Two Corpses, One Grave – On Halo 3 and the Gravemind

Ah, Halo 3… This is something that I have seldom talked about beyond a few vague mentions in the past. Not for any particular reason, though it’s probably worth noting that I don’t have what one might call the most popular opinion when it comes to the story of the final game in Bungie’s original Halo trilogy.

Since it’s Halo 3’s ten-year anniversary (blimey!) in just under eight months, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to dive into a topic that I’ve been sitting on for about two years now.

That topic is Halo 3’s portrayal of the Gravemind, focusing on three main areas:

1 – What are some of the positives and negatives regarding how it was written?

2 – What were some of the complexities of the character that Bungie cut (that can still be evidenced in hidden dialogue files)?

3 – What was the Gravemind’s actual plan and how does it tie in with IRIS, Halo 3’s Terminals, and the Forerunner Saga?gravemindTo preface this: I’ve got to extend credit to Gamecheat13 (one of the Halo community’s most prominent modders who has bequeathed many hidden secrets from the games unto us), as he is the one who plundered these dialogue files from Halo 3. Below is a link to the two relevant videos that I will be referencing.

When I say that my opinions on Halo 3 aren’t popular ones, by no means do I mean that I hate it or think it’s a bad game – as many may immediately jump to think. Quite the contrary, I wouldn’t even want to look at the number of hours that I’ve sunk into it over the course of the last decade, to know how many weeks of my life have probably gone into experiencing not just what the game itself had to offer but the wealth of community content it inspired the creation of as well.

Halo 3 did a hell of a lot of things right and had some fantastic, innovative features for its time that set what was perhaps the definitive standard for the series going forward – a standard which, in some regards, many would argue certain successors have failed to live up to for various reasons. It is quite rightfully regarded as a classic; a milestone not just for Bungie or Microsoft and the Xbox, but for the gaming and entertainment industry as a whole. This was the point that the likes of Halo, Call of Duty, and GTA began to outsell in one day what big-budget films would make on their opening release weekends…

Not only that, but, with so many years having passed, it’s difficult not to look back on games from this time without the emotional weight of nostalgia. We’re all afflicted with this in some way or other towards games that became landmark moments in our younger years and with that comes a certain reticence to criticism. Diverging from that is often conflated with being a hater, which just isn’t the case.

I feel that nostalgia. But I also feel no such reticence towards being critical – for no work is ever above criticism.

Halo 3 was a masterwork for Bungie, but it was also a flawed game. And nowhere was that more evident to me than in the writing and the change in direction that Bungie took following the backlash against certain decisions made in Halo 2 which have since come to be widely praised – it’s a similar situation to the shift between Halo 4 and 5 regarding elements that the loudest fans and critics found too complex (to this day, I still have no idea how Halo 2 was seen as overly complicated).

One aspect of that is what we will be looking at today. Something that was reviled from Halo 2, consequently simplified in Halo 3, and praised in-retrospect…

This is going to be about the Gravemind and the story that could have been that ended up getting cut. Before going into that though, we’ve got to establish what exactly the problem was with the Gravemind in Halo 3.charity33The Gravemind was a compelling and intriguing sort-of antagonist in Halo 2, the whole story leads up to and revolves around the two parallel perspectives of Arby ‘n’ the Chief converging together. Honestly, Halo 2 still has one of the most structurally satisfying stories to me… Everything leads up to that moment where the Gravemind declares that fate had them meet as foes but the threat posed by Halo will make them brothers, sending the two of them off to different locations in order to solve this problem that they all face amidst the escalating conflict of the setting.

It was clear that the Gravemind was this malevolent chessmaster that we’d have to confront at some point… not today, but at some point in the future. It was expertly moving the pieces across the board and setting the stage for… what, exactly?

A deeper motive was there beyond just infecting everything, but we’ll get to that later.

Unfortunately, Halo 3 relegated the role of the Gravemind (along with several other characters) to ‘intergalactic dunce’.

