Why Halo 3 Didn’t ‘Finish The Fight’

I have a pretty sizeable schedule for things I intend to write over the course of this year, but every now and then my genesong will nudge me towards putting that list off to make a little detour by writing a previously unplanned Halo article… This particular topic is something that I (and many others) have been arguing for the better part of a decade.

Halo 3 was many things, but the whole marketing angle about it being about us finishing the fight? The actual content of the narrative undermines that at every opportunity, to the point where I am compelled to argue that Halo 3 didn’t actually finish anything and, in fact, added plot points in the final act of the game that made a continuation of the story inevitable.

Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to step inside Kinsano’s Cyclops to withstand the firestorm I’m sure to be on the receiving end of for what I’m about to say.Halo 3 is a beloved game, and rightly so. But, without intending to sound snobbish, it’s also a game that I don’t think the bulk of its audience really thinks about, at least in terms of its narrative. Bungie definitively said on multiple occasions that this was the end of the fight and a lot of people just sort of roll with that.

“You won’t just finish one fight, you will finish all the fights you started in Halo 1.” [Frank O’Connor, Finish The Fight ViDoc]

“We want this to be The Return of the King. We want this to be the final chapter in an epic trilogy.” [Martin O’Donnell, Finish The Fight ViDoc]

“This is going to be the end of the story. […] This is going to be the end of the fight.” [CJ Cowan, Journey’s End ViDoc]

I don’t even need to cite ‘Death of the Author’ here because Bungie ended up doing this to themselves. Indeed, this is further supported by an old interview with Brian Jarrard (long-time Bungie veteran and 343’s current Community Manager) which has him state that before Bungie settled on making Halo: Reach their final contribution to the series, there was some discussion around the studio on whether or not to do Halo 4.

“Even before the idea to build a game based around Reach came about, a lot of other concepts were explored, up to and including a proper ‘Halo 4,’ where Master Chief was going to wake up from cryo-sleep and we were going to tell that story. […] It just wasn’t as interesting to the team to just pick up where that left off and all the baggage that came with it.

[…]

I think it was a little bit liberating. Hearing the guys talk about working through the trilogy and the obligation of keeping the themes moving forward and tying them up systematically. And ‘ODST’ was also kinda nice ’cause they could do something different, something separate, and it’s totally self-contained. I definitely think that, for ‘Reach,’ a lot of the same attitude carried over. We don’t want to open up a whole bunch of doors that we’re not going to close. By the end of this, it’s all going to come to a nice, neat finish, and if people want to then go play the Halo trilogy, I think they’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on, but it’s not required at all.” [Brian Jarrard, ‘Bungie Considered “Halo 4,” Starring Master Chief, Instead Of “Reach” Prequel (25/6/2010)]

I’ve bolded the three key parts of Jarrard’s statement. The acknowledgement here is that any story moving forward would have to be told over multiple games, which is the Mantle of Responsibility that 343 took upon themselves – and the “baggage” left over from Halo 3 certainly lends credence to that.

Jarrard’s comment about the themes of the original trilogy is important as well, as this is the primary reason why I think, for many, Halo 3 feels like a satisfying conclusion on the surface. It comes full circle, with the (false) affirmation that John’s fight is over. Halo 4, both in-concept and in the game proper, demanded a thematic shift because there is no version of that story that could have been at all like the original trilogy. It had to evolve into something new, whereas Bungie was more interested in tying together the themes that they had already established and bringing the overall set-up of their interpretation of the Halo universe full circle. Bungie tend to tell very event-based stories, whereas Halo 4 could only have worked as a character-driven story.

That works for some people, and that’s fine. Earth is saved. Humanity is saved. You stop the Halos from firing, rescue Cortana, and defeat the Flood. And then, Reach gets reterraformed some decades later. Happily ever after, right?

Well, no…

It’s a ‘happily ever after’ with about a dozen asterisks attached, indicating more that there will be a ‘happily ever after’ situation for the setting, but we haven’t actually got there yet because what we ultimately achieve in Halo 3 is a temporary cessation of hostilities rather than the resolution that was spoken of in the ViDocs.

We’re going to take a comprehensive look at all of the plot points that Halo 3 leaves hanging and introduces in its final act. Some of you may be familiar with this because, some years ago, a bullet point list was complied by me and a friend on bungie.net that was often used during debates.

I want to make it clear that this is not being argued from hindsight (particularly since this list was originally made before Halo 4 was even announced).

This will focus on Halo 3’s presentation and articulation of its own narrative and then we’ll follow that up with a look at how the Reclaimer Saga picked up on those plot points.

So, let’s start with…

THE COVENANT

Yes, I’m going to begin with what’ll probably be the most contentious issue of the lot, and that’s the fact that we did not end the Covenant in Halo 3.

First, a simple question has to be asked: What is the Covenant?

Simply put, the Covenant is a theocratic, hegemonic empire composed of a multitude of species from the Orion Arm of our galaxy. It was formed in 852 BCE, marking the First Age of Reconciliation in the wake of the Sangheili-San’Shyuum war ending as they signed the Writ of Union, making it around three-thousand-four-hundred years old by the time of Halo 3.

Over the course of their history, the Covenant forcibly inducted many other races but their societal structure largely remained the same – the two ruling species were the San’Shyuum (the religious leaders) and the Sangheili (the enforcers). This, however, changed in 2552, following the Prophet of Regret’s death, where the Prophet of Truth enacted a significant reform with the Changing of the Guard. The Jiralhanae replaced the Sangheili as the Covenant’s leading enforcers, culminating in one of the most important events in the ‘modern’ setting: the Great Schism.

The immediate effect of the Great Schism was that it split the Covenant into two factions, the Loyalists and Separatists, but such a radical shift in the fundamental structure of this organisation is something that will inevitably lead to the formation of other groups that are in pursuit of different objectives.

