Halo Universe: Story Summary

What you need to know for Halo 4 and the Reclaimer Trilogy

Halo 4

The science fiction phenomenon of Halo is the Star Wars of video games with a galaxy just as vast and complex and has a growing history that expands the franchise’s audience each day.  Like Star Wars, Halo fiction is spreading into other media including prose novels, graphic novels, anime, and live-action.  Rich with plot, symbolism and new worlds, the story of Halo is best appreciated when the backstory and meaning are known.  To better enjoy the blockbuster hit of Halo 4, here is everything you need to know so far:

The Forerunners

Long ago in our galaxy, there lived an advanced alien race called the “Forerunners.”  In their wisdom, they called themselves Forerunners because they rightly saw themselves as precursors of things to come and that someday they would be outlived and replaced.  When seen in Halo fiction, their faces and bodies are hidden in armor suits which protect them and allow them to live well beyond their normal lifespan.  All Forerunners with armor are guided by artificial intelligences called “Ancilla.”  They saw it as their “Mantle” to preserve life in the galaxy and be the guardians of that balance.  However, they found themselves threatened by the expansion of the human race.  Forerunners, especially the supreme commander of their military, the Didact, saw humans as a violent race in contrast to their own peace-loving ways.  With centuries of development ahead of the humans, the Forerunners defeated humanity and de-evolved them to their primitive state on their native planet.  Despite this, Forerunners saw humans as their successors and those who would reclaim this world.  To reflect this view, Forerunner technology is operable by humans as well as Forerunners while it rejects other species.  The two species resembled each other so closely that Forerunners believed humans to be evolutionary cousins.  Opposed to this idea was the Didact, who believed that the Forerunners should wipe out the violent race.  Humanity would re-evolve to eventually live in huts and primitive Homo sapien societies.

What the Forerunners did not know is that humans were not, in fact, being aggressively expansive, but were fleeing a parasite known as “the Flood.”  The parasite feasted on all sentient life in its path.  As non-sentient creatures themselves, they were disorganized and merely wild pests.  In response, the Forerunners built a last resort weapon as a precaution known as the Halo Array composed of 12 world-sized rings.  When activated, these rings would wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy, and the Flood would starve to death.  At first, the Forerunners treated the parasite more like a disease outbreak than a war like the humans had.  After their policy of disarmament, they found themselves vulnerable and did not act properly until it was too late.  The Flood had gained the intelligence of whatever life it consumed and bodies it reanimated, organized by a collective “Gravemind” to coordinate the parasite’s efforts.  The Flood overwhelmed the Forerunners to a point where using the Halo rings was their only option.

Before the activation of the rings, Forerunners build artificial “Shield Worlds” to protect themselves from the pulse of the Halo array.  However, the A.I. created by the Didact known as 05-032 Mendicant Bias defected to the Flood.  The Gravemind convinced Mendicant Bias that the Forerunner’s “Mantle” had prevented the world from evolving to the next stage of evolution –the Flood– and trapped the world in stasis.  Mendicant Bias went rampant and led to the destruction of 5 of the 12 Halo rings and betrayed the locations of Shield Worlds to the flood, preventing the Forerunners from using them.

A Forerunner known as the Librarian led the Library Project to catalogue all species in the galaxy and transport samples to “the Ark,” so that the seeds of life could be replanted by A.I.s once the Halo Array was fired.  Married to the Didact, the two clashed on the morality of the Array.  The Librarian sent herself to Earth to die as the Halo rings were fired, leaving behind many Forerunner artifacts in Africa.  Life re-began as planned.

Analysis:  The Forerunners’ philosophies had the correct intention; however their policy of disarmament and reluctance to go to war resulted in their downfall.  The theme here criticizes disarmament and sees war as necessary, and those who fail to act will meet their downfall.  Their enemy, the Flood, behaves with a collective mind and resembles a communist society that casts away all individuality and sacrifices the many for the collective one.  It, like communism, expands until it has consumed all.  The names “Ark” and “Flood” are derived from the Old Testament story of Noah and earlier similar stories where the Great Flood wiped out the sinners of the world.  In Halo 2, the Gravemind calls himself “a monument to all your sins,” suggesting that the Forerunners, and later the humans/Covenant aliens to whom he was speaking, brought this devastation upon themselves.

