“Show our friend here that there’s more to a soldier than his armour.”
Five years. Five long years. That’s how long it’s been since Halo 5 released…
On this particular anniversary, I wanted to write a long overdue character study that pulls together things I said four years ago in my novel-length analysis of Halo 5 and my two-part Halo: Nightfall dissertation back in 2017, as well as all the time in-between.
Jameson Locke is one of my favourite Halo characters. He deserves so much better.
Let’s dissect what really works about him, what doesn’t, why he’s woefully underappreciated, and what future role Fireteam Osiris could have in Halo Infinite.
While I have written at length about Locke in the past, that has been within the broader analytical scope of those stories – Nightfall and Halo 5 – rather than specifically about him.
Just as I’ve done with the Master Chief over the last few years (Halo 1 | 2 | 3 | 4), I wanted to dedicate a full character study to Locke in order to detail the history of this character and dissect the way in which he’s written across the major franchise media he’s appeared in.
(Also, I’ve built up a library of over nine hundred in-game screenshots of the guy and not had much cause to use them. So there’s that, too.)
It is also very much staying true to My Brand to go to bat for controversial and unpopular stories in the series.
After all, I made my name in the community as a loud voice for positivity about Halo 4 back in 2013, and the conclusion I’ve arrived at after seven years (seven years!) of writing these analyses is that my content is at its best when championing undervalued stories and ideas.
So, let’s travel back to 2014…
An alien desert background, a mysterious new Spartan front-and-centre, the Master Chief reflected beneath him, and the promise of a great journey to come over the year leading up to the Fall 2015 release of what was now officially titled Halo 5: Guardians.
There was much speculation about this character. Some brief clarification by then-studio head of internal development Josh Holmes clarified that this was not – as many were wildly guessing – Palmer in new armour, or some armoured incarnation of Cortana (ha). He’s a new character.
And from the ONI symbol on his chest plate, we had some notion of where his allegiances might lie.
At the same time, we also had some knowledge of Ridley Scott’s upcoming digital Halo feature, which had just cast Mike Colter as its lead: a character named ‘Marlowe.’
“Marlowe is described as ‘a rising star in a futuristic army who is troubled by aspects of the military industrial complex he inhabits. Approaching combat situations with caution and logic, he inspires loyalty in his fellow Spartans.'”
[Digital Spy, ‘Ridley Scott’s Halo digital feature recruits Mike Colter as lead’ (15/5/2014)]
The connection to Halo 5 seemed evident (2014 Me certainly thought so). This brief outline strongly resembled 2012’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, which introduced Thomas Lasky, whose origin story was built on a very similar premise.The Xbox E3 2014 Media Briefing was what really blew the lid off.
It began with a trailer which simultaneously teased and revealed Halo 2 Anniversary, The Master Chief Collection, and gave us a glimpse at Halo 5.
Thel ‘Vadam, our beloved Arbiter (who, too, was once hated for taking the protagonist spotlight from the Chief), delivered a compelling narration over a recreation of the Chief’s daring gambit to give the Covenant back their bomb.
“To find him you have to forget the stories. Forget the legends. You’ll have to do more than walk in his footsteps. For he is more than the sum of his actions. I tell you this, not because I trust you, Agent Locke, but because all our lives are at stake. Because the seeds of our future… are sown in his past.”
Throughout this trailer, the image flickers and distorts to reveal that it is being watched by this new character, who Thel names ‘Agent Locke,’ on Sanghelios – a significant setting in Halo 5.
Already, this was a great strategy from 343 to put us in Locke’s shoes, as it framed The Master Chief Collection as something Locke was himself experiencing. This kind of meta framing is characteristic of 343’s storytelling, going back to their formative work on Halo: Legends in 2009.
Bonnie Ross then took to the stage to reveal Halo: Nightfall, the live action digital series created in-collaboration with Ridley Scott, which would introduce this pivotal new character and tie into Halo 5.
It was additionally revealed later that Halo 2 Anniversary would have prologue and epilogue ‘bookend’ scenes…
“The trailer you saw at E3 hinted at a new character and a mystery going on,” [Bonnie] Ross teased. “The prologue and epilogue will bound that and tie you up and leave you on the doorstep of Halo 5.”
[Bonnie Ross, Eurogamer – ‘343’s master plan for Halo 5: Guardians’ (17/6/2014)]
…and that Locke would feature in Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals.
The following year would see a more direct representation of Locke in Halo 5’s marketing, framing his opposition to the Master Chief in several live action trailers before his debut with Fireteam Osiris (composed of Holly Tanaka, Olympia Vale, and Edward Buck) in the game proper.
Ross’s statement that this would be a “journey” was certainly not an exaggeration, as this was the most ambitious multimedia content cycle in Halo’s history. What I’ve referenced here isn’t even half of what released over the course of that year!
From the beginning, working up to and through Halo 5, let’s analyse Locke.
There are three basic routes for character arcs to go:
Positive arcs are about a character’s growth.
Negative arcs are about a character’s regression.
Flat arcs are about a character who remains the same.
‘Flat’ is not a derogatory word here about anything to do with perceived quality, it still refers to an arc which is about change – not of the world changing the character (which drives positive and negative arcs), but of the character changing the world.
In a structural sense, flat character arcs tend to apply to characters who have some kind of principle and stand by it no matter what is thrown against them. They commit to their truth in the face of adversity.
Examples of flat character arcs in media call to mind the likes of Toph Beifong, Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones, Captain America…
As this applies to Halo, we might think of Thel ‘Vadam and Thomas Lasky for positive arcs about their growth; the Ur-Didact for a negative arc about his descent into villainy; which brings us to Jameson Locke, who has a flat character arc.
When we meet Locke, he is already at his moral zenith. We are used to being introduced to characters (like Thomas Lasky and John-117) as children, watching them grow to be the soldier they need to be. We begin with Locke at that point, which is wholly intentional because this is not a story about how Locke grows or changes as a person.
As my dear friend Abigail (DilDev) succinctly surmises: Halo: Nightfall is a story about dropping Locke into one of the closest things the Halo universe has to Hell, and watching him emerge not just as a survivor, but a good man.
Where others are moved to act selfishly and violently lash out upon being faced with insurmountable odds, Locke stays true to his principles no matter what it costs him.This section will be focused on Locke’s characterisation in Halo: Nightfall, it will not be covering the broader story elements which I have already written about in my novella-length analysis of the film.
If you’re interested in potentially having your mind more positively swayed towards Nightfall, check out these two articles:
The film begins with Agent Locke and his ONI team on the Outer Colony world Sedra, tailing the courier of a suspicious delivery.
The courier is a Yonhet, of the Covenant Fringe (races that were exploited by the Covenant, but never fully assimilated into their ranks), delivering a device to a Sangheili Zealot.
Pursuing this Zealot takes Locke’s team to a crowded mall where a fight ensues and the Zealot attempts to unleash an unknown weapon. It is in this opening sequence where we get our first major piece of characterisation that defines Locke.
Upon gaining the upper hand in this fight and seemingly subduing the Zealot, Locke extends a hand of mercy.
In a less thoughtful Halo story, Locke would either stoically execute this long-established enemy, or deliver some kind of quippy remark to punctuate the scene. That’s not the tone of this story, and that’s not who Locke is – he is a contradiction in that he’s a hunter and assassin who doesn’t actually want to kill his targets.
One might well argue that he should have just shot the Zealot on the spot, and you might well be right to do so. But Locke is the kind of person who will try to talk first.
