Halo: One Step Away from Mythopoeia

Halo is a great milestone in modern science fiction and no one could ever take away its hard-earned place there.

By JohnnRckr, Posted 17 Oct 2013

Without a doubt, Halo is one of the best-selling games for Microsoft’s game console. It is a franchise that sells not only game, but all sorts of products. It is, as I would like to say, one of the greatest stories in modern science fiction.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien once defined mythopoeia as a form of modern mythology, a universe in so vast and complex, with its own rules and foundations, that is much more than just a story or a group of stories. It is something huge and transcendental. The universe of Tolkien is the first example of this mythopoeia; another one being Star Wars. As I declare in the title of this editorial, Halo’s universe has become so profound and enormous, that’s near the classification of mythopoeia.

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I am a big fan of Sci-fi, but, above all, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. When I first met Halo, I as barely 10 or 11 years old and it was mind-blowing, but, even then, I could not imagine the scope of the story Bungie was creating back in the day; neither could I foresee it could get close to Star Wars.

But it is not for me to babble about how much I like Halo or sci-fi. In the following lines, I will try to dissect the Halo saga through its games. For those who have never played any game of this saga, I will try to do my best to explain it the best I can, without making it useless to get close to the different titles.

So, what’s Halo about?

The story of Halo uses a classical triad of basic races in struggle, seen often in sci-fi. Another fine example of this structure can be found in the Starcraft series. We have the humans, represented by the United Nations Space Command; the Covenant, a theocratic conglomerate of alien races, and the Flood, an unstoppable parasitic life form with an infinite appetite.

The first installment in the Halo saga is Halo: Combat Evolved. In this game, we meet Master Chief, central character in all Halo numbered games. The Chief, John-117 is the last of his kind, a super-soldier belonging to a special breed, he is a Spartan. This name is not only for show, it is, actually, a postmodern approach to the story of the 300 Spartans who fought the Persian Empire, under King Leonidas command. It is not uncommon for science fiction to flirt with ancient myths and stories from Greece and Rome. Story retelling and re-imagination is a key ingredient in the construction of sci-fi.

In the same fashion eugenic practices were performed by the Spartans, in order to achieve excellence in war craft, the Spartans in Halo are subjected to genetic enhancement at the age of 10 so they become the ultimate warriors.

There’s a slight problem with that, and that is the moral and ethical implications of experimenting with kinds in order to strengthen the war efforts –see Ender’s Game-. As we learn later in Homecoming, one of the Halo Legends short movies, several Halo novels, Dr. Halsey’s diary and Halo 4’s Spartan Ops, this experimental procedure not only threw some nasty results, like death of the very first breed of Spartans, but also is considered a war crime. Dr. Catherine Halsey, the mind behind the Spartan Project considered that in times of need and despair, these measures were justified. Not everyone agreed.

Back to Halo: CE, we the super-soldier asleep in a cryo-bin is awaken to fight wave after wave of aliens. The Covenant is searching for something and has decided humanity is the enemy, so it declares war on them. When trying to escape from the overrun planet Reach, the Pillar of Autumn, the ship in which Master Chief is aboard, makes a blind FTL jump and stumbles upon a mysterious ring-world –See Ringworld- which happens to be exactly what the Covenant is looking for, but also it is home to the Flood. The perfect storm for disaster.

I hope I’ve got you interested enough now to grab a copy of Halo: CE and discover what happens next, but, let’s pause a bit and talk about the Covenant.

Sci-fi always turns to the othering in order to criticize or denounce something authors don’t see fit in society. Halo is not exception, but it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. One of the main complaints regarding Halo is the extreme prejudice and stereotypes it creates towards the orient, specifically, the Islamic nations. I will elaborate.

The Covenant is the union of, at least, 8 different alien races that worship an elder race –also present often in sci-fi-. These races are held together by a pact of mutual assistance and protection under the theocratic leadership of the race known as The Prophets. The ultimate goal of the Covenant is to take part in The Great Journey. Where’s the discrimination? Well, even when the race known as the Elites resemble more a Japanese-like culture, the Covenant is commonly considered fanatic or extremist –with the occasional suicide grenadier-, mainly because this Great Journey is nothing but a huge terrorist act against the whole galaxy, which takes us back to the anti-Islamic innuendo. It is not my opinion, neither is NoobFeed’s that Halo is indeed promoting anti-Islamic values, it is only a general concern that many have addressed. It is up to your consideration.

