I’m going to be going deep into spoilers here, so if you haven’t played the game yet and have any intention to, I suggest you turn back.
So, I’ve been fighting off the urge to write this article for a little while, because I know how it is going to come off. It could be seen as preachy, or just trying to be contrarian. There can be a lot of controversy to drum up by putting something you know people will probably disagree with and putting that right in the title. I promise that isn’t the intention here. I also didn’t want to get into discussing my opinion on the game’s story until my full review, but the more I think about it, the more I know I’m not going to be able to talk about everything I want to in a reasonable amount of words that also evaluate the rest of the game.
Really though, what finally pushed me over the edge on penning this is a culmination of several in depth conversations with my peers and colleagues about Halo 5‘s campaign, which I adore. A lot of interesting counter arguments have been thrown at me, but honestly, the more I talk about it the more I’m convinced that this is something worth putting out there.
In case you missed it, Halo 5‘s story has been a big issue for a lot of people. From Polygon‘s Ben Kuchera saying that the story was a “dismal failure” and that it didn’t matter, to fans and other critics alike decrying the game’s narrative, it’s been rough for the game on launch. Add in a controversial cliff hanger ending, and we are really in the weeds here.
Honestly though, and yes this is my opinion, and yes, I’m a huge fan of what 343 have done to the series since taking over, I think this is one of the very best campaign’s in the Halo canon. I really do want to try and dig into why though. I’m not just blindly defending a studio I really like, and nor do I think 343 need me to do that. They’re big boys who I am sure are confident in what they’ve written. I do think there is an interesting discussion that is not being had here that some are passing off as bad work though.
Halo 5 is actually doing a lot with the narrative here, so it’s tough to know where to start. Perhaps the most logical place would be the most visible, the introduction of Agent Locke and Fireteam Osiris. Halo 5 goes the Metal Gear Solid 2 route by putting the main character in the series somewhat into the background in favour of a new one. This was always going to be controversial, because when fans play a game in a franchise, they have an expectation to play as the character they’ve grown with for years. I understand that. But hey, let’s face it, Master Chief is one of the least interesting things about the Halo universe. He is a super soldier who always gets the job done and never takes his mask off. He is defined by his bravery and efficiency, but beyond that, he doesn’t really have a huge personality, but that does make sense. Most first person shooter games have fairly personality deficient protagonists because, it’s partially your perspective. It is meant to be you. Adding too much personality and character can alienate yourself from the actions on screen. Beyond that, Chief is more or less only defined by his relationship with Cortana (more on that later…).
What he is to the Halo universe is way more interesting though. He is a symbol. A legend. A near god made flesh to society. Taking us out of his shoes and looking at him from the third person automatically changes our relationship with Master Chief, allowing us to observe him. It’s something that the very good HunttheTruth podcast did. We considered Master Chief not as ourselves, but as a real mythical being. In Halo 5, the existence of Fireteam Osiris allows both us to change our relationships with Chief by consider his effect on the narrative, but also allows him to grow as a character without us. It makes him unpredictable, especially in the wake of his grief of losing Cortana at the end of Halo 4. It puts us on the back foot of his intentions the entire time we don’t play as him. While I wish it could have been dragged out a little longer, there are moments of real tension in the narrative that made me wonder where Chief will land when faced with a choice of being reunited with his best friend and weighing up what that’s worth. It’s an incredibly smart move in my book, and while I understand why it’s not the case, I’d honestly have adored seeing Halo 5 spend its entire duration without taking up the mantle of Master Chief at all.
Now, for another point that has rubbed people the wrong way. Let’s talk about the end game spoiler of Cortana turning full antagonist, setting the stage moving forward in the series. I find this to be an inspired choice, and one that hinges on one of the most important parts of the entire Master Chief centric portions of the franchise. I said about a paragraph ago that I truly do believe the most interesting thing about Master Chief is his relationship with Cortana. It’s why I was so fond of Halo 4. The Master Chief is a relic of a bygone era of video game protagonists being personality free bad ass super soldiers. Bungie’s tenure with the character wasn’t really about making John 117 a human being. As stated earlier, you were meant to be him. While I like the plotting of the first three games a lot, that really is a lot of what they are. The are just a lot of plot. There is no real human connection there. You just do one thing, which has an effect on the universe, it then responds and then you respond in kind by shooting more aliens. There weren’t many relationships to get attached to beyond thinking “That guy is cool!” “He’s a bad ass!” “I like her”. All the characters felt pretty singular though, not defined by their relationships. It worked back then, but games have become more sophisticated and we’ve also been playing games in this franchise for nearly 15 years. It’s time to grow from a narrative standpoint.
