“My reach exceeds that of the stars themselves. You cannot escape my grasp.”
The Warden Eternal is Halo’s worst character.
I found this article sitting pretty in my drafts for about two years with only that opening line, waiting to be expanded on and justified like the other ‘reimagining’ articles I’ve done – the last of which was in December 2016, so it’s been a while!
Naturally, I thought it was time to put my stamp on the Warden Eternal.
And then… I guess I forgot, or just never got around to writing it?
To make up for that I will be proposing two potential alternatives for this character in an attempt to make him more interesting, well-rounded, and relevant to the story, setting, and themes of Halo 5 and the wider series.
THIS CHARACTER IS NOT A NATURAL FORMATION
Before we get into that and determine what to ‘fix,’ we need to recap what some of the major flaws are in the construction of this character.
Let’s begin with the character’s backstory.
He has none.
Upon first meeting him towards the end of Unconfirmed, the fifth mission of Halo 5’s campaign, he says:
“I am the Warden Eternal. I stand in service to Cortana.”
A boss fight ensues (the first of many with this character), and afterwards Buck asks who the Warden Eternal is and where he came from.
These are not questions that Halo 5 endeavours to provide any sort of substantial answer to. In fact, what few nuggets of information we do get have been seemingly contradicted by other sources.
During the thirteenth mission (Genesis), after the second boss battle featuring two Wardens, Holly Tanaka and Exuberant Witness have this exchange:
Exuberant: “Perfect. The Warden is quite humiliated, I assure you.”
Tanaka: “Yeah? A robot can feel humiliation?”
Exuberant: “Oh! Warden is not a robot. I thought you understood that.”
The implication from this dialogue naturally tends towards the idea that the Warden Eternal is a Composed Forerunner, right? We can agree on that?
The visual design of the character is very much in-line with the Prometheans (rather, a comical exaggeration of them). It seems, for a moment, like we’re about to get something about the Warden Eternal’s backstory.
But we don’t.
Jump forwards a few months to the creation of the Warden Eternal’s page in the Universe section of Halo Waypoint, in which his ‘species’ is labelled ‘AI.’
“The Warden is a single artificial intelligence that occupies a near limitless array of identical armored constructs. This allows him to not only embody multiple distributed machines simultaneously, but also makes him incredibly resilient: destroying one of his constructs has no effect on his operability in the myriad of others.
When realized in physical form, the Warden Eternal inhabits large warrior-constructs made of Forerunner alloys and hard light, offering him impressive speed and mobility. All combat engagements executed by Warden in this way are done only as a display of power or for personal entertainment, as he could easily evade direct conflict or use his innumerable Soldiers and Knights as pawns.” [Warden Eternal, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
I didn’t expect any major details to be revealed about the character in this page, but there is something I take issue with here…
Did anyone really get the impression the Warden boss fights were being done as “a display of power or for personal entertainment” on his part when he screams at the end of Battle of Sunaion that Osiris must not reach Genesis?
Or when he directly intervenes in the Meridian arc to prevent Osiris from reaching the Guardian?
Or when he attempts to kill Blue Team to “spare Cortana the inevitable suffering of your betrayal”?
“Awakened by Cortana’s presence in the Domain, the Warden Eternal became convinced that Cortana could succeed where the Forerunners failed, which in part fueled his assistance of her.” [Warden Eternal, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
We are told that the Warden believes Cortana can “succeed where the Forerunners failed” by giving her the Mantle for… some reason. Why?
Her rule is no different at all to how the Forerunners ran things, she just seems more willing to overtly ignore the prime directive of the Mantle.
And with this supposed thinking-span of 10,000 years she now apparently has, Cortana seems to be adamant that everything she wants to happen needs to happen right now. Not enacting any sort of gradual change that’ll prevent needless loss of life, it’s all gotta happen now!
This runs contrary to what we see depicted in the story Dominion Splinter (from the Tales From Slipspace anthology) too because the wording of the Waypoint Universe article implies that the Warden Eternal has some degree of agency in Cortana assuming the Mantle of Responsibility.
Indeed, even some of the Warden Eternal’s dialogue in Halo 5 implies that (as does one of the intel logs from the Builder, which states that “The Warden made a pact” with Cortana).
He says that he would have “burned [Cortana] from the Domain” in The Breaking if he didn’t think her to be clever.
For those of you familiar with Dominion Splinter, you know that isn’t the case at all.
We’re given these tidbits of characterisation, largely from sources out of the game, which don’t really line up at all with what we see in the game.
The Warden Eternal’s apparent purpose of protecting the Domain (which was only stated in the non-canonical E3 2015 demo, appearing again only in his Waypoint Universe page) doesn’t come up in Halo 5. His ‘loyalty’ to Cortana is convoluted due to the depiction of her enslaving him, which apparently means he believes she can “succeed where the Forerunners failed.”
These things do not come as any sort of natural growth or development for these characters, they are like bullet points for where a character will be at various points in their arc but without any actual journey or emotional context to explore that.
(One would almost think that this wasn’t exactly planned…)
In every conceivable way, the Warden Eternal exists solely to be an obstacle for the progression of the plot.