The moral ambiguity of “the Mantle” and its interpretation ironically lead to the destruction of life in order to save it.  It is reflective of how people today try to go about the same admirable goal as preserving life in various ways.  Mendicant Bias’ betrayal is a lesson both not to trust entirely in machines and how the machine-like mind can come up with conclusions that damn its very intention similar to the plot of “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov (1950) and the interpretation of the 3 laws of robotics.

The Insurrection and the Covenant Wars

100,000 years later, humanity has re-evolved into space explorers who have colonized foreign planets to such a degree that few humans have been to or know someone from Earth.  While some colonies thrive, some struggle to get by.  Some of the thriving colonies rebel against the central government for independence, while the government taxes them for the good of humanity and believes that humans are in this together as a race.  The military organization called the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) began a super-soldier project called the SPARTAN program.  In later versions of the SPARTAN program, the UNSC kidnapped children, who were more receptive of military teachings and grooming to become the soldiers that the military needed to fight the Insurrection.  One of these children, John, later known as Spartan-117 ranked Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (the highest enlisted rank of the UNSC Navy), is the character gamers play as in the original Halo Trilogy.

While the battle against the Insurrectionists waged on, a theocratic alien alliance known as “the Covenant” began a genocidal campaign against the humans in the year 2525, declaring them an affront to their gods.  In attacking humanity’s last major stronghold beyond Earth, Planet Reach, the Covenant destroyed the vast majority of Spartans.  In the video game Halo: Reach, the player is a Spartan apart of team Noble, whose objective becomes to evacuate a unique A.I. named “Cortana” who holds information about the Halo rings. Covenant aliens had discovered remaining Forerunner artifacts and used the ancient technology to increase their military might above that of humanity.  The Covenant believed that the Forerunners were gods that had achieved transcendence by activating the Halo rings and attempt to activate them in order to achieve their own “Great Journey” of transcendence.  They call the Forerunner A.I.s “oracles,” though their main objective is to control the outbreak of Flood.

In the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, Master Chief John-117 is paired with the A.I. Cortana and destroys Halo Installation 04, but not before the Covenant accidentally releases a Flood specimen and the parasite is set loose to envelope the world once again.  In the sequel, Halo 2, the Covenant attempts to dig up the Forerunner artifacts in Africa left behind by the Librarian and they find another Halo ring.  Master Chief tracks them down, killing one of their prophets in the process, though he is cast into the ocean.  Meanwhile, the alien who had failed to thwart Master Chief from destroying the first Halo ring (whose race is called “Elite”) is condemned to death by the Covenant high council, accused of heresy.  The prophets, the true rulers behind the cloak, instead make him “Arbiter” –the will of the prophets.  Like every Arbiter before him, he is to make their will be done constantly in battle until he is dead.  They send him to fight heretics who have learned the truth about the Halo rings and the Great Journey.  After the new Arbiter assassinates the heretics, he is betrayed by the alien race known as “Brutes” by order of the prophets.  Both he and Master Chief are rescued by the new Flood Gravemind, who sends them to stop the ring from being activated.

The Covenant is added by the A.I. 05-032 Mendicant Bias, who leads them to the Ark facility –from which they could fire all Halo rings at once.  In hitching a ride on the Covenant ship, Master Chief is forced to leave behind Cortana on the ring with the Gravemind who attempts to corrupt her in the same way his predecessor corrupted Mendicant Bias.  In Halo 3, Elites have learned the truth thanks to the Arbiter and fight alongside humans.  Master Chief followed the Covenant to the Ark where he re-encounters the A.I. “oracle” Monitor of Installation 04.  He rescues Cortana from the Gravemind, who was beginning to drive her insane.  In one final act of war, John-117 destroys the Covenant leadership, the Ark facility, Monitor of Installation 04, and the Gravemind with the help of the Arbiter.  He and the Arbiter escape the Ark’s explosion aboard the space-vessel UNSC Forward Unto Dawn which splits in half.  The Arbiter makes it back to Earth, but Master Chief and Cortana float aimlessly in space.  As Master Chief puts himself into suspended animation sleep, he tells Cortana “Wake me when you need me.”  Then Cortana has nothing to do for 4 years but think until the plot of Halo 4 begins.

