Halo’s Mystery Is Quickly Becoming An Endangered Species
Gregorian chanting. Immense superstructures drifting in the void of space. An emerald warrior and his azure pretty-naked super-computer companion battling not only a vast alien hegemony determined to wipe out humanity, but also fighting the good fight against an unsightly ancient, all-consuming galactic parasite with many faces, none of which any mother could even consider loving.
This is Halo. Or at least, a very small part of it.
Quick tutorial for those who have no idea what the above lines mean: The Halo Series is a First Person Shooter Video Game Franchise that follows the Master Chief, a genetically and cybernetically-augmented super soldier whose sole purpose in life is to fight and win every battle he can against the theocratic, xenophobic alien hegemony known as the Covenant Empire, or simply the Covenant. Following a Covenant ambush in the beginning of the first game, Chief crash-lands on an alien superstructure known as Halo, a beautiful but deadly weapon capable of unprecedented destruction on a galactic scale. A weapon that not only predates both the Covenant and Human civilizations, but a weapon that both will seek to control, even if it ensures their own destruction.
Whew. So, that’s the gist of it.
Halo So Far
For over a decade, the Halo Franchise has been wowing audiences with its fluid gameplay, solid design, and deep—talking Marianas Trench deep—lore, most of which remains a mystery. Or, at least, it did, up until the release of Halo 4. Things started to change after Halo 4. More and more of the complex story behind Halo was revealed. Characters, locations, events of the universe’s past, and more poured out like water from a busted Dutch Dam. For years, it seemed Bungie Studios had been the little Dutch Boy keeping his finger in the hole of the Dam. They parceled out bits of story through tie-in novels, comics, and, nominally, the games themselves. Their successor, 343 Industries changed that, however. They took the finger away from the Dam, and now there’s water everywhere.
So is that a bad thing?
Arguably, yes. One of Halo’s biggest draws was the mystery behind the series. How did the Halos—massive mega-weapons capable of eliminating all life in the galaxy—come into existence, really? Where did the Forerunners—the builders of both the Halos and their own demise—come from? No matter who played Halo, it’s obvious that everyone must have been curious about something. Whether one slogged through pools of alien guts in the Campaign or duked it out and slogged through their friends’ guts in the multiplayer, one couldn’t help but stop for a moment, just a moment, look around, and wonder.
That right there is a core component of game’s fun. Bouncing around in power armor as one explores lush environments, not only in terms of aesthetic, but in terms of history and story. Each locale is inspiring, sometimes even moving. An entire art form was raised partially by Halo–Machinima, the art of telling a story through a video game, spawning not only one of the longest-running web series of all time–Red Vs. Blue–but also lighting the spark for numerous other fans to create mountains of content, all of which took the simplistic setting of Halo and modified it by infusing their own creativity, their own stories, their own worlds, into this simple game. The fan-base was often united through these acts, and the movement to create more and more grew exponentially, arguably hitting its peak with Halo 3, where many fans will agree the community produced some of the best Halo-generated content in series’ history.
Those days, however, may be over. The past two Halo games—both manned by 343 Industries—have gone far deeper into the backstory of the lore than any Halo game before them. Granted, there are still tie-in novels and comic books and the like, but never before has the series dumped this much lore on the vessel for its casual fan-base. And while fanatics may revel in this downpour of Halo-centric fiction, one has to take note that the majority of fans may not be experiencing the same onanistic vibes.
A big draw of the series was that the games were relatively simplistic. Yes, the lore was/is rich and complex, yes knowing said lore could bolster one’s experience, but not everyone is that invested in the series to care on a repeat basis. Some simply want to pick up, play for an hour or so, and then move on. This task is rendered much more difficult in the past two Halo games, as the story requires more attention, more focus, and more knowledge in general of the prior games’ lore. Of course, it isn’t a bad thing to include more story in one’s games, but when that story begins to dilute and hinder the purpose of the games–to have pure and simple fun–a reexamination of one’s methods may be in order.
