Lore or nothing: The dwindling casual appeal of Halo’s storylines
I am of two minds about Halo 5. In fact, I am of a few different minds about what a main line Halo game is like these days in general
Halo: Combat Evolved/Halo 1 employed a mix of storytelling methods that set it apart from most other mainstream games at the time. It wasn’t a first for developer Bungie, but most general gaming pundists (on consoles in particular) rarely had to go scouring for embedded storytelling and puzzle pieces to grasp the bigger narrative. Luckily, then, there was a surface level arc to the first game that you understood regardless. Much of Halo’s dramatic pacing came from level design and art direction, punctuated by moments of surprise and wonder. If you wanted to dig deeper, you could easily get addicted to decyphering cryptic dialogue and mapping seemingly random radio chatter to the situation as it unfolded. What the hell was Guilty Spark talking about when he rambled about reclaimers and forerunners and “doing what you had already done”? It had little bearing on the surface plot, but it was intriguing, and you could discern a vast underlying narrative if you engaged with it.
“a green space marine and his computer lady buddy, shooting baddies”
Halo 2 used a more traditional style of storytelling to complement its embedded/contextual narrative, so even though the mounting influence of the lore made things a little murkier for the general audience, it was easy enough to get the jist of it. That’s not to say that the casual fan wasn’t somewhat left in the cold. Halo 2 was the story about dissent in the Covenant ranks, and ultimately an arc about the newly appointed Arbiter, but to a lot of people it read as the broken, unfinished tale of Mr Halo himself NOT getting to finish the fight, as it were. Halo 2 was a brave turn for a second game, but when your first entry had so thoroughly established the notion that Halo was about a green space marine and his computer lady buddy, shooting baddies, that’s the baseline expectation you are stuck with. When all the dilly dallying with councils and cryptic speeches and alien traditions and power struggles and themes of faith and politics is over, you’ve set yourself up in a way that the green space marine is expected to finish the fight. It was a sign of things to come; of a clear divide between the experiences of a casual fan and a Halo nerd.
By the time Halo 2 ended we had gleaned so much vague contextual information, both from our newfound insight into the enemy camp, and the introduction of an enigmatic, ancient entity in “Gravemind”, that fan speculation went total next level craze-balls. People theorised that Cortana had gone “rampant” (as defined by Halo’s vaguely implied connections to Bungie’s previous franchise, Marathon) from connecting to the network of Halos in the first game, and that she was feeding Gravemind information, including Earth’s location, to further her own goals. Given that the Covenant seemed to be going belly up at the end of Halo 2, everyone nearly assumed that Halo 3’s main antagonist would in fact be Cortana.
“After Halo 2’s fan-feverish lore-fest and worldbuilding, Halo nerds wanted [Halo 3] to culminate in a satisfying conclusion to their theories”
Not so. Nothing so, in fact. There’s a level chapter in Halo 3 called “Rampancy”, where you look for a missing, rambling Cortana, but nothing comes of it. Cortana is fine. As an end to the trilogy, Halo 3 puts plot threads to bed in the least dramatic fashion imaginable. After Halo 2’s fan-feverish lore-fest and worldbuilding, Halo nerds wanted things to culminate in a satisfying conclusion to their theories, not sober up and simply “finish the fight” on the level where Halo was about a green space marine and his computer lady buddy. There was a tug-of-war between the surface level narrative and the “stuff for fans”, and Bungie seemingly made a call to cater more to the former again. Probably a wise decision, if they had to be mutually exclusive.
With the trilogy and Master Chief out of the way it seemed like catering to lore fans would become easier. Even moreso when it turned out that Bungie’s games following Halo 3 were side-quels and prequels; Halo 3: ODST and Halo Reach respectively. Halo Reach teased us with going back to the planet where John/Master Chief and his fellow Spartan 2’s were trained, and all but a handful were killed in the events leading up to the beginning of Halo 1. There is heaps and heaps and heaps of history on Reach. Furthermore, ODST – lodged between events of Halo 2 and 3 – established that its Nathan Fillion voiced “Buck” and Tricia Helfer voiced “Dare” were both stationed on Reach, and that game’s placement in relation to Halo Reach’s release made it seem like a certainty that they’d appear.
And yet, heartbreakingly, Halo Reach is the most shallow Halo campaign of all of them for anyone interested in the lore–a soul eroding exercise in missed opportunities. Conversely, if you’ve only had a passing interest in Halo, the game probably reads as one of the more charismatic of the lot, as it features more grounded moment-to-moment drama than previous games. Halo had, to different degrees, managed to be a game for both audiences in the past, but Reach just felt like Bungie had lost all desire to engage with the lore in any meaningful way. Their last Halo game was a completely contained thing that simply lead into Halo 1. The ways in which it touched on the lore are also just problematic, but let’s not get too bogged down here.
Enter Halo 4.
Halo 4 is like a big, statuesque, erected middle finger to anyone who thought they knew what was going on from following the surface plot.
