Imagine you are a general in some far off, foreign war. You have plans, machinations, and set dates that must be adhered to without question or fail. Your nation has planned for a five month conflict, but four years later it continues to drag on. Your old plans are no longer relevant or viable, and the grand design of logistical strategy which worked only years earlier has failed. Hurriedly, you must devise new tactics and spread your military even thinner than it already is. The other generals posses no knowledge of proper tactics, nor how to fight a prolonged conflict. You are on your own. In desperation, you begin to throw tactical plans onto the metaphorical wall to see what sticks, and what doesn't. Men die in the millions, and you begin to stray further and further from victory. Eventually, the quagmire of continually adding unplanned tactics sees the downfall of your empire.
You are a general of the German Empire, 1918. All is lost.
Of course, this isn't 1918, and this isn't the Great War. However, the trend of the Halo franchise throwing more and more unneeded content , which lacks planning and development mirrors the German Empire's struggle to stay relevant in an ever changing world. Indeed, if Germany would have shored up its existing Hindenburg Line it may have held off the Allies well beyond 1918. Just as Halo could have avoided the mess of narrative continuity, content, and poor characterization it finds itself in now. This isn't Flanders Fields, this is the development ground floor. Lives are not at stake, but many countless fans and financial assets are. Let the guns of Spring awaken, with a renewed and tremendous roar. Full Circle returns.
I had high expectations for Halo Wars 2, not just narrative wise but in terms of overall gameplay. The first game in the spin-off series was something of a unique experience. It took inspiration from the progenitors of the RTS genre such as Starcraft and Command & Conquer and refined the gameplay to be fluid on the console platform. Ensemble Studios succeeded in almost every aspect, from the layered level design that forced players to explore every nook and cranny of the map, to the unexpected narrative revolving around the Spirit of Fire. I say "unexpected" because I was extremely skeptical at first of a new narrative thread within Halo concerning a then unknown UNSC starship during the first few years of the Covenant War. However, the story of Captain Cutter and co was a wonderful addition to the overall lore libraries of Halo, adding a new aspect to the UNSC without meddling too much in the affairs of the faction.
The success of Halo Wars comes from a focused and methodical narrative strategy. Ensemble sought out to create a narrative arc within the confides of what already existed within the franchise. They did not preform mental gymnastics in order to make their story work within established lore. The studio took what was already concrete, and expanded on it considerably and with fluidity. From the introduction of the Spirit of Fire, to encountering The Flood, each section of narrative reveal was done meaningfully and without frivolous additions. The Forerunners and the Apex Fleet were always in the periphery, something to both dread and entice curiosity. The race to Apex, was never center. It was the characters, their factions, and the notion that the war was bigger than just Humanity and The Covenant. Simplistic in nature, but expertly crafted. Indeed, the best way of expanding on a large narrative universe is to continue to build on what already exists in a meaningful and purposeful methodology.
After Bungie ceded the Halo franchise to Microsoft, the series seemed to be at the precipice of failing. However, now 343 Industry's studio head Bonnie Ross injected new vitality into the franchise by way of promising ten years of master-crafted Halo narrative arcs.  Somewhere this promise has devolved into a quagmire of almost epic proportions. Within the span of three years, four new factions have been added by way of the Prometheans, Precursors, Storm Covenant, and most recently The Banished. Add to this the plethora of background characters such as Team Osiris, ONI Special Tasks Group, multiple new Spartan teams within expanded literature, and the addition of the Infinity. Much like the German Empire circa 1918, 343 Industries seems to be desperately scrambling to fulfill the promise of ten years of Halo, by way of hastily throwing new content at a figurative wall to see what sticks; instead of expanding upon the content and characters which already inhabit Halo's vast universe.
Bungie era Halo had three tenants, in descending order of importance. Gameplay, cohesion, narrative. Bungie was meticulous in terms of how they went about introducing new gameplay tweaks, implementing new narrative arcs, and how to create them. When Bungie was at the helm, no core game within the franchise added a new faction, instead relying on building up the foundation of what was already present.  Halo 2 built on the Flood in such a manner that evolved them from mindless parasite, into an insidiously brilliant enemy. At the same time, the game showed that the Covenant was embroiled in political unrest. The UNSC remained largely the same, with more foundation being added to Srgt. Johnson, Cortana, and of course John. Within one game, the interplay and dynamics of multiple factions resonated in a meaningful way and ensured that their core principles remained largely unmolested. Cohesiveness was always foremost within Bungie, with the mantra of "how does this fit within the larger context of the franchise?" becoming a sort of narrative rallying cry. Novels and extended canon were separated from the main titles, a strategy that served to segregate extraneous narrative arcs/factions from the mainline series.
