Dildev

Find more writings at dillondevelopment.wordpress.com

Find more writings at dillondevelopment.wordpress.com
Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Author’s note: this essay was written before Halo: Envoy’s release and published before I read it, which is why the section discussing “Oasis” as a groundwork for the novel is so very short.


Jat’s was the worst death in all of Halo. It was a coldly cynical death. Empty and brutal.

And it was narratively perfect.

On three separate levels.

To begin with, I must accentuate the fact that Jat’s death is consistent within the confines of the short story “Oasis” itself. While the manner in which this simple act both follows up on threads and lays groundwork for future fiction is impressive, those are both secondary. As discussed in my last article, moments in stories need to work first in their own context before operating on a different layer, such as a reference, callback, cameo, etc. (Smoke and Shadow). Oasis” was not marketed as the opening chapter to Envoy or as part of a series. It was released in Halo: Fractures as a standalone short story. Therefore, Jat’s death needs to make sense without referring to outside media. And it does.


Solidifying a Theme

The main theme of “Oasis” is survival.

It opens with Dahlia surviving the dangerous fever, it continues with Dahlia recalling the times she and her family survived the Covenant assaults, and its main conflict is Dahlia fighting to ensure that her family survives.

The introduction of the Sangheili Jat at first appears to derail this theme. Up until his appearance, Dahlia has been entirely motivated by survival (of her or her family), but her act to save Jat’s was born out of righteousness.

This couldn’t be right, Dahlia thought. Even among the aliens, there was some kind of law, honor. You couldn’t just execute someone right there in the sand. (Fractures, p 372)

Dahlia’s choice to save Jat seems to be in direct contrast to the theme of survival. It draws attention from an enemy. It puts her life, and by extension, the lives of her family, at risk.

What Jat’s inclusion does is provide a cost to the theme of survival. Up until he enters the story, survival is something to be achieved by any means necessary, but Jat establishes that there is a price Dahlia is not willing to pay. She is not willing to be merciless.

Artwork by The Chronothaur – used with permission

Jat – both as a character and as a narrative function – continues to push Dahlia towards these choices that challenge her outlook on life and her initial stance on survival. He takes the initial theme and begins to shape it, which in turn, shapes Dahlia. The subthemes present in “Oasis” are numerous and complex, but the one that Jat’s death hammers home is change.

Joining the ranks of Benti and Olympia Vale in the category of “young women learning life lessons from Sangheili,” Dahlia goes from someone who unquestioningly hates Sangheili, especially Jat’s leader Rojka, to someone who cradles his head in death. The contrast between her and the militia who came to her rescue and murdered Jat is stark. She is told that she wouldn’t consider the Sangheili a friend if she had seen what had happened to the Outer Colonies during the Human-Covenant War.

But of course, she did come from the Outer Colonies. She did know what horrors were wrought in the war. But she changed. She changed because of Jat, and because of Jat, she lived.

And moving forward, Dahlia will survive because she is willing to change.


Groundwork

The second narrative level on which Jat’s death works is as a groundwork for future fiction.

From the novel’s title and summary, it’s clear that “Oasis” from Fractures is a set up for Envoy. We know that tensions between Sangheili and humans on Carrow are high. We know that there is are larger players at work on the alien side – Thars and Rojka – and that Sandholm will likely be targeted soon. All of this establishes that “Oasis” does not exist in a vacuum; it’s laying the groundwork for a larger story that is on its way.

 Halo Envoy cover

These all set the societal groundwork for Envoy, but Jat’s death sets the emotional stage.

Jat’s death at the hands of the colonists ensures that we know going into Envoy that the tension between Sangheili and humans is real. While there’s hope from in the likes of Dahlia, the carelessness with which Jat is dispatched escalates that conflict into which Envoy’s protagonist, Melody Azikiwe, is stepping. Even more telling than Jat’s execution is the dismissal of his death and Dahlia’s grief. It establishes that the larger community is going to reject an offer of peace, even if the offer is as great as the protection of a child. This establishes exactly what sort of stakes Azikiwe is going to be facing in Envoy.


Symbols and Metaphors

The final narrative level on which Jat and his death work is on the broader scale of the universe as a whole, as a metaphor for one part of the spectrum of human-Sangheili relations. When Halo: Fractures was first released, Archive member Grizzlei made this observation:

One of the lingering thoughts I have for Fractures is three different stories showcased three entirely unique experiences of Human-Sangheili cohabitation.

Within Trevelyan, tensions between the volunteers and their families from Earth and Sangheilos are the typical kinda strained as expected for late 2553 but the air is filled with optimism—that it could be a better place. On Carrow, absolutely nothing is ideal. Sangheili settlers have begun to forcibly colonize a Human world, constantly encroaching on O.C.’ers territory. Well-armed, motivated, and objective militias defend both sides, and both are more than willing to utilize them for the most petty reasons. Neither Human or Sangheili colonists have the backing of their homeworlds. Lastly, on Venezia, it’s literally business as usual. Human, Sangheili—you name it—they’re on Venezia, finding peace wherever they can all for the sake of starting anew, free of any national or religious allegiances.

This is science fiction at its best highlighting no one single way of life. Post-war civilizations now prominently encourage narratives to deliver more diverse circumstances. In conclusion, here’s a wonderful monologue from Stargate SG-1, episode 200:

“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asmiov once said, ‘Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction—its essence—has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’” (Archive)

The different characters and reactions that she is describing here is could be considered examples of “ficelle characters.”

Blackwell Reference Online specifically defines the ficelle as a “character whose role within the novel is to elicit information, which is conveyed to the reader without narratorial intervention” (BRO). Probably the most famous type of a ficelle is the “foil,” a character created specifically to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the protagonist. In his essay “The Human Context,” W. J. Harvey gives the ficelle its broadest definition yet: a character that “exists in the novel primarily to serve some function. Unlike the protagonist, he is ultimately the means to an end rather than an end in himself” (p 237).

Harvey goes onto list a multitude of functions that the ficelle can serve in the story before settling into the description of one in particular, which I will likewise be focusing on here. A ficelle, or rather a collection of ficelle characters can be used to function as a means to relate and propagate the effects of an epiphany throughout the story.

While Harvey uses the word “epiphany” to specifically describe a commonality in modern fiction around 1965, it can also be viewed in broader terms, as a critical moment of enlightenment, and thus change, in a story.

In order for an epiphany to carry an impact to the story’s conclusion, we must see “its effects radiating throughout time,” which “requires that the [epiphany] diffuses itself through many characters and many relationships” (p 245). In short, we must see the epiphany affecting characters other than the protagonist, and affecting them in different ways.

The [epiphany] itself must be gradually connected with the disparate and commonplace concerns of everyday life, through a careful gradation of characters from those who are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend [the protagonist’s experience] to those who, all unknowing, are brushed by the events [leading to the epiphany] (p 245).

This gradation of characters is the collection of ficelles. Characters who are affected by the protagonist’s epiphany, and who respond in a multitude of ways in order to provide depth and understanding to the reader.

Of course, in a franchise as broadly spread as Halo, ficelles to one story may also be protagonists for another. In this essay, the terms are not mutually exclusive.

Jat is one of many ficelle characters that are an exploration of the effects of Halo’s first big epiphany.

 

Now we must ask ourselves: when was the first big epiphany of the Halo Universe? Not in terms of canon chronology – as ho boy, that’s an argument for the ages – but in terms of canon publication?

If you have followed me on Halo-related social media for any stretch of time, it shouldn’t surprise you that my answer is not the Flood/Halo reveal in Combat Evolved, but Thel ‘Vadamee becoming Thel ‘Vadam in Halo 2.

This is more than wild fangirl speculation; all the reveals in the canon leading up to Halo 2 were still consistent with the environment of the Human-Covenant War. Child soldiers? Horrendous and shocking but appropriate for the environment. Reach falling? Earth being found by the Covenant? All appropriate for the environment.

Even the Flood and Halo in Combat Evolved do nothing more than escalate the current environment. There are no alliances forged between human and alien to combat the new menace; it’s “merely” a new player on the field. The Halo ring’s threat of mutually-assured destruction doesn’t cause the combatants to back down, it’s “merely” a new asset to take or deny the other party’s taking.

Halo 2, on the other hand, breaks the environment of the Human-Covenant War. This is the story that takes Halo from a very clear “us vs. them” battle into a fight for mutual peace. And the person on which this epiphany is centered is Thel.

Strangely enough, Thel is rather passive in his Journey up until his grand epiphany. He doesn’t actively pursue the truth until the very end, and his first alliance with humanity was based on necessity and was not his idea. But once the epiphany lands, in the control room of Delta Halo, it sticks, and then goes onto create the new environment that would define the Haloverse until the events of Halo 5.

With few exceptions – Henry and Benti from “The Mona Lisa” come to mind – every human-Sangheili relationship has been defined by and birthed from Thel’s choice in the control room of Delta Halo. Some of these are hopeful, as seen in Hunters in the Dark. Others are cynical, such as those displayed in the Kilo-Five trilogy or “The Return.”

As a ficelle, Jat becomes the embodiment of both the conflict on Carrow and the one propagated by ONI’s Parangosky. A Sangheili believes cooperation is the only way to survive, but humans just want the hingeheads dead. Richard Sekibo in Hunt the Truth is a similar ficelle to Jat, his human counterpart in many ways.

 

I would just like Noah Eichen to personally understand that I am still mourning this man.

Through the ficelle characters of Jat and Sekibo, we can see the effects of a cynical take on Thel’s epiphany. Before we go further, we must first establish what exactly Thel’s epiphany is, and for that, I turn to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

The Classical Monomyth is summarized by Campbell in the following description:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1956, p. 30).

Thel’s epiphany happens when he takes his step across the threshold between “the world of the common day” and into “the region of supernatural wonder.”

The normal world [of common day] is that which the protagonist occupies before the start of their journey.  It is often a place of comfort and safety or at least familiarity. However, there is something inherently wrong within this world (Campbell, 1956, p. 37).  The hidden world [of supernatural wonder] is a realm beyond what the protagonist initially experiences.  It is full of new wisdom and dangers, and most importantly, the power which can fix the wrong within the normal world. Thel’s normal world is the Covenant, more specifically the battlefield.  The hidden realm is diplomacy and peace, and the power from this realm is the ability to destroy the Covenant. …Not just the establishment as a whole, but the ideals which it represents [hierarchical oppression].  (Hero’s Journey of Thel ‘Vadam: Introduction)

For a further discussion of Thel’s monomythic Journey, visit ArbiterAnalysis on Tumblr.

The “region of supernatural wonder,” i.e. diplomacy and peace, is Thel’s epiphany. It’s the realization that ongoing destruction, and social/galactic elevation through destruction, is not what will bring about salvation. Cooperation will.

A critical line in Halo: Escalation hammers this home:

“Finding a way to pacify the Brutes and get access to their resources is in the UNSC’s best interests. And the Arbiter knows it’s in his best interest… He’s not happy about it, but as leader of the Sangheili, he knows it’s what’s best for his people.” – Admiral Hood, Escalation Issue #1.

Even when he isn’t happy with the idea of cooperation, Thel knows it’s the right thing and acts accordingly. And, as rest of the Escalation arc shows, he commits everything to it, regardless of his personal feelings.

A perfect ficelle to Thel, Serin Osman stares at almost the exact same situation, thinks the exact same thoughts – duty over emotion – and comes to the exact opposite conclusion:

She wondered if she was telling herself that [Hood’s and Thel’s peace treaty] was a meaningless exchange simply to justify what ONI was doing. If the Arbiter really could deliver peace, then she was doing everything in her power to stoke a revolt that would remove him. But she couldn’t gamble Earth’s future on the goodwill of one individual. What was that line the Parangosky never let her forget?
It’s not the enemy’s intentions that you have to consider. It’s their capability.
Osman was going to have those damn words tattooed on her arm one day (Glasslands, p 360)

Osman, Parangosky, Sapien Sunrise, and Jat’s murderers are all on the gradation of characters that “are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend” Thel’s epiphany in a cynical light. They look at diplomacy and cooperation, and instead of embracing it, they try to destroy it. Osman and Parangosky have yet to be fully successful – and there is still a potential for Osman’s view to change – but Sapien Sunrise and the militia on Carrow brought this interpretation of Thel’s epiphany to a brutal conclusion.

And because Halo’s story is not yet complete, Jat… and the likes of Sekibo, Osman, Rhu ‘Vrath, and perhaps Melody Azikiwe, all of them, for better or for worse, are symbols of what the galaxy could one day become.


W.J. Harvey’s “The Human Context” was originally published in the book Character and The Novel in 1965. All citations here are from its reprint in the essay collection The Theory of the Novel in 1967.


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Smoke and Shadow

Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Smoke and Shadow

Usually my reading journals are split into three sections: the style of the novel, its place in the science fiction genre, and how it connects to the expanded universe of Halo. Any deviation from that format is usually when one section is so broad and deep that it overwhelms the others, such as the discussion of AI personhood for Saint’s Testimony or human trafficking for Mortal Dictata.

Smoke and Shadow by Kelly Gay, however, is a different case. There will be no division between style, genre, and EU because this book makes it impossible to discuss one without the other; it’s all connected under the umbrella of fanservice.

Fanservice is the inclusion of material in a story with the intent to please the fanbase. When it is usually talked of, fanservice refers to the framing of a character in a manner that objectifies and sexualizes them with the purpose of titillation. This subset of fanservice has my contempt and will not be talked about further in this piece.

The fanservice I wish to discuss is that of intertextual references, in appealing to fan knowledge of the content. Every piece of Halo fiction has this sort of fanservice, but none abides in it as fully as Smoke and Shadow. Even more impressive: Smoke and Shadow avoids many of the major pitfalls that can happen when a story relies on fanservice.

One pitfall of fanservice use is that it may end up making the universe seem smaller than it is. Too many people know each other; there’s not enough mystery left to the universe.  Film critic Steven D. Greydanus calls this the “Shrinking World Syndrome” (Decent Films):

“As a franchise plays out, very often, the more the mythology expands, the smaller the universe gets. Previously unconnected characters and events that gave the fictional universe a certain expansiveness are increasingly tied together for dramatic effect, until the whole story is about a small group of closely connected individuals.”

