The Origins of War: Part One

With the release of Halo 4 only days away, I thought I would take a look at the origins of Halo, the wars involved and the relationship between humanity and the rest of the Halo universe.

The first area that I’ll delve into is the Covenant and their war with humanity and my theories on why Bungie may have decided on taking this route and created the Covenant as the malevolent conglomerate that we know today.

There have been a lot of science fiction video games over the years, but none have garnered such a distinct and varied following as much as Halo has. Since the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, countless fans have enjoyed the different aspects that Halo has to offer. These range from simple gameplay needs to storyline, online play, Machinima, Forge, Firefight, and the forthcoming Spartan Ops. Halo has them all and as a result it appeals to a lot of different people, of all ages.

At its core, Halo is a war game, of sorts. The campaign takes us on a journey involving a super soldier who, against the odds, must try and stop the relentless alien war machine that is the Covenant. And the first-person perspective of Halo is a truly and wonderfully inventive way of getting the player to step into the boots of the main protagonist, the Master Chief. But why does this work? Why does it appeal to so many people, to so many fans? In order to try and understand why Halo appeals so much today we have to look back at its roots and dive deeper than we usually go as fans – to the thematic implications of the most successful entertainment franchise on the planet.

Our first and formal introduction to the Halo universe is with Combat Evolved – the Forerunner, so to speak, of the series. It laid the foundations upon which an empire would grow and develop and, at times, falter. But the core of Halo centred on one overarching subject, war.

Halo is, for better or worse, a war story, a yarn of woe stretching from one side of the galaxy to the other, and beyond. And the first instance of this that we are introduced to is mankind’s fight for survival against the Covenant – a collective of alien species with one single-minded intent, the destruction of mankind. And that intent is echoed, within the fiction, during mankind’s first encounter with the Covenant, above the human colony of Harvest:

“Your destruction is the will of the gods… and we are their instrument.”

This statement is succinct to say the least. It gets the point across to the ill-fated crews of both the UNSC Arabia and the Vostok – the unfortunate victims of Covenant aggression, who were sent to investigate an eerie silence that had descended upon the colony. Only the UNSC Heracles escapes during the encounter. But the statement also tells us of Covenant beliefs and their zeal. They are a religious hierarchy. But why did Bungie pursue this course in designing and expanding the fiction of the Covenant?

Popular historical figures or stories are often portrayed in reflection of the current social or economic climate. Contemporary iterations of popular characters such as Robin Hood or Cleopatra are often expressed in line with the current perceived norm or from the current trend or interpretation of the aforementioned characters. Cleopatra, for example, has undergone several adaptations throughout cinematic history. The 1917 version starring Theda Bara depicted Cleaopatra as an incredibly exotic character from an equally exotic corner of the globe. But Cleopatra herself was portrayed as a sexual predator, surrounded by several promising suitors.

Jump forward to 2000, with Xena Warrior Princess taking up the role, Cleopatra is still portrayed with a strong sexual presence, but this is accompanied by a far more overtly and physically capable aspect, her fighting prowess. While Halo has nothing to do with Cleopatra it, too, may fall back on current trends. And the Covenant are an extension of this.

Many alien species that are created in science fiction often have similar intentions or aims when fighting mankind. This often manifests as resource acquisition – particularly water, or a slave labour force, or both. Though going to war for the acquisition of water (Battle Los Angeles 2010) is a realistic ambition, it fails to present the alien invaders as a truly malevolent force. We are likely to interpret their actions as simple desperation, particularly if faced with the tried and tested theme of a dying planet (The Invaders 1967-1968). But for an aggressive force to have a truly malevolent presence, there are very few aspects of extraterrestrial intention that come across quite so threateningly as fanatical zeal – the drive of blind faith that refuses to compromise. This ensures we, as readers, viewers or gamers, go from questioning the military choice of the H2O needy aliens, to one of bewilderment – what did we do wrong?

