Halo has a growing transmedia problem

Halo now has thirty books.

Twenty four whole novels, two anthologies, four novellas – and that’s still only a fraction of Halo’s franchise media.

It’s an incredible, unmatched achievement – and most of it’s excellent. Halo’s transmedia is one of the greatest strengths of the series; the craft of this universe is sold short by comparing it to that of Tolkien or Star Wars. This is a league of its own.

But it is also something that presents a bit of a problem, which can be summarised succinctly as…

Halo now has thirty books!books1While Halo does have a wealth of other fiction content (comics, live action films, graphic novels, reference books, etc) which will be talked about, the primary focus of this article will be on the books.

I also want to preface this with due credit to the amazing and dedicated people who have worked on building Halo as a transmedia entity, many of whom can be found on the acknowledgements page in any of these books.

Having had the privilege of meeting some of those people personally, I can confidently say that they are incredibly passionate about the Halo universe and telling great stories in it.

Halo is so much better for having them at the helm of this ship.

I write this article because I think the broader function of the expanded universe is something that isn’t a particularly ‘big’ topic in the fanbase, so I hope it will be a valuable and interesting perspective to consider – looking at the larger context of this franchise’s history with transmedia and exploring an important question.

Has Halo’s transmedia over the last few years been forging meaningful pathways forward, or just looking back to fill in gaps?


WHY DO WE HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT THIS OLD STUFF, SARGE?

What exactly is transmedia?

Transmedia is something that has existed for as long as humans have told stories. In the days of Ancient Greece, the oral tradition of storytelling was adapted, retold, and expanded upon through pottery and other visual arts to pass these mythological tales across generations.

Our modern context understands it as a strategic method of long-term storytelling and worldbuilding that ultimately aims to sustain franchise development.

Professor Marsha Kinder Bautista wrote at length in a 1991 essay about transmedia as a commodified multigenerational structure – a function of capitalism in entertainment, with specific reference to its impact on 20th century children’s media.

Even in the early days of radio and television, the purchase of a sponsor’s product or a program-related premium […] was frequently used to rate a show’s popularity, but by the 1980s this intertextuality and its commodification had been greatly elaborated and intensified.

The most extreme case was the so-called program-length commercial, half an hour of TV cartoons specifically designed to sell a new line of toys (increased sales of which sometimes brought profitable kickbacks to the stations that aired them). Such shows were made possible by the deregulation of American broad-casting in the 1980s and, more specifically, the elimination by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) of its ban against product-based programs in 1984. [Marsha Kinder, ‘Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games’ (1991), p. 40]

This would come to be more directly defined by media scholar and teacher Henry Jenkins in 2007 as:

[…] a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. [Henry Jenkins, ‘Transmedia Storytelling 101’ (21/3/07)]

halsmemeWe have always understood that fictional universes are large places to tell stories and transmedia enables the storyteller to spin many unique tales in a variety of forms while aiming to maintain continuity.

Each new story should feel that it ‘fits’ with the others.

For the customer, the idea is to have them engage in this vast ecosystem of media to put the pieces of the story together and emerge with a greater understanding of the narrative (the characters, settings, themes, etc) by looking at how they intersect.

“This process of worldbuilding encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.” [Henry Jenkins, ‘Transmedia Storytelling 101’ (21/3/07)]

Transmedia can also be useful as a way for a storyteller to offer new ‘entry points’ for franchises that aim to be around for a long time.

This structured relationship with shared media gives the audience more of what they love while also opening the door for new fans, as well as offering intertextual substance for an ever-growing story.

In the ongoing question of what games can do for storytelling as technology continues to evolve, this model is one that has become increasingly popular. The internet being, as David Bowie put it in 1999, an “alien life form” that will crush our ideas of what mediums are all about, and it’s done exactly that with its impact on how we tell stories.

The gaming industry has been trying to figure out how it can leverage this because games are a unique form of storytelling by their nature, requiring direct participation from players. On the business side of things, games are a single revenue source and building an IP with transmedia in mind has the potential to massively expand that.

The deeper one gets into the theory around (and history of) transmedia, the more fascinating it becomes. This is barely an introduction, and, alas, not quite the focus of our topic.

Halo has an equally fascinating history with transmedia, in the sense that it almost never had any.

Bungie wanted to ‘kill’ it.


THIS ‘STUFF’ IS YOUR HISTORY

2019-12-28 (7)When is Halo’s birthday?