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The Covenant is no alien to inner problems, like civil wars, insurrections and insurgents among their ranks. That’s why, in Halo 2, we get to know The Arbiter, a figure that arises whenever crisis strikes The Covenant. It is both an honor and a punishment to be name Arbiter, for it is a suicidal job. The Arbiter of this era, an Elite, is called to fight infidels who claim that all the teachings from The Prophets are wrong and they’re heading to disaster. This event will, eventually, result in a civil war among the Elites –one of the first two races of the Covenant, in charge of the Prophet’s protection- and the Brutes, a prominent race of monkey-like aliens in the Covenant.

The Arbiter, narratively speaking, works as the Chief’s shadow in Halo 2 and Halo 3. The shadow, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is, usually, the antagonist and is the exact opposite of the protagonist. In this case, The Arbiter, a failed and shamed general used as a scapegoat, is the main threat to Master Chief. According to Campbell, good narrative implies the transformation of both the protagonist and the antagonist into each other. And so, by Halo 3, not only the Chief and the Arbiter fight together towards a greater good, but they have both acquired something of each other. Master Chief understands the Elites are not as bad as he thought before and The Arbiters has a renewed respect for humanity and the Chief.

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By doing so, Halo has its own interpretation of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, in three different levels. First, we have the fight of humanity against the Covenant, which threats to eliminate them; then, we have the Elites joining the humans for the same reasons and, lastly –and more importantly-, we have the fight of everyone against the Flood, which are threatening the whole galaxy with their mere existence, but here’s the kicker: the Flood are not primitive savage beings, but rather a hive controlled by a unimind, the Gravemind, and they don’t want to be exterminated either. What’s the double kicker? The Great Journey is accessed by the Halo rings, but they are not inter-dimensional gates, the Halo rings are super-weapon arrays capable of destroying every single life form in the galaxy, so the Flood would starve.

This is not a soap-opera, this is a space opera. The story of the first three Halo games is proof of great scripting and storytelling, but it wasn’t big enough. It never is. Not even with the great space battles, the implacable power of the Covenant and the military genius of humanity. The first three Halo games are only the core, just like the first three Star Wars films.

We’ve talked about humanity and the Covenant, but what about the Flood? Well, the flood is an ancient race that once polluted the galaxy to the edge of total extinction. Primarily, they are parasitic life forms that need a host to reproduce. The Flood also can take control of an infected body to be used as infantry and control space ships. They are guided by a hive-mind –see Starship Troopers or Starcraft- and their only desire is to survive. They are pretty primitive in that matter, but they are conscious and capable of reason and communication. Actually, they can be very cryptic.

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When we talked about the Flood, we cannot dismiss talking about the Forerunners, the elder race of the Halo Universe. The Forerunners were once the most advanced race in the galaxy, they expanded in glory through the galaxy and they achieved significant technological advancement. But storytelling teaches us that, whenever someone’s happy is because everything is about to go down. And it went. The Flood appeared and, for years, the Forerunners tried to destroy them. They were not successful. That’s why they created the seven Halo rings, as a final measure to save the galaxy.

Before they did something radical, the Forerunners created a DNA bank with every life form in the galaxy, and created machines to repopulate the affected planets, so the galaxy would flourish again –see Noah’s Ark-. They left behind a legacy of centuries and a lot of equipment and machinery behind when the Halo array fired and everything was exterminated. When the primitive life forms evolved and became sentient, they worshipped the artifacts and legacy left behind by the forerunners. That’s how the Covenant was born. So, if you ask me, the story is pretty solid and is round.

But, if the Flood were exterminated once, how did they come back? Well, the forerunners were so benevolent they considered not even the Flood deserved total annihilation, so they preserved a single spore. That single spore, along with an accident, was enough to repopulate the whole Flood race and jeopardize the galaxy once again.