We saw this in Ghosts of Onyx where the revered Imperial Admiral Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree rallied the Sangheili at Joyous Exultation with a fleet that numbered in the hundreds. Xytan effectively formed his own Covenant there, and planned to end the Great Schism there and then. With their combined military might, he could well have succeeded had it not been for Vice Admiral Whitcomb’s NOVA bomb which blasted Xytan’s Fleet, Joyous Exultation, and shattered its moon. Xytan had no intention of ceasing hostilities with humanity, therefore we’d likely be looking at a very different Halo universe if his plan had succeeded.This leads me to something that the Prophet of Truth says in Halo 3, aboard the Scarab you fight on the way to the Ark’s Cartographer.

“I opened the Portal to this hallowed place, this shelter from Halo’s fire, in the hopes that more of our Covenant would follow us. Alas, save for a rabble of Heretics and their Demon allies, we are all that made the passage. Thus we must temper joy with sorrow in our hearts, for those who were left behind.” [Prophet of Truth – Halo 3, The Ark]

Barring the downright weird mention from Truth that the Ark is a shelter from Halo for the Covenant (that “divine wind” was supposed to be what propelled you to godhood), this establishes that only some Covenant Loyalists ended up going to the Ark.

This is a seemingly innocuous line that’s easy to miss, due to it being spoken when you’re fighting your way through the Scarab, but it outright tells us that there are Covenant Loyalists remaining in the Milky Way.

For those of you who read First Strike, you’ll know that the Prophet of Truth essentially had to cobble together his fleet to invade Earth. The Jiralhanae-led fleet he had initially formed in-secret numbered around five hundred ships, but Vice Admiral Whitcomb lured the majority of those vessels to their destruction by boasting that he had possession of the Forerunner slipspace crystal recovered from Reach and then rammed Unyielding Hierophant with the Ascendant Justice – the resulting overload of the station wiping out much of the fleet gathered there.

Consider how quickly so many ships and resources were gathered and moved around to prepare for a full-on invasion – individual fleets could be composed of hundreds of ships, and others could be gathered within weeks or months. That is some incredible mobility that speaks to just how vast the Covenant empire was and what kind of resources they had. There were numerous factories and other wellsprings of technology and resources that fuelled the Covenant war machine.

That didn’t just blink out of existence with the Prophet of Truth’s death…Quite frankly, I find the notion that Truth’s death spelled the final end for a totalitarian, multi-species theocracy spanning over 3400 years of history and influencing generations of people… utterly absurd.

The Covenant was never an organisation assuaged by a ‘cult of personality’. In fact, that’s exactly what the Covenant’s leaders tried to subvert the formation of – which was why Xytan was exiled, as he was becoming a more revered figure than the San’Shyuum. The role of Arbiter ended up serving a similar function as well.

We have it established within Halo 3 that only a portion of Truth’s forces went to the Ark – those who were part of the cobbled-together invasion fleet after Operation: FIRST STRIKE. With the Covenant’s leadership wiped out, the inevitable outcome for those who remained in the Milky Way, upon catching wind of this defeat, is exactly what’s happened in the fiction – a power vacuum with warlords of the various client species scrambling to reclaim the wealth of ships, weapons, and resources strewn across their empire’s space.

Jul’s Covenant, the Servants of the Abiding Truth, the Keepers of the One Freedom, the Banished, Vata ‘Gajat’s mercenary group,  and so on. The formation of groups such as these was inevitable, the idea of reclaiming that former glory, reforming it, and attaining some semblance of purpose and stability from it is a prospect that many would find attractive in a post-war period of uncertainty. Likewise, the Bestiarum (the booklet included with limited/legendary edition copies of Halo 3) sowed the seeds of the idea that the San’Shyuum had lied about their homeworld’s destruction and could still be out there.

But it seems that Halo 3’s narrative tunnel vision has detracted from people realising what… really should have been obvious.

Also, to end this point on a rather amusing aside: the original trilogy never told us why the Covenant were at war with humanity, why they decided to wage this genocidal campaign in the first place. There’s one line in Halo 2 from Regret.

“Most of those we encountered in our search were compelled to join our Union. To take part in moment of promise, freedom for allegiance, salvation for service! But some, like the humans, chose to impede our progress. Block our access to sacred sites, damage holy relics! For their transgressions, the humans shall be hunted until none remain alive!” [Prophet of Regret – Halo 2, Regret]

But this is the reason invented by the Prophets for wanting to wipe humanity out, the lie they told everyone else – not the actual reason. With the Covenant in the state it is in the post-war era, there was further room to actually address the question of why there was a war with humanity. But Bungie left that one for the books…

THE FLOOD

Yeah, we didn’t Finish The Fight™ with them either…

This can effectively be summed up in a single quote from the Gravemind (another one that’s easy to miss, as it’s a quiet line that plays in the heat of combat when moving through the second phase pulse generator room):

“Resignation is my virtue. Like water I ebb and flow. Defeat is simply the addition of time to a sentence I never deserved… but you imposed.” [Gravemind, Halo 3 – Halo]

What this translates to is that the Gravemind is accepting its fate here, that the Flood has lost because Installation 04B is preparing to fire – that it need not resist.

Resignation – this act of submission to its defeat – is the Gravemind’s virtue because this defeat, like any the Flood suffers, is only a temporary setback. Despite blowing up the Flood-infested High Charity, the Gravemind was capable of almost immediately beginning the process of rebuilding itself on Installation 04B. On a similar note, I’ve expanded on the Gravemind’s additional motivations that were revealed in Halo 3’s cut dialogue in this post.

Despite the impending detonation of Installation 04B, the Gravemind knows that the Flood will return – that it will return.

The “sentence” that we have “imposed” on the Gravemind is merely the addition to time, the time in which it takes for the Flood to return. Just as with the Covenant, what we achieved here was a temporary cessation. The immediate Flood threat was sterilised, but by no means are they gone.

