The finish line is in sight now, as the story of Halo 4’s campaign draws to a close. The Ur-Didact has been defeated, the Composer destroyed, and Cortana has sent John back home as she herself bows out of the narrative with her head held high. It’s the end of a very significant chapter in the life of our hero, now that his best friend is dead we’re left wondering – what’s going to happen to him? How will he deal with such an emotionally crushing event? Where’s he going to go and what’s he going to do?
These are, of course, questions for another time – this period of denouement following the climax of the main story serves to illustrate the Return stage of the Hero’s Journey. So let’s get right to it! The Epilogue is split into two halves, focusing on the immediate after-effects of the Didact’s assault and examining John’s frame of mind as the major themes of the game converge.
The scene opens with John, immobile, drifting through the debris field of the Ur-Didact’s now destroyed vessel, the Mantle’s Approach. This incredibly symbolic image ties right the way back to Halo 3 where John says to Cortana that “we’ll all go home”, safely and soundly. Only things didn’t entirely go to plan, and we see from the framing here that John is caught in the divide between two worlds.There’s Earth to the right of the frame, this is ‘home’. It’s what he’s been fighting to protect for decades, the home of humanity – but is this where he belongs? It’s an interesting question to ask due to the nature of John as a soldier, he’s been raised and trained to deal with nothing but conflict. This is a major aspect of the Monomyth, the Hero’s Journey – the hero does not want to return home because they have found a sense of spiritual enlightenment and bliss in the ‘other’ world.
To the left of the frame is the darkness of space, littered with debris – the ruination of the ‘other’ world surrounds John which reflects his emotional and spiritual state at this point. He’s caught in the middle of these two worlds, but is facing Earth and it almost looks as if he’s reaching out to it. He’s got no choice now but to return to the ordinary world and face the emotional consequences of what’s happened in the story so far.
“The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world. Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfilment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.” ~ Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
“Infinity Actual? Pelican nine-Sixer, we found him…”
Prior to this though, we don’t actually see the source of the light, we just see how John is completely exposed in its radiance. Light is a symbolic means through which we get notions of rebirth, cleansing, revelation, and purity. It’s something which signifies new beginnings, a clean slate with an equal balance of all the colours of the spectrum – as previously mentioned in my Midnight analysis, colour is hugely significant. This is a new world not just for John, but for humanity as well now that we know that our species has a destiny we must aspire towards – attaining the Mantle of Responsibility.
In many cultures, white is indicative of death and mourning, the end of one life and the beginning of a new. It recalls youth and innocence, taking us all the way back to the very first shot of the game – John as a six year old child. Without Cortana as his guiding figure, now that we’ve seen that life come to an end, John is essentially ‘reborn’ and has to start afresh. He’s reclaimed that notion of childhood by crossing the return threshold in his Hero’s Journey and must start anew.Arriving back on the Infinity, a group of Marines and Spartan-IVs stand ready and waiting to salute the Master Chief upon his return. There’s a triumphant beat to the music here, the champion and saviour of humanity has come back home – in the Monomyth, the hero generally returns to bestow a ‘boon’ upon humanity, but it seems here that John himself is the boon.
The low angle here on John certainly demonstrates as sense of dominance and heroism, as he steps out of the Pelican and sees how all attention is focused on him. The lighting here is really interesting to take into account too, as it’s all a bit scattered in places except for the lower part of the frame where the walkway is covered by a line of shadow. Shadows typically symbolise things like internal conflict, representing a problem faced by a character that they cannot bear up against, as well as generating a sense of uncertainty. The shadow specifically outlines the path for John here, and he himself is washed over with shadow which serves to reinforce his own inner conflict as well as both our uncertainty of where he’s going and his own.We next see an establishing shot of the Infinity over Earth, John is standing at the observation deck alone and looking out at Earth. Lasky appears from behind and asks if he can join John.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Of course not, sir.”