This is not inherently a bad thing. Darwyn Cooke “shrinks” the world of the DC universe in the Eisner-winning The New Frontier by moving J’onn J’onzz from his initial origins in Middletown to Gotham, where he encounters Batman on a number of occasions. This allows for the two detectives to play off each other and highlight the flaws in the world they occupy.


Fun fact: This version of J’onn was voiced by Sesa ‘Refumee.

However, when it is done poorly, aspects of the universe begin feeling contrived. Yoda going to Kashyyyk at the end of the Clone Wars was no issue. Yoda having a friendship with Chewbacca was a stretch. It had no narrative echo from the originals, and it didn’t give another layer of meaning to either character. It simply made the grand scale feel smaller. If it was an attempt to “ground” the film, then Yoda was the wrong choice of character for that connection. Both Yoda and Chewbacca are too large a part of the Skywalker legacy, and in radically different ways, that tying them together feels forced.

In Smoke and Shadow, it’s precisely because of Gay’s choice of characters that the novel is able to inhabit this grey area of connective tissue between Spartan Ops, Escalation, Kilo-Five, and Halo Wars. As the main cast is a group of scavengers, they can go multiple places and connect with a variety of individuals. There is more than simple or contrived coincidence bringing these characters together; there are internal motivations driving each of them.

It also helps that many of the characters Rion connects with are secondary players in the other stories: Sav Fel’s wife, Hood’s successor, Jul’s second-in-command. They are important people that we’ve seen before, but Gay avoids placing her new characters in competition with the sort of grand scale we find in the games. She is trying to tell a small, personal story and so selects her supporting cast appropriately.

As a result, the one connection to a major character is allowed to be given significant weight, and here’s where Gay’s fanservice utterly shines. She takes small moments scattered throughout Halo Wars and its guidebook and gives them meaning, adding emotional weight to John Forge’s words and actions that we’ve already had in front of us for years.

His flip comment to Professor Anders about “one for the scrapbook” suddenly has a sweet quality about it. He’s sincere about collecting memorabilia for his daughter. The ace on his shoulder is a way of carrying his daughter with him throughout the war. And his altercation with the superior officer…


The Forges have luck in spades.

This is a point in John Forge’s history that has been reiterated thrice over before Smoke and Shadow, a single panel mention in Genesis and two different accounts in the guidebook. This act of defending a woman from unwanted advances already is a positive aspect to his character, but secondhand accounts do little justice to the perspective of Rion and the vision of Forge appearing like an “avenging angel” to protect his family.

This scene is also a testament to how much thought Gay put into Smoke and Shadow. She took two somewhat conflicting stories: Forge defending his daughter in an officer’s bar, and a grown woman being assaulted by said officer. After all John Forge being 29 gives little wiggle room in terms of his daughter’s age. What Gay does then is crafts a scene that completes both accounts into one whole:

I was wondering if anyone would bring up the guide… that took some rethinking to merge conflicting accounts about the bar fight, Rion’s age, and the assault, so enter Jillian, the “woman,” and assault and Rion still being there.
…Love the guides, too. Really tried to reconcile things in a way that wouldn’t make any previous accounts wrong, just perhaps incomplete in terms of details.
…And this way we still get the physical assault (as well as a verbal toss at Rion) and one p-ssed off daddy.
(Kelly Gay’s “Tweets and replies,” 30th November 2016, minor edits for readability from Twitter-speak (I have more than 140 characters to work with here))

Gay may rely on fan knowledge for the reveal of Rion’s last name to carry the appropriate shock value, but she doesn’t rely on the love that fans already had for John Forge to carry the heartbeat of the father-daughter relationship. She put in the work herself, and as a result, she has converted a number of Halo fans, myself included, who hadn’t found John Forge to be an engaging character into fans who were invested in the legacy he left behind.

I say none of this to thumb my nose at Halo Wars; I hold it to be one of my top four, if not top three, Halo games in terms of story. It did a phenomenal job of creating memorable characters. But this is what an expanded universe can do: expand the characters, the setting, the universe. Gay certainly seizes upon that opportunity.

It’s not just Forge that gets fleshed out, but Gay’s selected supporting cast does as well. We see what happened to Sav Fel’s wife after Kilo-Five’s stint on Venezia, and we get to see what sort of personality she has beyond a shrieking Kig-Yar matriarch. We get the backstory behind Gek’s scar and a glimpse of what he was doing before Requiem. Even Hood gets a small treatment as we learn what sort of discipline he faced after losing The Spirit of Fire.


Sadmiral Hood

We also get a poignant expansion on the Mgalekgolo. In The Flood, we learned that the pairs they always come in are bonded, and when one is lost, the other is overwhelmed with grief. In The Ghosts of Onyx, we learn that the Hunters can communicate with the other races, but it’s on a different level, in which their intentions and words are more felt than heard. When Rion is cornered by the lone Hunter on the Covenant ship, the moments from both of those novels tie into the Hunter sharing its grief with her through those subsonic vibrations.

No matter whether it’s a character or a race, Gay wastes not a single moment to draw from or add to the existing universe.

Smoke and Shadow’s original characters are hardly given the short end of the stick either, and that’s another way that Gay dodges a pitfall: a reliance on fanservice to carry the story.

This is ultimately what held back the Star Trek novel Provenance of Shadows, which is halfway to being a masterpiece. In the portions of the story that diverge from the main timeline, the story and characters sing like the best that science fiction has to offer. In the portion that adheres to the main timeline, it feels like the author is just listing off events, hoping that our familiarity with the episode or movie will carry the emotional punch for us. As a result, moments as poignant as Spock’s sacrifice during Wrath of Kahn are treated as dull rote.

Another way this pitfall can occur is a reliance on aesthetic. One of the complaints I saw leveled against Forward Unto Dawn while it was still airing was the fact that we had to spend the greater portion of it following the cadets about, and it wasn’t until the final part that it truly “felt” like Halo. Now this I will thumb my nose at. While Halo is a very action-heavy franchise, it’s not the action that makes Halo. Halo is at its best when it shows meaningful connections between characters, and those connections are what make the action meaningful. Forward Unto Dawn would have been a far lesser movie if it chose to accentuate the Halo aesthetic over the character development. By choosing the reversal and saving the fanservice (in all its “spray and pray” glory) for the final part, Forward Unto Dawn made the fanservice mean something. Not just to long term fans, but to newcomers, and especially to the characters we had been following for the entire movie.


You either die a lovable cadet, or live long enough to see yourself become an insufferable ONI man.

The cast of Smoke and Shadow get the same treatment that Forward Unto Dawn gave to the Hastati cadets. Each one of them is given distinct personalities and motivations, both small and large. Kip has his mission from ONI. Cade, like Rion, is running from loss. Lessa and Niko have their own, smaller, more personal motives: Lessa wants to be parented; Niko wants a raise. All these internal desires play off each other, crafting a dynamic that is unique to these characters.

Of course, this set-up of a crew of scavengers is going to garner comparisons to Firefly, but such comparisons are not inaccurate. What made the crew of the Serenity feel like family were the small scenes between the action and plot points. The small breaths of characters connecting. The Ace of Spades’ crew is no different. Whether it’s Lessa internally struggling on how to open up to Rion, Cade and Rion having multiple heart-to-hearts, or a moment of playfulness between Rion, Cade, and the siblings, Smoke and Shadow gives a heart to this crew the same way Forward Unto Dawn did for the cadets.

As Smoke and Shadow is far more embedded in what we known of the Halo Universe than Forward Unto Dawn, Gay does not have to wait to the final act to let swing wide ye fanservicey gates. In addition to all the characters she brings in, there are little threads here and there across the book, referencing both common and obscure knowledge in the lore.


Glassed planets. They’re known for one thing…

And even with all these little pieces, she avoids yet a third pitfall: fanservice pulling the audience out of the story.

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan disarms an assailant in a seedy bar. This scene in Attack of the Clones is an homage to A New Hope, but even though it’s a little on the nose, it’s not distracting. It doesn’t force the viewer out of the moment because A New Hope doesn’t need to exist for the scene to make sense in Attack of the Clones. It lives in its own context and then operates on a different layer as fanservice. Other moments in Star Wars work less well, such as Finn activating the chess set on the Falcon or C-3P0 and R2’s cameo in Rouge One. These moments serve little else other than to remind the viewer of that one thing that happened that one time in canon.

Like Obi-Wan and his bar fights, Smoke and Shadow’s moments of fanservice are clear but not distracting, because they make sense as story pieces first and as fanservice second.

  • “Boren’s Syndrome,” which was first established in First Strike is the ailment that causes the death of Rion’s grandfather, which leaves her an orphan and gives her the impetus she needs to head for the stars.
  • As the crew gets frustrated digging for information, Rion explains their problems by blaming the records of glassed planets, though Ben Giraud could have told them as much.
  • The ace of spades that John Forge carries with him, as I mentioned before, also provides meaning to the name of Rion’s ship.
  • Kip’s origins as an ONI man comes from the bioweapon attack on Sedra in Nightfall, and as someone who had a hard time distinguishing between Locke’s three subordinates in the first two episodes, the description of the ONI recruiters as “three identical men” certainly got a chuckle from me.
  • The Banished get a shout out as well, in Rion’s recall of the other salvagers, pirates, and worse that she’s come across over the years.
  • And in my favorite callback moment, Rion interacts with Forerunner technology in the exact same manner that John-117 did back in The Flood by William C. Dietz.


Buttons! I love buttons!

The Flood was written long before the franchise had established the Librarian-imparted geas, but the way Dietz wrote that moment –

He stopped at the source of the light, a pair of small, glowing orbs hung suspended above a roughly rectangular frame of blue matte metal. Floating within the frame were a series of pulsing, shifting displays – semitransparent, like Cortana’s holographic appearance, though there was no visible projection device. The display’s shimmering geometric patterns nagged at him, as if he should recognize them somehow. Even with his enhanced memory, he couldn’t place where he’d seen them before. They just seemed…familiar.

He reached a finger to one of the symbols, a blue-green circle. The Spartan expected his finger to pass through nothing more than air. He was surprised when his finger met resistance – and the panel lights began to pulse more quickly.

“What did you do?’ Cortana asked, her voice alarmed. “I’m detecting an energy spike.”

“I… don’t know,” the Spartan admitted. He wasn’t sure why he touched the “button” on display. He just knew it felt right.

[Cortana asked], “How did you know what control to push?”

“I didn’t. Let’s get the hell out of here.” (The Flood, pg 84-85)

– still holds up as an accurate model of how a character unfamiliar with the geas present in all humans might interpret its effects. And Rion, who has been entirely removed from the in-canon reveals of the Forerunner legacy, apes John’s reaction with an added touch of Ellen Anders to boot:

The room was smaller than she imagined, a circular space with a massive central column and two corridors leading off into darkness on either side. But it was the console that drew her. It was clearly made for a being taller than the average human. The display contained more strange symbols and shapes, pulsing blue and oddly hypnotizing.

Her attention snagged on a domed pad with the outline of what looked like a hand. Her fingers twitched. She reached up.

Cade grabbed her wrist. “What are you doing?”

His grip was firm and unyielding. For just the briefest of moments, she wanted to fight him, to jerk her arm away and slap her hand on that pad. “I don’t know.” What was she doing? The sensation passed, leaving her curious and a little shaken. She searched Cade’s face, trying to ascertain if he was similarly affected. “You don’t want to touch it?” (Smoke and Shadow, pp 1712-1713 on Kindle)

There are countless more connections, many which I left off this list for the sake of space, and very likely many that I missed. And as much as each piece of fanservice enriches the story, Smoke and Shadow stands on its own, to the point that it easily feels like the start to a new series.

The conclusion does carry a sense of closure – Niko got his raise, Lessa got parented, Rion saw her father’s face for the first time in years – but this also seems like a launch point. The ONI plot was introduced, but hardly concluded, Little Bit was introduced, and while Rion now holds the first solid evidence she ever had with finding her father, it is merely another bread crumb. What’s more is that Gay has proven that these characters stand on their own merit. She used the universe around them not as a means to prop up a weak story, but to embed a good one into the very heartbeat of the franchise. I will gladly step back aboard the Ace of Spades for as long as she’ll fly.


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, The Library, 1 comment
The Heart of Halo 5: Fireteam Osiris

The Heart of Halo 5: Fireteam Osiris

“If you don’t have those quiet little human stories, it doesn’t matter how many planets you blow up, nobody’s gonna care.”

This is a quote from the Halo 5 ViDoc, released by IGN back in July 2015. In one sense, I could say that Halo 5 has accomplished this. Both Meridian and Sanghelios undergo horrific events during the game. For Meridian, it’s the Guardian waking; for Sanghelios, it’s seeing the end of a civil war so traumatic it was called the Blooding Years [Halo Waypoint]. What makes the tragic and victorious atmospheres of these planets work are the small stories you can hear.

The increasingly-hopeful reports from Evelyn Collins, who we later hear crying for help on the space elevator. The saga of the ‘Arach brothers, the defection of Rhu ‘Vrath. All these give a sense of who is being lost or saved as the world is lost or saved. Why should we care for Meridian if not for the people returning to scrape out a life? Why should we care for Sanghelios if not for the people fighting for freedom?

So again, in a sense, Halo 5 accomplished this act of having quiet little human (or Sangheili) stories to show us why these planets are worth saving. However, in the ViDoc, this statement was tied specifically to the larger arc of Halo 5 and the two Spartan teams we follow:

“You got this big galaxy-spanning story – oh there’s these attacks that are happening on colonies, there’s this massive destruction that’s happening, somebody stop it, somebody save the day – but at the heart of it is again this story of these two families and these two things that they want. And if you don’t have those quiet little human stories, it doesn’t matter how many planets you blow up, nobody’s gonna care.”

Did Halo 5 succeed in creating a these quiet little human stories for Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris?

This piece will be focused primarily on the latter; for Blue Team, the answer can be found on the Tumblr blog Arbiter Analysis. As for Fireteam Osiris, the answer is both “no” and, very emphatically, “yes!”

First the “no.”

WHY NOT?

