So I was semi-recently doing what I call a ‘photography run’ of Halo 4, I call it this because there’s no campaign theatre mode so it has to be done using the blind skull and the Xbox’s screenshot feature. This kind of playthrough really gets you to appreciate the art and the visuals of the game, in fact I went through it trying to recreate certain shots from the concept art and ended up being rather successful in doing so. As such, all the screenshots you see in my posts, just like with the Halo 5 postmortem, are ones I’ve taken.
Anyway, I got to photography running Spartan Ops and decided to rewatch the cutscenes through because, while it does have its flaws, I do still regard it as a net-positive story.
But one major thing has always bugged me since Spartan Ops ended in 2013 and I’ve never really talked about it.
Requiem is unique as a setting in the Halo universe, as it is actually the oldest Forerunner location that we’ve yet visited in the games – in Silentium, the Librarian tells us that Requiem was constructed even before the Human-Forerunner war, over 110,000 years ago. It served as the template for the Ur-Didact’s original star-hopping plan which he intended to use against the Flood, before he was defeated by his political opponent (Faber, the Master Builder) who proposed the Halo rings to the Ecumene Council instead.
I talked about it in my last post where I ruminated on Halo Wars, the advanced age of Requiem granted 343 perfect leeway to craft a completely different style of Forerunner architecture unique to the Warrior-Servants. As we know, the Forerunners had a caste-based society where an individual Forerunner’s journey and development in that society would have them be sculpted (physically, genetically, mentally, spiritually, etc) to fit into a particular ‘rate’. And these rates were separate cultures unto themselves, which we see illustrated in the Forerunner Saga to a great extent.
To give an example, rates have their own unique languages. Builders spoke Jagon, whereas Warrior-Servants spoke Digon, and that itself had its own history and development because frequent reference is made to dialects such as ‘middle-Digon’ and ‘archaic Digon’.
Each rate had their own traditions and rituals, which were eventually lost for various reasons – be it through the Kradal conflicts (a civil war between the Warrior-Servants), the Builders assuming power over the Ecumene and stripping rates of their cultures and traditions, or the firing of the Halos and the subsequent loss of the Domain which supplemented their existence.
Forerunner history is built on tragedy from start to finish, one of the biggest tragedies being the near-total loss of their history.Requiem is a bastion of an unknown time in Forerunner history – its construction situated after the Kradal conflicts where the Warrior-Servants (according to the Librarian) were purged of many of their rituals, but predating the deconstruction of their entire rate and the two biggest wars at the twilight of their gasping empire.
As a result of all the factors mentioned above (and more), it is significant that Requiem looks different to the Forerunner installations we see in the original trilogy – the final Halo array being constructed by the Builders in the last years of the Forerunner-Flood war, millennia after Requiem. It added another layer of mystery to the setting, ironically, for those of us who are versed in the lore. Those of us who knew more actually knew less at first, if you understand my meaning.
I’m flicking through my copy of Awakening: The Art of Halo 4, and, according to Sparth, the artists spent over a year researching and working on building the Forerunner aesthetic of Halo 4. To drop a couple of quotes:
Kenneth Scott: “Early in development we made the commitment to use the full range of our arts arsenal to craft the player experience. Shape, language, and colour help the player to ‘feel’ the narrative arcs.” [p. 13]
“Requiem needed to be impactful; it needed to take the player back to the epic mystery and nostalgia of exploring the first Halo video game a decade ago. Making weird and alien spaces is not terribly challenging. Keeping them from falling into abstraction or failing to be believable is. Keeping the player invested and finding those keys to keeping him or her immersed was our goal.” [p. 22]
John Liberto: “Kenneth Scott told me that first sightings of Forerunner areas should resemble ancient Cambodia. Vegetation, even mountains, must grow around these ever-lasting structures.” [p. 27]
Well, I don’t know how it went for you, but it absolutely did the job for me. Requiem is easily my favourite setting we’ve been to in the games, the feeling of mystery and nostalgia is absolutely present for me which is enhanced by the knowledge given to us by the Forerunner Saga.
