On Forerunner Architecture

The Forerunners lived as a space-faring race for over ten million years, their population likely numbering in the hundreds of billions. They were a genetically and culturally diverse people, with their Ecumene spanning over three million worlds.

And yet, some people think that their architectural style is singular, uniform… that it has just remained the same across time.

Well, is this the case? What examples of architectural diversity can we pick out with reference to the lore? And what does this ultimately tell us about the Forerunners themselves?

I can promise you answers to these questions, and hopefully change the way you think about the Forerunner playspaces many of us take for granted in the games.frcaWhile ostensibly recognisable as Forerunner architecture on-sight in every visual medium they’ve appeared (silver-grey building with blue lights… duh), it has been noted that there are a number of differences between the architecture that we see in Halo CE-3 and Halo 4.

First of all, let’s just get this one out of the way. There are artistic differences between Bungie and 343, obviously. Since this alone adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, for all intents and purposes, forget this dichotomy even exists. Every artist and designer have their own philosophies to go by, differences are always inevitable. Should you wish to learn more about the philosophy which 343 had in their approach to the Forerunner design in Halo 4, this video should prove quite illuminating – Making Halo 4: Return of the Forerunners.

The architecture that we see in the original trilogy has an overall simplicity to it with complex details within, whereas the architecture that we see in Halo 4 is far more complex and organic – an ‘ordered mess’ of geometry, as I like to put it.098 - Q6sXe8H Why is this the case, then? Well, this comes in several parts.

First of all, doesn’t it seem like common sense that such an expansive species spread across so many worlds would have diverse architectural styles? Look at human history, a comparatively shorter chronicle compared to the Forerunners, and how varied our own architecture is across cultures. On a base level, it just makes sense.

Second of all, the growing capabilities of Halo’s engine. Halo 4 is renowned as the game which absolutely pushed the 360’s hardware to its limits, it managed to squeeze a lot of power out of that now-archaic system and brought with it a wealth of opportunity to add some really dynamic behaviour to the environments that the previous games did not have to work with.

What appears in concept art is no longer something that is too difficult to implement into the game, in fact there are a good number of vistas in the game which managed to carry over the exact vision of the concept art – for instance, the opening of Requiem where you emerge out of the Dawn’s wreckage and see the great shifting spires over the vast crevice in the mountains.requiemThe level of technical fidelity that Halo 4 managed to capture (thanks largely to the amazing work of Corrinne Yu) practically demands a greater level of complexity to the environments, and with Halo 5: Guardians getting a brand new engine for the first time I’m incredibly excited to see what further intricacies and nuances we’ll get.

But I’ve been digressing from the main body of this topic – the lore.

As we learn in Greg Bear’s marvellous Forerunner Saga, the Forerunners were divided into many castes (known as ‘rates’). Builders, Miners, Lifeworkers, Warrior-Servants, Juridicals, Engineers, and who even knows how many others have existed and been made defunct – as the Theoreticals were when Boundless came a bit too close to unravelling the truth behind the Forerunner genocide of the Precursors, resulting in her assassination-by-faulty-Cryptum.

These rates had their own roles in Forerunner society, they were practically unique cultures in-and-of themselves. They had different languages, like the Builders spoke Jagon while the Warrior-Servants spoke Digon, and even then there were further intricacies to their dialects, since there’s middle-Digon and archaic Digon… there’s a great history of cultural richness in Forerunner history that’s reflected in their language, in their maturation through their rate, but most importantly through their constructs.

Guilty Spark wondered about the loss of the Domain and what ramifications that will have on future civilisations in terms of how they’ll remember the Forerunners. With all that record of history and culture gone, would those future civilisations know only of their weapons?

“We relied upon the permanence of the Domain to preserve our record of the events that led to this point. But without that record, would future civilisations know anything about us, or only of our weapons? My fellow Monitor, 049 Abject Testament, had only one comment on this before we went out separate ways.”

“We deserve to be forgotten.”

cea7The future civilisations of the Halo universe may have forgotten all of that lost history, but we most certainly don’t have to.

Let’s start with Requiem, then.

