(Or, ‘Why Sequence’s Terminals are one of the best things in Halo.’)
The Halo universe is vast and full of mystery. Many questions are raised, some quite rightly never receive answers; the door is left ajar, and what’s behind it goes on to become a topic for years of speculation.
One such mystery arrived in the Terminals for 2011’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, which is itself nearing its tenth birthday…
During 343 Guilty Spark’s millennia of isolation on Installation 04, a strange alien vessel crashed on the ring. The community hasn’t stopped wondering about it since.
While we’re not meant to get any answers about what it is, let us instead explore why 343 Industries decided to tell this story, and what Sequence’s Terminals represent as an integral aspect of storytelling in modern Halo.In the final days of the Forerunners’ gasping empire, the Flood had evolved to a cosmically harrowing extent. Having consumed entire solar systems, space itself was described as having been infected by this parasitic abomination.
The logic plague had become a galaxy-spanning pandemic, subverting any ancilla exposed to it.
Perhaps worst of all, the immortal structures of the mythological Precursors no longer lay dormant…
And so, a terrible, desperate plan was enacted.
Seven Halo rings were distributed to strategic points in the galaxy, each installation overseen by an individual Monitor. The last remnants of the Forerunners gathered at the Lesser Ark, where the IsoDidact fired the Halos – cleansing the galaxy of the Flood’s food source, for a time.
Once the catalogued and preserved species had been reseeded and the remaining Forerunners went on their final Great Journey (some departing this galaxy, others heading to destinations unknown) the galaxy entered an intermediary stage.
Life clawed its way out of the oceans and into the mud to evolve once more, the galaxy was birthed anew – unaware of the cosmic graveyard they were in, nor the weapons and history that caused it all.
The Monitors, too, remained isolated and alone on their installations, with no knowledge of whether the Forerunners’ plan actually succeeded.During these years of solitude, the Monitors of the other installations were due to stay in contact for a series of scheduled updates. For reasons unknown, however, no such meetings ever occurred; the only word Spark received was an incomplete and unclear message from Installation 05’s Monitor, 2401 Penitent Tangent.
As a result of these eons of solitude, Spark discovered that he had begun to experience… complications.
He had become bored, a state he did not believe that he was capable of, as he had been promised an end to strife – something he perhaps felt was duly owed to him after what his human form endured on Installation 07…
Spark began ejecting sections of Installation 04 into space (a little trick we would see again, six years later, in Halo Wars 2) for amusement, intending to study the geological effects of exposing this matter to the vacuum of space while measuring the recovery of these sections to inform certain emergency response scenarios.
For approximately 60,000 years, he was literally watching plants grow.
That is, until a mysterious alien vessel unexpectedly crashed on the ring.Upon studying the vessel, some intriguing details emerged:
Damage caused by the crash resulted in the ship suffering atmospheric leaks. Analysis revealed that these gases matched Installation 04’s atmosphere almost exactly, leading Spark to wonder whether the occupants of the ship were originally catalogued here.
An automated, repeating distress signal also emanated from the vessel. Spark was unable to translate it, but surmised that the short-range nature of this craft suggested that other vessels may be nearby…
However, no attempts at communication were made. No beings exited the vessel.
In accordance with protocol, Spark blocked the distress call, despite his immense curiosity – and his doubts about the wisdom of these protocols he had to follow.
“While the plan is quite clear about the procedure of this situation, I have my doubts. How many failure points can the plan sustain before blind adherence becomes counterproductive? Surely in light of all that has changed, I should be able to modify my responses to adapt–
No. I have duties, and I have a terrible cargo here. I must be sure. I shall obey and content myself to monitor.
I hope they come out soon, though. So many questions to ask! So many questions!” [343 Guilty Spark, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary – Terminal 5]
In the end, Spark constructed a ‘sarcophagus’ around the vessel, leaving it an unsolved mystery.
It is a door, neither opened nor closed. Just a door.
And we’re all aware that it’s there.
THE HUSHED CASKET
“Well,” some people have said. “What was the point of that?!”
It is often expected that when an ongoing franchise introduces a new mystery, it is something that will be relevant in the future – in the meta sense of the audience knowing that something has been seeded. It is a Mystery™.
This has become a rather unfortunate trend in storytelling. The commercialising of FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) has been grafted into our narrative structures, focusing more on how stories are puzzle pieces that must be ‘solved’ by connecting them to the next story rather than being independently cohesive. We struggle to reach endings, finding ourselves more preoccupied with an ever-expanding middle.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has obviously been at the centre of this discourse. When Avengers: Infinity War released, we were struck with the culmination of a decade’s worth of puzzle pieces that ultimately delivered a wholly ‘disposable’ film. Its cliffhanger is a fascinating exercise in the futility of Marvel’s own narrative formulas and structure, as the immediate Experience™ of watching some of your favourite characters ‘die’ very quickly realigns into knowing that they’ll all be back in the next movie.