I really dislike the notion that’s kicked around that the Forerunner Saga just answered all of our questions about the Forerunners and there’s no mystery left with them – if that’s your response to those books, sorry, but you probably haven’t actually read them because it’s quite simply not true. For every question answered, a dozen more are raised.
God forbid we actually see some depth and complexity injected into something which was previously verging on being boringly adherent to the ‘advanced, vanished alien race trope’.Speaking of tropes, this brings us to a nice, neat segway into what was done with Requiem.
Let’s recap some of the plots of the previous Halo games in broad strokes, shall we?
Halo CE: You stumble upon an ancient Forerunner installation and conclude the game by blowing it up.
Halo 3: You stumble upon two Forerunner installations, one of them a replacement for the one you blew up in the first game, and conclude the game by blowing it up again.
Wars: You stumble upon not one, not two, but three Forerunner settings across three worlds and progress through the story by blowing each of them up – concluding the game by blowing up the Shield World with its own sun.
Reach: You stumble upon a crashed Forerunner ship underground, it holds knowledge – “a game-changer, on the level of the conical bullet in the nineteenth century, or faster-than-light travel in the twenty-third”. What is this knowledge? Why are you even asking? Get on that Pelican right now because we’re blowing it up!
See a bit of a pattern there?
Halo’s plots got a bit overly reliant on the same basic formula, in fact it got so comfortable with it that it was downright shoehorned into Reach’s narrative as an extremely artificial way of lending some sort of significance to Noble Team’s actions without ever taking the time to explain what exactly the Babd Catha vessel held that was such a huge discovery. It sure wasn’t anything to do with Installation 04 because they got the coordinates there from the battle of Sigma Octan– y’know what, never mind, let’s not go down this rabbit hole again. At least, not today.
All I’ll say on the matter (for today) is that this is a potential opportunity, 343, to retroactively make it so this was where Halsey learned about the Domain.Back on-topic, the Halo campaign stories that I hold in the highest esteem – Halo 2, ODST, and Halo 4 – all do something different with their storytelling formula. We destroy Mantle’s Approach at the end of Halo 4 (though you certainly wouldn’t know it if you’d just played Halo 5), but it leaves a bit of game-changer hanging for humanity – Requiem, unoccupied, and ready for the taking. Thus, the stage is set for Spartan Ops as we play through a military campaign of occupation and discovery.
Of course, this is where things turn a bit sour, as Spartan Ops ends by adhering to the tired trope of just blowing up the Forerunner world.
Ah, but we can go a bit further here because we have it from Word of God, Brian Reed, the lead writer of Spartan Ops, why this happened.
So, why did Requiem end up being destroyed?
What was the thought process behind that decision?
“We couldn’t figure out how the story ended. Room full of smart people, all with storytelling skills and the resumes to prove it, and we could not tie a bow on this story in the outline stage.
Then Frank O’Connor says, “Maybe Jul just drives Requiem into the sun.”
And we all laughed, because that was so wonderfully absurd. A half hour later we still didn’t have an idea of how the Requiem adventure ended. Eventually we let Jul drive Requiem into the sun because, come on. That’s pretty awesome, throwing planets into suns.” [Halo Bulletin, February 27th 2013]
Okay then.Yeah, throwing planets into suns can be cool (actually, it’s probably pretty hot, but that word usage has a bit of a different connotation)… but d’you know what’s cooler (/hotter, oh yeah) than that?
Figuring out ways to meaningfully work with and expand on what you have.
Not tossing one of your most interesting, well-developed settings into the sun before the most has been made out of it.
I am genuinely stunned by the idea that a room full of at least half a dozen writers operating with the opportunities presented by the Halo universe at their fingertips could not come up with anything for Requiem beyond just repeating what has happened too many times before.
I wish I could have sat in on that meeting to see how they couldn’t even get an idea of an outline for it.
This is where I finally get to what more succinct people than I call ‘the point’.