At the end of Halo 2, when confronting Tartarus in Installation 05’s control room, Thel also offers a hand to him – hoping that, with the truth about Halo revealed, they can work together and find some measure of reconciliation.
This was the Brute who branded him with the Mark of Shame, sent him to his supposed death in the Library, and lead the slaughter of the Sangheili at the onset of the Great Schism – and enjoyed these things. Yet Thel is moved to reason with him because he sees that they have both been lied to and manipulated by the Prophets.
And, if he can be worthy of redemption after all the terrible things he’s done, then so can Tartarus.
Where this comes at the end of Thel’s arc in Halo 2, that same kind of nobility is what we start with for Locke in Nightfall. This is the first choice he makes.
It is significant, I think, that a Sangheili Zealot was chosen as the enemy here.
When we last saw a Zealot in a live action production, it was slaughtering teenagers at Corbulo Military Academy. These are devout, high-ranking warriors, representing one of the greatest threats humanity has faced on the battlefield – even more so considering that the war is over, the Covenant religion is shattered, and (as the opening text of Nightfall states) “This is supposed to be a time of peace.”
Tartarus, too, surrendered to his zealotry in the control room. Intentionally drawn or not, the parallels are there.This connects to one of the primary thematic motifs in Nightfall, which is about the role of soldiers in God’s plan – their job being to take life, to undo God’s work.
As Randall Aiken’s narration states at the beginning of the film:
“We are simple things, soldiers. We are taught honour. Honour means sacrifice, sacrifice means death – either our own, or our enemy’s. In some ways, beneath it all, that’s all a soldier’s really trained for. To undo all of God’s work. To take life, where only God can give it.
Were it that we were not soldiers, but gods…”
[Randall Aiken, Halo: Nightfall]
As we have seen with the Zealot, and will come to see across the rest of Nightfall and in Halo 5, Locke consistently chooses not to take life.
(It is prudent to note that this is part of why having Locke kill Jul at the start of Halo 5 comes as such a weird narrative decision.)
This particular instance with the Zealot is just the first ten minutes of the film, showing us Locke’s defining trait as a hero.
On Sedra, while investigating the cargo tug which was used to smuggle the ‘element’ that was unleashed upon the planet’s human inhabitants, Locke finds himself face-to-face with the leader of the Sedran Colonial Guard – Randall Aiken.
Aiken is naturally opposed to Locke and his team for reasons that become clearer a little later in the film. He is unwilling to cooperate with ONI and keeps information to himself about what’s going on, to which Locke suggests working together on the investigation because they both want the same thing.
While Aiken is insistent that ONI doesn’t work ‘with’ anyone, that it’s just them and the people they see as below them, with no room for equal partnership, Locke chooses to appeal to Aiken’s authority as an equal.
“So you know, I don’t write policy. My two soldiers are up in ICU because of that blast. Soldiers I’m responsible for. I’m asking you as a fellow officer.”
[Jameson Locke, Nightfall]
This is far from the only time we see Locke respectfully acknowledge another’s authority to show he’s willing to play by their house rules as a means to get what he needs – in both Nightfall and Halo 5.
Again, Locke is framed as a diplomat and negotiator, which is further evidenced in the following scene where Axl (the Yonhet courier from the start of the film) is interrogated.Aiken is beating Axl for information, to no avail. As Locke’s team steps in to ask if they can take a shot (Locke noticing the scars of Spartan-II augmentation on Aiken’s hands, showing that he’s observant of more than what’s currently going on – as an intelligence-gathering agent should), an argument breaks out.
When Aiken blames ONI for the attack, Horrigan (one of Locke’s agents) retorts that the UNSC has “done a lot of good for you” (evidently Horrigan has not noticed the scars), to which Aiken accuses them of being on Sedra to expand the UNSC’s power.
“You’re here to expand the UNSC’s power, nothing more. Not a clue about the cultures you assimilate.”
Once again, it is Locke who breaks the tension here.
He knows that he cannot say anything to change Aiken’s mind, so he decides to show him.
And, once again, he does this through an act of mercy.
Instead of continuing the savage beating, Locke kneels down beside Axl and talks to him in his native language, convincing the Yonhet to give him the information that Aiken couldn’t get.
The first act of Nightfall very clearly establishes who Locke is, building this picture through his actions and how he is contrasted with the characters around him. Aiken and Horrigan serve the role of being the two moral extremes that Locke must contend with throughout the film and represent the two identities that are tied to his character: Agent and Spartan.
Ask yourself how differently this would play out if Horrigan, who exemplifies the more typical ONI agent we’re familiar with, were in-command here. He disrespects the Sedrans, along with their beliefs (“These people still believe in Valhalla!”), he’s unobservant, and widens the political gulf between each side.This skillset of Locke’s, playing the middle ground, is constantly tested throughout the film, as the Sedrans and ONI team go on a joint mission to Alpha Shard – a fragment of Installation 04, the ring destroyed in Halo 1.
As I previously stated: this setting is quite literally one of the closest analogs to Hell in the series, which is something the characters themselves remark upon.
Aiken attempts to maintain order by setting aside their politics until the mission is done, and the central tension is derived from the struggle to stay true to that in the face of ever-escalating circumstances.
“And, lastly, I don’t want to hear any more proper nouns until we exfil. No more ‘Sedrans.’ No more ‘ONI.’ Just a team of soldiers.”
This isn’t to say, however, that Locke doesn’t go on the offensive in his interactions and get under peoples’ skin. The Condor ride to Alpha Shard presents us with another great character moment for Locke in his conversations with Talitha Macer – Aiken’s protégé.
Macer tells Locke that his team (namely Horrigan and Estrin) are wrong about the Sedrans, that they can fight.
Locke gently shuts her down, saying “Not tonight, you won’t,” to make it clear that this mission isn’t an opportunity to play the hero in pursuit of proving something to ONI.
(Indeed, this will pay off later in the film where Macer risks her life to save Locke when he’s trapped. Again, that motif, from Aiken’s opening narration, about soldiers and the dichotomy of saving or taking lives…)Macer then says that Aiken is right about “you,” referring to ONI thinking they’re better than everybody else, and asserts that the ultimate difference between them is training.
Locke’s reaction is interesting here because he takes it as an opportunity to start testing verbal boundaries in order to find what makes Macer ‘tick.’
Locke: “So you think that if you went though ONI training you’d be just as good?”
Macer: “Maybe even better.”
Locke: “That your aspiration, to be ONI?”
At this point, Aiken walks past, to which Locke (who has done his homework after noticing the augmentation scars earlier) pointedly says to Macer:
Locke: “Perhaps you’d rather be a Spartan?”
Randall: “She should be neither.”
Here, we see some of that classic ONI arrogance come through, as Locke has an openly smug grin on his face which does not at all hide how much he’s enjoying this conversation, concluding by telling Macer (after he reveals Randall’s history as a Spartan-II): “We wouldn’t be doing our job if people trusted us.”We see this same sort of dynamic in the prologue bookend cutscene for Halo 2 Anniversary, where Locke applies the same verbal tactic to how he approaches Thel.
He pointedly asks about his people calling the Master Chief “Demon,” to the visible discomfort of the other Sangheili in the room, and further says “We’re talking about trust, after all,” when he reveals that he’s hunting the Chief.
These scenes parallel each other in how they depict Locke holding all the cards in terms of possessing information, deliberately choosing the moment he reveals it – Randall’s history as a Spartan, and the identity of his target being humanity’s greatest hero.