Are things moving too quickly? Too slowly? Need a bit of light gameplay padding?
Throw in the Warden Eternal!
This is what you might refer to as a ‘roadblock antagonist,’ which is the worst kind of antagonist to me.
Roadblock antagonists are notably devoid of meaningful character, beyond the edifice of their ‘cool-factor’ appearance and the talent of the person voicing them. The ‘intrigue’ of characters like this is purely on the surface level.
They do not follow any particular ‘rules’ established by the story, they break them in order to temporarily prevent narrative progression.
This is evidenced by looking back at Unconfirmed. The conceit of the Warden Eternal ends up making very little sense after the body he uses to confront Osiris is defeated… because there’s literally dozens more bodies both behind and in front of them.
Considering that he later has no problem occupying about a dozen bodies at the end of The Breaking to ineffectually walk very slowly towards Blue Team, why didn’t he just activate these? Of course, the obvious answer is “Because Osiris would be killed and the story has to progress,” but this is exactly the problem that ‘roadblock antagonists’ like the Warden Eternal suffer from.
An easy remedy to that would be simply having a line of dialogue stating that the Warden Eternal is a ‘warrior’s test,’ to see if those who enter the Guardian’s Shelter are worthy.There’s a wider issue to be discussed here about writing indestructible characters.
When you have a character that cannot ‘die,’ that sense of physical mortality is obviously not a place you can leverage tension – unless the nature of their immortality comes with certain caveats (they can still be hurt or injured in some way, for instance).
That’s not a problem, really. All that means is that you have to double down on the emotional dimensions of that character and get people invested in what they have to gain and lose.
You should, of course, be doing this with all of your characters anyway, but in this instance it is the only way you can substantially weave tension into their story, and so it requires greater emphasis.
Looking back at my character study of the Master Chief in Halo 4, I brought up ‘The Big Seven.’ The seven basic questions of narrative drama.
These are seven questions that are good to start with when looking at a story that focuses on character motivation and character-centric conflict. And that’s how Halo 5 was billed to us, right?
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?
To achieve a basic level of storytelling cohesion, you should be able to answer these simple questions.
What the Warden Eternal wants is for Cortana to assume the Mantle of Responsibility, only the reasons for why that is are neither explained nor explored by the game. Tales From Slipspace complicates this by giving him no reason to trust or support Cortana, and, contrary to the character’s presentation in the game, shows that it’s not his choice anyway.
All she does is trick him, enter the Domain, and then declare that she’s calling the shots now.
In order to achieve his apparent goal of supporting Cortana, the Warden Eternal needs to kill the Master Chief – obviously, that conflicts with what Cortana wants because she wants to stick him in a Cryptum for ten thousand years to prove she’s ‘right.’
So far we’ve got at least some basic conflict working. How about the layer of the next two questions?
How do they conflict with the outside world?
How do they conflict with the other characters?
The answer to both of these is the same: All the main characters who aren’t Cortana and the Warden Eternal basically agree that fascism and imperialism and mass murder is bad (while, at the same time, being part of the UNSC which has its own fascistic and imperialist tendencies that Halo 5 didn’t explore), so they have to fight.
And that’s where we come to a halt.
The Warden Eternal can’t really die, as he has a million bodies.
The Warden Eternal’s motivations for championing Cortana aren’t explained, so there’s no way to explore and subvert the character’s perspective and philosophy.
So we come to the final questions of The Big Seven which focus on change:
How does the character change through those conflicts and how does the resolution affect them?
What impact does that change have on everything else?
As a static character with no substantial motivation or tension (physical, emotional, or otherwise), there’s no way to answer these questions.
The Warden Eternal doesn’t change. His presence doesn’t impact anything because he exists purely as a ‘roadblock antagonist.’
It is for that reason that he literally vanishes from the game at the end of The Breaking.
There was literally nowhere to go and nothing left to do with him.
IF YOU WANT IT DONE RIGHT…
Purely from the game, we learn that the Didact believes the Forerunners are the only ones worthy of the Mantle of Responsibility – that their “careful tending” of life was prosperous for the galaxy.
However, he has been locked away in Requiem for 100,000 years. The other Forerunners fired the Halo array and then went on the Great Journey.
During the time that followed, humanity has risen and, due to the influence of the Librarian (his wife), are poised to assume the Mantle themselves.
The Didact believes that humanity is akin to children playing with fire, unfit for the responsibility of shepherding life. That duty, to be “guardians of all that exists,” belongs to the Forerunners alone.
In order to achieve his goal of (re)establishing Forerunner supremacy, the Didact seeks a device called ‘The Composer.’ This will allow him to imprison (not kill) those who stand against him as a slave army – his Prometheans.
Tension is created between the Didact and the Master Chief because our hero is completely outmatched. What the Didact needs to get (the Composer) is a relatively trivial matter, while the Chief and Cortana spend much of the game trying to keep pace and catch up with him in order to prevent the Composer from being used on Earth.