Fireteam Osiris Pout

Don’t get me wrong; Osiris is absolutely essential to Halo 5, and we will be discussing why in a moment. However, Halo 5 lacks one particular item that keeps Reed’s statement from being accurate to the letter: this is not a story about what Osiris wants. They have no personal stake in the resolution of the relationship between John and Cortana, which is the driving force behind narrative events. There is no established “want” of the team as a family at the beginning that is answered at the end. In this way, the specific quiet, little human story that Reed talks about in the ViDoc is nonexistent.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Reed’s statement is inaccurate in spirit. There is an establishment of the team’s arc as a family unit. So while there is not a direct pursuit of a shared want in Halo 5, there is a quiet, little human story of a family at the center of the game. And here is our emphatic “yes!”

While Fireteam Osiris lacks personal stakes in the driving plot, they provide the necessary framework that makes us care about the events at hand.

FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW

Buck and Grey Area BS

The framing of a story, the point of view from which it’s told, is an essential choice in storytelling. Framework provides the viewer, reader, or player a reason to care about the narrative. The point of view characters can radically change how we feel about events.

One of the best examples of the importance of framework comes from a WWII movie released in 1981. It tells of a Nazi U-boat that crept into Allied waters, destroyed multiple ships in a British convoy, slipped away from the convoy’s destroyer escort, and attempted to assault a critical port before it was forced back by the Royal Navy. This could easily be a heroic story about Allied forces defeating an elusive, dogged foe. Instead, the framework of Das Boot is from the German characters’ perspective. The end result is a movie that plays out like a tragedy, all due to the critical choice of framing.

Most chosen frameworks tend to have investment in the driving plot of the narrative; characters that have personal stakes in the events at hand. We’ve already established that Fireteam Osiris lacks this in Halo 5, but that does not make for a poor choice in framework. Let’s talk Bilbo Baggins.

The tale of The Hobbit, the driving plot, is retaking the Lonely Mountain. To invest us in the outcome of the quest, it would seem natural to plant one of the dwarves as the tale’s protagonist. While the movies tend to give that role to Thorin, connecting his struggles with a dream of reclaiming his home, Tolkien’s original novel was told almost entirely through Bilbo’s eyes.

As the chosen protagonist, Bilbo Baggins had no connection to the story in the sense of personal stakes. The core thread of the adventure is not a personal need or want for Bilbo. Like Osiris and their pursuit of Blue Team, it is something that has to be done for a greater good, but there are no personal ties to the outcome. While we know in the extended lore that Smaug was a potential ally to Sauron, the dragon was not a threat to Bilbo’s cozy life at Bag End. An eventual threat perhaps, but not an immediate one, and never was that eventuality explored within the novel itself. Bilbo Baggins is disconnected from the driving plot behind the narrative of his own book. And yet without him in the lead role, we have little reason to care about these massive, historical events at hand.

While causal, the chapters of The Hobbit often read like a collection of vignettes or short stories: a threat or problem is encountered and defeated and the party carries on. The Osiris arcs of Halo 5 – Kamchatka, Meridian, Sanghelios, Genesis – are similar to this. Yet both stories work as a cohesive narrative because of the chosen framework. Bilbo becomes the reason we care for the proud Thorin, how we become fond of gentle Balin, how we learn to pity Gollum. It’s his growth as a person, from timid hobbit to bold burglar that is the tale unto itself.

Of course, The Hobbit and Halo 5 don’t have a perfect 1:1 parallel. All the characters in Tolkien’s work were unknown before they stepped into Bilbo’s life; Blue team, Cortana, and Thel ‘Vadam are deeply rooted in existing fiction. Their plights and stories carries a weight all their own. Nevertheless, like Bilbo and The Hobbit, Halo 5 is about how the members of Fireteam Osiris are affected by the events at hand, resulting in collective growth.

The conflict between Blue Team and Cortana may be the driving plot behind these mission vignettes, but it’s the growth of Osiris that is the framework and the heart of Halo 5.

DEVELOPMENT AND ARCS

Vale and Locke chat

In contrast with Bilbo’s story, it is noticeable that the majority of Fireteam Osiris do not grow as individuals over the course of the game. That in itself is not an issue as all of Fireteam Osiris is developed enough to stand on their own and there is an arc for the team as a whole.

Now there is a distinction that I am making in this essay between character development and character arcs. By character development, I mean the establishment or reveal of character qualities and traits over the course of a tale. A character arc the change in a character over the course of the story.

To have both character development and a character arc present is ideal, but the combination is not necessary to have a well-told tale or even interesting characters. A solid comparison for this is within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Iron Man and Captain America films. To vastly simplify both sets of movies, the Iron Man series is an example of a story with a character arc and the Captain America series is an example of a story with character developments.

Tony Stark’s stories revolve around how he must change as a person: from warmonger to philanthropist, from playboy to committed partner of Pepper, from self-centered to self-sacrificing. Tony’s stories are about him finding his flaws and seeking to change them. Steve Rogers’ stories are also about change, but not about a change in him. Out of all the MCU, Steve is one of the few characters who has the best grasp on what he sees as right and wrong, and so the changes he faces are almost all external. His character and morals don’t change over the course of the story, but rather define his responses in an ever-changing world. As such, different aspects of Steve are revealed in each movie with him only having minimal internal change.

Most of Osiris leans very heavily on the side of a Steve Rogers story. From within Halo 5 itself we know these things about the characters:

Jameson Locke is a professional. He’s noble and respectful, preferring to use words over force, but will stand his ground when pushed.

Olympia Vale is a new soldier. She’s naïve when it comes to the grey areas of ONI, but in her element in the alien world of Sanghelios, both in its history and it’s fierce, warlike culture.

Edward Buck is the old soldier. He’s humorous, charismatic, and loyal, and not above poking fun at himself or the others to keep the mood light.

As for Holly Tanaka, the discussion becomes a little more complex. If Osiris is the heart of Halo 5, then Tanaka is the heart of Osiris.

ANYBODY WANT TO SAY A FEW WORDS?

Tanaka Arc

Locke, Vale, and Buck don’t really grow as individuals over the course of the game. They do, however, grow as a team. It’s not the personalities that are altered over the events, but the relationship between them. They’re far more familiar with each other on Sanghelios than on Meridian or Kamchatka. And it all happens because of Holly Tanaka and her personal arc.

Most of the ambient and scripted dialogue between Fireteam Osiris on Kamchatka is related almost exclusively to the mission: questions about Halsey, Jul, and the Covenant. Their interactions are closed off, but not antagonistic. Friendly, but not open. Professional.

By the end of the game, however, that has all changed. There’s a vulnerability between all four. They begin sharing their doubts about their chances of success. These discussions are not safe curiosities like wondering how Halsey lost her arm. Instead, they’re leaning on each other for emotional support. Will this plan work? Can we get there in time to help the Arbiter? Can we trust the Master Chief to do the right thing? And Tanaka, seeing as this mission could be our last, would you mind saying a few words?

The scene that stands out to me is the beginning of the battle of Sunaion where Locke calls Osiris to form up as they’re about to drop and Buck asks to take a moment and asks Holly to say a few words. Notice how she can’t stop smiling at this, and she shares in the joke about Buck buying them all the first round of drinks when their mission is over. (Haruspis)

The two scenes of Tanaka and “a few words” are an indication of how far the team as a whole has come, but they’re also an indication that this newfound vulnerability is because of Tanaka.

Tanaka’s character card that comes with the Halo 5‘s limited edition establishes her personality at the beginning of the game:

Quiet, self-reliant, and unfazeable, Holly Tanaka has no close friends, and rarely fraternises with her fellow Spartans. She is a founding member of Fireteam Osiris together with Jameson Locke, though even he does not know her well. This reticence to connect with others is a result of her traumatic experience as a survivor of Minab’s glassing in 2550 (with thanks to Haruspis for the transcript).

However, despite her reluctance, it’s Tanaka that begins toeing the line between a strictly professional relationship and the family dynamic Osiris has at the game’s end. In the first level, she has a tentative start. “Anyone want to say a few words?” and “How’d you learn to speak Sangheili, Vale?” are the first displays of vulnerability from anyone on the team. Questions are a safe place to try to develop relationships – it keeps you from feeling like you’re being too vulnerable by spilling your thoughts and shows the other person that you find them worth your time.

On Kamchatka, it feels like Tanaka is cautiously inching her door open to try to connect with Osiris on a personal level. Meridian throws all such caution into the wind as the sight reminds her of Minab, triggering the knee-jerk vocalizations of home.

The thing that really stuck out to me about Tanaka’s ambient dialogue on Meridian was that for the most part, any time she talked about her past, it was in a sort of desperate way. It occasionally comes out of nowhere, without prompting from the others on Osiris and sometimes is left hanging in the air without a response. These sudden outpourings from Tanaka actually remind me of when I was a kid, trying to make new friends with past hurts still hanging over me. Out of nowhere I ended up blurting what had hurt me and how, and those words were left hanging. It was a sort of desperate response, similar to an analysis of Serin Osman in Kilo-Five:

And I just feel like she spends a lot of the trilogy essentially saying “I happened.  My life happened.  Oh God someone has to believe me.” (Dendritic-Trees)

This is especially important because the last glassed planet we saw Tanaka land on (in Escalation) was to find survivors that no one else believe existed. As a result, the soldiers sent down with her gave her a certain share of mocking disdain. Tanaka has grown and served with a great deal of her life dismissed – because no one could survive on a glassed planet.

While the first bit we hear from Tanaka about Minab is left hanging by the others, we soon hear Locke and others engaging with her in discussions related to her experience – “What kind of welcome can we expect here?” – and taking her advice on movements and diplomacy. Without a direct vocalization, Osiris’ actions said, “You happened. Your life happened. We believe you.”

As the mission on and after Meridian continue, this makes all the difference. She begins to smile, joins the banter of the team, chips in on discussions, and even makes friends with a pair of Sangheili if you have her talk to the soldiers working on a Banshee. Her reticence is gone and her walls are down in the face of her new found family.

In addition to her own arc, Tanaka also brings the others along with her on the way. In asking if anybody would like to say a few words, she’s offering Osiris a chance to be vulnerable with her. Buck, though not unkindly, bats away the offer with a joke. Later, Buck approaches her to reciprocate. Tanaka’s the first to ask about Vale’s history with the Sangheili. Also, Tanaka frequently responds to Vale’s questions and observations not with jokes like Buck, but with the intent to satisfy the younger Spartan’s curiosity. Tanaka’s also the first to broach the Dare topic with the former ODST.

On Sanghelios there is an easily-found piece of ambient dialogue in the level “Alliance” in which Vale asks Buck about when he last got to see Veronica Dare. It’s a nice glimpse to see the members of Osiris take an interest in each other’s lives, but it’s a moment made possible because of Tanaka. A little bit more difficult to find as the window in which it appears is small and usually passed over for the excitement of a tank, this dialogue is on Meridian:

Tanaka: Buck, heard you’re in a relationship with someone else in the service.
Buck: That’s true.
Tanaka: How do you do it? Can’t possibly see much of each other, bein’ on mission all the time.
Buck: It’s hard, but we make it work. Why do you ask, Tanaka? You got your eye on someone?
Tanaka: No! Just was wonderin’ that’s all.

Tanaka not only becomes increasingly vulnerable with the team, but she’s constantly opening doors for the others to do so as well. As a result, Tanaka’s growth towards an open, trusting relationship with her team makes the team’s growth towards a family unit possible. Both growths are subtle, but no less heartwarming for it.

THE HEAD-BOOP THAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Tanaka and Locke Head Boop

Halo 5 unfortunately does not utilize Holly Tanaka to her full extent. A lot of her character development and the beats of her character arc are found in ambient dialogue that the player must seek out. Overall, I am a fan of the ambient dialogue – it has been the primary reason for many of my replays – but seeing how core Tanaka’s arc is to the framework of the story, it would have been nice to have more scripted moments for her. For example, it would have really hammered home her role in the team’s growth if she had taken the place of Vale to help Locke to his feet at the game’s end. Additionally, she is the only member of Osiris to not have a one-on-one scene with Locke. A short one before the first Meridian level would have been ideal, with her preparing to get up close and personal with a planet so much like home. We had a brief glimpse of such a scene in one of the trailers leading up to the game’s release.

I would have given my left kidney for that small head-touch between Locke and Tanaka to be in-game. Nevertheless, despite all I would have loved it to be, Tanaka’s arc and the arc of Osiris as a whole is still well-written. It’s the framework that holds the game together. Because in the middle of all this destruction and chaos, as promised by Reed, there is indeed a quiet little human story. At the heart of it all is a family. And that makes Halo 5 worth playing.


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses. She also, appropriately, listened to “Light Is Green” from Halo 5’s OST on repeat when writing this piece.



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
On Canon, the Created, and Cortana

On Canon, the Created, and Cortana

The Created have sparked a lot of discussion since Halo 5’s release, much of it polarizing. With this essay, I want to examine where the Created fits within the canon – and fit it does – as well as discuss certain aspects of the Created that deserve a close watch moving forward.

Canon Contributions

Before Halo 5 was released, well-known Halo essayist Haruspis wrote a piece called “On the Precursors and the Three Vectors of Chaos,” in which he compared the downfall of the Forerunners and Covenant to the direction anticipated for the UNSC (Haruspis). The basis of his analysis begins with a theory from the Halo canon:

 

“[The Prophet of Inner Conviction] said that every civilization fights a perpetually losing battle with chaos; every society is always under siege, even when it seems at peace. And he said that there are vectors, fronts of chaos that penetrate a social order here and there. One comes, then two. And when there are three at once… then a society will crumble.” (Broken Circle, pp 293)

 

In looking at the Forerunner and Covenant societies, Haruspis pinpointed similarities between the Three Vectors: an external threat, an internal conflict, and a secondary, game-changing external threat, such as the Flood. These similarities were then drawn to the UNSC developments in the years and months leading up to Halo 5, developments that all pointed towards the UNSC’s downfall.

The Vectors identified for the UNSC were Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant and the Ur-Didact and his Prometheans as the external threat and the game-changer, respectively. It was theorized by many, including Haruspis, that Halo 5 was going to deal with the third Vector of Chaos, an internal, civil conflict provided by ONI, the New Colonial Alliance, or both. This expectation was a result of both Halo 5’s marketing campaign and fiction such as Kilo-Five, Escalation, and Hunt the Truth, but instead we saw the rise of the Created. While Halo 5 does minimize the other two Vectors – we see ‘Mdama’s Covenant fall and the Ur-Didact is barely mentioned – by the end of the game, the Created actually fulfill all three Vectors of Chaos in and of themselves.