It’s a trick question, of course, because October 30th, 2001 – just a few weeks prior to Halo: Combat Evolved becoming the killer app that launched the Xbox on November 15th, securing Microsoft’s place in the gaming industry – was the release of the first canonical text in the Halo universe.

Eric Nylund’s The Fall of Reach saw incredible success, selling over 100,000 copies by 2003 and 1 million by 2009. It’s one of several Halo novels that got on the New York Times’s bestseller list (and deservedly so).

Since then, The Fall of Reach has seen numerous adaptations and retellings (none of which ever manage to bear up to the quality and imagination of the source material). It remains arguably the keystone text for Halo to this day, as, almost two decades later, the universe is still not done drawing from the wellspring of fiction it established.

Where the game was earning its subtitle of ‘Combat Evolved,’ The Fall of Reach was perhaps the most critical success story for demonstrating how transmedia could work within the world – both fictional and commercial – of a video game.

This also came at a time when storytelling in video games was still very much in its infancy. Somehow, it worked…

And it almost never happened.blue4In October 2015, just a few weeks before the release of Halo 5: Guardians (featuring the debut of Fred, Kelly, and Linda – the Spartan-IIs of Blue Team first introduced in the prologue of The Fall of Reach), Eric Nylund published a post on his personal blog to pay tribute to one of the unsung heroes of the Halo franchise – Eric Trautmann.

Trautmann had worked closely with Bungie and Microsoft for a number of years; he was Nylund’s editor and also part of the team that secured the deal for the first Halo novels.

At one point, however, the upper-management at Bungie had ordered this project ‘killed,’ and Trautmann was the man who made sure that didn’t happen.

The conversation, as Nylund recalls it, went something like this:

I was halfway through our crash dive schedule to get the FALL OF REACH out in seven weeks when Eric T tells me…

Eric T: The powers that be don’t want the novel anymore. They’ve ordered it killed. They don’t want a backstory for the Master Chief. They want him to be a blank so gamers can just fit into the avatar.

Me: (choking on my 18th cup of coffee that morning) What!? (panicking) What do we do? I’m halfway through this #*%&(% thing.

Eric T: (annoyingly calm): Don’t worry about it. Keep writing. I have it covered.

Me: How do you have it ‘covered’? I’ve only got three weeks left!

Eric T: Here, have another cupa coffee. Keep typing…

So Eric T went away, and in what I can only characterize as a cross between UN diplomacy and the bargain Vito Corleone made to get Johnny Fontaine out of his original contract (i.e. he made them a deal they couldn’t refuse), like magic the objections just … vanished.

The rest as they say is history: More than a dozen HALO novels out, and 2 million copies sold by yours truly alone. [Eric Nylund, ‘Unsung Hero of the HALO Franchise’, (2/10/15)]

And yes, you read that right. The Fall of Reach was written in just seven weeks…02-09-2019_00-08-27-3jv1v1o0For a deeper dive into the early relationship between Bungie and Microsoft, I covered that extensively in this article: The Master Chief, A Character Study – Halo: CE

(Incidentally, that article got the thumbs up from Eric Trautmann and William C. Dietz!)

The battle to get this done was a hard one. The deal to save The Fall of Reach came with the caveat that Trautmann, Brannon Boren, and Matt Soell had to write about 80% of the dialogue for Halo 1, as this particular aspect of the game had fallen behind.

Unfortunately, Trautmann has not been involved in Halo since 2004, following the release of Halo 2.

It is in no small part because of him that we have not just a game, but a universe to lose ourselves in. For that, I think I can speak for every Halo fan when I say that we are immensely grateful for his contributions, and that many of us likely would not be where we are today without what he fought for with this series.

You can listen to a 23 minute podcast segment where Trautmann talks about his early experiences working on Halo here – this is some crucial behind the scenes history!


SOMEONE BUILT IT…

timeline1The role that Halo’s books have played in building this transmedia titan has evolved a great deal over the years in terms of their application to the wider universe.

Eric Nylund’s books were a chessboard. This was where the true immensity and heart of Halo’s lore could be found, where you would follow how each piece – from the queens to the pawns – were moved.

They explored the awful history of the Spartan projects, the tragic events that led the Pillar of Autumn to arrive at a mysterious ringworld, the traumatic aftermath of the horrors we experienced there, and more.

