Somewhere along the water soaked streets of Chiba City, Japan, walks a tall yet lanky American man. Each successive neon sign he passes reflects off his leather coat and jet black hair. Turning into an alleyway, he reaches the door to his apartment and fumbles, attempting to find the key. His hands, his damn hands. Made of meat, flesh and bone. That's what he was, a bag of meat wrapped in organic tissue. He lamented every moment, every second he was outside of cyberspace. Why couldn't he live there, eternally?
His name is Case, the main character of William Gibson's pioneering novel Neuromancer. The novel which coined the term "cyberspace," and dared us all to believe in a reality beyond what is tangible. Gibson foresaw the internet, human augmentation and virtual reality before those terms were even invented. In true visionary form, he gave us a glimpse at a world without boundaries, borders, or laws. Where information was free, and accessible to anyone, from anywhere. Where the escape of your own desired reality was but a "sync" away, and life was not what it was but instead what you created it to be.
Neuromancer gave rise to books like Ender's Game, films like The Matrix, and anime such as Akira. Within the games industry, cyberpunk is alive and well. Deus Ex, System Shock, Syndicate, and Remember Me are all examples of games which not only define the genre, but also re-define it.
There is one game however which is not a re-definition of cyberpunk, but rather a revolution. Halo takes the themes, motifs and environments of cyberpunk and expands upon them in incredible detail. Within Halo, it is not about escape, improvement or access. It is the carrying of information that is far more important than just pure knowledge. The passing of culture, identity and the very individuality which we all hold so dear.
It's time to plug into Halo's digital splitstream. One hex at a time.
Cyberpunk in its earliest form traces its roots back to the 1970's when Walter Jon Williams penned the novel Hardwired. Yes, Neuromancer and Blade Runner came first, but the genre itself didn't take off in earnest until the technology which authors imagined within their pages, spilled over into reality. Which then leads to the question, what exactly is cyberpunk? Well, the short explanation is that it is a fictional genre within science fiction which centers around oppressive or militaristic societies which harness technology to use against either outside concerns, or its own citizens. However, the longer explanation is much more complex.
When folks think of cyberpunk, they either immediately recall works such as Neuromancer, Blade Runner or The Matrix. Dark, dreary, rainy and oppressive fictional cultures in which technology has blurred the lines of morality and what can be considered true "freedom." Within Neuromancer, in order to use cyberspace, a catalytic drug is needed. In most cases, it becomes addicting and those who are not fortunate or wealthy enough to purchase the drug consistently become husks. Blade Runner took this notion a step further, where androids were not only self aware and sentient, but had a built in lifespan so they would not become attached to life's experiences. This was to create a barrier, so as to cushion the android's enslavement. After four years of service, the androids would begin to deteriorate, and soon after, die. Very oppressive and dystonia works, where technology is not necessarily a positive force, but instead an ominous tool.
That said, cyberpunk covers a much larger arena than just the dreary, neon lite rainy streets of dystopic technology. In fact, recent cyberpunk has become generally more positive and predictive. For example, while the video game franchise Deus Ex continues the tradition of an all controlling technological government, it also shows the positive edge of the sword by giving a glimpse into transformative technologies. No longer are people confined to a wheelchair or a pair of crutches after an amputation. Instead, they have the opportunity to augment their bodies with cybernetic prosthetic which seamlessly bond to their biology. And it doesn't stop at just medical necessity. Ordinary citizens can become transhuman (transcendence of human biology,) cybernetically augmenting their entire body to be magnitudes of order better than what they were given at birth. Imagine a world where sickness was automatically eliminated by nano-bots embedded deep within an artificial spiral cord, or optical implants that could adjust to varying levels of zoom and light patterns.
That same technology however, can be used against society. Those in power may seek to harness the power of the internet, spying on entire countries across the globe. Or, creating an artificial need for a product, such as in Deus Ex, where those with augmentations need the drug "Neuropozyne." We see this now, in our own reality. Companies bombarding brightly colored ads across the planet via the internet, and governments intent on utilizing the network for reasons of espionage.
The omega point of the cyberpunk genre is ultimately where our own reality will be taking us very soon. Scientists called it the "singularity," or what the genre calls "convergence." The technological singularity is a point in which technology reaches a cascade effect. That is, an event in which technological growth explodes and endlessly advances in a matter of seconds, and continues to do so indefinitely. The most (at current) credible theory as to how this would become a reality is by way of artificial intelligence convergence. The definition of such is that a human brain is merged with the neural patters of an artificial intelligence. The biological signals of the brain are seamlessly interwoven within the electrical processes of the artificial intelligence, creating a hybrid mind. If any readers are familiar with The Terminator franchise, Skynet was a neural-net hybrid mind. Although its definition of singularity was launching the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at the Russian Federation, so maybe not the best example. Convergence is actually studied in a more positive light than nuclear annihilation. It is hypothesized that such a hybrid mind could easily solve most issues we as a species face. Logically, and with empathetic calculation, create solutions to all hardships our species faces currently. That is about as cyberpunk as it gets in terms of the genre, and it is something that is happening around us right now.
