And other reflections on the relationship of Chief and Cortana
I haven’t been a fan of Halo for years. By the time we were asked to “finish the fight,” I had grown sick of the monotony. Reach barely managed to hold my interest past the first half-hour. Everywhere I looked, I saw companies taking the same core theme -- a big, buff space marine with power armor -- and innovating.
Mass Effect tried to take the trope and combine it with an inspired, classical science-fiction aesthetic; the Half-Life series pushed the boundaries of linear narrative in first-person shooters. Gears of War, a series that caters more to the stereotypical shooter fans with its ridiculous level of violence and glorification of warfare, implemented mechanics like active reloading to enhance the core gameplay experience and keep players engaged. Halo had fallen so far behind every other IP around that I couldn’t even begin to imagine ever coming back.
That seems so long ago now.
After finishing Halo 4, I must admit -- I was very impressed. The art direction is beyond stunning, the characters are stronger and better written, and the tone has shifted from that of glorified destruction to something more poignant and personal. While still far from perfect, its improvements are substantive enough to give me hope for the next installment. As such, I've come up with four things that I think 343 might want to try for Halo 5.
HUGE SPOILER WARNING, PROCEED WITH CAUTION
1. Keep asking relevant questions
For over a decade, we’ve guided Master Chief through untold legions of enemies. Throughout all of that, he’s barely shown anything resembling an emotional response. Halo 4’s opening offers some brief insight into the apparent sociopathy of our iconic hero.
Halsey, architect of the Spartan super soldier program which spawned the Chief, is seen discussing the near total lack of humanity in her subjects. The audience learns that the UNSC seeks to expand the program, creating more “soulless” Spartans.
This scene begs a very interesting question: will genetic engineering, the modification of ourselves, inexorably lead to a loss of our own humanity? It is by no means a novel concept, but within the context of the Halo series, it gives players additional background for the character of Master Chief. It also allows the audience to question whether or not the actions of Halsey are justified, whether there are circumstances under which the horrendously violent ends justify the means.
When faced with the potential eradication of every person ever, I can’t say what I would do. It’s a tough question, and while it might feed into the right-wing pro-military narrative, it isn’t necessarily without value, especially if the rest of the story directs the audience to question its own moral stance on the issue.
2. Darker, more psychological story
After seeing the trailer for Halo 4 and witnessing some of Cortana’s “episodes,” I began expecting a psychologically driven science-fiction narrative reminiscent of 1960s- and '70s-era film. Admittedly, that might be a bit of a leap on my part, but I thought it would be an incredible new direction for the series.
Unfortunately, her mental breakdown was somewhat exaggerated in the trailer. I never got the sense of extreme isolation or the genuine fear that I had hoped would be the core of the new game. Instead, we are only ever given a few outbursts and some forced, if heartfelt dialogue about the consequences of her gradual breakdown.
At the end of the campaign, Cortana inadvertently sacrifices herself to help Master Chief survive. In so doing, any hopes of seeing the psychological horror story which I gleefully anticipated were dashed.
As I began reflecting upon the epilogue, I started wondering if Cortana’s death might begin to weigh on Master Chief. After all that has happened -- after all the destruction and death the Chief has caused -- it would be fascinating for the future of the series if, for once, he didn’t emerge from a challenge totally unaffected.
3. Narrative balance
Critics have often accused Halo and pals of promoting the military industrial complex, of fomenting subconscious support for the expansion of the United States’ already robust military program. I’m not here to debate the legitimacy of that claim, but I do think that many modern shooters have neglected to accurately portray the horrors of violence.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was an incredible departure from this trend. Many players will never forget the haunting post-nuke scene about halfway through the game. In it, the player is suddenly given control of a dying soldier and presumed protagonist, as he (i.e. the player) crawls around a burning, irradiated city.
This scene is not only emotionally affecting, but it also gives context to the rest of the piece. The post-nuke chapter of the narrative frames the actions of all of the other characters in relation to the restoration of the geopolitical landscape.
Halo 4 takes a few steps towards a proper theme, but stops short of delivering on its own promises. Unlike its predecessors, 343 attempts to capitalize on its established characters instead of forcing a melodramatic story about the defense of humanity. Master Chief’s primary goal -- at least for most of the game -- is restoration of Cortana, his partner.
Their experiences together follow a theme of mutual trust and cooperation. For those who have played the previous games, the connection between Master Chief and Cortana is already understood, through both the mechanics and the narrative of each title. As such, when the player learns that she is danger, the writers are drawing upon an established relationship. This gives the conflict genuine weight for the player.
Regrettably, around two thirds of the way through, the focus shifts from helping Cortana after all of the assistance she’s provided, to stopping a nigh omnipotent being from attacking Earth. The theme returns to incessant, high-stakes action, moving away from the more affecting story of Master Chief helping his partner.
For Halo 5, I’d love to see a strong, character-driven story. I, as the Chief, have already saved humanity more times than I’d care to count, and that kind of grandiose adventure has lost its impact.
4. An emotionally vulnerable Chief
As I mentioned earlier, Halo 4 has started asking bigger questions.
“Is it moral to create people just for the sake of warfare?”
“What does it mean to be human?”
These questions, while important and valuable are, at times, incongruous with the gameplay itself.
If we, the audience, begin reflecting upon the content, upon the narrative, and conclude that the actions the developers want us to take are not in line with our choices, we have no recourse. Halo’s gameplay in its current state can only be one thing -- reckless and violent.
The argument could be made that up until this point -- Master Chief has never had any reason to question who he is, or why he acts in the manner that he does. Going forward, however, we know that simply isn’t the case. In the epilogue, Thomas Lasky directly asks Master Chief how he is handling the whole situation.
If he remains unaffected, if he doesn’t change over time, then he either remains an inhuman, violent monster, or 343 will be passing up an excellent opportunity to use the universe they’ve inherited to accomplish something truly memorable.
Ultimately, I’m glad to admit that I was wrong about the series. Halo 4 doesn’t fulfill every expectation, but if 343 uses it as a starting point, and continues to ask tough questions of its audience, I don’t doubt that the series will take several bold steps into truly subversive territory.