The Fall of ReachFirst Strike, and Ghosts of Onyx remain some of the most memorable texts for Halo and I think they’re still the best possible starting point for newcomers.

The Flood was an adaptation of the first game and… well, there are some glimmers of gold in there, but that’s a whole other article.

In 2007, following the release of Halo 3, Joe Staten weighed in on the literary side of things with a story about the origins of the Human-Covenant war.

Halo: Contact Harvest looked at the perspectives of humans and aliens alike, the civil conflicts that arose within their complex societies, and the devastating truth behind the Prophets’ rise to power.

Major returning characters from the games include Avery Johnson, Tartarus, and the Prophets of Truth, Mercy, and Regret.

Also, there’s a sex scene in this book. Never let Joe forget it!

Tobias Buckell then detailed the backstory of Thel ‘Vadamee (the Arbiter in Halo 2) and Jacob Keyes, while expanding further on the Spartans, ODSTs, Insurrectionists, and giving even greater breadth and depth to the Covenant.maccabeausThis connective tissue in the formative years of building Halo as a franchise was key to the success and longevity of the brand.

By no means was this an ‘easy’ road to travel. These were not quick, cynical cash-grab projects, unlike the transmedia content Kinder refers to in her essay on children’s entertainment…

No, this was uncharted and unstable territory. Nobody had gotten this right before, very few in the gaming industry have since.

(I am, once again, compelled to mention that we almost never got any of this!)


…SO IT MUST LEAD SOMEWHERE

timeline2And so, we come to 2009, which was a huge year for Halo.

At this point, it was well known that the future of the series was no longer going to be directed by Bungie, who had negotiated their independence with Microsoft. The mantle of responsibility was to be passed to 343 Industries.

When faced with the question of where to go from there, 343 took their first steps with more anthology-based short stories in Halo: Evolutions and Halo: Legends.

Far from simply being a shallow attempt at capturing the ‘greatest hits’ of the series, Evolutions was a bold and exciting thematic response to what we had come to perceive as ‘Halo.’

This was a great period of experimentation for the series.

Halo Wars brought the series back to its RTS roots, back in the earliest days when Halo was going to be a Myth clone on Mac; Halo 3: ODST put players in the boots of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODSTs being one of Trautmann’s concepts that Bungie was sceptical of) and eschewed space opera for ‘Halo noir.’

Through prose and poetry, Evolutions proved to be prescient in understanding that Halo was going to have to do some soul-searching – to ‘find itself’ again – in the coming years as the torch was passed.

Many of 343’s stories since have been built on this foundation, with specific moments and character beats being set up through the imagery and themes of these texts.evolutionsTo this day, many of the stories in Legends and Evolutions are remembered as fondly and distinctly as any other beloved Halo text.

Tessa Kum and Jeff VanderMeer explored the true visceral horror of the Flood in ‘The Mona Lisa,’ while Karen Traviss took the more psychological angle in detailing the mental battle Cortana endured against the Gravemind following the events of Halo 2 in ‘Human Weakness.’

Admiral Cole’s final stand (and possible survival) was a victory lap for Eric Nylund, which also began the process of really deconstructing the ‘heroic’ figures of the franchise.

We saw the guilt felt by a Sangheili Shipmaster who, after the war, returns to a human world he glassed in the name of the Covenant’s lie, searching for new purpose. ‘The Return’ was a story that solidified Kevin Grace as a fan favourite writer we definitely don’t see enough prose from (‘Anarosa’ was similarly excellent!)

The abject fear the Covenant felt towards the Spartans was the subject of ‘Headhunters,’ showing the amount of resources and personnel they would dedicate just to kill two of them.

All of these and more (‘Soma the Painter’ and ‘Wages of Sin’ are my personal favourites) were stories that were indicative of Halo undergoing a period of intense self-examination.

343 was prodding this universe and its storytelling aesthetics with questions – while setting up their own beats and characters – that would shape their mission statement for how they would move the franchise forwards…timeline3Their answer was to weave the lore together across all Halo media into something more unified and holistic (pardon me ignoring the Fall of Reach comic issues above…)

This arrived in the form of Greg Bear’s Forerunner Saga and Karen Traviss’s Kilo-5 Trilogy, their releases running from January 2011 to 2014.

As before, the intended function of these books was that they would tie into the games, but the lesson that 343 had learned from those formative years (as well as the appetite that had developed in the community following the controversial changes [read: middle finger] Halo: Reach made to long-established continuity) was that there was a need for stronger connectivity.