And that’s the issue with newer Halo titles—namely Halo 4 and Halo 5. The inclusion of such a vast amount of lore–on top of burdening the fun–makes the game difficult to enjoy without feeling as though one is missing out. Including characters and locales from tie-in novels is an interesting concept in theory, and it’s a great way to attempt a much larger scope of story across multiple platforms while also providing a unique experience for the fan-base; but that’s assuming that a large portion of the fan-base will actually go out of their way to actively seek items of story that cost money other than the actual game. This oversight has lead to a falling-out between casual fans and Halo, and it’s fairly self-explanatory as to why. It’s easy to get lost within the jungle of the Halo Mythos, and many players purely don’t have the time, energy, capital, or patience to hack their way through such a dense underbrush of story.
Unfortunately, this contagion of over-abundance in games doesn’t seem to be contained solely to Microsoft’s Flagship Franchise. Yet another mega-franchise is at fault for spoon-feeding its audience–Pokemon. With the advent of the 3D modeling for characters in Pokemon Black and White, the series officially eschewed its trademark sprite-figures and hopped feet-first into an all-3D world. Which is fantastic–many players had only dreamed of being able to see their Pokemon in the games as not just 2D sprites, but fully-realized 3D figures. One has to wonder, however, is that the best for the series? Part of the fun of the older Pokemon games was filling in the gaps, plugging in what one thought their Pokemon’s attacks would look like, using one’s imagination to make the diorama-esque towns and villages of the Pokemon World come to life. Now that’s been partially taken away, and while it may not be spoon-feeding lore to an audience, per se, it still has the same effect. It removes the mystery surrounding the world the player inhabits, which only serves to alienate the player as he or she feels less invested in a world that is less their own.
There’s Still Hope
This article is not at all written to slight 343 Industries. For all intents and purposes, the company is still new. They’re a former branch of Bungie that is still learning how to wield the power they’ve been gifted, and that takes time. Alongside that, they’ve been able to produce quite a lot of enjoyable content for hardcore fans alongside the Halo games, such as the episodic series Forward Unto Dawn and an anthology of anime-style shorts Halo Legends. Both of these were rich, engaging visual experiences that not only played within the universe of Halo, but developed it, fleshed it out, made it just a bit more capturing and fantastic. Therefore and because of this, it is certainly within 343’s potential to make a truly great game. But with the constant infusion of gallons of lore into each title, the company may not only be drowning its players in an endless and unnavigable sea, it may be losing sight of the shore, soon never to return.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’ve played all of those apart from Halo 4. I love the epic scale and the many nods to classic sci-fi, the score, the design ethic. Its a testament to Halo that Destiny just feels like Halo with a superficial Fantasy skin.
Halo reach still has the best ending of any game I’ve ever played.
Probably best you missed 4.
Yup, have to agree.
I disagree, Halo 4’s campaign was brilliant, but I felt it delivered emotionally too. Multiplayer though (which I myself don’t care about anyway) was supposed to have been a bit disappointing.
Great article. I very much dislike other posts I’ve read about Halo these days when there’s not a whit of even mild criticism about the Halo series.
Honestly, I love the books and the Halo Universe. I got into the Halo franchise from the first game and since, i’ve bought every game bar Halo 2.
I think that the inclusion of the backstory of Halo in the latest Halo series is needed. I as a Halo fan, have been following the numerous plotpoints and iconic characters and aspects of the series from the novels through to the (in my opinion, exceptionally well maintained) Halo wikia. While I understand and can partially agree to the perspective that having backstory may deter fans – new and old – I think that by acknowledging their presence and by including backstories, they are making it official for the fans themselves and for letting them imagine further what needs to be known and what can be considered as cannon and non-canon.
