Understanding Halo 4… WITHOUT the Books

…It’s More Likely Than You Think!

Something I still often hear when Halo 4 is discussed is: “You have to read The Books™, and if you didn’t read The Books™ then you require a protracted ‘filling-in’ lesson that sounds a lot like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones commentaries.”

As a matter of fact, this is not true.

With Halo: The Master Chief Collection on its way to PC, starting with Halo: Reach, which has – in recent years – seen a real turnaround in popularity in the community (itself on the cusp of a huge expansion), I think it’s important to interrogate the ‘received wisdom’ towards this title in particular.

At the same time, we must consider what can be done to make Halo’s storytelling more accessible to the average player so they don’t feel like they’re missing out on a story that is clearly much bigger than what they’re seeing.

will show you how to understand Halo 4’s story without having to read The Books™, and this is how…On one hand, the ship has sailed on this one.

It sailed well over half a decade ago. The discourse is (and has always been) against me; it’s pretty much been absorbed into the accepted truths – the ‘received wisdom’ – of the fanbase.

We all made our minds up on this topic years ago, for which I can only apologise that not only did I not try to convince you sooner (and that I haven’t yet grown a TARDIS to go back and try that out).

Perhaps it’s conceivably paradoxical that I’m even writing this; the simple act of explaining why something is actually simple surely belies the notion of simplicity.

I’m too late! At this point, it’s merely a hill I’m choosing to die on…

And die on it, I shall!


CONTEXT, FOR KINGS

On the other hand, the ‘rehabilitation’ of Halo: Reach in the eyes of the fanbase in recent years has come as something of a surprise, given that this game – during its time as ‘the’ Halo title – was hated in a fashion comparable to Halo 2.

Now, I’ve said my piece on Reach in the comprehensive rumination article I wrote back in 2016. I’m not a fan of it, and that hasn’t changed over the years for me… but it has for others.

With the recent announcement that Reach is coming to Halo: The Master Chief Collection, along with the fact that it’ll be the first to be flighted for the PC, there’s been a whole lot of (pizza-topped) love going around.

That’s fantastic, the positive upswing of the community has been wonderful, and what we think of as ‘the community’ is going to look very different by the end of this year.

I can’t wait to see what new creativity this will enable in the years to come.This, of course, means we’ll be seeing the floodgates opened to a lot of new fans who might have never played Halo before. I’m excited to see what new perspectives that’ll bring, but I can’t help but also be wary of certain expectations in the fanbase at-present whenever newcomers start their journey.

“Don’t bother with anything after Halo 3,” some say. “The rest is trash.”

“It all went downhill after Bungie left,” groans another. “The REAL Halo ended with Reach.”

Sadly, I’ve seen a fair bit of that in the comments of some streamers I enjoy watching who are excited to get into the series. Incidentally, if you’re reading this and you are one of those people: consider reevaluating your personal choices.

Received wisdom – that is ‘knowledge that’s considered common and held to be true, but may not be’ – is a problem in fandom because it’s just another word for gatekeeping.

Over time, a ‘natural order’ emerges where perspectives are whittled down to quick bytes.

A common one I see is “Halo 4 = good story, bad multiplayer; Halo 5 = bad story, good multiplayer,” and “Forward Unto Dawn was good; Nightfall was bad.”

Challenging those perspectives is to threaten that which is often perceived as basic fact.

More broadly, this operates on the terms of a feedback loop.It starts with the initial ‘culture shock’ of not jiving with the style compared to what came before. When you don’t ‘click’ with something, the flaws seem that much more obvious and the good stuff fades from your attention.

Then there’s talking with people like you, so whenever someone says “And another thing…” about something they dislike it gets added to the corpus.

Fandom is not so naturally inclined to hang around people with vastly different perspectives, so you never really engage with that viewpoint or hear when things are disproved.

Misconceptions inevitably pile up and this is where many people cross the Rubicon into “I hate this,” because these issues are seen as an innate characteristic of the whole thing. It’s all bad, right? Why bother trying to salvage anything from it? “We don’t talk about that…” (Nightfall gets this treatment a lot, and undeservedly so.)

