“It only takes one mistake, kid. You went a long time before you made it.”
In the Halo community, there are certain topics you can always count on to rise to the surface every few months.
“What’s the deal with that mysterious ship in the Halo 1 Terminals?” is one that’s been going for eight years now, proving just how resonant this form of storytelling for Halo’s more esoteric lore can be for all kinds of fans.
“Why didn’t the Forerunners reseed themselves?” is one of the oldest long-running questions that has been asked of the series – older, even, than the fabled Secret of Sandtrap…
Now, it’s been over four years since Matt Forbeck’s Halo: New Blood, the then long-awaited sequel to Halo 3: ODST, which added another oft-asked question to that roster.
Killing off known characters is a big deal. It’s something that can make or break a story, and will inevitably be one of the main things the audience remembers about it – for good or ill.
Creatively, arriving at that decision can be difficult. There are a lot of important questions that a writer has to ask in order to justify the decision and exactly how much to twist the knife when it lands.
Why them? Why now? Why there, and by whom – or what? Has this character’s potential been fulfilled? Are they at the end of their journey? Am I cutting that journey short, and, if so, then why? What does this accomplish for the characters, themes, and setting? What will this mean going forward? And so on…
Indeed, Halo has had more than its share of impactful character deaths across all its forms of storytelling, some of the most memorable and emotional of those have occurred on the page rather than the screen.
Which brings us to March 2015, when Halo: New Blood released, following up on the story of fan-favourite Edward Buck and his squad – Alpha-Nine.
Picking up after the Human-Covenant war’s end, the opening act of the novella, which takes the form of something of a memoir from Buck, leaves us on a bit of a cliffhanger as the Rookie is beaten and held at gunpoint.
The next time we saw the Rookie, though, he was a bloody mess. He’d been shot in the shoulder and beaten bloody, and he’d lost his helmet somewhere along the way. A couple of soldiers dragged him up to the balcony at the front of the legislative chambers – the one from which the Draco III president used to address the planet – and presented him to us. We dove straight for cover and tried to figure out our next move.
Well, I tried, anyway. The others were never that great at coming up with plans on the fly. But that’s why I outranked them.
I was still strategising when Captain Ingridson herself appeared next to the Rookie with a pistol barrel flat against his temple. I signalled the others to press back and hide.
“Stand down, imperialists!” she shouted. The Rookie tried to angle his head out of the way, but the rebels holding his arms had him in a vicious grip. “Give yourselves up now, or your comrade dies!” [Halo: New Blood, p. 21]
It builds an elaborate tapestry of events across the past, setting things up for the narrative to circle back to later, as Forbeck distracts us with just how expertly he manages to capture Nathan Fillion’s voice to tell this tale.
We follow the uncertain beginnings of Buck’s relationship with Veronica Dare, and the time they get together after the war. We learn about his history with Sarah Palmer, a fellow ODST and figure of inspiration to him; Jun enters the story as the Spartan-IV program launches after the war, hoping to get Buck on-board; the events of Halo 3: ODST are recapped, and even Sadie and Vergil get a look-in.
Forbeck’s structural set-up with the shorter, more limited format of the novella is undoubtedly his best writing for Halo. The scale is kept small, the focus is always set on the characters.
Also, the set-up of this story feeds well into my own narrative aesthetic, as I’m always a sucker for a bit of non-linear storytelling.
And then, at the half-way point, we return to the opening moment with the Rookie.
She pulled the trigger on the Rookie, and his brains blew out of the back of his skull in a fine red mist that scattered all over the legislature’s floor. Then he crumpled backward, tumbling over the balcony’s railing. His body slammed right on the podium from which Draco III’s legislators gave speeches to the rest of the world. It splintered under his weight. [New Blood, p. 101]
The Rookie dies.
This is a good thing.
“We are not Game of Thrones,” Bonnie Ross said in an interview with Eurogamer back in 2014. “We actually want to make sure going forward we have a larger cast of characters with which to tell stories.”
This has, naturally, been a go-to quote for some of the characters that the community (myself included) has largely deemed 343 to have mishandled.
