It's the weekend, all play and no work. I spent this particular weekend replaying some of the more memorable levels within the Master Chief Collection and Reach. What was surprising, and almost instantly struck me was how much more coherent and well paced the narratives are in past entries, as well as Fall of Reach. Now, I realize that Joe Staten from Bungie wrote the majority of these titles and it certainly shows. He's a wonderful writer who (in my humble opinion) grasps the core concepts of writing both convincing and enthralling science fiction.
I then went back to Halo 5 and while the fandom is in some agreement as to the tragically jarring pacing within Halo 5, I feel as though there was something worth telling within Halo 5's narrative. Halo 4 set up a beautiful, and I still believe unappreciated, motif in John 117 realizing that he is not a piece of hardware but instead a human being. It was a narrative tie in to Cortana's legacy as a sentient AI and the question of "does that make her hardware, or a living being?" Very impactful, and something that has a lasting effect on players. Why Halo 5 did not delve into this in a more meaningful way beyond AIs basically going rouge is unfortunate a missed opportunity to pull against John 117's held beliefs. The other differences I noticed between Halo 5 and the other entries was that the narrative structure did not play off the world as much as the previous entries. In science fiction, world building and character building are often regarded as something interwoven, a symbiotic relationship if you will. Because hard science fiction must build believable worlds which extrapolate outwards with present day technologies and attitudes, it is imperative that character development interact with the worlds within the narrative as they would each other. Halo 3: ODST did this the best from my viewpoint, especially with Buck. Buck reacted to the environment in ways that evoked very palpable emotions. A great example was when the Assault Carrier began to glass New Mombasa and Buck recalls the same happening to Reach. Unfortunately, Halo 5 lacks this dynamic symbiosis within it's characters and environments.
From my understanding, the current writer of 343i, Brian Reed, was previously a comic book writer. It's very difficult (speaking from the experience of writing published science fiction) to transition from a vignette style narrative that quickly transitions from cell to cell (this may be where Halo 5's pacing issues stem from) to a longer form style that relies heavily on expert pacing. Now I'm in no way an endless treasure trove of science fiction writing knowledge, but I have been around the games industry and publishing industries enough to comfortably call myself an expert of such matters.
I love Halo and I would love to see its narrative thrive and become a masterwork in the medium. I've given some ideas in previous posts but I never really got into the nitty gritty of what makes good hard science fiction, and what makes or breaks a narrative arc. It's a long shot 343i will be reading this in its entirety, but I do feel as though a bastion of context would be helpful for both them and the fans to look back on to perhaps cultivate the narratives of future titles. If anything, I hope this will inspire some of you all to pick up writing. It's a great skill to have, and more importantly it's a fantastic way to let loose your imagination. I'll be using two books here to help me out, and if you're interested I urge you to pick them up. They are fantastic resources if you would love to learn how to write science fiction. The first is by Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten and is titled Video Game Writing & Design. It's a fantastic read for how to write long form video game narratives. The next is an collection of well known writers (some I can personally vouch for!) giving some insight into writing within the genre and is titled Writer's Workshop: Of Science Fiction & Fantasy*Great little books with some of the biggest names in sci fi lending their expertise. These books are also cited below my post, so feel free to check that out as well.
What's the difference between hard sci fi and is "meh" and hard sci fi that is a must read? It's actually not very well understood, because narratives are very subjective matter. I may like something that you may not and vice versa. However, there is a general consensus as to the road map for what makes extremely well reading sci fi. Three factors to remember when writing hard sci fi such as Halo (in long form narrative, not short hand as with comic books) are as followed.
Hard sci fi relies of believable worlds and the authors ability to craft these worlds in a way where the reader enjoys exploring them. Now, believable worlds can encompass a lot of things and raise a lot of questions. What makes a world believable? How does a world built itself when written? What about characters!? Simply put, world building is when an author crafts a universe (or in this case a game's setting) and creates a setting where the reader can suspend their disbelief and inhabit it subconsciously. When Forever War was being written by Joe Haldeman he had just gotten back from his tour in the Vietnam War and wanted to build a world which reflected how soldiers felt during the war. Forever War is a great sci fi novel, one of the best, in which future soldiers fight wars light years apart from each other. Battlefields are so far away that when they reach them, due to time dilation of space travel, years or decades have past. Haldeman built his world around the notion of what the Vietnam War felt like, a forever war. Just with his fictional soldiers, when they return to Earth everything has changed from the centuries they have been gone. The Vietnam War paralleled this, as soldiers who came back to the States were met with an unfamiliar landscape. Halo CE and Halo 3: ODST had some great aspects of proper world crafting. Stepping on Halo for the first time in Halo CE made the player feel as though this was an undiscovered landscape, you wanted to explore and take it all in. The characters knew as much as the player did, so the environment and world felt unique and unexplored. Even your enemies knew hardly anything of Halo, which made the narrative that much more compelling. Halo: ODST did something similar. You as a lone ODST had to explore a familiar yet unfamiliar (New Mombasa has been laid to waste, creating an unfamiliar landscape within the familiar) setting in order to gain clues. It was very compelling, mostly because you the player knew very little of your setting, but as information trickled in you became apart of the city.