“I’m willing to bet most people that played through Halo 4 had *no idea* what was happening or why”
It’s a game that just does not cease namedropping elements that have only appeared in the most vague and cryptic ways before–ways that nerds like me definitely did obsessively unearth, but nobody can be expected to. I’m willing to bet most people that played through Halo 4 had *no idea* what was happening or why. Not because they’re “stupid” or not committed enough or whatever, but because even the suface level story is basically the deepest-cut fanfiction.
And let me stress that I specifically say “fanfiction” for a reason. It really does read like fanfiction, because so many of the thrilling theories between Halo 2 and 3 have come back, as if to say “uh, let’s maybe bring those ideas back and actually do something with them”. And for me, that is pretty exciting, obviously.
But, the thing is, I find the fact that the story has become so exclusive to be a bit of a bummer. It’s really digging itself into a very deep hole, and the current Halo games do an abysmal job of winning over new fans or even keeping the casual, returning fans happy. Halo 4 is positioned as the start of a new trilogy, but even though it introduces loads of stuff that is new to everybody, the way it’s presented means that new players are bound to feel like they’re stumbling into the middle of something anyway. Going straight into Halo 5 you’re even more hopelessly lost, and it all just seems to be complete inside baseball now.
While the developments in Halo 5 from a story perspective are *BBBBONKERS*, I’ve seen the plot described in reviews as “banal”. That level of disconnect between fans and the casual audience is frankly alarming. I think developer 343 Industries have done a great job of growing Halo’s world and story, finding ways to repopulate its universe with Spartans and establish new factions and antagonists with multi-layered motivations, but I’m afraid that the execution of the games will eventually make all of that completely irrelevant to anyone but the most committed fans.
It’s telling that as one of those fans, I wouldn’t even know how to begin pitching Halo to an uninitiated friend at this point.
“there’s no satisfying surface arc to Halo 4 to distract from minutia of the lore, so botched attempts to make sense of it is all you get”
The main problem is that the surface level/macro story, instead of being straightforward but effective and exciting, is now a downright unsatisfying build-up to an inevitable question mark-ridden anti-climax. The first Halo has an arc no matter how far you zoom out; survive the pursuit of the Covenant and the inhabitants of the new, strange “planet”, in an extended chase that literally ends in an explosive climax. Halo 4 mirrors the first Halo enough that it inherits some of the same overarching narrative thrust, but unlike Halo 1 where everyone was at least a little bit like “WHAT IS HAPPENING, AAAAAHHH!”; as soon as anything even mildly specific happens in Halo 4, everybody is like “Didact? Gotcha. Composer? Right on. Mantle of Responsibility? Not even gonna acknowledge that at all because OBVI!” I listen to gaming podcasts and hear people try to slap the pieces of the story together and then complain about whatever jumbled and distorted configuration they placed things in. Hearing the Bombcast cry “Space Jesus” is frustrating, but there’s no satisfying surface arc to Halo 4 to distract from minutia of the lore, so botched attempts to make sense of it is all you get.
And it’s not like all of these concepts are familiar even to die-hard fans, but perhaps they come across as such when the characters within the fiction seem largely non-plussed. In truth, much of it is part of the same weave of mystery that always made a Halo story a Halo story. The lack of a digestible over-arching plot, combined with the perceived notion that you should already know all this stuff makes people’s eyes glaze over, however. Without deep prior knowledge and investment, there’s just nothing to be excited about in a current Halo game – no incentive to even try to care.
“Sanghelios is incredibly exciting to visit as a fan, but to anyone else it’s a canyon-esque environment with the same statue spammed a bunch of times.”
Halo 5 suffers the most from all of this, because it doesn’t even really have any discernible action set pieces with inherent drama. It is an expertly designed series of strung together combat arenas that employ the new core ability set in absolutely wonderful ways, but the locales themselves are barely lent personality through how they’re dressed up. Sanghelios is incredibly exciting to visit as a fan, but to anyone else it’s a canyon-esque environment with the same statue spammed a bunch of times. It still probably comes out as the “fan” highlight of the campaign for me, at least from a pure location standpoint, but that’s only because Sanghelios means something to me.
Master Chief’s team is comprised of characters from deep within the lore and elicit fan squeals from me when they speak. ODST fan fave Buck is brought back, as if to say “sorry he was totally teased for Reach and then only appeared as a couple of lines of radio chatter”, and throughout the story even more of those fan theories from the early days get a second wind.
So, we have a story whose ins and outs are reserved for fans, characters that finally debut in the games with no proper introduction or reason to care about them, a campaign with locations that barely register as locations outside the info only fans recognize, and to top it off (mild Halo 5 ending spoiler); we sort of have another Halo 2 style non-ending, but the story as fans know it reaches a climax.
So I’m left to wonder if it’s a deliberate choice on 343i’s part, to focus entirely on the existing fan base for the story and campaign. Multiplayer has always been a big pull – maybe the bigger pull, I dunno – of Halo, so perhaps they reckon that the campaign can afford to exclusively be a lore-heavy circlejerk.
I just imagine that it’s become completely impenetrable for a casual fan of these games. Nothing but a confusing and underwhelming space carousel.
Which makes it a Halo specifically for me, then, but I don’t exactly know how I feel about that.