Mike Colter’s voice acting in the Halo 2 Anniversary scene has been criticised (perhaps fairly, as this was his first voice acting gig, which is a very different kind of performance to acting for television), but I think he perfectly captured the tone of smug superiority which demonstrated some subtle continuity with his performance in Nightfall.
Immediately after this exchange, Aiken calls Locke into the cockpit as they approach Alpha Shard, which prompts Locke’s demeanour to shift right back to the professionalism required by the mission.All of this happens within the first thirty of Nightfall’s ninety minutes. It is at this point that any notion of Locke being a “bland” character – somehow “devoid of personality” – completely loses validity for me, as well I think it should for anybody who’s hitherto done the bare minimum work of paying attention.
The first act of Nightfall invests heavily in building scenes where Locke’s defining characteristics are shown to us, and resonant connections are already being drawn with other areas of the series (namely, Halo 2).
What follows only continues to build on the foundations for the character and challenge those convictions. It continues to address the core question Nightfall is asking: “How does Jameson Locke emerge from Hell not just as a survivor, but a good man?”
And that’s clearly not the story that people were expecting. Many undoubtedly thought that this is where the cold-blooded ONI agent comes in, because that is exactly what Halo stories have taught us to anticipate (‘The Mona Lisa’ is a prime example of that with how it contrasts the characterisation of Clarence and John Smith.)
Nightfall, however, has no interest in rehashing old ideas and narratives with this new protagonist. The extent to which it conforms to ‘the Halo formula’ is by having Alpha Shard blow up at the end with a Spartan-II’s heroic sacrifice.
So many people engage with a version of Halo: Nightfall that exists only in their heads, which has no bearing on the content of the actual text. That, I think, is why Nightfall gets so easily dismissed in the broad ‘consensus’ of the fanbase; when so few people are willing to critically engage with the text on its own terms, no actual critique is possible.
“Death will come to all of us. Especially soldiers. It will come, inevitable as the sun. It is only to be feared if you fear what is on the other side of it, if you see darkness in your soul rather than light. In a way, I suppose soldiers are gods. You give your life away so others will live in peace, even if it’s only fleeting. The ones who live carry parts of you with them. Your deeds become seeds for theirs. The sacrifice carries forward.
And in their final moments as a soldier, you know they will have to answer the same question you did in yours: with your life, would you only create death, or with your death would you create life?
That is my question to you, Commander Locke: How will you die? And for what?”
What will Locke die for?
In Halo 5, at the very end, Locke is willing to die to save the Master Chief and Blue Team, as he staggers towards the final relay linking the Cryptum to Cortana’s Guardian, using the last of his strength to destroy it.
Locke, of course, does not die here, but it is a reflection of how he, in the moment, chose to die to rescue Blue Team – to give them life, where they were in considerable danger of literally being taken out of the galactic equation.
The question of what a soldier is was asked at the start of the film, and here we find the answer that Nightfall gives us: a soldier is somebody who sacrifices selflessly, so others can sleep safe and live in peace. Even if that peace is fragile.
Peace’s fragility is not futile, the pursuit of peace is not rendered worthless because it can (and inevitably will) be broken. Conflict is a universal constant, but the most important war is the one that’s waged within the heart and mind of every soldier – the war to find that middle ground between foes, which Locke strives to find.
What Randall seeks to tell Locke is that he cannot hold the middle ground forever, which is what the entire second and third act of Nightfall was about.
When the centre does fall apart, Locke will have to choose a side.
HUNT THE TRUTH
A whole year lay between Halo: Nightfall and the release of Halo 5 – you may recall this time as perhaps the most sensational marketing campaign for a Halo game since 2007. Hunt the Truth, which spanned March to October 2015, was a hit unlike any other.
Two seasons of the hit audio drama (featuring a cast that you’d expect to see in a blockbuster movie, hitting the top 1% of iTunes podcasts with over 6.7 million views) were surrounded by a slew of trailers and an ARG that established the antagonism between the Master Chief and Jameson Locke, now a Spartan-IV.
Beginning with the ‘Bullet’ trailer, a bullet is fired at the Chief’s helmet where slowing the video down reveals words – “SON, ABDUCTEE, VICTIM, ORPHAN, RECRUIT, SOLDIER, WARRIOR, ALLY, HERO, SAVIOR, TRAITOR” – carved on it with each turn, before shattering the Chief’s visor.
‘All Hail’ and ‘The Cost’ were live action trailers that depicted two sides of a story from the perspective of Locke and the Chief on a world reduced to ruin, each aiming their gun at the other. Locke declares the Chief to be a traitor who brought this destruction upon humanity, the Chief states that his mission has just begun.
The E3 2015 demo showcased the battle of Sunaion, the final stand of the Covenant, with Fireteam Osiris pursuing the Master Chief through the city on Sanghelios to the Guardian that was awakening in the sea.
‘A Hero Falls’ and ‘The Hunt Begins’ were further live action trailers where the death of the Master Chief is announced across human space, followed by an in-universe narrator saying that the Chief is unleashing the Guardians upon the galaxy and – in one version of the trailer – killing civilians (in another, it just says he can’t be controlled).
Humanity’s greatest hero has seemingly turned against them, and it’s up to Fireteam Osiris to hunt the Chief and Blue Team down.
Finally, in October, a trailer titled ‘Believe’ delivered narration from the Master Chief and Jameson Locke on their perspectives.
Locke: “My mission is warranted – bring down a verified traitor.”
Chief: “I’ve made my choice, my path is clear.”
Locke: “Our greatest threat is believing in a hero.”
Chief: “I believe in completing my mission. At all costs.”
Locke: “I believe in protecting humanity.”
Chief: “I believe great threats require great sacrifices.”
Locke: “I believe in taking down a traitor.”
[Halo 5: Guardians – Believe teaser]
The marketing for the campaign of Halo 5 was singularly focused on the antagonism between the Chief and Locke. This came at the height of the marketing push for Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it wouldn’t be at all inaccurate to say that Halo 5 was very much looking to emulate that hype.
And that’s not just in the marketing itself, from the posters to the ‘#TeamX vs #TeamY – choose your side!’ social media storm, but the base premise shared between these texts is the core idea of heroes being responsible for collateral damage.
The Avengers split up over the Sokovia Accords after Wanda accidentally kills some humanitarian workers; Batman hates Superman because of the city-wide devastation caused by the fight with General Zod in Man of Steel; and the Master Chief has turned traitor, awakening ancient Forerunner titans on human worlds for reasons unknown.
It’s not hard to see this as an interesting and natural next step in the Chief’s journey for Halo 5.
The pivotal moment of Halo 4 is when, for the first time, the Chief disobeys a direct order and leaves the UNSC Infinity with Cortana to stop the Didact.
Hunt the Truth follows this story beat with some commentary from one of its main characters, Mshak Moradi, which I think is a succinct summary of the idea that 343 Industries really wanted to drive forwards with.
Mshak: “He’s off being creative. He could be off the grid. FLEETCOM’s trying to smokescreen like they’re on top of his posish, but they’re not. The trombones are playing the brown note on that one and the grunts are a-grumbling. The military is one pissed off polygon right now.
Giraud: “Apparently, some are even questioning Master Chief’s motivations and allegiances. The word ‘traitor’ has been used. Seriously? If he’s disobeying orders, that’s bad, but calling the Chief a traitor? The guy who legitimately saved humanity multiple times, that’s just… come on!