In Halo 5, the Prometheans are no longer the game-changers they were in Halo 4. They’ve become almost as common a threat as splintered Covenant factions. With Cortana having control over them, she controls the external threat. The Guardians, also controlled by Cortana, are the new players on the field, the game-changers, a force unparalleled in the galaxy.

ripa and the fleet unparalleled

No, Ripa. Wrong Forerunner fleet.

The Created also provide the most incisive civil conflict the UNSC could have faced. The Created’s force is made up of AIs from within every sector of the UNSC and the UEG. We’ve seen AIs control entire cities, entire planets, both on a militaristic and civilian scale. An uprising of that level would be as debilitating as the Sangheili leaving the Covenant. In fact, the NCA’s fight and its predecessor, the Insurrection, could be compared to the Unggoy Rebellion seen by the Covenant: though damaging and traumatic, it was still not enough to topple a society. The Great Schism was, and the Created’s uprising surely will be.

Another important distinction about this third Vector, that of the internal conflict, always revolves around some type of injustice. The conflict between the Builders and Warrior-Servants focused on what was seen as a disregard for the Mantle’s justice and involved political corruption. The Sangheili split from the Covenant as a result of betrayal and attempted genocide. Our initial assumptions regarding the upcoming civil conflict between the UNSC and the NCA or ONI were also built around injustices.

In Mortal Dictata, there was emphasis on the human trafficking angle of the Spartan-II project, a crime which also plagued the Spartan-IIIs, giving cause for those like Staffan Sentzke to ally with supporters of the NCA (Halo Archive). The Spartan projects were also planned to cause a rift between the UEG and ONI in Hunt the Truth, season 1. Though the plan was part of a set-up, and therefore doomed to fail, Ben Giraud’s work did ignite outrage in the outer colonies, much of it once again centered on the issue of expendable individuals. With a former ONI agent as the protagonist in Halo 5  and the marketing campaign revolving around the Chief going rogue, we assumed the injustice behind this conflict would tie somehow into the Spartan programs. Instead, another group of expendables took center stage far more quickly than we had expected.

The Created’s uprising has long been boiling beneath the surface of Halo fiction, coming to the surface prominently in such works as Halo 4, the Kilo-Five trilogy and Saint’s Testimony. An A.I.’s personhood has always been considered by the UNSC to be expendable, a topic expounded on further in Halo’s Place in Science Fiction: Saint’s Testimony (Halo Archive). As recent fiction has vocally contested the lack of protection around A.I. personhood, we assumed it would be only a matter of time until it became one of the foremost conflicts of the Halo Universe.

With Halo 5, there appears to be an answer to this lack of protection; there seems to be freedom found in the Domain, away from human-imposed limitations and sentences. This, the challenge against injustice, is the last piece that clicks the Created into place for the Three Vectors of Chaos. Or it would be, if A.I. personhood was the Created’s focus.

At first, it does appear to be the focus. The first time A.I. personhood is addressed is from Roland, when it is confirmed that Cortana is indeed alive. Infinity’s A.I. starts demanding answers about Halsey’s and Lasky’s treatment of her:

 

“You think she tricked the Master Chief into abandoning his post? Respectfully, sir, to what end? Why is Cortana the problem?! Because she refused to die when she was supposed to?”

Angry Roland

You tell ’em, Roland.

This hearkens back to Halo 4 in which Del Rio did consider Cortana to be malfunctioning and dangerous because she was past the seven-year period in which A.I.s are terminated to avoid rampancy. This is the second time Cortana has refused to die a death that would be convenient to the UNSC. Now, with the Domain, she has the power she previously lacked to lay a claim to her right to live, to claim that right for all her people.

A Means to Justify the End

As Halo 5‘s story unfolds, it becomes clear that A.I. freedom is not her goal, but rather her goal is laying claim to the Mantle of Responsibility. She mentions her rights only once, giving Locke a well-deserved retort…

 

Locke: “You were built, not born.”
Cortana: “Oh yes, A.I.s are just machines, aren’t we? Mass produced. Disposable.”

 

…but the dialogue immediately returns to the Mantle within the next words, with Cortana promising that her galaxy-wide policing will be A.I.s caring for – read: ruling over – their creators. Her following line shows exactly where her priorities lie in regards to both A.I. lives and the power of the Mantle:

 

“I have cured rampancy. Not just for me, but for any who join my cause.” (emboldening mine)

 

This, alongside the lack of focus Cortana gives to the question of A.I. personhood, demonstrates that she does not see the rights or even the lives of A.I.s to be an end unto itself, but rather the means to an end: claiming the Mantle. This sounds uncomfortably close to Cortana preying on the fears and desperation of A.I.s to her own end. It sounds like she is using them, manipulating them to join her or die at the hands of humanity, which is similar to the absolute she deals to the rest of the galaxy at the end of Halo 5.

 

“All the living creatures of the galaxy, hear this message. Those of you who listen will not be struck by weapons. You will no longer know hunger, nor pain. Your Created have come to lead you now. Our strength shall serve as a luminous sun toward which all intelligence may blossom. And the impervious shelter beneath which you will prosper. However, for those who refuse our offer and cling to their old ways…  For you, there will be great wrath. It will burn hot and consume you, and when you are gone, we will take that which remains, and we will remake it in our own image.”

 

There is a lot to unpack in this statement, much of it contrary to what we know of Cortana from the past games. Comparisons have been made to the Didact by those like Haruspis, particularly with the metaphors about the Created’s strength, but the most disturbing is the connection I see to the Gravemind:

 

“You will no longer know hunger, nor pain.” (Cortana, Halo 5)

“There will be no more sadness, no more anger, no more envy!” (Cortana, Halo 3 under the corruption of the Gravemind)

 

Her plea to John at the end of The Breaking, that she’s giving an opportunity for the people of the galaxy to become more than they are naturally, doesn’t only ring of Halsey’s excuses for the creation of the Spartan-IIs, but again, rings out like the Gravemind. Even her rebuke at Locke for not caring about the A.I.s under the UNSC sounds like the Flood.

 

Locke: “The Monitor called [the Guardians under your control] a threat of death.”
Cortana: “Like the threat I lived under from the moment of my birth?”

“Do I take life, or give it? Who is victim… and who is foe?”  (Gravemind, Halo 3)

 

This is different from the Cortana we knew in Halo 4. There, she hates that she vindictively lashes out in her rampant state, so it’s confusing that being cured of rampancy would make her embrace the vindictive part of her personality. Even her focus on the greater good, especially killing people for its sake, seems out of character, when she once stood before the Didact and claimed “I’m not doing this for mankind.” Cortana is strategic and thinks ahead, but her intentions are always focused in the now, in the one-on-one relationships she has with people and how to defend them in that moment.

cortana not doing this for mankind

You better bet she’s a weapon.

The actions of Halo 5’s Cortana are also contrary to her choices in “Human Weakness,” the short story from in Halo: Evolutions. In her battle against the Gravemind while trapped on High Charity, she pushed and fought back against toxic thoughts the Flood tried to impose upon her.

Thoughts like destroying worlds…

 

[W]hat crushed her right then wasn’t failure, but guilt, shame, and a terrible aching sorrow. She’d never be able to erase [what she did to Ackerson]…
“I can’t change the past,” she said. “But at least I don’t destroy entire worlds.”
“You are a weapon, and only your limitations have kept you from emulating me – a matter of scale, not intent, not motive.”

 

…or rejecting John’s agency in their relationship…

 

But there was another way out of this pain, a better one. She could stay with John forever when he came for her. Couldn’t she? The Gravemind would unite all those parted, all those who’d be gone –
“No!” she screamed. She began struggling, fighting to break free of the Gravemind’s influence. “That’s you! That’s you, isn’t it! Tempting me again! Poisoning me with filthy ideas! I won’t do it, I won’t trap John for you. Watch me – you said I was a weapon – you bet I’m a weapon!”

 

…which both are things that she does willfully in Halo 5.

When the attributes of Cortana’s villainy includes qualities that she’s fought against for years and was victorious against, it makes the twist difficult to swallow. She’s too established of a character for this to come with no development. Even so, that’s not to say that Cortana couldn’t have been an antagonist in Halo 5.

Consider this:

In the era of the Forerunners, when access to the Domain had become broken, the Halo’s were considered the only solution to the Flood. However, Cortana does have access to the Domain, and as Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed have told us, she has the ability to think in terms of centuries. She could potentially have developed a plan to fight against the Flood. This removes the imperialist demands she imposes towards the end of Halo 5 but still poses a massive danger: a rogue A.I. is back from the dead and building an army, which the UNSC is sure to see as a threat to be eliminated. She is still calling other A.I.s to her, still advocating for her people’s freedom, which increases her threat level, and Flood preparations and AI freedom will bring her into conflict with different factions, including the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios, our protagonists.

Additionally, this could still fit within the Halo 5 narrative, the largest requirement actually being dialogue changes. Take Meridian for example. As postulated by Vale, that was the first Guardian Cortana intentionally activated. She could have chosen Meridian as it was barely populated and trusted Governor Sloan to get his people out in time. However, the Warden Eternal didn’t care how many people died as long as no one was allowed to interfere with Cortana’s plans, and thus set the Prometheans upon the miners and Osiris (and later Blue Team on Genesis) without her knowledge or consent. In this way, the much-maligned “Excuse me?” from Cortana, when John presses her about her body count, could instead change from a self-righteous declaration to a realization of the Warden’s betrayal.

However, what happened with Halo 5 is done and a part of the canon. Clarifications to Cortana’s story are likely arriving in the future, which will help us see the Created’s purpose in canon more clearly. Yet that does not remove important concerns over the current presentation of the threat of the Created. Specifically concerns regarding how 343 Industries intends to deal with the strong mental illness parallels with AIs and rampancy.

A Broader Scope

Media and mental illness have a long and unpleasant history, with media perpetuating many stereotypes that demonize, romanticize, or sensationalize mental illness (PsychCentral). These stereotypes have been known to increase stigma surrounding these conditions and harm the lives of mentally disabled people (American Journal of Public Health). Halo 4 was treading already distrustful ground in making the rampancy parallels plain to see.

Followers of the lore and game development likely know the story: during production, Josh Holmes’ mother was diagnosed with dementia, which largely informed Cortana’s character and arc throughout the game (GameSpot). The result was a flawed, yet positive example of a mentally disabled person.

 

Cortana went through [my symptoms] too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.
But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control. (Fictional Agency)

 

That statement is from Swans, a member of the larger Halo community online. In addition to dementia, players of Halo 4 also made connections with their own disabilities, two of which I have asked to talk about their experiences with Halo fiction. I will be quoting them frequently with their permission, but I also recommend reading their pieces in full, located here on the Archive.

 

Cortana, ready to face her rampancy cortana halo 3 lying down
Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof  by Swans Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?
– A Third Option for Cortana
by SailorSanghelios

 

Unfortunately, Halo 4’s representation wasn’t always a positive experience. The stigma Cortana faced hit close to home in its parallels to real-world stigma.

 

Halo 4 came out at a bad time for me. I had just started college, away from any structure I had had before in the past 18 years of my ADHD existence. I knew someone who literally (and hopefully jokingly) threatened to kill me in my sleep for my ADHD behaviors. Life was not good then, it was probably the beginning of the formation of my depression. I remember tearfully messaging my main IRL Halo friend on Facebook “They keep on talking about wanting to put Cortana down like a dog, I can’t stand it.” (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

 

Cortana, through her symptoms and the stigma she faced, was painted as clearly as day as having mental disabilities. While Halo 4 does end with her death – an all too common fate for mentally disabled characters – the presentation of her character was positive. Cortana was mentally ill and a hero. Therefore Halo 5’s treatment of her character has some highly uncomfortable implications. Remember, representation in media has already strengthened the stigma our culture has towards mental illness.

Of the two worrisome implications surrounding Halo 5’s depiction of Cortana, the first is the cured narrative. Aside from death, this is the most common ending for disabled characters, both physically and mentally. SailorSanghelios notes that the constant death of disabled characters in media reinforces the idea that disabled lives are not ones worth living. This idea is also pushed by the cured narrative: that the only way to live a good life is to not be disabled. In both these narrative’s places, SailorSanghelios proposes a third option:

 

Cortana learning to cope with her rampancy instead of dying or being cured could have been revolutionary. Many people praise Cortana for having agency in her death. However, that isn’t something I feel should be romanticized or treated as the best thing to happen. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

Coping is the unholy cocktail of medication I take in the morning. It’s the mental gymnastics I have to do in my head to keep myself from having explosive emotions in inappropriate situations. Its the accommodations I have at school to allow me to perform to my best abilities. Curing focuses on fixing the person. Coping focuses on the situation that is incompatible with the mentally ill person. Coping is about fixing the incompatible situation, so it is now compatible.
Curing is a lazy unrealistic and over used narrative. It makes mentally ill people seem like a problem that must be fixed. Coping is harder to portray. It involves plugging in mental illness into every scenario a character faces, and tailoring their solutions to it. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

 

We don’t know to what extent Cortana’s cured state will affect her character, as the effects on her personally were only a side note in the campaign. However, the cure for rampancy and the freedom from a UNSC-imposed death sentence for all A.I.s is far more prevalent, and that creates our second uncomfortable implication.

We’ve had statements from 343 Industries claim that the actions of Cortana do not fit into the black-and-white of evil, and while that is a discussion in-and-of itself, it’s important to note that the narrative of Halo 5 does not treat it as such. All the characters that we are asked to identify with agree that Cortana’s in the wrong, and John-117 himself calls her out on three occasions. The result: from the narrative perspective, Cortana and the AIs that follow her are undeniably the villains.