However, Halo 4 brought us a bit of a plot twist. When Master Chief finds himself in what appears to be an ancient Forerunner mechanical world, we discover the truth behind this, apparently mighty and compassionate race: they are brutal. The awakening of an ancient enemy was the slogan for Halo 4, and it implied more than we would think: the Forerunners were not the only advanced race in the galaxy in their own time; humanity was their fierce rival and fought a crude war for centuries. In this case, humanity was nothing but a wild, aggressive and predator-like species –pretty much what is now- that wanted to control the galaxy. When the Forerunners put an end to that, they punished mankind with involution, and, so, they became primitive again, but not only that, the fallen humans –before involution- were made into cyborg-like warriors under the Forerunners command. As I said, they were brutal.

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In spite of the rage this slightly exaggerated plot twist generated on several fans, I consider it fits into the narrative of the Halo Universe. It doesn’t contradict what had been previously established and adds a bit of criticism towards humanity and the imperialist pretentions of the ones in power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Actually, the Halo 4 plot twist creates an even bigger picture. It lets us know what happened before the Flood invasion and gives us a part of human history we did not know. We also get to know better the Forerunners, their history, their conflicts, their way of thinking and their demise. Halo 4 adds another brick towards the construction of an actual mythopoeia.

What about Halo: Reach and Halo 3: ODST?

Halo: Reach is a storytelling gem. It brings us a better panorama on the Spartan Project and the fall of humanity. A must play on the Xbox 360. Why, you ask? Well, for starters, the Fall of Reach is considered as humanity’s darkest hour. It is a story of tragedy and heroism in which a whole planet was decimated by the Covenant. In this game, we meet the Spartan-III. Remember when I mentioned the first breed of Spartans? Well, they were a complete disaster, but they were known as the Spartan-I. The second breed, the Spartan-II –the kidnapped kids-, ceased to exist completely, except for John-117. The third, the Spartan-III, breed was created in despair, because of the overwhelming force of the Covenant. They were not kids and they were not kidnapped, but they were not as powerful and resistant as the Spartan-II; they were expendable, for they were cheap and easy to create. Eventually, we would know the Spartan-IV, an almost mass produced Spartan, dispatched, mainly, in fire teams to compensate their lack of one-man army capabilities.

Back to Reach, we are presented the story of Noble Team, the last line of defense in a battle that had been already lost. We go deeper into the tragedy with every step we move forward, but, for the first time, we can see some actual humanity in the Spartans. They used to say Spartans don’t die, they only go missing in action, but Halo: Reach proved that wrong. Reach went to an end with not one, but millions of bangs, and noble Team had first row tickets for the show. This is, probably, the only Halo game of all that can make you break into tears.

Reach fell just before the Pillar of Autumn tried to escape with the last Spartan-II on board, along with a very unique piece of UNSC gear: an AI by the name Cortana. Let’s pause a bit and talk about AI’s.

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As you may know, artificial intelligences –or AI’s- are constructs of computer programming capable of replicating the human mind. In sci-fi, there exist many types of AI: minor –as smart as a human and not capable of independent thought-, major –much smarter than a human and capable of semi-independent thought-, virtual intelligence –not properly AI, because they possess very limited capabilities and a lot of restrictions, and, when everything goes wrong, singular AIs –AIs that have become self-conscious, capable of total independent thought and able to improve and replicate themselves [See Neuromancer and Terminator]-.

Cortana is a major AI, she’s smart, witty, charismatic, capable of semi-independent thought and, even though she is aware of herself, she cannot improve or replicate herself. As a matter of fact, Cortana is one of a kind, for she is the only AI created with organic tissue, the organic tissue of one Dr. Catherine Halsey. Cortana, as any AI, would threaten the whole mankind if ever she felt into the wrong hands –the Covenant’s, for example-, because she possesses a great information about Earth, Earth’s defense systems, security protocols, military strategies, etc. That’s why it was so vital Noble Team fought for her to leave Reach before it fell completely. Also, because of all that, and all their history together, Cortana happens to be the Chief’s best friend. She’s always there for him and vice versa.

When reviewing archetypes, Campbell hardly thought of an AI, so there is not a specific role she has during the game. She is mentor, damsel in distress, warrior princess, guardian, herald and even martyr. Cortana truly is one of a kind.

And the ODST?

Well, they’re a big part of the really human side in Halo. Before Dr. Halsey went stealing children to create unstoppable soldiers to fight insurgency in the outer colonies of mankind, the UNCS had its own cavalry: the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers.