Mshak: Either way, you haven’t considered the underlying question. MC is the precedent for free reign in the military. He’s responsible for protecting a galaxy, a job that big requires absolute mobility. But then, that’s a whole lot of power to give one man… hence the dichotomy, Benjamin – power and responsibility.”
[Hunt the Truth, Season 1 Episode 4: Crossing the Black]
This absolutely does sell the idea that Locke would go up against the Chief. One of the most pivotal moments in Nightfall for Locke is when he loses his composure at Horrigan for ‘playing God’ – sacrificing the smuggler, Haisal Wari, to ensure the group can escape from a deadly situation.
The Master Chief is a legend, but he’s also a soldier who was indoctrinated by the military from the age of six. When we saw him last in Halo 4, he’d lost his closest friend, the character who is positioned as the reflection of his humanity. His future was totally uncertain.
These things problematise the Chief as a symbol – we even refer to him primarily by his rank rather than his name. And so, the marketing for Halo 5 really sought to provide this very nuanced engagement with the ‘hero worship’ of this character, set against the awful and tragic reality of his backstory, setting the stage for the game to deal with this conflict.
Even some of the Terminals for Halo 2 Anniversary have the framing device of them being classified records the Master Chief is accessing – in this case, Jameson Locke’s target dossiers on Thel ‘Vadamee.
“He’s questioning many things he once firmly believed were true. He’s lost his best friend, he’s questioning his past and his purpose, he’s question who he is fighting for.
“For us this is a really interesting point. For the first time he’s questioning everything he’s done for the UNSC in the past.”
[Bonnie Ross, The Guardian – ‘Halo 5: Guardians – “Xbox One allows things we’ve never done before”‘ (16/5/2014)]
“He is human, he’s always been human, but at the end of Halo 4 he really is reflecting on who he is and why he exists.”
[Bonnie Ross, Eurogamer – ‘343’s master plan for Halo 5: Guardians’ (17/6/2014)]
Right now, the hype train for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is spinning up. Amidst this excitement, I found myself reading an old interview with Frank Herbert, Dune’s author, offering his critique on Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ formula, which feels especially relevant to how we engage with this story.
“The difference between a hero and anti-hero is where you stop the story. If you’re true to life, the story goes on, because human beings go on. Now, you can confine your story to one individual, and therefore – as far as [Joseph Campbell] is concerned – story begins with birth and ends with death.
But if you’re dealing with larger movements […] then there is no real ending. It’s just a place where you stop the story. And one of the reasons, by the way, why in the book Dune I stop it the way I do, deliberately building up a carrying momentum, as though you were going down a slide and then just chopping it [To a moment of triumph and than that’s it.] And then you skid out of a story with all of this clinging to you.
One of the threads in the story is to trace a possible way a messiah is created in our society. […] Here we have the entire process, or at least the large and some of the subtle elements of the construction of this, both from the individual standpoint, and from the way society demands this of you. It’s the references in there, you know, that the man must recognise the myth he is living in, because the creation of an avatar is a mythmaking process.”
[Frank Herbert, Interview with Prof. Willis McNelly – ‘Herbert’s science fiction novels, Dune and Dune Messiah‘ (3/2/1969)]
It’s a fascinating interview that has a significant reflection on the stories that 343 Industries has been telling in the Reclaimer Saga.
As Chris Schlerf (Senior Writer on Halo 4) said in the ‘A Hero Awakens’ ViDoc: one of the core questions that lay at the heart of the decision to continue the Master Chief’s story in Halo 4 was dealing with the fact that he’s already a hero. There’s no Hero’s Journey to be had here. There’s no room for Joseph Campbell in this next movement of the odyssey (in a medium that relies so heavily on him).
Halo 4 ends with the Chief returning to Earth, back among humanity, who he sees himself as separate from (reflected in the thematic motif that runs throughout the game about him being ‘a machine’). And that’s where that story stops, in a very similar kind of emotional place to where Herbert stops the story in Dune.
He’s a living legend, the saviour of humanity several times over, and he’s coming to recognise the myth he’s living in.
Yet, you may find yourself scratching your head here because none of these brilliant ideas saw much reflection in Halo 5.I bring this up not to criticise Halo 5 (we’ve done plenty of that over the years, no need to belabour the point any further), but to illustrate how we are all effectively caught in the middle of an incomplete conversation about this game.
The foundation of good criticism is to engage with the text, not what you wish the text was… but these two things are kind of inseparable when talking about Halo 5, as every piece of narrative content related to Halo 5 from June 2013 up to December 2015 (and beyond) is concerned with building up a story that Halo 5 doesn’t actually tell.
For Halo 5 isn’t actually a story about the Master Chief and Blue Team, and their estrangement from the UNSC as they question their past.
Halo 5 isn’t a story about Jameson Locke and Fireteam Osiris, and the conflict between these forces.
Halo 5 is a story about Cortana coming back from the dead to lead an AI uprising.
It is therefore quite understandable that engaging with Halo 5 on its own terms is extraordinarily difficult because in order to do that you have to effectively take at least two years of marketing and canonical material, along with statements from 343, all of which were billed as being integral to this ‘journey’ to Halo 5, and say “Right, let’s put all of this to one side and basically forget about it…”
As such, not many people are inclined to engage with Halo 5 in entirely good faith, because the game’s story itself is (also understandably) seen as one that doesn’t really engage the player in good faith either.
But the result of this approach is that the good within gets either misconstrued or phased out of the conversation, which isn’t too helpful in terms of giving honest feedback.
And so, that’s what this is an effort to do. With the baggage out of the way here, let’s deal with the character of Jameson Locke on Halo 5’s terms.
Let’s start by tying things back to Halo: Nightfall.
Frank O’Connor: “I think the most important thing about Nightfall was getting to see Agent Locke getting an understanding of what Spartans are – that dedication to duty and honour above all the kind of subterfuge and politics that the Office of Naval Intelligence has built into its DNA. And giving him some perspective on his former career as we bridge that into his future career, which you play in Halo 5.”
Brian Reed: “He is going from being ‘Agent Locke’ to ‘Spartan Locke.’ He understands what it means to be a Spartan now.”
[Game Informer – ‘Revealing the Story of Halo 5: Guardians‘ Campaign’ (22/6/2015)]
Throughout the Halo series, there is a core tension of identity – in the form of some sort of duality – with many of its major characters.
Halo 4 brought this to the forefront with the dichotomy between ‘John-117’ and ‘The Master Chief’ – the soldier versus the symbol, the man and the machine. Even one of the taglines for Halo 4 is ‘WAKE UP, JOHN.’
‘Thel ‘Vadam(ee)’ vs ‘The Arbiter’ is the throughline that affects the entire journey of this character, which is summed up quite succinctly in the trailer narration for Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals.
Even in Hunt the Truth, the second season’s focus on Maya Sankar has her grapple with this sense of identity as well.
“What terrified me most was after five years of living as ‘Fero,’ I had no idea what Maya was supposed to think about any of it…”
[Hunt the Truth, Season 2 Episode 0: The Only Deliverable]
As O’Connor and Reed confirmed, this same articulation of duality in identity applies to Jameson Locke as well.
How this is explored, however, has nothing to do with his relationship or antagonism with the Master Chief, but with the Arbiter – Thel ‘Vadam.Following Fireteam Osiris’ escape from Meridian after Blue Team boards the Guardian, Doctor Halsey discovers that there is another Guardian on Sanghelios that hasn’t been activated yet.