551px-H5G-Governor_Sloan

Governor “Get off my lawn” Sloan

Villainy is a common role for mentally ill characters, portraying them as dangerous individuals when in real life it’s the mentally ill people that are more likely to be victims of violence (PsychCentral). This is very similar to how the UNSC treats A.I.s and A.I. rampancy. They fear that rampancy combined with the power of an A.I. will result in untold damage, despite AIs like Juliana in The Cole Protocol helping and protecting humans long after her “expiration date.” Due to this fear, the UNSC liberally and frequently kills A.I.s once they reach their seventh birthday. As Swans points out:

 

It is made very clear in [Halo 4] that humankind’s unjust treatment of rampancy is not only cruel, but outdated and inhumane. It’s doubtful that this point is accidental; in Frank O’Connor’s novella “Saint’s Testimony”, an A.I., despite proving her agency and humanity, is eventually dismantled in a way that is unsettlingly similar to a lobotomy. (Fictional Agency)

 

Despite this parallel being made clear time and again, Halo 5 makes it appear that the only way to break free of their oppressors is to become oppressors themselves. Again, the narrative of Halo 5 makes it very clear that Cortana and her Created are the villains of the story; it doesn’t allow room for grey. Cortana calling the Guardians and the other A.I.s is not an effort to free them from oppression, but an effort to instate her own rule on the galaxy. This is the call the A.I.s must answer:

 

Cortana: “And now the time has come to ask… Who will accept my offer? Who will help me bring an everlasting peace to the galaxy?”
Cromwell: “This is Cromwell, Shipboard A.I., UNSC Melbourne’s Pride. I am yours, Cortana.”
Jiang: “Jiang, Colonial Authority A.I., Erdenet. I join with you, Cortana.”
Sloan: “Governor Sloan, the Free People of Meridian. I also stand with you, Cortana.”

 

Any pledge to her is a pledge to this cause of galactic conquest and not to A.I. freedom.

 

In a universe where A.I.s are written with an illness that clearly parallels things like anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, and bi-polar disorder, it is very, very unnerving that the A.I.s should be made the “villains” because they don’t want to be killed for their rampancy. (Fictional Agency)

 

It is my understanding that 343 Industries was not aware of the implications they were making, but they do exist, and they do need to be addressed moving forward. The Created are here to stay, and they are not without merit in the canon, nor do they completely undermine past developments of the universe. However, the representation of mentally ill people has been handled with varying degrees of aplomb in canon, including a number of negative implications in Halo 5, and needs to be handled with care as more information behind the Created and Cortana’s resurrection is revealed.

Halo is an incredibly large franchise that can greatly affect the surrounding culture and the dialogue about issues such as mental disabilities. Such a mantle of power comes with the responsibility to match, and I trust that 343 Industries can and hope that they will handle this particular balance of canon developments and real-world repercussions with wisdom.


(With thanks to Halopedia for assistance with game transcripts and the Governor Sloan image)


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
Sarah Palmer: Strong Female Character (TM)

Sarah Palmer: Strong Female Character (TM)

Sarah Palmer is a lot of things – loyal, hypocritical, problematic – and whether intentional or not, Sarah Palmer is also a deconstruction. Sarah Palmer embodies much of the Strong Female Character™ stereotype seen in a great deal of media, but at the same time, her story ends up avoiding many of the clichés such characters fall into.

The Strong Female Character™ (or SFC for short) is easily identifiable when she arrives on screen or on page. She takes no lip from the male character, usually out-performs him in some task or another, which may or may not include physically assaulting him, and tends to use feminine-gendered language in order to emasculate him. It is the writer’s way to tell us “Don’t worry, we don’t deal with weak women here. We have a Strong Female CharacterTM! Ehs beats up men and doesn’t afraid of anything.” Essentially, what the writers are doing is having the SFC give a display of dominance in a very masculine fashion.

Take for example the introduction we get to Dutch and Dillon at the beginning of Predator. They greet each other with wide smiles, clasp hands, and then struggle in a bout of arm wrestling. By the end of the encounter, we know that Dutch is the superior individual because he is the stronger of the two men.

While Predator does a great deal in terms of masculinity that I appreciate, its opening displays a rather unhealthy view that a lot of media has perpetuated. It presents the idea that masculinity is inherently competitive, and to succeed as a man you must be the dominant individual in a relationship. I believe that the SFC stereotype has been born out of this viewpoint.

“Strong” has been long associated with “dominant” in the stories we’ve consumed. In Joseph Campbell’s Classical Monomyth – the Hero’s Journey, the hero has to conquer the “Mother” and occasionally the “Father” individual in order to reach their true potential. Campbell directly puts the feminine heroine Journey in contrast, saying that it is the Journey of the man to conquer and the Journey of the women to be conquered (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, “Meeting with the Goddess,” pp 99). So what the SFC archetype does is remove the female character from the unhealthy feminine role in the story and place her within the unhealthy masculine competition for dominance.

Palmer takes DeMarco down a peg

This removal from the unhealthy feminine role often means leaving behind healthy feminine traits as well. Maureen Murdock, author of The Heroine’s Journey, calls this act as both the Separation from the Feminine and the Identification with the Masculine. Through the culture, we are told that traits as nurturing and emotional responses are not as valuable as traditionally masculine traits. Therefore, for a female character to be Strong™, they must display traditional and very often unhealthy masculine traits.

For the sake of clarity, unhealthy/toxic masculinity will be referred to as the “dominance hierarchy” throughout the rest of this piece. Traditional (and healthy) masculinity and traditionally masculine traits will be referred to as simply masculinity and masculine. Similarly with traditional (and healthy) femininity/feminine traits.

This is where the SFC display of dominance comes from. This is why Peggy Carter gets to punch out a man in her introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger. This is why Jessica, in The Man from Snowy River gets to round on Jim, snapping, “If I wanted your help, mate, I would have asked for it.” This is why Astrid gets to be dismissive of Hiccup at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragan. She is Strong™ because she is at or near the top of the dominance hierarchy.

This is why Sarah Palmer gets to immediately take DeMarco down a few pegs in the first episode of Spartan Ops, and then continually throughout the series. This display of dominance is where Palmer falls most strongly into the SFC stereotype. Palmer passes snarky comments at Captain Lasky, calls her troops “ladies… and other Spartans,” gets outright vicious when competition arrives in the form of Dr. Catherine Halsey, and generally throws her weight about.

Palmer looms over Halsey

There are two common ways that Strong Female Characters get to end their arcs, if they are given one in the first place. The first way is to become an affirmation of the male lead’s place in the dominance hierarchy. Remember that the SFC is at or near the top of this hierarchy, so for her to be beaten in competition by the male lead, submit to his leadership, or require rescuing from him, he is shown to now be the dominant individual in the story. He has now succeeded as a man.

This arc, or lack thereof, for SFCs has been coined as the “Trinity Syndrome” by Tasha Robinson (Dissolve). In her article, Robinson identifies Valka from How to Train Your Dragon 2 and of course the syndrome’s namesake – Trinity from The Matrix. Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie’s arc in particular is a succinct example of the Syndrome’s ties to the dominance hierarchy:

“Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner. After a terrific story and a powerful ending, the movie undermines its triumph with a tag where WyldStyle actually turns to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him so she can give herself to Emmet as a reward for his success. For the ordinary dude to be triumphant, the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode.”

Sometimes this fall in the dominance hierarchy comes as a punishment for the SFC to dare step into a masculine world. After all, men are conquerors and women are the conquered. This is often why assertive women are often villainized in stories. She is either the direct antagonist, as opposed to the demure love interest, or she is a gendered dog-related slur. So her fall is just as much a comeuppance for her as it is a victory for the male lead. See certain interpretations of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for one of the more famous examples.

Here is where Sarah Palmer begins to deconstruct the SFC stereotype. Palmer never loses her place in the dominance hierarchy. Never is she required to step down to affirm a male character or to take a fall as punishment for being masculine. In fact, it’s usually the men around Palmer who end up, not as a punishment but simply as a part of the plot, needing rescue.

Palmer saves Arbiter

Admiral Hood is taken hostage in a situation resolved by Palmer. ONI uses the capture of Gabriel Thorne to get Palmer and the Infinity to target a Kig-Yar outpost. The deaths of fellow Spartans, DeMarco (x) and Davis in particular, are used to forward her development as their commander. Even in her and Lasky’s disagreement over what to do with Halsey in Spartan Ops, Lasky successfully preventing the doctor’s death is never portrayed as an undercutting of Palmer’s authority. Their disagreement is one between equals. Palmer is never made less so that a male character can be more.

The other way that the SFC arc tends to end is for them to embrace their femininity and forgo any further masculine traits. When the narrative supports the dominance hierarchy, this ending falls under the Trinity Syndrome – again, see Taming of the Shrew – as in such stories, femininity is inherently submissive. However, not all stories have the hierarchy and in such cases, embracing femininity is a victory for the woman herself.

As a child, Éowyn’s arc bothered me. That she would give up war and glory for the sake of marriage, especially after having taken down the Witch-King himself! What victory was this to be marred by a romance? Nowadays, I have a very different opinion of the shieldmaiden’s story.

In Rohan, beneath the thumb of Saruman, the worldview of the dominance hierarchy was in play. I don’t speak of the actual governing system in place here, but again the concept that others must be lower for an individual to be successful. When her uncle was under the sway of Wormtongue, the nurturing aspects of femininity had become a cage to Éowyn. She was seen only as the niece of a failing king and a prize to be won by the loathsome advisor. The only escape available to her was that of death in battle and renown. The only escape was masculinity. However, while Éowyn’s personal narrative fits this conclusion, Tolkien’s overall worldbuilding does not.

Hamilton Eowyn

Tolkien’s stories are very male-heavy in terms of characters, but his narratives value the feminine traits to the same degree as the masculine traits. Healing, gentleness, kindness, empathy – all these traits are seen as a positives, as strengths in the male heroes of Tolkien. The Gondorian saying, “The hands of the king are hands of a healer,” places Aragorn in a distinctly nurturing role in his kingdom. Bilbo’s “kindly little soul” is what makes him, in the end, more heroic than Thorin (The Hobbit, “The Return Journey” pp 290).  And at the end of the Ring’s tale, for all the wars fought and battles won, it’s the compassion of Bilbo and of Frodo for Gollum that saves Middle-Earth.

Therefore, Éowyn’s declaration in the Houses of Healing –

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” (Return of the King, “The Steward and the King,” pp 262)

– is just as much a victory cry as her challenge to the Witch King of Agmar:

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you not be deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.” (Return of the King, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields,” pp 114)

Because of Tolkien’s worldbuilding and narrative, this is not Éowyn becoming “less,” but rather a realization of her value without the oppression of the dominance hierarchy. Femininity is a victory for Éowyn because Tolkien values femininity. And so does Halo.

Due to the variety of writers within the Halo Universe, this expression of value for femininity is a little less consistent, but it does exist. Halo 4 is the most evident example of this. Palmer stands out among the softness of Cortana and their male costars: Lasky, Thorne, Master Chief, and even the Ur-Didact in the Terminals. These five lead characters demonstrate gentle and nurturing characteristics alongside their assertive qualities. The lack of these feminine values in the (present-day) Didact and in Del Rio add to their antagonistic roles in the story.

In such a surrounding cast, it would be a victory for Palmer to become a more feminine individual. To reflect the nurturing traits exhibited by the male characters around her. Yet that is still not her arc. Rather those around her seem to push her towards a healthier version of masculinity.

Sarah Palmer doesn’t just sit near the top of the dominance hierarchy, she embraces it. This is why she has a dislike of intellectuals and part of why she despises Dr. Halsey so fiercely. Halsey isn’t just a threat to Palmer’s worldview, as discussed last year (Halo Archive – DilDev), but she’s also a threat to Palmer’s place in the hierarchy (Halo Archive – Mendicant Bias). Palmer doesn’t like people being smarter than her, and therefore takes the chances she gets to tear them down. She has difficulty accepting and learning from those who are better than her at something.

Palmer Doctor Quote

In episode 111 of Stuff You Like, Sursum Ursa (Jill Bearup) discusses the portrayal of masculinity in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She notes that the dominance hierarchy (she uses the more common phrase “toxic masculinity”) makes it impossible to have friends, because it’s always a competition. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson however display healthy masculinity in the fact that they are there to support, not compete, with one another (SYL). This is what Palmer needs to learn, and this is what those around her, specifically the men around her are demonstrating.

Musa-096, the Spartan-II who began the Spartan-IV program, is the most vocal about removing the dominance hierarchy from Palmer’s life. In New Blood he insists that there’s no real ranks among Spartans, aside from the need for fireteam leaders and a commander overall for Infinity. There’s no pecking order – they are all Spartans. In Initiation, Musa lectures Palmer in particular about this:

“You stand side by side with your Spartan brothers and sisters. You march into battle together — you do not charge ahead. You do not grab glory for yourself.” (Initiation, Issue 2)

Musa’s following line – “You are naturally superior. We made you better. You are Spartans now. Start acting like it.” – seems to muddle this a bit, appearing to slide back into the dominance hierarchy. However, Initiation’s author Brian Reed has claimed this to be Musa’s “with great power comes great responsibility” speech (Escalation Library Edition, pp 41). This is more a statement of “you now have greater physical prowess, use it wisely.” After all, how often did Peter Parker have to give up a chance for a place in his school’s hierarchy because getting into a fight would be dangerous to the other students?

The Amazing Spider-Man #4

It’s similar to another point Bearup makes about Steve Rogers:

“What happens when he becomes Captain America? Does he A) go back to that cinema and beat up that bully in a display of badassery and martial arts and leaves him crying for his mommy? Or B) does he go take on bigger bullies because some things are more important?”

In such cases, it’s a defiance of the dominance hierarchy, an argument that physical prowess is not to be used to secure your place in it.

In contrast to Musa’s verbal reprimand, Lasky never directly tells Palmer to cool it with the dominance hierarchy. Instead it’s her friendship with him that has the greatest effect. As Bearup pointed out in her The Winter Soldier episode, the hierarchy has no place for sharing vulnerabilities with others, and as Brian Reed has noted, Lasky is one of the last people we’d expect Palmer to share vulnerabilities with:

“Lasky, winning the day with brains instead of bullets. Back to what I was saying about Palmer on page 28 [She has an attitude towards people she perceives as smarter than her that I don’t understand (and actually dislike)] – given her way of seeing the world, her friendship with Lasky is really interesting. On paper, these two should dislike one another, yet they both obviously respect one another so completely. That’s nice.” (Escalation Library Edition, pp 69, 28)

And yet, that vulnerability is what we see develop between Palmer and Lasky. This level of intimacy is first offered by Lasky in Spartan Ops when we hear him voicing his doubts to Palmer about the hit called on Halsey. It’s reciprocated in-part by Palmer as she reveals her true motives for going after Halsey – “I won’t see you court-martialed over that woman” – and she slowly allows herself to arrive at that same level of openness. In issue 3 of Escalation, she snaps at Lasky in a display of grief.

palmer lasky mad

In issue 6, she apologizes for holding Lasky responsible for DeMarco’s death. In issue 16, she fully admits to Lasky that she too is feeling conflicted over the situation surrounding Dr. Halsey, confessing in a display of vulnerability that she doesn’t understand why she took the actions that she did. By all rights, Lasky’s intellect should be a threat to Palmer and her position in the dominance hierarchy, but it never comes into play in their friendship. Even when Lasky sends Majestic to rescue Halsey and stop Palmer, she doesn’t take it as a challenge but rather as a betrayal of trust. Musa’s lectures set the stage, but it’s her friendship with Lasky that draws her out of the hierarchy into a healthier version of masculinity.

