Halo and the War on Terror

by Damien F

Damien F single-handedly salvages 'The Month of Dis'
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The video-gaming industry is about to go into overdrive. Next month Bungie Studios will release the third and final game in their highly successful Halo series. It will be impossible to avoid the hype for this game; the series has become a global phenomenon to rival Lara Croft and her ilk. Yet few have commented on the social and political relevance of the series, or picked up of the links between the games' story-arc and our current political climate.

Halo begins with the aftermath of an assault on a human outpost called Reach. In this image of the future, the overpopulation of Earth has spurred humanity into colonising other planets, with the interstellar naval yard on Reach being central part of this effort. This angers the alien force known as the Covenant, who declared the humans as an affront to their gods and launched a holy war against them. While fleeing the assault, the crew of the Pillar of Autumn - the only ship to escape the onslaught - encounter Halo, a previously-unknown ring world artificially constructed by an ancient race called the Forerunners. Having been forced to land on the world, Master Chief - the game's hero - leads the survivors in battle against the Covenant. Basically, a state with a massive military-industrial complex becomes the target of a theocratic race who have come to see them as an offence to their gods. Echoes of the very real War on Terror' can already be seen, just a couple of minutes into the game's prologue.

Upon its release in late 2001, Halo quickly became the X-Box's flagship launch-title. By mid 2002 it had become the fastest selling game on any console of its time. The leading gaming magazine Edge lauded it as "the most important launch-game for any console, ever". It very quickly earned a massive cult-following. Its sequel Halo 2 sold 2.38 million units on the first day of its release, making it the fastest selling media product in US history. Along with third title due for release, a movie adaptation is due next year, and a spin-off strategy title Halo Wars is also on the cards. It often remarked that the Microsoft's X-Box would not have enjoyed the success it did in an industry dominated by the Playstation without Halo. Though the game's success is clearly due the positive reception of its fluid and rewarding game-play, it can't be denied that there are superior First-Person Shooters on the market. The PC is after all the true home of the genre. What made Halo different was that it felt more conscious of the player than its competitors. With its engaging storyline, and mesmerizing music-score, it sought to stimulate its audience on an intellectual level rather than just a recreational plane. It may be a pretender to Half-Life's throne, but unlike Half-Life, this game has something to say.

Similar to how colonial enterprise of the United Nations Space Command has become an affront to the doctrines of the Covenant in Halo, globalisation and neo-colonialism of the West has become seen as the Great Satan' by certain preachers of Islam. Nobody was under any doubt about this after September 2001. However, it was clear long before 9/11 that something was brewing in the heart of Islamic fundamentalism. America's Cold War-ally, deprived of their atheist enemy in the Soviet Union, looked to the godless West for all they saw as wrong, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda began hitting targets such as the USS Cole in 2000. Popular culture offered a fleeting recognition of this in such films as True Lies and The Siege. But it wasn't until we saw giant buildings crumble like a house of cards that we truly understood we were in an era of a new clash of ideologies. With its portrayal of the Covenant, Halo tapped into an audience that was trying to understand how religion could perverted into a tool of hatred and war. 9/11 left a painful scar on humanity, one from which we haven't fully recovered. The world became something we barely recognised. What had previously been a plot-device of the most tawdry science-fiction suddenly became an almost unbearable reality. It wasn't just that 3,000 had died, or even that one of the most recognisable landscapes had been brutally altered in the blink of an eye; what was really in-comprehendible was the idea we become so despised by an enemy few had realised we had. We were at war, and we never even knew it. Just as Master Chief and the crew of the Pillar of Autumn had to explore a strange new world after the attack on Reach, the 9/11 left us drifting around a world that was now unknown and uncertain to us.

Of course some were quite certain about what had to be done. The United States and her allies launched the War on Terror', with the grand aim of wiping out terrorism around the globe. Halo too has its own war on terror. One of the series' back-stories tells us of Vice Admiral Preston Cole (an interesting name given the bombing of the USS Cole) and how he mobilised the largest military fleet in human history against the Covenant after their first assault on humanity; the incineration of the Harvest colony. The Earth-bound war began with a campaign in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban Government and removed the al-Qaeda forces in the country. Unlike Vice Admiral Cole's attempt to retake the Harvest colony, the campaign in Afghanistan - at least initially - was perceived as a success. After the 9/11 attacks, Western governments adopted a new approach to combating terrorism. Previously, the West acted to merely defend itself from militant groups. Now, however, the emphasis was attacking terrorism at its source. Now we were going to kill the beast by removing the head and letting the body die. We were going to fight the enemy on her own soil.