From the one-two punch of Black Team’s death and the Ur-Didact’s ambiguous shelving, to offing Jul ‘Mdama in the first mission of Halo 5, to ‘Telcam’s frustrating bucket-kicking in Tales From Slipspace, and beyond… there have been plenty of occasions in the wake of this quote where major and minor characters have met an abrupt and unsatisfying end that belies the intention it states.
But there is something of a divide as to whether or not the Rookie is included as part of that roster.
There are those who do not like that New Blood killed him, be it the way in which it happened or the very concept of killing him off; whereas others see this as how to do a shocking death right.
Unlike the Master Chief, the Arbiter, or even Noble Six, the Rookie is a truly silent protagonist. He’s Bungie’s most successful attempt at crafting a ‘vessel’ for the player to inhabit because he has no dialogue and no external story baggage.
(Through various dialogues and disasters, Ol’ Buttercup spends most of his time napping; let it be said that I do understand the emotional attachment many have to such an eminently relatable character!)
Back when what would go on to become Halo 3: ODST was in its earliest stages, Bungie considered a number of different concepts and characters, one of which involved going back to play as the Arbiter again.
This idea, however, was passed on because it came with a lot of baggage in terms of backstory when Bungie wanted something fresh.
“We went through probably like three or four days of thinking about what we could do with the Arbiter, but at the end of the day those stories felt very heavy to us. There was a lot of back-fiction that we had to bring along with us, there was a lot of making sure we got everything right, and we just wanted to start fresh.” [Paul Bertone, Bungie PAX 2009 Panel – Part 1 (2:00-2:27)]
The Rookie exists as a narrative framing device for Halo 3: ODST, a means for the player to become immersed in exploring the neon-lit city of New Mombasa, searching for clues that will lead you back to your squad.
I conduct extensive research to write these articles, and so I actively searched out whatever I could find where Bungie talked about what kind of character they were aiming to craft with the Rookie.
Here are a few choice quotes that capture the gist, from when the game was first announced as Halo 3: Recon in 2008…
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the new hero character?
Brian Jarrard: The ODSTs are the guys who are in between the Master Chief level and the regular marine level. They don’t have the augmentation of a Spartan or the super-reflexes and armour. [Eurogamer – ‘Halo 3 Recon, Bungie jumps in for the fourth time’ (10/10/08)]
…to the PAX 2009 panel with the team working on the game…
“We thought ‘Hey, let’s do the ODST,’ maybe from a new perspective. Everybody’s seen him in Halo 2 and Halo 3, mysterious soldier in dark armour, but we never really got inside the armour and talked about who the ODSTs were.” [Joe Staten, Bungie PAX 2009 Panel, Part 1 (3:43-3:58)]
…to the eleventh hour, just a few weeks before the game’s release.
And a big part of it is the character. He’s not as big, so his perspective of the world is a little bit different. He’s not as fast, he can’t jump as high. So even beyond just the health and things like that, it plays very much like Halo but plays a lot more human I guess. [Ryan Crosby, The Guardian – ‘Behind the scenes of Halo 3: ODST‘ (28/7/09)]
There’s a bit of a pattern here.The extent to which Bungie discusses the Rookie as a character is solely in-reference to how he exists as a cipher for the player’s experience in being an ODST, how that differs from being a Spartan.
Bungie intended for the player to feel more vulnerable, wandering the quiet, neon-lit streets of New Mombasa (populated only by squads of Covenant forces) in the wake of the chaos that ensued following the Covenant’s invasion and the Prophet of Regret’s in-atmosphere slipspace jump.
Indeed, a criticism to be levelled here is that Halo 3: ODST didn’t manage to go far enough to capture that feeling of vulnerability – particularly factoring in the marketing for the game with its incredible live action trailer, ‘We Are ODST.’
As such, ODST suffers from a severe case of ludonarrative dissonance, which refers to the relationship between the narrative told in the story versus the gameplay. The dissonance refers to when mechanics or gameplay elements betray the story that the game is trying to tell.