We’ve been conditioned (with tremendous efficiency, I might add) to develop a metatextual understanding of narrative structures based purely on the fact that we know a cavalcade of sequels and spin-offs are just a year-or-so away. And it’s hard to say that these Event™ films have left much of a cultural footprint.
(Doctor Who told this story far better in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ and ‘The Big Bang.’)
When a question is raised, you can generally count on there being an answer – one that will arrive with speed, with cynicism, and with little regard for whether it’s appropriate.
Our way of looking at storytelling and the nature of criticism hasn’t changed, per se, but it has certainly shifted and been culturally influenced by the ‘Everything Wrong With…’ lens.Criticism is important, it’s an art unto itself, because it becomes part of our lexicon of understanding – affecting how we experience a text. Just as there is art we judge to be ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ criticism can likewise deemed to be so.
In the age of social media with its emphasis on byte-sized clickbait and mob mentalities based around quick-fire pseudo-statistics from easily influenced Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes review scores… Well, there’s been no shortage of ‘bad criticism.’
And so the problem doesn’t just lie in our media (and the creative hegemony being imposed on every property ever), but in how we talk about it.The problem with ‘bad criticism’ is not that it exists, but that it very quickly takes on a life of its own.
It becomes an endless feedback loop, something that is repeated so many times – with ever-growing breadth in who and what it influences – that any text an author produces can instantaneously be viewed in the most negative, toxic way as a default if that text doesn’t exist to please them (with women, POC, and queer creators seeing the absolute worst of this suffocating toxicity).
A ‘natural order’ emerges, where perspectives are whittled down to quick bytes, tying into the received wisdom – that is ‘knowledge that’s considered common and held to be true, but may not be’ – of fandom.
Thus, the larger ecosystem is fed. From fanbase, to pop culture outlet, to (perhaps most cynically of all) corporate and brand Twitter accounts… the feedback loop is maintained to comfortably reassure you that there’s a right and wrong answer to media. No meaning, no analysis. Just aesthetics.
Going against this well-oiled machine is an uphill battle, one which I’ve found myself fighting often. The inception of this blog, and its enduring purpose, after all, was the product of my love for Halo 4.I tangentially illustrate the problem here (or, a part of it) because I look back at those formative years for 343 Industries and see how my love for them and many of their stories comes from how they didn’t surrender to any of that.
Halo 1 Anniversary released in November 2011, a time in which these issues began to snowball. It was the first game project that the still-forming team released into the wild, and the story told in the Terminals is a rather explicit rejection of the ‘need’ for stories to answer all their questions.
While greater connectivity between stories has been 343’s MO since day one, I ardently maintain that their approach to transmedia in their early years has been one of the more positive examples.
This is because the writers at 343 often put a lot of thought into how they tell their stories and build them around an intersection of themes, understanding that their characters are prisms for those themes.
To be ruthlessly reductive: all stories are ultimately about three things.
Family. Duty. Home.
(A fourth dimension here is ‘revenge,’ but it’s more of a structural element that manifests alongside ‘duty.’)
Indeed, this has become ever more explicit in Halo over its previous two instalments – Halo Wars 2 and Halo 5. But anybody who’s seen any popular blockbuster (or even if the only films you’ve ever watched are The Fast and the Furious saga) will be aware of how we structure our stories around these all-encompassing themes.It is these things that Spark finds himself at an intersection with (the themes, that is, not The Fast and the Furious saga!)
His family (whoever you want to define that as – Bornstellar, Riser, humanity, the Covenant, Forerunners, the simple concept of life in the galaxy… all are applicable) is gone. It is companionship that he finds himself longing for, upon ruminating how the Forerunners should have done things differently.
“The whole Halo story evolves out of conflict within a huge galactic family, which now includes us. And so this family controversy continues, which means your actions really do have consequences – you don’t know who you’re ‘related to’ when you’re fighting them.” [Greg Bear, Sparkast #17]
His home is the setting, Installation 04. A deadly weapon, a refuge, a research facility – the name and iconography of the series.
His duty, which is all that he has left to him, as Monitor; his responsibility as a caretaker, and the protocols that define his actions.
Spark is consumed by curiosity about this ship. Not because it will reveal a brand new alien race that we – as fans – can categorise and build a metatextual fact file on, but because it offers emotional answers for him. Answers about the new galactic family that has emerged, who have turned up at his home.
It is a fitting paradox that he wants to know that his duty was worth it, but it is his continued adherence to that duty – to the protocols dictating his actions, a certain sacrifice of the self – which prevents him from pursuing these answers.
“I have now endured 60,000 years without word from outside the Array. I have no way to know whether we actually saved the galaxy we destroyed. And, because of protocol, I sat silently while my first chance to be judged for those acts died. To say that I regret being forced to this outcome is a tremendous understatement.