Echoes of this can be seen in Halo. Previously, the Covenant attacked humanity by destroying colonial outposts. But Halo, the ring world the crew of the Pillar of Autumn landed on, is sacred to the Covenant. The Forerunners, the ancient race that constructed Halo, are exalted by the Covenant to the status of gods. For the Covenant, the ring is a relic of considerable importance, perhaps even their Mecca. They can't just destroy Halo like they did with the human settlements. Suddenly, the humans have an advantage; they're fighting the Covenant on their ground.

According to the Covenant religion, Halo is the key to The Great Journey, which will propel all who are worthy to "the Divine Beyond". The fabric of the Covenant society is built upon this belief. However, the humans learn in the course of the game that the Forerunner in fact built Halo as a weapon against the Flood, a parasitic life form that if released threatens the entire galaxy. Here we see another real-life conflict, one that doesn't need wars or terrorism to realised; the debate between science and faith. The human forces, free from the delusions of faith, come to realise Halo's true purpose as a weapon that, if activated, will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy in order to starve the Flood. Such was the danger of the Flood that the Forerunners built a weapon that doomed their own existence in order to neutralise them. This is what the Covenant have become deluded into thinking is their "Great Journey", and if they activate Halo they will eradicate themselves and all other beings in the Galaxy. One might say this is an avocation of science over the dogmas of religion. However, Halo is not simply condemning religion. After all, the Halo ring was created by a scientifically-minded race rather than one driven by faith and dogma, and when Master Chief learns that it's a weapon his immediate consideration is how to use it against the Covenant. It is worth noting that it is Master Chief and not the Covenant who comes closest to activating the ring, albeit accidentally. The Halo series never seeks to denounce a society guided by faith; it just looks that the contrast between two ideologies at war with each other.

This notion is furthered by Halo 2, released in November 2004. By this time the West's claim of moral superiority was slipping. The campaign in Iraq was quickly becoming a quagmire, and we were becoming weary of the Bush Administration's disregard for civil liberties, international law and the US Constitution. We didn't simply want to fight terrorism anymore, we wanted to understand what fuelled terrorism. We wanted to understand how faith was corrupted into hatred. In reflection of this, Master Chief shares centre-stage in Halo 2 with the Arbiter, a Covenant Admiral who is blamed by his peers for the destruction of the sacred ring in the first game, a failure so colossal that it amounts to heresy.

Unlike Master Chief, who we are told "has his mind concluded", the Arbiter has to undergo a journey of self-realisation and self-discovery. In the game's opening chapters, we see him being consumed by self-hatred for his failure to safeguard Halo in the first game. He knows this catastrophe has negated his place on the Sacred Journey. When another character tells him his life mean nothing to him, he responds, "That makes two of us." The Arbiter's entire purpose in life was servitude to his faith, but now that he has failed in this even death offers him no comfort. As the game progresses, however, he comes to learn the truth of Halo, and that his hierarchs have used blind-faith to manipulate him and his fellow Covenant. He eventually speaks of how "the prophets have betrayed us". Halo fans didn't take to the Arbiter. There was a certain uneasiness about a playable character other that the Chief. Ultimately, however, he is a far more interesting character than Master Chief. He is a true protagonist. And his journey serves as a useful metaphor for the young men misled into believing terrorism is the true expression of their faith.

The role of the Arbiter exemplifies the greater attention given to humanity's enemy in the game. Halo 2 gives a lot more details the society of the Covenant than its predecessor, such as telling of the Brutes, a faction of the Covenant not mentioned in the first game. An interesting characteristic of the Brutes is their hostility to the Elites. This hostility eventually leads to an outbreak of civil war on Covenants holy city High Charity. Arguably, civil war has become the defining outcome of the War on Terror. As the game was released, Sunni militias in Iraq were attacking attempts by the Shiite Government to organise a working democracy, with rumours of rogue Shiite elements within government agencies engaging in torture and murder. In the two years since Halo 2 was released, not only have we seen this situation deteriorate further, but further clashes have taken place elsewhere. Emboldened by their clash with Israel last year, Hezbollah has undertaken operations to overthrow the Government in Lebanon, and earlier this year we saw the heightened conflict between Hamas and the Fatah movement in Palestine.

The Halo saga will come to a close soon. Microsoft and and Bungie will surely find some way of milking the franchise, but with the fortcoming Halo 3 we will be offered the final chapter in the trilogy, and the main story-arc will come to a close. The publicity material has promised us we will get to "finish the fight". We will soon get to see how the fictional war between humans and aliens plays out. This is where the similarities between Halo and the War on Terror come to an unfortunate close, as a finish to the fighting against terrorism seems impossibly remote, and its conclusion just as uncertain.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 12:24 on 2007-08-11
Wait, Half-Life has nothing to say? Half-Life, with its warnings about science being held in thrall to political ends and its stunning final glimpse of a military-industrial complex which spans entire dimensions and of which the US is a mere pawn, has nothing to say? Half-Life 2, with its opening levels showing a genuinely well-done depiction of a world under the jackboot of the interdimensional equivalent of the Nazis, the warning against a scientific/technological elite mistreating the masses and reshaping the very environment to the point where those who aren't of the elite will die, and its primary villain being a Quisling-like symbol of craven collaboration, has nothing to say?
Wardog at 21:33 on 2007-08-11
This is interesting ... I tend to disdain first person shooters because, well, actually it's because I suck at them. But I usually assume they have nothing to say in terms of character or story.