The narrative intention to follow a more vulnerable human character conflicts with the gameplay, as you are still able to walk at full speed – faster, even, than the Chief – while carrying a detached turret. The health system is effectively the same as Halo 1’s, but with ‘invisible’ shields renamed to ‘stamina’; the player is still able to confidently take on hordes of Covenant and use their weapons and drive their vehicles…
Halo 1’s official tagline is:
“You are the last of your kind. Bred for combat, built for war, you are the master of any weapon, pilot of any vehicle… and fear no enemy.”
Where the flashback missions in ODST do a tremendous job of capturing and refining some of the ‘greatest hits’ of Halo’s gameplay, and the Rookie’s nighttime wanderings are still wonderfully atmospheric, at no point does ODST truly succeed in making the player feel substantially different from the premise of being a Spartan.
It turns out that the ODSTs are still the master of any weapon, pilot of any vehicle, and not given any reason to fear their enemies.
People naturally and understandably started to build an idea of the Rookie that ran contrary to the narrative intention. You’re running around as a lone soldier at night taking on squads of Covenant (including Hunters) with little real deviation from the mechanics of Halo 3.
We must, of course, acknowledge the fact that this game was a smaller side-project that didn’t have the creative latitude of a full game, like Halo: Reach. This was the lovechild of a much smaller team working with an existing (and aged) engine, and it was not originally intended to be more than a campaign DLC.
That context is important, broadening our understanding of the behind-the-scenes process that informed this game’s creation, but when the Rookie ended up being featured in a form of media that could more accurately capture that vulnerability, it risked exacerbating that extant dissonance.
In a death that is as simple and mundane as being shot in the head, New Blood, truthfully, fulfils the attempt at gritty realism that ODST aspired to capture but never quite managed to grasp.
There are arguments against the killing of the Rookie that I find I simply cannot agree with, namely it is the notion that he shouldn’t have been killed off – or deserved “a better death” – because “He’s a game character.”
Further, I have seen statements levelled at New Blood that accuse it of being “poorly written fan fiction,” simply because the Rookie didn’t get a more Badass™ death.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Firstly, the idea of there being some sort of structural hierarchy of importance to this character simply because we played as him in a game is entirely false.
Not only do stories not work like that, it just isn’t an approach that is conducive to good writing.
Secondly, the “poorly written fan fiction” accusation levelled at this book coming in the same breath of saying that the Rookie deserved special treatment because he was our self-insert character is…
That’s one of the quintessential qualities that is widely considered emblematic of actual “poorly written fan fiction.”
Let’s try for some self-awareness here!
Lastly, perhaps it’s a hill I’m simply choosing to die on, but I think this was the best way to handle the Rookie.As I mentioned earlier, the Rookie is not a character, but a narrative framing device for the intended atmosphere of the Mombasa Streets hub and the ‘feeling’ of being an ODST.
In the intended absence of character, to then make any more of the Rookie by changing him in that fashion would be a fundamental betrayal of the essence of an entire game’s approach to its storytelling.
I know I’m courting comparisons to be made to the Master Chief here, as Halo 4 greatly expanded on his characterisation, but that isn’t a sound parallel. The Master Chief’s situation is a lot more complicated, getting into the politics of Bungie and Microsoft’s early relationship, and how his characterisation differs wildly in each game of the series.
No, the Rookie represents a far simpler, more unified vision of a character than one could ever cobble together for the Master Chief. As a result of that vision, there was simply less that could be done with him.
At least, that is true until you factor in the short story ‘Dirt’ from Halo: Evolutions…
BURY YOUR GAGE
This ODST was intended by author Tobias Buckell to be the Rookie.
The novella was a set up as a classical tragedy (everyone who’s a major character dies except for the guy who frames the story, who is the recruit from ODST, I was trying to write this to flesh him out a bit for fans). [Tobias Buckell (31/3/2010)]
That does indeed muddy the waters a bit, as the Rookie speaks in this story and is given characterisation that very much goes against Bungie’s intentions with him.
It would be easy if we could simply say “Well, to what extent can we really say authorial intent is canon, when nothing in the text itself actually clarifies that this character is the same as the Rookie in ODST?”