We return to the Randall Aiken’s closing words in Nightfall:
“And in their final moments as a soldier, you know they will have to answer the same question you did in yours: with your life, would you only create death? Or, with your death, would you create life? That is my question to you, Commander Locke: How will you die? And for what?”
While the prologue of Halo 5 has its issues, even the dialogue in this scene echoes this idea. The opening words of the game are from Halsey, at some point in the future, saying to Locke that ONI will order him to “kill us both.” While lacking in context, this does tell us that Locke will, once again, be called upon to take specific lives at some point in the future.
As this theme applies to Halo 5 proper: Halsey was slated to be executed by order of Serin Osman, the head of ONI. Now, of course, the situation has changed and Locke – a former-ONI agent – is tasked with saving her. (Again, Jul is a black sheep here that went thoroughly mishandled.)
As an ONI agent during the Human-Covenant war, Locke recommended assassinating Thel ‘Vadamee – he even signed up to be the one to do it. When they actually meet, Locke saves Thel’s life, as he and the Swords of Sanghelios were losing a fight against the Covenant in the Elder Council Chamber.
And then, at the end of the game, he saves Blue Team. He staggers on his hands and knees towards the relay device that will cede control of Genesis back to Exuberant Witness, the Guardians wearing him down to the point where he momentarily blacks out.
He was willing to give his life to ensure that Blue Team wouldn’t be taken by Cortana.
They’re framed as this dynamic duo, but I think that’s sold on the imagery used in some of the cutscenes (standing back-to-back in The Covenant) with its epic spectacle, and your co-op experience with friends or family.
While Halo 5 similarly does very little to develop much of a relationship between Locke, his team, and the Chief… it does do a lot to build up his relationship with the Arbiter, who is framed as the character that parallels Locke most closely.
Thel: “Victory and honour do not grow from timid seeds, Spartan. Your harvest shall be grand. When you see the Chief again… tell him I send my greetings.”
Locke: “I will indeed, sir.”
This is yet another example of Locke acting as a ‘guardian,’ but it’s additionally notable – for those familiar with the expanded universe – that this gains an additional layer of meaning when you remember that ONI started this conflict in the first place…In the Kilo-5 Trilogy, the ONI team was dispatched to Sanghelios with the task of arming the Servants of the Abiding Truth – a religious fundamentalist group that aimed to kill the Arbiter. This was done to ensure a perpetual conflict between them and the Arbiter’s forces, both sides wearing each other down so their eyes were off the UNSC.
Locke could have kept this information from Thel, but that’s not who he is. This is not an uneasy, cobbled together alliance of necessity, but the foundation for human-Sangheili relations going forward as they secure a future free of the Covenant.
And Thel is himself, as Lasky says in the first issue of Halo: Escalation: “Maybe more than any other figure, a symbol of what the galaxy could one day become.”
One of the murals that the player can have Vale translate in the mission Enemy Lines prompts this exchange:
Vale: “This one says […] ‘Life, death, forever vigilant.’ Huh, interesting. There’s a question here too: ‘Who is entitled to this honour?'”
Locke: “No one is entitled to honour. You earn it.”
Vale: “You’re starting to understand Sangheili culture.”
Locke: “No. I just don’t believe anyone is entitled to anything.”
And that’s exactly what Locke does. He says to Thel that he’s a Spartan now, but his actions throughout the Sanghelios arc shows that he is a man of honour, and thus earns that respect from Thel.
He’s been in pursuit of his own objective (finding the Master Chief), but he directs Fireteam Osiris to help the Swords of Sanghelios, giving them no reason to doubt that they are indeed allies.
Regardless of your specific knowledge of any relevant expanded universe material, Halo 5 does not skimp on depicting a post-war setting that is rife with racially-charged political, economic, and military conflict.
Within that, Jameson Locke is a character who deals with both friend and foe with respect and restraint, seeking common ground to work with them and (to borrow a phrase from The Return of the King) show his quality.
These are not generic, dull qualities, they’re wholly unique to the characterisation of post-war humanity. They’re a deliberate contrast to the UNSC’s declaration of “We are the giants now” in Halo 4, where they’ve risen from the ashes of war not just as survivors, but arrogant and defiant victors.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Despite all of this, with the genuinely solid construction, ideas, and execution at times, we’re now six years past the establishment of Jameson Locke and it would be fair to say that the character hasn’t resonated particularly strongly with the fanbase.
There are a variety of reasons for this, but before we get to them I’d like to propose my own idea.
We didn’t see Jameson Locke’s childhood. We didn’t see him grow.
For the Master Chief, our understanding of his character has a lot to do with his childhood backstory – abducted at the age of six to be indoctrinated and trained by the military, then augmented to become a supersoldier.
Your knowledge of this could range from just that single sentence summary from the Jerk Store Grunt in Halo 3, to having read every text out there about it. Regardless, the backstory of the Spartan-IIs has broad visibility for all kinds of fans.
When 343 Industries introduced Thomas Lasky in Forward Unto Dawn, setting him up for his appearance as a major character in Halo 4 and subsequent media, that story was told through the lens of his childhood as a parallel to the Chief’s.
Forward Unto Dawn was 343’s own The Fall of Reach, introducing many aspects of the universe into the ‘mainstream,’ with Lasky growing alongside it.
But when we meet Locke, he’s already a fully-formed character. He’s at his moral apex, but we haven’t seen him get there. That’s absolutely a valid approach to crafting a character (as I’ve illustrated here, 343 did it well), but it seems that part of the risk is that there’s a bit of distance between the viewer/player and protagonist.
It’s a significant contrast to, say, how we met the Arbiter in Halo 2. He’s introduced as a character who’s suffering the direct consequences of the Master Chief’s success in Halo 1, and the story that follows is unreservedly his.
The Chief isn’t the protagonist of Halo 2, the Arbiter is. In this, Halo 2 pulled of a similar kind of subterfuge with its marketing being centred around Earth, but then subverted that by telling a story about how the Arbiter uncovers the lie at the heart of the Covenant and the truth about the Halo rings which transforms the universe.
In this, Halo 2 pulls off a hunt for the truth with far greater aplomb than Halo 5. It even features a zombie Venus flytrap that talks in poetic metre.And the thing is, this childhood backstory for Locke isn’t something that doesn’t exist. It was just reduced to a wiki entry you could access on the Halo Channel app while watching Nightfall.
Locke was born on Jericho VII in 2529, where he would be orphaned after just six short years when the Covenant invaded and glassed the planet in 2535.
Incidentally, Jericho VII was the first world that John-117 saw glassed by the Covenant, at the very start of The Fall of Reach – literally tying these two characters back to the beginning of the series. What a foundation for potential that was; the first planet that the Chief couldn’t save.
Three dozen Covenant ships – big ones, destroyers and cruisers – winked into view in the system. They were sleek, looking more like sharks than starcraft. Their lateral lines brightened with plasma – then discharged and rained fire down upon Jericho VII.
The Chief watched for an hour and didn’t move a muscle.
The planet’s lakes, rivers, and oceans vaporized. By tomorrow, the atmosphere would boil away, too. Fields and forests were glassy smooth and glowing red-hot in patches.
Where there had once been a paradise, only hell remained.
[Halo: The Fall of Reach, p. 8]
After losing everybody he’d known, Locke grew up in a state orphanage and blamed the United Earth Government for failing to protect his home, growing jaded with the UNSC and its ability to keep its citizens safe.
He became something of a lone wolf, a freelance assassin, where he eventually caught the eye of ONI who wanted his unique set of skills to serve them as an Acquisitions Specialist (and hitman).
