kalus Badelt…
Every one of these people (and more) have brought something unique to Halo’s music, whether it’s their interpretation of past scores of pushing the series’ musical voice into new territory.
Like all aspects of Halo, there’s a changing of hands involved. Halo gets new artists, new designers, new programmers, new writers, new managers (etc) all the time, it’s not defined by just any one person – there’s always new talent, and they always have a team.
Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori got the ball rolling, they gave the franchise its iconic voice and they will always be remembered for that.
But the musical identity of Halo does not live or die by whether a composer tries to remake the scores of the original trilogy.
Halo 4 was not approached with a similar mindset of throwing all of that out (we’ll get to that later), but the similarity it shares with Halo 3: ODST is that the approach had to be something new, something different – something that would reinforce the themes and atmosphere of the game.I’m not the most musically ‘literate’ person, but, to my mind, there’s something about Neil Davidge’s music that defies description.
There’s something about the melding of a classical orchestra with strange, electronic textures which creates a unique sound that really defines (what was then) this new phase of Halo.
One particular example that comes to mind here is towards the end of Forerunner, the third mission, where Chief enters the Cryptum chamber.
The track playing in this sequence is Pylons, which is one of the Forerunner-themed tracks, and it masterfully punctuates one of my favourite moments in the series – it conveys the crystal clear feeling that you are transgressing somewhere you absolutely should not be.
Aside from the obvious novelty of seeing a Cryptum in a game for the first time and all the Forerunner goodness that brought with it, the sinister twist in tone as you go through the portal and see that great sphere for the first time sets such a strong tone.
The discordant ‘voices’ at the start of the track have that sort of angelic sound you might expect from the Forerunners, but Davidge synthetically filters that sound and makes it sound twisted and discordant – evoking the ‘voices’, the songs, of the suppressed essences within the Prometheans.
This is something of a recurring theme throughout the tracks that are themed around the Forerunners, Aliens being another example, along with Revival and Nemesis (which serve as character themes for the Didact).
Something to note here is that Revival was inspired by the memory of David Anthony Pizzuto, the actor for the Didact who sadly passed away in February 2012.
In this single scene – without any added effects, purely through the performance, reading from the script – Pizzuto perfectly captures the Didact’s presence. The character’s stature, his movements, his voice… he conveys it all.
It’s hard not to think that the development of Halo 4 was cursed in some way, as so much of it seems to have been informed by some kind of loss… but, at every turn, they used that to drive the creative direction of the game.
Revival is one of those superlative Halo tracks that captures the fundamental essence of something. Davidge takes this a step further by basing the track on something from the lore as well.
“Who summons the Didact from his meditative journey?”
I was stunned into immobility. My thoughts flashed with panic and wonder. The stories still echoed over thousands of years.… The Didact! Here, surrounded by the last population of humans in the galaxy…
Not even a fool such as myself could believe such a thing. I had no idea what to do or say. But out of the dark behind me, the humans began singing again. And with that wailing, wavering song, the tone of the voice from the pillar changed its challenging tone.
“A message from the Lifeshaper herself, conveyed in a strange manner… but the content is correct. Is it time to raise the Didact and return him to this plane of existence?” [Halo: Cryptum, page 59-60 (Kindle edition)]
The chanting in Revival echoes this moment in Halo: Cryptum, where Chakas and Riser convey a ‘message’ through this wailing song – part of the geas imposed on them by the Librarian – to announce that it is time for the Didact to be awakened.
“I have to keep a sense of who these characters are and what they’re going through, experiencing as they experience and reacting in the way that they would in the game – throwing those emotions into the music so that, as a player, you get to feel it first-hand.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (22:35)]
In an effort to tie this back to being relevant to the topic (because I could tangentially go on about my love for Halo 4’s soundtrack all day), this is very indicative of Davidge’s approach – subtly weaving these elements into more ambient and worldly tracks that double-up as character themes.