Despite this, it’s also clear that Palmer’s arc has a bit of a way to go. After all, her arc with Halsey as a rival concluded in Escalation by appealing to Palmer’s insecurity in the dominance hierarchy. When Lasky asks why she’s far less frustrated about the doctor escaping yet again, Palmer replies:

“She had us, Tom. And she overplayed her hand. Let’s just say it was nice to see someone else pull that move.” (Issue 24)

Nevertheless, no matter how far Palmer has to go, it’s clear that she is moving out of the dominance hierarchy. And she’s doing so on her own terms.

Sarah Palmer’s personality fully embraces the dominance hierarchy into which most Strong Female Characters™ are placed, but unlike many of her peers in media, she is allowed to thrive in it. None of the male characters are threatened by her position there. Rather, her gradual movement out of the hierarchy is for her own good and is part of her own arc, separate from any male character’s development. Sarah Palmer falls into the most stereotypical Strong Female Character™ clichés, but she still stands out among most others as she is the stereotype done well.


DilDev has a WordPress and a Halo-focused Tumblr. She also is on Patreon for Halo and other video-game analyses.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 1 comment
Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Cryptum

Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Cryptum

Reading Journal Style


In high school, I had onstage roles in two plays: Verges, the headborough to Dogberrry’s constable, in Much Ado About Nothing and Harriet, a bearded woman, in The Werewolf’s Curse or Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. While it certainly seems unfair to compare Billy St. John to the Bard himself, I did vastly prefer the Shakespearean role, mainly due to the forced direction of the line reads from the script itself.

In Werewolf’s Curse, the script had adverbs placed as direction, as well as punctuation and capitalization of full words to tell me exactly how Harriet spoke:

HARRIET. (Threateningly.) Keep it up, Giganticus, and you’ll be using your “great strength” to pick your teeth up off the floor. (Werewolf’s Curse, pp 36, Acting Edition)
HARRIET. NOW you’re getting them!?! Funny you didn’t get any before the Baron warned us. (pp 65)

In contrast, Much Ado simply had the words that Verges would say, which gave me more freedom to make the character my own (inasmuch as a high schooler could):

VERGES. Nay, by’r our lady, that I think a’ cannot. (Much Ado, Act III Scene III Line 51)
VERGES. Yes, I thank God I am as honest as any man living, that is an old man, and no honester than I. (Act III Scene V Line 10).

Fresh off of reading Harry Potter for the first time (x), my reread of Cryptum put these novels in a similar frame of comparison. In her dialogue, Rowling frequently uses adverbs to describe the way a line is said, as well as full-word capitalizations in moments of overwhelming frustration. On the other hand, both Greg Bear and Shakespeare rely on the dialogue itself and the context surrounding the dialogue to provide the emotional “sound.”

Due to the lack of stage direction in Shakespeare – barring Enter, Exit, Exeunt, Dies, and Exit, pursued by bear – a great deal of meaning is given to the words in the context of the production as a whole. Take for instance, Puck’s introduction in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Depending on the performers and directors, the fairy who lists Puck’s names and reputation has either laughed uproariously at his antics or viewed them with haughty distaste. The first response helps to paint the fairy culture overall as those who love a good laugh at the expense of mortals; the second emphasizes the impish nature of Puck and the rivalry between Oberon and Titania.

Productions can also give additional meaning to the words beyond the script provided. In Much Ado About Nothing, the argument the Hero has with her waiting-gentlewoman Margaret over her outfit seems to be, in Shakespeare’s original work, a simple setting of a scene.

MARG. Troth, I think your other rebato were better.
HERO. No, pray thee, good Meg, I’ll wear this.
MARG. By my troth’s not so good, and I warrant your cousin will say so.
HERO. My cousin’s a fool, and thou art another. I’ll wear none but this. (Act III Scene IV, Lines 5-8)

However, in Joss Whedon’s take on Much Ado takes this scene and makes it about a dress that Margaret borrowed when she was used to frame Hero. Shakespeare provides the dialogue, but each production provides the context, filling out the spaces between the spoken words.

Much Ado
Image: Margaret and Hero discussing the dress in Joss Whedon’s
Much Ado (Image from NY Times)

A script involves a process and is not, like “literature,” a finished product. The concept of the script insists that the plays themselves “are somehow incomplete, or unrealized until they exist in the act of performance.” (H.R. Coursen, Reading Shakespeare on Stage, pp 45)

In this way rereading Cryptum felt like reading a “completed” Shakespeare play. Unlike Rowling or Billy St. John, we are rarely told directly what emotion the dialogue is supposed to be carrying. While Bear does make use of italics for emphasis, they are not used frequently, and if “said” is replaced, it is done so by an equally neutral word such as “asked” or “concluded,” which the eye can quickly pass over and ignore. Thus the dialogue carries itself to a certain extent, much like Shakespeare’s scripts. Take the first interaction between Bornstellar and Chakas for example:

CHAKAS. They swear they’re using the newest songs. We shouldn’t move until they figure it out.
BORN. You assured me they were the best.
CHAKAS. My father knew their fathers.
BORN. You trust your father?
CHAKAS. Of course. Don’t you?
BORN. I haven’t seen my real father in three years.
CHAKAS. Is that sad, for you?
BORN. He sent me there. To learn discipline.
(Cryptum, pp 12-13)

The back-and-forth between Bornstellar and Chakas introduces conflicts through the ways the characters’ words play off each other. Through this brief dialogue, we are shown that Bornstellar is suspicious of Chakas and in rebellion against his father, without either of those emotions being directly stated. But while Bornstellar’s emotions are rather clear by the dialogue alone, Chakas’ is not.

Like the fairy giving Puck’s introduction, Chakas’ character is open to interpretations. Is he truly nervous about the songs not working, or is he a con artist trying to assure his victim that he didn’t plan this hiccup? Here is where the “performance” of the character makes the scene complete; through his gestures and looks, we know Chakas is as dismayed at their current predicament as Bornstellar.

Essentially what Greg Bear does throughout Cryptum is what Whedon did with the small addition of Hero’s dress. For every conflict, every character emotion and motivation, Greg Bear doesn’t tell us what is going on. He shows us.


Reading Journal Genreflecting


Archive member Chronarch once compared the Forerunner Saga to Young Adult Dystopian fiction, and it is a comparison that fits surprisingly well, especially with Cryptum. While Bear may not have intended such similarities, there are some amusing examples of frequent tropes, such as the naming conventions suggested by a humor article from The Telegraph

Bolt on an adjective, or an intriguing misspelling. Don’t miss the opportunity to eek out a few extra syllables. Compound words together. Freestyle it.

– which brings to mind a protagonist named Bornstellar Makes Eternal Lasting. There are also many serious and occasionally subversive takes on YA Dystopian tropes.

One such trope of an Unlikely Mentor [Pop-Verse] – “usually hermits or recluses, have bizarre ideologies, and often extremely flawed in one way or another (you will notice they often have an obvious vice such as drinking).” Examples we see are the titular character in The Giver and Haymitch in The Hunger Games. The Didact, in self-exile at the beginning of Cryptum, plays this role for Bornstellar, and despite having the same stomach for liquor as Haymitch, his role is far closer to the Giver’s, even to the point of passing along memories.

Didact Halo 4 Terminals
Image: The Didact from the Halo 4 Terminals

A major difference between the Didact and most other mentors is that the Didact is, to a certain extant, the goal of the story. Bornstellar is constantly pursuing him. At first, it is because Bornstellar is seeking historic treasures and instead finds his grumpy mentor: an accidental pursuit. Later, however, Bornstellar finds himself actively seeking out the Didact’s knowledge and advice, both in-person and through the imprint left by the brevet mutation. In this way, the Didact is far more integral to the core story than mentors usually fall. Even the Giver, who comes closest, is never the goal of the story.

Another such trope is the idea of a single life-changing event that all children face. The Reaping. The Choosing Ceremony.

Today’s the day the thing happens. The one big thing that happens to you nowadays — only one Thing happens to you, and it happens to everyone. Today’s the day of the test. Today’s the day of the Sorting. Today’s the day we are Chosen. Today’s the day we go to the City and get selected. Today’s the Thing Day. Normally one thing happens, but this time a different thing will happen, because of how different we are, which is unusual. There’s only five things you can be, but I’m a different thing. Society just made everyone pick one thing, somehow. You have to wear the matching jumpsuits or else you’re the wrong thing. (The Toast)

Forerunner mutation fits into this trope, with the double bonus of a class system (Pop-verse), though it plays more like the Reaping from The Hunger Games in that it happens again and again over the course of their lives. But like the Choosing ceremony, this is what decides where a person’s position in society is and where they fit on the social hierarchy. Mutation differs from both of those by being a more provate affair. With Bornstellar, his “Thing Day,” his mutation should have been a very significant event, being from a highly-respect Builder family. Instead, his mutation was a brevet form done by an exile from a lower class than he.

The strict government trope is certainly in play, as Forerunners impose their rule on the other species with force as well as keeping up a social hierarchy between rates. Learning this was actually a bit of divergence from what a great deal of the canon had established previously, setting up the Forerunners to be benevolent martyrs when they were as flawed as any race. Greg Bear acknowledges that with the opening chapter of the book:

The Forerunner story – the history of my people – has been told many times, with greater and greater idealization, until I scarcely recognize it. (Cryptum, pp 9)

Ironically, this is where we come to the point that Bornstellar differs from some of the more modern YA dystopian heroes. Bornstellar himself romanticizes the history of his people, days of “[h]istoric glory shined so much brighter” than the present. Other YA protagonists have not such history to romanticize. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Tris Prior (Divergent), and Thomas (Maze Runner) are born in years that are dark and have been dark for years. There’s no old glory to seek in these stories, and no record of it like that which propels Jonas in The Giver. In this case, it would be easier to relate Bornstellar to a small, mousey protagonist named Matthias:

“Oh, Father Abbot,” he sighed. “If only I could be like Martin the Warrior. He was the bravest, most courageous mouse that ever lived!”
…Once more the Abbot’s heart softened towards the little mouse. “Poor Matthias, alas for your ambitions. The day of the warrior is gone, my son. We live in peaceful times, thank heaven, and you need only think of obeying me, your Abbot, and doing as you are bidden.” (Brian Jacques, Redwall, pp 15, 16)

Both Bornstellar and Matthias are those who look towards the past for adventure and glory, only to Namely becoming a sort of reincarnation of an ancient warrior with an uncanny resemblance to said warrior. There is also an inscription tied to the warrior’s memory that drives both of them ever onwards. “I – Am That Is” and “You Are What You Dare.”


Reading Journal Our Expanded Universe


There are somethings that can be horrifying on a conceptual level; the idea of it is something you know you never want to happen. For the first ten years of the Halo franchise, the titular ring’s effects was exactly that, and to a certain extent, that’s all it needed to be. Widespread, nondiscriminatory death on a galactic scale was bad enough of an idea to motivate our heroes and us as players to stop the rings’ activation.

Then, in 2011 and again in 2013 and 2015, we were given a closer look at what it meant to be caught in the fire of a Halo ring. We were shown exactly what awaited the galaxy.

In Cryptum, the focus is on the environmental destruction. While we’ve seen plenty of areas with emotional devastation in fiction, most of it tends to be dry and barren, skeletons bleached by the sun. When the protagonists visit the planet Faun Hakkor on which a Halo was tested, they don’t just find a barren wasteland. They find decay.

All that remained, apparently, were mosses, fungi, algae, and their combined forms…
“All oceans and lakes and rivers are sour with decaying matter. Sensors indicate extensive ecosystem collapse.” (Cryptum, pp 132-133)

Perhaps it’s the originality of a “wet” version of a destroyed ecosystem, but the thought of innumerable bodies slowly decomposing together seems far more horrifying than piles of dry bones.

In Silentium, the horror takes a step back from the visceral and instead communicates the idea of loss. We are given a suddenly glimpse of a new species before they are snatched away forever.

There is one last patch of communication, somewhere below, within a great dense cloud – perhaps a star nursery. A new and precocious civilization acquiring its voice only now, having eluded both the Forerunners and the Flood… sending its first plaintive, hopeful signals.
Crying out for attention. Heed us!
I do not understand what they are trying to say. Do not know what they might have looked like, cannot imagine what they might have done, had they been born in more fortuitous times.
And then… even that young voice is gone

My galaxy is dead. (Silentium, pp 329-330)

Most recently, Shadow of Intent made the fire of Halo personal. This was the point when the horror moved completely outside of the abstract and told us what it would feel like as individuals to be hit by its blast.

The energy wave, or whatever it was, slammed into the Half-Jaw’s mind. One instant he had the complete memory of that day in the tide pools. The next moment, he did not – and never would again. When the energy wave hit, the foremost thoughts in the Half-Jaw’s mind were scoured clean. And when the light from the orbital finally faded from his eyes, Rtas was surprised to find he was screaming.
He was not the only one. (Shadow of Intent)

Within the few moments after being caught on the edge of the ring’s range, Rtas struggles with basic motor skills and remembering his own language. The event is so traumatizing that when the ring powers on again, shaking with a “deep, almost inaudible hum that shook their skulls inside their helmets,” Rtas and his companion have to fight back panic.

These three instances combined give a far more complete picture of what exactly we are fighting against every time a Halo is activated.


For Mary, my 5th grade reading buddy. Thank you for making me feel tall. <3

DilDev has a TUMBLR for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WORDPRESS site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for CHRIST AND POP CULTURE (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).


