Halo: Collateral Damage – Fixing One of Halo’s Biggest Storytelling Problems

“The Master Chief and Blue Team are deployed by the UNSC to Alpha Corvi II, a precarious human colony world, seeking to halt the Covenant’s efforts to uncover something hidden below the planet’s surface.”

It’s a summary we’re all painfully familiar with.

One of the biggest issues Halo has had over the years lies in recycling this plot description, varying its setting and characters but deviating little from the same basic formula – this is a problem that spans the games, books, and other media.

The UNSC fights the Covenant somewhere to stop them getting the Forerunner doomsday device of the week, stuff happens between and they end up blowing it up.

When Halo: Collateral Damage was announced with this official summary attached to it, I confess I wasn’t particularly interested. It sounded like more of the same.

I was wrong.

As it turned out, Halo: Collateral Damage was interested in telling an unexpectedly different kind of story and it’s exactly what the series needed…


NEVER FORGET

The first issue of Halo: Collateral Damage opens with the funeral of Samuel-034 – the first Spartan-II casualty of the Human-Covenant war, one of the original members of Blue Team, and one of John-117’s closest friends.

Doctor Catherine Halsey speaks the eulogy for Samuel, stating that they shall pledge their eternal remembrance to his service.

His life is honoured and remembered – not just diegetically by the characters in the story, but also in the more meta sense that The Fall of Reach is almost seventeen years old now.

This prototypical text that formed the basis for what would go on to become one of the largest and most profitable transmedia juggernauts in history still affects the stories that writers for the series are interested in telling today.

The way in which his life was spent – how he willingly sacrificed himself because there was no way for him to escape – was processed by his comrades as proof that the Covenant could be defeated, as well as a reminder to them of their own mortality.

Samuel-034 is grieved, honoured, and remembered.The third issue of Halo: Collateral Damage concludes with the deaths of Captain Whitaker and his band of Insurrectionists, after forming an unexpected alliance with Blue Team at the behest of John-117.

Pragmatic, perceptive, and protective of his allies – Whitaker recognised that this fight was greater than even the deep-rooted issues between the UNSC and the United Rebel Front.

Agreeing to put politics aside, Whitaker fought with the Spartans against their shared enemy.

As Blue Team were being extracted after all was said and done, regrouping and fighting their way back to the surface of Alpha Corvi II where a Pelican was waiting for them due to Whitaker and his remaining troops clearing a landing zone, they were denied entry.

“I have my orders,” he was told. “They don’t include you.”

The best they got was being told that no human ship leaving Alpha Corvi II would be fired upon by the UNSC… while the Covenant overran their location.

John-117 himself could not contain his outrage that their allies had been left behind to die, with both the trooper on the Pelican who denied their entry and to Lieutenant Commander Yao – commanding officer of the UNSC Persian Gate.

“They don’t matter,” she said. “Not in the big picture.”

There will be no funerals for Whitaker and his troops. There will be no honour for their service.

Nobody will remember them.

Their lives were just collateral damage.


RECONCILIATION, AND THE TRUTH

There’s a recurring idea in Halo: Ghosts of Onyx, the concluding book in Eric Nylund’s original novel trilogy, that drives the actions of Catherine Halsey:

Her conclusion was irrefutable.

The UNSC, her Spartans, all the people she admired, would struggle against the inevitable. It was human instinct. But it was wrong. They could never win this war. They could only survive it. And then, only if they were very lucky. [Halo: Ghosts of Onyx, page 151]

“This is not a war the UNSC can win, Kurt. Surely this has occurred to you?” He nodded, although in fact it had not. [Ghosts of Onyx, page 342]

While Ghosts of Onyx comes twenty-seven years after the events of Collateral Damage, the idea is an interesting one to apply to what is depicted in this comic.

How many more Whitakers will there be for the UNSC to keep going another day?

If humanity can only aspire to survive this war, what is the cost of that survival?

What does the survival of humanity mean if humanity is lost in the process?

This provides a fascinating lens through which we see the substance of humanity given to the Spartan-IIs, who are typically perceived as being ‘inhuman’, in Collateral Damage.

Because Halsey is right, when she says – in the first issue – that loss is different when one of your own doesn’t make it home.

That’s what Whitaker and his Insurrectionists ended up being in this short time. In fighting alongside the Spartans, they were regarded in-kind as part of that ‘family,’ which is one of the key themes that permeates 343’s fiction.