Faced with this same dilemma, what would I do with Requiem?Starting off, there’s a caveat here of having the benefit of hindsight – though, at the same time, I’m not one of the people sat in the writers room with the benefit of having planned out years of fiction. So I’d say this is relatively even ground between creator and fan…
I would have had the Covenant decisively win the campaign for Requiem’s occupation, forcing the Infinity to flee and giving the Covenant their own base of operations there.
You could still use the artefact that was pulling Requiem and Infinity into the sun in the game proper – have it be revealed that it’s a failsafe device for the Shield World in the event that it’s invaded and overrun by the Flood, pulling it into the sun as an extreme case of asset denial.
My logic here for the Covenant decisively winning this conflict is that humanity already occupies a Shield World. Remember Trevelyan, formerly Onyx? It’s the size of two astronomical units – that is to say, 300,000,000 kilometres in-diameter. One astronomical unit is about the distance equal to the space between Earth and our sun. Double that distance and that’s the size of Trevelyan.
It’s hella big.
The issue is that Trevelyan hasn’t been used much at all. The Kilo-5 books set up some interesting things regarding ONI’s machinations, experimenting on Jul and plotting the extinction of the Sangheili, but it hasn’t featured as a major part of the setting since The Thursday War in 2012. Cryptum and Silentium are frame narratives, told to us by objects recovered from Trevelyan (the Bornstellar Relation for Cryptum, and a long-deceased Catalog unit and Monitor shell for Silentium), and that’s about the extent to which Trevelyan has had any major impact on the post-war setting.
What does Jul want?
On a personal level, he wants to avenge the death of his wife Raia at the hands of humanity. He also wants humanity stamped out before they get a chance to recuperate and take their own revenge against the Sangheili for the war with the Covenant.
Those are his motives. His goal is to protect his people, which would therefore make sense for him to do by ‘giving’ them a Shield World.
This would be his moment of triumph before future troubles befall his Covenant, which was ultimately doomed to fail from the start. He’d be the ‘prophet’ who actually seemed to have delivered salvation to his people.Having won Requiem, you then get the opportunity to have some short stories that would explore the perspective of individuals within the Covenant. This would be especially fitting as a parallel to the Ussans from Broken Circle – as the situation here in the modern setting would effectively be reversed.
The Ussans were a faction of Sangheili who went to live in a Shield World to escape the Covenant in its earliest days, soon after the signing of the Writ of Union. The Covenant under Jul go to live in Requiem to escape the current state of the galaxy, where Thel proposes a new kind of ‘covenant’ that involves working with humans – humans being the San’Shyuum equivalent here, which is compounded on further by the fact that humans and San’Shyuum were once allies, which is something that could be discovered.
Additionally, as mentioned, Requiem is the oldest Shield World in existence, older than even the Human-Forerunner war over 110,000 years ago. Therefore, examining its history from the perspective of a Sangheili rather than humans (as we usually get) would be interesting because this is a world that reflects the warrior side of Forerunner society and culture, just as the Sangheili are themselves a warrior culture.
In fact, there’s a semi-canonical, unknown history between the Forerunners and Sangheili. Obviously we know that they were a race that the Librarian favoured, leading to them being catalogued and preserved by the Lifeworkers, but the original Ur-Didact awakening scene (when the late David Anthony Pizzuto was portraying the character) further layers on some interesting implications.
It’s briefly mentioned in the Forerunner Saga that the Forerunners used slave species to hunt down the remnants of the ancient human empire after the war, so you could use that and reveal that the Sangheili were one of those species – it would certainly do well to explain the Ur-Ur-Didact’s (heh) positive perspective on them.
But where to go from there?
Well, this is where I’m going to change a fair bit of the story because it involves the Composer and Sali ‘Nyon…I have long entertained the idea of ‘Composer cultists’ as an offshoot of the Covenant, a faction that believes the Composer is the true means of achieving transcendence and becoming one with the Forerunners – which bears some actual credibility because, as the Librarian says in Halo 4’s campaign, the Composer would have made the Forerunners immortal.
