Let me pitch you a story. Two cultures are fighting a long, vicious war. There are severe casualties on both sides, and there’s seemingly no hope of a peaceful resolution. In the midst of this war, one soldier discovers signs of an impending apocalyptic threat, closer to a natural disaster than anything else. The inter-group conflict shrinks into petty politics, dwarfed in size and scope by this threat to the very foundations of civilization, and the soldier must figure out how to unite everyone – friend and foe – in the face of what is otherwise likely to be a mass extinction event. You probably get where I’m going with this – I’m describing the plot of the first Halo. Humans are fighting against the Covenant, and Master Chief stumbles across the Flood, a parasite or infection that threatens to consume the entire galaxy. We actually see this sort of structure in a few other places – most notably in Game of Thrones, where the conflict between various kings and kingdoms is dwarfed by the existential threat of the White Walkers, but also in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series, from the mid to late 2000s.
In all of these examples, one of the key concepts is the absolute indifference of the existential threat to petty politics or squabbling tribalism. The existential threat is above such things. It doesn’t have any ideology or exploitable allegiances: it’s just coming to kill you, indiscriminately and without preference, prejudice, or even any sense of cruelty. It’s not malevolent: it just is. The parallels to natural processes or natural disasters are almost unavoidable. You might remember all the articles reading the White Walkers as an analogy for climate change, for example. That’s not to say that Halo was about climate change, but it does depict the Flood as a sort of amoral natural disaster, rather than a cognizant enemy agent. Even the name is suggestive – you might as well have called them the Earthquake.
Given all of that, what do we make of the Gravemind? The Gravemind is a sort of evolved form of the Flood: under normal circumstances, the Flood are essentially parasites, but if enough of them get together they can create a sort of superorganism known as a Gravemind. One particular Gravemind serves as an antagonist in, like, the second half of the original Halo trilogy: it appears briefly in Halo 2, captures Cortana, and then most of Halo 3 revolves around fighting both the Gravemind and the final surviving leader of the Covenant. In contrast to our earlier appraisal of the natural-disaster depiction of the Flood, the Gravemind acts strategically and deliberately, briefly working with Master Chief towards a shared mutual goal, and then trying to kill him as soon as the goal is achieved. In terms of the interactions between parties, the Gravemind changes the Flood from this unthinking unfeeling natural apocalypse into yet another quibbling faction. As the Arbiter says after Gravemind’s betrayal, “We trade one villain for another.” There’s a sense of interchangeability here – another day, another bad guy, politicking and backstabbing just like everybody else. Even more fundamentally, the Gravemind provides a Self for other characters to interact with. He emerges as the spokesperson for what should be the intergalactic version of climate change.
And I want to clarify this a little bit, because I did make the comparison to Game of Thrones earlier, which obviously has the Night King leading the White Walkers much as the Gravemind leads the Flood. The difference, I think, with someone like the Night King (at least in the show) is that he more serves as a symbol of the Walkers. He’s a figurehead, a sort of short-hand for the threat as a whole, rather than a person in the normal relational sense. The Night King never sends messengers to make a deal with Cersei, right. He doesn’t behave in any way that makes you think of him as having personhood or a sense of individuality. He is a visualisation of a primal force, of something too subhuman to understand diplomacy or strategy. The Gravemind, on the other hand, is much more analogous to a general or a political leader. He has a sense of personhood in that he cuts deals to his own advantage. He is specifically not an emblem of an unstoppable tidal wave of amoral, uncaring natural disaster. He’s a kid on the playground being like ‘hey let’s gang up and punch Benny.’
Is that such a problem? Well, it depends on what you like. Personally, I really liked the original Halo, and I’m not enamoured by this development in the depiction of the Flood. It makes things too familiar. It mutates this terrifying, incomprehensible destructive force into a creature that’s open to negotiation. At the same time, this type of development is just what happens when you move from a one-off story into an expanded and increasingly complex fictional universe. As the original text becomes more and more revered, extra significance is tacked on to each of its elements. Characters swell to take on an almost mystical significance, often becoming more powerful or special in the fictional universe in proportion to their importance to the fanbase. The Flood can’t just be the Flood – they have to have a mysterious mystical figurehead who rattles off faux-philosophical nonsense about how powerful and important they are. This is a pretty common problem across all sorts of franchises – I won’t point at any specific examples, but I’m sure you can come up with your own. We’re going to talk about this process at length over the next little while, actually – it’s the shift in tone that we see between the original Halo, which is essentially a self-contained classic hero’s journey (a la Joseph Campbell), and something like Halo 4 or Reach, which are both games focused on building out the minutiae of the Halo universe. Halo 3 is a game perched on the border between those two moments. It’s the culmination of the original trilogy, and the beginning of the extended universe, the moment just before the deluge of novels and comic books and all the rest of it. It’s such a perfect example of a franchise in transition – and the Gravemind is the character who shows that transition most clearly. Gravemind shows us where we’re going, and what we’ve left behind. How you feel about that is really up to you.