This formed one of the pillars of the Forerunner Saga’s set-up for what is undoubtedly set to be the ‘endgame’ conflict for the franchise, something that many of us have been speculating for years. To quote Frank O’Connor from the DVD commentary of Halo: Legends – Origins:

“The Flood is sort of the heart of the Halo story and things always tend to come around to that.”

CORTANA

I’m not going to mince words here…

hate Halo 3’s handling of Cortana. Not dislike. Not “oh, it was a bit rubbish”. No. For me, this is second only to her total character assassination in Halo 5.

And I’m going to spook some people away now because this is where we’re going to get into some… feminist criticism. Though, I’ll also note that this particular angle isn’t even required to deconstruct why the way in which Cortana was written in Halo 3 is just bad writing – this disappointed me when I was thirteen.

Cortana is a textbook damsel in Halo 3 and her torture from the Gravemind is heavily coded as rape. She is waiting to be rescued while the Gravemind mind-rapes her, a word which here means (to quote the TV Tropes page):

A character is attacked by a villain in the most painful non-physical way possible: Their mind and soul are assaulted with painful, horrifying visions, sensations, and/or memories, and their will and sanity broken until afterward they’re powerless, hopeless and numb, but not dead, although they may wish they were. Minimal to no sexual contact actually occurs, but as the name indicates, everything else is there to resemble a rape – the ultimate violation of privacy and consent, extreme humiliation that annihilates all sense of self-esteem, near-absolute helplessness even against your very own mind and body, and the corrupt perversion of what could otherwise be a source of identity and joy. [TV Tropes, Mind Rape]

The few times that we see her (notably, in the final cutscene of Floodgate) have a weirdly uncomfortable angle of sexualisation with the way in which the camera focuses on poses and moans that sound like something out of a softcore porn. A number of the ‘Cortana moments’ throughout the game demonstrate this as well, particularly in the penultimate mission where there’s a close-up shot of her bent-double, leaning forward, and crying in short, sharp beats.

Even the dialogue reflects this:

“I ran, tried to stay hidden, but there was no escape! He cornered me, wrapped me tight… and brought me close.” [Cortana, Halo 3 – Cortana (level)]

As an aside: Bungie pulled a similarly implied rape threat in Halo 2 when Tartarus threatens to rip Guilty Spark’s eye from his socket, and then, turning to Miranda, says “and that is nothing compared to what I’ll do to you,” before Thel (a literal knight in shining armour) shows up.

The voice acting and the way in which the camera lingers on Miranda and Tartarus for a beat to show her reaction as the threat sinks in speaks quite clearly to the intent there.

It certainly doesn’t help matters that Halo 3 gave Miranda the most asinine and comically preventable death, as well as what remains some of the worst dialogue in the series to-date.Back to Cortana, compounding on the issue, she exists as a narrative object in Halo 3 as well – in the sense that she holds the key to the Deus Ex Machina that will resolve the plot, and in the sense that these scenes of her torture exist to motivate and serve the story of the Master Chief. Except they also fail to serve even that function because John never actually shows any reaction to these visions. It ties into the wider issue of rape being used in fiction to cheaply demonise a male character, while servicing the heroism of the (male) protagonist who saves or enacts vengeance on behalf of the helpless female victim.

Halo 3 provides us with the latter situation because Bungie actually removed lines from the game where Cortana gets to feel some degree of catharsis as you injure the Gravemind by destroying High Charity’s reactor pylons. Originally, she said:

“Take it, you bastard! We’re just getting started.” [Halo 3 – Cut Mission Dialogue (2/2), by Gamecheat (19:45-19:50)]

The line was changed to:

“You did it! You hurt it!”

It was decided that the nebulous intention of making the player feel like a hero by making Cortana’s dialogue passive was more important than providing any affirmation for Cortana’s revenge against her torturer. She’s already spent the entirety of Halo 3 stripped of her agency and strength, and now she’s stripped from feeling any sort of catharsis upon being released from her prison. The original plan for this mission was that you would plug Cortana into a Scarab:

Cortana and a Scarab. The level in which you rescued Cortana was going to be a “High Charity” level, not “Cortana” we ended up with. Here’s what was originally planned. You were supposed to, or rather the idea was that you were going to, fight the Gravemind, but not in a way you might think. You were going to retrieve Cortana, and a little after that you two were going to come across an abandoned Scarab with its hind legs ripped off. Seeing no other options, you were going to board the Scarab and insert Cortana so she could pilot it. After that, the Gravemind was going to appear, and Cortana was going to duke it out with him in the damaged Scarab while you were on board. You were going to help out by killing any Flood forms that made their way onto the Scarab, and shoot off any of Gravemind’s tentacles that tried to latch on. [Dan Miller, Developer Insight #17 (16/2/2013)]

Cortana was originally intended to take direct action in her revenge, but it didn’t make it into the game, and, instead, we got what is regarded by many as being tied for the worst level in the series. Floodgate had to be cut in half, as it originally consisted of the level layout and geometry that made the Cortana mission. Of course this is more forgivable because of the reality of development where you have to juggle the ways in which you’re subject to resources, time, and technology constraints – but the removal of a single line of dialogue that had already been recorded is much less easy to hand wave away.

The trauma that she’s suffered doesn’t get mentioned again in the game, which further serves to illustrate how writers (not just Bungie’s writers, but in the wider cultural scope of literature) fail to actually do anything with the emotional journey of processing and dealing with that.

Cortana being tortured by the Gravemind was used as a short-term motivator to rescue her, and when John does come face-to-face with Cortana aboard High Charity there’s a minute long scene which flip-flops between her believing that something is irreparably wrong with her to her suddenly being okay and ready to get back to business-as-usual when John affirms that he kept his promise.