When an actual flaw comes up, it’s just one more thing tossed onto the pile. Why bother engaging with it when there’s comfort in what you already hold to be true?

It’s the creators next, when you look at anything they say – believing they’re terrible anyway – and project that on their work; spinning it until it fits.

I think we’ve all been a little guilty of that one.

What you’re left with is facile, superficial, broadly generalised ‘wisdom’ that presents its conclusions as the starting point.

The end point is a series that gets categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lists, the latter never seeing any real critical engagement.

That is how the soul of a fanbase dies.I don’t like Halo: Reach. I have a lot to criticise about it and would still probably place it as my least favourite Halo

…but I think it would be thoroughly unacceptable if a newcomer to the franchise came to me for guidance and I engaged them with the mindset of “This person must dislike the things I dislike!” and just ranted about why I think it’s the worst at them.

It’s honestly great that this game has had such an influx of love. There are people who find its story resonates with them; whether they’re just coming to the game, loved it all along, or have changed their mind about it.

What sense is there in trying to take that away?

And so, I turn to my own ‘controversial’ favourite.

Halo 4 has been historically divisive in the fanbase; despite it getting some more love in recent years, it’s a prime example of that superficial, broadly generalised ‘wisdom’ in-action when it’s discussed.

One such commonly communicated notion is “You have to read The Books™ to ‘get’ Halo 4.”

I think it’s prudent to interrogate this particularly virulent byte of received wisdom.


ANY NOVEL YOU CAN WALK AWAY FROM

Let me be clear: yes, going into Halo 4 having read the expanded universe material is definitely the ‘ideal’ way to experience it.

That’s not to say that every deep lore fan universally loves Halo 4 and it didn’t put a foot wrong, as that’s simply not true. There are plenty of people who read the Forerunner Saga, Kilo-5, and other peripheral media, who have issues with the game.

But going into it with that knowledge is ultimately going to enhance your perspective.

“Everything we make in that franchise, whether it’s comic books, whether it’s a novel, even action figures, they all feed directly into the game.

[…] Every single story that we’re telling, from Cryptum to Glasslands, and beyond, is feeding the game. Everything pours into the game eventually and people love the extended franchise, and we want to make it a richer and more meaningful experience for them when they do encounter those little nods.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo 4 panel (8:50-9:52)]

That does not, however, mean that you are required to have that knowledge in order to understand the story it’s telling.

Starting this article with Halo: Reach was important because the context around that game’s reception by the lore community is a significant part of why I love Halo 4 so much.

As is pretty common knowledge, Bungie didn’t much care for the expanded universe of Halo. That in itself is part of a much longer story going back to the earliest days of the series (which I’ve written about here, if you’re interested), but it was a source of great frustration in the lore community.

It felt like Halo was almost two separate universes rather than a cohesive whole.When Reach released, it quickly became apparent that the book – which took a real fight against Bungie’s management to even exist – hadn’t just been ignored, but altogether tossed out the window for the story Bungie wanted to tell (which, as far as I’m concerned, greatly missed the point of the fall of Reach – more on that in the article I previously linked).

That was one of the lowest points for the lore community; it was more like a middle finger than a “swan song.”

Going from that point, the Mantle was passed to 343 Industries and things swung to the opposite extreme.

“We’ve been building the background and the fabric for this story for years. […] Every novel that you’ve read in the last couple of years, every comic book, the Terminals in Halo Anniversary edition – everything is feeding directly into the story for the next Halo trilogy.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo 4 panel (2:30-3:03)]

From the beginning, 343 were clearly interested in a very different approach to how stories would be told in the Halo universe; they sought to embrace the expanded universe as a major aspect of the games, rather than ignoring or rewriting it.

Truth be told, it was the first time that I actually felt like a Halo game was being made ‘for me’ – for the things that I had been invested in for so many years.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I know that a lot of people shared those feelings (it was, after all, what led to the formal creation of the Halo Archive site).

I’d wager that every one of you reading these words has a Halo game that you hold as being special to you in some way.