Unfortunately, we can’t quite say that because the official character page on Waypoint’s Universe section clarifies that this is the case.
Just weeks after the tragedy of New Jerusalem, [The Rookie] dropped near the city of Mount Haven with orders to defend the transport of a Forerunner artifact. Once groundside, he discovered an injured soldier who’d been shot down by rogue ODSTs. The injured soldier warned the Rookie of his intention to detonate a nuclear missile to destroy both the rogue ODSTs and Covenant forces approaching the crash site.
The Rookie escaped the blast zone and hailed a Pelican for pickup. He was then informed that all UNSC forces were retreating to Earth following the Covenant glassing of Reach. [Rookie, Halo Waypoint – Universe]
So we’re met with a bit of a dilemma, as two distinct versions of this character exist and the respective texts do not make any attempt to reconcile them – be it through saying that the Rookie experience post-traumatic vocal disarticulation (like Lucy-B091, where her disability is a meaningful part of her characterisation) or otherwise.
What this consequently represents is the danger of being overly curative with a universe; filling in details that simply don’t need to be taken further than the audience’s imagination, clashing with artistic intent.
Buckell’s own intention to flesh out a narrative device intentionally crafted as nothing more than a pure vessel for the player is something that, frankly, adds nothing to ‘Dirt’ or Halo 3: ODST. There is no importance placed on who this listener is.
It’s different when your starting point for the Halo universe is “You play as a super-soldier,” which then saw the addendum of “…who was kidnapped with a bunch of six-year-olds, then indoctrinated and genetically experimented on to serve the military.”
You can’t not take that further. The mileage Halo has gotten out of that is a big part of why it’s still around almost twenty years later.
But the point of the ODST as the average, unremarkable human who Bungie intended to be a cipher for experiencing that disempowerment (even if the game didn’t quite sell that) simply does not necessitate further filling-in.
As such, I shall proceed by following Forbeck’s approach to New Blood and ignore it.
Spartan-II Black Team (consisting of Margaret-053, Roma-143, Otto-031, and Victor-101) were introduced to us in the ‘Blunt Instruments’ short story of Halo: Evolutions; their story was quickly followed up in the following month by the comic Halo: Blood Line.
Blood Line in particular is worth venerating as one of the best Halo comics; the five-issue run was a confluence of great storytelling and some of the best art (credit to Francis Portela there for pencils, inks, and colours) in the series. It was brimming with imaginative potential.
Much of that potential came from the Spartans, who had a unique and interesting history that made them, in a lot of ways, some of my favourite Spartan-II characters.
Author Fred Van Lente likened them to Resistance or British S.A.S. units in WWII, working behind enemy lines.
I would compare them more to Resistance or British S.A.S. units in World War II, trained specifically to go behind enemy lines and fuck shit up, if you’ll pardon my French: sabotage, assassination, infiltration and destruction of high-value targets, et cetera. Hit the Covenant where they live, hit them hard, hit them fast, then disappear before they know what the hell did hit them. [Fred Van Lente, Halopedia – ‘Fred Van Lente and Spartan Black’ (21/5/2009)]
Early into their Spartan-II training, Otto and Margaret became romantically involved. Mendez was informed of this by a jealous Victor, who then sent Red Team after them. Margaret got run down and she lost her left eye in the ensuing struggle.
The incident was never again spoken of, but the team was more prone to in-fighting which becomes a significant conflict later on.
Black Team are (or were) known to communicate to each other with half-finished in-jokes that nobody but them understand (or understood), and general military slang.
Victor is described as being unnaturally calm and he disturbs his teammates with his voice because it never changes in tone – a character trait which came to be be tested in Blood Line, as he completely loses his composure on the Line Installation. We also know that he’s developed false memories because of emotional instability from his past.
Roma is an open-minded and compassionate individual, she doesn’t even hate the Covenant. In ‘Blunt Instruments,’ she attempts to actually talk to a Yanme’e instead of just outright killing it.