Locke, seeking greater purpose in his life, accepted the offer where he went on to evidently enjoy a fruitful career at ONI until he became a Spartan.
It’s a unique and interesting story that offers such a profound contrast to the man we meet in Nightfall and Halo 5.
I expect, however, that there were well-founded sensitivity reasons for why this wasn’t the story that was told, owing to the negative stereotypes of Black people (particularly Black men) in media, which this backstory rubs a bit too close to. By contrast, the portrayal of Locke as an avatar of humanity’s best, an aspirational hero, is one that doesn’t quite have those same pitfalls of unconscious bias from a predominantly white writing team.
But I do believe that the approach they took to introducing and building this character with a flat arc, instead of getting the fanbase to root for him from childhood (like Lasky), played a considerable part in why many in the Halo community didn’t take to him.
Locke was introduced in binary opposition to the Chief, and it’s hard to get fans on-board with a new character (and protagonist, at that) without establishing that kind of emotional investment in their story. Especially when the story that was then told in the game isn’t truly about that character.What’s especially unfortunate here is the fact that a lot of these ideas are genuinely bold and innovative for Halo.
Going all the way back to that initial trailer of the poncho-clad Chief in a desert witnessing the awakening of a titanic construct, the marketing for this game gave us some of the most thoroughly compelling ideas and imagery to move the series forward.
And to have the protagonist of this new mainline entry be a visibly Black man (along with Holly Tanaka – she deserves her own separate article) definitely wasn’t a ‘safe’ move. It undoubtedly required absolute confidence from 343 and Microsoft, as this is a market that constantly wants to peddle the narrative of “Women don’t sell, black characters don’t sell, queer characters don’t sell…”
Frankly, this was also a thoroughly needed penance for how overwhelmingly white Halo 4 was.
Which brings us to…
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RACISM IN FANDOM AND MEDIA…
People don’t like to talk about this very much because it’s an uncomfortable topic with unpleasant feelings. Those who openly acknowledge these things develop a reputation of being “difficult” at best – abuse, harassment, and more often follows.
A common refrain is the knee-jerk response of “Don’t generalise the community based on a few people,” which is an entirely unhelpful response that shuts down that conversation so we can go back to that comfortable status quo of thinking the only worthwhile discourse is to do with the same recycled debates over sprint and art style.
“These people aren’t real fans,” they say.
“It’s just a few people not worth listening to. Stop making things about race.”
“I haven’t seen any of this! My reasons for hating this is nothing to do with race,” they balk.
These attempts to defang the things that bigots in the community say comes from a place that people undoubtedly think is good, but these statements only serve to diminish both their behaviour and the people it affects.
I do often wonder what the Halo community looks like to outside eyes. It’s a perspective that’s lost on me for being so heavily involved and invested in its forums and sub-communities since 2007, but people must surely look at it and wonder why there aren’t very many non-white, non-male voices of influence…
That’s certainly not saying there aren’t any, but how many can you namedrop on a dime who occupy a significant space in this fanbase?You need only look at the responses to the latest employee spotlight that 343 did on Erika Martinez last month, which highlights some of the amazing work she’s been doing for the studio’s Diversity & Inclusiveness initiatives alongside Zara Varin.
More recently, Snickerdoodle’s tweet from the other week, which made the unanimously correct and agreeable statement that Halo is for everybody, not just men. This is an attitude which sadly persists, which Sam’s role as a community manager and a woman in games has her exposed to on a regular basis, yet the responses are the same as those quoted above.
And how about the official Halo account’s tweets in support of Black History Month (which has numerous hidden replies from awful people), or Pride Month (and the release of themed nameplates and emblems), or every year of International Women’s Day, or the TV show casting announcements – and on, and on.
People can’t wait to jump to the assumption that Bonnie Ross is being ousted from 343. Random people on the internet think they have a deep insight into her role and twenty-six years of industry experience, in much the same fashion that Kathleen Kennedy is so popularly dunked on by sad, misogynistic Star Wars fans.
The examples are never-ending. The comments are exactly the same.
Don’t be “difficult” and talk about there being a problem, though!
In fact, don’t even celebrate the most meagre concessions of visibility, lest the thought of having to engage with racial inequalities in your comfortably ‘apolitical’ video games cause upset! As journalist and critic Gita Jackson describes:
“I’ve written about the lack of black female characters in Overwatch. I’ve written about how much I liked the box art for Far Cry New Dawn, which features two black women. Most recently, I wrote about how refreshing it was to see black women in Apex Legends. Each of these articles discussed race in a way that felt pretty cut and dried. I pointed out facts: Overwatch, a game that prides itself on its diverse cast, does not have any black female playable characters. Far Cry New Dawn has two black women on the box, and there aren’t very many black female characters in video games.
As is part of my job, I temper these facts with my own opinions: I think the presence of more video game characters who are women of color is good. In my article about Apex, I wrote, “Just seeing those characters, and knowing those small lore details about them, does actually make a difference to me. It makes me want to explore more of the game and its systems, spend more time in the world, and figure out how to be even better at it.”
These should not be controversial statements – I’m simply stating something I appreciate, something that’s relevant to me – and yet some readers responded as if I’d suggested that all gamers should amputate their pinky toes.
[…] People accused me of ‘perpetually complaining’ or ‘race-baiting’ because I broached the subject of race at all.”
[Gita Jackson, Kotaku – ‘What It’s Like To Write About Race And Video Games’ (26/2/2019)]
Even among popular community members such as Halo Canon, who myself and the wonderful Grizzlei collaborated with on a video he made last year highlighting queer representation in Halo, came under fire for simply starting a conversation around the topic.
Ian’s a well-loved member of the community, and rightly so, he’s an awesome guy, but it’s clear from the number of dislikes and many hideous comments that there are just some topics you ‘can’t’ bring up without courting this dire crowd.
All fandoms suffer from issues of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and more. This isn’t at all unique to Halo, but to go on denying that it’s a problem and shutting down those who point it out (especially when that dialogue comes from people of colour) is to make the Halo community ever more insular.
We are not as welcoming as we like to think we are. I look at all this and, frankly, think it’s no wonder we don’t have more diverse voices sticking around.
If this is the kind of response that white cis male creators get, imagine how much worse it is for people of colour in fandom.
And I must acknowledge my own privilege here. I made my name in the community with relative ease over the last seven years – as a voice of ardent positivity for Halo 4 and scathing criticism for Halo 5. I roll with the punches, and I get many (from vile slurs, to attempts to incite harassment, hacking threats, and more), but my experience is nothing stacked against the kind of scrutiny that women and people of colour face on a daily basis to be ‘visible.’
We cannot simply declare that the people responsible for this kind of toxicity are “not part of the community.” They are. They’re reading and watching your stuff, commenting on your tweets and videos and forum posts – some of them are creating content themselves.
It’s never just that one asshole you see getting quote tweeted or screenshotted for showing their entire bigoted ass.
They’re the breaking point for that person’s silence.This same kind of scrutiny applies to characters of colour, of other genders and sexualities. Look no further than the replies to Mitch Dyer’s recent tweet just reminding people that Keo Venzee has they/them pronouns – that one of the new main characters in Star Wars: Squadrons is an awesome (and rare) bit of non-binary representation.
People then aggressively demand an entire Wookieepedia summary and analysis of their character from the guy who’s just spent the last few years working with a team to build and write this character, demanding justification for why Keo is non-binary.
The reality is that no explanation is ever going to satisfy this kind of person.
