"Questions... Morphology? Longevity? Incept dates?"
"Don't know, I don't know such stuff."
Last week in my article on the almost perfect story that was Prototype, and the characterization of Ghost, I spoke of narrative craftsmanship. I've actually talked about this subject quite a few times, but never had a an issue of Full Circe dedicated to the discussion of narrative longevity and what makes or breaks a universe on the verge of cultural revolution. No longer, because this week I'm going to be laying out some hard truths. Truths that may, depending on your vestment into the franchise, be difficult to read. But this has to be said, if not for the fanbase of Halo, then for the talented folks at 343 Industries. We can no longer pretend that Halo does not have a major flaw, a crippling fault within its foundation.
Imagine for a moment a perfect structure, an edifice of monolithic proportions that towers over the skyline. Windows shimmering with pearlescence, and a spire that reaches upwards in defiance of gravity. Millions of people come and go from the building, enjoying the offerings held within its staggered floors. All is not well, however. From the exterior, the structure seems a work of perfection; the interior a luxurious landscape. But deep within the foundation and skeleton of the structure are faults, cracks and weakened supports. The designers say this building, this monolith, will last hundreds of years. But the engineers the architects hired to erect the structure, did not have the insight, nor knowledge, of how to build such a massive skyscraper. They were accustomed to constructing smaller, less intricate facilities, but nothing like this. Over time, their lack of knowledge began to have an impact. Creaks in the walls and cracks in the foundation made their way to the streets and walkways. They had no capacity to maintain the structure, to ensure its longevity.
One day, when the foundation could take no more, it collapsed. The promise of a hundred year structure, lost and never fulfilled. If only those who built it had the knowledge and experience to craft such a monolith, and the future planning needed to maintain it.
Building a massive structure, is much like building an intricate and complex narrative universe. You construct it properly and maintain it, and it will last for generations. Because if you do not, it will most certainly crumble away.
Most of us, I assume, are post adulthood transition. Somewhere in the ballpark of nineteen or older. I'm almost thirty myself. That's a long time to peer back into one's life and think back to all of the stories, all of the fictional places I was taken to when I was younger. I was an odd little scamp, and as a child my hobbies were far detached from what my peers were preoccupying themselves with.
While my classmates where out at recess enjoying physical activity, I was inside reading. I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who would let me stay in the classroom to read the plethora of books he obtained over the years. I also had (still do) an incredible mother who supported my interests and hobbies. My book, game and film collection grew because of it and if I had to point to one person who cultivated my imagination it was my mother. At the age of ten I was reading Frank Herbert's Dune and throughout my teenage years drifted between Heinlein, Haldemen and Gibson.
Subsequently, I watched a lot of films. To this day I herald Ridely Scott as the most influential filmmaker of both my own life, and the entire science fiction genre in its entirety. And of course, I played a lot of games. To this day I still do not have the space to properly display my entire collection.
It's inspiring how these fictional worlds can take a person back years. I think back to these fictional narratives, the characters, the struggles and the victories. From the propaganda filled Starship Troopers, which made me critically question the role of a soldier, to the Phillip K Dick movie adaptation Blade Runner, which asked us all the question, "What is human?" The fascinating thing about all of these narratives, is I can go back and re-live them, time and time again. They do not loose their impact, nor do they become bland. Their stories are ones worth re-telling, experiencing many times more. Now think back to your own childhood and adulthood. What stories continue to grab you, pull you in and impact you in various ways? Millions, perhaps billions of people will say "Star Wars." Ah yes, Star Wars. A franchise that has stood the test of time.
Perhaps it was a game like Bioshock, The Elder Scrolls or Deus Ex. I know a lot of us will say Halo. And why not? The franchise is a prime example of taking an existing idea, and making it truly fresh. It's a universe that blends the likes of Starship Troopers, Larry Niven's Ringword and The Vang so brilliantly. So much so, that Microsoft wants the franchise to last thirty years or more.
Thirty years, that's a very long time. A long time to cultivate, establish and ensure longevity through meaningful narrative design and characterization.
And here is where you may begin to feel uncomfortable. Halo's narrative universe in its current state, has its work cut out for it. As of right now, the promise of a thirty year franchise looks to be turning into the promise of thirty years of obscurity. It may stick around for thirty years, but I'm very skeptical of how successful those thirty years will be.
If you look at a franchise like Star Wars, it's been around an extremely long time and gives no indication of vanishing. Ever wonder why that is? What makes that franchise, and so many others so successful in the long run? There's a trick, a philosophy and if you want to be highfalutin, an art to creating a lasting narrative universe.
It's as much of a study in psychology as it is pure literary writing. That's why there is an entire bachelors, masters and doctorate in the subject of literature/writing. It's an academic, research heavy art in which you, the author, must have the ability to capture the human imagination. You must write purposefully, with the skill of a sculpture whose chisel must create the masterpiece of their time. It is the art of mythology, telling stories which we all want to follow.
The oldest, and most sacred of human traditions. Entire civilizations build on the promise of their narratives, their myths. Passed down from generation to generation.
