The Halo franchise has long been a staple of the video game industry’s first-person shooter genre. Countless thousands of gamers worldwide, who are today entering adulthood, literally took their first steps online by going to war for humanity against the alien race known as the Covenant. To understand the enduring commercial and creative power of the title’s sixteen-year, $2 billion dollar run, try pulling back from the screen to consider Halo’s incremental changes as they paced America’s foreign policy and military operations since 9/11. As someone born just as the twentieth century was ending, Halo is inseparable from how I understand post-9/11 America and the future of war.
For those who haven’t played the game, Halo tells the story of a dispassionate and (improbably) flawless Marine serving in the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) named Master Chief Petty Officer John 117. Master Chief, a genetically, cybernetically enhanced supersoldier known as a SPARTAN II, is partnered with an Artificial Intelligence named Cortana to help fight against the Covenant, a theocratic alliance of alien races, and the ancient dangers that they unleash upon the galaxy by meddling with prehistoric technology. As more and more games, books, television, and films have been added to the franchise, the scope has widened far beyond Cortana and John, and yet they remain the fulcrum the Halo universe pivots around.
Halo: Combat Evolved was first released on November 15, 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Many have argued that part of the resonance of the series may have been due to the fact that Master Chief and his Marine comrades start out the series having experienced a profound tragedy: the surprise destruction of the planet Reach. This paralleled the real tragedy that the American people had just experienced that clear-skied September morning.
After the loss of their planet, Master Chief and the UNSC had to confront a theologically motivated enemy in the Covenant that seemed to them entirely implacable in its goals and methods. The Covenant’s rather bland style of religious zealotry and radical intolerance coupled with purely alien visual style seem to preclude comparisons to any particular religion. However, the concept of a massive theocratic regime filled with deluded soldiers willing to fight the death (and in many cases become literal suicide bombers) can’t help but evoke comparisons to theocratic autocracies like Iran or theologically motivated radicals like ISIS or Al Qaeda. Such comparisons become even more fascinating when considering that the Covenant are depicted as technologically superior aggressors whose first contact with humanity instantly turned violent. This offers an eerie linkage to the modern day War on Terror, where the combatants have a richly intertwined history and Coalition forces have a clear technological advantage.
What is especially interesting, and perhaps most subject to change over time in response to public opinion shifts, is the nature of the military organization that Master Chief fights for—the UNSC—and how its depiction changes over the course of the games. In the 2005 title Halo 2, a very clear delineation is made between the morality of the Covenant and that of the UNSC, with the Covenant torturing and punishing a failed military leader for his inability to stop Master Chief. Meanwhile the UNSC rewards Master Chief for his self-sacrifice and service. Moreover, there is little question of ethics in the UNSC’s role, as the player never encounters enemy civilians, is almost always on the defensive, and is constantly attempting to stave off acts of genocide by the Covenant forces. A more morally black and white conflict is difficult to imagine.
However, the moral uprightness of the human government depicted in the first three games falls apart quickly when going beyond the mythology of the game itself.
Anybody who read books like The Fall of Reach, published mere months after the release of Combat Evolved, understands that the John 117 was not recruited, but made. The SPARTAN program that created John is revealed to have been a cruel and illegal experiment in creating the ultimate soldier, which involved kidnapping prospective members at age six, forcibly enlisting them, training them, and forcing them to undergo a highly dangerous augmentation procedure that left many dead and even more horribly maimed. Perhaps the most damning revelation of all is that this entire program was not initiated in response to an existential threat like the Covenant; it was begun before the discovery of the Covenant, with the intent of crushing comparatively tame human rebellions in far-flung colonies. With the added context of peripheral materials, the UNSC begins to come into focus as a nearly autocratic regime, with the willingness to use overwhelming force in response to threats.
This lore was mainly swept under the rug for the first three games, with only passing references to John’s past and literally no references to insurrectionist rebels he was trained to fight. Halo 3 was largest seller of any in the Halo franchise, as well as the final chapter of the original trilogy, and it carries forward this triumphalist narrative. However, when it came time to continue the story of Master Chief, the original developers were no longer at the helm. Bungie passed the franchise over to 343 Industries, a Microsoft subsidiary purpose-built to continue the Halo legacy. Its next iteration would be far more introspective, and if would reflect the hard foreign policy lessons of the past decade. Halo 4 came after the highly visible 2010 Wikileaks document releases, and as well as years of US drone strikes and widespread public questioning of methods and intentions of the United States during the War on Terror. The game appears to reflect this, as the next game features a UNSC fighting shadow wars and grappling with the morality of its past actions. Notably, Spartans created in this less brutal postwar era are sourced from adult volunteers, who, during the course of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops campaign, were horrified to discover that their forebears in the Spartan Program were innocent children. The dark past of the SPARTAN program was even heavily marketed. One example was the surprisingly entertaining Hunt The Truth podcast promoting Halo 4, in which the shadowy UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence attempt to cover up the SPARTAN program’s secret history.
Perhaps the most poignant change is that the UNSC conflict with the Covenant is scrapped entirely. Perhaps mirroring the drawdown of US troops in the Middle East and the rise in the public prominence of special operations forces, Halo 4 depicts a UNSC technically at peace, with Spartans and expeditionary forces fighting shadowy wars for valuable technology. Perhaps further solidifying the comparison with the United States, the UNSC is no longer beleaguered, and its military power has greatly expanded to the point that it matches (and perhaps even exceeds) that of the Covenant. Despite all this, it manages to become embroiled in a conflict with another group of religious zealot aliens threatening to release an ancient evil. If that sounds exactly like the previous games, it should. Such a predicament echoes America’s ongoing engagement in irregular conflicts worldwide, with some like Syria escalating into outright war without much public acknowledgment or debate by US leaders.
Whatever the merits of comparing the Halo series directly with America’s War on Terror, the themes expressed in the series have left an indelible mark on gaming over its decade and a half of popularity. Even beyond the gaming world, the franchise has inspired creative thinkers in the years since it’s initial success. Its armor alone has helped inspire both the ambitious but so far unsuccessful Trojan armor program by lone inventor Troy Hurtubise. More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) attracted attention when its call for a protective suit for Special Forces operators that seemed to exhibit many similarities to Halo’s MJOLNIR armor. Recently, Will Roper, head of the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office, said at South by Southwest (SXSW) that that concepts like minimaps and persistent augmented reality in the helmets of warfighters are examples of ideas popularized by video games that might someday enter the real battlefield.
As gaming and actual warfare weave closer to together, Halo and titles like it will both reflect and shape my generation’s culture, influencing how we see ourselves within society, and how we make sense of an era of enduring warfare.
Alec Medén is a writer-at-large for The Art of the Future Project. For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.