Halo Meta

Over-analysis of Halo’s themes, characters, and lore entries in the context of canon and the medium in which it exists, by our own member, Dildev.

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.

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Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
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!”

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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.

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Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof

Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof

Disclaimer: I have spent the last 6+ years dealing with anxiety and depression. Symptoms include dissociation, suicidal thoughts, and mood swings; the severity of which is dependent on some invisible algorithm written by finicky chemicals. I am self-diagnosed.


Cortana has been my favorite character in the franchise since the very first time I played a Halo game in 2007. That in itself was a novelty; I didn’t like playing video games then, because none of the characters in mainstream titles appealed to me and most of the women were reduced to damsels in distress or sheer eye candy. Not to say her character design didn’t suffer from the latter, but by and large, Cortana was different. She wasn’t just there to be looked at; most of the time you can’t even see her. She was smart and determined and always had a witty thing to say. While you as the protagonist spend hours gunning down aliens and space parasites alike, Cortana’s ease in one-sided conversation made it feel like she was sitting nearby, excitedly keeping up with your progress. And because of the Master Chief’s iconic silence, Cortana quickly became the de facto protagonist in my eyes – while John was the one to push the buttons, she was the one who had to find them first.

 

Fast-forward a couple years. In late 2012, I was planning to “boycott” Halo 4; like many fans, I was leery of 343i taking over my favorite franchise. In my final months before graduation, I had bigger things to focus on – like figuring out what college I wanted to go to to study concept art and video game design.

 

As the release date grew closer, I caved. I started by watching the short webseries Forward Unto Dawn (it escapes me now what caused me to give in, but I very specifically remember having to pause when the Chief showed up because I was so overwhelmed with excitement). Up until that point I had avoided the trailers, the promotional material, and the community itself. I wanted no part in the hype associated with the game that would “ruin” my game. But as soon as I finished the last episode, I was hooked again. Here was the franchise that had taught me to draw, taught me to write; inspired me to create and even choose a prospective career. 

 

And here was my favorite character of all time. Cortana, snarky and confident as ever, but suddenly faced with her own mortality. Cortana, incapable of trusting her own memory, terrified of the unknown, but still proud and determined to win. The last seconds of Forward Unto Dawn show Cortana facing the camera head-on, nodding just slightly, and it was (and still is!) one of the most inspiring scenes I’d ever watched. She was scared, unashamedly so, but she was still determined to persevere.

 

After graduation (and even now) I began to deal with dissociation, where days blurred together and I would experience periods of something best described as “I’m not here right now”. It became a time where my entire mental state felt displaced, out of focus. My memory was shot; you could repeat something to me dozens of times and I’d still forget every word. Nothing would stick. Coupled with anxiety, it was terrifying, because now I was overthinking even the simplest action because I could not trust myself. And whatever I could remember was glazed with a thin layer of panicked thoughts, like, Is this really what they said? Am I really supposed to be here? Does this really go here? Did they say something else and I just forgot?

 

But the thing was: Cortana went through that 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.

 

It’s hard for me to articulate just how badly Halo 5: Guardians’ treatment of Cortana affected me because I’m still trying to find the words for how much Halo 4’s story meant to me. Halo 4, as a story and as a video game, may have revived my interest in the franchise, art, and the gaming industry, but it also helped me get through years of personal confusion; a time where I was dealing with illnesses I couldn’t name, yet knew the symptoms of intimately. Halo 4 gave me hope.

 

It also happened at a very, very pivotal part of my life. I will never fail to acknowledge the game’s shortcomings – Cortana’s agency in the context of the story is more or less meaningless, as the writers decided her death would be the catalyst for John’s emotional development, and that’s shoddy, misogynistic writing to an extreme; not to mention she wasn’t even allowed the chance to learn to live with her illness – but nonetheless, it’s important to me. It still holds a very special part in my heart, if for no other reason than what it inspired me to do and to become.

