If I were making Halo 5 – Part 1 [Story]

Halo 5_1

CruelLEGACEY examines storytelling and character development in Halo 4, and what needs to change for Halo 5.

Halo has changed. With 343 Industries at the helm, the series is taking a new shape and a new direction. There are countless passionate, hard working, and talented people pouring immeasurable amounts of work into sustaining Halo 4 and creating Halo 5. But it’s always fun to play make believe. What if the future of Halo was up to me? What if I were making Halo 5?

Over the past few months, my enthusiasm for Halo has plummeted. While my initial impressions of Halo 4 were quite positive, its shortcomings have overwhelmed my enjoyment in the long run.

There are many people out there who feel differently. I’m sure there are plenty of fans who will say that Halo 4 is the best in the series. However, there is growing evidence to indicate that Halo 4 has failed to sustain the same level of activity within its community as Halo Reach or Halo 3. From online player engagement comparisons to the closure of one of the largest Halo Community websites, there are clear signs of trouble. But that’s not what I want to get in to here. At the end of the day, all I can really express are my own opinions. A year ago I was one of the most dedicated Halo fans around. Today, not even a trailer for a new game on new generation hardware can get me excited.

So what would I do to turn things around? In a magical world where the entire franchise existed purely to suit my own tastes, what would I do differently with Halo 5? I’ve broken down my thoughts into different categories. Story, campaign design, and multiplayer. This article is going to cover the first category.

Before we jump in, I just want to say that I hope this comes across in the spirit of humble, honest feedback with which it is intended.

Halo 5_4

Story

In order to explain my thoughts on where the story of Halo 5 should go, I need to go back and look at how the story was handled in Halo 4.

The story of Halo has never been my primary interest. I enjoy it, but it isn’t the driving force behind my experience. However, I found the story in Halo 4 had a very strong impact on my enjoyment of the game, and not in a good way. I have 3 main issues with Halo 4’s narrative:

  • Master Chief as the “star”
  • Too many things don’t make sense
  • The development and handling of new characters

Lets talk first about the Master Chief.

Halo 5_5

343 has made a very conscious decision to make Chief the star and focal point of this new chapter in the Halo series. They’ve stated that they wanted to examine the Chief more deeply as a character: what motivates him? Who is he at his core? They are telling a story about John’s personal journey and evolution. He is the center around which the entire narrative orbits. More specifically, the story of Halo 4 is based on the assumption that we are already deeply invested in the Chief as a character.

This is a huge mistake.

The master chief has never been the subject of Halo’s story. He is the camera. He is the lens through which the player experiences the tale of Humanity’s struggle for survival against the Covenant, the Flood, and now the Forerunners. The Master Chief was designed from the ground up to be a vessel for the player to step in to. He was intentionally void. As such, we’ve never had a direct reason to care about him, because there is no him. When I play Halo, I AM the Master Chief. He didn’t defeat the Covenant and save earth, I did.

The issue of Chief’s “humanity” comes up several times over the course of Halo 4. In 343’s “A Hero Awakens” ViDoc, we hear expressed the idea that we will see Chief knocked out of his comfort zone as “the hero”. We will see him make difficult choices that challenge his understanding of his own humanity.

Where exactly does any of this actually happen in Halo 4?

In Halo 4, we see the Chief behave the exact same way he always has. Cortana tells him where to go and who to shoot, and he follows through. One scene in particular is a sadly missed opportunity. We see Chief argue with Captain Del Rio over the decision to flee rather than pursue the Didact:

If 343 wanted to show John’s inner conflict, this is the moment to make it happen. Have Chief be the one arguing for retreat in hope of finding a cure for Cortana’s rampancy. Give us some sign that his emotions are waging war with his sense of duty. Cortana could remind him how much is at stake, and that they have no choice but to follow the Didact, and the rest of the plot could move forward unchanged. Instead we have nothing but consistent, predictable behavior from John. I’m sorry, but standing around and looking sad at the end of the game does not equate to character development. 343 has made a false assumption that the Chief has enough depth to make him carry the emotional weight of the narrative, and has failed to give us any further reason to care about him.