“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 (2:51)]

Despite the success of Halo’s transmedia, there was always a sense that Halo was almost split into two separate universes that never quite met.

Bungie begrudgingly let the books do their own thing on the side and they’d pay occasional lip service to them through some obscure references, but you’d be left sorely wanting if you ever expected any meaningful, direct overlap between them.

“The books are, for better or worse, part of the canon. In the future we may choose to revise or flat-out ignore some of the less appealing ideas (Johnson’s biological immunity to the Flood, for example), but folks should treat them as defining elements of the Halo universe.” [Joe Staten, HBO Interview (Oct 2004)]

As such, the Forerunner Saga and Kilo-5 Trilogy were intended to have characters, themes, storylines, and settings that tied directly into Halo 4 (and beyond, to what was then known as the ‘Reclaimer Trilogy’).

It would be fair to say that the results of this were mixed.kiloKilo-5 proved to be… controversial.

Not just for the issues surrounding its author (that really is a whole other article), but also in how the mandated connections to Halo 4 in Glasslands and The Thursday War felt like they had little to do with the story that Traviss was actually interested in telling.

That story wouldn’t arrive until Mortal Dictata in January 2014, which eschews all of the baggage of its predecessors to commit entirely to what really could’ve worked as a standalone book.

On the other hand, the Forerunner Saga saw the brunt of success with this approach.

This epic tragedy delved into some of the great mysteries of the Halo universe, while raising countless new questions and providing (like The Fall of Reach) a wellspring of imagination that could be drawn from.

Almost a decade on, it still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the universe that Greg and Chloe Bear gave us.4karkEven the Forerunner Saga, though, wasn’t without its controversies. Silentium, the third and final book, was delayed by several months from a January release to March, leaving a key piece of the transmedia puzzle missing for a while after Halo 4 released.

(But man was it worth the wait!)

Many felt that Halo 4 had perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction and relied too much on external fiction.

Regardless of whether this is true or not (and I ardently maintain that it isn’t, I feel 343 ‘learned the wrong lesson’ from how poorly the community ended up parroting this argument), this became the commonly accepted narrative around the game and is now the ‘received wisdom’ passed on and regurgitated.

Nothing should be ‘off the table’ in terms of what can show up in the games from the expanded universe, what counts is how well it’s executed.

Time will tell whether that holds through to Halo 4 releasing on PC as part of The Master Chief Collection, or if it – like Reach – might end up reevaluated.

(Am I still a little bitter about this? I think I am…)


[TOO MUCH?] FORWARD MOMENTUM

timeline42013 is where we started to see a monumental shift in terms of the volume of transmedia content that was released, leading up to 2015.

Vanguard Games’s Halo: Spartan Assault released on mobile devices; the three-issue comic Halo: Initiation told us the origins of Sarah Palmer and the early years of the Spartan-IV project; at the very end of the year the comic series Halo: Escalation began.

What followed over the next two years from there was a NOVA bomb-tier explosion of lore content.

Monthly releases of Halo: Escalation (which ran for twenty four issues); three novels (Broken CircleHunters in the Dark, Last Light) and novellas (New BloodSaint’s Testimony, Shadow of Intent); the Catalog ARG on the Waypoint forums; the Terminals and bookend cutscenes in Halo 2: Anniversary; two seasons of the Hunt the Truth audio drama and the ‘Hunt the Signal’ ARG spinning off from that; the Fall of Reach adaptation (which was an adaptation of the comic adaptation of the novel)…

I love a whole lot of this content, but this really was just too much.halo 5 infographicIt didn’t help either that the fanbase was still operating under the assumption that, as with Halo 4, this content would all be feeding into the game in some fashion – a notion that certainly wasn’t dissuaded by this official infographic.

The fifth movement of the odyssey, however, delivered no such thing.

In fact, if you were a fan who was closely following all of this transmedia, chances are you were actually more prone to whiplash from the game’s story than somebody who hadn’t invested in that content and thought they were simply missing something.

It’s been four years now since Halo 5 released and the expanded universe has been rather interesting in this ‘interregnum’ period because this is the first time the ‘pattern of relevance’ has been broken.

We’ve had ten novels release since 2015’s end.

This includes nine full novels, one novel-length anthology, and one novella.