Halo tapped into an audience that was trying to understand how religion could perverted into a tool of hatred and war - um ... perhaps I'm over-simplifying but hasn't religion always been, uh, a tool of war?

And I haven't played Halo (or, for that matter, Half Life) but from what you say about the first game I'm not massively convinced by the "not condemning religion" aspect of it. I mean, the character you're playing is the "good guy" right, just because when you play a game your sympathy tends to naturally attach itself to the main chracter, not the dudes you're attacking. Except in Warcraft III actually, now I think about it, you spend the first act playing the guy who later turns out to be the villain. But that's a digression. Secondly, The Thingamies religion is based on a fallacy (i.e they worship the scientifically created weapon thing) which sort of undermines the whole point of their culture and the war they're waging. And finally they're always the aggressors. I don't know, just a few thoughts from a position of total ignorance ;)
Damien F at 13:39 on 2007-08-12
Both those comments hurt my head.
Wardog at 14:14 on 2007-08-12
Oh...sorry, I was just genuinely curious as to what you thought.
Arthur B at 14:49 on 2007-08-12
Sorry, I wasn't trying to be aggressive, I just felt that the assertion that the plot of the Halo series is Big and Meaningful whilst the plot of the Half-Life series is Trite and Meaningless needed to be questioned.
Wardog at 14:56 on 2007-08-12
I wasn't trying to be aggressive either. Personally I love it when people comment on what I've written - because it shows they've read it and are thinking about it, even if they don't agree or start picking at one of my arguments. I try to do the same for everything that turns up on fb (I mean, comment on it, not pick at it ;) - and I think most of the other writers do too. In a twisted way, it's how we show we care :)
Arthur B at 15:04 on 2007-08-12
I agree, and I even enjoy it when people pick at my articles, because it normally means I get to expand on the points I made and throw new ones in.
Wardog at 16:26 on 2007-08-12
So, um, are any of these worth playing? I mean would the plot/story carry me through not being mad keen on FPS? RPGs are so thin the ground these days I'm actually looking around for new types of games to play...
Arthur B at 18:17 on 2007-08-12
I don't think any FPS has had a really decent integration of plot with gameplay since Deus Ex or System Shock 2, although Half-Life 2 does make a good stab at it. A lot of FPS games rely on a cut scene/actual gameplay/cut scene structure, and pretty much none of them offer you any meaningful choices aside from Deus Ex. Half-Life 2 makes a stab at eliminating cut scenes, but you do still have stretches where NPCs show up and talk to you for five minutes - the only difference is you have full control of your character whilst doing so.

Really, aside from Deus Ex, there aren't many FPS games out there for people who don't already like FPS games. They're 90% about the adrenaline release and only 10% about anything else.
Damien F at 15:50 on 2007-08-13
"I just felt that the assertion that the plot of the Halo series is Big and Meaningful whilst the plot of the Half-Life series is Trite and Meaningless needed to be questioned."
Ok, this is a fair point. If I were to rewrite the piece I think I'd change that. But I honestly feel Half-Life uses its 'message' as more of a backdrop, where has Halo is trying to make a point. Also, your initial post seems to describe Half-Life 2 rather than the original game. Not that this makes a diffence to your point, I just want to be clear on what game you're referring to.

"The Thingamies religion is based on a fallacy (i.e they worship the scientifically created weapon thing) which sort of undermines the whole point of their culture and the war they're waging. And finally they're always the aggressors." This I don't really agree with. Sure, the Covenant's religion is indeed based on a fallacy. But I tried to make the point (unsuccessfully, perhaps) that so is the humans' war effort, and that their battle-mentality is just as dangerous as the Covenant's faith.
Arthur B at 16:03 on 2007-08-13
I was addressing both Half-Life and Half-Life 2, because your article seemed to be addressing all three Halo games...

And as far as making a point goes, the sort of interdimensional colonialism hinted at in Half-Life and shown in full force in Half-Life 2 has all kinds of parallels with real-world history and politics. To be honest, I feel that if a computer game's message begins to overwhelm the gameplay then that's a serious weakness of the game, in the same way that if decent storytelling and prose takes second place to "making a statement" in a novel; yes, Half-Life 2's message is more of a backdrop, something you pick up on here and there, but to me that's an important strength of Half-Life 2.
Ibmiller at 15:25 on 2013-01-29
So, is it just me, or does this series have a heck of a lot of fridging?
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