But, as I perform my inspection of the quarantine lab today, I am reminded of the gravity of my responsibilities. Just one of these spores, if released from this facility, would render the ultimate judgement against our self-appointed role as protectors of this galaxy.” [343 Guilty Spark, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary – Terminal 6]
Even though Spark wants to indulge that curiosity, to even be judged for the firing of the Halos, he is reminded of the gravity of the role he volunteered for because of the “terrible cargo” his home carries – the Flood (which is where revenge comes in).But it is not just himself that he denies answers to, it is – by extension – us as well.
Our look into this story is from Spark’s perspective, through his eyes (er… eye?), and it would betray the integrity of this particular narrative to provide us any answers while denying them to him.
These Terminals, after all, are not about uncovering a great mystery about a ship that crashes on the ring. The actual narrative footprint of this story encompasses only two-or-three of the game’s eleven Terminals…
No, the intention of these Terminals is to make us sympathise with Spark while contextualising his actions in Halo 1. This is achieved by ensuring that there is minimal separation distance created between the character and the viewer.
“I don’t know what survives out beyond my installation, but I know that in order for anything to survive I have to protect this installation and its quarantine very carefully. Yes. The Librarian was right to store [the Flood], to examine it, continue to seek a cure.
Still… next visitor, things will be different.” [343 Guilty Spark, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary – Terminal 6]
In the end, this event is used to reaffirm his sense of duty to protect his home, keeping him apart from the galactic family.
And when the ‘next visitor’ does come (I am ignoring that one line in Conversations From The Universe here because it doesn’t necessarily reference a visitor to Installation 04), it ends up destroying his home and throwing him into the galactic family as something of a wild card for humanity and the Covenant.
These events – the destruction of Installation 04 – result in Spark losing his sense of duty, further contextualising his actions in Halo 3 when Installation 08 is constructed.
This isn’t a necessary component to understand Spark’s character in the Halo games, but it provides greater context by telling an entirely separate story that is wholly focused on delving into the interiority of the character. And it’s bloody good at that!343 Industries is interested in crafting stories around the perspectives of characters and showing the world through their interpretations. It is rare to see a story from them that doesn’t have some kind of framing device, and I adamantly believe that Halo is all the better for this approach.
Answers are not important for the sake of satisfying the reader of a text; answers are important for how they affect characters and their actions which drive the story and service the greater themes of the universe.
This is one reason for why the Catalog ARG on the Waypoint forums (which even referenced this) was, in the grand scheme of things, a mistake. While a good bit of fun, these were answers for the sake of answers, delivered outside of a narrative text, which locked 343 into whatever minor detail they put into a forum post.
It’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and frankly uninteresting worldbuilding, which is something they definitely came to realise.
The doors that stay shut, or are left slightly ajar, are every bit as important as those we open.
Often, it is the stories that refuse to give us what we want that resonate most strongly and do more to broaden the universe in our imaginations.
It is for this reason that I hope we never hear about this mysterious ship again.
A LOVE LETTER TO SEQUENCE
The conception of this article was not just to talk about an almost decade-old story beat, but to give a much-deserved shoutout to The Sequence Group, who brought the Terminals for Halo 1 Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary, Halo 4, as well as the Fall of Reach animated adaptation and the Spartan Assault and Strike spin-off games.
Sequence’s work is synonymous with some of the most compelling storytelling in Halo.
From Spark’s millennia of solitude, to the turbulent history of the Covenant and its client races, to the esoteric time of the Forerunners… their work with 343 Industries has brought so much substance to the series.
When people talk about ‘Modern Halo,’ it is generally in-reference to the ways in which the gameplay has changed over the last ten years. But, beyond that, ‘Modern Halo’ has been very strongly defined in a narrative sense by Sequence’s work.
I genuinely cannot imagine the last decade of Halo without them…
“[Terminals] made their debut in Halo 3, it was a nice little Easter egg for people to find out some more about the universe and what was going on in the story. Primarily text on a screen, the idea was really cool but we thought ‘Hey, how can we make this a little different, a little more interesting?’ So we’ve taken a more graphical approach with Terminals because, as storytellers, that allows us to really tell a more emotionally engaging story.” [Dan Ayoub, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo: Anniversary panel (7:45)]
Tim Dadabo, too, gives one of the best performance of his character in these Terminals. Some may be inclined to say that the audiobook for Primordium just swings it, but the depth of characterisation that he conveys here with just his voice really is commendable.
I hope we see him back again soon!To my mind, Terminals are a narrative priority for Halo.
There is no better vehicle for this series to distil complex lore into approachable, emotional, and memorable stories that draw in and captivate all kinds of fans.