It isn’t just Halo in fact which has been reinventing itself. The Mortal Kombat series has also reworked its back story and its overall presentation to suit the needs of new and old fans. Again, in my opinion, it can be seen as an ongoing process in which the franchise is rewarding its fans but having a double edged sword to deal with – too many perspectives which were better off left to the fans to acknowledge and connect themselves, or simply providing all the plot points the fans need to know so that they can then expand in a much more imaginative and dynamic way (given the constraints).
I am a fan of Halo but I need to be brutally honest…
If I really think about it, the Halo games are pretty average as far as the genre goes. I view it like Star Wars really, I adore both because I’ve been following the story for so long and there is nostalgia and all sorts of other things involved now. They are almost sacred to me.
Combat Evolved got me back into gaming after probably five years out and Reach was just superb.
My goodness Halo is overrated. A good but not great set of shooters, with a bland and entirely forgettable storyline and characters, that happened to be in the right place at the right-time to kick-start Microsoft’s console business. The big difference with Goldeneye is that Nintendo aren’t still desperately trying to reanimate its corpse many years later. It’s about time that gamers stopped accepting the mindless sequel-after-sequel paradigm that is considered so artistically bankrupt in cinema.
I say that Halo was quite a mediocre game and that the best FPS of the early 2000’s was Timesplitters 2 with an honorable mention for the early WW2 Medal of Honour Games.
Medal of Honour and Timesplitters definitely deserve a shout out but surely the best shooter of the early 2000s (if not the best game of all time) is Half Life 2?!
First Halo was great in coop.
I gave up on the series after Reach. Halo 4 is a decent enough shooter, but it’s not really Halo. That tightness in every engagement, that fine balance between gun, grenade and melee just isn’t there anymore.
Halo blew minds when it first came out. The sequels couldn’t replicate the wow factor.
Gaming nowadays depresses me as I know i’ll never get the same buzz as when Halo 3 came out. The mix of people in school who had it, from the gaming-obsessed, to the football-obsessed. Without fail, from the end of school till midnight, you’d be filling Xbox live parties. It even got better with some of the maps that were created on forge.
Also, playing Combat Evolved co-op will never get boring.
Halo 4 was terrible; retconned and botched by 343 Studios who couldn’t give it the same wow factor that Bungie always managed to produce.
Halo’s would-be weighty themes always seemed a little at odds with the corniness so evident in it at times – typical examples for me being the silly helium voiced little Grunts, or 343 Guilty Spark: he’s the curator of an awesome space megastructure (the Halo ringworld) but sounds like C-3PO.
Easy to forget how revolutionary Halo 1 was. The AI in that game was so far ahead of any other FPS it was ridiculous. It still pisses on most modern FPS, tbh.
Great work on this article. Having never played a game in this series, I had no idea Halo had that much lore.
I adored the original Halo, it was an incredible experience and one of the best games I’ve ever played. The first time you had a go at the beach landing in co-op mode was staggering, for me at least.
A real shame that Microsoft have given their somewhat lacklustre version of Siri, Cortana’s name. The fact that it has to rely on Bing to provide answers makes you picture Masterchief in trouble and barking for help and Cortana coming up with entirely useless responses.
“Cortana, send aerial cover”
“Ok…aerial installations in London…”
“NO! That’s not what I…”
[Sound of explosions]
And so on.
I somewhat agree with the premise, but I disagree with your Pokémon point. I actually love the 3d addition. Some games don’t need it, but Pokémon was not one of them. The more real the world seems, the realer the wish of every Pokémon gamer seems: That Pokémon were real. As to Halo, I haven’t played beyond 3 so I wouldn’t know, but I have heard that some mistakes were made in the eyes of the fans. I dunno how it goes from here.
Halo is highly rated mainly because of what it did as a first-person shooter. People came for the pew pew, and stayed for the mysterious sci-fi universe. And in a sense, the lore is only mysterious because Bungie didn’t have a whole lot of time to dedicate to Halo’s narrative. It wasn’t until, really, Halo 4, that the universe started to feel very large. They did this especially well in the divisive Halo 5.
