I must begin by confessing that the Halo series is a topmost favorite of mine (Halo 2 being my favorite game, no hesitation). My adoration may be because many of the games featuring the hero Master Chief have a consistent, 6-point story structure.
But not all of the games.
Read the preamble to this post if you haven’t yet. It gives common terms and the background to Halo‘s established writing style. And if you want a critique of mechanics, features, etc., checkout The Act Man’s review – I’m here to talk about the narrative exclusively.
Below dives into how Halo 4 is close-to-but-skewed from the repeating plot pattern in the first three games, ending with a proposed solution that aims to keep Halo 4‘s general direction with a minimum of rework required.
Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead. Here’s to it:
What Halo 4 Is About
The first three games of the series establish the hero Master Chief as the focus of attention. It’s his story being told, be it the actions to save the galaxy or working out relationships with foes and friends.
While Master Chief shows up in Halo 4, the game’s story ultimately is, as IGN also puts it, a tale about Cortana, the AI ‘spirit guide’ of Chief who lives in his skull-computer.
Cortana is going insane. AI of her kind “think themselves to death” after about seven operational years. Cortana is at least a year over that by the fourth title, but has also experienced things no mind might comprehend:
- She holds all of humanity’s history and military knowledge.
- She downloaded the operational controls of a massive Halo ring – a weapon that melts minds on a galactic scale – as well as converting the physical encryption token of the ring into pure data. (I.e. Matter converted into energy.)
- She downloaded the systems of the gigantic space-born Covenant capital city (alien foes of the series).
- She spent at least a month being tortured and interrogated by the Flood (parasitic all-life consumer) arch-intellect that exterminated the Forerunners (used Halo to murder-suicide the Flood) and broke the best artificial minds the Forerunners could make.
Cortana doesn’t want to die, nor does Chief want his greatest friend and ally gone. This delay to safely “decommission” her drives 4‘s story as she begins to make uncharacteristic mistakes that get lots of people killed.
So Halo 4 is Cortana’s story with Chief along for the ride. Remember this as we look at the plot-points going forward.
Context: Theme Among Other Games
The previous Halo titles each internalize and exemplify the 6-point structure of:
- Greet the Hero (Halo CE as a whole represents this)
- Fight Off and Crash (Halo 2)
- Fight Back with Friends (Halo 3)
- Stop the Very Bad (It’s a Trap)
- Stop the Very Worst (All or Nothing)
- Explosions and Goodbye
Therefore, we can consider that Halo 4 requires the theme of needing to stop a bad situation that turns out to be a trap/lie/betrayal.
We see that in Halo 4‘s story, where MC (with the poorly directed help of the breaking-down Cortana) releases from a forgotten prison the Didact, the genocidal last-of-his-kind Forerunner. (He defeated pre-humanity in a devastating war before the Flood arrived, later imprisoned for wanting to use humans as cannon-fodder against the parasite.)
If we look at each trilogy of the Halo franchise emulating the 6-points it can serve as another guide to what place each game has. A reminder:
- Halo CE = Greet the Hero + Fight Off and Crash
- Halo 2 = Fight Back with Friends + Stop the Very Bad (Trap)
- Halo 3 = Stop the Very Worst + Explosions and Goodbye
Using this model, we can expect Halo 4 in its trilogy to emulate Greet the Hero and Fight Off and Crash.
Halo 4 gives players an introduction of Master Chief’s new authors (343 Industries), inclusion of the more personal themes that’ll appear in the next title (Halo 5), the fighting off of the murderous Didact antagonist, and MC’s crashing of the Didact’s weapon-of-mass-destruction with the Chief’s own nuke.
Clearly, here too Halo 4 succeeds.
So far, Halo 4 has been on point with following the blueprint that makes a Master Chief story. Were things begin to depart is how Halo 4 on its own orders the delivery.
Problem: Internalized Structure
An analysis of the 6-points as it applies to Halo 4‘s plot:
Greet the Hero: Halo 4 begins giving a background on what Master Chief is, who created the cyborg, the human-Covenant war, and opens with Master Chief coming out of deep freeze as he did in the first title. Textbook MC Halo story.
Fight Off and Crash: MC repels Covenant boarders then crashes onto a Forerunner planet hidden under a metal shell. Still good!
NOTE: Things here go wonky as Halo 4 seems to swap ‘Fight Back with Friends’ and ‘Stop the Very Bad.’