Our culture is no different, we pass these stories down to one another. Star Wars, Star Trek and a plethora of others. We are a species of story tellers. But the creators of the stories we tell each other now, follow a tradition set in stone (literally) thousands of years ago.
There are four pillars of narrative design, which stem from classic mono-myth and story construction. These are Comparative Mythology, the idea that all mythology and characterization can be traced through all cultures and societies. Next, there is Jungian Psychology, the principles laid out by Carl Jung, which describes the self as an individual archetype which represents the anima and animus. Thirdly, there is the Collective Unconsciousness in which describes the unconscious self as creating dynamic, yet familiar representations of the self and society. Lastly, there is the Mono-Myth. The notion that characterization within mythology follows a path of resistance, and then ease leading to a great discovery.
All four of these, while not essential to a cohesive narrative, are the foundation to a narrative universe in which has longevity and complexity. You could go the route of Halo 5 and weave an inconsequential and benign narrative that is meant to be consumed, then forgotten. But that does not lead to anything resembling a thirty year plan of longevity.
The reason you see Star Wars sticking around for forty plus years is because George Lucas spent literally years, many years, learning how to properly implement the four pillars of narrative design. Hell, the guy hung around Joseph Campbell himself, to learn how to incorporate the mono-myth properly into the first film. The franchise was crafted to tap into our collective unconsciousness, our societal need to tell stories to one another. The shame here is that Halo CE - 4 had all the beginnings of incorporating those four pillars, and had the amazing opportunity to connect the entire universe, unlike Star Wars which abandoned its entire extended universe, into a cohesive and inter-connected narrative. The fall and re-birth of the Arbiter during Halo 2 and 3, John-117's inner transformation at the end of Halo 4 and the struggles of all the characters we have come to love seemed to be converging into a single, connected universe of mythology.
And now, indeed, and now. What we have now is a universe and narrative on the verge of cohesive chaos. Character's being introduced willy-nilly (The Warden,) the entire core mythology of the universe being diluted into the a stereotypical artificial intelligence rebellion, the likes of which we have seen fall flat on its face on more than one occasion, and the utter failure to unify existing mythology into a character driven mythos. We have more than enough evidence to point to that the Halo narrative is disorganized chaos, four years ago the Halo Encyclopedia released with a plethora of errors and inconsistencies. Soon, the Halo Mythos is to be released. Before that, we had the Halo bestiary, and before that we had the Halo graphic novels which attempted to fill in some of the gaps. So within four years, we have four attempts to try and connect the narrative into something resembling a cohesive franchise, which is suppose to last thirty years.
The time taken to constantly revise, edit and patch holes within the narrative is taking away time which could be properly spent creating new and meaningful stories. One's we want to share, and experience. Halo has the potential to become a massive cultural phenomenon, more so than Star Wars because it cherishes its extended universe.
However, cherish and properly tending to are two very different things. I can love something, and not know how to properly care for it.
Now, you can argue multiplayer is what keeps Halo's longevity. To some degree it does, although the player count has been diminishing quite rapidly. Let me ask you, however, do the Star Wars movies, which reach out to so many age groups and cultures, have multiplayer?
We treat games, still, like toys. Juvenile experiences that are more a product than a meaningful contribution to our collective consciousness. Push them out to be consumed, and after a year forget about the entire thing only to go onto the next title. The disposable narrative. There are some exceptions, Spec Ops THE LINE is probably the most meaningful and important game you can play right now. Bioshock (the original), System Shock and Deus Ex are all examples of a meaningful story. Halo, well, Halo has the potential to surpass all of those titles, if only the narrative was tended to properly.
What 343 Industries needs to do, in order to fulfill its dream of a successful thirty year franchise which continues to gain new fans from all backgrounds, is to hire an individual who posses the knowledge of proper literary techniques. A person who can incorporate the four pillars of narrative design, bridge extended lore with the current title list and develop a rich universe with a diverse set of mythologies.
You can have all the business, technical and production experience scrawled onto your CV, but it wont make a lick of difference in helping you understand why our society, culture and species tells the stories it does. An office space isn't going to grant you the clairvoyance to predict societal psychology, it isn't going to give you the knowledge of thousands of years collective experience in human mythology. And while I am not advocating that an academic background or setting will gain you that knowledge I am advocating that it will make the Halo universe a much more meaningful setting
If the desire is to create a thirty year franchise, a successful, culturally significant thirty year franchise, then some much needed narrative experience is needed. Particularly in the science fiction genre, where a greater understanding of the four pillars and character development is needed. H.G. Wells pioneered the genre as one which sparks the imagination, the future of societal mythology. Where we turn science fiction, into science reality.
To inspire a generation with your mythos, is to take hold of a tradition which has lasted thousands of years. I want Halo to last more than thirty years, but I want it to do so in a way that is not disposable. I instead want Halo to last. Years from now I want to hear the story tellers of tomorrow whispering the name, Halo.
Somewhere out there is a person who lives and breaths science fiction, gaming and has a background in the art of modern narrative mythology. All you have to do, 343 Industries, is find them.
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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