Talking today about Halo for some reason
You might find YouTube video of “Halo 3 funny Elite dialogue,” including winners like, “One of us must die!” or “If you gaze at me much longer, we may as well exchange fluids,” and my favorite, the exasperated “We have few enough warriors as it is!” if you shoot an ally to death. If you haven’t played Halo, these lines are being growled by gravelly-voiced aliens, the “Elites.” One of the lines triggers when you, the protagonist Master Chief, melee an Elite ally. He replies, “Is this because of Reach?” The result of a special mode, this is not really “canonical” dialogue, though it’s impressive that even incidental writing was better than the real stuff in later sequels.
In the fiction of the Halo games, the Elites are the warrior class of an alien empire known as the Covenant. Before the opening of the very first Halo game, and as chronicled in a prerelease tie-in book, the Covenant attacked and destroyed the human planet Reach. One of the ships to escape the planet carried the last supersoldier Master Chief, who accidentally discovers a mysterious ringworld — a Halo. By Halo 3, with the incidental funny lines, the Elites have defected from the Covenant and formed a military alliance with humans. This is the best part of the story. Arguably, it’s what lends Halo a story altogether. In Halo 2, the playable Elite character the Arbiter (Keith David) leads a rebellion within the Covenant, and the traditional shooting gameplay takes on the existential purpose of resisting religious dogma. In the final moments of Halo 3, the Arbiter shakes hands with the human commander Lord Hood (Ron Perlman), and we understand that his people have reached this historic moment by rejecting fundamentalism. As for the humans?
We’ll stop here to note that Halo is one of the biggest media franchises of all time, between The Big Bang Theory and the DC Extended Universe. As one of the breakthrough titles of the 2000s, it helped video games go fully mainstream and become a multibillion-dollar industry, along with Guitar Hero, Madden, and Wii Sports. Now, the controversies of similar titans like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty made for big headlines — marketing, after a fashion. The controversy of Halo 2’s religious subplot took the form of gamers upset they were playing a character other than the Master Chief. People didn’t necessarily miss the point, but perhaps the allegory softened the blow? Of course, “Covenant” is a term often associated with quite popular real-world religions, as are other Halo proper nouns like “Prophets,” “Ark,” and perhaps “The Flood.” These days, Ubisoft makes it an annual tradition to insist their games aren’t political.
By my reckoning, the humans arrive at the handshake by also rejecting fundamentalism. This is the ending if their beginning is “The Fall of Reach,” a subtitle for the tie-in novel as well as an animated movie. Like “Concrete Jungle” for Predator, it sort of floats around the Halo mythos. However, this is the line from Lord Hood to the Arbiter: “I remember how this war started, what your kind did to mine. I can’t forgive you, but you have my thanks.” He doesn’t cite Reach here, and the Fall bears little mention whatsoever in the original three games. Playing as the Master Chief, we’ve certainly witnessed Elites killing humans, like on the shores of the Silent Cartographer, or in the ruins of Delta Halo. Hood’s words are more usefully a reference to that.
Until Halo: Reach. This fifth game in the mainline series was a special project, attended to with the weight of completion. A swan song for Halo’s original developer Bungie before they handed the reins to Microsoft in favor of the Destiny series. Or Destiny — I’m not really sure. The team wanted to bid a proper farewell, and how better than to dramatize, in game form, the Fall of Reach? This game’s addition to the series is the story of how a neat backstory element became Halo’s 9/11.
The Fall of Reach, much like the destruction of Alderaan as referenced in The Mandalorian, was already the series’ 9/11. In the context of Halo 3, it was a 9/11 processed, to where its radicalizing consequence is overcome. The Halo trilogy miraculously tells a beautiful story, and does so unpretentiously, buoyed by a flexible tone shaped primarily by Joseph Staten (who also voices the Grunts). As Staten was occupied by the writing of spinoff Halo 3: ODST at the time, he didn’t lend his talent to Reach. ODST had to suit the expected wit of its vocal talents borrowed from the cast of Firefly, but Reach plowed on with non-characters and a silly, oppressive mood. It luxuriates in the victimhood of the Covenant attack, simplifying a once-nuanced conflict. I’d be pretty callous to characterize American media’s dramatization of 9/11 as “luxuriating,” because 9/11 isn’t a fictional event. Granted, I understand a lot of those movies were pretty weird.
Why is the story of the Fall of Reach seen through the eyes of wordless, planet-hopping supersoldiers and not human refugees? Why do I care about Reach? Why do I care about Earth in Mass Effect 3, or Earth in Halo 2? I have no relationship to these places, especially once that relationship is encouraged with the language of patriotism (one of the marketing campaigns was actually “Remember Reach”). The planet didn’t play enough of a part in the Halo trilogy to become one of its transmedia franchise’s narrative focal points. If we linger on imagery of burning buildings and dog tags, we’ll have to retcon a lot of the Master Chief and Arbiter adventures to better address it. It can no longer be the throwaway, borderline nonexistent line, “Is this because of Reach?” I wouldn’t have advised choosing that story for the final Halo, or any Halo, but once chosen, it must be properly told.