“At ease, Chief. Feels kind of odd for you to call me ‘sir’…”
Here, Lasky attempts to engage John on a personal level. He’s John’s superior officer, but doesn’t think that the formality feels right so he essentially brings himself down to John’s level.The sight of these two heroes together is really quite something, as John has had a huge impact on Lasky’s life and Lasky is about to return the favour to him (which we’ll get to in a minute). Lasky attempts to make small talk with the stoic and mourning John.
“Beautiful, isn’t she? I don’t get to see her often enough… I grew up on New Harmony. Attended Corbulo Military Academy. Never saw Earth in person until I was an adult, but… I still think of her as home.”
“You don’t talk much, do you? Chief, I won’t pretend to know how you feel. I’ve lost people I care about, but… never anything like you’re going through.”
This once again calls to mind the events of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, where John is helping Lasky, Chyler, Sullivan and Orenski escape but Chyler gets struck by a Needler shard fired by a Jackal as it’s struck by the Warthog they’re driving. Lasky has lost his brother, and now he is forced to confront losing his closest friend as this new alien threat converges on them. Chyler gives Lasky her dog tags upon her death, and we see at the very end of Forward Unto Dawn that he has kept them along with the remains of the Hunter’s shield that John killed – similar to how the Halo: Xbox One trailer depicts John hanging onto Cortana’s data crystal chip and draws strength from it as a new Forerunner construct bears down on him.John finally responds, not breaking his gaze away from Earth, and says:
“Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity… whatever the cost.”
Here, we see John attempt to rationalise Cortana’s death as another casualty of war, but his tone is shaky which implies that he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying and is simply falling back on his training.
“You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things… Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.”
And here, Lasky perfectly underlines the game’s thematic message here which John has to discover. Earlier in the game, Cortana asked John to find out “which one of us is the machine”, to which John had no answer – but now he’s forced to confront these issues now that he has no external conflict to engage with. This is a hugely important revelation for John, as it’s the moment that he actively begins to discover his own sense of humanity – following on from previous scenes in the game with characters like Doctor Tillson and Del Rio.
“What happens when that soldier starts to discover his humanity?” ~ Armando Troisi, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens
“We also knew that we wanted this to be a much more personal tale. We wanted to examine the Chief on a fundamentally human level. We wanted to delve into some of the things that made him tick and force him, through circumstance, to change as a character. [...] In the past, Chief has never really made a decision for himself, and, in Halo 4, that would change.” ~ Josh Holmes, Halo 4: Postmortem
The last time we saw these two characters like this, they were sat opposite one-another on a Pelican at the start of a whole new war with the Covenant as the world of Circinius IV fell around them. John congratulated Lasky for his actions, courage and valour, praising his virtue as a soldier. Here, we see a reversal where Lasky enumerates the virtues of being a human. But at the same time, we’re being shown that these are not mutually exclusive things, as soldiers are not machines.John is visibly affected by this comment, his head jerks towards Lasky as the words hit home for him, echoing Cortana’s words from earlier – what was essentially her last request to him. This also brings the player to think about something, because the thing about Halo is, despite all the terrible things that the Spartan-IIs went through as children and all that, it’s debatable as to whether or not it was right. You don’t know, despite the successful result. They saved humanity, but was it worth it? This is what Halo 4 questions – is John a man or a machine? Is John human, or a ‘robot’ that follows orders? This is where that theme of transcendence comes in, as both John and Cortana grow out of that role they were ‘born’ to fulfil over the course of the narrative which hugely impacts the relationship between them and how John is able to engage with others on a fundamentally human level.
The question here though is whether humanity’s continued survival justifies the rest? Does the fact that we lived justify all the horrible things that we have done for that ultimate goal? Is humanity itself more valuable than the things that make us human? It’s interesting because it ties back to what Halsey said about her Spartans being humanity’s “destiny as a species”, but what exactly will that come to mean? John thinks he’s got it worked out in his head, that the duty of a soldier is to protect humanity “whatever the cost”, but he’s very much shaken by what Lasky says to him about soldiers and humanity being one and the same.
“Master Chief is human, he’s not a machine, he’s not a set of armour with a big weapon. He’s a human with resilience and courage. [...] What are the sacrifices that you have to make in order to preserve something as precious as humanity?” ~ Kiki Wolfkill, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens
“She said that to me once… about being a machine.”