Each addition was planned years before introduction, as is evident in the Halo 2 art book. Concepts, characters and narrative paths were largely integrated into the franchise in a collaborative environment, and each developer knew what aspect of the story went where. When asked questions at venues such as E3, Bungie employees would often give long and focused answers to narrative topics. Within Bungie.net, which was treated as more a family than an online speaking platform, Bungie gave fans intricate and well thought out answers to inquisitive user questions. In one instance which I am unable to find due to the age of post but vividly remember, a Bungie employee answered a question I had regarding The Flood, and how they represented in a biblical sense, an all consuming wrath which would cleanse and unify (forcibly) all biology it came into contact with. The answer then went on the describe the similarities between The Flood, and The Vang, a classic science fiction villain from the book of the same name.
Again, this showed a clear understanding of each facet of narrative coherence. That each arc, character, and faction had a defined set of inspirations, characterization and flowed into a specific plot thread. It seemed as though everyone at Bungie was on the same page, and even outsourced talent was treated as in house staff. A disheartening distinction between them, and 343 Industries. As per Bonnie Ross' ten year Halo assessment, it seems as though the studio has no one plan of implementation and is instead scrambling to construct new content as a means of lengthening the franchise. The issue is that all of this new content, has been poorly implemented, planned and handled. Within the short span of four years, numerous novels, games, comics and lore compilations have been released. In those four years, and throughout numerous additions, the foundation of the series has been left unattended. 343 Industries instead has focused on the addition of new factions, characters, themes, and motifs to lengthen the series timeline. A clear disconnect, or lack of collaboration within teams in on clear display here. Or perhaps more troubling yet, lack of creative care. Either through lack of clear thought process, or lack of formal talent in weaving core narrative concepts within existing lore utilizing real world concepts, history, and culture. The most current, and perhaps egregious example of this is Halo Wars 2.
In a lot of ways, I can forgive the hasty introduction of the Guardians and The Created. While far from perfect, the theme within Halo of superior entities having the right to subjugate perceived lesser species (The Mantle) has always been at the core of the franchise. I had a brief moment of confusion, and regret in experiencing Halo 5's somewhat tepid narrative, but it was something that was for the most part forgivable. I do not wish it never existed, as the entry had a plethora of valid narrative arcs and connections to past lore. Halo Wars 2 however, was the first Halo game I played, and had no interest in going back to. From the almost breakneck velocity of its rushed introduction of the Spirit of Fire's return, to the nonsensical addition of The Banished each new narrative step made less and less sense in the sense of narrative cohesion. Let me start by saying The Banished are perhaps the most haphazard addition into the Halo franchise. Here is why.
Following on the logic of 343 Industries, and taken into account as fact the numerous expanded lore entries I will attempt to make sense of The Banished. According to Halo: Reach , several AI constructs had been at that time guiding Humanity's technological evolution. Through various data logs within the game, these AI new of The Flood, Covenant and Forerunners well before humanity had even realized they were not alone within the galaxy. Following this logic, and the length of time The Banished had been actively engaging The Covenant proper, it is not daft to assume these AI would know of The Banished and postulate on how they fit into the war. Furthermore, ONI (according to Halo 5's ARG, in addition to Halo: Hunters in The Dark) had vast amounts of information and data concerning The Covenant, their ongoing civil war, and political machinations. Again, it is both safe and logical to assume that ONI would have a trove of information on The Banished, considering their size and military supremacy. In addition, ONI agent Jameson Locke had access to some of the most classified intelligence concerning The Covenant and the hierarchy. Yet his character makes no mention of any glint of information regarding The Banished.
Much of Halo Wars 2 misgivings stem from the almost comical addition of The Banished, but minor inferences in terms of narrative cohesion also come into play to further the disorganization. The Spirit of Fire is able to gleam from data logs, comm buoys, or the AI Isabel ISA 1307-2 herself, that the war had ended favorably for Humanity. In addition, they were given classified access to the knowledge concerning the Halo array from both Isabel and other sources. Yet, in surprising fashion the crew of the Spirit of Fire must "explore" the Ark in which they now orbit. Because of these data logs and Isabel, the Spirit of Fire should have intimate knowledge of the Ark's structure, and therefore plan the best landing zones in order to establish an operation zone almost immediately. In essence, if they knew of the Halo array, they should also know of the Ark's purpose and geography quite quickly, foregoing the necessity of both scouting missions and pre-base placement.