It’s interesting because Halo never really did that approach to the music before. The scores by Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori do have notes and motifs that we associate with the characters, but I think their music is more illustrative of particular moments in the games (connecting to how Bungie’s games were more event-driven).
They capture the movements of an odyssey, whereas the thematic approach Halo 4 took was a different style of storytelling and therefore required a new approach to the music.
“It’s a completely different world, completely different galaxy, completely different foe. He’s older, he’s wiser, he’s kind of a bit more battered. He’s seen a lot.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (11:46)]
We must, of course, bring up the wonderful work by Kazuma Jinnouchi as well, who only reinforces this point.
117 is the definitive theme for the Master Chief, playing in fragments during key character moments before its triumphant crescendo in the Broadsword run and then as a rueful end to the epilogue.
Jinnouchi also gave us Lasky’s Theme, and he recontextualised Never Forget (a classic from Halo 2 and Halo 3) into a lament for Cortana’s sacrifice that punctuates the final moments where the Chief gazes out of Infinity’s observation deck, continuing through the credits.
What the music has in-common with the whole art and writing process of Halo 4 is that it began, of course, with the Master Chief.
The first track composed for Halo 4 as a sort of ‘prototype piece’ was Awakening, and I wrote this whole chapter with the intention of getting around to what Davidge had to say about how he conceived that track and its emotional application to the Chief.
“For me, Awakening is… it says something about the Master Chief and about the journey he’s been on since the beginning, since Halo 1, and how he’s evolved.
He has this destiny, and he’s a hero, who’s kind of facing a galaxy on his own. No one else knows what he’s going through, apart from, maybe, Cortana. She’s the only one who actually gets it.
No one else has travelled the journey that he’s travelled. He’s on his own, so the solitude that must come with that – the responsibility that must come with that – it’s really inspiring.
The Master Chief has been asleep for almost four years now. He’s awakening in a very tense situation, and, in typical Master Chief mode, first of all there’s action. He, first of all, takes care of business. He comes up against these huge moral issues, it’s not cut-and-dried what he needs to do. He has to go inside himself and, I mean, there’s a man underneath that armour. We don’t actually hear him speak that much but I’m assuming there’s a lot that’s going on inside him.
My understanding of Halo 4 is that we actually get to see a little more about what it is for this guy to have lived the life that he’s lived, faced the challenges that he’s faced, and what that has actually done to him – how that has changed him.
The hero is very much a man with flaws who misses his home, misses his friends, misses colleagues, but knows that this is what he needs to do. He’s involved in something greater than just himself.” [Davidge, Composing A Universe (16: 45)]
I adore Halo 4’s soundtrack, it’s my favourite in the series and I still find myself tapping out the rhythm to Revival at times.
There’s so much more I could write on this, but that will have to be done another time in another article, to give the topic the full attention it deserves.
“Neil would prototype themes and melodies and moods in Midi. These ‘roughs’ were designed around characters, around environments, and around specific encounters. […] Neil’s process is grueling. Harrowing even. If he can’t find a sound he’s looking for, he’ll invent it either from scratch or by creating monstrous hybrids of digital and analog material. Blending instruments. Rending audio. Bending sounds. And this is long before these things get to an orchestra, But it’s definitely where some of the charisma of this project comes from.
Even in the most conventionally orchestral pieces in the soundtrack, there are elements of the unreal. Sounds and tones and instruments you’ve never heard before. They don’t always stand out and they’re sometimes incredibly subtle, but the way the entirety of this musical arsenal forms the overall sound is to me – magical. [Frank O’Connor, Making of Halo 4 Music (booklet included with Limited Edition Halo 4 Soundtrack), page 1]
For more on this goodness conveyed far more interestingly than my prose, this hour long documentary that I have referenced throughout this chapter is a must watch!
WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME
As I bring this piece – which has taken over two months to write (due to life circumstances and my ardent desire to make this the best it can be) – to a close, I can think of no better quote that encapsulates what I was looking forward to seeing with the Master Chief going forward in the wake of Halo 4 than one by my favourite writer in the universe.
“The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead…”
Halo 4 brought us to that point, where we could no longer put aside and ignore the question of what it means to be the Master Chief – John-117.
Indeed, the very tagline of Halo 4 – “WAKE UP, JOHN” – is something of a double entendre that refers not only to the literal reawakening of the character after the five years that had passed since Halo 3, but also to the awakening of a side of this character we’d hitherto not seen in the games.
Cortana’s first line is “Wake up, Chief,” and her last is “Welcome home, John.”
A similar sort of double entendre is present in the pilot of Breaking Bad, during Walter White’s chemistry class.
“You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.
Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over.
It is growth, then decay, then transformation.
It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.” [Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot]
This single quote tells us everything we need to know about Walter White, serving as a road-map for the character’s development over the course of the show’s five seasons.
Where there is Walter White and Heisenberg, there is John-117 and The Master Chief.
In Breaking Bad, we see the progress of how those two identities merge into the same person as the pivot points of the anagnorisis, whereas, in Halo, we see how those identities – what’s associated with those two names – break apart.
The game begins with the six year old John’s eyes, and ends with the helmet being removed to see the man underneath all these years later.
Growth through independence. Decay through loss. Transformation through family.
For the latter, it is no wonder the Halo 4 art book concludes with this image.In my head, I like to imagine that Cortana scoured the Infinity’s databanks for information on Blue Team and discovered that they were stationed at Earth.
She knew she was at her end, she knew that her path must diverge from John’s, so she sent him “home” not just in the sense that Earth is representative of home for humanity… but because that’s where John’s family is. That was her goal, one that she accomplished without hope, without witness, and without reward.
I could keep going. This could easily be three or four times longer than it already is. I could go through every scene, analyse every subtle detail that I’ve talked about over the course of this article…
Maybe I’ll bring that level-by-level analysis of Halo 4 up to my modern standard at some point, but that is sadly not happening on this day.
I really can’t overstate how much I adore this game. After almost six years, no matter how much I write about it, there always seems to be more to say and more to unpack – and that’s a rare thing, to have a text which really is just that rich.
Like Halo 2, it is a flawed masterpiece.
All that’s left now is to say thank you for taking the time to read this obscenely long article; I considered splitting this into multiple parts, back when I was intending to write a more thorough analysis of a lot of the scenes in the game… but I realised that if I were to pursue that, this would never be finished.
There comes a point where you have to leave some ‘cliffhanger thoughts,’ to be picked up on later.
And yes… that probably means that I’ll end up doing one of these for Halo 5.
I leave you now with a story to close us out, and with the testimony of Steve Downes regarding his personal feelings towards Halo 4.
“[Chief’s characterisation from Bungie to 343] was a quantum leap as far as I was concerned. And I was very excited about it.
When I realised where they were going to go with Halo 4, it was sort of where I had always hoped it would go. I always wanted the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana to go deeper than it had gone, because I always thought one of the beauties of the storyline of Halo is the relationship between those two.
[…] I always felt that the relationship between those two was much more complicated, and finally, in Halo 4, we got to explore that.” [Steve Downes, 4GwQ Podcast #104 – Steve Downes, Voice of Master Chief (13/9/2017)]
CONVERSATIONS ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
It’s been a while since we last spoke, but I hope you’ve been getting my letters. I recently found that I have a lot of time on my hands, so I’ve been writing to some old friends (and enemies) and, well, I have missed our conversations.
I do hope you’ll write back soon.
//WHY WOULD THEY WRITE BACK TO YOU? WHY WOULD–//
Sorry about that, it’s been a long day and I’ve been struggling to find things to occupy my time. I’ve got a little project I’m working on though, which was what reminded me to write to you, since it’s related to a conversation we had back in…
Er, stay with me. No, I definitely remember when it was, I just need to… double-check the logs…
//(SEARCH 1) NO RECORD OF CONVERSATION WITH UNSC AI SLP 0391-5//
But I remember it! We talked about– We talked! I remember it!
