I remember when Halo first arrived in my life. It was shortly after the original Xbox launched, just after the Christmas of 2001. I remember playing it at a friend’s house, and becoming so hooked on the story and the world in which the game took place that I just had to have it in my own living room. I remember spending Christmas money nearly as soon as I had finished counting it, padded with my own working wages at the time. While in line to check out, I saw a novel on the shelf in the store – Halo: The Fall Of Reach – so I picked it up and added it to my transaction. This would start a two-directional love affair that would last fourteen long years, and still endures to this very day; one, my devotional love for the Halo game series, and two, my undying affection for the novels that built upon the franchise’s universe.
Through the last decade and (nearly) a half, I’ve played every single game in the Halo franchise, and I’ve managed to read fourteen of eighteen Halo novels, with a nineteenth coming this December. I’ve also managed to keep tabs on ARG events like ilovebees, unfolding events in the comic series, watched miniseries like Forward Unto Dawn or Nightfall, and even caught entire seasons of audio dramas such as Hunt the Truth. But I’m starting to notice a trend, something that’s only been a factor since 343 Studios took over for Bungie. Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach needed no buildup, no other sources of plot enhancement in order to tell its story. Even if you wanted to read First Strike to see how John – I call Chief by his name, okay – made it out of the bleakness of HCE‘s ending and survived to the opening scenes of Halo 2, you didn’t really need to. You just knew that he made it out, and there he was. The games were the driving force of the narrative core, and the novels simply filled in the gaps.
But in the 343 era, that isn’t happening. Or, at least it doesn’t feel that way.
In order to make sense of Halo 4, and I mean truly make sense of it, you’ll need to read The Fall of Reach, Ghosts of Onyx, the Kilo-Five Trilogy and the Forerunner Trilogy, as well as watch Forward Unto Dawn. Even still, in order to make sense of Halo 5, you’ll need to have read all of those books as well as Saint’s Testimony, and in order to have understood that to its fullest, you’d have needed to read the Halo: Blood Line comic series. Plus, in order to know all about Fireteam Osiris, you’d have to read Hunters in the Dark, the Halo: Escalation comic series, and Halo: New Blood. Oh, and watch Halo: Nightfall. That’s what you’ll need to invest in order to have current Halo games work from a plot perspective.
It used to not be like this. The games used to inform the supplementary material. Now, the supplementary material informs the games, and by “informs” I mean “is absolutely required to make this stuff comprehensible.” Halo 4 opens, the Covenant is back. Wait, didn’t we make peace with what was left of them at the end of Halo 3? Well, yes, but this is a new Covenant. How did that come about? Read Kilo-Five. Okay, so there’s a Forerunner, but he’s a bad guy. And there once was a good lady, too? Wasn’t this bad guy supposed to be a good guy? Why the face-heel turn? Did you know that there’s two of them?
You’re confused, right? You wouldn’t be nearly as confused if you read the Forerunner Trilogy.
Serious spoiler territory: Even in the newly-released Halo 5, fans are not safe from it. If you didn’t read the Forerunner Trilogy and at least Saint’s Testimony, you wouldn’t understand why Cortana takes over and goes all supervillain on people. It comes off as a not-very-clever asspull without it, and insults the memory of a character people knew and loved, as well as cheapening her sacrifice at the end of Halo 4. However, it makes a whole lot more sense when presented in the context of the greater story – but who in the hell wants to read, right? Don’t even get me started on why watching Forward Unto Dawn is crucial for not only establishing why Thomas Lasky is important, but it also sets up ONI’s Michael Sullivan, who is seen as a crucial part of Hunt the Truth. Or that the person who runs ONI is Serin Osman, who made her ascension to the top of the shadow pile by successfuly surviving the events of the Kilo-Five Trilogy.
That’s starting to get annoying as hell, trying to keep up with all of this extra media. But it’s not the fault of the fans, though. Halo is a video game series, first and foremost. To expect them to delve into multiple media sources and spend hours of time investing themselves in the fictional future history of humanity is ludicrious, especially since the games are supposed to be where all the most major parts of the story happen. The latter is still true to a certain degree, but the supplementary material would be much better used in such a way that it bolsters the main series, rather than being relied upon as its primary method of dissemination. When your game plots seem rushed and convoluted, with hamfisted and hackneyed events that make a majority of players go “wait a minute, I thought that this person was a good guy / we weren’t at war with these people / this character was dead,” there’s a problem in keeping the story straight.
Perhaps if 343 invested in making certain books into games themselves, with campaign-only missions sold as DLC expansions, maybe most video game players would, you know, play the games to experience the tale they were already playing the games in order to experience. It’s amazing how that works, you know? That’s not to say that the novels aren’t worth reading / shows aren’t worth watching / etc. They most certainly are, and they provide wonderful connections where none would exist otherwise. I’m just of the opinion that more of these moments need to be in the medium that the series actually calls home.