Maybe it’s because you fondly remember LAN parties in Halo 1, or you went on a journey to the rank of General with friends in Halo Wars, or you loved the tonal divergence of Halo 3: ODST as you explored the devastated city of New Mombasa…

Something about it makes it ‘your’ Halo game.

For me, that’s what Halo 4 represents.I bring this up because I think it’s worth noting that Halo 4 does have a special place for a lot of us fans who gravitate more towards the story, and that’s not limited to people who have read into the expanded universe.

343’s direction with Halo 4 came (to some extent) from there being a palpable appetite in the community for a more complex, connected story after many of us were let down by Reach, just as there is now an appetite for simpler stories.

This must come with the acknowledgement that the ‘approachability’ was perhaps a little overstated at times…

“We’ve built a story that you absolutely don’t need to have any grasp of the extended fiction to understand. It will be self-contained. And I think you could, as a brand new player, get to the end of Halo 4 and have almost as complete an understanding of some of the more nuanced deep fiction as someone who’s an expert in it right now. And that’s important.

[…] It’s got to be an approachable, recognisable, and entertaining narrative for anybody with any level of experience in the Halo universe.” [Frank O’Connor, Halo 4 Story Interview’ – IGN]

Your mileage will, of course, vary on the latter part of Frank’s statement, but it’s definitely fair to say that 343 Industries were not quite able to have their cake and eat it – so to speak – on having everybody on the same level.

While a key piece of the puzzle was missing at the time of the launch of Halo 4, in the form of Halo: Silentium (originally slated for a December release in 2012, but got pushed back to the following March), those who were familiar with the relevant expanded universe material definitely had a “more complete” understanding of the nuanced deep fiction.

That is not to say, however, that expanded universe material is necessary to ‘get it.’

Sometimes backstory is just that. Backstory.

And so, with that lengthy preface out-of-the-way, we come at last to…


THE DIDACT

The Didact being brought into Halo 4 was something that had a massive amount of hype surrounding it, revealing not only the first living Forerunner but also the first true nemesis for the Master Chief.

Reception to the character was mixed, but before we go anywhere further down that route it’s important not to paint this as “People who read the books were happy, people who didn’t were not.”

There are people who read the Forerunner Saga and were left wanting with the Didact, just as there were many (like myself) who read that material and loved how the game handled him. Likewise there were people who didn’t read any of the expanded universe material and were taken very strongly with the character too.

This isn’t an exploration of how your mileage with the character may vary, but to address the confusion over his motivations and goals.

Some believe that Halo 4 did not explain these things.

Not that it simply did an inadequate job of it, which could be fairly argued, but that it was fundamentally not present in the game’s writing and the only way to get those answers was to either watch the Terminals…

…or read The Books™.

Neither is accurate.

Below is a handy infographic I have drawn up that contains dialogue solely and entirely from the campaign.

No Terminals, no expanded universe sources. Just dialogue from the cutscenes (with the exception of Shutdown, which occurs during gameplay) that relate everything you need to know. I even highlighted the most important bits in red!To sum up the picture this information paints in three bullet points:

1 – The Didact is a warrior who believes that only the Forerunners are fit to hold the Mantle. The Librarian, however, believes that humanity must inherit this responsibility.

2 – Upon seeing that the Librarian’s plan has not yet been fulfilled, the Didact still has time to prevent humanity’s ascension.

3 – The Didact seeks to achieve this by using the Composer to imprison humanity (not kill them, as the Mantle “shelters all”), turning them into Promethean Knights in his thrall. He sees this as a kindness for the galaxy, believing humanity to be like children playing with fire.

And that’s… it.

That’s the simplest distillation of what the game requires you to ‘get,’ and it’s all in there.

Practically every line of dialogue the Didact and Librarian have throughout Halo 4 reinforces some aspect of his motivation against humanity, 343 simply had the gall to ask that you pay attention to it.Everything beyond that is backstory, which greatly substantiates the character with complexity beyond simply being ‘the antagonist,’ but is not required to understand what’s going on.