Not only is Chief a poor choice for the narrative anchor, but the story of Halo 4 actually goes against the sense of player empowerment that Bungie spent so much time building. We learn that the Chief is where he is because of the planning and genetic manipulation of a Forerunner. All those amazing things “I” did? Ya, that was actually just because it was all per-determined. Instead of humanizing the Master Chief, he literally becomes less human. It becomes even harder to relate to this genetically enhanced super soldier than it already was. My actions and victories as the Master Chief are no longer my own. It was my “destiny”, written by an alien mad-scientist. Because we’re supposed to help humanity inherit “the mantle”… which coincidentally brings me to point number 2:

Halo 4 is filled with nonsense.

Halo 5_6

When done right, Science Fiction and Fantasy are powerful ways to examine ourselves. How would we react to such outlandish, amplified situations and conditions? What are we truly capable of as human beings? Where do we break, and where do we find strength? I think Halo 4 wants to be about these things, but gets too far sidetracked down the rabbit hole of its own falsities. The Didact’s obsession with “the mantle” is problematic for several reasons. First, at no point in Halo 4 is the player given a thorough explanation of what the mantle is. 2nd, humanity doesn’t seem to have any idea what it is either. So the Didact’s primary motivation is some unexplained thing that nobody besides him actually wants or cares about. This apathy extends beyond the fiction as well. If the player doesn’t know what “the mantle” is, they can’t possibly want it or care about it either.

We have the Didact’s incoherent ramblings and Cortana’s magical anti-nuke bubble (I’m not the first to say this: the bomb was IN HIS HANDS!!!). But Halo 4 is filled with little moments or details that just wiz by without explanation. Why are the Covenant fighting against humanity again? How did Chief’s armor get upgraded while he was frozen in a Cryo-tube? Why does John say “these Covenant seem more fanatical than the ones we fought before” with absolutely no evidence to support such a claim? Why does the Didact say that his attempts to reason with the Chief have failed, when no such attempt has been made? Even Cortana’s “death” feels fake, thanks to the all-too-convenient location and scenario surrounding her dispersal.

There are perfectly reasonable answers to some of these questions. But don’t expect to find those answers anywhere in Halo 4. Unfortunately, the player must be deeply familiar with a combination of novels, web-series, and hidden backstory from previous Halo games in order to make any sense out of Halo 4’s plot. And even then, there are a lot of holes.

Halo 5_2

Let’s bring things back around. During Microsoft’s press conference at E3 2013, we saw the premier of a new Halo teaser trailer. For the first time in over 10 years, I watched a video for a new Halo game and felt nothing but apathy. There was nothing wrong with the trailer (quite the contrary; it looks gorgeous). But at this point I have zero interest in the story of Halo. I don’t care about who holds the mantle, I don’t care about the UNSC or the Spartan 4s, I don’t care about what we’ve seen of the Covenant since Halo 3 and I don’t care about Master Chief beyond his abilities while I’m controlling him. If 343 wants me to start caring about any of these things, they need to start with interesting, engaging, and dynamic characters.

This is where the focus needs to be in Halo 5: Characters, characters, characters. With Halo 4, we were introduced to a large cast of new characters; each one more annoying than the last (with the exception of Lasky who can only be described as “a nice guy”). Across the board, characters in Halo 4 are nasty, unreasonable, petty, and uninteresting. Cortana shines through by contrast as the lone spark of personality and charisma in the entire game. I fear for Halo 5, given that it is likely we will have to play through a good chunk of the game without her. I don’t believe for a moment that she’s dead (she just happened to break apart inside a giant Forerunner machine that is designed to merge biotic and digital life… come on!), but so far 343 has failed to create anyone that could hope to fill the void left in her absence.

Halo 5_7

For inspiration, I would take a long hard look at an earlier installment in the franchise: Halo 2. Bungie did something that 343 badly needs to duplicate. They created meaningful faces for the different parties in the conflict. Both sides of the Covenant civil war, the council, the UNSC and even the Flood were all embodied within characters who’s motivations were either clear or mysteriously intriguing. The Arbiter in particular stands as a wonderfully well developed character. 343 could easily look to him for hints on how to explore Chief’s inner struggles with duty, loyalty, and his never-ending drive to do what’s right.