Requiem is the oldest Forerunner world we’ve set foot on. It was actually constructed before the Human-Forerunner war, over ten thousand years before the Forerunner-Flood war. It’s designated ‘Shield-0001’ because it was the template for which the Didact would launch his star-hopping strategy – hundreds of Shield Worlds strategically placed across the galaxy to provide a solid line of coordination for the Warrior-Servant fleets. The strategy worked against humanity, but the Ecumene Council refused its use against the Flood because they favoured the Master Builder’s proposal of the Halos.

As such, Requiem is unique – utterly unlike anything Forerunner we’ve seen before in the games. It comes from a time where the Warrior-Servants were in the upper-ranks of Forerunner society, prior to the Builders casting their rate down and sending many of their great warriors (like the Didact) into exile, or merging them into Builder Security.

What we’re witnessing on Requiem is Warrior-Servant architecture, and a symbol of a greater time of Forerunner history. Indeed,the Ur-Didact hoped to have Requiem fulfil that role once more when he launched his initiative with the Composer.

“He believes he will defeat the Flood with these new Prometheans, that the scattered remnants of the Forerunners will survive, and that they will eventually reunite. He will summon them, then govern and reorganise. Requiem will become the centre for the Forerunner resurgence, the foundation upon which we will rightfully claim the Mantle.


He will begin a program to eradicate all suspect species. Purge all dangerous planets. Wipe the galaxy clean of threats. Never again allow the galaxy to rise up against Forerunners.” [Endurance-of-Will, Halo: Silentium – String 34]

requiem4Compare this to the Halos, the ones we encounter in the games, and the Lesser Ark.

These installations were constructed at the twilight of Forerunner civilisation, in the final years of the Forerunner-Flood war – with the exception of the Lesser Ark, which was secretly constructed in the last thousand years in order to address the issues with the Greater Ark and the Halos it made.

What’s more, the Halo Array was constructed by an entirely different rate – the Builders. As such, the Halos bear their rate’s architectural style whereas Requiem is reflective of the Warrior-Servants’.

And then you have to take into account how little time there would have been to focus on the greater complexity of the architecture’s design, whereas Requiem did have the luxury of time because it was constructed so long ago, at the height of Forerunner power, and with little in the way of actual threats bearing down upon them. The ‘Lesser Halos’ were constructed as more streamlined and deadly machines during the most desperate hour of the Forerunners. Whole systems lay in ruin across the galaxy, transformed into Burns as the Flood overran thousands of worlds.

The Forerunners had to close off access to slipspace for all but Lifeworker Keyships because the Halos were constantly being moved across the galaxy which had the effect of seriously slowing down slipspace travel by building up reconciliation debt. Large objects undergoing extensive slipspace travel exerts a great strain on space-time, slowing down other vessels and even communications.113 - CX72DKXAs you can see, this topic of architecture ties into a number of larger issues that the Forerunners were facing. So here is, perhaps, the most important.

The corrupt Builders who followed the Master Builder systematically tore down the other rates, removing their privileges and culture. In Silentium, the concluding book of the Forerunner Saga, during the voyage to Path Kethona with the Librarian, we have a character named Clearance-of-Old-Forests who is a Miner born into one of the most ancient and respected clades of his rate. He contributes significantly to this discourse, as there’s a lot of back-and-forth between him and a Builder named Keeper-of-Tools which serves to illustrate just how much animosity there is between the Builders and other rates.

Before we get into that, let’s consider what Miner architecture looks like. We actually hear a little bit about their constructs in Cryptum:

The mining ship was an ugly thing, sullen, entirely practical. Its belly was studded with unconcealed grapplers, lifters, cutters, churners. If the master of this craft so desired, its engines could easily convert all of Djamonkin Crater into a steaming tornado of whirling rock and ore, sifting, lifting and storing whatever components it wished to carry back. [Halo: Cryptum, chapter 2]

Miner constructs lack aesthetic appeal, they are “entirely practical”, as Bornstellar puts it. Anybody who has read the comic Halo: Blood Line may recognise this description

gatherer1The Gatherer, encountered by the Spartan-IIs of Black Team on a Line Installation of Jat-krula (the Maginot Sphere), bears an exact resemblance to what Bornstellar describes. It appears to have been repurposed for the Conservation Measure, gathering specimens for the Lifeworkers to study.