 

And I feel like Cortana’s rampancy was handled as best as it could possibly be, with the exception of the finale (which at the time, seemed to be the precursor for her rebirth – which I suppose it was). The concept of rampancy has existed for about as long as Bungie has existed as a company, but despite the obvious analogy to mental illness, Bungie neatly skirted talking about it beyond “sometimes AIs go insane and turn evil” – and all the ableism that implies. But 343i dealt with the analogy head-on, and used real-life cases of dementia to put together Cortana’s state of mind and her emotional development. Her experiences and her behavior is solidly rooted in real-life symptoms of memory loss and mood swings. Instead of villainizing mental illness – as so many companies are eager to do – 343i gave us a character who was wholly human, who came to terms with her mortality, and succeeded.

 

Halo 5, on the other hand, reverted everything.

 

Barely an hour into the game and Cortana was back – effectively negating the point of her sacrifice. For as seemingly unnecessary as her death was, we as a community were more or less promised a story of healing on John’s end; acknowledgment and acceptance of his humanity, as revealed by Cortana in the previous game. There was to be a point to Cortana’s death; some sort of narrative theme to keep her relevant so as to avoid “fridging” her. Instead we got a fifteen second clip of John showing remorse by stroking the CNI port on his helmet; later in the mission, as soon as he realizes Cortana is potentially alive again, he decides to pursue her (which barely speaks of health, but that’s for a different essay). And for whatever reason, Cortana is not only alive again, but also genocidal and emotionally manipulative. She abuses her connection with John to try and convince him to join her cause. Despite claiming to want to protect John, she allows the Warden Eternal and his mooks to attack Blue Team in waves; at one point, after she realizes John will never help her, she tries to imprison them for thousands of years until they can see her way. Later, she openly mocks Spartan Tanaka’s suicide attempt from years previously, for apparently no other narrative reason than to show us Cortana’s new cruelty.

 

The violent switch of character was so unbelievably bad that for me, now, it’s not too difficult to regard Halo 5 as non-canon, just because it’s so ridiculous. 343i took a character that was independent, determined, proud, and undeniably dedicated to protecting humanity and turned her into an evil mastermind. They took a role that was so obviously fitted for another character and put Cortana into it, “circle in square peg” style, purely for shock. Worse: they took a character that was pointedly mentally ill and made her a villain for it. Not only that, they demonized the entire concept of rampancy by making the new bad guys into humanity’s AIs simply because they were tired of being murdered for showing symptoms classically associated with mental illness.

 

This speaks of more than just bad writing. If you were to take an established character and make them a villain, there are many ways to do it; brainwashing, personal loss, or a loose grip on morality leading to the pursuit of revenge. And of course, they think they’re the good guy the whole time. But the problem is that, in this circumstance, it just doesn’t work. On top of that, it manages to be unabashedly offensive.

 

Since 2001, Cortana has been said to be just as loyal to humanity as the Master Chief. In Halo 3, she is so determined to protect the people they serve that she literally defies death itself – resisting the temptation of immortality as offered by an undead hivemind because she would never intentionally bring harm to John.

 

Yet, somehow, in Halo 5 she is murdering people by the millions in favor of the “greater good”. Cortana has spent her whole life fighting entities guilty of such behavior but, all of a sudden, she can justify mass genocide.

 

With the new game comes many, many new problems – if I have not already made that obvious. As stated before, Bungie was happy to leave rampancy ambiguously coded as mental illness. But in Halo 4, 343i dealt with Bungie’s ambiguity head-on through such scenes as the one where John, the super-soldier kidnapped and brainwashed to protect humanity, must ignore direct orders from his superior officer to keep Cortana from being killed. It is made very clear in this scene 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. Even Cortana’s salvation within the Domain rings uncomfortably similar to many ableist arguments regarding treatment of those who are mentally ill: the only way to handle mental illness is to cure it. There is no learning to live with it. There is only “fixing it”.

 

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. Not only that, but in parallel with Halo 4, Halo 5, by proxy, couldn’t help but create a very clear message: no matter what you do, you will relapse. No matter how hard you fight to win yourself back, you will still lose, and you will still hurt people.

 

Halo 5 was nauseatingly ignorant. Halo 5 took a character that defined a very real struggle for millions of people and turned it into drama. It ignored decades of character development for the sake of one five second close-up on the Master Chief’s visor.

