WARNING: Halo 5 (and other installments) spoilers ahead.
On Saturday morning I set up my shiny new Xbox One; at 10 pm on Sunday I completed Halo 5. It was awesome, if a bit short. I loved it. Of course I loved it, I adore the Halo games. There’s just one thing that detracted from my experience and it could, very easily, have been mitigated.
I’ve loved Halo since the first time I played it. I was a latecomer to the franchise, never owning an original XBox. I borrowed a friend’s original Xbox copies of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 and played them on my 360. I was completely drawn in. In one of the first posts on these very pages I professed my love for Halo, and I still believe that it is one of the first – maybe the first – non-literary or cinematic science fiction epic which stands in its own right.
Ironically, it’s the epic nature of Halo which ultimately detracted from my Halo 5 experience.
You see, Halo isn’t just a series of video games. It has spawned many books, several comics, a web-serialised movie and a full-length feature. Authors such as Greg Bear, Karen Traviss and Eric Nylund have leant their considerable talents to crafting the world which the Master Chief strives to save. For the sake of simplicity, let’s borrow from Star Wars and call this stuff the Extended Universe.
In the early days I bought the first few books. The first three of which consisted of a pre-Halo origin story (The Fall of Reach), a novelisation of the first game (The Flood) and a narrative bridge between the Halo: CE and Halo 2 (First Strike). The fourth is Ghosts of Onyx, which reveals that the Master Chief is not the last surviving Spartan, and that his Blue Team comrades have survived their last mission in the Forerunner shield-world known as Onyx.
As a reader of these books I had dearly hoped that Halo 3 would take them into account; turns out it didn’t really have to. Then came Halo: Reach, which was a re-telling of the novel Fall of Reach from another Spartan’s perspective, and it did take some of the extended universe canon into account. I was delighted!
Then, not long after, we got Halo 4 and it absolutely required knowledge of the extended universe to understand bits of it. Some of my friends were confused, “Why is Dr Halsey in jail?” they asked. I knew. I’d read Ghosts of Onyx. I felt smug.
Again, I was delighted – this is how it should be, I thought. It should all tie together, be it a book or a game, it’s all Halo and it should all flow together. It’s beautiful, man!
But then I fell away from the extended Halo universe. There were other books, other comics, and Halo 5 wasn’t even confirmed at this point.
So when Halo 5 came did come along I had no knowledge of any canon established after Ghosts of Onyx, other than the Halo: Forward Unto Dawn web series, and I knew that the anniversary re-issue of the original trilogy featured a character called Spartan Jameson Locke who also appeared in the TV ads for Halo 5 and was a bog standard human in Halo: Nightfall.
When I fired up Halo 5, bearing in mind I love these games and consider myself a fan, here’s what confused me:
Locke, previously a bog-standard human is now a Spartan IV; when did that programme become viable?
Locke’s team member, Buck (played by Nathan Fillion) was last seen as a standard soldier in Halo: ODST. When was he made into a Spartan?
Halsey is out of prison and is running with a gang of Covenant Elites. She’s also lost an arm. How did any of this happen?
Master Chief has been reunited with Blue Team, seemingly for some time, and they’re out doing missions again, kicking ass and taking names.
Cortana, whom I previously thought had sacrificed her rampant self in order to save the Chief at the end of Halo 4, is apparently alive and kicking and able contact the Chief through some form of telepathy. Wut?
The Elites are engaged in civil war on their homeworld.
The Arbiter has some sort of history with Locke, and he’s not too keen on him.
So, not too far into the beginning of the campaign, I decided I needed to bone up and spent a good hour reading through the Halo wikis to catch up on what I’d missed whilst (successfully) avoiding spoilers for what was coming.
During my reading, one thing became clear – all of this missing info was explained in the extended universe comics, books and live action productions. Some of it was in the Master Chief Collection anniversary release of the original games.
Frustrating as it was to have to break the flow of the campaign so early on and catch up, I still think this is awesome and beautiful. The extended universe flows from the games into books and comics and live action web shows and movies, which in turn flow straight back into the games. This is transmedia storytelling as it ought to be.
But the problem is that the games are the focal points. Not everyone who plays the games and loves the narrative will have the time or inclination to immerse themselves in this transmedia experience; or like me they’ve been meaning to get round to it but time and life had other plans.
These people are no less legitimate fans than the ones who’ve consumed it all (do I sound defensive?), so what can 343 Industries to mitigate that feeling of being lost, of having missed something?
Well, we borrowed the term Extended Universe from Star Wars earlier, so let’s do so again.
All Halo 5 really needed, right at the start, was one of these:
Well maybe not exactly that, but the Halo equivalent of the Star Wars opening crawl, whatever that may be, for the fans who never read past Ghosts of Onyx (or anything at all) or never picked up the Master Chief edition of the original games.
When 343 Industries took over Halo from Bungie I was worried that they were going to screw it up. Their first release, Halo: Reach, was outstanding. It killed that worry and buried it; they know Halo and are doing it proud. I’m confident that they could find some way to bridge the narrative gap that wouldn’t feel forced or unnatural, and gamers like me would have a much smoother campaign experience.