Indeed, one of Van Lente’s recurring ideas in both ‘Blunt Instruments’ and Blood Line was having Spartan and Covenant characters forced into situations where they had to ally in order to save their fellow squadmates.
This leads to all sorts of great drama… and comedy.Black Team’s story concluded on a cliffhanger, as they were stranded on a Forerunner Line Installation with a Covenant fleet crashing down upon them, a hundred Covenant warriors standing between them and a potential way home.
Van Lente said that he had more Black Team stories in-mind, but these never came to fruition.
If given the chance due to the success of the Spartan Black series, would you sign on to do more with the franchise, such as games, novels, etc.?
Yes, and already have some ideas percolating that I bring to the PTB at Microsoft when the time is right, at their headquarters in Redmond we’ve dubbed “High Charity”. [Fred Van Lente, Halopedia – ‘Fred Van Lente and Spartan Black’ (21/5/2009)]
All was silent on the Black Team front, until 2014 when Catalog posted an answer on the Halo Waypoint forums resolving a query about their fate.
Human naval and [frumentarii] records list [exploratores] Otto-031, Margaret-053, Victor-101, and Roma-143 as currently assigned to Human [eyes] at [gamma site]. [Catalog, Halo Waypoint – ‘Catalog Interaction’ (7/1/2014)]
So they had indeed escaped the Line Installation and were currently located at ‘gamma site,’ otherwise known as Installation 03, which had appeared in Halo 4.
This was exciting news! There was definitely a story to be told there, with some reasonable expectations that we would see it.
But we truly had no idea where Black Team’s story would beheading…
After waiting for four years to see the continuation of their story, following a cliffhanger and an author who professed to be interested in doing more stories with them, this diverse and unique team of Spartan-IIs was killed ‘off-screen.’
“Oh. Hey. It’s Black Team. We’ll talk about them more at the start of the next issue, but for now I’ll just mention that when I asked who I could kill (New characters? Established Spartans?), Black Team were offered up. The thinking was that killing ‘new’ Spartan-IIs (or even IVs) wouldn’t hit as hard as IIs we already knew.” [Brian Reed, Halo: Escalation Library Edition, p. 250]
Black Team were killed in order to make the Didact look powerful, a fact that is not subtly conveyed as a given by his appearance, as well as the scale of the threat he poses in the rest of the comic as Blue Team are set against his plan to use a Halo and the Composers on Earth.
The same effect could have been captured by killing some anonymous Spartan-IVs, but the thinking from whoever “offered up” Black Team for the chopping block was that this would have more impact.
Suffice to say, this instantly became a go-to example of characters being treated frivolously – contrary to the “We are not Game of Thrones” statement.What really separates Black Team’s death from the Rookie’s is threefold.
First, Spartan-II characters come in very limited numbers – especially in the post-war era. Arguing for characters to get ‘special treatment’ is, as we’ve already covered, iffy territory, but it’s something that is somewhat demanded by post-war Spartan-IIs.
Second, Black Team are fully-realised characters with their own unique stories and personalities that have been explored in other media.
Unlike the Rookie, purposefully conceived as a non-entity, Black Team are unique even among their Spartan-II peers, which is one of the big ‘hooks’ for their stories in Evolutions and Blood Line.
Third, their deaths have no impact whatsoever on the narrative or on Blue Team. They have no reaction to their deaths, simply walking past them to the next panel, and they are certainly not remembered beyond that point.
It’s important to remember that comics (particularly Escalation) come with certain limitations with what you can realistically do due to deadlines and all the moving parts of that industry, along with 343’s own production schedule…
But taking that into consideration can surely only dissuade one from doing this; if you don’t have the latitude to get it done right, don’t do it.
To turn a phrase from The Fall of Reach: there are characters who are spent and characters who are wasted.
Black Team stands as the quintessential cautionary tale of the latter.
WHERE ONE ROAD ENDS
As covered earlier, this event is one of the two first-act cliffhangers in New Blood. The first is Mickey and Romeo telling Buck not to move as a gun is pressed against his head (later revealed to be Mickey’s betrayal, as one of the consequences of the Rookie’s death); the second is, of course, the Rookie’s capture.
