Here’s a question: is Halo 2 xenophobic? For the original Halo, the answer is pretty straightforwardly yes – you play an American military force fighting off a zealous alien religion. There’s no communication, no diplomacy, just war. And given that Halo came out a couple months after 9/11 – I’m not saying that the two are directly linked, but it kinda seems like the idea of war with religious aliens was already in the public consciousness. In Halo 2, however, that discussion is more complicated. Originally released in 2004, the year of Bush’s re-election, Halo 2 follows a disgraced Covenant commander as he recognises the lies and manipulations of his religious overlords and comes to reject his loyalty to their cause. Master Chief, the hero of the first game, still has a significant presence, but I’d compare his role to something like that of Mad Max in Fury Road. He’s there, and he’s probably technically still the main character, but the primary character arc belongs to somebody else.
So you split your time in Halo 2 between playing as Master Chief and playing as the Arbiter, the disgraced Covenant leader. That’s strike one against the xenophobia charge. It’s making you experience the war from the perspective of one of the aliens. It’s making that character into a hero – especially because this is 2004, right, and the prevailing understanding of games is as empowerment narratives, where you’re cool, and your character is cool, and you’re both heroes, and you save the day. We obviously still have that as a major thread of video games today, but it’s a lot more nuanced now. We’ve seen games like Modern Warfare, with its scenes of disempowerment (you play multiple characters who die miserably) and moral dubiousness (as when British soldiers are shown torturing a war criminal in a barn). But even that didn’t come out until 2007. A game that allows you to play as a heroic alien in 2004 – it’s pretty aggressively non-xenophobic. Xenophilic, I think?
Halo 2 also explores the tensions and disagreements within the Covenant races. You learn about factions and historic splinters (the Grunt rebellion, the taming of the Hunters). You see the politicking and the shifts in power, as over the course of the game the Elites (including the Arbiter) are displaced from their prestige position by the Brutes, a newly introduced Covenant race. That splintering serves as a second strike against the charge of xenophobia. The Covenant are not treated as monolithic: they are a diverse, often fractious bunch of races brought together under one banner. They have histories and disagreements, and there are tensions that sometimes erupt in inter-racial violence. Their social and historical complexity makes them more human – or at least more relatable. There are also more opportunities for you to figure out which aliens you like and which you don’t. Which ones humanity can align with, and which ones are the true enemies. In the year where Saddam Hussein was handed over to an Iraqi court for crimes against humanity, Halo 2 starts to distinguish between the good religious aliens and the bad ones.
And yet the game still hesitates on depicting certain things. In the latter half of the game, a cautious truce is struck between Master Chief and the Arbiter. Both of them recognise the threat of the Brutes, who are supporting the Prophets’ attempt to activate Halo and destroy all life in the universe. The two are quickly separated, but continue from that point with the same goal: fight the Brutes, kill the Prophets, save the universe. Now, there isn’t really a whole lot of communication between the Arbiter and the rest of the Elites. The Arbiter doesn’t get a chance to tell anyone what’s up or that Master Chief is actually kinda helping them, in an enemy-of-my-enemy kinda way. So during the Master Chief levels, you continue to fight and kill Elites – perhaps with some degree of regret, but they don’t know that they should stop fighting you, so you gotta take them out. Curiously, though, the Arbiter never ends up in the same position. He goes to an environment that humans are in, and Master Chief definitely doesn’t have time to tell the humans that the Arbiter is actually sort of an ally now – but it doesn’t matter. The Arbiter never gets to fight any humans. You can find them, but they’re always already dead. You never fight or kill them yourself. I mean, you can fight Flood-infected humans, but they’re not humans any more, so they don’t really count. And it’s not as if the game shies away from encounters with human technology and combat styles either. During the Arbiter levels, you fight against human vehicles like Warthogs and Scorpions – but they’re being driven by Flood. There are human encampments, with mounted machine gun turrets and all the rest of it, but it’s all manned by Flood. You don’t ever fight any human enemies.
So if Halo 2 is xenophobic, it’s a more refined, complicated form than what we find in the original Halo. The religious aliens are broken up into groups – good aliens and bad aliens. They’re fleshed out, made complex, given histories and internal tensions. You even play as a good alien. But even with all of that, the game still won’t allow you, in your role as Arbiter, to kill human soldiers. There are opportunities, but someone’s obviously made the conscious decision to disallow it. The humans are the good guys, so you can’t go round killing them. It would complicate things too much. You can kill off some of the good aliens, and that can be tragic and a bit sad, and you can even feel sorry for them, but that can’t happen to the humans. Even when some aliens are marked out as nominally good, Halo 2 is still comfortable seeing them gunned down by the player. Their deaths are judged as still having entertainment value. That’s ultimately not the case for the humans. Halo 2 reserves their lives as too special, too important – you can’t just kill them and act like it’s an acceptable form of fun. When American soldiers die, it’s serious. Can’t just be shooting them for entertainment. They’re people, real people. It’s not right.
Ultimately it’s this weird nervousness about killing human soldiers that makes me suspect Halo 2 of xenophobia. Let’s – you know, let’s imagine for a minute that 9/11 and the War on Terror genuinely fed absolutely nothing into the creation of this game. Let’s just imagine that it was created in some cultural vacuum. If there wasn’t anything deeper to it, and if it was just a game about space marines and a bunch of random aliens, with no deeper cultural implications – wouldn’t the game be just as cavalier about human lives as it is about the aliens? If Master Chief can have this miscommunication and end up in tragic combat with good aliens who should really be his allies, why wouldn’t the same thing be shown in reverse for the Arbiter? Especially when there are so many opportunities for the Arbiter to be fighting humans – why are all the humans conveniently already dead by the time he reaches them? There’s this strong feeling of discomfort about shooting at human soldiers, and it kinda comes across like this game about religious space aliens is also kinda about a couple other things too. Oh – also, the Arbiter was originally named the Dervish, but the developers changed the name for fear of setting up an allegory about Islam and 9/11. Wouldn’t want to do that now, would we.