The Didact is an example of a seemingly indestructible character that has that trait used purposefully because it’s how we understand the immensity of the challenge that the Chief and Cortana must face. And they must do this while dealing with the emotional trauma of rampancy and a superior officer aboard humanity’s most advanced warship who refuses to deviate from protocol.
We’ve come to think of the Master Chief as an unstoppable force and his clash with the Didact is him coming into contact with an immovable object, which is used to accentuate the character drama that fuels the character development of the Master Chief’s growing independence and Cortana dealing with her mortality.
How does the character change through those conflicts and how does the resolution affect them?
What impact does that change have on everything else?
The Didact does, in fact, have his own arc in Halo 4 which somewhat carried over to the The Next 72 Hours arc of Halo: Escalation, but was also somewhat retconned…
After his defeat at the end of Halo 4, he has a speech during the Epilogue:
“In this hour of victory, we taste only defeat… I ask, why?
We are Forerunners, guardians of all that exists. The roots of the galaxy have grown deep under our careful tending. Where there is life, the wisdom of our countless generations has saturated the soil. Our strength is a luminous sun, towards which all intelligence blossoms, and the impervious shelter beneath which it has prospered.
I stand before you, accused of the sin of ensuring Forerunner ascendancy – of attempting to save us from this fate where we are forced to… recede.
Humanity stands as the greatest threat in the galaxy, refusing to eradicate them is a fools gambit. We squander eons in the darkness, while they seize our triumphs for their own. The Mantle of Responsibility for all things belongs to Forerunners alone.
Think of my acts as you will, but do not doubt the reality: The Reclamation has already begun. And we are hopeless to stop it.” [Ur-Didact, Halo 4 – Epilogue]
This dialogue (which only makes sense in a post-Halo 4 context) serves an epilogue’s function well, as it tells us what’s going to happen next. It tells us how the conflict is going to be stepped up in the hypothetical Halo 5 that will deal with this set-up.
The Didact has abandoned his moral principles.
Using the Composer was exploiting a loophole in the Mantle. It wasn’t ‘murder,’ but a twisted form of preserving life – imprisoning it in enslaved machines.
Now? He says that humanity must be eradicated.
This is where we can bring in context from the Terminals to further reinforce that contrast. During the Human-Forerunner war, the Didact was actually the voice that argued in humanity’s favour, saying:
Librarian: “Our enemies move deeper into our territory with abandon. They must be eradicated.”
Didact: “Shall we take revenge? Abandon the Mantle and all that its philosophy has given us these thousand generations?”
Librarian: “All our plans have been torn asunder.”
Didact: “More reason not to abandon our beliefs. The Mantle is our guidepost in times such as these. We must not falter in following its teachings. The enemy must be sent home and taught to stand with the galaxy, rather than rail against us, and take what they desire, The Mantle shelters all.” [Halo 4, Terminal 1 – War]
Note the choice of language here. It is the Librarian who says that humanity must be eradicated, an opinion that she eventually changes when the context of their actions becomes clearer (which is explored in the Forerunner Saga).
Facing apparent evidence of our enemy’s rapacious cruelty, the Old Council decided that humanity as a species was guilty of crimes against the Mantle. I agreed – at first.
Later, when we realised humans had made great efforts to fight the Flood, and that many of their so-called atrocities had been carried out with that in mind, I changed that opinion.
But Lifeworkers were ignored. Politically weakened, we could not push our case. [Halo: Silentium, page 33-4]
At the end of Halo 4, the wheel has turned and it is the Didact who is now willing to abandon the Mantle’s philosophy.
As we see in Halo: Escalation, this manifests in his willingness to use the Halo rings.The implication in the story is that the newly built Composers can be unified with the Halo rings, so that when they are fired they will Compose rather than wipe out life.
Regardless of any technicalities, the Didact is willing to use the very weapons that he fought so hard against using. That’s the point he’s reached following the end of Halo 4.
The Didact’s arc also sets a precedent for the scale of the conflict to increase in this hypothetical Halo 5, while also being a lot more personal because the Chief has bested the Didact now – something that even Forthencho, the Lord of Admirals, couldn’t quite manage.
This is what a competently written antagonist looks like.
This is what a ‘character is king’ story looks like.
This is not a story of characters just reacting to the plot as it happens. It is dictated by the conflicting wants and needs of the characters.
It’s worth noting that the Didact physically appears two times in Halo 4, and they managed to convey all of this without any external media.
Some consider it unreasonable, but all Halo 4 asks is that you pay attention…
THE OTHER WARDEN
I have two ideas to offer. One is a smaller, more restrained injection of some meaningful backstory and context (which I first posited in 2016). The other is a complete recreation of the Warden Eternal.
Starting with the former, the solution is simple…
Make him ‘The Warden’ from the Forerunner Saga.
Again, silence fell over the amphitheater. Then, from behind the green curtain, a much smaller monitor floated into its appointed place. It appeared older than any of the structures around us – older perhaps than the capital world itself, which would have made it more than twenty-five thousand years old. Its eye glowed a dull vegetal green. I had heard of this embodied ancilla, of course – all Forerunners had. Simply the thought that I was within range of that fabled sensor eye sent a ripple of cool expectation and reverence through my body.