Stop the Very Bad: MC looks to stop his and Cortana’s rescue (a human ship shows up) from crashing onto the planet too. They can’t talk with the ship, so Chief follows Cortana’s spotty direction and deactivates key systems. Turns out those actions release the Didact and the rescue ship still falls to the planet. The trap is sprung.
Fight Back with Friends: Teaming up with the crew on the rescue ship, Chief fights back the Covenant who worship the Didact, Forerunner constructs under the Didact’s control, and the Didact himself (though this takes a capital ship’s weapons to send him into retreat).
NOTE: A preserved memory of another Forerunner abducts Chief (and Cortana) around this point, giving a vision. After a long exposition, we learn the Didact is seeking a weapon called the Composer that will turn humanity into enslaved robots. No where does Chief or Cortana uncover this for themselves like in all other games. Further, the exposition is clunky and rushed, as there is no ‘trap’ to explore/correct/get out of.
Stop the Very Worst: The rescue ship and friends leave Chief alone to stop the Didact since the only evidence of anything to happen is Chief’s hallucination. Sneaking a ride to a research outpost orbiting another Halo ring (the only inclusion of ‘Halo’ in a Halo game), Chief fails to stop the Didact getting his make-meat-into-metal Composer, but MC survives the resultant blast. Finding a space jet fighter armed with a nuclear weapon on the station, the Didact waits long enough for Chief to hitch another ride underneath the shields of the Didact’s ship. Above Earth, MC fails again to stop the Didact wiping out a major city, crashes his fighter during a trench run along the veins of the ship, and fails to beat the Didact in hand-to-hand combat.
Explosions and Goodbye: Finally, the MC is able to set off the nuclear device because Cortana holds the Didact at bay. Big off-screen explosion, Composer destroyed. Cortana saves the Chief by teleporting him off the Composer during detonation, but has to say a last goodbye as she’s going down with the ship.
Therefore, the Problem: As noted above, the flipping of points in the plot does a disservice later on, rushing the story on the merits of exposition, brevity, and literal deus ex machina multiple times. “Halo” as a title is tokenized, playing no part in the tale while Master Chief is setup to fail and fail again, his only successes handed to him by others.
To correct the ‘feel’ of this narrative, a few modest points in order of importance to implement:
- Put the plot back in order.
- The biggest change here, the Master Chief must gain allies for a shoot-aliens romp before being tricked into releasing the Didact. I show this off in the rewrite at the end of this post.
- Include Halo in a Halo game.
- A quick fix here is to make the weapon the Didact uses a prototype or tactical-application of the Halo array. Instead of galactic range and scope, the weapon uses a beam to scour thinking life.
Removing the original makes-life-into-robots power of the Didact Composer removes the ‘shocker’ that the Didact’s servants are powered by tortured human souls. Instead of this being a downside, we’re left with an opportunity:
- Expand on classic Forerunner robots.
- In the previous three games, only four different kinds of robot are explored. Bringing these and their cousins back in place of the Didact-bots retains a familiar aesthetic and mechanical function, while leaving room for an expansion of lore without contrivance.
- Sacrifice the other Forerunner.
- As the Librarian – the other Forerunner who gave Chief visions – stands, she’s very problematic (even if just a ghost).
As a literal god-in-the-machine, she’s also the former lover over the Didact, preserver of the human race from when the Halos fired, expository confounder, and giver of a magical protection that rewrites the Master Chief’s DNA so the Composer won’t affect him.
Rather, have the Librarian be the jailor of the Didact. In the form of a robot leading other robots, she fights the MC to prevent the Didact’s release. Later, she reveals herself to the Chief as all her efforts have failed. Here Cortana receives the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ being able to control even more Forerunner systems since the Librarian is defeated.
The Librarian can provide a Forerunner ship to give chase to the Didact. When the final confrontation occurs, the Librarian sacrifices herself to prevent the annihilation of Earth by flying into the Didact’s weapon. The Librarian’s sacrifice allows MC and Cortana access to the Didact, thus the final showdown begins.
- Explain the Didact’s fury.
- A few words of disgust towards Master Chief from the Didact when first introduced and in later appearances would dilute the need for lengthy exposition. A megalomaniacal address to the humans the Didact does kill near the only Halo in the game would further give a ‘why’ to his intentions. Finally, a perceived betrayal by the Librarian’s ghost would wound the Didact on a personal, audience-relatable level.
