It’s been more than three years now since Halo 5: Guardians released, something I have just celebrated with my own creative response to the game – The Five Untold Stories of Halo 5.
We’ve had a difficult relationship, Halo 5 and I, where its story is concerned, as many of us do…
I found myself looking back at some old articles I’d written about that relationship, as opinions evolve and sometimes change over time. Perspectives broaden (or narrow), and I find it interesting to see what I agree and disagree on with Past Me.
But I also feel the need to self-reflect.
As a voice in the Halo community, and as someone who strives to be better today than the person I was yesterday, there’s some personal baggage that I feel the need to finally air and deal with.
Well, three years ago today, I published an article titled ‘Halo 5 – A Compendium of Lies.’ This became something of a keystone of Halo 5 criticism in the community, to the point where I still see it passed around today.
I don’t want to sound like I’m giving myself too much credit, but the viewing figures don’t lie (at well over 10,000, it’s one of my most-read pieces).
This was the article that I looked back at. I read it through…
And I did not like what I saw.
One can make a point that is entirely valid, but the way in which that point is articulated and delivered counts just as much as the point itself – particularly if you are somebody who is considered to be influential in some capacity.
How we use our voices is as important as what we’re using them for.
If we – who are privileged to be, in a sense, conduits for voices in the community – misuse that, then it only serves to contribute to a toxic atmosphere in the fanbase that pushes the people we want to hear from at 343 away.
While I stand by a lot of the points that I made, I do not like the way I made them.
My fatal flaw with much of the criticism I wrote in 2015-16 was mired in my presumption of intent on the part of various people at 343.
In taking things personally, it opens the door to making one’s criticism overly personal. That is what leads one to the very fine line of being vehement with criticism and contributing to an atmosphere of toxicity the fanbase.
And so, I asked myself… “Why?”
Why did I write like that? Why did I take it this way? Why was I so… angry?
TRAGIC BACKSTORY UNLOCKED
It began with realising and coming to terms with certain things about myself and not feeling like I was safely able to tell anybody about it, which brought about an escalating series of anxiety flares.
This got worse when I ended up living in an emotionally abusive environment, and certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that I never sought any professional help. I didn’t have any means to understand what was happening to me, there was nobody to turn to for any sort of validation, and the language of ‘anxiety’ and ‘abuse’ was something I had no clue about.
So I just shut myself in.
It was absolutely the wrong thing to do, for your own sake please don’t do that if you’re reading this and find yourself in a similar situation – but when your own head is against you like that, all you do is second-guess yourself.
All I knew was that the very thought of leaving the house induced the reactionary sensation of needles being pressed into my back, so I did it as little as possible.
Even typing this out now, some part of me is still second-guessing myself about the whole thing. This went on for a very long time, while I was living on a budget of about £20 a week and working the graveyard shift for a job I hated that was paying well below the cost of my rent.
That time is all a bit of a blur now, and I’m glad it’s behind me.
Yes, I’m getting to that!
During my self-imposed exile, I had a few things that gave me comfort.
I had writing. I had a newly acquired Xbox One. And I had a couple of games that I could not put down – Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, FTL, and Halo 4.
These games will stick with me until I take my dirt nap, but it is the latter that I just kept coming back to.
Halo 4 dealt with mental illness, something that I’ve written about in a lot of my articles because it was so emotionally transformative for the series – and wholly intended to be so by then-Creative Director, Josh Holmes.
“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)]
In this, Halo 4 came as something of a revelation of storytelling to me because of how I emotionally connected to it.
Where I had neither the understanding nor the language to articulate what I was going through, I did have Halo 4.
And what that game gave me was a feeling that I understood, and, beyond that, a feeling that it understood me – articulated through the story with John and Cortana.
“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)]
This was a story about John being incapable of emotionally articulating himself in the midst of a very small character story which, for the first time, really foregrounded its emotional stakes.
Cortana was suffering from rampancy, a deadly and debilitating mental condition that only gets worse as the game progresses, after she’s spent over four years years adrift in the Dawn with nothing to do but think – trapped with her own mind, just as I felt I was.And Cortana won.
In the end, after fighting against her deteriorating condition, she takes down the Didact, saves her best friend, and bows out of the narrative on her own terms.