It’s always rather vexed me that the character Bungie put the least effort into defining and characterising is constantly the one being serviced, which is very much the case in the reunion scene.And the conclusion of this game, the conclusion of the trilogy, only does a further disservice to her character.

One of Halo 3’s central themes is that of fulfilment, which is very meta for the concluding act of a trilogy.

Will John be able to fulfil his promise to Cortana?

Will Thel be able to fulfil his need for revenge against the Prophet of Truth (and then, after that, what does he do)?

Will the Prophet of Truth be able to fulfil the promise made to the Covenant about the Great Journey (we know, of course, that the answer to this from day one was always going to be no, and so did he, but he does it anyway)?

Will Guilty Spark, now devoid of function due to the loss of Installation 04, fulfil his need for purpose?

Will Miranda and Johnson, two people who have been through the entire war, be able to bring it to an end? What are the sacrifices they will have to make in order to fulfil the oath they made to protect humanity?

Even the Flood has its own need of fulfilment because it aims to bring about the next stage of universal evolution, fulfilling its hunger, and, as I wrote about in a previous article about Gravemind’s cut dialogue – the need for the Flood finding sanctuary as well.

Everyone has an active stake in this story… except for Cortana.We spent the entirety of the game building up to rescuing her, the plot (when it finally materialised in the second act) bends over backwards to bring us up to this point… And then, one mission later, she’s left to rot into insanity in the back of the Forward Unto Dawn.

It’s all very well for John, he can just go into cryo sleep and gets to be serviced by the theme of having come full circle. Cortana, on the other hand, has to spend an unknown period of time alone with nothing to do until rampancy claimed her.

This is less of a ‘Finish The Fight™’ thing and more an issue with character treatment and resolution.

One of the main characters of the Halo series gets this as her conclusion, having already hitherto spent ninety percent of the game being mind-raped by the Gravemind.

The outcome of Cortana’s arc in the original trilogy is that everyone else gets to have their emotional closure while she spends the game reduced to the damsel waiting to be rescued, and then is left to sit in the back of half a ship until she goes rampant.

For me, this bullshit alone was enough to necessitate and justify a Halo 4.

And the Halo 4 that we got dealt with this in such a beautiful, poignant way. I alluded earlier to the inevitable thematic shift in storytelling that put Bungie off doing their own Halo 4 because it necessitated moving the focus to characters rather than events. The approach that 343 took to Halo 4 was that the main focus of the story would be entirely about Cortana coming to terms with mortality, dealing with her trauma, and ultimately reclaiming her agency so she could depart the narrative on her own terms.There’s a rare thing that happens in gaming every now and then where there’s this confluence of talent across the writers, the voice actors, the mo-cap actors, the cinematic director(s), the artists, the designers… everybody who is working on the project is putting forth their best and the effect of that really elevates a work.

Cortana in Halo 4 is, in my opinion, one of those rare confluences.

From Chris Schlerf agonising over this story for two years of his life to the point where he almost cut it out of the game because he didn’t think he could tell it right, to Josh Holmes’ mother’s dementia driving the way in which this character arc was written, to the level of detail that went into her design, to the incredible motion-capture and voice acting done by Mackenzie Mason and Jen Taylor… it was everything that I’d hoped it would be to finally do Cortana justice.

She’s so many things at once. She’s scared, she’s hurt, she’s fragile, but she keeps going. She’s fighting her own head all the way through, and at the end of the game she is being pushed beyond her limits – fighting both the Didact and herself at the same time.

She’s angry, she loses her temper, she’s apologetic, she feels weak and helpless, she doesn’t have a plan, she’s infuriated because “I always know what to do!”, she keeps fighting right up to the moment where she attains the power, where she seizes her god damn right to go out on her own terms while saving her best friend one last time and sending him home.

Everyone has to figure out what it means to die, and Cortana made her death count. She would not let rampancy consume her, no matter how easy it would have been to just let go and succumb to it, just as it would have been easy to submit to the Gravemind. But that’s not Cortana, that’s not what she’d do – like the Master Chief, she is strong and her resolve is indomitable.And these actions opened up critical new dialogues within the UNSC about the nature of AI personhood and individuality that had the potential to fundamentally change the landscape of how humans and AIs co-existed…

In The Fall of Reach, Halsey asks Cortana if she could sacrifice John to complete her mission. This line is twisted around to apply to John in-reference to Cortana in Halo 3.

John and Cortana ultimately reject that question. They make sacrifices for each other because they both feel that they have a duty of care for the other, that they must go forth on this journey not just side-by-side, but as equals.

Cortana’s birth in 2549 broke the Mortal Dictata law, and then 2552 marked the first symbiotic pairing of human and AI when she was paired with John, so it’s only fitting that all of that would culminate in her death having very big ramifications for all of her kind.

Because if she’s willing to sacrifice herself for a human, how many other AIs would do the same?

How many others have done the same that hasn’t been recognised?

Discussions about the extent to which AIs are living beings (which they are) are renewed and the potential for that symbiosis to be taken to new heights opens up.

(And then Halo 5 happened, burning that beautiful house down. But we don’t need to talk about that…)

MENDICANT BIAS AND THE FORERUNNERS

Raise your hand if you were around for or are familiar with Halo 3’s ARG, IRIS.

That was my entry into the Halo community. Where I had been playing the games in the years before, my first time venturing into the community was lurking on the bungie.net forums throughout the summer of 2007 to see what was going on with the IRIS servers.

Written by Frank O’Connor, with help from Brian Jarrard and Aaron LeMay (source), IRIS was what provided the foundations for the Forerunner lore that has since expanded as O’Connor worked on fiction like Halo 3’s Terminals, Soma The Painter (which I have analysed here), Halo 4, and his collaboration with Greg Bear on the Forerunner Saga. It’s always strikingly weird to me to see people separate ‘Bungie Forerunners’ and ‘343 Forerunners’ because this particular aspect of the lore has primarily been the baby of a number of people that you can count on one hand – most notably Frank O’Connor.

