19-Oct-2022 Commentary

Halo’s diminishing mythology — and why Cortana is the key to bringing it back

Halo then: a word that asked a thousand questions. Halo now: a word that answers far, far more. In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved introduced a gameplay sandbox unlike no other — one that extended beyond the linear hallways of its corridor-crawling siblings. The premise: use its arsenal of weapons and vehicles to forge your own path on developer Bungie’s intergalactic highway — go where they want, but have some small say in how you get there.

That highway was an ancient one, too. A storytelling sandbox littered with vast monoliths and symbology of a civilization no longer with us.

And it was full of unanswered questions.

Call it mystery, call it awe — the name doesn’t matter: that sense, that feeling of the unknown is just as crucial to the Halo sandbox as guns, grenades or melee. But this part of Halo’s sandbox has slowly diminished since its debut 19 years ago — and why it feels fundamentally different now. The trinity remains intact, but the master it serves feels indescribably transformed.

Halo’s menu screen expertly captures that feeling. A gargantuan relic hanging in space scored by a Gregorian chant that feels transcendent, religious and unknowable. That’s how Halo feels.

But that was around a dozen games ago.

Back then, we didn’t understand the game’s parasitic antagonists; we didn’t know why we were called ‘Reclaimer’. These questions were a pillar of a game riddled with egregious design flaws — from repetitive levels and back-to-front missions, to redundant weaponry and suspect balancing. You wanted to push through those flaws in part to find answers to these questions, and for the cracking gunplay.

Blanks in the script effectively created a universe unto themselves — populated by the imaginings and speculations of us, the player. Bungie built a world around cliché sci-fi tropes — ring worlds, super soldiers, extinct beings — and augmented it with silence, giving the impression of a much larger universe beyond.

But those blanks were filled in the countless games, comics and novels over the two decades that followed. With each question answered, our sandbox shrunk as their facts were canonised, fixed and absolutely absolute. They were usually lesser, too, as singular creatives couldn’t compete with the meta-narratives we created for ourselves — such as creating our own adventures or making sense of the unexplained.

Cortana, Master Chief’s AI companion, was the caretaker of the imagination sandbox. She, like fans, drew on the information around her to form a conclusion. She theorized, just like us — acting as the weigh scale of knowledge and mysterious ignorance. She kept us from complete befuddlement, without tearing down the curtain concealing the universe at large. With her talk of time and technology, she hints at a world that makes Master Chief feel small. It’s what makes Halo so fascinating — there’s scope and scale across time, not just location. Physical manifestation is just one dimension in which Halo felt — not feels — epic.

But despite more epic budgets, Halo lost that feeling. As Chief you were special, respected — just enough to feel like a bit of a big deal. In Halo 4, you learn your suit and Cortana are effectively predestined. Chief is no longer a pawn caught in some intergenerational, intergalactic game with pieces set in motion long, long ago. He’s more akin to a king, a key piece on the board.

Here, the blanks become imbalanced. The pond grew, as did you. Large alien structures forever beyond your comprehension now sit at eye level. Master Chief is effectively one of them — with origins nearly as ancient as the halo array itself. Everything is now on the table, all of it knowable, quantifiable — and the antithesis of Halo’s menu screen.

Halo 4, then, peered behind the curtain to reveal the disappointingly human-like race that built the halos, until its sequel tore that curtain down. Halo 5 removed the Cortana we knew from the equation altogether, benching a core component of the Halo sandbox.

It’s why Halo 5 feels different — and even more removed from the games before it.

You can peer into the imagination sandbox on YouTube. Hours upon hours of videos delve into and dissect lore, often injecting theories to cover blanks in the script that have still yet to be filled. Those theories tend to be the most interesting parts, as authors insert their own take on key events in cannon. They unwittingly re-introduce that element of mystery lost so long ago, as they spotlight events you never thought to question — introducing new blanks to the script.

And as for the games to come, Halo Infinite is yet a tale untold. But a non-numbered title on a new generation suggests a potential break from business as usual. With this seemingly semi-reboot comes new questions, new blanks. The game’s success will partly depend on which blanks are filled, and how — alongside the developer’s ability to re-introduce Cortana as the guardian of that imagination sandbox.

With all that said, the death of wonder in this make-believe universe does seem almost inevitable — like popular universes before it. The unfettered compulsion to milk every conceivable penny from every conceivable angle means we know too much. Gaps our minds once jumped are now filled with the cement of corporate want and creative curiosity.

With that reality in mind, we can place faith in the creators of things to come — even if we can’t always understand the minds of those creators. Or we can become the creators of our own worlds instead, taking parts of the universes we love to become the creator-gods we were in awe of all along.

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