Following the activation of the portal, a single Flood ship crashes directly into the city of Voi. The Sangheili quarantine fleet at Installation 05 (which we never see because Halo 3 likes to fluctuate a lot between being a show-not-tell and a tell-not-show kind of story) has been beaten back as the Flood broke through their lines. The problem here is that the Flood came out of slipspace and just chose to attack Voi…

This is where we see a pretty strong contrivance where we’ve got to suspend disbelief slightly beyond what some would consider reasonable, owing to the protagonist obviously having to be involved in these events. It’s pretty remarkable that this Flood ship that has fled from Installation 05 just happens to turn up at Voi, despite the fact that the Gravemind is explicitly stated to not know about the portal or where it leads. Additionally, attacking Voi seems incredibly foolish because there is an entire ocean and jungle nearby full of biomass for the Flood to assimilate…

The Gravemind had no reason to be in any hurry. It didn’t know about the portal… It didn’t know that Truth had activated the portal (that it didn’t know about).

What’s more, Truth didn’t actually take any humans with him to the Lesser Ark, so there was no ticking clock established in the narrative to necessitate going through the portal – until Cortana’s message, which is an instance of something just being thrown in to get the plot moving rather than having a logical progression of cause-to-effect.

The fix here is an incredibly simple one: fail to rescue Johnson in Sierra-117, the opening mission.

The Covenant escapes with him and the other Marines they capture, so when Truth goes through the portal we know that he can fire the rings at any time – thus, a ticking clock is established which adds a tangible sense of tension from the get-go. This inciting incident gets the plot going from the end of the first mission, rather than the end of the fifth, and adds an additional layer of emotion to the personal stakes John faces because he’s now got to save two of his friends – one from the Covenant and one from the Flood.

Speaking of Johnson, check out this vignette.

Johnson, upon being rescued, was meant to go home with the other humans and Sangheili on the Shadow of Intent. Halo 3’s final level was intended to start off as a suicide mission. John, Cortana, and Thel go to Installation 04B together to Finish The Fight™ with no intention or means of making it home. Johnson goes to the Shadow of Intent to drop off the remaining UNSC forces, but then he takes the Dawn to the ring and, upon having his decision protested by Cortana, declares:

“This time, we all go home.”

Dustin Echoes would make it this time!

But really, this makes Johnson’s death so much better. We actually see Johnson choose to see this through to the end – a decision with both positive and negative consequences because this means he is the one who provides John, Cortana, and Thel the means to get home but also seals his fate for when he walks into that control room. Something is made out of the fact that these five people (including Spark) were there when this began in Halo CE and were shaped into who they are now, where they are now, and has brought them full circle to this moment.

Halo CE had them reacting to the situations that unfolded beyond their control, but this time they’re able to choose their course of action which lends a definitive arc to this story – they’re going to finish the fight on their own terms. It’s so brilliantly impactful, much more so than it is in the game proper where Johnson is just… there.

This ten second scene gives him agency, something which Halo 3 sorely lacks. Suddenly, things don’t seem as reactionary. Consequences are coming from the choices characters are actively making.

This was achieved with a grand total of about three lines of dialogue.

And it was cut.la82Anyway, back on the Flood, if we were operating on actual logic here they should have just crashed into a place where there was copious amounts of biomass to assimilate and build up strength to infect all of Earth. The planet would have fallen in mere hours if the Gravemind – what we’re led to believe is the most intelligent, malicious and cunning being in the galaxy – had simply used common sense. It’s a big ask in fiction sometimes, I know. Somebody has to hold the Idiot Ball from time-to-time, but the way in which this part of the story is contrived really seems to contradict the threat that the Flood poses.

“One single Flood spore can destroy a species,” declares Rtas. That line really loses its impact when one takes a moment to actually think about the Flood’s actions.

The next issue here is how High Charity made it to the Ark. Now, this is something that has been answered… but it took seven years and a whole new company to do that.

