Rethinking Halo

Halo is an institution. It was Microsoft’s launch title for the release of the Xbox, and remained its most famous and successful game throughout all of the console’s lifecycle. For years, it’s been one of the qualitative benchmarks in the first-person-shooter genre. A sequel was produced, which famously failed to live up to expectations, and now the third (and supposedly last) installment has finally found its way to the new Microsoft console, the Xbox 360.

It is impossible to understand what Microsoft is now trying to do with the Xbox without first understanding Halo — as Mike Doolittle of wrote, “The first Halo is, in many respects, the story of the Xbox console.” The game is a modern epic, and Microsoft’s struggle is also, in some ways, epic (at least in terms of its presentation). This subtle relationship between producer and product is still ongoing, but if we’re going to understand it (and understand what today’s release of Halo 3 really means), then we’ve got to go back with a fresh eye — back at the beginning of the epic.

I. The Hero

Halo is a story about an alien invasion, a genre that comes with a history as long as a giraffe’s leg, and is set far away from earth, in a distant, unknown region of space. The Pillar of Autumn, the spaceship on which the game begins, was apparently trying to lure the alien enemies away from the spatial quadrant of earth and ended up lost. But this we only find out through the manual. The actual game begins mid-narrative, as the Pillar of Autumn exits hyperspace and finds itself before a bizarre alien infrastructure in the shape of a ring, which, we later learn, is Halo. Alien ships take off from Halo and start attacking the Pillar of Autumn.

The lack of background at the beginning of the game is simply striking. The narrative is inaugurated as abruptly as the alien offensive; the setting is a pure vacuum, not only in the sense that it takes place in the emptiness of an unchartered corner of space but also in that there is no context given at all. We begin the game, and leap into the void.

Nor does this change once we assume control of our shooter’s main character: Master Chief, a rather deep-voiced fellow in a bulky green armor, is put in our control with no explanation or background other than a vague reference to his status as a “special” soldier. Ordinarily the presentation of the hero, especially in epics, is significant and telling. But who is Master Chief?

He has no name: the title Master Chief indicates only his rank and itself sounds pretty redundant, composed as it is of two words which are almost synonymous. The manual describes him as a cyborg of a kind classified as Spartan-II. He possesses no distinctive physical traits of his own, since he is hermetically and entirely sealed into his armour. His general appearance under the combat suit is a question mark, and his skin color is unknown. If his deep baritone voice didn’t give him away, he could even be a woman.

‘So who the hell am I?’ wonders the player, as his adventure begins to unfold. But Master Chief provides no answers: where his face should be, the visor of his helmet returns a polished reflection of the outside world. Instead of a face, Master Chief has a mirror.

The significance of the mirror should not be underestimated. Psychoanalysis has long recognised it as crucial in the formation of identity (especially Lacan), and it stands as almost the diametric opposite of the face which it substitutes. The face is the first means by which we distinguish our friends, the stage where all our emotions are played out, and the connection point for communication: When we speak, we generally look our interlocutor in the face. Master Chief’s face is not simply hidden; we look into Master Chief’s face on the cover of Halo’s box, and we see the abyss of identity. At best, we see our own image reflected back there, so that asking the question ‘Who am I?’ only refers us back to our mute, blank, interrogative image.

Despite what the games’ developers have asserted, Master Chief should not be regarded as a mere avatar, an empty vehicle whose lack of personality increases players’ sense of immersion. Halo’s protagonist has a very deep and personal relationship with the characters and locations he visits. For one thing, his identity void seems exacerbated by one of the most explicit and powerful Oedipus complexes ever seen in a videogame: Master Chief’s relationship with ship commander Captain Keyes and the fascinating artificial intelligence Cortana is blatantly framed in a dialectic of restrictive authority versus desire. Cortana is constantly idealised: intellectually, she is seen as the repository of all human knowledge, the one who always knows what to do, while physically, her virtual status only enhances her value as an ideal form.

Master Chief spends most of the game trying to satisfy her requests and commands. Early on in the first level, Chief literally internalizes her by inserting her memory chip into his helmet. Her voice then becomes the background to all his actions, telling him what to do and where to go, and his (your) success will be measured by the degree to which he has fulfilled her wishes.