This was the Warden, both prison-keeper and guardian of mercy, for every accused Forerunner expects that those who confine must also be those who will in time defend and perhaps release. Such is the ancient law, which has as its foundation the Mantle itself. [Halo: Cryptum, page 296-7]
Towards the end of Halo: Cryptum, we are introduced to a character named ‘The Warden.’
This is a Monitor, one of many that resided on Maethrillian (the Forerunner Capital), only it has lived for over 25,000 years at the time in which the book takes place.
It is considered ancient by Forerunner standards. The Warden was in charge of detaining and defending accused criminals who were brought before the Ecumene Council for judgement.
In Halo: Cryptum, the Warden was assigned to Faber, the Master Builder, during his tribunal. He was on trial for the unsanctioned firing of a Halo ring over Janjur Qom, the homeworld of the San’Shyuum, to quell their uprising.
Before the trial can be completed, Mendicant Bias arrives at the Capital with Installation 07 – the ‘lost’ Halo ring. Having been subverted by the Timeless One, a battle ensues and Faber very conveniently escapes custody.
In Halo: Silentium, the third and final book of the Forerunner Saga, there is some (humorous) debate between Faber and the Master Juridical about the nature of his escape.
FABER: The Warden did not preserve me in the midst of all that destruction for reasons of sentiment. It knew my value.
MASTER JURIDICAL: The Warden was bribed.
FABER: How the hell do you bribe a machine?
MASTER JURIDICAL: You found a way. [Halo: Silentium, page 191]
Whether the Warden rescued and released Faber because it knew his value, or because it was ‘bribed,’ we don’t know. The question is raised and we are left to ponder the answer, but an authority such as the Master Juridical raising the idea that the Warden was bribed is rather telling about the construct’s implied independence.
This already marks the Warden as different from other Forerunner constructs we’ve met, who often have their behaviour dictated by protocol.
Not that that’s a bad thing at all, but with the Master Chief’s emerging independence it is an interesting thematic mirror to see that sort of unpredictability reflected in other elements of the setting.Another advantage with this is backstory.
Where people complained that the Didact had too much backstory and mistakenly conflated that with “Halo 4 doesn’t explain anything,” the pendulum swung the other way and 343 wrote the Warden Eternal with no backstory whatsoever.
This was a mistake, as evidenced by our inability to answer the seven basic questions of narrative drama.
But the Warden?
For such a distinct character who appears in a key moment, the Warden is only actually mentioned five times throughout the entire Forerunner Saga.
You have a character that has been established by the expanded universe, where we get a general and concise notion of their who they are and why they’re important, but they are not bogged down by backstory that needs to be translated to the game.
Once upon a time, this approach was 343’s mission statement…
“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)]
343 has the onus of finding a way to balance rewarding people who invest in the expanded universe, while ensuring they don’t make the games inaccessible to those who don’t.
Halo needs an accessible but rich story, one that has more going on under the surface but doesn’t make the player feel like they need to do a lot of homework to understand what’s going on – but, ideally, makes them interested in exploring that fiction.
(At this point, however, that feeling seems somewhat inevitable given that there are over twenty Halo novels and countless other forms of media. It cannot remain ‘inessential’ given its plenitude.)
Having the Warden Eternal be the Warden from the Forerunner Saga achieves that.
It grounds the character with a layer of authenticity that the Warden Eternal lacks, as we were told that Halo’s transmedia was going to matter – it was going to set these things up.
Only the Warden Eternal, the Guardians, and numerous other elements in Halo 5’s story are baffling to both casual and hardcore story fans because they come out of nowhere. Something as big as the Guardians and the Domain having a ‘protector’ or ‘keeper’ – a warden – is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect they’d have asked Greg Bear to set up.
But they didn’t. They set up the Didact and peripheral story elements around him because that’s the conflict the Reclaimer Saga was going to deal with before it was decided that it was all “extraneous.”Now, simply changing the Warden Eternal’s identity from a non-character to an established one doesn’t necessarily fix all these problems.
When crafting a character, one of the things that needs to be considered is how they’re tied to the setting.
Setting is one of Halo 5’s greatest strengths. Argent Moon, Meridian, and Sanghelios are so beautifully realised (the latter is among the best in the entire franchise); they really pulled their punches with the level of detail that went into the worldbuilding.
But Genesis is… where things fall apart.
Like the Warden Eternal, Genesis lacks meaningful identity and context.
It’s a world that exists for the plot, rather than one that informs the plot. It’s a world that is utterly interchangeable with another setting because it has no distinct features beyond housing a node to the Domain, which they don’t sell the meaning and impact of.
But apparently the main feature of Kamchatka (where the first mission of Halo 5 takes place) is that it also hosts a node to the Domain, so why is Genesis special?
“It is unclear what role that Kamchatka played in the Forerunners’ galaxy-spanning ecumene or reasons for its recent activity, beyond it serving as a link in the long-dormant Domain – the Forerunner knowledge network that once linked their empire together.