According to Catalog and one of the Halo Bulletins, High Charity never actually went to Earth. The Gravemind drew on its limited influence over Precursor neural physics to jump High Charity to the Ark from Mars (referred to by the Forerunners as Edom):

Query: How did High Charity make it to the Lesser Ark in 2552?

Anomalous slipspace intrusion within expected displacement envelope was detected in Edom [airspace] at [2552:1118154551-1118154821]. [Manifold] profile not in local [cache], forwarding to [sector command] for analysis. Alert! [Waypoint] information restricted on authority of [Librarian]. [Halo Waypoint, Catalog thread (old)]

The Flood-infested High Charity never entered Earth’s atmosphere, and did not transit the Portal at Voi. However, the Gravemind did become aware of Earth’s Portal – and thus the danger that the Lesser Ark still posed to his plans – as soon as he arrived in the Sol system. His modifications to High Charity were far-reaching, both to keep the facility functioning after the departure of the Keyship, and to better serve as a mobile plagueship from which he could sing victory everlasting in a galaxy consumed of thinking life. But even with an intellect impossibly vast and deep, able to twist the technologies of the Covenant far beyond their original functionality by application of esoteric Precursor science, the ancient abomination was unable to both conduct a desperate bridging maneuver to the Ark and maintain the structural integrity of High Charity after its arrival. [Halo Bulletin: Knowledge Drop, 24/9/2014]

However, within the context of Halo 3 in the years before this explanation, it seemed as if High Charity had gone to Earth in order to reach the Ark by going through the portal.

Which is impossible, as my good friend, Lord of Admirals, has discussed:

Based on the math equation, if we round up, we can say that the portal to the Ark is ⅓ the diameter of High Charity’s diameter. There has yet been an instance in Halo’s canon where a Forerunner slipspace portal has allowed an object larger than it to pass through it. Therefore, we can not make an accurate inference/suggestion/conclusion that objects larger than a Forerunner portal can travel through it. If such a conclusion is made anyway, then an answer needs to exist as to why the Forerunners waste energy on opening portals larger than the object that is passing through it. (See: Halo 4) This irrefutably means that it is implausible for High Charity to have used the portal at Voi to travel to the Ark despite it being the only viable method to reach the Ark. [Why High Charity Can’t Go To The Ark]

The portal is too small for High Charity to fit through. Slipspace portals have to be at least the size of the object trying to get through, so the prevailing issue at the time was that there was no logical way High Charity could have gotten to the Ark.

What’s more is that we’re told in Cortana’s message that the Gravemind is on its way to Earth with an army of Flood. If the Gravemind did indeed go to Earth, then why didn’t it rain Flood down on Earth?

If Earth could have fallen in hours from the infestation resulting from a single Flood-infested ship, it would barely last minutes if the central Flood hive was present on the planet.

Taking over Earth would have been a great fall-back plan if things didn’t go accordingly at the Ark for Gravemind. This would have ensured a second wave of Flood composed of the remaining humans on Earth, there was no reason not to do this. I like to imagine a scene where we see the outline of what looks like human reinforcements arriving over the horizon at the Ark in the wake of High Charity, only to see that those ships are trailing Flood spores behind them and start crashing into the Ark… Firing Installation 04B immediately would be given absolute precedence in this situation. I’m not saying they should have done this, but it would have been interesting – and it certainly felt like they could have waited a few more days for Installation 04B’s construction to complete in the game proper.la98Other contrivance issues involve the immediate aftermath of Truth’s death where, within mere seconds, the Gravemind betrays Arby ‘n’ the Chief after their five-minute long truce. Its tentacles rise up into the air, slap Chief and Arbiter straight off the escape Pelican…

John and Thel seem completely outmatched. They could be smashed to a pulp in a heartbeat if those tentacles came crashing down upon them…

But then, the tentacles retreat and two standard Combat Forms jump down from nowhere instead…

This is one of those scenes where the writers seem to have ‘hit the wall’. They conceived of this seemingly impossible situation and had no idea how to resolve the tension, so they removed it altogether (regardless of how much sense it made). The result comes of as almost frustratingly comical, as it further discredits the Gravemind as a threatening antagonist because it is so ridiculously adamant about not killing the only two people it needs to kill.