 

If we were faced with a different villain – perhaps the Ur-Didact, which is what the role was clearly written for, but I digress – it would be vastly different; I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. But the fact of the matter is, Halo 5 negated everything Halo 4 accomplished. Not just narratively or thematically: if there is to be anything learned from this essay, this isn’t just about a bad villain story. This is about a bad villain story that paints a slew of mentally ill characters as inherently evil.

 

In the end, I still deal with my symptoms on a daily basis; the past few nights have been bad in particular. In Halo 5, Cortana has the benefit of being magically cured – which is what many non-mentally ill people wish when we show “inconvenient” symptoms, I’m sure – but I, like millions of other people, will go on dealing with the memory gaps, the mood swings, and the anxiety. The fear of being unable to trust ourselves. Of getting worse.

 

Halo 4 is my inspiration to reclaim myself from my fear, and for that, I’ll always be grateful for it. But I can’t claim to be a fan of the series after Halo 5.



Posted by Swans in Blogs, Halo Meta, 2 comments
Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping? – A Third Option for Cortana

Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping? – A Third Option for Cortana

(DISCLAIMER: While I am also diagnosed with depression and both generalized and social anxiety, my main perspective in this comes from having been  diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, since I was 13 years old. Despite media stereotypes, being ADHD is a very debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder, that puts those with it at higher risk for substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, traffic accidents, bad academic performance, among other things (Am. J. of Psychiatry). ADHD is a factor in almost every aspect of my life whether it be in the workplace or in academia, in personal relationships and in personal functioning. You can find more information on the realities of ADHD at the website for the US’ largest resource for ADHD, CHADD)


One of my dirtiest secrets on Tumblr is that I don’t like Halo 4. And I don’t like it because of Cortana.

 

Its not for the same reason that a lot of people don’t like it cause of Cortana. Its not because she became weak, in fact I find it very offensive when people say that. Cortana didn’t become a damsel in distress, she became mentally ill.  Tears and emotions do not make a woman weak, to say so puts the millions of women out there like myself under the bus.

 

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.” A few days later, I overheard in the lunch room from a table of guys next to me that she died.

 

My first playthrough of Halo 4 is still a level away from being unfinished. I can’t muster the willpower to go through with it. I’ve seen the scenes, giffed to high hell on Tumblr, but I have never seen it on my Xbox.

 

I’ve been told so many times, “well it’s the only way it could have ended based on Bungie’s canon” but I don’t agree with that.

 

Growing up one of my formative sci fi influences, along with Halo, was Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes from it “Sarek” from season 3, deals with a sci fi allegory for dementia, much like how rampancy is.

 

In the episode, Sarek, the father of Spock and a beloved side character from the original series, is preparing for his biggest job as an ambassador, sealing a deal that’s almost a century in the making.  Normally for an emotionaless Vulcan this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but Sarek secretly has a degenerative illness that affects Vulcan elders, that causes them to have explosive emotions. He is obviously emotionally compromised, and it becomes apparent he is unable to perform his duties.

 

What made me think of this episode was that something that stands out to me about it, is that, while the Enterprise crew deals with the situation, Sarek is never treated like the problem, or at least by himself he isn’t. Its him going into a situation where his illness will have huge consequences both for himself and others, that is the problem. This is the problem that we see solved in the episode. Sarek is able to gain emotional stability for the diplomatic meeting by mind melding with Picard. Picard  essentially holds onto his emotions until he’s done.

 

But once the meeting is done, Sarek goes back to being mentally ill. He in fact dies two seasons later, just as sick as ever. His disease could not be cured, much like real life dementia, and (pre Halo 5) rampancy. What we saw in “Sarek” was 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. Its something I rarely see except in one off episodes or stories like “Sarek”.

 

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.

 

As itself? I think Halo 4 actually did a pretty good job of handling the material they were given by Bungie. Probably the best they could do. But Halo 4 does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in conjunction with every other piece of media involving disability.