She reclaims her agency and defies the fate prescribed to her.
It’s a bittersweet ending, but also one that I found aspirational and empowering.
Without any sort of support network (even being abandoned by their allies), with the pressure of having to keep on fighting and barely a moment of respite… she wins.
And while John must carry on without her, the stage was set for Halo 5′s story to deal with the aftermath of that trauma.
On a larger scale, the stage was set for a radical shift in the setting surrounding AIs. It was not programmed loyalty that dictated Cortana’s sacrifice, it was something she chose out of love.
Halo 4 was a story that told me that I could win.
It’d be a bloody hard fight, and you’re going to lose something of yourself by the end, but you can win.
That was a story that I didn’t realise exactly how much I needed; a story that added to the substance of my existence.
A story that, as I said, I will never forget.Eventually, I was able to move out and find a new place. I had to keep the awful job, but I cut ties with the main source of my anxiety, and – over the course of the year that followed – managed to start recovering from it.
This was around the time Halo 5 was getting closer, with the expectation very much being set that this would be a story of dealing with that loss and moving forwards, as John was back with Blue Team. Back with his family.
He’d be engaging with his newfound sense of independence, questioning everything about the past which set him on the path of being painted by others as the villain.
But Halo 5 released and that story was substituted with Cortana having survived to become the villain instead, after being told that Halo 5 would respect the amazing legacy she’d left in the fiction.
No longer was she the heroic AI who fought the Didact and her own mind to save her best friend and Earth. Instead, we see what amounts to a caricature spouting the same imperialist verbiage as the last game’s (shelved) villain while emotionally abusing John.
We see her make fun of Holly Tanaka – who was an otherwise brilliantly conceived character, coded with PTSD, anxiety, and depression which was otherwise very tastefully dealt with – for self-harming after her own traumatic experiences as a survivor of Minab.
It was a story that felt (at best) very emotionally irresponsible, utterly unaware of the weight of its predecessor’s subject matter.
And that is why I simply cannot reconcile myself with the main story Halo 5.
I love the Sanghelios arc; I love Fireteam Osiris; I love the intel logs, and genuinely feel positive about a lot of stuff in that campaign… but that all falls away when set against the wider narrative.
Halo 4 told me “You can beat this; it’ll be hard but you can win!”
Halo 5 told me I was destined to become the abuser.
Navigating the emotions this brought on is still really difficult for me. It hits me in a very specific and uncomfortable way; it was the last story that I needed to see told, and seeing the way it was defended post-release only worsened my outlook on it.
But there’s a flaw in my perspective here.
Nobody at 343 walked into the office to plan out Halo 5 and said “Let’s do this to hurt people!”
Nobody at 343 walked into the office to plan out Halo 5 and said “Let’s really try to do that Haruspis bloke over!”
The result that this story did cause hurt (both to myself and others) is a matter deserving of critique, but it is worth remembering that the people who told this story – for reasons that we as fans simply don’t know – had every intention of telling a good story.
From our perspective as fans, it’s easy to say “It’s all well and good talking nebulously about ‘intent’, but here’s the product we received,” and that’s entirely fair. We can’t critique the Halo 5 that 343 wanted to make, with all its content and ideas intact; we can only critique the Halo 5 that we got.
But this is how we broaden our perspectives to offer more rounded and valuable criticism. We have to consider questions surrounding things we simply don’t know about because there is a larger picture – a reality – we are not aware of.
What were some of the things they really wanted to have in the game that might have made certain story and character beats land better?
We don’t know, we can’t know, but in asking those questions it lends consideration to the human cost of game development.
How many hours of work was shelved or lost?
How badly did they have to scramble to make the most out of what little they had to tell the best story they could?
In every job you will ever work, you will find yourself in a situation where the question “What’s the best way I can fail?” must be confronted.And then there’s consideration to lend to the people at 343 who may have themselves disagreed with certain directions and decisions. What we have to remember is that it’s still their job to work their hardest to commit to that vision and make the best of it.
They don’t have the same luxury we do, as fans, because this is what their livelihoods depend on.