Now yes, I understand these are trivial quips. However, they add up extremely quickly, especially when you consider the overall narrative arc which is attempting to be woven.
Early on in the game's narrative after meeting Isabel, I was treated to side banter between marines exclaiming how astonished they were about the Halo array. At the same moment, no less, Cutter and Anders are urging me to explore the Ark and why there are Banished in the vicinity. I must admit, all I could manage was a small smile and chuckle at the absurdity. Either the Spirit of Fire had the UNSC's most incompetent crew this side of the galactic horizon, or 343 Industries were doing some gold metal quality mental gymnastics to justify this romp through the Halo universe. If the knowledge was known about the Halo array, the Spirit of Fire should ave known immediately why the Banished were on the Ark, without any mental strain on their part. Military intelligence is only as good as the individuals who assets it. By that standard, Spirit of Fire's crew are lucky the ship is still functioning in any state at all. I kept thinking to myself, as per the last page of Halo: Escalation's following of the Spirit of Fire, how apt Halo Wars 2 could have been to serve as a return of The Flood, more insidious and complex than ever. Perhaps the Precursors had returned from the edge of intergalactic space, colonizing the Ark and cutting off the comm receivers to the UNSC proper as to keep them in the dark of their return. Or perhaps, their return was known and the UNSC was desperately scrambling to prepare to fight both the Created and The Flood. Instead, we have an erroneous faction of stronger than Covenant, Covenant, which is in their own desperate way trying to distinguish themselves as a unique entity with no real narrative purpose other than to be a new boogeyman.
By the end of Halo Wars 2, I was the worst thing a reader/player/watcher can be. I was indifferent. I didn't care about The Banished, nor did I care for the Spirit of Fire's crew. A crew in which I once loved and saw as a genuine addition to the franchise. I have yet to go back to the game, due to lack of interest as well as confusion due to the Phoenix Logs, which are a narrative beast all their own. It is rather humorous that every quip I have about Halo Wars 2 is hastily addressed in out of game text logs. This sort of thing is inexcusable, especially for a franchise that seeks to go on for over a decade or more. All narrative arcs and threads should have ties and explanations within the greater context of the universe at large, especially concerning the core game seires. You should be able to trace narrative lineage through either expanded universe, or more importantly, core games for a franchise as expansive as Halo. It should not be thrown in with any sort of haphazard, or ho-hum attitude. Every facet should be a meaningful addition that intends to build upon the greater franchise, not just serve as an arbitrary extension.
I've been over the strategic planning, and correct implementation of the franchise before, painstakingly so. I presume that any other attempt at thoughtful correction of the Halo ship would be akin to me shouting at a brick wall. However, that brick wall is something I care deeply about and something I wish to continue shouting at. I don't posses all the answers, nor do I think that I can attempt to formulate a fix all strategy on my own. There are many other talented members of Halo Nation who are always finding new and insightful ways to provide 343 Industries with competent feedback. Whether or not they listen, or care, is another story entirely.
Halo Wars 2 proved what I have been echoing for a great deal of time. The franchise is in a state of logistical desperation in order to extend its lifespan without any meaningful look backwards at the content which already exists. I have been saying that 343 Industries needs to hire on full time and academically trained narrative writers, who can intricately connect the various lore segments in a meaningful way. It is needed now, more than ever. Collaboration with writers, development team, and community is key and needs to be considered strongly if the franchise is going to move forward with a decade of solid and positive content. Employees should be able to answer narrative questions with ease, and give detailed insights into the narrative thought process. The Halo story should be known to those who work daily within it, and should be a tome of thoughtfulness.
The guns run silent, until next time.
Sources Utilized In The Creation Of This Article
A special thank you to Halo Archive user Vien Quitonm for providing several resources
Porcaro, Jp. Video game collection development and management. Chicago: Amer Library Association, 2012. Print.
Robinson, Martin. The great journey: Halo, the art of building worlds. London: Titan , 2011. Print.
Thabet, Tamer. Video game narrative and criticism: playing the story. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.
The art of Halo 3. Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2008. Print.
A Halo fan since the beginning, 2001. Also a games industry consultant, writer, and educator. These are my thoughts, praise and advice concerning the past, present and future narrative of the Halo franchise.
Halo, all assets within, characters and merchandise are property of the Microsoft Corporation and is developed by its subsidiary 343 Industries.
I do not own, claim to own or retain any rights to the Halo franchise. This is a fan based work, and is strictly non-profit.
All other images, articles linked, materials and franchises that are not strictly specified as my own are property of their respective owners.
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