We’ve also had a graphic novel (Tales From Slipspace), three comic series, three major reference books, three seasons of loot crates with their own additional lore contributions…

It took over ten years (from 2001 to 2012) for Halo to release ten books (The Fall of Reach to Primordium), yet here we’ve had that volume of content – and then some! – in less than half that time following Halo 5.

I’m a huge lore fanatic, I don’t think that I need to pull up any credentials on that score, but even I find myself thinking “This is A LOT.”

timeline5Of this increasingly packed amount of fiction, it is notable that very little of it deals with Halo 5 and the aftermath of the Created’s uprising – Bad BloodLegacy of Onyx, and two short stories in Fractures (‘What Remains’ and ‘Rossbach’s World’).

Now, I’m absolutely not complaining about this. I have written a great deal over the last four years detailing exactly why I have no love for the Created, and I am still very much of the mind that the sooner they’re out of the picture the better (indeed, the Discover Hope trailer for Halo Infinite gave me, well… hope in that regard).

But I mention this because there has undeniably been a shift in focus with Halo’s transmedia content compared to previous releases.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is likely the result of 343 really reevaluating Halo’s direction.

Some soul-searching has been necessary in order to move things forward for the franchise in Halo Infinite. Because of this, they may not want to lock themselves into any specific details with expanded universe media, which I think is totally understandable.guardiansInstead, the literature has shifted its attention to lots of different areas of the Halo universe.

Envoy picked up on the story of Grey Team after almost a decade since the release of The Cole Protocol, dropping the Spartan-IIs into the post-war setting (while revisiting Halo 2’s cutting room floor).

Legacy of Onyx takes us back to the Shield World Trevelyan during Halo 5’s events, seeking to repair some of the damage from the game’s untimely and unceremonious offing of Jul ‘Mdama (and equally dire fridging of Raia) by exploring the divergent perspectives of his sons as humans, Sangheili, and Unggoy attempt to live together.

Silent Storm saw Troy Denning turn his attention to the Master Chief in an all-star ensemble story back in the early days of the Human-Covenant war, followed up by Oblivion.

Battle Born focused on the civilian perspective of young teens experiencing the Covenant invasion of Meridian, followed by Meridian Divide.

Renegades was the sequel to the novella Smoke and Shadow, bringing a profoundly emotional conclusion to the story of Chakas (I cried four times), wrapping up a decade-long character arc while also giving him a new beginning. It was a love letter to a decade’s worth of fiction.arb47I really like a lot of these stories. I think Legacy of Onyx is woefully underrated and restores some of that much-needed ‘weirdness’ to push Halo forward, and I wrote a 7000 word analysis about why I love Battle Born at the start of the year.

Just recently, I was on the Forward Unto Dawn podcast talking about Halo: Oblivion, which I enjoyed a great deal more than its predecessor Silent Storm for really delving into some ‘weirder’ areas.

The question arose during this podcast as to what the ‘point’ of some of these stories are, which is always an important question to ask.

It’s perhaps not unfair to say that some of these might be considered very ‘safe’ stories. They hit a lot of the right notes, but they’re filling in gaps rather than pushing the universe forward or offering a ‘challenging’ narrative.

I would argue that the last time we really saw that in a novel was in 2014’s Broken Circle, which plunged us into uncharted territory by going back to the formative years of the Covenant. The only presence humans have is implied, as bas-relief carvings on the San’Shyuum homeworld. Shadow of Intent was similarly daring.

These are the kind of books that frankly doesn’t come along often enough, despite being what this form of Halo’s transmedia is best-equipped to deal with.soiAs always, however, there’s a bigger picture we should be aware of.

The unfortunate reality is that 343 can’t always just tell whatever story they want.

They have to pitch these books and prove that they’re going to sell (and sell well). A Halo book with the Master Chief on the cover with the subtitle ‘A Master Chief Story’ is definitely going to bring more of the wider audience in than a book about ‘weird aliens.’

(Notably, that doesn’t mean that a story focusing on the Master Chief cannot be challenging or push the universe forward, or be devoid of ‘weird aliens.’ Oblivion does that all very well!)

The games suffer much the same problem. It’s a wider issue in the industry where stories about women, queer characters, people of colour (and any intersection of the above) is considered ‘risky’ – and that’s, well…

That’s really shit.

To Halo’s credit, the literature of the series has done pretty spectacularly with women and people of colour (but far less so with queer characters), and almost every piece of 2019’s fiction was written by women.