Likewise, the backstory of the character is far less important to the game than the character’s function in driving the main part of the story: the Master Chief and Cortana’s journey.

There’s not nearly enough room in this article to go into that, so I’ll direct you to two very lengthy articles where I do: The Master Chief, A Character Study – Halo 4 and Halo 4 – Crafting A Masterpiece of Character.

There is definitely strong criticism to be made that more of the Didact’s backstory should have been in-game, and the fact that the Terminals ended up having to be removed from the disc due to storage limitations (whereas it was immediately accessible in the previous year’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary) was problematic.

But the notion that one needs to have read though any number of books to understand what is going on with the Didact in Halo 4 is simply not true.


THE MANTLE OF RESPONSIBILITY

The concept of the Mantle is the keystone of the Didact’s motivation in Halo 4, it’s what he’s fighting for. On a broader scale, it’s the keystone of the Reclaimer Saga as a whole.

“What is the Mantle?” you ask.

You’re quite sure Halo 4 never told us?

Cortana summarised the concept of the Mantle in a grand total of five words in the second mission; no additional reading required, you just have to interact with an object:

“Guardianship for all living things.”

If you missed the Eld glyph in the second mission (which is quite difficult, given that you’re in an enclosed room and encouraged to explore), refer back to the infographic above and you still get a clear notion of what it is from its references in dialogue.

Pardon the brevity of this section, but that’s really all there is to it.

Next, however, is something a little more complicated…


THE COVENANT

Let’s start with the criticism.

John: “I thought we had a truce with the Covenant?”

Cortana: “A lot can happen in four years.”

*half-way through the first mission*

John: “These Covenant seem more fanatical than the ones we fought before.”

Yes, these are bad lines.

These are really, really bad lines. They do little to help the fact that the Covenant’s ‘return’ makes a lot of sense.

Looking back at a pre-release quote, one couldn’t be blamed for expecting more than these few lines which don’t offer much in the way of meaningful clarity.

“I want to point out that if you’ve never played a Halo game, Halo 4 will actually encapsulate all that information. You won’t have to go back and play the other games, you don’t have to read the novels, you don’t have to see the comics, but the Covenant conflict and the current state of that conflict will be explained in the game.

[…] It will all be fully self-contained within Halo 4. You don’t have to go and read all that fiction to understand it.” [Frank O’Connor, ‘A New Campaign’ – SDCC 2012 (48:45-49:27)]

It is worth keeping in-mind that things could have changed in the time that followed Frank saying this; lines could’ve been cut, a scene rearranged, dialogue chopped (there are, in fact, a number of lines and even some original scenes from Infinity, Reclaimer, Shutdown, and Midnight that remain in the game’s files), so there could have been more that directly dealt with the Covenant.

The ideal opportunity for this would have been when the Master Chief and Cortana are on the UNSC Infinity’s bridge for the first time, catching up with Lasky and Del Rio.

As it is, which is what we have to work with, it’s not at all satisfactory and I certainly wouldn’t blame the average player for being confused.

To offer some of my own criticism on the Covenant in Halo 4, I think there’s a solid argument that they’re not narratively differentiated enough from the Covenant of the original trilogy.

On several occasions, I have brought up the idea of Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant remnant reinterpreting the Great Journey around the Composer.

In releasing the Didact, they will be rewarded by becoming Prometheans – his holy warriors.

The Composer will ‘purify’ their souls, their service rewarded by having their essences pass peacefully into the Domain.On the other end of things, as I said earlier, the Covenant still being around… makes sense.

The Covenant is a theocratic, hegemonic empire composed (heh) of a multitude of species from the Orion Arm of our galaxy that has been around for millennia.

You don’t just end a vast interstellar empire overnight because you killed its leader; certainly, looking to our own real-world examples where we still have very punchable Nazis (incidentally, and, for the record, I would like to place particular emphasis on this: fuck Nazis) around and making a resurgence today.

I have covered this in more depth (and with more reference to the expanded universe) in an older article Why Halo 3 Didn’t ‘Finish the Fight,’ but there is some dialogue in Halo 3 that lends further credence to this.