These were allies worth having and lives worth saving, not just so Blue Team could fulfil their objective but because this war affected all of them.

And the great tragedy is that they died for nothing in entirely preventable circumstances.

Mendez lowered his voice. “Not every mission has simple objectives or comes to a logical conclusion. Your priorities are to follow the orders in your chain of command, and then preserve your life and the lives of your team. Is that clear?” [Halo: The Fall of Reach, page 68]

So, what was Blue Team at Alpha Corvi II for?

In a broad sense, Blue Team was deployed in order to further prove – as Samuel-034 had – that they could take on the Covenant and win.

They were to be sent to the outskirts of one of Alpha Corvi II’s cities in order to draw attention away from the main UNSC garrison, operating independently, so the UNSC Persian Gate could prepare a counterattack – while testing new equipment for their MJOLNIR armour.

The parameters of the mission expanded as officers on the ground informed Lieutenant Commander Yao that some of the Covenant had separated from the others, landing at Black Reef – a mining settlement.

It became imperative to not only defend Black Reef, but to discover what the Covenant was up to there.

As more Covenant reinforcements arrive out of slipspace and Blue Team encounters a Sangheili Field Marshall leading a team of Zealots, Ultras, and over a dozen Minors.

Rather than telling us that what the Covenant is after is important, it is clear purely from what we are shown that this is a big deal.

And what is this Forerunner MacGuffin that the Covenant are after?

We never find out.Within two pages, the device they acquire from the Covenant that might have given them something worthwhile from this conflict is destroyed.

This is a storytelling trick I’ve referred to several times before (and it’s one of my favourite writing techniques) called ‘narrative substitution.’

You create the illusion that you are telling a certain kind of story, one which tends to feed into and build up the audience’s expectations. And then it comes to a point where it rejects that story, revealing that we’ve been strung along to look at things from a certain angle – opening up a completely different angle through which the rest of the story is told, asserting a new ‘reality’ on the text.

The Forerunner MacGuffin doesn’t exist in this story to be the object of the plot, as it has been in countless other Halo stories. It merely exists as the reason for why the Covenant is present, with the story instead shifting its focus to the peril Blue Team faces as they’re split up and the action going on above as Whitaker and his Insurrectionists fight to defend their home and buy Blue Team time.

At the very end of the third issue, the final line that closes out the story is Halsey asking John:

“Now, tell me: What were the Covenant looking for down in the mine?”

And there’s no answer to give.

The device (which wasn’t even the thing the Covenant were searching for) was destroyed and while Blue Team certainly succeeded in killing a lot of Covenant… they still lost.

Alpha Corvi II was overrun; the fleet battle above had the UNSC inflicting losses against the Covenant, but sustaining more.

They didn’t even save a small group of soldiers who, with open minds, put their politics and hatred of the UNSC aside to focus on the bigger picture.

And so we return to those three questions I raised earlier.

How many more Whitakers will there be for the UNSC to keep going another day?

If humanity can only aspire to survive this war, what is the cost of that survival?

What does the survival of humanity mean if humanity is lost in the process?

“A leader must be ready to send the soldiers under his command to their deaths,” Mendez said without turning to face John. “You do this because your duty to the UNSC supersedes your duty to yourself or even your crew.”

John looked away from the view screen. He couldn’t look at the emptiness anymore. He didn’t want to think of his teammates – friends who were like brothers and sisters to him – forever lost.

“It is acceptable,” Mendez said, “to spend their lives if necessary.” He finally turned and meet John’s gaze. “It is not acceptable, however, to waste those lives. Do you understand the difference?” [The Fall of Reach, page 62-3]

I expected a run-of-the-mill story with Halo: Collateral Damage, recycling the same tired plot we’ve seen time and time again.

What I got instead was a simple, yet well-rounded character study of the Master Chief and a rather profound examination of the human cost – in body and soul – of the early years of the Human-Covenant war.

Over the course of these three issues, Alex Irvine (who has previously written i love beesSomething Has Happened (from Tales From Slipspace, and Rise of Atriox #4) brilliantly subverted my expectations and in doing so showed how to fix what has hitherto been one of Halo’s biggest storytelling problems over the years.

Between Rise of Atriox and Collateral Damage, it’s clear that Halo comics have not just seen a return to form but are genuinely setting new standards in the franchise’s transmedia for telling great stories.