ODST, the Helljumpers, are a special class unit of the UNSC army. They are dropped in descend pods from the orbit of a planet, directly into battle. They are the Halo version of the paratroopers or the HALO/HAHO troopers in modern armies.

Originally, they were intended to be a Spartan’s best friends, for they provided support in heat zones, but, as we learned from the short movie The Babysitter, ODST rapidly got to develop hate and resentment towards the Spartans, mainly because they considered they were overrated and the stole the spotlight of the ODST as a premium military unit.

ODST are dispatched in groups of 6. They are strategically inserted in a zone and are given high priority missions. That’s why there’s a game about them. Originally intended to be part of Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST grew so big it was made into a spin-off game of its own.

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Halo 3: ODST was the first game in which a Spartan was not the main character; Spartans are not even featured in this installment, so we can see what actual soldiers with no super strength can do in a war against powerful alien races. The melancholy and devastation are always present in the game, mainly because the main character’s, Rookie, pod suffered an accident and he was unconscious most part of the day. Throughout the devastated city of New Mombasa, Rookie must figure out what happened to his squadron and complete a mission he doesn’t even know. A destroyed city full of aliens, lots of darkness and small but bright lights and a semi-linear storyline, it was a good way to have a different take on Halo. Especially because you’re on your own, no one telling you where to go, no minimap, just you and the city.

Another Halo game that also showed the human side of the conflict was Halo Wars, a pretty basic RTS set back about 20 years before the events on Halo: Reach and Halo: CE. The same way Halo: CE demonstrated a FPS could work on consoles, Halo Wars showed everyone RTS could do it too.

In this case, the story leans heavily towards the war efforts on the outer colonies with minimal participation of the Spartan Units –Red Team-. The story of the game focuses on Sargent John Forge, a fine soldier of the UNSC who finds himself in the middle of a war against the Covenant and the awakening of the Flood in a different part of the galaxy. The Covenant, as part of their crusade to destroy humanity and head towards The Great Journey, try to awaken a dormant Forerunner fleet in order. It is noteworthy that an Arbiter was present in during this conflict, but it was not summoned to fix inner Covenant trouble, but to help in the highly important mission.

Ultimately, Halo Wars is about the soldiers, is about the courage and heroism showed by Sgt. Forge and all the troopers that, without genetic enhancement, won the battle, even when they knew they couldn’t win the war on their own.

Halo and beyond

Now that we’ve discussed the Halo Universe through its games, let’s take a moment to think about Halo’s cultural impact as part of the science fiction. Halo is not only about the games, the story goes further on in comics, novels and short movies. Bungie created a universe and gave it direction and purpose, but that universe was not completely filled yet, it was –and still is- the labor of many others who contribute to this expanded universe. The Halo movie that never was, the Forward unto Dawn miniseries, the Halo Legends short movies, all the literature surrounding Halo and the meta-literature about it, all of that is another step towards mythopoeia.

Nowadays, Halo is one of the richest and vast science fiction universes. There are few examples that can compete with its level of storytelling and its construction. If Microsoft plays their cards correctly with the next Halo installments, it is possible to generate even more content on the franchise. To grow wider and bigger, and even faster. But, what’s missing? Why is Halo not a mythopoeia yet? Well, maybe it’s just a matter of time. Halo was born roughly 12 years ago. 8 games (I did not talk about Halo Spartan Assault, because I haven’t been able to play it), 1 waiting to be released, 16 novels, 1 graphic novel, 4 comic book series, tons of meta-literature, encyclopedias and manuals, toys, collectibles and memorabilia, it all encloses a great story told during the last decade.

Halo is a great milestone in modern science fiction and no one could ever take away its hard-earned place there. I am convinced that, eventually, Halo will be given the movie it deserves and, also, will join the transmediatic movement, which will allow a better and more immersive storytelling in this extraordinary universe, but, until it grows even larger than it already is, the only thing we can do is Believe.


Jonathan Coutiño, NoobFeed
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General Information

Halo 4


Platform(s): Xbox 360
Publisher(s): 343 Industries
Developer(s): Microsoft
Genres: First-Person Shooter
Themes: Action, Adventure
Release Date: 2012-11-06

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