 

Media shapes how we view things. For example, media is why I felt the need to begin this article with a disclaimer about ADHD. Because in media, my disability is treated like a punchline, where little boys run around like they’re on a sugar high, and you hear jokes about being distracted by squirrels. In real life this effects how people view my disability, many people think its fake and a pharmaceutical conspiracy to sell meds to zombify children.  If people who believe that happen to be parents or guardians to ADHD children, that means their children are likely not to receive the care they need.

 

So what does this have to do with Cortana? Well in broader media, disabled characters tend to either die or be cured. Cortana has the dubious distinction of having BOTH happen to her, but lets focus on the dying aspect.

 

One of the most hot button issues in the disability community this year has been the movie “Me Before You”. Its about a woman who becomes a caretaker to a quadriplegic man, who is suicidal, in hopes of making him see how wonderful living is. It ends with him going to a euthanasia clinic, but not until after he leaves his exuberant fortune to the woman and inspires her to live life to the fullest.

 

Now Me Before You involves euthanasia which is a controversial topic that I have no right to speak on as it does not affect me. If you’d like to know more about that specific aspect of the movie here are some links from people more qualified to talk about it then me collected a the blog Crippled Scholar. But the main issue I want to address is this. The author Jojo Moyes has claimed she’s never even met a quadriplegic person. So why did she immediately go for a story where one dies to set the life of an abled character in motion?

 

Because it’s a very common narrative. I took a Children’s Literature class a few semesters ago. In that class every time we met we read sections from a book called Petey by Ben Mikaelson. The book follows the life of a man named Petey born with cerebral palsy in the 1920s, and labeled simply an “idiot” and put into a mental institution from birth. While the first 3/4ths of the novel were very good at characterizing Petey as his own person in charge of his own story, the last fourth of the novel is about him now as an elderly man in a nursing home, inspiring a young boy and changing his life…and then Petey dies of old age.  Yet again another disabled character  dies (this time dead from natural causes) at the expense to inspire an abled character. Its a trope that finds its way into all kinds of media.

 

So you’re asking probably “What the hell does this have to do with Halo 4?” Well, my experiences with media involving disabled people, make me really hesitant to say any piece of media where a disabled person dies, as a major event in the story, is in anyway radical.

 

Even if Cortana’s death wouldn’t have been MEANT to inspire John, or motivate him in a way that focuses on him, in some AU where Cortana had actually stayed dead… the fact remains it was structured as a major plot event. Major plot events are meant to be reacted to and used to spurn characters forward. It would have been very hard to use her death in a way that truly made it about her, and not about other characters reacting to it.  Of course that argument is now void. Before Halo 5 though, these were the reasons why I argued against her death being good or even radical.  Because the lives of disabled people are worth living, our lives should not be thrown away for the plot development of abled characters.

 

Living with disability, coping with it, that is whats radical. It would have meant so much to me in the situation I was in, in fall of 2012, if I saw instead of Cortana’s death, she bent the situation to her rampancy, been a hero without needing to die or be cured. To end on a note that shows she has the support of John and maybe even others, for as long as she needs it.  I would even be fine with her having been “temporarily retired” for the remainder of the Reclaimer saga. Maybe even her eventually dying.  But not until after she had proven her worth as a disabled person and been helped, the way Sarek had.

Posted by SailorSanghelios in Blogs, Halo Meta, 3 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.

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Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 1 comment
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.

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Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 4 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:

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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.

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Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 7 comments
Halo 5: When Sanghelios Feels Like Home

Halo 5: When Sanghelios Feels Like Home

Here Be Halo 5 Spoilers – You Have Been Warned


It’s through Locke’s visor, watching Locke’s feet, by which I first land on Sanghelios’ soil. The water of the river rises past our calves and suddenly everything is familiar. I’m reminded of a creek that runs through Chester Bowl in Duluth, Minnesota, a short walk from my childhood house. The sounds of Locke and Osiris making their way through the river echoes memories of family. Brothers finding new ways to traverse rocks from one bank to another, a mother pulling back portions of the creek bed to discover something new, and a father standing at a waterfall’s edge to take in the view downstream. Immediately, Sanghelios feels like home.

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