It also begs the question of where the Gravemind is. Supposedly, it’s in High Charity, which is hundreds of miles away on a different part of the Ark – yet its tentacles can somehow reach across to the Citadel control room?

In the following mission, the Master Chief flies a Banshee into High Charity and dumps himself into the bowels of the Flood hive, yet, even after getting what it wants, the Gravemind just can’t kill the Chief with an entire Flood hive at its fingertips (tentacletips?)… I can’t help but think about the novel adaptation of the original game – Halo: The Flood – where John is almost killed by a single infection form while he screams for his life.

In the books (notably The Flood and First Strike), John is absolutely terrified of the Flood. He completely loses his composure just thinking about them. Cortana notes that his heartbeat goes into overdrive and his hands start shaking. When she off-handedly mentions them after escaping Installation 04, John has the urge to put a few dents in the bulkhead with his fists.

It was as if something had rewritten the Elite, reshaped it from the inside out. The Spartan felt an unaccustomed emotion: a trill of fear. An image of helplessness – of screaming at a looming threat, powerless – flashed through his mind, a snapshot of his cryo-addled dreams aboard the Pillar of Autumn.

No way is that going to happen to me, he thought. No way. [Halo: The Flood, page 223 (Kindle edition)]

The entire battle consumed no more than two minutes but it left the Chief shaken. Could Cortana detect the slight tremor in his hands as he reloaded both weapons? Hell, she had unrestricted access to all of his vital signs, so she knew more about what was going on with his body than he did. [Halo: The Flood, page 277 (Kindle edition)]

And the Flood. He stared out from the front viewport and fought down his revulsion at the memory of the Flood outbreak. Whoever had constructed Halo had used it to contain the sentient, virulent xenoform that had nearly claimed them all. The rapidly healing wound in his neck, inflicted by a Flood Infection Form during the final battle on Halo’s surface, still throbbed. He wanted to forget it all… especially the Flood. Everything inside him ached.

[…]

The Master Chief’s hand curled into a fist, and for a moment he felt the urge to slam it into something. He relaxed, surprised at his frayed temper. He’d been exhausted in the past – and without a doubt the fight on Halo had been the most harrowing of his career – but he’d never been prone to such outbursts. The struggle against the Flood must have gotten to him, more than he’d realised. [Halo: First Strike, page 34 (Kindle edition)]

It really is a shame that we didn’t get to see more of this side of the Master Chief because I really don’t agree with Bungie’s philosophy towards the character, especially because they never really made up their minds about it which verged on ‘trying to have your cake and eat it’. But that’s a topic for another day. This is ultimately why I was thrilled with the approach taken in Halo 4 to actually go all-out on treating John as the actual character he is.

Those are pretty much the problems with the Gravemind’s portrayal in Halo 3 in a nutshell: a series of convoluted contrivances leading to a complete lack of strategic sense, the writers trying to up the stakes beyond the point of reason and nonsensically backing out of it, and plot inconsistencies.charity38So now we finally get to the part about the stuff that was cut which doesn’t necessarily fix all these issues with the story, but actually does a substantial job of providing the Gravemind’s character with a more interesting motivation beyond infecting everything.

There are three quotes in particular to talk about which can be heard in Gamecheat’s two videos linked at the top of this post:

“Your plans were not your own. You were the tools of a caged and feeble mind. Her hopes have ended in my triumph! In this place, I have found refuge… everlasting!”

There are two things this quote reveals to us.

Upon first glance, one might think that the Gravemind is referring to Halsey regarding who John and Cortana are “tools” of… but that’s not who it’s talking about.