We question ourselves instead of the aliens’ intentions. And this would no doubt have been an aspect that presented itself in Halo. ‘Why does the Covenant hate us so much? Why do they want us all to die?’ It was not until the reasons for this were revealed [Contact  Harvest] that the Covenant presented itself as a more recognisable culture, with notable similarities to human culture and the human psyche. And this can be seen with each and every aspect of the Covenant, in the way they behave or live, in the bluntest of forms, of course.

Grunts are typically cowardly in nature, much like an isolated and insecure human with no support – the archetype of the isolated and cowardly bully. But when Grunts are presented in greater numbers their behaviour takes on an entirely new dynamic – they become aggressive, fearless and even suicidal. They embody the crowd mentality frequently demonstrated in heated exchanges between the authorities and hooligans in modern society. They are fight or flight.

Brutes on the other hand represent our more aggressive nature – the pack orientated alpha male among us: selfish, unsympathetic and with an objectively-focussed mindset. Brawn over brains in the typical sense, but this single-mindedness can extend to every aspect of human behaviour, particularly in a business or a predominantly male environment. The assured bully.

Elites are the skilled and determined members of the Covenant, and this is mirrored in human society. While brutes may be the managers of mankind, in terms of our culture, the elites represent skilled individuals from any background – confident, self-assured, but fair. They are the bearers of honour and dignity, compared to the self-obsessed and indignant brute. If you were to compare the Sangheili to any human culture it would most definitely be feudal Japan, where each elite is a skilled and accomplished samurai warrior following a strict code of honour. But being accomplished in their field does not necessarily mean they are without an edge of ruthlessness.

Jackals may initially seem like an obvious comparison for some – the pirate, the gambler, the greedy and the desperate. But jackals are opportunistic in nature. They lack the skill of the elite or the sheer overbearing, aggressive presence of the brute but they make up for it with an opportunistic outlook to every situation, with special consideration given to their limited abilities or possessions. But they have no code of honour. They are thieves, deceivers, conmen. They feed on the scraps of society left over by other, more privileged members of the Covenant. But they are resourceful; the great pretenders.

And then we have the Prophets – the controlling arm of the Covenant. They are ambitious, ruthless, selfish. They are the personification of politicians. They use the information available at the time and distort it to promote their own ambitious agenda, as demonstrated in the closing chapter of Contact Harvest.

Following on with the thematic of Halo, we can start to draw parallels to current trends or attitudes to military aggressors. The Covenant, as a whole, are religiously driven. They are compelled by the faith bestowed upon them by religious rhetoric spread by the hierarchical tip of the spear, the Prophets, who believe ascendancy – following the path of the Forerunners – to be a greater calling. It also formed the crux of their reason for going to war with humanity, even though the basis for that reason was covered up, mainly because it would have decimated their belief system, and the prophets’ control over the rest of the Covenant. But why did Bungie pursue this? Why have a religious enemy?

As stated before, a fanatical enemy is one that defies convention, and diplomacy. What is there to discuss if all they desire is your destruction? It’s simple and effective as a basis for terror – relentless terror. The Covenant obviously seem to fit in nicely here, using religious fever as the cornerstone for their combat doctrine.

Social attitudes at the time were perhaps driven by the growing notoriety of fanatical religious groups, who obviously still remain today. But did Bungie really use this as the basis for creating the Covenant? I suspect not. Even though elements of the Covenant do seem to point directly towards this, I believe the overall presence of religion to be thematic and not functional. The Covenant has prophets, divinity, an Arbiter that was originally coined as a ‘whirling dervish’, a great journey with promise of a paradise, of sorts, at the end, and a relentless hatred towards its enemies. I sense Bungie drew upon our experiences as a species and injected that into the Covenant, which will obviously mirror humanity in some capacity. In a sense, humanity of the Halo universe were fighting against themselves.

And this is something that will always be present in every incarnation of Halo fiction. But in what form will Halo 4 take this idea forward? Which element of the human psyche will be the new, ancient enemy?

That topic of discussion is for another time.

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