The planet itself is obviously a product of some level of megascale engineering, though there is a curious lack of obvious Forerunner facilities on its surface. Other, larger, structures are buried under the snow and ice but no detailed surveys have yet been conducted to assess their condition. The first Forerunner site of its kind to be discovered, none know what to expect when they work their way to its heart.” [Kamchatka, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
That exact description is interchangeable with Genesis.
When I think of Halo, one of the first things that springs to my mind is the immense alien worlds we visit that all stand out from one another. They all have a unique identity.
In Halo 2, we visit a Halo ring, which we spent the entirety of Halo 1 on. The setting – ‘a Halo ring’ – is the same, and we even visit similar locations like the Library, but I bet you can immediately differentiate Installation 04 from Installation 05 in your head.In Halo 4, we visit Requiem – a Shield World.
We’ve visited a Shield World before in Halo Wars, so what makes Requiem special?
It’s the first Shield World. It’s got unique and memorable architecture because it’s the oldest Forerunner construct we’ve seen. The whole planet is a series of concentric shells with different environments; it’s got a lot of history, which comes across in the game and is explored in peripheral fiction.
It’s also home to a living Forerunner, tying character to setting.
If somebody mentions Requiem, there’s a wellspring of detail that I can immediately draw upon because it’s a setting that had a lot of thought put into it. It’s a confluence of artistic, narrative, and gameplay design that accomplishes this.
Therefore, Requiem is not interchangeable with any other Shield World.
Just like Installations 04 and 05 in Halo 1 and Halo 2 are the ‘same’ construct, our experience of them gives those settings a particular identity.
According to the Halo 5 art team, there was a clear intention with Genesis:
“For Genesis, we wanted to create an original alien planet that feels like the logical manifestation of the Forerunner lore.” [‘Halo 5 Art Showcase’, Halo Waypoint (25/11/2015)]
And yet, Genesis feels so… disconnected from all the Forerunner worlds and environments we’ve seen since 2001.
Genesis is the odd one out in this odyssey across worlds. It’s very much the manifestation of Halo 5’s problems.
The artificial environments of Genesis – things like the weird, alien fractal plants – is at odds with the natural environments that have been a staple of the Forerunner visual language since 2001.
This is not a bad thing. It’s not a bad design at all, it’s just an element of the setting that begs exploration and a sense that it’s been thought about.
The world of Genesis is an artificial planet utilized for the construction of ‘seed worlds.’ [Genesis, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
Installed on Genesis to help maintain its systems and the secret gateway to the Domain, 031 Exuberant Witness was given charge of the entire installation upon the activation of the Halo Array. [031 Exuberant Witness, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
Why is Genesis like this?
Why does Genesis house a secret gateway to the Domain?
Why does it matter that Genesis’ ‘thing’ is that it constructs ‘seed worlds’?The fact that Genesis is used in the construction of seed worlds (artificial worlds that house and ‘protect’ civilisations) is fascinating, there’s a great contrast to be made here with what we’re familiar with – the Halo rings – because Genesis is designed to preserve life while the Halos extinguish it.
But it never comes up in the game.
This is information that was added months later on the Waypoint Universe page.
Genesis’ ‘thing’ is not related to the story in any way, as Halo 5 gets too caught up in attempting to justify its plot to really explore this world.
So I think it would be far more interesting if there was a bit of a reveal about Genesis that would make it much more memorable.
‘Genesis’ is our translation of the word ‘Ghibalb’ – the Forerunner homeworld.
Ghibalb was irradiated and rendered uninhabitable by the Forerunners’ early attempts at stellar engineering, over 15 million years ago.
It would be very in-character for the Builders to secretly rebuild their homeworld, housing a hidden gateway to the Domain on it. The so-clearly artificial ecosystem then makes more sense as something the Builders had to do, seeding life that could survive and thrive in this environment.
Likewise, a Domain node should be a big deal. In Halo 5, it comes off like something that could be on any Forerunner planet – like Kamchatka. Is there any notable difference between a ‘node’ and a ‘gateway’? We don’t know.
Housing such an important construct in plain sight, on a world most of the Forerunners didn’t even think about because they’d moved on and considered it ‘lost,’ would be a good way to make this setting important while also subtly hinting at the Forerunners’ politics.
That in itself raises questions in the minds of players, many of whom still see the Forerunners as monolithic.
Why would the Forerunners – these ‘Builders’ – hide this from their own kind? Their own homeworld?
There are parallels to play with in-relation to Janjur Qom in that too, with the implications of the San’Shyuum having lied about its destruction (which I’ve explored here). These are questions that raise interest in the expanded universe material, but are not essential to understanding the story.Argent Moon nails intrigue with its environmental storytelling; Meridian illustrates an aspect of humanity the games haven’t shown before, healing a glassed world; and Sanghelios is… y’know, Sanghelios. It’s home.
When thinking about storytelling, you can break down pretty much any narrative to three major themes:
‘Family’ provides the base personal level of a story. There are a multitude of ways to define what your character’s ‘family’ is and what that means to them. This also defines a character’s duty – who they perceive their duty of care is towards.
‘Revenge’ is a go-to motivation for a lot of writers because it’s personal conflict. It can be used for sympathy and eventual catharsis, it can affect the larger conflict of a work, or (more typically) spins off a series of short-term consequences.