Many of us who followed IRIS were rather disappointed that it didn’t actually have any major impact on Halo 3’s main story because the revelations that this (along with Halo 3’s Terminals and the Bestiarum) provided us with were huge.

You can read the IRIS file transcripts here, and Halopedia has a comprehensive page full of lore material from the ARG.

The six main reveals are:

  • The Forerunners are still alive.

The Halos were fired from the Ark, which is pointedly mentioned by Guilty Spark to be “out of range of all the active Installations” – hence why the Gravemind wants to set up shop there, to ensure the Flood’s safety from those infernal wheels. Throughout IRIS, there are several logs that are clearly from a Forerunner’s perspective.

This is how it all begins.
Just in time to, once again, dance on the knife-edge of oblivion.
To relive what the Halos have hoped to destroy, and more.
For two enemies now stand, where before, there was only one.
With fate we escaped, and fate we may relive.
I almost convinced myself that no one was listening; that the waves of the past would roll through once again.
But a chance remains to change the universe anew.
Learn of our past.
Take these keys and dip from the wells of history.
Perhaps through others’ eyes, you may find how to save us all.

The reference made to reliving history, of having escaped this fate before, that the key to defeating the Flood and moving forward is to learn of “our” past, makes it abundantly clear that this is a Forerunner speaking.

A further transmission from Server 3 stated:

The left hand holds darkness, the right hand holds light.
That is how the universe creates, and that is how we proceeded.
A soldier who would one day destroy his brother.
We were the thunder and the lightning, and when we were finished, the universe was alone, drifting in labour.
Did we succeed? Did we fail?
We did both. Depending on who you serve.
After all, here we are, witness to the aftermath.

Again, it’s evident that this is a Forerunner speaking after the Halos have been fired – “witness to the aftermath”. But where did the Forerunners go?

  • The Great Journey is real, but has been misinterpreted.

Where they went is hinted at in Halo 3’s Terminals, as two references are made to the Great Journey – one direct, the other indirect.

The direct reference occurs in the final Terminal’s transcript where the Didact sends his final message to the Librarian before preparing to fire the Halos from the Ark.

“Mendicant Bias is trying to prevent us from firing the Array. He speeds back to the Ark, but he won’t succeed. Offensive Bias will stop him, and I will burn this stinking menace in your name.

And then?

I will begin our Great Journey without you, carrying this bitter record. Those who came after will know what we bought with this [false transcendence] – what you bought, and the price you paid.” [Didact, Terminal 7]

Note that ‘Great Journey’ isn’t put in the oft-used translation brackets, it’s a literal, direct use of the term. So the Great Journey was actually real, but is yet another thing that the Covenant have misinterpreted. The Didact and the other survivors will carry the “bitter record” of this crime that they’ve had to commit in order to save the galaxy, with the implication that they are going to specific place.

But where?

“The Mantle has not failed! I’ve already razed scores of worlds – sterilised systems, routed and [disintegrated] the parasite! We’re learning its tricks and strategies. We can halt this thing! And we can follow in Their footsteps!” [Didact, Terminal 2]

“Follow in Their footsteps…”

Who are They? While not mentioned by-name in the game itself, the implication comes from Halo 3’s Bestiarum.

  • The Forerunners were preceded by a transsentient species known as Precursors.

Halo 3’s Bestiarum is an in-universe document, something that has been compiled by a character rather than being something more along the lines of an encyclopaedia – this is a tradition that 343 has continued with every piece of Forerunner fiction since.

Soma The Painter was put together by the Auditor and Prelate by triangulating data from a trade beacon, medical station, and Soma’s jetbrush.

The story of Cryptum is recalled from an artefact found within Trevelyan known as the Bornstellar Relation. Primordium is the documented testimony of the now-reawakened Chakas, recovered from Installation 04B. Silentium is a series of data strings pulled from a Monitor shell and deceased Catalog unit.

And, most recently, Halo: Mythos is the record compiled by the Curator AI prior to the Banished’s arrival at the Lesser Ark.

In the Bestiarum, the unknown intelligence that documented this particular compendium of information introduced a whole new species to the Halo universe:

TIER 0: TRANSSENTIENT – As the [Forerunners] had no examples of civilisations with technological accomplishment greater than their own – with the exception of the Precursors – this is a theoretical ceiling. They can travel intergalactically and accelerate evolution of intelligent life. These may be creatures of legend. [Halo 3 Bestiarum, Tiers of Technological Achievement]

The inference at the time was made that the Didact was talking about following in the footsteps of the Precursors. But the question of why they would do that, in-concert with the fact that the Precursors could accelerate evolution and travel between galaxies was made all the more fascinating by another revelation from IRIS…

  • The Flood is extragalactic in origin.

From Server Four of IRIS:

The Conservation Measure is the only sweet note in this discordant symphony we’ve arranged.
{//} (IT’S THE ONLY CONSTRUCTIVE ACTIVITY IN DECADES OF DESTRUCTION)
{//} (RESEARCHING THE ADVERSARY AS WE PROTECT THE WORTHY)
We know that the Flood’s biology is alien enough that it must be extragalactic in origin.
But where did it come from?
{//} (AND WHY DID IT COME HERE?)

The simple act of putting two and two together with this string of information (again, not even within the context of the lore we have now which has built on all of this, but as far back as 2007) painted an intriguing picture.

There was some kind of connection between the Flood and the Precursors, and the Didact states that the Flood have infected other galaxies.