This leads me to something that the Prophet of Truth says in Halo 3, aboard the Scarab you fight on the way to the Ark’s Cartographer.

“I opened the Portal to this hallowed place, this shelter from Halo’s fire, in the hopes that more of our Covenant would follow us. Alas, save for a rabble of Heretics and their Demon allies, we are all that made the passage. Thus we must temper joy with sorrow in our hearts, for those who were left behind.” [Prophet of Truth – Halo 3, The Ark]

Barring the downright weird mention from Truth that the Ark is a shelter from the Halos for the Covenant (that “divine wind” was supposed to be what propelled you to godhood), this establishes that only some Covenant Loyalists ended up going to the Ark.This is a seemingly innocuous line that’s easy to miss, due to it being spoken when you’re fighting your way through the Scarab, but it outright tells us that there are Covenant Loyalists remaining in the Milky Way.

I mean, are we really to believe that – by the battle of the Ark in Halo 3 – the Covenant was whittled down to about thirty ships?

In the post-war era, the idea of reclaiming that former glory – reforming it, and attaining some semblance of purpose and stability from it – is a prospect that many would find attractive in a time of such uncertainty.

While there is much to be criticised about the way in which Halo 4 handled the delivery of this particular detail, even the most basic critical reflection upon Halo 3 is all you really need to go “That’s not quite right…” with regards to the notion that the Covenant is “finished.”


A STAR TO STEER BY

A lot of the frustration towards Halo 4 comes from a place of knowing that there is a much larger story going on. Being aware of its existence, but not having read into it, naturally brings a sense that one is missing out – an understandable barrier to enjoyment.

The problem with the response to this is that the problem has been misconstrued.

There is no inherent issue with the direction of having the games embrace greater interconnectivity with its expanded universe.

While we all certainly have our issues with various things that 343 has handled, I think it’s a fair statement to make that it has been a huge net-positive for the franchise. The relationship between storytelling mediums is a lot healthier than it was during Bungie’s era.

It becomes a problem when the game doesn’t adequately facilitate a sense of inclusion for its players in that story, and that is a much more accurate representation of Halo 4’s problem.

Sometimes that comes from inadequate writing (exacerbated by the dialogue regarding the Covenant).

Sometimes that comes from unfortunate consequences in game development, like the Terminals being taken off the disc.

There’s no question that this is a major issue, but by the same token it’s worth remembering that YouTube is just a click away and the various cutscene and Terminal compilation videos all have hundreds of thousands (adding up to millions) of views.

I think the lesson to be learned is that people are interested.

People do want to see that backstory, they do want to invest in these characters to get the most out of these narratives.It’s not a problem that the game has gone down this route; it’s not the case that 343 tells “Too much story,” as Bonnie Ross has stated a few times in some recent interviews (most notably with Ryan McCaffrey in IGN Unfiltered #39).

Frankly, Halo 4 does a very good job of saving its dialogue during gameplay for quieter moments where it’s not drowned out by combat.

I’ve been replaying Borderlands 2 recently and that game is on the opposite end of the scale where I’ve missed so much of its character interactions because the dialogue so often coincides with large combat encounters.

Some loud people have called for 343 to forget ‘remove’ the expanded universe from being relevant to future games entirely, which is something that goes hand-in-hand with some of that received wisdom around Halo 4 which has really poisoned a lot of the discourse around it in the community.

The response, from us as fans, really should have been “Please implement it into the game better,” with discussion centring around how to do that.

On that score, the remaster of the original Gears of War took an interesting approach…By collecting COG tags in the campaign, the player can unlock various comics in the main menu to read.

This was great because it applied greater value to existing collectibles which were originally only tied to unlocking a few achievements, whereas there’s now a stronger reward for players interested in the story to go back and search for these.