Of course, at the end of Halo 4, we see the Composer fired at Earth – assimilating seven million inhabitants of New Phoenix.
Now, one of the very first bits of dialogue in Spartan Ops’ opening cutscene is Hoya talking about Rio (the city, not the former captain :P) being “a mess” because it’s full of Covenant asylum seekers (give me a ‘Halo does District-9’ narrative, damn it! Especially since it was originally going to be the Halo movie). That single line is one of the most interesting things Spartan Ops introduces, and I don’t mean that as an insult – within just 5 years of the Human-Covenant war ending, there are aliens living on Earth. That is pretty huge.
So… what if we had it so some Covenant asylum seekers also lived in New Phoenix?
What if we had it so they were Composed and became their own unique form of Promethean? (In fact, the A and R variants of the early Knight brainstorming pieces have a Sangheili-esque silhouette.)
It would make a lot of sense for a major fracture in Jul’s Covenant to occur by having Sangheili (and other species) willingly submitting themselves for Composition, believing it to be the will of the Didact – their god. So there’s a gameplay benefit to this as well.
Jul then faces a dilemma because he’s actually losing power with that happening. He can direct and manipulate beings of flesh and blood to achieve his own ends, but suddenly he’s got all these people saying “yeah, let’s become Prometheans to be directed by the Didact!”
You could actually go and make Sali ‘Nyon’s claim to be the “true” Didact’s Hand credible if you went down that route, as Jul attempts to prevent members of his Covenant from undergoing Composition, which Sali sees as an obstruction of his god’s will – therefore he must be the true Hand (and from a gameplay standpoint, you now have a totally new kind of ‘Covenant’ comprised of Promethean forms of the client species). We’ll call this ‘Sali’s gambit’. He needs strength and followers to overthrow Jul, and believes that he can achieve this with the Prometheans, so he seeks out the Composer.
But the Composer was destroyed at the end of Halo 4, right? Yeah, and then we go to the Composer’s Forge in The Next 72 Hours arc of Escalation, so I’d change that story to be about Sali seeking out a Composer rather than what it was actually about – contriving a way to kick the Ur-Didact out the main narrative without killing him so that the Created stuff could take centre-stage in Halo 5.This would have been about delving further into the dangers of zealotry, desperate zealotry, as the Covenant belief is in its death throes, as well as illustrating how Jul isn’t nearly as in-control as he thinks he is. I think it would be a strong way to make his loss of control over the Prometheans all the more impactful on his Covenant (especially since it happens so suddenly, with barely any explanation in Halo 5) and further compounding sense on why he would turn to the UNSC with Halsey when the Guardian stuff starts happening (which I’ve illustrated in my alternate account of handling Jul’s character arc in Halo 5).
Then, to bring this to a climax with a Shock Twist™: Sali goes to Requiem (where much of Jul’s Covenant and their families are living at this point, moving over from Hesduros) with his acquired Composer and fires it on them.
any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead.
The Shield World falls silent once more, its inhabitants now added to the collective army of Prometheans.
The curse of lost history strikes once more in a moment that would parallel the Ur-Didact using the Composer on the humans at Omega Halo in the final act of Silentium – the turn of the screw moment where the stakes are raised and the conflict starts ramping up to its highest pitch.
I daresay this could be done in a single book where you switch between Sali ‘Nyon’s perspective and another Sangheili character who lives in Requiem and is exploring it, uncovering its past and all the things we talked about in this post.
Requiem is an enticing setting, as I said, it’s unique. It begs to be explored, its stunning vistas in the game have not worn off on me. I still get goosebumps every time you emerge from the wreckage of the Dawn and see those great shifting vacuum energy pylons dominate the landscape.
It’s clear not just from reading the art book, but by doing a photography run of the game, just how much effort went into crafting this world to make it feel alive with narrative and artistic detail.
I think that there was more to be done with it, much more, and I’d love to hear your own versions of what alternate story you would give Requiem.