Analysis:  While the Forerunners acted noble and were unprepared for war, the humans kidnapped children for a higher purpose, and those soldiers originally intended for war with other humans saved humanity from eradication against the Covenant.  The question of whether what saved humanity was justifiable is palpable with no prompting.  The Insurrection mirrors America’s revolution against the British Empire with the difference being in the details and purpose.  It shows how details like purposes of taxes and common good can completely change what is otherwise a black-and-white decision.

The Covenant’s misguided war against humanity mirrors the “Final Solution” that Hitler and the Nazis waged in World War II.  Master Chief is a man of few words, and he shows sparse amounts of emotion that never gets in the way of his directives. His background as an augmented soldier makes him the perfect allegory as a weapon of war mostly stripped of his humanity.  Yet he is as necessary as he is unbeatable in a shootout.  In essence, John-117 shows the importance of a mechanistic society over theocracy.  It also shows with the Arbiter that people can be victims of circumstantial ignorance.

Halo 4

Halo 4 marks the beginning of what 343 Industries is calling the Reclaimer Saga, a trilogy of Halo games 4-6.  The name references what the Forerunners always considered humans to be.  Cortana is beginning to become rampant with thought, driving herself insane as A.I.s tend to do after 7 years.  She wakes John-117 when the ship is being boarded by Covenant aliens and is approaching a Forerunner Shield World.  These Covenant troops, however, may not be soldiers at all as they do not wear the proper gear or perhaps are the fragmented fanatics of the Covenant who still believe that the Forerunners were gods.  It is important to note that Elites are a part of this force while Brutes are not.  UNSC Forward Unto Dawn is also discovered shortly thereafter by UNSC Infinity led by Captain Thomas Lasky, who Master Chief once rescued at Corbulo Academy when the Covenant first invaded.  Both the Covenant and the UNSC Infinity were led to the Shield World by a set of coordinates from other Halo Installations.  There, they all encounter a preserved ancient enemy that the Forerunners left behind.

This story focuses greatly on John-117 as a character through the use of Cortana.  As someone who is practically a machine, one of John’s few connections to the world is Cortana.  He does all in his power to save her from becoming rampant, being her rock and making decisions on her behalf and for the first time disobeying orders.  Cortana’s story explores what being a machine and what being human are and debates which of the two she and 117 are.

John-117 is also the closest thing to a Forerunner as there is with his armor, his A.I. companion and status.  Going back to morally ambiguous questions about Spartans and war, the Reclaimer Trilogy expands the complexity of the human condition and its opposite.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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J. Bryan Jones is a prospective writer-editor in both prose and graphic novel media. He created "Leather Wing Media" and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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  1. Cassandra

    I was not going to pickup Halo but after reading a loads of 10 star reviews about it, I might change my mind. I read a review very recently on IGN and the writer was all over the game (I am however ever so slightly skeptical about their reviews given the recent rumors). Thanks for the summery!

  2. The release of this game will result with one thing: me seeing less of my boyfriend. Last time it was a disaster! 🙂

    • TheGolar

      I call Halo the “Girlfriend Replacement Kit”. My girlfriend was ecstatic when she found out my pre-ordered copy went missing in the post

  3. Debjyoti (DJ)

    Halo has always remain as the pioneer among other prominent Xbox games; your article is an eye opener for those alien to this franchise. Great article!!

  4. Debjyoti (DJ)

    Halo will always remain as the pioneer among other prominent Xbox games; your article is an eye opener for those alien to this franchise. Great article!!

  5. this is awesome

  6. Excited for Halo 5. The online suffered in Halo 4, but the story was so much better. If 343 can replicate the campaign in 4 and lean the online aspect towards the classic Halo titles, it just might get the fanbase back to what it was 8 years ago. One can hope.

  7. Tatijana

    I had no idea Halo had this much of a storyline, which is part of the reason I never really played it. Unfortunately, the storyline terrifies me. Aliens terrify me more than basically anything else haha.

  8. I know that a similar game, Half-Life, had similar kinds of development in fiction, most notably fan fiction.

  9. Sunni Rashad

    Good write up on Halo. Never got interested in the franchise.

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