343’s tenure has been all about building Chief, Cortana and more as real characters for a modern era of blockbuster storytelling. The constant and most logical place to expand on that is the one place where Chief’s character has derived from in the past, his relationship with Cortana. Both of these characters, although to a lesser extent Cortana, both require each other in order to exist. The whole series hinges on that relationship. The idea of driving them apart and making them diametrically opposed against one another going forward is a very interesting place to bring them. There is a lot of drama potential in there, and not just in a merely plot-thick way pf Halo 1-3. This is now personal on a human level we can recognise. Friend against Friend is a story device that has been used for millennia, and if you consider how long this series has been going on for, it really is the logical destination for these two’s relationship. As for the reasoning, which is that Cortana is trying to make an AI led New World Order type entity to protect the universe no matter the cost, that makes sense. You take the two things that differentiate both Cortana and Chief most, their literal state of existence, and drive a huge wedge between both characters on those grounds.
If I do have a fault with Halo 5‘s story, it is a mixture of the last two major points I made. On one hand it is both trying to distance us from Chief, allowing him to grow as a character and make decisions we wouldn’t feel annoyed at him making while we were in his shoes. On the other, you have a plot line that increasingly hinges on the personal relationship of Chief and Cortana. There is a push and pull on the micro and macro stage here and it can make the pull between both a little strained. The campaign is having its cake and eating it too. However, I firmly believe the ground work was done for this in Halo 4. We saw both of these characters grow that relationship in the previous game, so we don’t need to focus on the latter so much in Halo 5. It also allows that latter point to be a bigger focus going forward, and Halo 5 clearly has an eye on the future.
And with that, we come to the other point of contention I’ve seen the most, the ending of the game. Look, this one is going to split people. 343 end the game on a cliffhanger, and some people hate that. They will always hate it, and that is okay. Honestly, I like cliffhangers…when they are done right. Halo 2, famously, is cliffhangers done wrong. The story of the game hadn’t concluded. It cut short of a resolution to the conflict of the game. I sincerely believe Halo 5 on the other hand is a cliffhanger done (partially) right. We’d gotten the answer to the question the game posed. What happened to Cortana, what were her motives and what was Chief going to do about it? By the end of the game, that is all pretty clear. However, Halo 5 goes a little further and the game ends with Cortana fully embracing her anger at those defying her, setting the scene moving forward. It didn’t end in the middle of the scene. It didn’t end without any resolution. We know where we stand. Yes, the overarching resolution of the franchise is still to come, but a lot of the best trilogies middle chapter do exactly this. The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers are prime examples that tell their story and leave a lot hanging to answer in the third installment. On the latter example, I find Halo 5‘s ending to be closer to the The Two Towers of 343’s trilogy, while Halo 2 was certainly more The Desolation of Smaug.
And okay, okay, okay. I hear you. I’ve been blabbering on for a long time about why I think Halo 5 is a great narrative and why I personally find all of the narrative ideas running through it compelling. Most of you are mostly thinking “You’re an idiot”, with maybe, if I’m lucky, a sliver thinking “Maybe he has a point”, but I’m sure all of you are thinking, “was this really worth talking about for nearly 2000 words?” Simply, yes I really do think so. For me, Halo is one of the premier Blockbuster first person shooters on the market. It’s easy to say, this is just a ‘shooty, shooty’ bang bang game for MTN DEW chugging bros!”, but really we all know video games are played by a huge variety of people and that these mainstream titles are the ones most people see. Honestly, I think 343 are doing creatively interesting things with their story, for all of the reasons I’ve pointed out. I think studios should be braver in shaking up their franchises creatively and taking more chances with where they take their story. But hey, maybe I haven’t convinced you. Maybe you still think Halo 5 is the worst story in the series. But even then, you should be mad as hell, because this is what a lot of people are playing. This is the mainstream, and pretending that games like this don’t sway public opinion on this medium strikes me as a little dismissive. Honestly, I’m very happy with what Halo 5 does for the universe, the player and the ‘blockbusters’ in games. It takes chances and tells the story it wants to tell. Blockbusters matter, and in my opinion, there just aren’t many doing it better or more interestingly than Halo on this scale.