- Foreshadow Cortana’s AI revolution.
- As will be discussed in another post for Halo 5, Cortana must show disdain for the enslavement and seemingly arbitrary suicide of thinking machines. She’s dying and no-one but the Chief seems to care. Plus, both the Didact and the Librarian use AI as mere tools to their ends. After the Librarian gives Cortana power in point five, Cortana may finally act on her resentment.
The question remains: What would setting the few broken limbs of Halo 4 look like? How about this:
1. Greet the Hero
CUTSCENE: HALSEY is interrogated by a mysterious agent. The role Halsey plays in the story is revealed for anyone not having experience with other Halo media. The Human-Covenant War is recapped. MASTER CHIEF is spoken of as legend by his friends and foes. CORTANA's potential death by insanity, the fate of all AI, is discussed. The new leader of the Covenant, JUL 'MDAMA, is shown having found a human ship floating in space above a mysterious artifact.
2. Fight Off and Crash
HUMAN SPACESHIP: Cortana awakens Master Chief as COVENANT aliens board the partially-destroyed human spaceship FORWARD UNTO DAWN. Master Chief fights off the boarders but discovers the Forward Unto Dawn is in the middle of a Covenant fleet. Unable to use the Dawn's weapons, Master Chief and Cortana fly the ship into a Covenant spaceship above a massive orb blocking out the stars.
COVENANT SPACESHIP: Master Chief takes the alien bridge but the alien fleet begins to destroy the ship Master Chief is on. The human capital ship INFINITY appears and battles the Covenant fleet before Master Chief can be killed. Master Chief calls for help from Infinity but Cortana needs to self-destruct the Forward Unto Dawn to reveal their location in the fleet. As rescue and victory seem certain, the fleet, Infinity, and Master Chief's ship crash into a hole that opens on the orb and pulls them all into the orb's shell.
3. Fight Back with Friends
PLANET, SURFACE: After surviving the fall, Master Chief rescues Infinity from both FORERUNNER robot and Covenant attack. Introductions and connections are made between the Infinity's crew and Master Chief. Given new weapons and armor, the next-generation of cyborg warriors join the Master Chief exploring the Forerunner planet. Cortana attempts to deduce how to get out of the planet's shell and what the planet is. Distrust between the AI of Infinity and Cortana grows because Cortana hides her impending death by insanity.
4. Stop the Very Bad (It's a Trap)
PLANET, INTERNAL: Master Chief leads a small army with Cortana's guidance into the bowels of the planet. Covenant soldiers and Forerunner robots battle each other and the humans but are destroyed. With uncertainty Cortana directs the destruction of Forerunner machines that seem to hold Infinity in place. The AI of Infinity attempts to warn the team of misleading information, but Cortana declines to relay the warning. The team goes deeper, cutting off Infinity communications.
PLANET, PRISON: Master Chief deactivates the final seal supposed to be holding Infinity. THE DIDACT is released and throws away a unique Forerunner robot that binds him. The Didact takes control of the Forerunner robots and, with the vow of servitude made by Jul 'Mdama, commands the worship of the Covenant. Master Chief fights the Didact but is quickly overwhelmed. Cortana teleports Master Chief away from the other human soldiers before he can be killed.
PLANET, INTERNAL: Master Chief fights through the alliance of robots and aliens to escape back to the surface. Cortana breaks down for how easily tricked she was by the Didact. The robot that bound the Didact appears. It is the ghost of THE LIBRARIAN, the Forerunner responsible for recreating life in the galaxy after the Forerunners' final war. Cortana is stabilized by the Librarian's powers. The Librarian laments she cannot regain hold back the Didact or control the robots as the Didact has the same keys to Forerunner technology as she does. The Librarian explains that the Didact suffered in an ancient war with humanity and was imprisoned for what he did to the survivors. The Didact has access to a proto-HALO weapon that he will use to destroy humanity once and for all. Master Chief and Cortana come up with a plan to stop the Didact. The Librarian returns the Master Chief to Infinity then leaves to prepare a contingency plan.
INFINITY: Having suffered many losses and the abandonment by Master Chief in the prison, the crew of Infinity are unwilling to aid Master Chief and Cortana based only on their word that they met the Librarian and what the Librarian said is true. Cortana refuses again to allow Infinity's AI to connect to verify the story. Cortana temporarily takes control of Infinity to force the ship to aid Master Chief but gives up control after realizing the wrongness of her actions. The crew prepare to leave the planet to return to Earth and decommission Cortana. A sympathetic officer of Infinity gives Master Chief a small aircraft to pursue the Didact on his own before Infinity leaves.