It’s not at all wrong to want to have good, well-written characters. But that’s not the angle of good faith that these people are taking.
“On a super basic, detached level, fandom attitudes on race make fandom a little less fun because it stifles diversity and homogenises fandom output, keeps things looking similar. If I want to read fic about non-white characters, chances are that there’s just gonna be less written about them. So there’s less fun stuff to enjoy.
Then there’s the personal level that keeps you aware that fandom just doesn’t really care about or hates non-white characters. The constant barrage of racial microaggressions. Some of it looks similar to fandom misogyny, where characters of colour are more frequently criticised, hated, or ignored compared to white characters.
And of course there’s the popular habit of defensive people coming up with all the reasons and excuses for why they hate certain non-white characters. […] Even when trying to curate fandom experience to cut out the obvious racism, microaggression always makes it through and it makes fandom a little less fun. Just keeps you reminded of the real world.”
[Fansplaining – ‘Episode 22A: Race and Fandom, Part 1’ (26/5/2016)]
The first issue here is that this is the complete list of Black characters in ‘front-facing’ roles in the Halo games across the last two decades.
That they’re all men and you can literally count them on one hand, compared to the comparatively vast number of main white characters, is a problem. The best representation in Halo shouldn’t be limited to the expanded universe.
Johnson is a fan-favourite – not just as a character, but as a ‘gotcha’ for the argument that liking him cancels out any notion of racial bias.
You never really see much engagement with the fact that the origin of his character is literally a copy and paste of Sergeant Apone from Aliens, right down to his dialogue. The only real depth you’ll find for Johnson where he gets a proper leading role is in the books (Halo: Contact Harvest and Silent Storm).
Beyond that, what these four characters share is their status as ‘sidekicks,’ with the general traits of ‘enjoyably blunt attitude,’ because Bungie is well known for writing their characters to existing archetypes.
Unfortunately, the archetypes that Black characters are often relegated to in media are different strokes of ‘tough, strong, angry Badass™,’ whether it’s a cigar-chomping marine or the Angry Black Woman.
This is not saying that Bungie had any sort of racist agenda when creating these characters. Contrary to popular belief, people who offer these critiques are not the seething caricatures they’re made out to be for not hurling exorbitant praise at a thing that’s well-liked.
“Our all-encompassing love of something can make us resistant to having conversations about how it could be better, or how other people might experience it differently than we do.
It can be easy to see any critique or complication about something we like as offense. If you read media criticism as saying nothing is ever good enough, then it can be easy to accuse every critic of being perpetually offended. In actuality, many things are good. It’s just that nothing is perfect. Engaging with media we like, in all its mess and complication, is what makes it better. It can even make your connection to a piece of media stronger.”
[Jackson, Kotaku – ‘What It’s Like To Write About Race And Video Games’ (26/2/2019)]
Television and film have been around for over 130 years; literature has been around for millennia. Writers for all mediums still struggle with clumsiness and lack of awareness towards how people tell stories about others, falling back on familiar and problematic tropes.
I’ve never played as a black video game character who’s made me feel like he was cool. Worse yet, I’ve never played a black video game character who made me feel like I was cool. Instead, I’ve groaned and rolled my eyes at a parade of experiences that continue to tell me video games just don’t get black people.
The faces that look like mine that I’ve encountered in video games have been, at best, too inconsequential to be memorable and offensively tone-deaf at worst. What about Barrett from Final Fantasy VII or Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII, you might ask? Or Cole Train from the Gears of War games? Wait, there’s Sheva from Resident Evil 5, right? No, no and no. Too many elements of caricature in each, I’d say, and they’re all sidekicks. Their stories aren’t the focus of the adventure players go on.
But, hey, it’s a given that video games tend to present exaggerated characters. Marcus Fenix isn’t like any white guy I’ve ever met, after all. But he doesn’t have to be. For every Marcus Fenix-type grunt hero, you can also get a witty Nathan Drake, a charming Ezio or a regretful John Marston. Enough white characters exist in video games for a variability of approach. That’s simply not true of black characters.
[Evan Narcisse, Kotaku – ‘Come On, Video Games, Let’s See Some Black People I’m Not Embarrassed By’ (29/03/2012)]
Johnson, Romeo, and Emile might be characters that may be deemed ‘enjoyable’ for their attitude, but we should really examine how much of that comes down to the ways they fit the well-worn tropes and stereotypes of Black roles in media which have been made palatable to audiences.
None of this is to say that you can’t like these characters. Johnson and Apone have resonated with people over the years, and that’s totally valid.
There’s a more nuanced conversation to be had about the legacy of Al Apone. Actor Al Matthews (who sadly passed away in 2018) served for six years in the US Marine Corps. According to the biography page of his now-defunct website, he was the first Black person in the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam to be meritoriously promoted to the rank of sergeant.
There’s substance and history here, a reflection of ‘truth’ in his character, beyond the stereotypical role of the ‘Tough-As-Nails Sergeant (feat. Cigar, Moustache, and Attitude).’
But to what extent are successive imitators aware of this within the broader context of the kind of roles Black characters have in video games?
Locke doesn’t fit those stereotypical roles. He’s primarily comparable to Halo’s equivalent of Steve Rogers. We don’t see enough acknowledgement of the value inherent in that because, without fail, the same line of “He’s boring” is uncritically parroted at the mere mention of his name.
And the scrutiny Locke faces is not at all proportionate to the comparative lack of scrutiny other poorly-drawn characters in Halo who regularly get a free pass.
That lack of nuance in discussion continues to be a problem.
Are you ‘allowed’ to be thoroughly disinterested in Jameson Locke? To have found him to be a character that didn’t land with you? Obviously.
But if your immediate response to critical discussion about the intersection of racism in fandom is “Well, I don’t dislike this character for racist reasons,” then it might help to be aware that you’re centring the discussion around yourself instead of the actual issue.
That kind of defensiveness contributes to the problem by effectively saying that racism is allowed to happen, but not to be talked about, because sharing a similar lexicon of how you articulate that reasoning rubs uncomfortably close to the actual racists.
And that may absolutely not be what you intend to communicate. But intention and effect do not always align.
I especially have to maintain awareness here with my position and influence coming largely from my impassioned batting for Halo 4. I must also acknowledge that I might potentially rub people of colour the wrong way, despite not intending to, because Halo 4 is absolutely the whitest game in the series.
There are a grand total of two Black characters in Halo 4, both of whom are in tertiary roles – Hoya in Spartan Ops and Forthencho, the Lord of Admirals, in the Terminals. You can count the number of lines they have on your hands, and everybody else, all the primary and secondary characters (Chief, Halsey, Tillson, Lasky, Del Rio, Palmer, Thorne, Madsen, DeMarco, Grant…) are white. It’s an appalling ratio.
343 didn’t intend to do this. They didn’t sit down and say “Right, we’re going to create the whitest Halo game,” just as Bungie didn’t intend for their own Black characters to be associated with the negative aspects of the archetypes they fill.
But the text takes on a life of its own and reflects unconscious biases that comes from a lack of diversity in the industry.While we’re on statistics, in November 2019 the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) published a forty-page summary report on its annual survey of game developers across the globe.
The IGDA’s report found:
81% are identified as ‘White/Caucasian/European’
7% are identified as ‘Hispanic/Latinx’
2% are identified as ‘Black/African-American/African/Afro-Caribbean’
These are shameful statistics. We talk a lot about how diversity on the screen is absolutely important, we’re seeing more of that come at snail’s pace, but diversity in staff and leadership – to real, actual people – is vital.
