Halloween is almost upon us again and the haunted houses are open to dish out thrills and terror. Blood, death, and experiments-gone-wrong all probably come to mind when thinking of dark, evil things, and for whatever twisted reason, we as humans are fascinated by it.
Halloween culture introduces us as kids to the concept of darkness at a very young age, and often builds up the false confidence that we can handle more intense experiences in the horror genre. I still remember and regret several times I attempted to watch scary movies as a kid, and ended up having nightmares for days afterwards. The Ring and the Silent Hill series spooked me to the point that I had to close my closet doors before bed. Video games had an even more profound effect, because of the immersion I felt when playing them. I’m sure we all remember that one game that made our skin crawl as kids. For me, it was my first experience with the Flood in Halo: Combat Evolved (but let’s just call it Halo 1), and they remained the white elephant in the room for some time.
I was first introduced to Halo by a friend who had been lucky enough to score a brand new Xbox console. His dad was a gamer too, so he always got to play on the latest, greatest hardware. Lucky son of a- yeah, anyways so his dad brought home Halo one day and we were instantly hooked on fighting aliens. Well, Covenant aliens. We had no idea how intense it was going to get with the Flood. I traded in my PS2 for an Xbox and had my own copy of Halo within a week. I don’t think I even saw my friend for days after, because we were both so absorbed in playing the campaign.
The Library mission, where the Flood absolutely swarmed.
It’s interesting, because the Flood came as a terrible surprise to me when I first delved into the blood-soaked labs of the 343 Guilty Spark mission and discovered that the rest of the campaign was infested by vicious, zombie-like horrors. I have to say that Bungie really nailed the persona of the Flood in Halo 1. They were disgusting, mutilated forms of aliens and humans alike, with behaviors and sounds to match. The peeled back heads of the elites, strange tentacle growths, and the horrible moans they produced were all so distinct and different from the Covenant, that they stood out as something not to be fucked with for me as a kid.
What truly made them so ominous though, was their introduction in the 343 Guilty Spark mission. The whole swamp and laboratory setting was eerie, and it was clear that something was wrong with the scattered bands of terrified Covenant roaming about. There was also broken doors, shattered glass, barricades, and alien blood everywhere. Initially I thought, no problem. Halo is a bloody game after all. I was used to alien blood at that point. The strange, green blood was new though, but despite all the gore, I hadn’t found any bodies. Then there was a babbling marine who tried to kill me. As a kid, I didn’t like where this was going, but at the same time I was decidedly curious. I had to find out what had happened. Then I unsealed the doors to a strange chamber and found an abandoned helmet lying on the floor with intact video logs on it. Did I mention that same room was soaked in human blood?
The use of PFC Jenkins’ helmet camera to introduce the Flood was a brilliant idea. It conveyed that the Flood had not only been on the loose for some time, but had also made a routine of ambushing it’s prey. As soon as the video feed ended, I realized I was in a bad place and that shit was about to get real. Without pause, the Flood started beating on the doors to get into the room I was in. The same room that was coated in human blood. This was just too much for me as a kid and I had to quit the mission. I tried it again not long after, and faired well enough against the infection forms, but once the zombie-like combat forms rolled in with their gurgling screams and flailing tentacles, I decided it was time to head out. For the next few months I stuck to Covenant-only missions though I would eventually return to finish the campaign.
Captain Keyes being absorbed by a proto-Gravemind in Halo 1.
Taking on the Flood was the first time I engaged in the horror/gore gaming experience, and if it wasn’t for my pre-investment in the campaign and love for the Halo universe, I never would have done it. I would have simply continued to play the first few missions over and over again and been content doing so. Once Halo 2 had been announced though, I knew I had to finish the campaign properly. There were plenty of “oh shit!” moments, but I eventually finished Halo 1 and conquered the Flood. I went on to face them again in Halo 2 and 3, but they never struck the same degree of fear into me as they did in the original.
Halo 1 infected human, total nightmare.
Halo 2 infected human, somewhat scary.
The 2011 remaster of Halo 1 confirmed this when I revisited the 343 Guilty Spark mission as an adult and felt similar feelings of dread all over again. In retrospect, I still believe the Flood were at their best in Halo 1, not just because they were new, but because of the thought put into their presentation. They were more mysterious, cunning, aggressive, tougher, and frankly just appeared in large enough numbers to overwhelm the senses. Their art design was more gruesome too, which enhanced their get-in-your-face behavior and combat mechanics, because players were constantly exposed to all of the details of their grotesque appearances.