Another Miner construct by the name of X50 was encountered in Halo: Spartan Assault, a moon which could create and destroy whole planets. However, there’s not quite as much to say here:

A) Because I’ve not played Spartan Assault in a long while.

B) Because there wasn’t an awful lot in the way of Forerunner architecture that we saw.

Back on topic, then. We get this telling exchange from Clearance with Librarian and Keeper:

“Builders keep the deepest rituals. Something Keeper knows might stretch back to those times. Ancient phrases, meaningless today.”

“I was just beginning that degree of induction,” Keeper said, uncomfortable once more to be singled out. “Other rates have traditions and rituals too.”

“Warriors were purged of their rituals during the civil wars,” I said. “As for Miners…” I turned to the one Miner in our crew.

“Also lost,” Clearance said. He glanced at Keeper. “Builders suppressed them.”

“Lifeworkers have never accepted the greatness of the past,” I said, hoping to forestall debate about who did what to whom. “There was never an age of perfection.”

As I said before, great aspects of the culture of other rates was torn down by the Builders. Many ancient cultures, like the Egyptians for instance, had their architecture symbolically represent the political power of a particular ruler – this is very much what the Builders sought to do, which would explain their architectural dominance in the latter years of Forerunner history. As was Faber’s goal, to seek power and profit for his rate at any cost.

Architecture is very much tied to things like cultural traditions. For the Warriors, who had their rituals purged following the end of a ‘civil war’, we may be looking back to the Kradal conflicts which have been mentioned a few times. In Halo 2 Anniversary’s multiplayer, the map Warlord bears this description:

“This site pays homage to the Kradal conflict, a sombre Forerunner civil war which saw the loss of countless warriors.”

bht9The Kradal conflict took place prior to the Human-Forerunner war, and is also notable for being when the Suppressor came into use. As a result, Requiem may well be one of the last true reliquaries of Warrior-Servant architecture left in the galaxy.

‘May well have been‘, I should have said, because Requiem was destroyed. Another piece of Forerunner history, a piece of culture, lost forever.

I don’t really have an overall point to round this off on, other than to say that we’ve only seen a fraction of Forerunner history reflected through their architecture. I raised the point in my last post about human-Forerunner origins that the Lord of Admirals and the Didact visited worlds which had connotations of both human and Forerunner architecture.

We also see the preserved ruins of ancient Forerunners as well in Halo 2’s campaign, but are given only a brief tour of them and only speculative information from Cortana to go on. The art design bears a stunning similarity to what we see in Halo Wars on Arcadia when you encounter the ‘Super Scarab’, but information there is even more limited. Whether Forerunners even had rates back in those days is… very unlikely.011 - lWp5tR1I guess that what I want to say here is that you shouldn’t just look at the differences in art design between Bungie and 343 with a scowl and say how one ‘dishonours’ the other. Look at those differences as something enriches the Halo universe by showing us this greater diversity of historical periods through details in the architecture, it’s all bound together in the lore and is presented to us as a puzzle to put together.

You’re far more likely to have an enriching experience with Halo’s campaigns yourself if you play through them while thinking a bit more deeply about these things. When wondering why these things are different, consider:

Who built these structures?

When was the time period it was constructed?

Where else have we seen this style?

How do we pinpoint the rate were they from?

What does this tell us about Forerunner history?

Once you find yourself answering these questions, you’ll discover that all those wonderful artists and designers from Bungie and 343 who poured their time and vision into bringing these things to life are complimenting each other and the Halo universe, not contradicting.

About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Gaming and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Forerunner Architecture

  1. Bourbonactually says:

    Really great post! I liked the way you addressed the annoying partisanship of ‘bungie vs 343’ by shaping the way we look at the architecture in terms of the different rates of forerunner society, I’d never really thought about the different structures we visit as being built by unique sub-cultures across millions of years.

    This kind of depth is exactly the reason why Halo lore is best lore!!

    I’ve always thought about writing some in-depth lore posts like this, thanks for inspiring me to do so🙂

  2. T. Wahid says:

    Excellent post on the aesthetics of the Forerunner architecture, it is an in-depth analysis with sources cited and some great images. Now if we could get an engineer to talk about the Forerunner engineering of their buildings, it’d be amazing.

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