‘Home’ is what’s left behind, what’s lost in the fire, and what characters are (often unknowingly) in pursuit of. It ties in with the family theme and sets the table for the conflict’s resolution and denouement, as well as the potential set-up for continuation when the found-home and the family that occupies it is threatened.
These just so happen to be some of 343’s main themes for the Reclaimer Saga too.
The idea of ‘home’ is particularly prevalent in Halo 5.
It’s what Sanghelios embodies, even down to the mission intel with the pieces about the ‘Arach brothers; it’s what’s taken out at the end of the game when a Guardian fires on Earth; it’s what the people of Meridian are trying to rebuild; it’s the ultimatum that Locke issues to the Chief when he confronts Blue Team…
Locke: “117, stand down! Sir, you are absent without leave. This is your one chance to come home peacefully.”
…it’s the reason the Master Chief is in pursuit of Cortana…
Warden: “You answered her call. Why? What do you intend when you reach her?”
John: “I’ve come to bring her home.”
Warden: “If you understood what she has become, you would not speak of such juvenile concepts as ‘home.'” [Halo 5, Reunion]
John: “Listen to yourself. Stand down, Cortana. Come home with us. It’s not too late to stop this.” [Halo 5, The Breaking]
So we can tie Genesis to this overarching theme by making it the Forerunner homeworld, as opposed to… not having any thematic connections to the narrative at all and existing solely for the plot.And that brings us back to the Warden.
Forget about the Mantle. Forget about the Reclamation. Forget about Cortana, the Created, the Guardians, and so on…
All the Warden wants is to protect and preserve Ghibalb – the home of his people.
Let’s say that the essence his Monitor form in the Forerunner Saga was created from was transferred to a combat platform. Exuberant Witness is the Monitor of the Genesis installation, the Warden is its guardian – a natural parallel can be drawn with John and Cortana, or the Didact and the Librarian.
They have stayed sane over the last 100,000 years because they’ve had each others’ company (which, in Halo Anniversary’s Terminals, Guilty Spark says should’ve been the case for every installation – having two Monitors) and a duty they have chosen.
You are trespassing where you should not be.
A long time ago, 343 Guilty Spark wondered – with the loss of the Domain – whether future civilisations would know anything about the Forerunners, or only of their weapons. Genesis (Ghibalb) would be the answer to that.
This is a place dedicated to life, to building new worlds.
Now, you have brought destruction to it – the Guardians, the Covenant, the Prometheans…
After countless millennia of peace and careful tending, Genesis (Ghibalb) has become a battlefield once again.
The Warden doesn’t care about your problems, he just wants you all gone. Exuberant, however, does not share the Warden’s apathy towards your circumstances and wants to prevent the Created from assuming the Mantle – hence why she helps Osiris.
A simple, relatable motivation is what this character needs in order to be a good antagonist. And Halo is often at its most interesting when there’s an unexpected third-party that throws things in a loop, diverting attention away from you for a bit – like the Flood in Halo 1.
That, I think, cuts out a lot of the nonsense and provides the character with a clear motivation that is tied to the theme and setting.
That is how I would have done the Warden Eternal working within the confines of Halo 5’s story. For this section, which will be comparatively briefer, I’d like to posit how I’d reimagine the character altogether.
I really like the idea of the Warden Eternal being an eccentric undertaker, or gravekeeper.
I think it’s important to have some sense of ‘the mundane’ when it comes to the Forerunners – things that you might recognise as functional, but appropriately scaled-up on a level that speaks to the level their civilisation was on.
The alternative, of course, is tossing around a bunch of proper nouns. It’s hard to get people to care about that.
Anyway, there’s a game I was thinking about recently called Viscera Cleanup Detail. It’s a simulator where you play as a janitor aboard a space station in the aftermath of an attack that has left a pretty gruesome mess, so you set to work with your bucket and mop to clean the place up.
“In Viscera Cleanup Detail, you step into the boots of a space-station janitor tasked with cleaning up after various horrific sci-fi horror events. Instead of machineguns and plasma-rifles, your tools are a mop and bucket. That hero left a mess, and it’s up to you to deal with the aftermath.” [Viscera Cleanup Detail, Steam]
This involves cleaning up blood and scorch marks, disposing of debris, incinerating dismembered limbs, picking up shell casings, and so on. It’s what I like to call a ‘podcast game,’ something you can stick on and play for an hour with your brain switched off while catching up on an audiobook or podcast.
I found myself wondering, as I very often do, “What would Halo’s take on this be?”
And that’s where the idea struck me for the Warden Eternal.
In the aftermath of the Warrior-Servants being sent into battle against rebellious ‘lesser’ species, thousands of Warden bodies are deployed to clean up the battlefield.
They retrieve discarded weapons, equipment, and other items; pick up the bodies of the fallen (this is why the Warden is made of ‘floaty bits,’ so it can adapt its form to contain bodies of various shapes and sizes); tending to the earth; ensuring there are no explosive remnants of war, and so on…
These bodies are then taken to the Guardians, which serve as mobile funeral homes and research labs where conquered races are studied.I take issue with the Guardians as a concept in Halo 5 because they break the setting, and a number of texts over the last few years (Warfleet, Legacy of Onyx, and Bad Blood in particular) have clearly been trying to ‘de-power’ them a bit.