We are seeing gradual improvements, but there’s a long way to go yet.


PURPOSE AND LONGEVITY

2019-12-30 (2)On a broader scale, I do find myself wondering whether some of these stories really ‘needed’ sequels.

I absolutely love Meridian Divide, I stayed up all night reading it because I couldn’t put it down – I even interviewed Cassandra Rose Clarke about it.

But is there perhaps more power in the ending of Battle Born if it’s a standalone story where these young characters go through hell to save who they can from their town on Meridian and make their escape… only to find that they’re being sent back, and we just conclude the story of those characters there.

Their lives are destroyed. This is a battlefield they’ll never be able to leave. There’s a deep tragedy in that which I feel would be a very honest conclusion to the story of these teenagers who find themselves caught in the midst of such an all-encompassing war.

Despite this wealth of media, it feels more constrained now than it ever has before by restricting itself solely to the ‘modern’ period.

Kelly Gay’s Halo: Renegades is something of an exception here. It manages to craft a holistic and compelling conclusion to the Forerunner Saga through the lens of characters living in the modern era. Guilty Spark (now just Spark) finds peace and his story is brought to a point where he could go in any direction at any time from here.2019-02-14 (7)One way to characterise the last four years of Halo literature is a kind of ‘stasis,’ a doubling down on some of the more perhaps overly familiar elements of the universe without many ‘out there’ stories.

Again, I feel the need to reiterate that these are not bad or unimaginative stories by any stretch.

I have spoken directly with a number of people at 343 when I visited the studio last year and they’re genuinely more energised than ever to create great content – especially on the comics front. We’ve had some incredible wins with Rise of Atriox, Collateral Damage, and Lone Wolf; I want to give a particular shout out to Scott Jobe here, who has been one of the driving forces behind these projects.

Just over a year ago, I did an interview with Jeff Easterling (Grimbrother One) for my blog’s fifth anniversary and he had some great insight to provide on this topic:

The novels, like any other non-game/“mainline” medium, will always struggle with certain challenges, and our desire is to hopefully always leverage the strengths of the medium to tell amazing stories that enrich the universe for those who choose to dive into them.

It’s always a crazy balance – you want to simultaneously reward the investment of players and fans like yourself and many others who devour the extended universe, while also not alienating the admittedly majority of players who don’t necessarily go out and grab every bit of Halo media there is (as weird as that is to imagine!).

And it’s also in the stories we choose to tell – like with comics we’ve said before what a weird challenge it can be even among lore-focused fans.

If we don’t do anything ‘big/compelling’ it can lead to a sense of “Well, why do I even need to read this? Why does it even matter?”

But if we do something too big it can lead to a “Why the hell was this in a comic and not a game?!” situation lol.

[…] And even when you think about past entries that met some specific hurdles, like Escalation, sometimes it’s a tough spot, where you originally wanted to tell a story like a ‘Season 2’ of Spartan Ops in a game, but suddenly that doesn’t become a viable option – do you pivot and try to tell the story in a different medium? Do you just not tell the story because you might not be able to realize it in the way you intended?

It’s a tough call either way for sure, but at the end of the day, I know folks here want badly to tell compelling stories in the best way possible, and hopefully have them adored by the community as much as we do. [I Interviewed Jeff Easterling (26/9/18)]

This raises some key points to be aware of which really illustrate some of the problems you can run into when franchise-building.

Spartan Ops was intended to run for years, it was dipping a toe in the water for the kind of experiences we’d end up getting with the likes of DestinyThe Division, and other ongoing ‘service’ games.

When that ambition proved not to be at all realistic for Halo (though credit is definitely deserved for the attempt and I hope they try again now that the technology is ‘there’), the story set up in that mode had to be told elsewhere – through a different medium.

Plans can change, things must remain fluid to a certain extent, and there’s always more that 343 is having to juggle than is immediately clear or obvious to us.so74Perhaps the most important point of consideration though is the longevity of these stories in the ‘community consciousness.’

The crux of what I want to say is that when there’s so much material to read, it can almost feel like nothing actually sticks around long enough to be properly analysed and discussed before moving onto the next thing.

Part of this inevitably comes down to scheduling. This year in particular has seen some awkwardly close release dates, and it’s important to remember that 343 doesn’t have total control over this.

Halo is still subject to the rules, standards, and schedules of publication.