It’s talking about the Librarian.

Yes, even within the context of Halo 3 – not in-retrospect from where the fiction has gone after that – the Gravemind is referring to the Librarian.

Some of you may have been around during the summer of 2007, prior to Halo 3’s release, where there was an ARG going around the bungie.net forums following a user called Adjutant Reflex, mysterious Forerunner emails, and introductions to some of the Halo universe’s titans – the (Iso)Didact, the Librarian, and Mendicant Bias. By no measure of coincidence, IRIS was actually written by Frank O’Connor – who is responsible for other foundational Forerunner stories like the Halo 3 Terminals and Soma the Painter.

Bungie content chap Frank “Frankie” O’Connor has written most of the material, with help from community manager Brian Jarrard and artist Aaron LeMay. [Eurogamer – MS explains Halo viral campaign, 18/06/2007]

The Forerunner stuff we see in Halo 4 didn’t just come out of nowhere, this was building up in the fiction during the Bungie era from a time before Halo 3. Mendicant Bias sending John to Requiem was foreshadowed as far back as IRIS, stating “I will guide your movements,” which culminates in Halo 3’s final Terminal where Mendicant directly addresses John and says that he is the key to its goal of atonement. I’ve lengthily discussed the Librarian’s plan here, and this ties in perfectly with it.

It was also confirmed this far back that there were Forerunners who survived the firing of the Halos and that the Great Journey was real, but had been misinterpreted by the Covenant – it wasn’t transcendence, but the exodus of the Forerunner survivors. There are numerous lines within these texts which have since flowered on fiction like Halo 4 and the Forerunner Saga (which also extends further disappointment towards Halo 5, which does nothing with this set-up beyond the Builder intel logs).

The concept of geas was likewise seeded in the fiction as far back as William C. Dietz’s novel adaptation of Halo CE, Halo: The Flood (2003), and was followed up by Eric Nylund in First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx.

The display’s shimmering geometric patterns nagged at him, as if he should recognise them somehow. Even with his enhanced memory, he couldn’t place where he’d seen them before. They just seemed… familiar.

He reached a finger out to one of the symbols, a blue-green circle. The Spartan expected his finger to pass through nothing more than air. He was surprised when his finger met resistance – and the panel lights began to pulse more quickly.

“What did you do?” Cortana asked, her voice alarmed. “I’m detecting an energy spike.”

“I… don’t know,” the Spartan admitted. He wasn’t sure why he touched the ‘button’ on the display. He just knew it felt right. […] He seemed to know instinctively how to activate the panel – it almost seemed hard-wired, like his flight or flight response. [Halo: The Flood, page 84 (Kindle edition)]

la123The Librarian’s plan, as articulated in IRIS and Halo 3’s Terminals (and further in Silentium), was to get humanity to the Ark.

The exact reasons for this was not explicitly stated, but looking at the progression of events since Halo 3 paints a pretty clear picture that can be broken down into a seven-step plan to world domination peace.

1 –  Send humanity to the Ark.

2 – Discover Mendicant Bias, who seeks to atone.

3 – Mendicant directs the Reclaimers to Requiem, where the Didact awaits.

4 – The Didact awakens from the Cryptum with his mind healed by the Domain, the Librarian’s ancilla provides him with the Janus Key so he can assume command of the Absolute Record.

5 – The Didact becomes humanity’s teacher and guide, helping them on the path to inheriting the Mantle without falling prey to the mistakes the Forerunners made.

6 – When the Flood returns, the galaxy is properly equipped to deal with it.

7 – Mendicant Bias’ atonement is fulfilled. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Of course, that’s not how the story goes. The Librarian did not know at the time that the Halos would burn the Domain, so the Ur-Didact would awaken from the Cryptum after 100,000 years still afflicted by the Gravemind’s malediction. It seems that Mendicant Bias wasn’t aware of this either, as it still sent John to Requiem to release its maker which only made things worse.