Beyond that, I think it is crucial to move the focus away from Chief himself. He can still go through his own personal evolution, but don’t try to hang the entire plot on his shoulders; there just isn’t enough substance there to support the weight of the series. Make it about the things, the people, he is fighting for. Give us characters that we want to save. Then go one step further: give us characters that inspire John to keep fighting. Characters like Foehammer, Johnson, Keys. The most powerful moment in every Halo game comes at the end when you realize you have made it through thanks to the bravery and courage of other soldiers. It is a moment sorely lacking from Halo 4, and it needs to come back in Halo 5.

Halo 5_3

That’s it for part 1. Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll look at combat and gameplay design for the campaign in Halo 5!

- CruelLEGACEY

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20 Responses to If I were making Halo 5 – Part 1 [Story]

  1. Pingback: If I were making Halo 5 – Part 3 [Multiplayer] | CruelLEGACEY Productions

  2. Pingback: A Question of Weight – Halo 4 and Community | Reactive Bias

  3. Pingback: If I was making Halo 5 – Part 2 [Campaign Design] | CruelLEGACEY Productions

  4. chip says:

    I agree with some points, disagree with others. The unanswered questions such as the new armor and thruster pack that MC clearly didn’t go into cryo-sleep with were very bothersome. Probably my biggest point of disagreement is over MC as the “star” of the series. I don’t have a problem with this at all, having been a player of the series since CE’s release; especially if, as you say, MC is basically *you.* Which brings me to another point. Can you really complain about MC becoming less human while simultaneously asserting that he is basically an empty vessel so any player can step into his role? That doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think I agree with the assertion that having him “destined” to do something somehow makes him less human. In most epics, fantasies, sci-fi stories, etc., it is made clear that there is some kind of destiny or providence at work bringing about some desired goal, and yet the conflict and struggle still seems real in the moment rather than predetermined. Examples abound: Anakin (or Luke) was prophesied to save the Jedi, Bilbo was “meant to find the Ring,” Neo is “the one” in the Matrix…you could go on and on. Can it be abused, overused, and not work all that well? Sure. But the idea that “destiny” itself creates inherent problems in fantasy / sci-fi is an oversimplification. The debate over determinism vs. libertarian free will is basic to human existence. I think the dislike of such a storyline comes from a discomfort with questions to which there are no easy answers.

    Of course, I could be way out in left field.

    • CruelLEGACEY says:

      I think you’re mixing my points into different combinations than I intended :)
      I wasn’t “complaining” that MC was developed as an empty vessel: I was simply stating it as a fact. The problem, in, my eyes, is that an empty vessel is by definition void of character, and therefore void of anything interesting.

      Yes, MC has always been “the star” of the Halo series, but it has never been ABOUT him. There is a big difference between the two.

      If 343 wants the Halo series to be ABOUT MC, they need to invest in developing his character. The novels have done this, but not the games. 343 has said that they want to explore his character, and much of Halo 4’s narrative seems to be built on the assumption that we are already invested in MC as a character, but we have no reason to be.

      • chip says:

        Fair enough. I do agree that it’s not *about* him, and he’s just a vessel. He provides a loose framework and you fill that in with your own personality and playstyle. When the vessel changed, whether in ODST or Reach, I felt just as invested in the game after getting used to the idea of not “being” Master Chief. I think the thrust of my point, which maybe didn’t come across, is that the detachment people feel from 4 is possibly more plot-based than anything else. I do think the more personal aspects of Chief’s struggle could have been forgivable / workable if the main plot was better developed and focused, I just don’t think the changes in MC were the fundamental problem. Anyway, not trying to be overly critical, it’s interesting to look at different perspectives, and hear other thoughts. It’s not easy to put your finger on.

        • CruelLEGACEY says:

          I always enjoy this kind of discussion :)

          I think you’re making a very good point. In a lot of ways, we’re saying very similar things. If the overall plot of Halo 4 had been better, then I would have enjoyed it much more. Perhaps I’m putting so much emphasis on John’s development (ie “lack of”) because that is what 343 talked about more than anything in the lead up to Halo 4.

  5. pebbles says:

    I always felt like (in H1-H3) the master chief in the books was an entirely different character than the master chief in the game. That is until the very end of Halo 3 where someone first refers to him as John in-game. That was a big moment for me and it continues to build throughout Halo 4. It’s precisely the reason I think Halo 4 had the best story out of the Halo games. Yes, it had many shortcomings, but the direction it’s heading is much more exciting to me than in the previous trilogy.
    It comes at the cost of slight confusion (or inconsistency) on the part of people who have no interest in the extended universe, but for the most part those players are not ones to take notice. This is preferable to the confusion and inconsistencies felt by fans who are invested in the extended universe. These are the fans that care the most about the story, after all.