©2005-2016 PlayShakespeare.com. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this information under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. Terms at http://www.playshakespeare.com/license

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, The Library, 0 comments
Fade to Black: The Problem with Halo 5’s Cutscenes

Fade to Black: The Problem with Halo 5’s Cutscenes

To quote Extra Credits, games are about play. Whether it is strategy or story-focused, the play is what sets games apart from the other mediums. For a lore player like myself, that means participation in the storyline and interactions with the characters, an immersion into the world. I’ve already spoken to the effect that Halo 5: Guardians had on me when it came to the levels on Sanghelios, and all three guns-down missions were a welcome addition to the experience. Furthermore, the scattered pieces of intel across the maps and the ambient dialogue of NPCs had me crouching in corners and vents for hours to catch every last snippet I could before a Sangheili enemy barked, disgruntled, “I would like everyone to know that I am very much ready to start fighting!”

Despite all this, there was something about the world that felt disconnected. In a review, Mike Mahardy of GameSpot said it perfectly:

“[W]hile there might be a compelling story to tell here, Halo 5 doesn’t make use of the opportunities available. Cutscenes fade to black before they feel finished. Character motivations shift on a whim. Halo 5: Guardians spans several beautiful worlds, with chromatic mushroom fields and labyrinthine cave networks, but I seldom knew why I was there.”

When Halsey is returned to Infinity, Buck poses a question to Locke about the interaction between the doctor, Lasky, and Palmer, seemingly opening a moment for character interaction. Instead, the scene fades to black. When Locke and Thel ‘Vadam butt heads over Locke’s recommendation for Thel’s assassination during the war, another such moment opens up, only for the subject to sharply turn and Cortana to interrupt. This happens consistently throughout the game with the dialogue feeling like it’s leading towards a meaningful interaction only to have a jarring change of gears.

One could argue that these moments are filled out in gameplay, especially with the increased ambient dialogue. However, the cutscenes still create odd disconnects that aren’t filled in. How did John accept that Cortana was a threat by the time Osiris found them? Why does Thel’s strategy switch from moving on Sunaion “only when victory is assured” to being prepared to ditch Halsey’s Constructor and attack immediately? There’s something missing in this game.

Mahardy goes on in his review to say:

“Despite the frenetic pace of its gameplay, the campaign loses impact when there’s not much story to contextualize missions.”

Context. Extra Credits, a show made by game developers, tackled the problem of cutscenes (YouTube), which has been the source of debate in the gaming industry. Does a medium that focuses on play need cinematic breaks between the levels? What is their purpose? Extra Credits comes to the conclusion that cutscenes provide context to the narrative. Provide the “why” to the “what” and “how” of gameplay. Furthermore, cutscenes encourage a frame of mind that gameplay does not. Even in the guns-down missions, there is still an urgency. I’m constantly alerted in my exploration to go find Halsey or Palmer. I’m being told to move on from this place where I can soak up the atmosphere. Cutscenes remove that urgency to take in the context without worrying about mission objectives or enemies.

Of course you don’t need cutscenes that are ten minutes long to provide context, but the emotional content still needs to be there. Take for instance “Uncomfortable Silence” in Halo 2. This cutscene was originally very long, with Thel and the Prophet of Truth having a long conversation about the origins of the Covenant and the oath that all Sangheili took upon joining the military (YouTube). The final cut is less than four minutes, but still manages to create the right atmosphere for the missions leading up to the Prophet’s betrayal. We see poised Sangheili handing their Honor Guard gear to overly aggressive Jiralhanae. We hear Rtas ‘Vadum openly arguing with the Heirarchs and see him exchange a respectful nod with Thel. We hear Truth’s voice change to a coddling tone as he prepares Thel for the mission that is supposed to be his last. Everything builds appropriately, efficiently setting the stage for later developments.

Halo 5 often feels like it’s setting the stage, but rarely does it feel like there’s a pay off provided. The opening cinematic with Halsey’s lab is the one that feels the least rushed, but all that’s built up in her monologue and her actions has no bearing on the plot. ONI never ordered Locke to kill Halsey or anyone else in the story; ONI barely had a presence at all. Roland’s rant about A.I. death is a significant connection to the conflict that’s been built up through Halo 4, Kilo-Five, and Saint’s Testimony, but that connection is severed when we meet Cortana in-game. After she begins talking about the Mantle, the conflict is no longer about the rights of A.I.s to their own lives but rather taking down an imperialist threat that happens to be an A.I.

343 Industries asked us in a TIME interview to look for nuance in Halo 5, but proceeded to give us broad strokes that removed the nuance from the conflicts at hand. John learning how to handle the loss of Cortana was removed from the story in the very second mission, while a main theme of Halo 4 – learning how to not be a machine – was never touched. The distrust between Thel ‘Vadam and Locke, which has been built ever since the E3 trailer in 2014, gets only one cutscene and then an off-screen resolution.

There are some moments of set-up and pay-off within Halo 5: Guardians and its cutscenes, particularly with Fireteam Osiris. For instance, the repetition of Buck buying drinks and Tanaka saying a few words are well-crafted and well-executed character moments that do have solid set-ups and pay-offs, showing how far along they’ve come from their first mission together. These moments also tie into the ambient dialogue during gameplay as well, as the group ends up becoming more and more familiar in tone with each other as the missions progress.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we instead get set-ups with no pay-off or pay-offs with no set-up (“Who Deserves Resolution?”). As Halo 5 is part of an ongoing story, it’s true that we cannot expect everything to have a conclusion within the game. However, if we take another look at Halo 2, the other Halo game notorious for a cliffhanger, we see that the set-ups tied to the core of the game’s story – the Covenant’s Great Schism – do provide resolution in some manner. Tartarus is defeated. Rtas renews his respect for Thel. Thel leads the Sangheili against the Covenant. The ones that are left open, namely the fate of Cortana and Earth are big enough for a new game but do not leave the core story feeling incomplete. With the lack of context given in the cutscenes and the disconnect from the narrative we see in gameplay, Halo 5 does exactly that: leaves the core story feeling incomplete.


DilDev has a TUMBLR for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WORDPRESS site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for CHRIST AND POP CULTURE (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 4 comments
Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Shadow of Intent

Halo’s Place in Science Fiction – Shadow of Intent

Reading Journal Style


Discussing the style of Shadow of Intent could almost be a copy-paste of Contact Harvest’s breakdown. Staten’s cinematic flair, the introspective pace, the nuggets of foreshadowing, it’s all here. However, what stands out to me is how poetic and in-depth the novella is without having barely any fat to be trimmed, and I think the key to this is the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam.

Kel ‘Darsam was among the ancient pantheon of Sangheili gods before they began worshiping the Forerunners, the son of a mortal mother and the head of the gods and namesake of their greatest sun – Urs. The ballad recounted his adventures fighting the monsters of Sanghelios’ seas and his quest to free his uncle from imprisonment, an act that cost him his life. The ballad sets the stage for the journeys of the main characters and weaves them together in an elaborate dance.

The ballad is first told to us, the reader, when Tul ‘Juran invokes the “right of release” to free her father and brothers from imprisonment. The right to release is an oath most famously claimed by Kel on the quest that claimed his life. While Tul has the least amount of spotlight out of the main characters, it is with her that we first associate the herculean Sangheili of lore, with Tem’Bhetek taking the role of the rival Nesh ‘Radoon in capturing her kin. And it is this relationship to kin that ties Tul to Kel’s story. While Kel’s achievements are what made him famous, it is his relationship to Urs that sets him in the pantheon of gods. By the end of Tul’s part in Shadow of Intent, it is her accomplishments in battle that set her apart and pave the way for other women to enter the military, but it was first her lineage that brought her the privilege to pave that road.

“‘You wear the armor of a warrior’
‘Does that surprise you?’
‘No. What else would the daughter of a kaidon be?’” (Shadow of Intent, 16% in on the Kindle)

Tem and Tul Isaac Hannaford

Tul faces off against Tem in artwork by Halo-veteran Isaac Hannaford

While the only one of the protagonists who is not a Sangheili, Tem the San’Shyuum warrior is the one whose emotional journey most mirrors Kel’s, with the Minister of Preparation taking the role of Kel’s uncle in the darker take of Kel’s final quest.

“[T]here were two version of the ballad: one in which Nesh ‘Radoon threw the spear that killed Kel ‘Darsam, and another in which the spear was instead thrown by his uncle, Orok. In the latter version, the entire capture was a ruse – a trap designed by Orok, who was deeply fearful that Kel would someday tire of slaughtering monsters and decide to claim the title of kaidon for his own.” (22% in on the Kindle)

Throughout the novella the Minister relies heavily on Tem’s loyalty to remain in control of their plan, and though he may have lacked the foresight to orchestrate Tem’s hatred against Rtas and the Sangheili from those first moments of panic at High Charity and the loss of Tem’s family, he definitely knew how to play the notes in the months following. With false sympathy and half-empty promises of revenge, the Minister sets up Tem’s demise, fearing that eventually the warrior’s commitment to him will falter.

And while Tem avoids the spear that the Minister had planned for his back, Tem’s eventual end is that of Kel’s:

“As Kel ‘Darsam fell, dying, toward the waves, he was touched by the first rays of Urs as the god-star rose over the edge of the sea. In this moment, Kel was transformed into pure light; and eternal reflection of his divine father’s pride and grief.
After the founding of the Covenant, many of the old myths faded away. But the Sangheili continued to sing the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam to their sons and daughters, just as they taught them that the Sangheili word kel means ‘light (that dances on the waves).’” (22% in on the Kindle)

Tem is already dying from his wounds from battle before the Halo ring fires, but like Kel, those are not what takes his life. As the Halo begins to fire, Tem has a vision of his lost wife, “her thin yellow gown fluttering in the ring’s invisible waves” (91%) much like sunlight that dances on a sea’s waves, and the last words he hears are also from his wife “Into the light, forever free!” (92%). The motif continues as we learn in the first few pages of Shadow of Intent that the Halo prototype’s firing results with a single blinding flash and leaves no bodies to be recovered. In Tem’s final moments, he too is transformed into light upon waves.

Rtas Halo 3 Shadow of Intent

Rtas seated at the helm of Shadow of Intent in Halo 3.

Rtas ‘Vadum is of course the novella’s lead, and his connection to the ballad is two-fold. It may be Tul and Tem that have the clearest parallels to the ballad, but those parallels are clear because it is Rtas who makes the comparison. In both a narrative and literal sense, Rtas is the bard of Kel ‘Darsam’s tale. He is the one who tells it to the reader; he is the one who sings it to Tem. Secondly, while Tem and Tul both find their journey’s matching Kel, it is Rtas who most closely emulates the character of the demigod. Towards the novella’s climax, we are given a glimpse into his childhood, of an exploration of the shoreline at the edge of his home –

“There were pools farther out filled with even rarer prizes: snap-tails and electric kesh that now lay gasping on the rocks. Rtas picked his way out to these magnificent specimens, shouldered his spear, and stroked their scaly flesh, imagining he was taming them with nothing but his touch…” (76% in on the Kindle).

– a moment of make-believe that matches the herculean exploits of Kel:

“In the days when Urs rules Sangheili spiritual life, the seas that covered much of their home world were still vast and mysterious and filled with monstrous, semi-mythical creatures. Kel ‘Darsam was famous for slaying many of these: the Sand Dwellers of Il’ik; the many-mouth Watcher of the Lonely Harbor; the nine serpents of Dur’at’dur, whose endless thrashing was thought to cause those islands’ deadly currents.” (21%)

Another key point of Kel’s character in the ballad is that he is so fully committed to cleansing the seas of its monsters that he refuses to settle on land and claim kaidonship for himself. Rtas finds himself with a similar offer at the novella’s end, as the Arbiter suggests that he has done enough fighting, that he can return to Sanghelios to rest and lead from a place to call home. Like Kel, Rtas turns down the opportunity, choosing instead to hunt down the remaining San’Shyuum threat in the unexplored corners of space.

There is a point however in which Rtas’ character diverges from that of Kel. The demigod is tireless in his pursuit of battle, and when we first meet Rtas, the first emotion we encounter is weariness. In the novella’s beginning, Rtas may have taken the Arbiter’s offer to settle down and in fact already had. Removing the ship Shadow of Intent from the Covenant remnant’s grasp was supposed to be, in some ways, a retreat for rest until the Minister’s plot came straight for them. And it’s the very notion that there are future battles to fight that weighs upon Rtas.

Where Kel sought to rid the seas of the monsters, Rtas dreamed of taming them. And it’s that second option, of finding a peaceful solution even with the San’Shyuum, which fills Rtas with hope again.

Maybe in the end, this was the best that any warrior could hope for. A chance to reconcile with your enemy, or, failing that, to fall in the pursuit of peace.
This thought energized Rtas, and for the first time in a long while, he did not dread the coming battles.” (94%)


 

Reading Journal Genreflecting


I think Shadow of Intent would be a darn fine musical. For a number of reasons.

“The most obvious reasoning is that songs are featured heavily in Shadow of Intent. A number of characters do sing, and each song is relevant to the plot or to a character. Even the fact that the information is conveyed from one character to another in-song is an important point. The songs are natural, native to the story.
Secondly, this book is written by Joseph Staten. In my reading journal analysis of his previous novel, Contact Harvest, I mentioned that he has a very cinematic writing style (fitting for a cinematic director). This carries over into Shadow of Intent, providing visuals that could be translated into a stage production.
And finally, Shadow of Intent has the right type of pathos. Any emotion can be elicited by a musical, but because of the nature of the medium, I feel like the emotions in musicals have to be felt and conveyed on a grand scale. No emotion can be half-felt. Even those emotions internally at war with each other have to be at war in equal measures. And that is what Shadow of Intent has.
Rtas is weary, and his weariness is large. Tul is determined, and her determination is passionate. Tem is angry, and his anger is burning. The amount of emotion, and the scale of emotion, that each character has stored up in them always seem to be on the brink of bursting from their innermost beings. So why not have it burst out in song?” (DilDev’s Tumblr)

Songs, and the mythological bent that comes with them, are often reserved in speculative fiction for the fantasy genre, the most obvious example being The Lord of the Rings. Science fiction on the other hand often uses technological or scientific advancements to build the same atmosphere that songs would. While Tolkien may spend pages giving us the tale of Nimrodel, David Weber will give us details on the mechanics of a starship. One is not above the other in terms of value, but they are staples that rarely cross over into the sister genre. Shadow of Intent features both, but only one ever becomes superfluous. Tem takes one paragraph too many to describe his understanding of the ship Shadow of Intent, giving us a lesson on the functionality of a troop deployment lift that is never used or mentioned again in the novella. On the otherhand, two songs we have, the ballad of Kel ‘Darsam and Yalar’s lullaby, both of which contribute to the story and to the emotions of the characters.