As Dr. Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE, has said: “Diversity isn’t a nicety – it’s a necessity if the industry is going to grow, thrive and truly reflect the tens of millions of people that play games every day.”
The creative sector is not truly the creative sector when it’s so deeply homogenised like this.
We have problems with representation because creatives draw from their experience. We have problems with the experience being drawn from because only 9% of game developers illustrated by this international study aren’t white/European.
And we have problems with people leaving the industry because of toxic workplaces filled with sexual harassment, racism, and burnouts from debilitating crunch which are increasingly coming to light… All of these things intersect.These issues trickle down and manifest on all levels, including fandom. Racism exists in fandom because fandom exists as part of our world, it’s not some separate entity devoid of peoples’ biases and prejudices.
Fiction and fandom carry a great deal of weight – they’re both ways of helping us understand ourselves through creativity and community. Because of this, we need to grasp an operative understanding of how these things personally affect others, how there are every bit the capacity for negative outcomes (due to peoples’ experience with racism, misogyny, etc) as positive.
I don’t have all the answers for how to deal with these things. I do know that it has to begin with a willing acknowledgement of the problems our communities have, and the commitment not to enable and perpetuate them with knee-jerk deflections of this uncomfortable conversation while ardently insisting “But I’m not racist! My reasons for XYZ aren’t racist!”
We need to listen to, support, and elevate the voices of those who speak up about these issues in fandom and media, rather than talk over them and diminish their lived experiences. And we need to look inward as well, at the things we say and do which has that impact.
The Halo community can be a wonderful place. I’ve made countless friends within it, many of whom I’ve known for well over a decade, and with Halo Infinite on the way there’s so much more of that to come for the next generation of players.
But, like all communities, we also need to take responsibility in acknowledging and dealing with these issues.
THE FUTURE OF FIRETEAM OSIRIS
If 343 has plans for them, they certainly haven’t been very immediate. The only franchise media Osiris has really had in the last five years is a minor appearance in 2018’s Halo: Bad Blood, which resolved the ‘See you on Sanghelios’ cliffhanger of Halo 5.
Bad Blood notably removed Buck from the team and reunited him with Alpha-Nine, his squadmates from Halo 3: ODST (minus the Rookie, who is super dead). What this means is that Fireteam Osiris appearing in future media is not necessarily beholden to Nathan Fillion’s busy schedule.
Speculation has surrounded a particular toy reveal for Halo Infinite: A Brute named Hyperius – one of the Hand of Atriox, a ‘Spartan Killer’ – has Locke’s helmet on his shoulder plate.
Personally, I believe that this is more indicative of Fireteam Osiris showing up later in new armour, more closely resembling the holistic art style that Infinite is going for. But the way many are taking this to be an appeasement of people who hate the character by the very implication that he might’ve been killed off-screen is, frankly, a bad look.
But let’s move past that for now because the game isn’t out and we don’t have any actual context to this, so it’s not worth getting too worked up about.We know that Halo Infinite is being framed as the core Halo experience for the next ten years, which is an incredibly ambitious goal that the series has never really attempted before.
Sustaining a game for a decade is a tall order, not even Destiny has quite gotten there yet – and that’s taking into account the six years of experience Bungie has now built with this kind of game.
Whether Halo Infinite will be able to deliver on the scale of that promise is yet to be seen, but I think we can safely count on seeing some campaign expansions over the coming years that are bigger than we’ve ever had before. With that comes a whole universe of potential.
Are we going to be on Installation 07 for the next ten years, or will we travel to other worlds as well?
Is the Master Chief going to be the sole character we play is in these potential campaign expansions, or will there be room for new and returning ones too?
These are pretty massive questions. At this time, the focus at 343 is undoubtedly on shipping the game, but the long-term sustain strategy for Halo Infinite demands answers to them nonetheless.
How do you get people excited to come back after the inevitable drop-off? What other stories are there to tell in the universe? What doors does Halo Infinite open?
How do you reintroduce characters and story elements that didn’t necessarily stick the landing first time?Personally, I feel that there’s such a strong connection that’s been made now between Fireteam Osiris and the Swords of Sanghelios that this is a direction 343 could run with.
Just as we know from Halo: Warfleet that there are twenty-four Sangheili who serve aboard the UNSC Infinity, it would be interesting if Osiris now serve aboard, say, the Shadow of Intent.
Given that they’re down a member, that fourth slot could be filled by Usze ‘Taham – one of the co-op Elites in Halo 3, who has an established working relationship with Olympia Vale detailed in the novel Halo: Hunters in the Dark.
Usze was assigned to be a liaison with the UNSC after the Human-Covenant war, as well as the Ascetics (an ancient independent order of Sangheili devoted to a pre-Covenant faith), and his background as one of the deadliest Spec-Ops commandos would make him an interesting foil for Locke, while sharing religious faith similar to Tanaka.
One might imagine a big update for Halo Infinite where the Shadow of Intent’s arrival is witnessed in the skies from the ring, bringing Elite allies to fight alongside the Marines, along with various new missions in the world that can be done alongside Osiris. Or a separate, independent campaign about them altogether on Sanghelios itself…
These are all just ideas at this point, not exactly grounded in any known reality because the game isn’t out yet.
But if I had to confront the question of how to reintroduce Fireteam Osiris and make them appeal to players, logically tying them to something people have that existing investment in is absolutely the route I’d go.
AN ASPIRATIONAL HERO
I know I’m not going to be changing a lot of minds here, but I do hope that this has helped develop a richer understanding of Locke and articulated some fresh perspective on his character that might not have previously been considered.
Jameson Locke isn’t somebody who was built by nature to be a hero. He grew up a jaded and cynical orphan, having lost his family when the Covenant glassed his homeworld; he became a freelance assassin, who eventually caught the eye of the Office of Naval Intelligence.
It sounds more like the beginnings of a villain than a hero.
But he is a man who seeks to use words before weapons, dealing with escalating situations and hostile people with respect and a drive to make things better. He is somebody who holds to the truth he’s committed to.
I’d like to turn to one of my favourite writers of all time to explain what exactly it is that makes a character like Locke an aspirational hero.
“It’s hard to talk about the importance of an imaginary hero. But heroes are important. Heroes tell us something about ourselves. History tells us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we are now; but heroes tell us who we want to be.”
[Steven Moffat, The Doctor – the Ultimate Hero]
“A hero isn’t somebody who is built by nature to be a hero. A hero is somebody who, when it really matters, can be better than they normally are and better than the other people around them. It’s someone who conquers their own weaknesses when they need to.”
[Steven Moffat, The Doctor: A Different Kind of Hero]
Much like Captain America, Locke is a character who will always do what’s right. His ethics and morality do not bend to the circumstances he faces; his ideals are challenged, his life threatened, but he commits to his truth.
In utilising a flat arc, 343 crafted a hero who represents the soul of what it means to be ‘human’ in Halo, in the sequel to a game where the Master Chief was trying to understand what that truly means.
And, as a Black hero (one with more substance to offer than conforming to the thoroughly worn stereotypes), his face is one that says to numerous fans “You’re welcome here, Spartan.”
Jameson Locke is a rare exception in the Halo universe, one who has gone woefully misunderstood and underappreciated.
Jameson Locke was introduced to us as a character who represents the triumph of kindness and intellect over brute force and cynicism, and that is a standard to which we can all aspire.
Whatever else there is to take from what Halo 5 has to say, this is one specific positive I think is worth deriving from it.
Happy birthday, Halo 5.