    • CruelLEGACEY says:

      But don’t you think it would be better to create a story that wasn’t confusing for anyone? If they constructed a strong narrative that was able to stand on it’s own, then EVERYONE would care about it.

      As it is now, 343 is saying “if you want to get anything at all out of our story, you need to invest hundreds of hours into reading/watching/playing the entire expanded universe.”

      I think it is possible to tell lots of different stories, AND have them connect to each other, AND still work as great pierces of fiction independent from each other.

      • pebbles says:

        Right! That was going to be my next point before I got sidetracked by something and forgot. Of course the story would be much improved if it could stand alone and also tie neatly into the EU, but it’s something Bungie nor 343 have accomplished. 343 swings too far into the EU without explaining what’s going on while Bungie sometimes seemed to regard their EU as an obligation of making a sci-fi universe.rather than an extension of their games.
        Of course neither case is ideal. My point was simply that I was more drawn by 343s approach because it ties in more with the majority of my Halo experience.

        • pebbles says:

          I should also add that I really enjoyed reading this and I agree with most of your points. Thanks for making this post :)

    • > “It comes at the cost of slight confusion (or inconsistency) on the part of people who have no interest in the extended universe, but for the most part those players are not ones to take notice”

      That’s incredibly condescending, and furthermore, untrue on multiple counts.

  6. HaloTupolev says:

    >>”The master chief has never been the subject of Halo’s story. He is the camera. He is the lens through which the player experiences the tale of Humanity’s struggle for survival against the Covenant, the Flood, and now the Forerunners. The Master Chief was designed from the ground up to be a vessel for the player to step in to. He was intentionally void. As such, we’ve never had a direct reason to care about him, because there is no him. When I play Halo, I AM the Master Chief. He didn’t defeat the Covenant and save earth, I did.”

    I’m not sure that argument ever totally resonated with me, but my opinion isn’t far off. The Chief always struck me as a very streamlined architypical character to serve as a mover of events and a style to bounce things off of, than a really rich character. If Halo was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the Chief is something of a Blondie, but 343i wants to act like he’s Tuco. Or something.

    I’m definitely not on board with the notion that he’s a void, though. Maybe it comes across like that because he’s always placed in situations where there’s going to be resonance between player’s and player character’s goals?

    >>”So the Didact’s primary motivation is some unexplained thing that nobody besides him actually wants or cares about.”
    >>”Why does the Didact say that his attempts to reason with the Chief have failed, when no such attempt has been made?”

    Halo 4 has a tendency to drop a few lines to act like it’s going to explore/has explored interesting ideas, without ever bothering to do so in any real way. I feel that way even about a lot of the Cortana dialogue that people consider good.

    >>”We learn that the Chief is where he is because of the planning and genetic manipulation of a Forerunner. All those amazing things “I” did? Ya, that was actually just because it was all per-determined.”

    Welcome to the club.

    What annoys me more than anything about sequels/prequels/whatever is when they do things that damage the narrative of other entries in the series. It’s those points that I actually get hung up on things like retcons or weird filled-in details. It’s a big part of why I do not find backstory and such to be a good thing in and of itself.
    But I’ve been complaining about Halo doing this forever. I complained that post-Halo-1’s insistance of keeping Johnson alive from Halo 1 (which was totally unnecessary, as he’s not even really a character in Halo 1, and could thus be inserted everywhere else no problem without having been at Alpha Halo) damaged the punctuality and elegance of the “Dust and Echoes” moment at the closure of The Maw. I complained that Reach’s Forerunner nonsense on The Package was directly opposed to several aspects of Halo 1’s storytelling, from damaging the sense of discovery to flat-out pre-empting the opening cutscene of Two Betrayals. Heck, I complained that the Legendary Planet scene was very awkward to place so immediately against Halo 3’s otherwise very tight trilogy closure.

    Halo 4’s “predetermined by space magic person” bullshlapskie strikes me as annoying, though not disproportionately against similar past issues. Yet I feel like I should care more, because it arguably does a lot more narrative damage than those things. Maybe I just don’t care enough about Halo 4 to care.