Great Article! I’ve always felt that they didn’t need to make anymore halo games after reach, they really wasn’t anymore story to tell that would be interesting and just are milking what’s left of the lore to extend the franchise.
I felt the quality of the story kind of dipped after Reach. You make a decent point about the balance between story and the pickup and play nature of what Halo is all about. Perhaps leaving the lore to tie in books and other media would be a better way to go?
You do a good job of making points I kinda had in the back of my head. Halo 3 was the perfect amount of mystery between the hidden terminals and the religious nature of the Covenant and the other space drama apocalypse stuff.
I think you bring up some very good points. But whenever I think about Halo I like to look at it through the eyes of my father. We’ve played every game’s campaign multiple times together and there was one thing that happened more during playthroughs of Halo 1,2 and 3 than the rest. And that was my dad asking questions. Why are those ships there? Who created the Covenant? How did this happen etc. And most the time I would respond with “I don’t know”. I was a dabbler in the halo extended universe and even then I often could not retrieve answers to many of his questions.
I’ve enjoyed the campaigns of reach and onwards more because Bungie and 343 started providing information on previously unanswered questions. I took it as a good sign that during reach, 4 and 5 my father was still asking questions but he was asking less. I think the dutch boy did remove his finger from the dam but the dam did not burst completely. It’s enough water to quench my thirst and keep me around for more.
It’s hard to balance the right amount of lore to reveal to the audience before they stop caring about the lore as a whole. I think you’re right, that 343 has given enough background about the Halo universe to end some of the more nagging questions about the universe that they live in.
It seems that 343 has decided to focus more on the conflicts of individuals rather than the over arching mythos of the universe. By answering some of the questions about the lore they are free to tackle new stories about their characters.
Like the first Halo evolved the first person shooter, the genre is evolving again with series like Call of Duty leading the genre’s charge. Players can get their simple fix with that title. In the meantime, 343 is taking its other direction because they sense their fanbase is shifting. A lot of gamers grew up with Halo, and fighting on just another Halo just won’t cut it anymore; but the lore, and its compelling locales and characters, might.
Halo beyond the original trilogy (excluding reach), suffer from a direction issue. While the driving plot line for the first trilogy was the Human – Covenant war, what is the real impetus behind the next? Halo Combat Evolved made a such a splash into the gaming scene that everyone became invested in the idea of its driving narratives, the war and the Halo installations.
The new series is missing the massive investment in a new story (does anyone remember the differing enemies in Halo 4 like they do the classic variety?).
I agree the lore is getting convoluted, extremely so in fact. It answers questions that many of us had before the series reached this point, and you make the question that I agree with; did we really want the answers?
The article makes the claim that the lore-dump that was initiated by 343 Industries has caused, or at least contributed to, a falling-out with causal fans. This is undoubtedly true, at least to some significant extent. However, what is also true is that it has been a cause of falling out with veteran fans as well, at least in the case of this veteran fan of the series.
There is something (indeed, quite a lot) to be said for leaving some histories untold, some mysteries unsolved. The Unknown, as was so excellently understood by Lovecraft, for example, is far more fascinating than the Known. A story of fiction, at least in my eyes, loses much of its appeal when it attempts to describe, characterize and explain too much of its own essence.
By the end of Halo 3 (although I played Reach, it is prequel) I knew precious (and I do mean precious) little about the fantastical rings of death strewn across the galaxy. By the end of Halo 4, which was the last entry in the franchise I (forced myself to) have played through, I knew far too much.
Really interesting point. I was taken in by the title alone. When I was playing Halo 5, I couldn’t help but feel like their was something off. Even though they were loading me up with lore, I felt like I was getting LESS. I felt this because the lore was often used rather than introduced. For example: bringing a character from the books into the scene without telling me the who or why.
I read your article and thought it was brilliant.
I love the Halo’s never really bothered with the books or comics did watch the TV shows however and loved Halo 5 although it was a little disappointing that there was no coop play.