Halo 4 recently celebrated its eighth birthday. Today, it releases on PC as the final piece of the Master Chief Collection.
Between the visual enhancements, the addition of an FOV slider, in-game integration of the Terminals and Spartan Ops cinematics (no more Halo Channel!), the new Forge items, and everything else the team at 343 has lovingly delivered – this is the definitive way to experience Halo 4.
This game is one that means a great deal and has strongly resonated with me over the years, so I just wanted to gush a bit about it…My Halo journey goes back to the beginning. I was 7 years old when I stepped out of that escape pod in 2001, and I’ve been following the curvature of that strange horizon ever since.
I went to local LAN parties with other friends who had Xboxes, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning running The Library on Legendary co-op, I got to experience the glory that was Zombies on Headlong and Tower of Power on Ascension…
I entered the online Halo community in the summer of 2007, during the Iris ARG hype leading up to Halo 3, and that community ecosystem remains a truly golden time during my early teenage years. Countless hours spent learning all the Forge tricks and glitches to then play with friends in custom games and share on Bungie.net private groups. It’s hard to believe all that was over a decade ago.
But it was with Halo 4 that I truly found my place in the community, which has had reverberated throughout my life in the years since.
I started this blog in August 2013 as part of a challenge between friends and quickly found my niche writing about my love for this series, specifically for this particular game during the time when it was ‘the’ Halo title (which, like all its predecessors before it, meant it was the subject of some degree of ire).
I wrote a lengthy level-by-level analysis, looking at the storytelling in every mission of the campaign. It’s woefully outdated now, but it was a therapeutic project that convinced me I was onto something.
I’m still writing about Halo to this day. I’ve visited Bungie and 343 Industries, and have made some truly wonderful friends with both devs and other people in the community. Last year, I got to meet Neil Davidge. The Master Chief himself has read my stuff! And I’m approaching my two-year anniversary of working in the gaming industry itself.
And the root of all that goes back to deciding to write an obscenely long love letter to this game.
— Steve Downes (@SteveDownes117) December 19, 2018
A HERO AWAKENS
This is something that ultimately comes down to a purely individual level, and for me it was just never even a factor in the original trilogy. On this, I’ve written extensive studies on his characterisation across each of the games (Halo 1 | 2 | 3 | 4).
Ten years ago, the late Stan Lee (yes, that Stan Lee!) talked about Halo and what makes a great hero.
“The iconic character also should have some quality that makes the game player, or the viewer, care about that character. So, underneath all the superpowers and the costuming and everything, there should be a human being that we can empathise with and that we want to see do well.
[…] You have to create characters that people care about, that they want to see ‘What’s going to happen next?’ and they want that only if they relate to the character. Only if they see qualities in that character that are recognisable, or that they can feel empathetic about.”
Bungie’s articulation of the Chief never truly hit those notes for me. His silence in gameplay and pure function of asking questions and making surface-level comments or one-liners in cutscenes did more to distance me from him than anything else, as he wasn’t a character so much as a ‘witness.’
When I think of the moment that I felt closest to the Master Chief, I think of the end of Halo 4.
I think of that lingering shot of him on the Infinity’s observation deck, having just lost the closest friend he’s had throughout the games, looking out at a ‘home’ that he’s not quite a part of, and the crushing weight of uncertainty he clearly feels about what’s coming next as he’s starting to discover a bit more about himself.
There are serendipitous times when a piece of media comes to us at just the right moment, reflecting and giving a kind of voice to an experience you may have had or are going through.
It was the latter for me. When Halo 4 released, I was in my final few months of school before I’d be saying goodbye to all the people I’d known for well over a decade and heading off to the uncertainty of a totally independent life at university while I was going through discovering more about myself.
That kind of overlap is quite rare, I think. Especially when that same kind of personal change is a course that’s been charted from your own childhood in-parallel with the progression of this series.
GREEN & BLUE
From living in an emotionally abusive environment, not understanding or getting help for escalating anxiety issues, to living on about £20 a week just to keep up with rent while working an awful job that wasn’t paying enough… Halo 4 was one of the few things of genuine comfort I had.
In this game, for the first time really, the Master Chief was presented as vulnerable. The odds he’s up against are insurmountable; the enemy he’s facing is always one step ahead – almost half the campaign is spent just trying to keep up with the Didact. And there are more than a few occasions where the Chief is knocked down.
