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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!