Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My Halo Heresy: Bungie's Mistakes

On the Halo Story Page and in the Halo forums the participants can be seen dissecting every piece of minutia that comes from Bungie. Posters derive long chains of reasoning and speculation from the tiniest details of the games, books, the graphic novel, and interviews with Bungie employees - the material considered canonical. Here I commit sacrilege:

  • Bungie makes mistakes.
  • Story continuity is not Bungie's primary concern.
Evidence follows.

Here are nine items, each of which supports one or the other of the two claims above. Each can with sufficient effort be explained away, but not without straining the bounds of credulity. In each case a more likely explanation is the one I propose.

  1. Continuity: No Brutes or Drones in Halo: Combat Evolved

    The Brutes and Drones are nowhere to be found in Halo, but are common in Halo 2, which occurs only a month later. There have been attempts to explain this away, but none seem very likely. Let's examine these:

    • The Brutes and Drones have only recently joined the Covenant, and have only just begun to be deployed on Covenant vessels.

      I'd have an easier time believing this if there were only a very few of them in evidence in Halo 2. But they're already more common than Hunters.

    • Brutes and Drones were not previously trusted enough to serve on Covenant ships.

      If that were true, that isn't the sort of thing that happens all at once. Trust takes a generation or more for a new subject race to earn. But even that doesn't make sense; in any empire built on subjugation -- as the Covenant is -- the first thing that a new member of the empire gets to do is to serve as cannon fodder.

    • The ages-long feud between the Elites and the Brutes precludes them serving on the same ship, in the same fleet, or even in the same chain of command.

      ...which is flatly contradicted by events in Halo 2; Elites and Brutes worked together (at the mining platform and on Delta Halo) until the Prophet of Regret was killed. And even if this were the case, it doesn't explain the absence in Halo of the Drones.

    • There just didn't happen to be any Brutes or Drones in the portion of the Covenant fleet that went to Halo.

      Coincidence? Now there's a likely explanation. In which case you'd need to also explain why they didn't appear in The Fall of Reach, which is supposed to be consistent with the "Halo Bible".

    No, the most likely explanation is the one that's outside the story. The game developers wanted to give the player new enemies to fight. So they invented a couple and then did their best to backfit them into the storyline, with limited success. The reason that the story bits presented for the Brutes don't seem to fit with the events seen in Halo is that they don't. They're not so much explanations as rationalizations.

    In the beginning of the "Et Tu, Brute" video documentary a Bungie developer comments that the Brutes were introduced too late in the development of Halo 2 and were not well thought out. This suggests that the Brutes, maybe the Drones, and possibly the entire Covenant civil war, were not in the Halo Bible prior to the development of Halo 2.

    In the universe of Halo: Combat Evolved, Brutes and Drones simply didn't exist.

  2. Continuity: Brute Changes for Halo 3

    The video documentary on Brutes introduced us to new behaviors, uniforms, and group tactics for Brute warriors. The absence of these in Halo 2 poses the same problem that the absence of Brutes did in Halo: Combat Evolved. The same arguments and counter-arguments apply.

  3. Mistake: Covenant knowledge of Earth

    By the end of First Strike, it's clear that the Covenant knows that the location of the human homeworld is Earth. Yet in Halo 2, only six ships show up, and it becomes clear from their radio chatter that they came to Earth expecting to find something, but not humanity.

    What appears to have actually happened is that Halo 2 was originally meant to be the conclusion of the story. Bungie made a mistake in the development process and as a result had to reduce the scope of the story, cutting the last three chapters, moving that part of the story to a third game, and also moving the main invasion of Earth there.

    Bungie's development mistake is an idea supported by interviews with Halo 2 devs in which they admitted spending so much time producing the new game engine that they were left short of time for content and polish.

  4. Mistake: Cortana's First Insertion into Master Chief's Armor

    In The Fall of Reach, which takes place before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana is inserted into Master Chief's armor during its testing. Yet at the beginning of the game when she is inserted for the second time, both she and Master Chief react as though it's a new experience.

    "Hmm," she says, "Your architecture isn't much different from the Autumn's." "Don't get any funny ideas," he responds. Her comment makes it clear that she's encountering his suit's computing architecture for the first time, and his indicates that this is the first time he's discussed her potential control of the suit with her.

  5. Continuity: Johnson's "Special Moment"

    Upon completing Halo: Combat Evolved at Legendary difficulty, the player is treated to a special cutscene. Sergeant Johnson and an Elite are wrestling over an assault rifle when they notice that the Pillar of Autumn is about to explode. They stop wrestling, Johnson says, "This is it, baby. Hold me," and they hug(!).

    This scene breaks continuity any way you look at it. I realize it's meant to be a joke, and it is funny, but that's the point; continuity is not Bungie's primary concern. They'll sacrifice it to improve gameplay (Brutes and Drones) or even to make a joke.

  6. Mistake: Johnson's Flood Immunity

    After publication of First Strike, Bungie discovered that the explanation for Johnson's immunity to Flood infection was problematic for their long-term plans for the storyline. So they added a story to The Halo Graphic Novel which presented a contradictory account of Johnson's escape from the flood, and a page of documents, one of which suggests that the prior explanation was a hoax perpetrated on Dr. Halsey by the Office of Naval Intelligence.

    The problem is that even with the fig leaf of an explanation at the back of the graphic novel, the story in it (Breaking Quarantine) still contradicts the account in First Strike. While ONI could have falsified Johnson's service record (and would do so were he a Spartan-I and they wanted to conceal that), what they could not do is falsify the results of Halsey's own tests. She investigated his immunity and found that he had a neurological disorder that prevented Flood from infecting him. How he got the disorder is irrelevant; it's incompatible with the graphic novel's story in which he escaped by means of massive badassery.

    So Bungie made a mistake in allowing an account inconsistent with their overall storyline to make it to publication, and then made another mistake in trying to fix it.

  7. Mistake: Knowing Halo's Name

    No one on the player's side is aware that the ringworld is named Halo until Captain Keyes reveals it on being rescued from the brig of the Truth and Reconciliation. It's clear that it's new information to Cortana, as the first thing she does with it is to search Covenant radio chatter for references to it, which she would have done already had she known its name.

    However, on the Pillar of Autumn's bridge, in the first cutscene of the game, there is a diagram on the main computer display that's clearly labeled "Halo".

  8. Mistake: Cortana's Subspace Remark

    In the first scene of Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana tells Captain Keyes, "No one could have missed the hole we tore in subspace." That is the first, last, and only reference to "subspace" in the entire Halo corpus. Everywhere else it's called "slipspace". Perhaps Jan Taylor was channeling Star Trek for a moment?

  9. Mistake: Halo's Destruction

    It may have been dramatic for a piece of Halo next to the Autumn's explosion to fly across the ring and smash through the other side, but it was wrong. The Autumn was lodged against the inner surface of the ring, and that factor combined with the ring's rotation would have caused any ring fragments to fly outward.

    Then there's the ring's rigidity. No object of that size is going to show the kind of stiffness shown in the explosion sequence. Even if it were made of scrith the ring would bend and flex like a rubber band when disrupted.

There are more examples to be had, but these are enough to support my thesis.

So I say to all the Halo theorists out there, lighten up! Don't overthink every detail and nuance of the Halo corpus looking for hidden meanings, like some lit-crit professor run amuck (if that isn't redundant). You'll get the answers soon enough, when Halo 3 comes out.

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