I think this is a point that’s easily forgotten – certainly, it’s one that I should’ve given greater thought: if Halo ‘fails’, then the fans lose a series they love. That sucks for us, we all love Halo and we want to see it succeed, even when we’re upset with it…
But, on the other end, if Halo fails, hundreds of people at 343 lose their jobs.
What’s been happening in the industry of late with various studios closing down (Telltale Games being a recent and particularly devastating example) is an ugly portrait of what that looks like.
It’s easy for us to read malicious intent into the things we don’t like, to take things personally – as I did.
But that’s just not in anybody’s interest – be it at 343 or any other studio. There are always exceptions, but if you’re not familiar with the process behind creation then sometimes it’s prudent to assume the best.
This includes quotes from the developers as well.
Now, these are definitely up for scrutiny. There’s no debate to be had there; there are things that get said which absolutely should be examined and criticised.
But it pays to remember – in the interest of broadening our perspectives – that these people (be they Frank O’Connor, Brian Reed, or whoever) have probably sat through over a dozen different iterations of a story point they’ve been labouring over for days or weeks.
They’ve probably had to endure cutting away pieces of their vision, due to sudden circumstances that are likely out of their control, and had to rework the story to retain and deliver on the fundamental essence of that idea.
Maybe an interview they gave about a particular story point came before an unforeseen change had to occur.
Maybe we can’t be told about the details because it’s been shelved for potential use later.
Again, I’m not saying “Don’t critique what they say!”
What I’m saying is that one’s critique becomes far more rounded and valuable when these sorts of things are kept in mind.
Rather than narrowing our focus until we get tunnel vision that only serves to convince us we’re right, we should instead consider “Maybe there’s a larger picture here…”
Simply: it doesn’t make sense to presume, as many of us did, that they were aiming to tell a bad story or make a bad game.
Many of my early critiques of Halo 5 did not keep this in mind. The result was that, regardless of how valid the point I might have had to make was, it was coming from a place of ignorance towards certain realities that affect writing in game development.
As somebody 343 considers to be influential in the community, my voice – my own ignorance towards those realities – was damaging when others latched onto it.
And that is not the impact I wish to have.
I do not wish to simply be the person who you’d point to and say “He’s the guy who eviscerated Halo 5!”
Hate and anger are not in short supply these days, be they in fandom (look no further than the appalling fallout that’s occurred with the Star Wars fanbase in the last year) or elsewhere in the world.
I also looked back at the impact other articles of mine have had, such as my two-part love letter to the underappreciated Halo: Nightfall.
People who didn’t perhaps care for it on their first viewing responded to me saying “Hey, I read your article, decided to give it another watch and I actually enjoyed it a lot more!”
The first big project I did with this blog was the level-by-level analysis of Halo 4, a project that is now incredibly outdated by my current writing standards but it convinced a lot of people to go back through the campaign with a different perspective.
That, I find, is far more fulfilling than contributing to an echo chamber of “I agree with you about hating this thing!”
My journey with Halo 5, like my journey following those awful years I described earlier, has been one of reconstruction – of really figuring out ‘how to be a good fan’ and how to move forwards.
The conclusion that I came to is that I have contributed a little too much to the chorus of despair than I would have liked. My narrow perspective towards certain things in the past has affected not only some of my own responses, but those of other people too.
From my time in the US last month, where I got to sit down and talk about things with people at 343, it has become abundantly clear to me that they know what they’ve done well and they know what they haven’t. I can’t speak for how that’ll manifest in the fiction going forward, but I feel genuine excitement and interest for what is to come.
And even though I may have moved forwards since then, those articles still exist.
They have not changed alongside me and they will continue to be used in some way or another. I felt it important to address that.
It has been over three years now. There are new horizons to look towards, the dawn of 2019 looks to be an incredible opening with the likes of Cassandra Clarke’s Halo: Battle Born, Anne Toole’s Halo: Lone Wolf, and Kelly Gay’s Halo: Renegades to look forward to.
There are things, like the direction with Cortana, that I simply cannot reconcile with. But I am past letting that influence how I offer critique.
One should always aspire to hold oneself to a higher standard, that they might fail better next time, with understanding and grace.
If we are to expect that of 343, we must also expect it of ourselves.
As my favourite character said
before exploding into fiery plumes of energy:
“Remember: hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. […] Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.”
I let you go.