We may have been fools to think that all intelligence follows the rules we’ve set
The Flood is no idiot parasite
{//} (NO SIMPLE INFECTION TO BE CURED AND CAUTERISED)
It has a centre, a Mind
{//} (AND THAT DISCOVERY GAVE US A WAY TO FIGHT IT)
{//} (BUT WHEN THE MIND REALISED WE HAD ITS MEASURE)
it spoke to us
{//} (MOCKINGLY, DISMISSIVELY)
It has done this before
{//} (ELSEWHERE)

  • The Librarian has a plan for humanity.

What exactly the intended outcome of this plan was, we had no idea. But we were shown in The Cradle of Life (one of the earlier mini-stories to come from IRIS) that the Librarian was building the portal to the Ark on Earth. According to a Bungie Mail Sack issue, the intention here was to set up Halo 3:

The artist behind that work is Ashley Wood. A number of folks among Bungie were big fans of his work, so he was asked to lend his mighty pen to travel back in time and plant the seeds of Halo 3. [Bungie Mail Sack 4.0 (10/2/2010)]

The text from IRIS is as follows:

The anomalous world is in a perilous location beyond the line.
{//} (THE SECRETS IT HOLDS MUST BE PRESERVED)
{//} (PLANS WITHIN PLANS WITHIN PLANS)
The inhabitants; these unique denizens, must be researched. They may hold answers to our own mysteries.
{//} (WHAT IRONY THAT WE DISCOVERED THIS TREASURE, ONLY AT THE END OF THINGS.)
{//} (BUT WHAT FORTUNE THAT WE STILL HAD TIME TO SAVE THEM)
The thing we built on that world will vouchsafe their lives
{//} (BUT PERHAPS ONE DAY IT WILL MAY BE USED FOR ITS INTENDED PURPOSE)
If the plan succeeds, and they are saved, it will be a good world.
If the plan fails
{//} (AND THE ADVERSARY SUCCEEDS)
it will remain an enigma forever
{//} (WITH NO-ONE LEFT TO RECLAIM IT)

We knew that humanity held status as ‘Reclaimers’, but what they were specifically meant to reclaim was unclear.

It’s also worth noting that IRIS was the point at which the narrative intention for humans and Forerunners being the same species definitively changed, and Bungie’s own Paul Russel has spoken about that being something that changed over the years because “much of Halo’s worldbuilding was done as needed. Loosely written in the beginning and embellished or changed over time” (source), which I’ve discussed in great detail in the linked post.

  • Mendicant Bias seeks atonement.

This is the keystone of not just the inevitable continuation of Halo 3, but of the entire Halo universe. As I’ve spoken about before, Mendicant Bias’ actions, even during the Bungie era, were what initiated and drove the main conflict of the series.

Mendicant Bias wasn’t actually revealed to be ‘present’ until the end of the ARG, where he hijacked the user known as Adjutant Reflex – the main account through which IRIS was delivered to the bungie.net forums. In the second Server, Mendicant said:

“Failure is for those who don’t know the sound of darkness.
Those so blinded that they use all diverging paths.
And make no mistake, progress can blind you.
Just like now, pieces seem to be coming together – bit by bit, slice by surgical slice.
Then, all of a sudden- endless calm.
There was a lack of… a failure in judgement.
You must understand: not all life deserves a chance,
even the artifice passing as my own.
Now there is a lesson to spend a millennium lingering upon, waiting for a redemptive hand to turn the keys.
Leading to this symbiotic relationship which benefits both our futures.
I will guide your movements, and you will lead me to atonement.”

The final Server of IRIS had a similar such message:

“You asked me once, what happened to those who vanished?
You asked me, why did we survive where our fathers fell?
You wished to know how we ever let it happen
A scourge that consumed the galaxy
And the cure that was worse than the cancer
You asked me once about my intent
And the spot that would not wash out
I promise you the answers lie in the Ark
Find me there in the dark
For that is where I abide”

And this is what ultimately culminated in Mendicant’s closing communique at the end of Halo 3, where he finally gets to speak to the Master Chief directly:

“But I want something far different from you, Reclaimer.

Atonement.

And so here at the end of my life, I do once again betray a former master. The path ahead is fraught with peril. But I will do all I can to keep it stable – keep you safe. I’m not so foolish to think this will absolve me of my sins. One life hardly balances billions.

But I would have my masters know that I have changed.

And you shall be my example.” [Halo 3, Terminal 7 (Legendary transcript)]

Taking all of this together, along with the Legendary Ending of Halo 3 where the aft section of the Dawn approaches Requiem (referred to for a period of about four and a half years as the ‘Legendary Planet’) as a result of Mendicant rerouting the portal, it was clear that the Master Chief’s story was not over.

Whether or not Bungie would be the ones to tell that story, the set up for a continuation of his and Cortana’s story could not have been more overt.

The thing is, though, that nothing IRIS set up had any relevance to Halo 3’s story.

Thus, we had all of these immense revelations about the setting and its history that just… didn’t come to fruition. In fact, these were things that were introduced in the final part of the game where, instead of wrapping things up, the table was being set for a much larger story to be told about the Forerunners.

It was hard, for a lot of us fans of the deep lore, not to feel like we’d been screwed over.

It’s why the return to the Ark in Halo Wars 2 feels like something that’s long overdue because we didn’t go to the Ark in Halo 3 to seek out Mendicant Bias and find answers to the questions raised by IRIS, we went there to stop the Prophet of Truth from firing the Halos and pursuing a solution to the Flood. And it’s also why Hunters in the Dark had a rather frustrating story in a lot of ways because it recycled Halo 3’s ‘stop the Halo rings from firing’ plot rather than addressing those questions that we’d been waiting to see addressed for eight years (now ten, and still counting).

Being a lore fan sure can be difficult when you have to wait this long for certain pay-offs.

But this does bring us to another leftover plot point from Halo 3, and that’s the fact that there are still six Halos out in the galaxy. We prevented the Ark from setting them all off, but the mere notion of the Halos continuing to exist with all their destructive potential (be it from firing them, a potential Flood outbreak, or the other dangers they contain) is a shadow that will forever loom over the Halo universe for as long as it goes unresolved.