If Cortana is the only object of desire in the game, then Captain Keyes is Chief’s only superior. However, this superiority seems utterly unjustified. Considering that you, as Master Chief, are stronger, faster, younger, and better in combat, there seems to be little reason for you to be taking his orders, let alone saving him when he messes up. Why should Cortana always report to him and never to you?

The tension is eventually relieved at the end of game by the fulfilment of the classical Oedipal fantasy. Keyes, we discover in another of our missions to save him, has been absorbed by an insect-like parasitic alien. Now his monstrosity is revealed: He is horrid and repulsive, his features twisted into something frightfully inhuman. Egged on by Cortana herself, who laconically claims that this is “what he would have wanted,” Master Chief drives his fist through Keyes’ head and smashes it to a pulp. He has killed his superior in rank. Now Cortana reports only to him.

II. The Covenant and Us

It’s so rare for a piece of modern heroic narrative (assuming that Halo can be defined as such) not to present a clear dialectic of Good versus Evil, that the description of the Bad Guys on the back of the box is worth quoting in full:

Bent on humankind’s extermination, a powerful fellowship of alien races known as the Covenant is wiping out Earth’s fledgling interstellar empire.

There. That’s all you get to know about the Covenant. Two lines in the manual add that they’ve been attacking for 30 years and that “battlefield reports indicate a religious underpinning to their genocidal campaign.” Other than that, however, they’re barely given a background at all. And most important, almost nothing is done to present them as evil.

The first encounter with the Covenant, in this sense, is famously atypical. The Covenant, you quickly find out, aren’t very frightening. Awe-inspiring, yes — exciting, surprising, even somewhat fascinating with their bright blue and red armours and lasers. But they’re not scary. If anything, at times they can even be quite comedic, as the small ones run around in confusion bumping into each other and parodying the lingo of the marines in a squeaky, cartoonish voice.

It takes until halfway through the game before we’re introduced to something more recognizably monstruous: The ‘Fluud’, some sort of virus which possesses people like in John Carpenter’s The Thing, attacks everything it finds and comes in the shape of deformed, mutilated, zombie human beings or Covenant. These creatures are undoubtedly evil: They actualise the threat of death in their very aesthetic presentation, much like George Romero’s zombies or H.R. Giger’s Alien did. They violate our sense of order, of physical and psychical integrity. These are, we feel, the real bad guys in the game — an enemy that we feel justified in fighting even without the plot’s telling us to. They are the horror.

The game does everything it can to make the Fluud scary, with attacks in the dark and dramatic cut scenes and set pieces. But it avoids bestowing such a treatment on the Covenant. At the same time, no attempt is made to humanize the Covenant either, no suggestions along the lines of, say, the Fluud being the real bad guys and humanity and the Covenant having to ally to defeat them. The Covenant remain our enemies throughout, on account of that one line on the back of the box: They are, after all, “bent on humankind’s extermination”.

This sentence, however, leads to another problem, because it assumes that the good guys, the ones we’re fighting for, are the humans. But the humanity of the marines is little more than a pretext. For all that we can see, they seem to be doing exactly the same things as the Covenant, if a little less effectively. Heck, humans and Covenant even speak the same language (only the Fluud is excluded from the use of language).

If the humans-vs.-Covenant scenario (which dominates the first half of the game and permeates much of the next) does not correspond to a good-vs.-evil dialectic, how are we to read it?

Well, compare the presentation of the two forces. Humanity in Halo is represented exclusively by the military. If you meet a human being, he will always be a soldier. He will always be male too. Human ambiences as seen in the Pillar of Autumn are sterile and utilitarian, always coming in the two depressing colours of grey and black. The same is true of the marines’ uniform.

By comparison, the Covenant seem a very spiritual group. The words that we associate with them have a strangely religious ring to them — halo, Covenant, the Silent Cartographer (one of their key locations, a name which recalls the textual nature of religion, based on ancient scripture from authors who are now silent). The world in which the Covenant live is basically a garden of Eden, with idyllic natural scenarios and no fauna. It is so familiar and earth-like in its appearances (the terrestrial kinds of trees, the colors of grass, sky and sea, the climate), that it’s hard not to interpret Halo not as the Covenant’s natural abode but as the marines’ escapist fantasy, which the Covenant merely contaminated.