Halo 5 had beautiful settings but lacked an inspired or freshly written world. Settings changed, but as they did the player was immediately given all the information up front in intro cinematic, or even worse given no context to the world they were dropping into. I dare say, that Halo 5 read more like a scantly laid out comic book than it did a long form narrative world. Larry Niven (ironically an author who inspired Halo with his Ringworld series) was very careful to tickle information in on a mysterious setting, drawing the fell of discovery out until it was absolutely necessary to give the reader information. The games Bioshock and Spec Ops: THE LINE also did an incredible job of building their respective worlds up as a slow and gradual pace. Halo 5 in comparison was an exerciser in jarring fast paced transistor that were more akin to exposition dumps than actual narrative leading. As Niven said himself, "You should always lead readers into your worlds, never push them."
Remember how Reach lead players into the conflict slowly? Imagine if Reach's first level was New Alexandria, would you have context as to why this was happening beyond "Reach is being attacked?" Halo 5, as you remember, began with the Osiris team flying (literally) down a glacial mountain to which twenty minutes later Jul M'Dama was brutally killed. What was the context for any of this beyond the poor introduction of Osiris? I still don't quite have an answer to that. If anything, the Argent Moon mission should have been Halo 5's level opener which unto itself was not very well developed as a singular constructed world. Which leads me to a great quote from the father of cyberpunk William Gibson. "If readers come out of your stories with little context as to what you were attempting to craft, then your next work should be a guide to shelf organization." Organized worlds, with context that is smartly constructed to lead readers/players through the narrative is what world building is all about and is critical to sci fi.
Ray Bradbury, who wrote The Martian Chronicles once said that "If your characters can play off their environments, sci fi pretty much writes itself." While I'm sure this was more a symbolic quote than a factual one, it makes sense in the larger context of how to write characters in science fiction. What made Star Wars so compelling was not necessarily the setting, but the characters. themselves and their interplay on the worlds George Lucas constructed. Lucas followed the typical Joseph Campbell's Heroe's Journey and used the motif so effectively that Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon. Funny, because Joe Staten of Bungie used this same motif and method when writing Halo CE, Halo 2 and Halo 3. Another fun fact is that Halo ODST was just a retelling of Dante's Inferno in a sci fi setting. Don't believe me?
The characters in these Halo games played so well off their environments, whether it be a city, a ship or a ringworld that we wanted to follow then through novels, comics, anime, film and other lore. We grew attached to them not only because they were well written characters, but because they were apart of this amazing universe we fell in love with.
Halo 5's characters aside from John 117 and Cortana felt stagnant and uninspired. Locke was given no background unless you watch Nightfall and the rest of Osiris was left bare unless, again, you had known to brush up on extended lore materials. Even Blue Team suffered an inexcusable lack of context and development. One minute their on Argent Moon, and the next they are on Genesis. We never really see them interacting with their setting beyond getting to point B from point A. In addition, Osiris was criminally underdeveloped during the narrative. Locke went from "Chief BAD!" to "We can help, Chief" in the time it takes my 3000gt VR4 to cross an intersection. Which is to say, none at all. Buck should have been an anchor for Osiris, a character who knew the brutality of war and ideally should have been questioning Locke and their mission. Instead he is relegated to comic relief and quick one line sentences of doubt such as "You know, they are going to hate us." I can assure you Buck, I do not hate you. I just hate your character development.