The Librarian says to John in Halo 4 that he is “the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning”.

This statement isn’t “you are the Chosen One,” so much as it is: “You are the only part of this plan that has succeeded.”

The Librarian put all of her eggs in one basket because of her love for the Didact, a love that has pretty much doomed the galaxy and the mere echo of her personality imprint has had to pick up the slack by delegating the Didact’s role to Halsey. She imprisoned the Didact within Requiem rather than outright killing him – the right choice on that count is heavily debatable based on context and morality, but her role as a the opposite chessmaster to the Gravemind is clear. Hence, we see the meaning of the Gravemind’s statement that “your plans were not your own,” and how humanity (John specifically) has been the “tool” of a “caged and feeble” mind.

John is unwittingly serving at the whims of the Librarian and Mendicant Bias who are both trying to do what they think is right, but have only made things worse. The arc this sets up sees the beginnings of its pay-off in Halo 4 where John disobeys Del Rio’s orders because of his connection to Cortana.

The snowball effect of this arc would eventually culminate (if I were writing the series) in John rejecting the Librarian’s planned destiny for him, for the Mantle is a poisoned well that needs to be done away with. That would be a unique take on the Chosen One trope, I think – to reject it and say “no, we’re going to do this on our own terms“.la16But I’ve neglected to talk about the second part of the first quote: “Her hopes have ended in my triumph! In this place, I have found refuge… everlasting!”

The Librarian’s plan for humanity to reach the Ark resulted in the Gravemind also reaching the Ark, which it failed to do during the Forerunner-Flood war because Offensive Bias managed to hold Mendicant Bias’ fleets back long enough for the Halos to fire.

This ties in with the second quote…

“She baited me with lies, brought me here to seal my doom! I have spent eons waiting, watching, planning… Will not again be torn asunder! Not now that I’m free, not now that I’m whole!”

Just like that, the Gravemind is a character now – this twisted, godlike being is just as afraid as anybody else in the setting.

The Gravemind spent those eons listening “through rock and metal and time” planning the means of its survival, which just so happened to coincide with where all roads were leading to for everyone else: the Ark.

As the Ark is situated outside the galaxy (“two-to-the-eighteenth light years from the galactic centre, to be precise”) and therefore out of range of the Halo installations, gaining control of the Ark is an instant-win for the Flood – it gives them a command base the size of Jupiter with stores of biomass and archives full of Forerunner secrets to plunder.

Hence: “[Librarian’s] hopes” (of getting humanity to the Ark) “have ended in my triumph” (the Flood escaping the Halos).

Of course, the sting in the tale is that the Gravemind didn’t know about Installation 04B, which was only being built because John destroyed the original Installation 04 in Halo CE. I have to praise Bungie for the way in which these consequences play out over the course of the trilogy. Structurally, this is excellent writing and storytelling that makes both logical and reasonable use of time and plot devices.

But the sense of pay-off for why this is satisfying in a narrative sense doesn’t really hit home.

In the game proper, the Gravemind isn’t given this more complex emotional dimension to its plan because the two lines we’ve hitherto looked at were cut. Two lines! That is all it took to have the Gravemind come across in the game as more than just the leader of a zombie army intent on infecting all life. It makes me sad that the writing to elevate certain aspects of this story is absolutely there (all written, recorded, even the vignette is done), but ended up being cut.

That, in my opinion, was a colossal mistake.la125And so, we come to the final quote – which reinforces something that I postulated back in 2015 as to what the Flood’s endgame is.

“With me dies the potential of a thousand million souls. Can you appreciate the tragedy, simpleton that you are? Your life is but an instant, a lonely flash. A ruse. And your… ‘victory’… Another stone upon the monument to the sins of shortsighted fools.”

The Domain is something that would not be canonically established for us until the release of Halo: Cryptum in 2011. And yet, the idea that the Flood is a twisted recreation of the Domain is evident as far back as cut dialogue from a game that released in 2007.

