“Do you believe the Master Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken?”
I’ve written… a fair amount about Halo 4 over the years.
I forged my place in the community as a loud voice of positivity for this game after its release. I have penned tens of thousands of words about its storytelling, its characterisation, its themes.
The year is 2021, and I’m still not done. I still have more to say about it because its themes are so rich. Theme is the ‘soul’ of a work, the connective tissue between everything, and at the end it’s the main thing I want to talk about – putting the pieces together, exploring what it all meant.
“Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” [David Benioff (quoted by Andy Greenwald) – ‘Winter is Here’ (27/3/2013)]
That writer coasted by with this idea for many years until he was struck by the sudden realisation (at the eleventh hour of the series he was co-writing) that theme is actually one of the most important structural pieces of a work. That realisation hit hard.
At the heart of every story lies its themes. These underlying concepts are what typically inform the structure and direction of a narrative, serving as a kind of pillar for what the work is ultimately about. Themes serve to organise the ethos and narrative aesthetics of a story in order to form a cohesive, satisfying whole.
I’m sure you can think of a hundred common themes off the top of your head because a theme can effectively be anything. They emerge naturally from the development of characters, plot, and setting – they’re what you arrive at to build upon, not typically what you start with.
You can say, for example, “I’m writing a story about family.” That’s fine, but it’s not actually saying anything. There are lots of stories about family. You could be talking about Star Wars or you could be talking about Hereditary, The Fast and the Furious, Dragon Age 2, or any number of other stories across genres which carry that core idea. You articulate theme through the characters, plot, setting, and people go “Ah, that ties it all together!”
The gradual process of weaving these things into a satisfyingly coherent crescendo, arriving at an understanding of the thematic purpose you’re building, is so often the key to realising what gives your drama its weight and catharsis. No story is immaculately conceived, that goes especially for long-running franchises which have to juggle a lot of moving pieces, so developing an understanding of identifying and articulating theme has become even more essential to storytelling.
Looking at Halo 4, some of its themes are very surface-level (‘man and machine’ perhaps being the highlight there), while others are more subtly coded.
I would say that the core theme of Halo 4, what really binds all its major pieces, is its fascination with prisons – of both the body and the mind.
GREEN & BLUE – THE MASTER CHIEF AND CORTANA
Abducted at the age of six and conscripted into the Spartan-II program, John-117 was indoctrinated by the military and forged into a supersoldier.
This is what the prologue of Halo 4 (and much of the game’s marketing) effectively summarises for the player.
Halo 4 begins by asking the question of whether this hero – the savior of the human race – was only possible to create through the process of breaking the person he used to be, disconnecting him from humanity.
The very first shot of the game is the six-year-old John-117 in a pod shaped like a MJOLNIR helmet, surrounded by his fellow Spartan-IIs. The armour that protects him is also a kind of prison he’s trapped within, separating the man from the iconic legend.
In the process of exploring the Chief’s character to a greater extent than the previous games had ever done before, along with his burgeoning sense of independence from the UNSC, we really get a greater sense of the man underneath the machinery.
At the very end of Halo 4, the culmination and payoff of this character deconstruction is the final scene depicting him literally being deconstructed.
“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 – ‘Human Weakness’, page 393]
As much as we delve deeper into the Chief’s character throughout Halo 4, this is also Cortana’s story.
Smart AIs have an average lifespan of seven years before they must face the looming shadow of rampancy, a debilitating degenerative process where they essentially think themselves to death.
When Halo 4 begins, Cortana is eight years old. The last four-and-a-half years of her life have been spent adrift in space within the aft section of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn, and in that time she’s had nothing to do but think – trapped within her own head.
Throughout the game, she spends as much time fighting against herself as she does the Covenant, Prometheans, and the Didact.
She’s the most ‘human’ character of the story, yet she cannot tell if the warmth of Requiem’s star feels real. She cannot even touch the person the person she’s closest to.
A mind that exists as photons and datastreams is presented as its own kind of prison.
At the end of the game, in her final moments, she is also released from this prison and gets the fulfilment she’s always desired, before bowing out on her own terms – not succumbing to the worst of what fate has prescribed for her.