This is not an event that is treated frivolously; this is what the entire novella revolves around, driving the plot, its characters, and the themes of the text.
The cynical person will say that this was done to break up Alpha-Nine because Buck was set to be in Halo 5 as part of Fireteam Osiris, to which I can only really say… yes, that was the point.
Stories aren’t just things that happen, they do have to be functional – especially when they’re part of a larger ongoing franchise with interconnected stories.
The Rookie’s death is the pivot point that causes Alpha-Nine to slowly disintegrate.
Dutch decides to retire from service and settle down with Gretchen; Mickey and Romeo choose to follow Buck into the Spartan-IV program when it’s opened up to them, but Mickey – fraught with survivor’s guilt – becomes sympathetic to the rebels’ cause and chooses to join them.
“What about everything we’ve done together, Mickey? How many times have I saved your life?”
“How many times have you put it in danger? How many times did you haul us all into a firefight we should have avoided? I didn’t get the Rookie killed, Buck. Goddammit, that was you!”
“Is that what this is all about? Some sick and twisted version of survivor’s guilt stuck in your head because you couldn’t pull the trigger when you needed to?” [New Blood, p. 171]
He got a funeral.
“Why we got to do this?” Romeo said.
I backhanded him across the shoulder. “Show some respect.”
“He don’t mean nothing by it, Gunny,” Dutch said. “It’s just – you ever have a show like this for anyone else?”
I realised what they meant then. I’d lost a lot of friends in the war, including every member of Alpha-Nine since I’d taken command, with the exception of the three guys standing here with me. We’d never had a funeral for any of them.
“Well, we haven’t lost anyone since the war ended,” I said. “This is one of the perks of peace.”
“Peace.” Romeo snorted. “I liked it better when they called it what it was.”
Mickey just stared at the coffin the entire time. The rest of us joined him.
“You were a good soldier, Rookie,” I said to the capsule of black plastic underneath the flags. “I was proud to serve with you. I’m glad you got to see the end of the war, which started before you were born. I just wish you’d gotten to go back home, too.” I looked around at the others. “Anyone want to say something?”
None of them moved forward. They all looked like I felt: stricken, frustrated, and maybe a little angry, too. Seeing neither Mickey nor Dutch was ready to move, Romeo shrugged and then nodded down at the body.
“It only takes one mistake, kid. You went a long time before you made it.” [New Blood, p. 105-6]
This is just a passage from the end of the ceremony, but a whole chapter (chapter twelve) is dedicated to this send-off.
In the aftermath of the Human-Covenant war, where humanity no longer has their backs to the wall with the threat of extinction, we finally have the chance to properly mourn our dead.
And that almost bothers Romeo, as Alpha-Nine has never had this luxury before. This team is itself comprised entirely of “replacements,” following every other member of the squad perishing, except Buck.
That very idea is tragic beyond what words can express.
Thematically, it brings us back to that incredible-beyond-words live action trailer for the game – ‘The Life,’ more commonly known as ‘We Are ODST.’
As I said, this was not a death that was treated casually or done solely as a shocking moment. This was the pivot-point of the entire novella, around which the story is told.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t valid criticisms to make of New Blood, there are plenty, though I find that my own is directed more at the way in which Halo: Bad Blood followed up on this story. I haven’t gone into that at all in this article because that’s for another time.
In being a blank vessel for the player, it’s easy to understand that people have naturally created their own ideal vision of the Rookie in their heads. For them, I’m sure that it is unique and personal, which I totally respect…
But the notion that the Rookie’s death should be mentioned alongside the likes of Black Team and Jul ‘Mdama as anything other than a contrast is something that I simply cannot agree with.
For me, New Blood gave the Rookie greater emotional impact than any previous fiction set it up to have while maintaining the essence of ODST’s narrative intent, and that is one of the great triumphs of this book.
This is an example of Halo doing death right.
“We cheat Death from his rightful victory. No one can defeat us. We are glad to plunge feet first into hell in the knowledge that we will rise.”