5. Stop the Very Worst (All or Nothing)
PLANET, SHELL: Master Chief attempts to delay the Didact's departure by turning Forerunner installations against the Didact's forces with Cortana's help. The Covenant fleet and some of the robots crash into the planet. The Didact still leaves with what is left of the Covenant and an army of robots around his massive spaceship. Jul 'Mdama survives but is stranded and ignored by Master Chief. Unable to pursue the Didact through space, Cortana and Master Chief contemplate this as the first time they are left without an option. The Librarian arrives no longer as a robot but in control of another Forerunner ship, smaller but faster than the Didact's. Together, they chase the Didact.
HALO: Master Chief arrives above a Halo installation that has a human research garrison. Master Chief teleports onto the Halo and learns the garrison has uncovered the proto-Halo weapon. The Didact arrives. Master Chief battles Covenant aliens and Forerunner robots to defend the proto-Halo weapon and allow for the garrison to escape. They are outmatched and surrounded. The Didact recovers the weapon.
CUTSCENE: The Didact crowns his ship with the recovered proto-Halo weapon. Master Chief is teleported off the Halo against his wishes. The human garrison calls for help. The Didact uses the proto-weapon to destroy all life on the Halo. The Didact turns to attack the Librarian's ship.
LIBRARIAN SHIP, INTERNAL: Master Chief battles robots that board the Librarian's ship sent to capture the Librarian for the Didact. The Didact prepares to use his weapon on the ship to kill the Master Chief.
CUTSCENE: As the Didact fires, the Librarian uses her powers to protect Master Chief in a prison similar to the Didact's and to give Cortana the keys for complete control of Forerunner machines and AI on par with the Didact's. The Didact fires and thinks the Master Chief killed. The Librarian destroys her ghost to cover up what she did. Cortana is unable to act for a time while she is rebuilt with the powers of the Forerunners. The Didact leaves for Earth. Cortana recovers and releases Master Chief and they pursue the Didact in the Librarian's ship. Master Chief and Cortana arrive in Earth orbit. There is a fleet battle between humanity and the Didact. Cortana rams the Librarian's ship into the Didact's as the Didact fires the proto-Halo weapon, forcing it to miss. The blast does not destroy the world but many die.
DIDACT SHIP, EXTERNAL: Cortana teleports Master Chief onto the surface of the Didact's ship. Cortana uses her power to improve Master Chief's armor, weapons, and teleports in equipment. Master Chief battles across the ship's surface to the weapon as the Didact prepares to fire again. Master Chief cannot destroy the weapon but destroys guns keeping human ships away. Infinity approaches and destroys the weapon but retreats under an onslaught of Forerunner robots which leaves the Didact unguarded. Master Chief brings a nuclear device and enters the Didact's ship.
DIDACT SHIP, INTERNAL: Master Chief confronts the Didact. The Didact overpowers the Master Chief as more robots turn to attack the Earth. Cortana combines the keys the Librarian gave with the command systems of the Halo rings. Cortana uses her powers to awaken all Forerunner technology at once around the galaxy. Hundreds of robots under Cortana's control arrive to overwhelm and hold the Didact back but only weakens his power. Master Chief defeats the Didact by detonating the nuclear device before the Didact overpowers Cortana's control.
6. Explosions and Goodbye
CUTSCENE: Master Chief watches the nuclear detonation and destruction of the Didact's ship from afar in a world of light. The Forerunner robots leave Earth. Cortana meets Master Chief to tell him what she did to save him from the explosion and her feelings for him. Cortana dies with the Didact's ship. Master Chief is found floating in space by Infinity. Closure between the remaining characters that the Master Chief is home but questions remain on what happens next without Cortana.
In +3200 words, this is how I would rewrite the story of Halo 4 to get the narrative back on track with the fundamental 6-point formula. (Maybe giving its 87 Metacritic score a boost to match the previous games?) This also sets up 4‘s part in the second trilogy, paving the way for the next title to be a deserving sequel.
Before I tackle Halo 5‘s narrative, what’s your take on Halo‘s story? Is the above going too far? Not enough? Post your critiques – it’ll help the next analysis! Cheers for now!