Games

'Halo' Has Always Been Bad at Serialized Stories

The games may be fun to play, but there's no denying that the series has always been awful at serialized storytelling.


Halo 5: Guardians

Genre: Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: 343 Industries

Let’s start with the positive. Halo is great at creating moments: daring escapes from collapsing spaceships or last ditch desperate offensives, sticking someone with a plasma grenade, the first time fighting a Hunter, the squirrelly controls of a Warthog, and the dogfights in a Banshee. Also, I still love the twisting paths of alliances and betrayals that makes up the narrative of Halo 3. However, there's a reason that ODST and Reach remain the best games in the series. They're both stand-alone games, self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end all in one campaign, complete with character arcs, narrative arcs, and mysteries that are introduced and then satisfyingly resolved.

Then there's the Master Chief Collection, which for the purposes of this discussion includes Halo 4 and the new Halo 5: Guardians, which represents a series that has actually gotten worse in its storytelling over the years.

The first game worked as a standalone story mainly by virtue of being first. There were no guarantees of a sequel, so it had to tell a complete tale of its own, and it was a damn good tale. It was a surprisingly somber war story, with the humans desperately outmatched by multiple alien races, set on a genuinely mysterious ringworld with a catchy name: Halo. The ending was left open for a sequel, with Master Chief and Cortana left drifting in unknown space as the only survivors, but the game had a clear resolution for its central conflict. The evil Covenant aliens were defeated, and the Halo ring was destroyed.

Halo 2 is where everything started to go wrong. Since the previous game ended with the heroic pair adrift in space, the sequel naturally opened... with them receiving a medal of commendation? On a space station around earth? How they got there is never explained, that missing plot was left for one of the many novels based on the franchise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I like a franchise that crosses media, and I like exploring a world through different mediums, but those additional stories shouldn’t be a prerequisite for entry into the next game. Halo 2 was a sequel to the previous game, not a sequel to the novel, yet it refused to acknowledge the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor. It was still somehow confident enough in its serialization to label itself as a “part 2” of the overall Halo story. Then there was that infamous ending. One of the most unsatisfying surprise cliffhangers in the history of gaming.

To its credit, Halo 3 picked up right where Halo 2 left off and really did complete the story. It’s probably the best “Master Chief” Halo story for that very reason. It ends the war between mankind and the Covenant, it doesn’t resolve the war with a deus ex machina, and it takes a wonderfully twisty path to that ending. Funny enough, Halo 3 also ends with Master Chief and Cortana drifting in unknown space. That’s two good games out of three, not bad so far.

Halo 4 also picked up right where Halo 3 left off and really did tell its own new tale. Its new developer, 343 Industries, clearly learned from the storytelling mistakes of their predecessors. Unfortunately, that left them free to make all new, even worse mistakes because this is where the serialization of the Halo Universe fully fell apart.

The best thing that you can say about the Bungie-developed Halo games is that their failures at serialization don’t impact your understanding of each individual game’s story. Halo 2 had a terrible beginning and an even worse ending, but I could at least follow the plot from beginning to end. Halo 4, on the other hand, revolved around a villain that was closely linked to the complex political history of the Halo Universe, a political history that the games had all but ignored up to this point in favor of focusing on the more immediate war with the Covenant. Because of this omission, Halo 4 had to rush though some exposition that only left players with more questions than answers as to who this mysterious Didact baddie really was.

It would be one thing if he were just a poorly developed villain. There are plenty of those in gaming, and they can be disappointing, they’re hardly ruinous to a game’s plot. The larger issue with Halo 4 was that the Didact actually was a well-defined character... in the Forerunner Saga books set before the events of Halo 4. The game was literally handed a pre-made, pre-developed character and still failed to flesh him out as anything more than a generic "I hate humans" evil alien. Even worse was that the characters knew him by name as soon as he showed up, yet no one ever filled the player in. The characters, the game, and the developers wrongly assumed that players had already read that trilogy of books (yet even that doesn't explain why Cortana knows who he is, that information is literally hidden in collectibles). Halo 4 effectively connected itself to previous games, but failed to stand on its own as a good story. Whatever lessons 343 Industries learned were overshadowed by their own mistakes.

This brings us to Halo 5: Guardians, a game that once again changes the status quo of the world without informing the player about it. When we meet Master Chief in this game, he's running around with a crew of other Spartan super-soldiers. Quick back story: Master Chief was supposed to be the last of the Spartans. Quick update: He's not. Spartans are everywhere now, whether it be the new team of volunteers or the handful of original Spartans that just happened to survive yet for some reason never appeared in previous games. Then there’s the now traditionally poor writing that has characters already up-to-speed on events, so no attempt is made to explain certain twists or developments to the player.

To be fair, Guardians does continue the story from 4, following through on the ramifications of the death of Cortana. However, just when you might think the franchise was improving its storytelling, the game ends with another cliffhanger that leaves its core conflict unresolved. It's an interesting cliffhanger, admittedly, but if history is any indication, Halo 6 will follow this interesting story thread to yet another unsatisfying ending. Or another cliffhanger.

That’s two good games out of five, a less than stellar track record.

Halo is supposed to have an expansive universe, but the games offer some of the worst world building of any franchise in recent history. They refuse to acknowledge their own contradictions and seemingly can't be bothered to tell a complete and coherent story on their own, consistently relying on outside media to fill in important plot points. A change in developer has only made things worse. If anything, Halo is unique in its refusal to change what's broken. Its dedication to narrative failure would be admirable if it weren't so depressing.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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