The Guardians detract from the ancient era because in the Forerunner Saga it is established that Warrior-Servants are looked down upon by Forerunner society as breakers of the Mantle.
They’re the ones who are sent in to do the dirty work of maintaining the imperialistic ‘peace’ on the galaxy, then used as the convenient figures of blame by the government.
By just EMPing planets and giving little thought to the ground-level damage that causes, one wonders what the point of the Warrior-Servants really was if a whole star system of the less technologically powerful species could be laid low by a single Guardian.
When the Didact goes to the San’Shyuum quarantine system to meet with the Confirmer (and raid his liquor cabinet) in Cryptum, there’s no mention of any Guardians there. It’s a run-down, decrepit old fleet.
This seems like it would’ve been the perfect opportunity to establish the Guardians…
if they had been planned…
So, instead of making them giant death machines that EMP whole planets, they’re just mobile research centres and ‘gravestones’ for conquered systems – a sombre warning for all would-be challengers of Forerunner supremacy.Thinking back to the Warden, he has a bit of a problem in this circumstance…
He’s ancient. Obsolete.
He was ‘retired’ long before the Forerunner-Flood war, so when he is awakened and finds that the face of Forerunner combat has changed (that these new Prometheans use weaponry that disintegrates targets) it’s a source of great frustration to him because there’s nothing left to preserve.
There’s nothing to study, nothing to learn from combat with these new foes. It’s all burned away.
In every natural circumstance, living things engage in competition. This is a prime directive for those who uphold the Mantle: it is not a kindness to diminish competition, predation – even war. Life presents strife and death as well as joy and birth. But Forerunners in their highest wisdom also knew that unfair advantage, mindless destruction, pointless death and misery – an imbalance of forces – can retard growth and reduce the flow of Living Time. Living Time – the joy of life’s interaction with the Cosmos – was the foundation of the Mantle itself, the origin of all its compelling rules. [Halo: Cryptum, page 267]
Conflict and war is an inevitability, what the Warden would see as important is that it is something that those who hold the Mantle learn from.
Just as there is a contrast between the new and old generation of Spartans in Halo 5, with the Spartan-IIs and IVs, the Warden would be the lens through which we get a sense of that same contrast with the Forerunners.
Who they were versus what they became when they fought the Flood, and what the Didact wrought.
The Warden, then, has a renewed sense of purpose in this messy post-war galaxy that is rife with conflict.
He can go to these worlds and perform his duties, recovering the dead and performing his research for the benefit of whoever ‘wins’ the Reclamation – whoever assumes the Mantle.
He is a ‘neutral antagonist.’ He doesn’t care who has the Mantle, just that – after countless millennia – he has purpose and direction (which is a recurring motif in the post-war galaxy that has been around since The Return in 2009’s Halo: Evolutions) which others can learn from.
The Warden serves the Created because they afford him the purpose he seeks, it gives him a motivation that also puts an interesting spin on the boss battles on Genesis.
When you encounter him (think back to that scene where Blue Team first meets him on Genesis, after seeing all those Covenant bodies) he’s not doing anything particularly malicious.
He’s complicit through his apathy (that makes him a villain), but really he’s just there to do the hoovering.
Likewise, this gives us a good explanation for why he’s so ‘easy’ to kill: He’s not a construct designed for combat.
With this, we get a sense of the sort of ‘conveniences’ that the Forerunners had over their 10 million year reign, the scale of it all.
What we’re witnessing that throws the modern setting through a loop isn’t a bunch of killer Forerunner robots…
It’s their funeral service.
(Oh, and as a result, you can kind of justify the whole skull face visual motif too.)
My goodness, this ended up being longer than I’d planned…
I say that all the time, but I genuinely thought this would just be about three thousand words maximum. Instead, here we are, nearing seven thousand.
That’s all I think I have to say on the Warden Eternal – the issues with the character, contrasted with the strengths of the previous instalment, and my two proposed alternatives. The other alternative is that the Warden Eternal would just be the Composed Didact, and there is concept art for that which is very similar to the Warden’s pods… but that’s a different article.
You may notice that the site has undergone some redecorating recently, do you like it? I’m nearing my five-year anniversary doing this. Half a decade. I actually can’t believe it’s been that long and how far this little blog has come in that time.
I’ve got something special planned for the anniversary next month, so keep an eye out for that!
Anyway, let’s just get to the story, shall we?
WAR IN HEAVEN
One experiences so much when they are doing so many different things at once. I sleep, I fight, I study, I build – I die, and I have died a great many times.
I can feel it, all of it, all the time and all at once.
A long time ago, the Warrior-Servants of old could frame their experiences by mentally filtering through multiple layers of reality – they would see things from many hundreds and thousands of perspectives, not just their own sense of reality but their comrades’ too.
They understood war like no other being could, undergoing the full sensory experience of it all.