The melancholy in John’s voice is so apparent, whether he’s saying this in his mind or out loud to himself, this is the very first time we’ve seen John have an inner dialogue with himself.It’s an incredibly poignant note to end the game on, one which certainly does demonstrate a massive change in John’s character, but we’re not quite done yet. There’s an additional scene following the credits where the aftermath of the Ur-Didact’s attack on New Phoenix is examined with a voice-over monologue from the Forerunner himself.
“In this hour of victory, we taste only defeat… I ask, why?”
We see shots of the empty city, no sign of any life remaining with cars immobile on motorways and unoccupied streets – it’s as if the city itself is suspended in time. The Composer only managed to assimilate a tiny part of Earth, but it’s officially confirmed that there were seven million casualties with the summary of Halo: Escalation, Issue #7.
“‘The Fall of New Phoenix’ — eight months ago, an attack on Earth left seven million dead, including the family of Spartan Gabriel Thorne. Today the city has been opened from quarantine, and Thorne is going home to see what’s left… and what it has to do with the Master Chief.”
“We are Forerunners, guardians of all that exists. The roots of the galaxy have grown deep under our careful tending, where there is life the wisdom of our countless generations has saturated the soil. Our strength is a luminous sun, towards which all intelligence blossoms, and the impervious shelter beneath which it has prospered…”
We cut away from New Phoenix back to the UNSC Infinity and see John walking down a hallway. Notice just how much this short scene gives us. We see him clench his fist, that recurring symbolic image of his resolve we’ve seen appear throughout the game as he just keeps going. It looks as if he’s resisting the urge to tear the bulkhead from the wall out of frustration now that he feels he’s well and truly failed. He’s failed Cortana, for being incapable of saving her. He’s failed Johnson, who told him to never let her go. But, worst of all, he’s failed himself for failing to keep the promises he made.
Cortana warned him not to make a promise that he can’t keep, but he’s always stubbornly insisted that “you know me, when I make a promise”.
“I stand before you, accused of the sin of ensuring Forerunner ascendancy – of attempting to save us from this fate where we are forced to… recede.”
His physicality is further punctuated by that broken walk… The way each step seems to take something out of this seven foot tall supersoldier, every one requiring more effert than the last. Then, there’s the setting – that confined, narrow hallway of uniform grey and the two shut doors in front of and behind him. There’s no clear end in sight for John, the uncertainty of what lies ahead after closing the door on a chapter of his life that’s going to shape him for the rest of the Reclaimer Saga is clearly going to result in some long-lasting changes.
This is an amazing piece of visual storytelling. This tells me everything about John’s feelings and his emotional state without a single line of dialogue (outside of the Ur-Didact’s narration, of course).
“Humanity stands as the greatest threat in the galaxy, refusing to eradicate them is a fools gambit. We squander eons in the darkness, while they seize our triumphs for their own! The Mantle of Responsibility for all things belongs to Forerunners alone…”
As John walks through the door, we cut to a view of the Spartan-IV armoury with numerous personnel going about their business until they catch sight of John. He completely stands out among them, standing a head taller than everyone with his armour battered and scarred from the things he’s been through. Everybody looks up to John, he’s what they all aspire to be like, the very model of a legend while the rest of them are untried in this regard.John approaches one of the armour stations, being too big to actually fit in it he has to have each piece of his armour removed manually by the technicians around him. He spreads out his arms as if he’s being crucified, everything he thought he was is gradually stripped away from him as we see shots of various pieces of his armour fall off and drop to the floor.
Another thing that this calls to mind is Leonard da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man drawing, a very famous piece of art which is regarded as his attempt to relate man and nature. Da Vinci believed that the workings of the human body were an analogy for the workings of the universe. The overlapping circle and square were used to create the image of a perfectly proportioned illustration of an average man.