Halo 4 addresses this when the Master Chief and Cortana regroup with the UNSC Infinity, Lasky informing them that the Infinity’s mission has been to seek out the remaining Halos and study them for decommission – something which Halo Wars 2 has further progressed, as Anders says to Cutter and Isabel that she’s worked out how to disable the firing mechanism of the rings from the control room.Halo 3 is a such a contentious and polarising game for me because what it does well is among some of the best of the franchise, but what it does poorly is some of the worst – and there is so very much of both…

It may surprise some of you to hear that my opinion on Halo 3 has actually softened over the years, but it’s still something that I remain staunchly critical of. And this is one particular topic that I feel very strongly about, having been through the entire lifespan of this game – from its announcement, through the marketing campaign, to the beta, to release, and beyond.

Halo 3 did not finish the fight. To finish something is to bring a final, conclusive end to it – and that’s not what happened.

Halo 3 changed the fight.

We didn’t end the Covenant, as the context of the game and the novels that were out at the time made apparent. We killed the Prophet of Truth and ended the immediate threat posed by his intentions at the Ark, but the Covenant itself is still active in the Milky Way because they didn’t all go to the Ark – they have simply fragmented into different groups in pursuit of different things.

We didn’t end the Flood, as the Gravemind affirms in its final lines of the game. Again, we ended the immediate threat, but ultimately only delayed their return.

We didn’t end the threat of the Halos, we just stopped them all from firing at once from the Ark. What we actually accomplished in doing that was almost worsening the problem because the remaining six Halos have to be dealt with individually now.

That’s what Halo 3 did to the fight.

We achieved a cessation of the immediacy of these threats, but in doing so we spread the conflict out over a wider area. What occurs in the original trilogy is a confluence of conflict, where the Covenant, Flood, and Halos are all relevant problems at once, but the way in which we go about dealing with them turns them into lots of smaller problems that are going to be a lot more difficult to deal with.

And, on top of this, we’ve got the larger shadow of a Forerunner world looming over the setting that Mendicant Bias has sent the Master Chief to in order to unknowingly serve as his instrument of atonement. With it comes the promise of a whole new conflict on top of the ones we’ve not yet resolved – as well as character arcs that were yet-unfinished. Indeed, Steve Downes – the Master Chief himself – has gone on-record to say on multiple occasions that Halo 4 took the Master Chief’s character exactly where he wanted to go.

“[Chief’s characterisation from Bungie to 343] was a quantum leap as far as I was concerned. And I was very excited about it. When I realised where they were going to go with Halo 4, it was sort of where I had always hoped it would go. I always wanted the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana to go deeper than it had gone, because I always thought one of the beauties of the storyline of Halo is the relationship between those two. […] I always felt that the relationship between those two was much more complicated, and finally in Halo 4 we got to explore that.” [4GWQ Podcast #104, Steve Downes interview (13/9/2016)]

There is much to be discussed about the quality of the way in which 343 has handled certain plot points, but it is undeniable that the Reclaimer Saga is very much built on the foundation provided by Halo 3. All of Halo 3. The IRIS story, Halo 3’s Terminals, and the plot points that either went unresolved or were introduced in Halo 3’s main campaign.

Infinity’s primary mission was to find the other Halos and deal with them.

The Covenant remain an active threat in the setting, composed of various groups all squabbling to obtain power and resources.

The Precursor-Flood connection has been expanded on and their return is set to occur somewhere down the line.

Halo 4 made reference to and Halo: Fractures finally dealt with what the Great Journey really was, and Halo 5 has further hinted at other Forerunner survivors going to a place called Bastion.

The return of the Forerunners was central to Halo 4, changing the landscape of the setting. Likewise, the Mantle, the concept of Reclamation, is the central pillar of the conflict of the Reclaimer Saga – tying in with the Librarian’s plan for humanity.

And we’ve returned to the Lesser Ark in Halo Wars 2, meaning that Mendicant Bias’ entrance into the main story is now just a matter of time.

All of these seeds were sown in Halo 3. Despite what your opinion may be on the story itself and how 343 has handled/is handling them, this undeniably speaks to the amount of story there was left to tell from the conclusion to the original trilogy. It is therefore no wonder that Bungie had no interest in dealing with this “baggage”, as Brian Jarrard called it back in 2010, because they simply couldn’t tell a complete story even half this size with just one game…And… that’s all I have to say on the matter today.

This ended up being a lot longer than I’d anticipated, which rather speaks to just how much there is to talk about on this subject. And I addressed most of these issues broadly, which is why I’ve had to plug so many of my other articles into this one because I’ve been going into greater detail on the specifics of these plot points and story beats for years.

Suffice to say, I have never personally found Halo 3 to be anything close to an ending (let alone a satisfying one) for the series.

I honestly found this to be a more perplexing ending than Halo 2’s, and I’m somebody who actually defends Halo 2’s ending because I feel that it earned its cliffhanger and reached a natural stopping point in the story. Halo 3, on the other hand, is telling me that it’s concluding the story, but the actual content of the narrative, upon receiving even the slightest amount of critical thinking, is showing me that that’s simply not true.

I suppose that I ought to be thankful because all of this resulted in me getting my favourite game in the series half-a-decade later, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in the community with Halo 3 when it comes to what this game’s story actually accomplished…

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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.

13 Responses to Why Halo 3 Didn’t ‘Finish The Fight’

  1. stadarooni says:

    Amazing work as always, haruspis! This rebuttal to people who think Halo 3 was ‘the end’ is one I have always tried to articulate into words, but you nailed it down. It’s not like the Roman Empire fell completely with Rome, and that it’s remnants were not strong after all. Thank you!

  2. lifewulf says:

    I went into this thinking it would be your typical, highly interesting post that would take me at most 20 minutes to get through.