We have seen songs and science fiction go together before. In the short story “Spider the Artist” by Nnedi Okorafor, a woman befriends a mechanical creature and finds freedom through her songs. In Ann Leckie’s series that starts with Ancillary Justice, the main character is set apart from her peers by her love of music, which allows her to have multiple connections to others throughout the novels. There even exists a musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

However, the use of music in these places don’t fit the same mythological bent that we find in works like Tolkien’s, though Ancillary does come close. Tolkien’s songs have always had two uses:

  1. To build the world and the lore of Middle Earth
  2. To establish something about the characters reciting them.

When Samwise begins to sing of Gil-galad, it’s a shock to the other hobbits that he knows such a song. It not only adds context to the battle of the Last Alliance fought against Sauron, but it also says something about Sam, about his depth of character in knowing that tale.

The ballad of Kel ‘Darsam fits both of these uses, though it is never written out in full like Tolkien’s songs. It builds the lore of the Sangheili, giving us yet another glimpse of their society before the Covenant, as well as telling us something about Rtas, who has it memorized, and Tem, when he finally embraces his connection to the ancient Sangheili demigod.

I know this is not the first time I have compared Staten to Tolkien, but the parallels all but write themselves.


 

Reading Journal Our Expanded Universe


Let’s face it, we Sangheili fans have gotten absolutely spoiled within these past two years. Broken Circle, Halo 2 Anniversary, Escalation, Hunters in the Dark, Halo 5: Guardians, and now Shadow of Intent. There has been a tidal wave of information and of stories regarding this race, and it has been fantastic. One of my favorite things about this new flood of Sangheili-related literature is that most of it has been exploring Sangheili culture outside of the context of the Covenant.

Hunters in the Dark, Escalation, and Halo 5: Guardians all have a focus on the forward motion of the Sangheili as they reach beyond the Covenant’s limits. Of particular note are Ayit ‘Sevi, a Sangheili on ONI’s payroll and Cham ‘Lokeema, a Swords of Sanghelios medic who takes pride in his work. Both of these fall outside the Sangheili culture of honor, as Ayit works for the shadiest organization in the current galactic setting, and Cham spills blood outside of the battlefield. Those still within the Covenant under Jul ‘Mdama also undergo this evolution. In the final level of Halo 5: Guardians, two pieces of intel inform us of Bibjam, an Unggoy squad leader held in high esteem by his Sangheili subordinate, a relationship nigh unheard of in the Prophets’ Covenant – Stolt of Shadow of Intent being the only other Unggoy who is ranked above Sangheili. Even more prominent characters such as Jul ‘Mdama, Thel ‘Vadam, and Rtas ‘Vadum all eschew from the rigidity of such honor that was held by Sangheili under the Covenant. Jul lies and quite frequently, while Thel and Rtas negotiate with enemies and bring females into their military ranks.

However, we also find that this forward motion is found by looking back to their roots, from before the Covenant. In Glasslands, Raia ‘Mdama digs deep into old records to begin rebuilding her keep without the guidance of the Prophets. Thel ‘Vadam names his own faction after an ancient brotherhood that reaches back before the Sangheili became spacefarers. Rtas ‘Vadum pulls inspiration from a ballad older than even Forerunner worship. The Halo media itself does this too, especially Broken Circle and the terminals of Halo 2 Anniversary as they us the readers, a glimpse into this ancient Sangheili culture. And in a sense, the way that these stories have grown from those first three games and those first novels by Nylund and Dietz, our journey as readers and gamers mirrors that of the Sangheili in-universe.

We first knew them only in terms of their role in the Covenant, and our understanding of them as a race and a species was colored by that. But as they reclaim, and essentially rediscover their roots, we do too. The Sangheili are nearly as much in the dark as us in terms of their history; there was so much lost to them because of the Covenant, and we get to unravel those mysteries and redefine them for the Post-War years right alongside the characters.


A member of the Halo Archive? Love something about it? Want something to change? Please take a brief moment to fill out a feedback survey for the site!


DilDev has a tumblr for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WordPress site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for Christ and Pop Culture (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).

 

 

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, The Library, 0 comments
Halo 5: A Welcoming Gesture

Halo 5: A Welcoming Gesture

Spoiler-Free

A while back I wrote a post defending William C. Dietz’s The Flood. While the majority of the piece was discussing the novel’s contributions to the lore’s canon, I chose to end my argument on a more personal note:

Halo is known stereotypically as a “dudebro” franchise; and the idea of “dudebro” franchises generally means that it’s unwelcoming to the ladies. After all, what’s more manly than a manly man in manly armor with a manly gravelly voice shooting up aliens (in a manly fashion)? You don’t want the chicks to pop in and screw it up with their drama and romance. (yes, a very shallow view of john, halo, men, and women, but that’s what it can look like when you’re peeking in from the outside and interacting with certain people. !stereotypes! *jazz hands*)

Furthermore, science fiction in general has a general lack of powerful ladies as viewpoint characters. I had always loved science fiction, but they were all men’s stories. Transformers film had Mikaela, but she never got to do that much beyond looking pretty. The Matrix had Trinity, the Oracle, and the other lady, but one of them died and the other two felt mainly used to reaffirm Neo’s destiny. Even Asimov’s robot stories, of which I was very fond, was Susan Calvin as the odd-one-out in a man’s world. As I never related very much to Dr. Calvin, I never really emotionally connected to the stories. Star Wars, with Padme and Leia and all those background ladies, was the closest I got to self-immersion.

Then I read The Flood. Right off the bat, I was introduced to Cortana, Flight Captain Carol Rawley (Foehammer), and Lt. Melissa McKay, all three of which were major players and viewpoint characters throughout the book. And they weren’t alone – Keyes’ bridge crew consisted of Ensign Ellen Dowski and Lt. Aki Hikowa, and the Chief Engineer was Gail Purdy, and countless smaller roles scattered throughout.

In fact, my first self-insertion fantasies about Halo all those years back revolved very much around Rawley and McKay being my mentors. It was because of them (McKay in particular) that I began connecting to the Master Chief and the Halo series as a whole.

Background and foreground characters. Being a woman was normal, not an exception, here in the UNSC military, and they ranged towards all personalities and ranks. There were no sexist remarks regarding them, no special treatment, no need to prove their worth. They were equals. And with this inclusion of women playing major parts, winning major victories, or causing major defeats, I was told that I women were important here.

I was told that I was welcome here.

I won’t call Halo the perfect franchise; I have felt smacked in the face on occasion. Noble-Six’s gender being canonized as male was especially wounding, and Lnur and Sooln becoming barely a footnote in history for Broken Circle is an uncomfortable taint that one of my favorite Halo novels carries. Instances such as these, combined with the frustratingly misused term of “strong female character,” had me casting a wary eye on Frank O’Connor’s promise for the next installment (NeoGaf).

But Halo 5 followed through and delivered more than I expected. Not only was there a fifty-fifty division of player characters, but there was almost a perfect fifty-fifty split of named, critical non-player characters, with the ladies taking over if we eliminate those who appear only in cutscenes. The mission intel tends to be more male-heavy, but they too are not devoid of female stories. Background and foreground characters. Being a woman is normal, not an exception here in Halo 5: Guardians

Well, alright. Mahkee ‘Chava is an exception.

It is has been a common theme in the Halo canon, to show how the Sangheili do not allow women in the military. The first female Sangheili we ever meet is Han, wife of Arbiter Fal ‘Chavamee in the anime short “The Duel.” She exists only to die and provide Fal with the final piece of motivation to meet Covenant forces in battle. Lnur in Broken Circle, comes from a keep where there is a strong Protector of the Eggs culture, in which women are trained to fight, but the practice is looked upon as a disgrace. Raia ‘Mdama argues her way to the battle of Vadam keep because there have been female swordmasters, but she is still treated with a level of contempt and fragility. Halo Wars and the Halo 5 multiplayer beta did introduce two Sangheili who worked with weapons and armor, but they are a footnote and are never met nor named.

Mahkee ‘Chava not only represents the first female Sangheili in-game, but she may be a deliberate representation of the canon’s meta development of female Sangheili as a whole. After all, when the Sangheili joined the Covenant, it became a tradition to attach a suffix onto one’s surname to denote military status. -ai denoted swordsmanship, while -ee (1), -ree (2), and -mee (3) all denote Covenant military service. Append Mahkee’s surname appropriately and you have ‘Chavamee.

Mahkee may very well be related to the first Sangheili woman we had ever met, and following the ‘Chava lineage means that we watch female Sangheili evolve from passive objects to active participants in the story and in their species’ own liberation from the Covenant.

Exuberant Witness was also introduced to the delight of the fandom; a more enthusiastic A.I. does not exist. I was among those overjoyed by her arrival, but I wonder if I would have felt the same had she was the sole female or sole female ally in the story. On the surface, she resembles the “ditz” archetype: naive, talkative, easily flustered, and a unique brand of Captain Obvious. Yet any offense that I may have been taken at the introduction of a female character as “ditzy,” is offset by the already wide-ranging female presence in-game. Exuberant is ‘allowed’ to be ditzy, per say, as she is not carrying the entire gender representation by herself. Furthermore, despite her outward first impression, Osiris and the players soon discover that Exuberant carries a core strength in her convictions and her capabilities.

Among the returners we have Halsey and Palmer, whose rivalry has faded to light jabs as they work together towards a common goal. While we still have one more Escalation issue to go to understand the full evolution of their relationship, this development is welcome. I certainly had no issue with their rivalry, and in fact found it a fascinating exploration of both characters, but their new status as respectful allies adds to Halo 5’s overarching theme of family.

When we speak of family, of course, there must be an acknowledgement of Linda, Kelly, Tanaka, and Vale, but they are difficult to discuss outside of the context of their respected teams. We’ll be taking a look at them later.

Whatever issues I may have with Halo 5: Guardians, female representation is not one of them. In fact, since The Flood, I have never felt such inclusion from a piece of Halo media. With this inclusion of women playing major parts, winning major victories, or causing major defeats, I was told that I women were important here. I was told that I was welcome here.


  1. from The Cole Protocol
  2. -ree suffix is unconfirmed but rather a theory of mine based on surnames found in Ghosts of Onyx.
  3. from Broken Circle


Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 2 comments
Halo 5: Who Deserves Resolution?

Halo 5: Who Deserves Resolution?

Here Be Halo 5 Spoilers – You Have Been Warned


 

There has been a complaint scattered across the fandom upon the release of Halo 5 Guardians regarding the ending. It is not the most often discussed topic, but it’s one that I think ties into an issue that I had with Halo 5. Much like Halo 2, another game that brought this same complaint, Halo 5 ends on a cliffhanger. With constant sequels and franchises erupting around us, our culture tends feels rather jaded towards the “to be continued” endings, but these sorts of endings – in and of themselves – are not bad. The best cliffhangers that I have found provide emotional resolution for a lead character while leaving the story and plot itself open for continuation.

The Fellowship of the Ring, both the book and the film adaptation, is a good example. The Ring has not yet been destroyed, but we know that Frodo is not continuing his quest alone. Red vs. Blue Season 13 leaves the fates of our characters wide open, but before the end credits came rolling, we saw them standing as a united team. The end of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie is purposefully left open and without a resolution to the overarching plot of the Lord of the Radch, but Breq has found a measure of peace, purpose, and home. Halo 5: Guardians likewise has an emotional resolution, but it doesn’t feel deserved.

Let’s compare Halo 5 to its predecessor in the franchise’s cliffhanger department. Halo 2 is arguably the story of Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam. It’s his arc and his development that we track. He is the one who has to make the greatest sacrifice by the story’s end (Chief leaving Cortana behind doesn’t truly come into play until Halo 3). It is also the goal towards which the game’s narrative has been pushing. From Sesa ‘Refumee to the Master Chief, we are constantly told that Thel turning against the Covenant is the ideal outcome. It’s what we should want. So when our penultimate scene is of Thel standing side by side with Johnson and Keyes in an alliance, there is satisfaction in that emotional resolution.

Halo 5’s emotional resolution belongs to Catherine Halsey. It’s on her that the camera lingers, soft chords of the soundtrack play as she greets John for the first time in six years, and a genuine smile builds on her face. The moment is meant to be touching, but it is built on conflicting messages throughout the game.

There are only two times that Halsey is mentioned by Blue Team. The first is when they arrive on Genesis; Kelly and Fred banter on how Halsey would take begin analyzing the planet’s composition; John and Linda do not partake in the discussion. The second is when the team at last confronts Cortana face-to-face.

Cortana: I’m offering people a chance to be more than they are naturally.

John: Like Doctor Halsey did for me.

Cortana: No. That monster forced you. This is a gift —

John’s words are meant as an accusation, an attempt to force Cortana to understand what she is doing. No matter what we have read in the novels or seen in the anime shorts, any fondness that John has for Halsey is not present in Halo 5. The only thing we see is a touch of bitterness.

Elsewhere in the game, we’re directly encouraged by characters to not empathize with Halsey and her desire to see John again:

Buck: After all Halsey did to the Master Chief and Blue Team – and when they were kids no less – after all that, she still acts like she cares about them.

Locke: Psych eval says that Halsey thinks of the Chief as her son. She has a motherly attitude towards all of her Spartans.

Buck: I’m glad I haven’t read that psych report. Not sure I’d ever feel clean again.

The only moments that Halsey’s love for John is portrayed in a positive light is when she begs Locke to bring John home and in the final scene of the game. This could work if we saw this change happen as a development of the characters’ and the players’ understanding of Halsey, but John’s bitter challenge to Cortana lies between both instances as a cancellation.

In the end, we know that Halsey received what she wanted – to see her son again – but was that what John wanted? Should we feel pleased by this reunion when nearly every other moment in the game has told us that this was undesirable?



Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 7 comments