Convergence is also can be described as "transcending biology, digitally." This notion sounds almost too fantastical to believe, but in theory, it could work. By transferring human consciousness into a digital format, we may be able in the future to shed our fragile and flawed biology in exchange for metallic/chrome figures. Our essence digitally transferred into artificial bodies, immortality achieved. The way this is done is by mapping the human brain and neuron patters, then mimicking them in a digital format through hex code or quantum computing. Once mapped, those electrical signals in the brain are then transferred to the digital realm and copied onto a "clean" space. The new neural mapping in digital format should be unrecognizable to the transferee, granted their entire brain pattern was copied perfectly. Each neuron and signal must be mapped, and transferred flawlessly. Otherwise what you get on the other side, is not what you started out with. This technology is a long way from becoming reality, but it is possible.
Speaking of Halo, the franchise is quite literally a 50/50 split between military space opera and cyberpunk. I discussed in a previous article, how the Spartan program was in line with transcendence technologies and augmentation. However, Halo has a much finer and almost bizarre line in which it walks in terms of cyberpunk. There is a certain aspect of espionage, through technology in regards to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and of course throughout the Covenant War. ONI in-particular is an interesting figure to peg the entirety of Halo's cyberpunk influence on. However, I would almost go so far as to state that for a number of reasons. For instance, during the Kilo-Five trilogy of novels, specifically Mortal Dictada, much of the series is set in rainy and neon lit city-scapes such as New Mindoro, Cascade. Cascade is described as a wet, sprawling urban landscape in similar fashion to Neuromancer's depiction of Chiba City, Japan. Through this landscape, we learn more of ONI's espionage and the depth of their technological subversion in manipulating both public opinions, and that of their enemy.
It has a sense of noir urgency, as if the Halo franchise has become the Deckard of Blade Runner, searching for answers under the lights of a neon city bathed in the shadow of a billion raindrops. Looking at Halo ODST, we can certainly see how cyberpunk seeps through the narrative. Among the crumbling skyline of the mega-city New Mombasa, you search for answers with the use of technology and artificial intelligence. The threads begin to tie together, and finally you find your answers. This blend of genre's is known as "neo-noir," and is most seen within cyberpunk itself. Strangely, the entire background of ODST is more or less entirely cyberpunk cleverly hidden within the shell of traditional military science fiction. I say strangely, because this is one of the few instances within media where this has been done to a masterful degree. The author Joe Haldeman was especially adept at this style of blended genre fiction, but he is part of an elite few who know how to do so. Joseph State with ODST, has cemented himself and by proxy the Halo franchise as a member of said elite club.
Perhaps the most stinking form of cyberpunk within the franchise comes by way of The Domain, the ancient Precursor construct meant to house all knowledge and data in the known universe. The domain functions on a higher level than just a mere databank, it offers so much more. The promise of immortality, through digital transfusion of the consciousness. Transcendence plays a huge part within the lore of Halo, for eons The Forerunners attempted to merge the digital and physical realms, without success. Their efforts become more desperate when they encountered The Flood, an alien parasite who consumed biological matter.
Even artificial intelligence took notice of the Domain and its power of preservation. Within Halo 5, Cortana describes the Domain as a well of life for artificial beings. Resorting and healing their matrices. This transference of the desire to achieve perfection and immortality not only appeals to biological entities with Halo, but also artificial ones. It is a very human design, which we now see artificial beings taking note of. In that regard, Halo has succeeded in achieving a harmony of both cyberpunk and traditional characterization. Again, something which is very rarely seen outside of the elite few authors within the genre.
Halo has not achieved this harmony easily, it took someone between four to five main entries in the series and many iterations of extended universe canon to establish said harmony. Halo is successful, because of this harmony. It taps into so much of our collective sub-conscious and use of technology that we become drawn to it, familiarized. I can pick up any Halo game or novel, and see abstract connections to my own life and world. The use of augmented reality and technology which makes my own life easier, the forms of communications I use both professionally and socially, and the answers I myself attempt to fin while walking under the light of grayed out television screens in the city's storefront windows as the rain continues to pour.
Halo now sits on a very odd precipice, a cliff which is made of ones and zeroes. Not by way of how it is programmed within the studio, but by way of how it is written to continue the tradition of cyberpunk it has so masterfully told for almost two decades. To tend to the roots laid deep within this precipice is paramount, for the successful narrative is neither told nor written, but instead experienced.
The franchise is not only about compelling characters, settings or even gameplay. Halo is about us, who we are and the technologies we as a species continue to create. By weaving cyberpunk and science fiction, as Halo does, it gives us an abstract glimpse into our own reality of not ones and zeros, but biological encoding. Just as we intend to augment our own lives, Halo deserves to augment it's method of narrative prose. The franchise is on the right track, but still requires help from those entrenched within the umbrella of genres which Halo find's itself under.
We live in a world which media is at the forefront of everything we do, on a daily basis. From advertisements, to emails. We all live in an augmented world of neon sunbeams. Why not, make the bombardment of media a pleasant and engaging experience?
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” - Neuromancer
Sources Utilized In The Creation Of This Article
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.
Schwartz, Ronald. Neo-noir: The New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005. 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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