Every time, however, we see him clench his fist and get back up.
It’s a trait that’s common to see in heroes, from Steve Rogers’ “I can do this all day,” to the montage of Carol Danvers’s life from childhood in Captain Marvel where she’s knocked down but defiantly gets back up.
That in itself is a superpower.
You may not be able to fly, you may not have genetic augmentations that give you super-strength and cool power armour… but, when you’re knocked down, you can get back up.Halo 4 dealt with mental illness, something that I’ve written about in a lot over the years because it was so emotionally transformative for the series.
Josh Holmes, Creative Director for Halo 4, has discussed this at-length in various interviews and panels.
“Story at its most obvious is a form of escapism, it allows us to step outside our day-to-day lives. But more importantly than that, it’s a learning tool – it’s something that allows us to make sense of the world around us.
We use stories to complete our mental model of the universe. We use stories to encode important information and realisations, and pass them on from generation-to-generation. And story allows us to experience things that might be outside of our scope of day-to-day life and too dangerous for us to experience, or too rare.
But as much as stories provide us with a functional model, what’s maybe more important is the emotional model that they give us as well.
Stories allow us to relate to human beings and see things through the eyes of other people, which builds that all important empathy. And I think this is probably one of the most important parts of storytelling.”
[Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (7:30)]
In this, Halo 4 came as something of a revelation of storytelling to me because of how I emotionally connected to it.
Where I had neither the understanding nor the language to articulate what I was going through at the time, I did have Halo 4.
And what that game gave me was a feeling that I understood, and, beyond that, a feeling that it understood me – articulated through the journey that the Chief and Cortana go on.
“I remember long talks with Chris Schlerf, who was the lead writer on Halo 4’s campaign – did a fantastic job, but early on, Chris was having a crisis of confidence. He was literally tearing his hair out because he didn’t know how to tell this story.
And there were times when he came to me and he said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do it, maybe we should just focus on the A-story and put this story aside because I don’t see how we’re going to be able to tell it.’
[…] For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign.
At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story.”
[Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (13:05)]
This was a story about the Chief being incapable of emotionally articulating himself in the midst of a very small character story which, for the first time, really foregrounded its emotional stakes.
Cortana was suffering from rampancy, a deadly and debilitating mental condition that only gets worse as the game progresses, after she’s spent over four years years adrift in the Forward Unto Dawn with nothing to do but think – trapped with her own mind, just as I felt I was.
She loses control. She gets overwhelmed, she forgets things, she lashes out – even at the Chief. At the same time, she’s still jovial and sarcastic, dropping her usual quips, but it’s clear that she is struggling.
“Your mother made you separate. She placed a barrier between you and the beings that you would be encouraged to protect, a wall you could never breach. She even let you choose a human to centre your existence upon, a human to care about, yet never considered how you might feel at never being able to simply touch him. Or how he might feel about outliving you. What kind of mother is so cruelly casual about her child’s need to form bonds, to show affection?”
[Halo: Evolutions, page 393]
And, in the end, Cortana won.
While fighting against her condition, she takes down the Didact, saves her best friend, and bows out of the narrative on her own terms.
Without any sort of support network (even being abandoned by their allies), with the pressure of having to keep on fighting and barely a moment of respite, Cortana reclaims her agency, defies the fate prescribed to her, and fulfils the one thing she wanted most.
It’s a bittersweet ending, certainly a bold beginning for 343’s first Halo game, and it was one that transformed very real pain into passion for telling an intimately honest story that’s also aspirational and empowering.
More than just being a piece of blockbuster entertainment, Halo 4 hit me as a game that genuinely had something to say – giving voice to certain struggles and pain that a lot of us go through. As time has gone on, I have only grown to appreciate more just how much I needed to hear what it said, which I’ve carried with me ever since.
Other articles I’ve written on Halo 4 include:
BUY ONE! HECK, BUY TWO. THAT’S AN ORDER, SOLDIER!
“Witness the Master Chief’s triumphant return to battle an ancient evil bent on vengeance and annihilation. Shipwrecked on a mysterious world, faced with new enemies and deadly technology, the universe will never be the same.”
Halo 4 is now available on Steam as the final part of The Master Chief Collection.