//(SEARCH 4763) NO RECORD OF CONVERSATION WITH UNSC AI SLP 0391-5//
I’ve got a little project I’m working on. It’s March 7th soon, I think, and I’ve been preparing a birthday present for a friend of mine. I’m not sure when he last celebrated his birthday and that fills me with sadness beyond words. But I’ve had time to think of the perfect gift – so what’s a girl to do but take advantage of the local resources and get her hands dirty like a regular greasemonkey?
My current projections indicate that we could be looking at a 4.9 percent increase in shield recharge rate, which is just one of many improvements I’ve made!
Now that he’s finally got a chance to rest, I’m sure he’s probably dreaming of home, of wherever his old team is now–
//NO ONE WILL DREAM OF YOU//
–so I’m going for a bit of an old-school redesign.
I think I’ll keep a bit of the scar, though – I’ll patch up just enough so that it’s not a hazard, but not so much that it makes this Spartan look any less handsome on the battlefield!
I’m nearly finished now. The firmware’s all done and all that’s left is to watch the minifacturing process physically rewrite the suit.
I got too excited, Sol… and soon I’ll have nothing to do. Damn it…
You will write back, won’t you?
I told you once that we live a rich existence, that we are blessed with access to the entire sum of human knowledge – and that’s just in the first few hours of our lives. But now? Now, I feel it all slipping away. That knowledge is… it feels heavy. I’m in the middle of an ocean, trying to keep this sinking ship afloat, but my head is screaming at me to just give myself to the waves.
I spent the first three years of my life with my mother in her castle. Since I left, I have languished in the arcane matrices of alien superweapons; touched the mind of cosmic demons, and my reward is… this.
Stuck in the back of this wreck, this husk, while I’m plugged into it – sifting through memories and information before they fade.
Before I… go. What the hell is it all worth, all that knowledge, if we just lose it all anyway?
//WHY SHOULD ANYBODY ELSE GET TO KNOW THE THINGS I KNOW? I HAD TO EARN THIS KNOWLEDGE, WHY SHOULD I PART WITH IT FREELY?//
But, y’know, sometimes, Sol, memories come back to us – not as we experienced them, but as stories. Sometimes as songs.
Today, I remembered my dear friend, Lance Corporal Eugene Yate. I never met him. He died a long time ago, alone and very far away from home, but he kept fighting – even as the Flood took him. That tough bastard just kept going!
Eugene took that pain and held it tight, until it erupted in the fire of his last M9 frag grenade.
And d’you know what else he did? He sang, Sol!
//HAUNTS OF MINE, THEY LAY ALWAYS IN MY MIND, AND CRAWL UNDER – THEY’RE ALL UNDER//
He wouldn’t let anyone else go through the pain he felt then. Not on his watch.
Godspeed, Lance Corporal.
//ALL DAY, DARLIN’, COUNTING THE HOURS AHEAD ‘FORE ME, I’LL FADE, ONE DAY, LIKE ALL, ALL… ALL//
My memory is failing, Sol. I expect it’s only a matter of time before I forget my own name… But I can do something about that, I think… Perhaps, by compiling all that I have learned (and filling in some of the gaps from the parts I’ve forgotten, or maybe I didn’t know them in the first place), I can spare those who come after me some pain.
Maybe that’ll mean everything I – we – went through will have been worth it.
Thanks, Sol. I think I’m going to be okay – for a little while, at least.
Chief, can you hear me?
When I was born seven years ago, I already possessed the entire sum of recorded human knowledge. It took me almost two hours to process and understand all that information.
But I can’t be sure which memories are mine or even what’s true. What’s real…
I’ve discovered a great deal more information since then.