The precedent for this development was likewise referenced in Halo 3’s Terminals:

LF.Xx.3273.> {~} complexity {~} spread {~} our appearance ushered in the beginning of the third great stage of evolution. The first {~} condensation of particles was the result of the inevitable action of strong nuclear force and the creation of stars {~} inevitable action of gravity; so to the self-replicating chemical processes that dictate all disparate {~} In time, we too shall affect change on a universal scale. [Halo 3, Terminal 3]

Living Time is a concept introduced in Halo: Cryptum, it is the foundation of the very idea of the Mantle and served as the origin of its ‘rules’.

The Precursors cherished the joy of life’s interaction with the Cosmos, in seeing how the beings that they created grew in diversity, which they believed had to be protected – cue the Mantle.

The Precursors created a sentient repository to record the memories, wisdom, imprints, experiences, and even dreams of the lives they had created called the Domain. It held the memories of Living Time.

And then the Forerunners rose up against the Precursors after assuming the Mantle, driving their creators to near-extinction. The Precursors came up with survival strategies, one of which was to turn themselves into dust that could regenerate their old forms – but this dust ended up drifting in space for over ten million years and grew defective. When the ancient humans discovered the archaic, automated starships this dust was carried on and experimented with it… the Flood was born.

And the Flood decreed:

“All that is created will suffer.

All will be born in suffering, endless greyness shall be their lot. All creation will tailor to failure and pain, that never again shall the offspring of the eternal Fount rise up against their creators.

Listen to the silence. Ten million years of deep silence. And now, whimpers and cries; not of birth. That is what we bring: a great crushing weight to press down youth and hope.

No more will. No more freedom. Nothing new but agonising death and never good shall come of it.” [Halo: Silentium, loc 2206 (Kindle edition)]

to40We can link this back to a statement made by the Didact in IRIS as well:

“Know that energetic and tenacious as life is, it has an antithesis just as powerful. It is that thing that we must obliterate.” [IRIS, Episode 1]

The Domain was the soul and record of the joy of life. The Flood are a twisted recreation of that principle that desires the suffering of all life – the antithesis of the Domain. As the Timeless One (who essentially becomes the Gravemind) states in the Terminal dialogue, the Flood seek to affect this on a universal scale.

I just wanted to bring this up because some of the ideas that were postulated in the Bungie era (we don’t know who specifically wrote these lines) have definitively affected the way in which the fiction has unfolded in Halo 4 and the Forerunner Saga.

Some of these things were seeded within various texts. Some of them ended up getting cut (but are still in the game’s files). But they are the well from which the likes of Greg Bear, Chris Schlerf, Frank O’Connor, and several other writers who have since contributed to this aspect of the lore have drawn upon.

It’s just a shame that the strong sense of continuity here isn’t more readily apparent for a major part of the audience. This is one of those areas where Bungie and 343 have really complimented one-another, but it just happens to be the more esoteric area of the lore that isn’t the most inherently approachable…

That needs to change.la38And so here, at the end of this post, I have to conclude on a brief look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of both Bungie and 343.

Many of Bungie’s works are the very definition of the term ‘flawed masterpiece’ – as they have these stories with incredible ideas that they do a disservice to by cutting certain critical moments which reveal so much more about the characters, the setting, the overarching story, and so on.

Likewise, one of 343’s major problems for fans who aren’t familiar with the expanded universe is that they just aren’t doing a good enough job of translating these elements to the games in a way that simply-but-truly conveys the concepts they’re trying to use. The result is that the pay-off for certain ideas which have been building up in the fiction from the Bungie era to 343’s is articulated more by me explaining them to you than by any sort of catharsis in the games.

Bungie outright removes things or pushes them into obscure corners for the sake of a simpler story, losing some of the complexity they are so good at coming up with and forsaking the middle ground. Many of us lore fans have felt pretty jaded by this.