THE DIDACT, THE LIBRARIAN, AND THE PROMETHEANS
As any great antagonist should be, the Didact is very much a prism for the game’s themes and a twisted mirror of the two main characters.
What Cortana suffered was dire enough relative to the nature of her own existence, but multiply that over 100,000 years of stewing in madness as the galaxy lays silent. The result of that is the Didact.
Like the Chief, he is a warrior of great renown for his people, but also something of a relic. In the time the Chief has been gone, humanity has moved on without him – even sought to ‘replace’ him with a new generation of Spartans (composed of consenting adult volunteers instead of kidnapped children).
Just as the Didact’s own motives and goals began to become estranged from the will of his people (who made plans to go on a final Great Journey and pass on the Mantle), this is paralleled in the Chief’s own growing sense of independence which we see unfold over the second act of Halo 4 with Del Rio. Both of them are ‘unbound’ from their respective prisons. In the Chief’s case here, this refers to the chain of command – a structure he was indoctrinated into from childhood.
And the Librarian herself is merely an echo, a ghost, the abstracted essence of a dead woman still trying to fulfil her final, desperate plan that keeps going wrong.
“Your mistake is seeing Spartans as military hardware.” [Catherine Halsey, Halo 4 – Prologue]
That’s the most succinct summary of what the Prometheans are, a twisted mirror of Spartans.
They are people as military hardware. Mass-produced supersoldiers, souls – humanity – broken down and trapped within armour.
Soldiers as machines.
Even the setting is a prison. Not just Requiem, but the state of the universe we are introduced to is presented as such.
The same cycle of conflict persists between the UNSC and the Covenant. The players have changed, but it’s still the same board. Indeed, liberating the setting from the hegemonic, cultural prison that is the Covenant is one thing at least that Halo 5 makes good on.
It is the awakening and introduction of the Prometheans which (somewhat ironically) disrupts that.
Regardless of the nuances of thought around their gameplay design, this is what narratively makes the Prometheans the perfect antagonistic force in Halo 4.
WHY I SIMPLY WON’T STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS GAME…
Here’s an engine held together by sellotape and PVA glue, and tools with no ‘how to use’ manual or design documentation – just a handful of testers, and designers who are somewhat familiar with these things from the last game.
Now go and build a team of hundreds of people from scratch over the course of developing a sequel to one of the most successful and beloved franchises of all time.
Take it in a new direction and do exciting and surprising new things, but without diverging too far from the familiar core of what people expect… have fun!
On a good day, that’s one of the most exciting creative opportunities you could ever ask for. Any other time, the weight of those expectations weighing on you is a hell of a prison to find yourself trapped within.
But that’s what keeps me coming back to Halo 4 and plundering the densely layered depths of its narrative…When you sit down to write what you hope will be a great story, there are a constantly shifting series of questions that you have to answer while juggling your artistic intent with the limitations of technology and getting hundreds of passionate people to share your vision.
What is it that the main character wants, but what is it that they need instead – and how are they going to learn that? In what ways will those wants create conflict and drama with other characters and how does this drive the plot? What course does this set the wider universe on? How does this change the characters and propel their journeys – not just in this game, but what doors is this opening for their arc over the next decade of this series which spans the most vast array of transmedia material in the industry? How is this not just functional for the franchise but also emotionally impactful and true to that character and the tone of the universe?
Through what means do we communicate these things to the player with subtlety and nuance in a game where you primarily shoot aliens, ensuring we don’t infringe on the gameplay experience but also encourage them to think in greater depth about this story and these characters?
What new storytelling possibilities are given to us through evolving technology and tools implemented into the engine, and what compromises have to be made? How does this all add up to a meaningful and emotional journey for the characters that is reflected in the player and their investment?
These are tough questions to answer, and they represent only a tiny fraction of the things that 343 had to grapple with on a daily basis in their infancy as they built their team.
And at its core, tying all of these things together, to deliver a story that neatly satisfies both the broad and granular needs of an evolving drama, is theme.
For me, there is no Halo game in the series that proves to be a more fascinating case study for answering these questions than Halo 4.
That’s why I’m still writing about it in 2021, over eight years since its release, and I’m confident that I will still be doing so for many years to come.
Put that in your eighth-grade book report.