Terminals are rewarding for hardcore fans who have more in-depth knowledge of the lore, but they’re also – by design – welcoming to newer and more ‘casual’ fans who get a glimpse into the peripheral stories going on in the universe beyond the Master Chief.
“Even if you’re not familiar with Halo, and perhaps especially if you’re not familiar with Halo, this will give you some insight into the history of our universe and some of the characters that are involved in it.” [Frank O’Connor, BTS: Halo Anniversary Terminals (1:45)]
In recent months, you may have heard of a streamer named Dee Bee Geek. Having primarily grown up with PlayStation, he’s been taking his first steps into Halo, delving into the deeper lore alongside experiencing the games.
Follow this journey has been absolutely wonderful, especially seeing how the Terminals recontextualise some of that narrative experience to a newcomer firsthand.
It’s one thing to experience that feeling yourself, but seeing it ‘work’ for somebody else (alongside an audience of over 35,000 people on the Terminal video alone) feels very vindicating that this was the right direction for 343 Industries to go.
This did evolve Halo’s storytelling for the better. Ever since Halo 3, it has been something that we’ve had an increasing appetite for.
“The reaction to the Terminals was actually much, much bigger than their actual footprint in the game. It was something that people really liked, to get more information about the rest of the universe – exactly what events set up the gameplay that you’re having right there. […] Also a nice way to add to the story of Combat Evolved without changing it.
[…] It adds things to the story, around the story, and to the universe. Hopefully in such a way that if this is the first time that you’ve played the game, if you’re just meeting Master Chief now, these will help explain a little bit about the Halo ring, where it came from, what it was designed to do.
[…] For the new player, it kind of helps explain a little bit about what the universe is, and lets you appreciate things a bit more. And then, for the hardcore fans, if you’ve played it a hundred times, you’ll also pick up some new things abut some characters and some places that you thought you heard everything about before.” [Kevin Grace, Halo Fest 2011 – Halo: Anniversary panel (11:50)]
There have, however, been some problems over the years which manifested in how the Terminals have not been on the disc from Halo 4 onwards. They exist on the peripheral apps, Waypoint and the Halo Channel.
Part of why the Terminals in Halo 1 Anniversary resonated so strongly was because they were easily accessible to players.
You found them in the levels and got to experience these stories at the touch of a button, without any caveats.
It was a unified narrative experience – as, ideally, it should be.
(Better yet, once unlocked, you could view each Terminal in Halo 1 Anniversary’s menu on-demand by heading to the ‘extras’ tab.)
Each successive instalment has not managed to meet this standard.
Halo 4’s Terminals had to be taken off the disc due to disc space issues (a disappointing, yet understandable result of the game’s production challenges), and the Master Chief Collection put them all on the Halo Channel, which has to be downloaded separately.At the same time, as noted above, these things do get uploaded to YouTube and are viewed by hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people.
Moments and beats of these stories stick in the minds of even the most ‘casual’ of fans, as evidenced by this very topic regarding ‘the mysterious ship’ in these Terminals. Almost a decade later, it’s still regularly talked about.
People are interested. They want to see these stories. They’ve become an expected part of the modern lexicon of features for what Halo games offer…
But the lesson, I think, is that they have to be in the game.
Text and audio logs are great to have. They provide the advantage of telling broader, more condensed personal stories and can deliver key bytes of worldbuilding, but one can argue that these things just don’t carry the same kind of weight.
Finding a hundred logs can be a chore, reducing their footprint in the game.
Finding up to a dozen Terminals can be a journey.The absence of Terminals in Halo 5 was profoundly felt, with the grave miscalculation of making the Fall of Reach adaptation a limited edition exclusive.
Given that this was intended to bring new players up to speed on Blue Team for their introduction to a mainline game, locking it off as exclusive content (instead of finding this monumental backstory in the game) was a counterproductive decision.
There may well have been complications here that we don’t know about, which is fair enough, but the result undeniably had a negative impact on Halo 5.
Terminals are wholly representative of 343’s core philosophies towards storytelling in Halo, from the day they inherited the series. Deeper, more complex storytelling, but existing as much for the benefit of newcomers, not just servicing hardcore fans.
Not only that, but Terminals are a pretty massive USP and statement of value for Halo. How many other games offer this sort of thing?
Personally, I think it’d be a big mistake to skip Terminals in Halo Infinite, and equally disappointing for players both old and new to miss out on seeing Sequence bring the story of Installation 07 to life.
At the same time, we must also keep an open mind as to what new ways there may be for 343 to tell stories…
If nothing else, I hope that this article serves as an affirmation of one of the best decisions 343 Industries ever made for Halo, because that’s absolutely what this is.
But I am curious to know what your thoughts on Terminals in Halo are?
Do you have any particular favourites? What’s your ideal way of experiencing them? And what are you hoping to see in Halo Infinite?