In subsequent Halo games, the flood were treated more as standard enemies rather than anomalies and suffered from passive behaviors, less gruesome models, an overly neutral color design, and a lack of suspenseful build-up to their debut. The general terror that characterized them in Halo 1 was exchanged for a sense of general revulsion in Halo 2, where they were labeled as more of a pestilence, rather than something to be truly feared. Had the elites and the Arbiter feared them more like the humans did, their introduction in the laboratories of the heretic facility would have been far more impactful.
Halo 3 style Flood.
It’s interesting, because I actually felt let down by the Flood in the rest of the Halo trilogy and eventually turned to the lore to get a better understanding of how horrible the Flood truly were. That’s right, the guy who doesn’t like horror felt short-changed and wanted more grizzly content about the Flood. I found a few good stories, such as the Mona Lisa animated film about a Flood outbreak on a prison-ship, the Halo: Forerunner Saga novels, and the novelization of Halo 1, simply called The Flood. My interest in the Flood has been one of the few exceptions for me when it comes to horror, and I can only attribute my genuine interest to good, suspenseful storytelling.
We never did learn much about the philosophy of the Flood in Halo 1, but I think that was intentional and the right choice. The first game kept the focus on overwhelming the audience with fear and awe of the Flood’s biological capabilities while hinting that there was more depth to them. Unfortunately, the Flood as a faction seemed over-explored in Halo 2. Bungie got too caught up in world-building to focus on what was important: the action. This is hard for me to say as a horror wuss, but I think it was a mistake for Bungie to reduce the emphasis of gore, brutality, and shock value exhibited by the Flood in Halo 2 and 3, because without enough horror elements, it just made them violent and gross looking in most scenarios, rather than something to be truly feared.
Halo 2 also introduced the Gravemind, which was a pseudo-leader of the Flood and is best described as a sentient amalgamation of the flesh and minds of its victims. The Gravemind was revealed halfway through Halo 2 when it captured and attempted to mislead Master Chief and the Arbiter into doing it’s bidding. While the plot choice was interesting, I seemed silly to hear the alien consciousness speak to them at all and ridiculously naive of them to trust anything that the leader of the Flood had to say. My takeaway from this scene is that Bungie wanted to portray it as a master-of-puppets and give it some screen time. I’m not convinced this was a good narrative choice though for introducing the Gravemind as a character. It could have been presented more as a mysterious driver behind the Flood’s exponentially increasing capabilities and tactics. Something that had to be discovered by the player. I’m suggesting something like a mission in which the Master Chief or the Arbiter had to venture into the Gravemind’s lair or find evidence of its existence. The undertaking would have been very unnerving for someone like me, and the revelation of a new entity controlling the Flood could have served as a better and more horrific cliffhanger for the second part of the trilogy if done right. A late revelation about the Gravemind would have also retained a shroud of mystery about the Flood and raised the stakes substantially for Halo 3 as we wondered more about the creature’s potential after a climactic reveal.
Halo 2 Anniversary Gravemind rendition.
Horror is a design decision that I think can fall flat in little time without a good story behind it, but it can be a strong element to utilize when constructing a narrative, because it can bolster the emotional investment of the audience in between key plot points like we saw in Halo 1. Horror often stems from the unknown though, so the element of mystery must be maintained in order to prevent scary elements from losing their emotional impact. A trickle feed of details can keep horror interesting, but as was demonstrated in Halo 2, the horror element can fall flat once there is nothing new to be scared by. As an honorable mention, something called the Flood Juggernaut was cut from the final release of Halo 2, but discovered by modders in the asset files. It stood nearly two stories tall and featured massive whip-like tentacles that gave it a long range as a melee fighter. It would have been perfect for an additional boss fight and demonstrated the ever-evolving capabilities of the Flood for repurposing biomass. Halo 3 did include new Flood forms though, such as the “pure” forms that could transform into three distinct forms with unique combat/movement abilities. The pure forms were interesting enemies, but they never really gave me the shivers like the infected combat forms, because they just appeared randomly in missions and lacked any type of memorable introduction.
While Halo 2 and 3 were epic games that did try to evolve the abilities of the Flood, I just can’t say the campaigns were anywhere as horrific as Halo 1 and that’s a shame for a series that did it so well while catering to a mainstream audience in its first installment.
Well I really wanted to title this blog “Halo Darkness: A Flood of Emotions,” but I decided to stick with the Cblog prompt. Just let the record state that I am a pun boss.