Why is this important, you ask? Well, take a look at the image yourself and see how perfectly it resembles the Vitruvian Man drawing. You’ve got the circle behind John and the wall behind him has a clearly defined square structure, the purpose of these elements was to depict the ‘average man’ which links directly to what Halsey said about her Spartans.
“My Spartans are humanity’s next step. Our destiny as a species.”
This also calls to mind the geas, or genesong, that Librarian imprinted humanity with. She unlocked the potential of the geas within John when we met her on Requiem, the physical and mental changes that this gift will have are yet to be fully understood but this single image tells me that it’s going to be a very important aspect of the Reclaimer Saga and humanity’s journey as a whole.
“Think of my acts as you will, but do not doubt the reality… the Reclamation has already begun, and we are hopeless to stop it.”
The final shot of the game closes in on the helmet as it’s detached from John’s head and reveals to us, for the first time in the games, his eyes. The so-called ‘windows to the soul’.
And what do we see? We see that he is broken.
His skin is pale from spending so much time in the suit, one can make out a deep scar on the right side of the frame which runs across his cheek, his eyes are shadowed and have visible bags under them. This is the same look we saw in that very first shot of the game with the six year old John staring at the screen with a look of defiance in his eyes, lacking every bit of the broken, tired expression we see here.It’s only fitting that this should be the way in which the game closes, as this has been a complete deconstruction of John as a character thematically, so it’s a fantastic symbolic reflection of this process to see it happen literally in front of our very eyes.
One last thing that I want to talk about here is the Ur-Didact’s monologue running through this scene, as a great many people have misinterpreted it as being a statement that he made to the Ecumene Council in the past to justify his actions. But this is decidedly false because it cannot be reconciled with canonical fact. During the Human-Forerunner war, never did the Ur-Didact push for humanity to be wiped out, as a matter of fact it was the Librarian who believed that they should be killed at the time.
“Our enemies move deeper into our territory with abandon, they must be eradicated!”
“Shall we take revenge? Abandon the Mantle and all that its philosophy has given us these thousand generations?”
“All our plans have been torn asunder!”
“More reason not to abandon our beliefs. The Mantle is our guidepost in times such as these, we must not falter in following its teachings. The enemy must be sent home and taught to stand with the galaxy, rather than rail against us and take what they desire. The Mantle shelters all!” ~ Librarian & Didact, Halo 4 Terminal: War
This is really quite different to the Ur-Didact’s statements in the Epilogue that “refusing to eradicate them is a fool’s gambit”. Likewise, it has been suggested that this is said to justify his actions when he first composes humans, but at that point there was no Ecumene Council left – in fact, there were almost no surviving Forerunners left at all when the Ur-Didact started this initiative because the last remnant of the Forerunner resistance was wiped out by Precursor Star Roads at the Greater Ark.
The only surviving Forerunners at this point were the IsoDidact (who was heading to the Lesser Ark to fire the Halos), Chant to Green (who was on Earth prior to Librarian telling her to go to the Ark), a number of Lifeworkers and Warrior-Servants already at the Lesser Ark, Endurance of Will who was the last remaining Forerunner to be composed on Requiem, and Librarian who was in-pursuit of the Ur-Didact to imprison him for his crimes – and we have a full documentation of what was said between these two in Silentium, the Epilogue speech was not it.Therefore, there is no way that this speech takes place in the past. The dialogue here only makes sense when applied to the present because humanity was never seizing Forerunner triumphs for their own 110,000 years ago. The Human-San’Shyuum alliance was primarily concerned with unlocking Precursor constructs, and yet we have a perfect reflection of humans seizing Forerunner triumphs for their own in Halo 4 – the UNSC Infinity, for example, is heavily based off Forerunner technology gathered from Trevelyan, and Librarian gives Halsey the Janus Key which reveals the real-time location of every piece of Forerunner technology in the galaxy which will propel humanity.
The Ur-Didact also mentions squandering eons in the darkness, which is essentially what the IsoDidact says to Riser the Forerunner will do in Halo: Rebirth.
“We will do what we can with what we are given,” Riser said. “But what of you? Where will the Forerunners live?”