But, on a broader scale, look at the Forerunner Saga. There are things seeded in those books that the franchise will be expanding on for years.

Halo Infinite is set on Installation 07, a whole mainline game will primarily be drawing primarily from one of those three books. I think this says a lot about the doors Greg Bear opened for Halo (which was part of the reason why he was hired).

And that’s a pertinent question with transmedia. What doors are these things opening, and how feasible is it that we’ll actually follow through in good time?2019-03-22 (1)But also, what doors are being intentionally kept shut?

I always think back to the crashed ship in the Halo 1 Anniversary Terminals and how, almost a decade later, it’s still a regular topic of conversation.

This thing serves such a simple narrative purpose within the context of Guilty Spark’s story, informing his actions in Halo 1, and we’ll never need to know any more about it… yet it’s still one of the prime Halo icebreakers for fiction fans.

Obviously not everything can offer something of the scale of Greg Bear, but I don’t think that Halo has been pushing those boundaries the way it used to.

I think this is additionally concerning because the last four years have been a definitive period for the expanded universe to ‘take the lead’ in moving the universe forward, in the absence of any game releases (sans Halo Wars 2). But we’ve had a greater number of stories perceived as ‘safe.’

If Halo’s transmedia can’t do it then, when it’s the primary outlet for franchise media, when can it?cea48The more stories Halo tells with its transmedia while it’s still considered a ‘game franchise,’ however inaccurate that term is, the less important these stories can really be in affecting the Halo universe.

Much as I love Legacy of Onyx, the conclusion of that book involves putting Onyx back into slipspace to deny it to the setting-breaking Created. This effectively rolls back the biggest game-changer in the post-war setting that was only just starting to be used to fulfil its potential. Onyx hasn’t appeared in the games, but it has been affected by them; the ‘resolution’ to one of the biggest powder kegs in the expanded universe was to ‘pull an Absolute Record’ and vanish it.

The question that fans are then moved to ask is “Well, what’s the point?”

343 wants to reward the investment of fans who read into the Halo fiction while not alienating those who don’t check in for that stuff (which is, naturally, the majority of players).

Perhaps the answer to having one’s cake and eating it here is to actually reduce the amount of transmedia content in order to tell more impactful, resonant stories?

This is not an easy balance to strike, and you can bet that this is something the folks at 343 have to think about and discuss on a daily basis as they decide what stories to tell, how to tell them, and why they should be told.

But, looking back at the various timelines of releases, I think there’s probably a case to be made for the years with fewer releases arguably having greater impact in the fanbase.shadow of intentTo my mind, 343 should consider doing more novellas, winding down the novels a bit to use them more sparingly for exploration of some of the bigger ideas in Halo, going to more unexpected places.

There are a great number of advantages to this format. Novellas typically span 17,000 to 40,000 words, a constraint which demands more economical storytelling – what’s lost in scale is made up for in nuance (in theory, of course).

Novellas are a great way to examine the personal and emotional development of a character, which is something Halo often does very well.

Indeed, its own take on novellas has been some of the best of this in the entire series – Rion Forge in Smoke and Shadow, Rtas ‘Vadum in Shadow of Intent, Buck in New Blood, and Iona in Saint’s Testimony

These stories centre around much larger ideas that are dealt with on an individual scale.

Artificial intelligence and how Cortana’s sacrifice at the end of Halo 4 opened up new dialogues about the nature of their sentience; the aftermath of a great war, another conflict looming over the horizon on the path to societal stability for an alien culture, and finding the strength to keep going; the search for a long-vanished father, taken from his daughter by an interstellar war.

343 has placed greater emphasis on an ‘episodic’ storytelling model for Halo and novellas are analogous to that in a literary sense.

They’re ‘television episodes’ versus the ‘blockbuster movie’ of a novel, and you can only produce so many of those ‘movies’ before they start to feel a bit mechanical.inf49It’s worth mentioning the appeal to busy readers too. With our increasingly overloaded working lives and shorter attention spans, exactly how viable is it to keep producing multiple 3-400 page novels per year and maintain the investment of fans while bringing in new ones?

How many are instead moved to say “I’ll just read the summary on Halopedia”?

And what does ‘fans’ even mean now? It’s been nine years since Halo: Cryptum released, there are those of us who have loyally and passionately stuck with this series, but there’s also been generational developments (for the franchise, for gaming, for the industry, and for fans) since then.