    //==============================

    On a moment-to-moment level, a lot of what was in Halo 4’s storytelling was well executed and at huge production value. But it’s a very confused whole that doesn’t know what to do with its resources.

  7. Cailus says:

    For the most part, I agree. In terms of story, Halo 4 disappointed me even more than Reach…a spectacular achievement. There are little hints of what 5 could be, though. The first and final cutscenes are actually some of the very finest of any Halo game, and despite how abysmal much of the Campaign had been, the death of Cortana hit me hard, just as much so the Chief’s reaction and grief. It was wonderfully done. In the Spartan Ops, despite how utterly void it is of actual things happening, some good nuggets are there. Halsey’s arm getting blown off, her defection, the friendship and conflict between Lasky and Palmer (God bless Jennifer Hale…without her, Palmer would be utterly irredeemable).

    For all that, you’re right, the Halo 5 trailer bored me to tears. They tried to emulate the unparalleled Halo 3 announcement trailer and failed utterly. I pray that they’ll be able to recognise their mistakes and bring in some decent characters, write a story that isn’t ridiculous, have a three-dimensional villain…*sigh*. Prayer is the word, isn’t it? :(

  8. Nice analysis. I feel very bittersweet about Halo right now, like I’m saying goodbye to an old friend for a long time. I could write you a book on Halo 4’s rewriting of essential art direction, but I don’t think it would be healthy for my blood-pressure. :)

  9. RiffMasterC says:

    Nailed it. And it’s sad too. Halo 4 is the first Halo to make me feel apathy towards the franchise as well. I’m also afraid the apathy is trickling down through all the reaches of the community and in some ways that is even sadder. I remember when I couldn’t wait for things like new machinimas (such as Playtime), glitching videos, Tyrant’s guides, RC and Eli’s epic videos, or even Fails of the Week – but that was also when we had a complete theater mode – and some of the best fails involved Campaign and FIREFIGHT.
    Heck, I haven’t even finished Spartan Ops because it’s not nearly as much fun as Firefight plus I can’t even watch film of it to explore any of the environments.

  10. I think I agree with everything you said CruelLegacey.

    So, yeah. I look forward to the other parts!

  11. eremenko says:

    Interesting piece Legacy. I look forward to reading the rest.
    It’s interesting to hear that the stats reflect a disenchantment with the series. Switching to 343 from bungie was always going to have some negative implications but I do feel that all in all the switch over was very well handled.
    Your absolutely right about the over complicated nature of some of the story elements, even as a follower of the extended fiction I still struggled to keep up with what was going on here and this is disappointing as the story in past Halos has always been pretty easy to follow.

    The character issue is absolutely key, I think in many ways 343 have treated Requiem (and to a lesser extent “Infinity) as a character and tried to invest us in the setting rather than the people involved. One of my favourite moments in Halo comes in 2 when there are 3 unnamed marines (one of which is bandaged across the eyes) who express delight at seeing a Spartan arrive, with the arrival of a ship full of Spartans in H4 the idea of the one remaining legendary hero (i.e you the player) is completely lost. The Spartan IV’s are typical all American Heroes and Flawless’ mention of Captain America/Batman further illustrates the point that 343 were aiming at a Hollywood style action Hero movie rather than the epic sci fi story that Halo was and always should be.

    TL:DR? I love halo but Legacy is right H4 could’ve been better.

  12. I agree with many of your points here, almost all of them, in fact, but I can’t agree that Chief is a hollow character. He is a broken, dehumanised man, a selfless hero driven by honour and duty. He’s as characterised as Batman or Captain America, easily.

    I think the talk of showing the man beneath the mask was really just about combating the assumption some had that he’s actually a robot/android. I’m not sure anyone who’s actually played the games would think that, but it is a belief I’ve come across from people who don’t play Halo.

    The reveal that the librarian has been pulling the strings via space magic was a low point for the Halo story as a whole, that whole librarian info dump was terribly handled.

    • CruelLEGACEY says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond :)
      Regarding the Chief, I’m curious if you think your sense of him was built from playing the games, or reading the novels? My thoughts have always been that the novels have flushed him out a fair bit, but that almost none of that was expressed through the games (in Halo 3, we get to see a hint of sentimentality from him in his interactions with Cortana). Did you get more from the games?

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