    It’s been an hour and a half. Send help. (I went and read two or three of those linked posts that I’ve missed.)

    It’s clear from your analyses that I really need to catch up on the books. I *think* I read Broken Circle (I own it on Google Play Books) but nothing past it. You’ve gotten me super interested in the Halo lore again, haruspis. I only wish the Master Chief Collection would come to PC so I could play it again. I miss the games but refuse to buy an Xbox One again after selling it for a PS4.

    • haruspis says:

      Haha, thank you! I really appreciate the time my readers put into not just reading this, but post-jumping across articles to read the other ones I’ve written to further detail specific points. It’s undoubtedly a huge time-sink and I’m both shocked and grateful that people are willing to invest in that :’)

      I don’t blame you for picking up a PS4 (Halo’s basically the only thing preventing me from doing so), it’s got some INCREDIBLE games.

      • lifewulf says:

        I missed out on nearly every one of PlayStation’s franchises over the years, growing up with a Nintendo GameCube and GBA SP, then the Xbox 360 (and every Nintendo console since).

        I originally bought the Xbox One just for Halo, as well as Destiny. I had it for two or three years, long enough to be disappointed by Halo 5’s Campaign (I enjoyed the multiplayer and continue to do so occasionally through H5: Forge), then sold it and the same day bought a PS4 Slim with Uncharted 4 (which I have yet to play).

      • lifewulf says:

        I also own a PS3 and have played games like the Sly Cooper remasters, some “Tales of” games, Okami and more.

      • haruspis says:

        Yeah, I’ve not owned a Playstation console since the PS2, which I’m seriously regretting because I’ve had to keep up with their big franchises that I’d previously loved (like Ratchet and Clank) either by watching playthroughs on Youtube or begging a friend to let me stay in their room for hours lol.

  3. Jacob Boulay says:

    Buddy, if they actually ‘finished the fight.’ We wouldn’t be able to have a Halo series continuing. If Halo continues to improve as it has, thet are probably planning to have at least 15+ more games. Finishing the fight would ruin them.

  4. theericblank says:

    I would argue that Halo 3’s slogan “Finish the Fight” was directly referring to the Human -Covenant War more the end to the entire Halo Universe. Everything you mentioned regarding the Forerunners: none of that has anything to do with the UNSC’s effort to win the war. When Chief says that he is, “Finishing this fight” at the end of Halo 2 he doesn’t have Mendicant Bias or IRIS on his mind. He has one goal and that is to stopping Truth and saving humanity.

    I would also argue that we do end the Covenant in Halo 3, you forgot to mention that High Charity had completely fallen to the Flood. At the time, Truth was the only known San Shyuum to make it out of High Charity, everyone else was murdered by Covenant Separatists or likely taken by the Flood. The entire High Council had dissolved, Sangheili and San Shyuum members alike were killed during the Great Schism. Longtime Covenant leaders with any viable political persuasion like Sangheili Supreme Commanders and Shipmasters and what not had all separated from the Covenant. So there really was no one left to lead the Covenant after Truth was killed. We can likely assume that most warship and weapons production facilities were located on High Charity and perhaps Sanghelios, so there is no way for the Jiralhane led Covenant forces to continue fighting after using up all their resources at the Battle of the Ark. More than likely, which is actually what did happen, the Covenant would have dissolved on its own. The Kig-Yar would leave, the Jiralhanae would likely be clueless on what to do next, and we already know that all the Huragok had departed, giving them no way of repairing and producing on a large scale.

    That quote you used from Truth, “…in the hopes that more of our Covenant would follow us.” That easily could have been a reference to the Covenant fleet that continued to fight against the Separatist fleet above High Charity during the immediate aftermath of the Great Schism. If any survived the battle, both against the Separatists and the Flood, more than likely they would have dissolved without anyone to lead them.

    So in terms of Humanity’s fight against the Covenant, I’d say we did finish that fight. That war did come to an end by the end of Halo 3. The stuff about the Forerunners was not the UNSC’s or Master Chief’s fight to end. They weren’t even aware of any of it. I completely understand what you were saying about Cortana and the way she was handled in Halo 3, I don’t necessarily feel the same way, but I get it. Even that, however, is still not the fight that Master Chief had set out to finish. Cortana’s handling in Halo 3 isn’t even a fight it’s just a lack of character development on Bungie’s part but again, “Finisht the Fight” might not mean the end to the Halo Universe, we could assume that there would be more to come from Cortana’s arc.

  5. Kiefer says:

    Worthwhile notions and well said. For my part, “finish the fight” seemed like a tease for some kind of hat trick, ’cause the novels had consistently insisted that traditional military victories were not gonna happen. I was not disappointed by the mismarketing of Halo 3, except maybe where it didn’t address the IRIS stuff (but Halo 2 hadn’t dealt with i Luv Bees, either).

  6. Pingback: On Halo and ‘Heinlein’s Premise’ | haruspis

  7. mnumberger says:

    Brilliant, as usual.

    To me, the “Finish the Fight” slogan is as much a mantra for Bungie themselves as an intended summation of the Master Chief arc. Based on years of hindsight, it seemed like Bungie wanted to finish their fight to complete the Halo games. It sounds like all the development nightmares of Halo 2 and 3 and the struggle to tie everything up story-wise was expressed, subliminally or not, in a single slogan.

    Viewed in that light, it’s clear that Reach was meant as a summation, or at least a way of circling back to the beginning of their Halo work. From their perspective, their efforts on the Master Chief story were finished, and Reach was a love letter to the universe and their own efforts as a studio in that universe. Of course, I wish they had reconsidered some (most?) of what they did with the Reach story. This ties in with your “Reach Ruminations” post and how Bungie told the story “in the least interesting way.”

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  9. Pingback: The Master Chief: A Character Study – Halo 3 | haruspis

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