The way we aim to tell meaningful stories has to evolve, and unfortunately I don’t think that “telling more” is the answer. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure there are those at 343 who would’ve done things a little differently too.

It’s not keeping people talking because I think this fiction isn’t really going the distance to give us new things to actually talk about.

Are we forging pathways forward, or just looking back to fill in gaps?infinite3Now is a good time to think about this and ask these questions because we’re less than a year away from the release of Halo Infinite, a game that must be a holistic experience for established and returning fans, as well as welcoming in newcomers from a whole new generation.

It’s also a problem that is totally unique to Halo. No other game out there has managed to craft such an expansive universe with such successful transmedia, there’s no rulebook or case study to defer to here.

Halo is the case study.

We’re in the unique position of being able to complain that we’re getting too much of a good thing, and even that ‘excess’ is still material of solid quality.

It is in no small part because of Halo’s transmedia that this blog even exists – to answer the questions of intertextuality, to ‘pursue narrative truth and reconciliation.’

But it is a problem that needs to be solved, and I think the answer to that has some basis in not being able to say “Halo now has forty books!” until 2030.

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To 343’s credit, the volume of fiction has certainly enabled them to appeal to all kinds of fans by offering different ‘flavours’ of the Halo universe. Silent Storm wasn’t for me, but it certainly appealed to a different group of Halo fans who may not have felt the same excitement I did at Renegades or Lone Wolf.

These are just my own thoughts on the situation, of course. You may well disagree that there’s a problem here at all, or have an entirely different solution in mind.

Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to hear ’em!

Oh, and happy new year, Spartans! I think this is gonna be a big one…

7 thoughts on “Halo has a growing transmedia problem

  1. Didn’t get a chance to read all of this yet, but I hope to soon. Google happened to give me a notification about this article, and I’m glad to have discovered your blog.

    Having read the first five or so books very early on, I admit I’ve only read a few since then. For two reasons in particular that I think you mentioned while skimming the post.

    1. You’re right, it’s really is A LOT. It really is that simple for most fans I believe.

    2. There seems to be very mixed reviews on the majority of the later content, and I understand why after having read a little here and there. So many of the books feel forced or unnecessary on top of a lack of cohesion between the books and the games that have been released along the way. The most relevant example that I’m aware of (based on what I’ve read, again not being much lately) being the discrepancies in Halo 4 and Cryptum.

    While I’m happy for all this content being released to aid in the continuity of Halo’s lore and universe, I think there needs to be a focus on quality vs quantity. Just my thoughts.

    I’ll stay tuned for future posts and try to catch up on past ones as well!

    -Cody

  2. It’s way too much. A few minds filling the universe is enough. Nylund was tasteful with it. The newer authors are just OK at it but are quite obviously filling void. I personally felt tired and ripped off from the past lot of novels that came out. Rather than exciting descriptions of what it would be like to be there, they read more like a combat manuals now. I’m more interested in reading how things happen not just that they happened. How far away can you feel the heat of a plasma burst? Does it have a smell? Is it blinding if you look at it? How do elites eat? Does the ground shake if a Brute walks by? Things like this are missing big time. Describe a scene where 6 full grown marines are trying to lift a large piece of metal from an ally trapped underneath and a Spartan comes and lifts it by themselves while also pointing a pistol at an enemy and downing a few while at it. Make us feel proud of the things we love about the game. Make us hate the enemies. Make us cry, laugh, and hang on to the book with a death grip. Make us worry. I’m sorry but this is a universe I have loved since 15 (now 35) and I am seeing it kind of get buried in details that are too thick and boring with facts and no real emotions or events. There was one moment in Renegades where I felt my heart drop toward the end and I thought, “yes! This! More of this!” But that was but a faint whisper compared to the sea of noise the universe has surrounded itself in. It just all feels like marketing instead of art.

  3. Kinda surprised there isn’t more about HtT here, seeing as I think it’s some of the best storytelling the series has to offer and since it ties so directly into the games (well, in theory. *Cough*). As far as transmedia storytelling goes, Hunt the Truth is the apex. It’s a shame that Halo 5 so spectacularly failed to deliver on its “wrapper.” But yeah, I think the universe is doomed to flounder until a new game comes along to correct the overarching narrative (or at least recontextualize it). Until then, I think it’s a good message to put out to 343: Cool your jets. It was a lot more interesting when we had a few relatively interesting novels to read than a mountain of directionless spunk.

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