David Brin, author of Startide Rising says this on character development. "You have to write characters who you actually would love to get a cup of coffee or chum around with. Alternatively, ones you want to punch in the face. If a character leaves you with the sense of, well, I have no clue who he was or what his purpose was there! Then it's time to go back to the typewriter." Remember Buck circa ODST? You know what, I wanted to get THREE cups of coffee with that guy! He was charming, and was a character I would follow into the roughest battles. Tartarus circa Halo 2? I wanted to punch him in the face, and then punch him a second time! In Halo 5, I could really care less about the Warden because he had little to no context, I was the worst thing you could be in a narrative. Indifferent. What made Buck so compelling in ODST was absent in Halo 5, I just didn't care one way or the other about his character. The only character I was really attached to was Chief and only because of the phenomenal writing in Halo 4 which provided context to his dilemma in Halo 5.
Moral of the story is this. Character should be motivated not by quick solutions, but instead context and slow character development. Give your characters time to breath and time to let down their guard. Have them become apart of the world, instead of relegating them to cheap one line follow through.
(Note that I thought Cortana was well done in Halo 5. And I will not be going into Locke's character development because, there just wasn't any to speak of.)
Halo is a great space opera, because it is grounded in real science (for the most part) and I have no trouble holding my sense of disbelief because while traveling faster than light isn't possible, opening up corridors of slipspace through gravity wells sure as hell is! But I am quickly jarred back into reality when Jul M'Dama is stabbed once, then keels over. Yes, because that nano weave crystalline fiber armor that the Covenant wear can shrug off any damage, but one knife, is just too much.
Do you know why Star Trek was such a successful show? Because it was grounded in reality, it was believable and most importantly the technology within the series was eventually made into reality. Yep, flat screen TVs (viewscreen), cell phones (communicator) and geo tagging (tricorder) all became part of our everyday lives. A series is prolific, when it can become reality. Halo did this for so long, so very well. It was the first game to popularize power armor, something the United States military and Japan are actively developing now. www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/which-sci-fi-armor-armys-fancy-new-battle-suit-actually-180949726/?no-ist
It theorized railguns and guass rifles, to which now the United States Navy has a working prototype.
Why is it that so much of Halo 5 is just so, unbelievable? While the weapons are grounded and the science still remains very tangible, the simple interactions with characters just doesn't make sense. The battle with Jul, the one shot blow to Cortana in the form of a Monitor, Locke being able to go toe to toe with Chief (Spartan 2's even without upgraded Gen 4 armor were capable of devastating any Spartan 4) and the most egregious example of Cortana being able to control Forerunner Guardians within the Domain which was stated in the novels to be a means of information control, not applicable means of control. IE, you can control the flow of time and information within the Domain but not actively use it to control constructs. Greg Bear, the authors of said novels has said in relation to his book Hull Zero Three ,"If you make something feel real and tangible, people are going to want to delve in further and further until they begin to understand how these things function in the real world." With Halo 5, besides the weapons, ships and gear, I didn't want to know how Locke was able to so easily kill Jul, or how Cortana can control the domain from within. I just, wanted it to make sense in the grander context of the narrative. But hey, at least the musical score throughout was great.
And again, if any of this is explained in expanded lore that is a horrible, just horrid way to introduce certain aspects into your core and main narrative. That's akin to me giving you a math exam without the questions, only the answers. While that sounds nice, in the narrative sense it's just nonsensical. Folks should not have to go on an Easter egg hunt to enjoy the main meat of the core narrative. Extended lore should be a nice little treat, not a necessary primer to the final exam.
Do as Aldous Huxley said in context of his novel The island "Give them, all of it. Give them simplicity, accomplishment and all they wish for in one location. A utopia on the grandest scale." Halo is a narrative on the grandest of scales. Make me believe that, again.
Hope this was worth your time, and I do hope you enjoyed the read. Below are the citations for the books I used, do check them out! Halo Nation, you guys rock.
Knost, Michael, Neil Gaiman, Lou Anders, Lucy A. Snyder, James E. Gunn, George Zebrowski, Jay Lake, Nayad A. Monroe, Orson Scott. Card, Pamela Sargent, G. Cameron Fuller, Nancy Kress, Harry Turtledove, Jude-Marie Green, Joe W. Haldeman, Nisi Shawl, Alan Dean Foster, Alethea Kontis, Elizabeth Bear, Jackie Gamber, Michael Knost, and Max Miller. Writers Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Dille, Flint, and John Zuur. Platten. The Ultimate Guide to Video Game: Writing and Design. New York: Eagle Pub., 2007. 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.
A More Complete Look At The Halo Franchise
Written, Researched, Produced And Published By Halo-Nation member "Synth Samurai"
Always A Stranger, In A Strange Land