“I do not know,” Bornstellar said, “Not yet. All I know for certain is that we cannot return to these places. We have already meddle too much in the affairs of others.”
Riser grimaced. “Forerunners refusing to meddle? Is that a promise?”
“A promise,” Trial said.
“Truly this will be a different place,” Riser said.
Following this, the surviving Forerunners go on the Great Journey and are not seen again. That is, until around 2559 (two years after Halo 4’s campaign) where Chakas (343 Guilty Spark) says that he has finally tracked down the “elusive Lifeshaper” (believing her to be the Librarian, not knowing that she passed the title of Lifeshaper to Chant to Green) and states that they are in perpetual combat with the Ur-Didact.
“You and I are brothers in many ways, not least in that we faced the Didact before, and face him now, and perhaps ever after. This is combat eternal, enmity unslaked, unified by only one thing: our love for the elusive Lifeshaper. Without her, humans would have been extinguished many times over. Both I and the Didact love her to this day. Some say she is dead, that she died on Earth. But that is demonstrably untrue. One of you almost certainly carries Vinnevra and Riser’s old spirits within. Only the Lifeshaper can find them and coax my friends back to life. And after a hundred thousand years of exploration and study… I know where to find her.”
So, it is clear that the Epilogue speech is set post-Halo 4 and has the Ur-Didact justifying his actions to what seems to be a surviving group of Forerunners. Endurance of Will tells Librarian that the Ur-Didact believes the Forerunners will survive the Flood conflict and will one day regroup with one-another, at which point he will have raised an army using the Composer to uphold the Mantle under the rule of the Forerunners. The Ur-Didact has ultimately failed this goal and states that “the Reclamation” has begun, what this is we do not yet know – but if I were to hazard a guess, it’d be akin to an ‘arms race’ to attain the Mantle now that it’s squarely up for grabs. Librarian wants humanity to have it, the Ur-Didact believes it rests solely on the shoulders of the Forerunners.
We have our conflict set up, the themes which are set to expand and develop over future instalments in the Reclaimer Saga, and the impending return of the Flood to bring humanity “unity” (as per the Timeless One’s final prophecy in Halo: Primordium) to look forward to. Halo 4 has very much laid out the groundwork for these future events, it is in many ways the first act of the larger story which has been brewing in the fiction for seven years now.
And, with that, this analysis comes to a close… It’s done. We’ve covered every mission of Halo 4’s campaign, explored the themes of the writing, the characterisation, analysed the framing of scenes, delved into the background fiction to help shed light on some of the more abstract aspects of the narrative, looked at the importance of colour, and tied it all up in a nice neat bow with a prediction for events yet to come.
It has been my great pleasure to have spent the last two months working on this project, I have a lot of people to thank who have been reading and enjoying these essays alongside me.
Perhaps most of all, I want to thank Chris Schlerf, the lead writer of Halo 4, for his personal encouragement on Twitter – your work at 343 been an inspiration to me, clearly enough to justify a near 50,000 word long dissertation, and I’m immensely humbled that you were kind enough to take note of this project (and immensely saddened that you’ve left). Likewise, I’d like to extend my thanks to all the folks at 343 Industries for the phenomenal job they did with Halo 4. You guys are awesome, I am highly anticipating the next instalment of the Reclaimer Saga.
Special thanks to Grey101, Gojira and Lord of Admirals of Bungie.net/Halo Archive who have been an invaluable source of help from the start of this project, our many late-night discussions about Halo really kept me going with all the enthusiasm we shared (I’d like to take this moment to smugly grin about getting to the God Loop first, sorry Gojira :P). I know I also have people from the Halo Waypoint, Tumblr, Reddit and Halo Archive communities to thank as well – Cortnan, Shezzarine, Ichidou, Quantum Cola, Basiacat, and B-checks, thank you all.
Now that all is said and done, I bid you adieu. Don’t go thinking that this is the end though, I’ll be working on another Halo analysis soon enough (this time it’ll be about John’s character arc in relation to the Heroine’s Journey which should offer some interesting insight into where his character may end up going).
Until then, farewell Spartans.