There are some stories, some adventures you never forget. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek and all the other classic tales woven throughout our culture's imagination. How many of us smile when the title card "A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away..." appear on the screen? We fell in love with the universe and most importantly the characters.
Halo as a franchise has always been an epic space opera, massive in scale. But it has never, made me cry or shed a tear for any of the characters. That is, until Halo 4. The narrative resonated deeply with something out species has been asking ourselves every since we began writing on caves and rock.
"Why am I here? Where am I going?"
Within the walls of Requiem's Dyson sphere shell, along the broken paths, endless jungles and alien spires awaited an answer to that age old question. Not just for man, but for machine as well. It forced me to look at myself in a way I had never done before and more importantly, made me realize even the strongest heroes hide behind crumbling walls.
Artificial or biological, we are all machines. This is Halo at its most intelligence, and its most thought provoking.
Author David Brin once told me that a good science fiction universe should be tangible, believable and inspire through its characters and settings. Looking at his masterworks such as "Sundiver"(which you should all go check out if you haven't!) it's hard to argue with the man. Halo: Combat Evolved through Halo 3 focused on a larger sense of scale, it certainly had the setting down but the characters we played as more often than not felt bland and faceless. I realize that Bungie came out numerous times and said that Master Chief was meant to "Be an extension of the player," but when a narrative has so much at stake, the extinction of the human race, then it is imperative those characters feel that weight as you do, the player.
More so than not we played as the Master Chief through the lens of "mission A to mission B," not really seeing the impact of such a desperate scenario etched on the faces of our character. Instead we saw it etched on the faces of our allies while being detached from our own personal viewpoints. In an RPG, such as Fallout, the character is absolutely an extension of you because he IS you. That dynamic works for Fallout because the character who leaves the Vault is you, name and all.
John-117 however is not you, he is the Master Chief. Conscripted, forcibly, into the military and having his childhood stripped from him. He has his own narrative, and throughout Halo that character never really shone through. Other characters in the series, mostly in the later entries of ODST and Reach, certainly gave us that weight. Noble Team and Buck's squad were written beautifully. In both Reach and ODST the weight and desperation was shown though the glassing, burning and destruction of their respective worlds. The characters, watching with desperation as their entire species burned to the ground against the relentless might of the Covenant. However, the most important character to the series, John-117, never truly gave the player that sense of weight or feedback.
What made Halo 4 different? Why do I consider it the most attractively important entry in the series? Whereas Halo: Combat Evolved through Halo 3 were driven by grand scale settings, Halo 4 was driven by its characters. From the opening chapter John-117 showed his fatigue and his concern for his deteriorating companion, Cortana. For the first time in the series we saw the Master Chief, the savior of humanity, stripped down to his core. The dynamic between John-117 and Cortana during Halo 4's story was sublime and thoughtfully written.
As her Rampancy progressed, John-117's urgency and concern began to creep through his stable/stoic character. As the player, we witnessed for the first time as Lasky put it, a man not a machine. Characters who have been with some of us for more than a decade before were seemingly brought down to the real world, and mirrored our own life struggles. Very real, and thoughtful questions were posed throughout Halo 4. Captain Del Rio's dismissal of Cortana as simply a piece of hardware brought forth the concerning question of what constitutes sentience? Is it consciousness or simple biology? Cortana is treated as an equal in most of the Halo series, a friend, a comrade in arms and later in the Halo story line a companion. She, for all speculative purposes is what I believe to be the harmonization of biology and artificiality. Halo 4 however, shows us that this bias towards biological life is still a hazard. Something other Halos never truly brought up with the exception of Mendicant Bias or 343 Guilty Spark.
Moving past the core characters and themes, Halo 4 introduced an enemy that I myself would not consider a villain, the Ur-Didact. For those who have watched the Terminals and read the Forerunner Trilogy of books from the amazingly talented author Greg Bear, you will know somewhat of what I am getting at. The Ur Didact is the first "villain" in the Halo series to walk a fine line between good intention and madness. In the Terminals of Halo 4 he at first convinces his wife the Librarian to give leeway to the Humans and tend to them with care. He at first glance looks to be a man of stoic and good intentions.
Later, he becomes dedicated to saving his people from The Flood at any cost. Subjecting himself rather than his own soldiers, to the effects of digital immunization against The Flood to no avail. His Promethean soldiers followed him will absolute loyalty, giving themselves to The Composer in order to fight The Flood. I have to ponder and ask, is he so different from the Master Chief? The UNSC's own ilk follow him without question, and numerous times John-117 was willing to do whatever necessary to save his people. Halo 4 gave us a sympathetic character we knew had to be stopped, but one we could also relate to and feel compassion for in some way. The narrative and theme showed us, the players, that John-117 is human and that the enemies he now fights are also in a way, just as human. They are no longer alien boogymen, but instead factions with their own "necessary" deeds.
"Welcome home, John."
It was a phase that made me tear up, because he was home in more ways than could be said with a simple sentence. His character, who he was at his core, was finally home. No longer just a piece of hardware, no longer just a soldier. John-117, was no longer just "The Master Chief," he was human.
And how many times, in how many ways have we ourselves wanted to come home? Whether it is achieving a dream or life's goal; or simply making it to the next day. In that way we all are heroes, the Master Chiefs of our own adventures. And during those adventures, we may loose loved ones along the way. Because after all, they are like us, only machines.
But like Cortana and John-117, we are machines of heart.
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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