It would’ve been great if Halo 5 could have implemented this with various issues and arcs from Halo: Escalation, which had a number of important storylines that were peripherally relevant to the game: Chief reuniting with Blue Team and facing the Didact; Holly Tanaka’s backstory, growing up in the glasslands of Minab; the Janus Key and Absolute Record…

I’m not going to try to argue how feasible that was to do. No doubt, there are a lot of moving parts to that which make it a lot less simple than “Just put that in the game,” and there are a host of issues with Halo 5’s story jettisoning much of that narrative content anyway, but I’m sure you see the essence of what I’m getting at.

With Halo Infinite on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that 343 is looking to take a completely different approach to how this backstory stuff is explored in the campaign.

Goodness knows that there’s a lot of deep and obscure lore that comes with Installation 07 as a setting!There’s more to cover (there always is), but I wanted to go over the biggest examples that are always brought up – specifically, the Didact and the Covenant.

To conclude, these things do not require any extensive reading in order to understand their role or importance in the game. With the Didact, all that is demanded of the player is that they pay attention and engage with the story content. I don’t think that’s asking much, somebody who isn’t inclined to do that obviously doesn’t care about the story.

But there are legitimate issues.

Sometimes you can’t pass things off by the edifice, particularly when much of Halo’s audience demands more from its story and campaign – even if they don’t (or can’t) invest in the expanded universe.

Going forward, I hope that the conversation tends more towards questioning how Halo’s storytelling can be more inclusive and accessible for the more ‘casual’ fans of the campaign so that they don’t feel like they’re missing out.

Until the next time!

2 thoughts on “Understanding Halo 4… WITHOUT the Books

  1. I think one area I would still (somewhat) disagree is that H4 is 100% understandable without the books. But not for the reasons you’ve addressed in this post. As you’ve shown, the plot points are all (more or less) given in the game, but I think a lot of it can be summarised by a quote from the Zero Punctuation review of the game;

    “Covenant, Forerunner, Arbiter, Promethean – I know what all these individual words mean but together they make no sense.”

    I think a good chunk of the issue is that the game’s brevity and lightning pace force you to have to pick up and accept a lot of nuanced concepts in a pretty short amount of time. The new Covenant, the Forerunners, the Composer, the Prometheans, the Mantle, the Librarian and the entire idea of ancient humans are brought in by the halfway mark of what is already a very short campaign. In particular, i think the Librarian’s exposition dump is probably a root cause of the issue, but in general i think a lot of the game is just information overload. Too much, too fast. You don’t get time to process the last big reveal properly so as a result you don’t really feel like you understand the game, if that makes sense. By the halfway mark of Halo CE, all you really know is that the Covenant want to A) Activate the ring and B) kill humans. You get a full game to get a feel for the Covenant and their goals before they start bringing in their politics and more worldbuilding, and I feel a similar thing should have been done for 4. One of my criticisms of the game in general is that the Didact shouldn’t have been used in the third mission. If anything, I’d have possibly waited until 5 to bring in the Didact and really hype him up as the ultra badass he’s supposed to be. Get a full game to bring people up to speed on the Prometheans and reformed Covenant and general state of the universe circa 2557, before we start throwing in the more complex stuff. Or alternatively, at least one more mission of exploring Requiem, possibly doing some guerilla warfare (maybe even a time jump of a few weeks/ months?) against the Covenant occupying force as you learn from them what’s happened in the universe. It’d need work and obviously ignores the realities of game development, but in an ideal world I definitely think another mission or two or three to spread out some of the dense information would have been good.

    Also as a side note, even with the quotes you highlighted I never really felt like the game explains the Mantle concept properly, but that could just be me.

    1. Good to see you around, Bacon!

      I don’t entirely disagree with the point you bring up there, Reclaimer is the one mission that really lets Halo 4’s storytelling down because it’s essentially a Spartan Ops level that’s having to juggle the big second-act reveals.

      Previous levels have things unfold much more naturally because they were designed and paced in-concert with the story and character beats (in this, having the Didact awaken at the end of the third mission – the end of the first act – was entirely appropriate for the game’s structure as it is), but Reclaimer crams it into a cutscene. An awesome cutscene, one that’s really great to watch as someone who loves the Forerunner Saga, but one that doesn’t really have a level built around it. That definitely is a problem.

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