Where marines seem to bring to mind artificiality and force (or forcefulness), the Covenant seem to control magic. Where marines fight with brutal, loud, mechanical machine-guns and shotguns, the armed Covenant employ magical-looking fireballs, thunderbolts, and balls of light, along with bright shields of light and invisibility. Their ships are fleshy and life-like on the inside, in vivid colours of purple and blue, against the grey chambers of the marines. If the stainless-steel Pillar of Autumn, with its arrow-straight, ‘phallic’ form, is a trope of rigidity, authority, and monological law, then Halo, with its circular shape and Edenic natural scenarios, signifies life and renewal, regeneration and continuity.

The opposition between the humans and the Covenant is not about good or evil. If anything, it seems a struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian virtues, between materialism and spiritualism, and it remains unresolved. After all, Master Chief is not a marine. He doesn’t wear the uniform, his armour is built with Covenant technology (most notably the shield), and he uses alien weapons and gadgets. In fact, he might not even be a human. But he’s not a Covenant either. Master Chief is a blank, a ‘No-Man,’ and as such he stands in between the two sides that he is presented with, resolving on neither, seduced by both.

At the heart of Halo, then, lies a powerful crisis of identity, one so strong that the game can not even resolve the distinction between good and evil, either in its epic hero or in its epic narrative. That this identity crisis should mirror Microsoft’s own as it first entered the console-gaming business is hardly a coincidence.

III. Halo and Microsoft

The first Halo is, in many respects, the story of the Xbox console, that is, the Xbox’s success reflects that of its signature game. But the game also mirrors the ideological history of the Xbox: a dazzled arrival in a foreign land, attempts to attain not survival but supremacy with whatever one may find, picking up both local and alien weapons and identities, and using them to one’s own advantage.

When it first came out, the Xbox was not like the PlayStation 2 or the Nintendo Gamecube, in the sense that it was not a follow-up. If anything, it was an illegitimate child, an off-shoot of the company’s core business. Also, it meant a war with the Japanese giants, a fact that Microsoft knew very well. The Xbox was literally about producing unfamiliar products against foreign competitors. Stranger in a strange land. Microsoft’s solution was to use not only its own weapons but also those of the competitors/ adversaries (or should we say ‘aliens’?) against them.

From the beginning, Microsoft signed up organisations and developers left and right. American firms were purchased outright while at the same time Japanese companies like Sega and Tecmo were encouraged to work on the Xbox. Apparently, Microsoft even tried to acquire Nintendo, and even though they were unsuccessful, they did manage to rip away Rareware from them.

This was Microsoft’s own personal epic struggle, and it is only too fitting that its most successful enterprise was the enrolment of the company commissioned with the production of the Xbox’s epic launch game — Bungie Studios, who brought Halo with them. The game was already in preproduction when Microsoft came along, but the new epic requirements profoundly changed the nature of the game.

The paradox of both these epic struggles is that their huge economic success goes hand in hand with the disorientation of their creators and their narrative lack of a sense of direction. In terms of maturity, both struggles clearly fail. Master Chief can not resolve whether he belongs to the Covenant or the marines and concludes the game retiring into his Oedipal fantasy. (“There’s only us left,” Cortana tells him in the final cut scene.) No more could Microsoft find a satisfying compromise between its American identity and Japanese product orientation when presenting (publicising) the console. Inevitably, the name that it decided to give to its console, after the working title ‘DirectXbox’ in homage of its homegrown Direct X, became merely Xbox. X, the mark of the unknown: Is it a Pandora’s box? Is it Captain Flint’s treasure chest? We don’t know — it’s just X.

This is the mark, the emblem, the symbol that Microsoft chose as they entered the gaming fray. Now, with the sequels mounting, we have to wonder whether Master Chief is going to walk out of scene still with his helmet on, or if he is going to reveal a face. And if he does (big ‘if’), what will we be able to read in that face? Would he turn out to be a marine? A Covenant? Handsome? With glasses? With a beard? Black? A woman? Will he have found an identity, at last? Will Microsoft?

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