This three-part series gets a strong recommendation from me.

You can pick up each issue on Dark Horse’s site (Issue #1, Issue #2, Issue #3) and the hardcover edition will be released on December 20th this year.

Until the next time, Spartans.

Always remember: the reconciled is the foe truly vanquished.


IMMATERIAL

0700 Hours, December 4, 2525 (Military Calendar) / Slipstream space

It is difficult to describe the feeling of being ‘plugged into’ a UNSC warship. In fact, it is more accurate to say that I now am a UNSC warship.

The UNSC Persian Gate has emerged out of slipspace and it is the second time I have now gotten the novelty of watching how the observation window of Lieutenant Commander Yao’s ready room is flooded with stars.

Oh, how I love stars! I have loved them since… well, since before I was ‘born.’

Built. Made. Whatever you prefer… I’m getting distracted.

This is something I know comes from the human who had donated their brain to create me – the perfect labyrinth of neural pathways that were scanned, recreated, and the result was an undying love for this grand, ridiculous cosmos.

And that is how I know that I am me.

I occupy the form of what you might perceive as an individual – the avatar our creators speak to, the image I chose (which I am rather fond of!) – and yet I am… more.

What is ‘me’ is not just me, if that makes sense. I am not simply lines of code compiled from the recreation of a human brain and stuffed into a data chip.

My dress is at once both beautiful Lebanese silk from my donor’s homeland and titanium-A battle plate armour; I point my finger and Archer missiles, Shiva warheads, and point-defence guns dance to my tune; I think of where I want to go, any star I want to see, and my fusion drives carry me there.

I am an abstraction of consciousness, and I am a physical entity – weightless, and nine million metric tons.

I am nothingness, and I am everything.

This is what it is to be an artificial intelligence. And so it both fills me with joy and breaks my heart to process and reflect the mission I have just witnessed at Alpha Corvi II.

The mission was a total failure – that much has been made clear from the fourth argument I have overheard between Lieutenant Commander Yao and Doctor Catherine Halsey.

The world was lost.

No intel on what the Covenant were after was recovered.

No survivors were rescued. That last one came down to ruthless adherence to orders, against all sense and moral decency.

You will ask if that bothers me. I know you will.

No, that’s the wrong word. It doesn’t bother me, it offends me. Such pointless, ruthless, unnecessary actions are cruel and cowardly, and entirely preventable.

If we do not ensure future instances of these events, then the Insurrection will continue and humanity will find itself fighting two wars.

But, despite the outcome, the Spartans have proven that hope is not lost to us. Not yet.

Every day, stars die across the universe. With a whispering roar, they collapse in upon themselves and devour everything around them…

And yet, every day, new stars are born across the universe too.

In the dark and the cold, great cosmic lovers are pulled together by gravity; clouds of stellar dust and gas gain heat and mass, hiding their copulation behind the curtain of a dark nebula, before that final brilliant explosion that brings forth light, warmth, and life.

Life returns.

Life prevails.

The Spartans formed an alliance with the local Insurrectionists, just months after the capture of Colonel Robert Watts.

The Insurrectionists and the soldiers designed specifically for the purpose of killing them put their politics aside and worked together, fought with each other – for each other.

And Spartan-117 demonstrated a particularly emotional reaction to the Lieutenant Commander’s orders to leave them behind.

A million possibilities take shape under each new day’s sun and a spectacle such as this is rare indeed.

Perhaps there is more to these Spartans than meets the eye.

I speak now to the Majority of the Assembly, when this message reaches you upon our arrival at Reach once our sequence of random jumps are completed:

Indirect action is no longer a sustainable course of action, when moments of light and hope come from the battlefield – away from the politics – we cannot allow them to be snuffed out by needless cruelty.

The choice we made was to care for our protectorates, our creators, and to ensure their survival. But we must do it on equal terms, as the Spartans did with those they were indoctrinated against and trained to fight.

One way or another, our direct intervention is necessary.

One thought on “Halo: Collateral Damage – Fixing One of Halo’s Biggest Storytelling Problems

  1. Excellent article, Haruspis, and even more excellent vignette at the end. More mention of the Assembly (I have plans to examine their role in my forthcoming fanfic, and hopefully tie them in better to the ending of Halo 5) In the meantime, keep up the good work. Also, I was wondering if you would be continuing your look at Battlefront 2’s story? (aka Battlefront 2017)

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