With the ongoing release of the Halo games for PC, I might do a little scoot through and write one or two articles on each as they come out. They’re released according to the chronological order of their events; Halo Reach, the fifth game in the series, was thus the first for re-release, as it’s a prequel to the original Halo. We’ll come back to Reach later though – I’ll run by original release date for now. Halo first released in the grand year 2001, flagship of the new Xbox console, and ushering in a new era of video games. It had an innovative enemy AI that reacted organically to certain behaviours – if you stuck a plasma grenade onto a Grunt, it would panic and run around screaming. And, fun fact, my granddad taught one of the guys who went on to create that AI. So there you go.
What I want to do today is a pretty straightforward close reading of Halo. I want to look at the game through a religious lens – not because I think it’s secretly a game about Christianity, but because when you view it through that lens, it helps you recognize elements of the story that might not have otherwise been readily apparent. Broadly speaking, the game has a very traditional hero’s journey arc. You descend onto this mysterious ring, floating in space, travel down to its absolute center, and find something horrific. Then you rise, repeating many of the earlier levels in a reverse order. You escape from the Flood’s chamber by re-treading the route you took to get down there, and later you sneak onto an enemy cruiser to rescue your captain, just as you did near the start of the game. You ultimately return to the ship you came in on, rising from the ring just as you previously went down onto it. The underworld / overworld aspect of this trip is pretty obvious: even if the Halo isn’t literally underground, you go down onto the ring at the start of the game, and fly up and away at the end. The thematic cycle of descent and ascension is clear.
Within that context, what struck me on this playthrough was how the different combat forces were coded. On the one side, we have the heroic Earth army, all dressed up in green or brown fatigues. They tend towards earthy, natural colours, and their weapons revolve around kinetic force. Rocket launchers, machine guns, frag grenades. It’s very Newtonian. The enemy, on the other hand, are the Covenant. They’re a group of alien races, and aesthetically they’re designed around the ethereal, or the spiritual. Rather than shooting bullets, like the plodding earthy humans, they wield energy weapons, shooting beams of light instead of physical projectiles. They’re coded towards the spiritual, or the soul. Even their vehicles – this is quite funny – are all literally named after types of spirit: Wraiths, Ghosts, and Banshees.
Halo, then, dramatises a fight between body and soul, humans and Covenant. And then, the game’s big shift: the two warring factions are overshadowed by a third, an existential terror that threatens to wipe out all life in the known universe. The Flood. The Flood are a parasitic race who reproduce in their hosts via spore, mutating them into carriers and adding them to the broader Flood consciousness. Both humans and Covenant are susceptible to the Flood, and late in the game we get some great three-way knife fights as the Covenant and human forces both realise that they’re totally fucked. The conflict between the humans and the Covenant actually becomes relatively petty, a mere inter-species war set against the end of all living things. Again, it’s a scale that feels very religious in its scope. Before the introduction of the Flood, Halo exists on a level of narrative complexity roughly equivalent to Doom. There are humans (good), and not-humans (bad), and they fight. With the introduction of the Flood, the player has to reevaluate the whole basic conflict. Is it really that important, in the grand scheme of things? That reevaluation again draws on religious ideas, religious practices. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? What’s the value of winning a war in the face of the apocalypse?
I should reiterate at this point, even though I think a religious lens on Halo is interesting, I don’t think the game is trying to retell, like, the Jesus story or something. If we tried to shoehorn it into being a retelling of a religious story, there are elements that wouldn’t totally make sense. If humans and Covenant do represent body and soul, why are they fighting? What’s the allegory there? No: it’s not The Matrix, and I’m not trying to treat it like that. The point is that by considering these resonances, by foregrounding the religious aspect, we get further insight into the story in front of us. It’s less about what it means, and more about how it means, about the language of reference and citation that gives the game its creative vocabulary. One of the core sources for Halo is the Noah story, where a flood wipes out a sinful and fallen humanity. Even though Halo isn’t trying to tell the Noah story in any coherent form, you can see how the major building blocks of the narrative were drawn from it. Halo is a game about how the Flood nearly caused the end of everything. It’s about how the big things in life can come to seem really small. In order to show that contrast, they have the narrative twist – a war escalating to the death of all living things – but also a vocabulary drawn from religious sources. It’s cosmic in scope, but also mythological, telling a story in the oldest style with our newest medium. It’s about the forthcoming apocalypse and what we do with the time we have left. Also the Grunts run around screaming if you stick them with a plasma grenade, which – there are worse ways to spend your time.