That is how I see things. Only, I have no comrades – no fellow warriors – to share this with.
There is only me, a million times over.
Fury rises within me a thousand times across a thousand bodies as the skies above twist and distort, then explode into a brilliant sphere of darkness and the fragmented forms of ancient monsters emerge.
Their great wings spread, sending shockwaves over the earth, and their hideous faces show no regard for their impact – no responsibility for the alien vessels dragged along in their wake that now come crashing to the carefully tended ground.
What few survivors there are emerge from their shattered craft and call out for help.
“Marine Selena Rhodin here. Our last known location was circling the Guardian at Samuron. There was a sequence of shockwaves, and then… then we were here, wherever here is…”
The human leaves the cockpit with the intent of finding supplies, shelter, and survivors.
She is swiftly greeted by Soldier-class armigers.
“Marine Kulas reporting in. So far, all we know about this planet is that it has hostiles. We’ve spotted Covenant. They probably got pulled along accidentally, same as us. We’re holed up and maintaining a defensive perimeter. But the Covies get aggressive when they’re confused, and we’re low on ammo. I don’t know how long we can hold on.”
Humans… this ‘Covenant,’ their ships – brought by Guardians here, to Genesis.
My attention is diverted and held by another scenario: a human falls out of a primitive-looking vehicle, and lies in an impact crater, clutching her side in great pain.
Opposite her, a Sangheili – one of these ‘Covenant’ soldiers – who also appears injured.
Between them, a weapon.
This is a warrior’s life at its purest (if one could ascribe such an honorific term to these insignificant creatures), to be held in the ecstasy of crisis in this way. Only one of them can leave this crater, while the other shall become one with the dirt.
“Sorry, Split-Chin,” the human says, checking her damaged helmet with her free hand to find that her translator is broken. “I don’t want to kill you. The only reason I would reach for that gun is in self-defence… but since you know that I might kill you in self-defence, or you think I’m just some filthy human, you are just as likely to do the same.”
The Sangheili responds, but the human does not understand.
“We are tired of fighting, human. Enough blood has been spilled for a cause without honour. I do not wish you harm.”
Despite their words, their gaze switches between each other and the weapon between them.
Any movement will result in the other scrambling forward for it. It is the only strength they have left to spend.
Which of them wins, I do not care – either way, there will be one less trespasser on Genesis, and the other shall be dealt with soon enough. The work will resume, despite these creatures’ invasion of my home.
Then, the inexplicable… something I had not accounted for.
A spherical construct appears, drawing their attention away from the weapon and towards the purple eye of this new observer.
“Visitors,” the construct said. “How exciting! I am 031 Exuberant Witness, Monitor of the Genesis installation – it seems you are having a bit of trouble understanding each other!”
What is she doing?
Exuberant Witness projects a thin beam of light at the human’s helmet, restoring her translator.
The Sangheili struggles to its feet and tentatively approaches the human, reaching out a scaly, four-fingered hand to help her up.
“This place isn’t safe,” Exuberant said. “It’s been so long since Genesis has seen conflict, I am having trouble keeping up with everything! Oh dear, The Warden will not be happy about any of this…”
“Where can we go?” the human asked.
“There is an off-world portal facility nearby, just two miles north of here. It has been kept in good working order over the last one hundred thousand years, there should be a destination that suits you within.”
“Sounds like our best bet, sure beats sticking around here. What d’you think, Big Guy,” she turned to the Sangheili. “Fancy a walk?”
The Sangheili nodded.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Exuberant. “I do apologise, but I must depart to help the others who have arrived here, and I must remove your vehicle from this location. Guardian 3209’s arrival has caused quite a mess!”
“Reckon I owe you that, at least… Scorpion’d only draw attention to us anyway. If any Spartans end up here, I’m sure they’d make good use of it.”
“I will endeavour to keep that in mind, human. Farewell!”
Why do you aid these creatures, Monitor?
They have invaded our home. After millennia of peace and purpose, of protecting Ghibalb, you offer help to those who would bring destruction down upon it.
“Our responsibility is to protect and preserve, Warden. Not just this world, but life as well.”
It is a human ancilla that has infiltrated and defiled the Domain, and now calls these cursed Guardians to our world – bringing the wars of others with them. This is a place of life, yet all I see now are the colours of nightmare brought about by children playing with fire.
I will not allow it to extinguish all that we have built. I saw what happened to our last home, to Maethrillian, due to Mendicant Bias and the Halos – weapons of our own making.
I will not allow our weapons to be our legacy.
“And I will not allow innocent lives to suffer, not when we can intervene and help them. The fact of the matter is that they are here and the galaxy is not what it once was. Their problems are our problems now.”
You truly believe that those you saved will survive? That they will not simply find another group of their own kind that will turn the situation in one side’s favour, if they are not taken by the indiscriminate armigers first?
“It is important that they have a chance.”
One chance in a thousand.
“One is all they need. You can still help them, Warden. It’s not too late to stop this.”
It would appear, Monitor, that the time has come to go our separate ways. Know that I will defend our home from any threat, until my last body falls.
“As will I, Warden. Even from you.”