343 picks up on where a lot of those things were going and mostly offers some fantastic ways of turning the things we think we know around in totally unexpected ways. But, even at their best, they don’t really know how to explain them – thus, it seems that they are overly mired in complexity. Many more casual story fans have also felt pretty jaded by this.

There’s definitely a middle ground here and it looks like Halo Wars 2 may well be the one that finally takes it and sets the precedent for successive titles.

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About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
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5 Responses to Two Corpses, One Grave – On Halo 3 and the Gravemind

  1. Rhas 'Churol says:

    I hope you’re right, about Halo Wars 2. I’m hoping it isn’t simply going to be another “Alien against Human” thing, where the Spirit of Fire stops the Banished’s evil plans and ‘goes home’, and that the Ark is serving as the setting for an important reason. (Well, beyond the writers not having to figure out a post-Cortana setting, anyway)

  2. Coach Provolone says:

    An excellent commentary. The nostalgia definitely resonates with me for this game… particularly as I share Halo 3 with friends and family and they often scratch their heads at my adoration for such an extra-medium story.

    However, a modest observation regarding the cut vignette at the beginning of “Halo”. I don’t think this was simply another case of Bungie cutting content because “reasons” (as unfortunately seems the case with the discarded Gravemind dialogue, in particular). In fact, this vignette had to be cut because of what we see in the opening cinematic.

    (In the opening cinematic in the pelican):
    CORTANA: Johnson? Do you have the frigate?
    JOHNSON: Yes ma’am. I’ll land her as close to the control room as I can.
    CORTANA: Safe is better than close, Sergeant Major.
    JOHNSON: Roger that. And ma’am… it’s good to have you back.

    (After the pelican crashes):
    CORTANA: Halo… It’s so new. unfinished. I’m not exactly sure what will happen when we fire it.
    [The frigate can be seen and heard in the sky above.]
    CHIEF: We’ll head for the portal. And we’ll all go home.

    It looks like the plan was always for Johnson to land the Dawn on Installation 4B and join the Chief in his efforts (or, at the very least, to land and stay with the frigate). Chief’s comment further tells me that they never thought of this fight as a suicide mission at all, but that they were fully aware of Johnson’s plan to land the frigate. Contrast this with the vignette… Cortana sounds surprised when she sees the frigate overhead and outright states that the Dawn shouldn’t be there.

    For whatever reason, the writers apparently backed themselves into a corner and were forced to go with either the vignette or the cinematic. They chose to keep the cinematic (likely with production considerations being a primary reason).

    But don’t hear what I’m not saying – I’m in full agreement with you that, had the story been tweaked as you proposed, a great deal more depth and meaning would’ve been conveyed at minimal cost. I regret such missed potential… a disturbing trend in Halo that continues (and worsens) to this day.

  3. Kiefer Levine says:

    Y’know, I definitely remember not being as impressed with the presence of the Gravemind in Halo 3 as I was with his ominous introduction in Halo 2. This might be part of it — the lack of character. In Halo 2 there’s a lot going on that, without anyone talking about it, informs you that he is wise and smart and in control (e.g., he literally has the monitor of the installation AND the prophet you kill in his grasp). In Halo 3, it’s a lot more just… taunting, and bragging. What started as imposing ended up pedantic. Also, yeah, those tentacles. That was immediately and apparently silly.

    I dunno if you read these comments much, but I’ve mentioned before my attempts at doing Halo 5’s campaign story my way. And I stumbled upon a single alteration to Halo 5’s starting premise that I’d be interested in seeing you explore in an article, and which I am presently slowly adapting my take to. I’ll be all suave and make it the last line of this comment:

    What if you swapped out Cortana for Admiral Serin Osman?

  4. Pingback: On Halo 4 and ‘The Chosen One’ | haruspis

  5. Pingback: Why Halo 3 Didn’t ‘Finish The Fight’ | haruspis

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