What is it about the Halo franchise that gives it such universal appeal? Aside from the accessible nature of the games and their satisfying gameplay, is there a greater force at work that captures the imagination of all who play it?
Halo certainly defined the console shooter with its easy to grasp controls and competitive multiplayer integration. It wrenched the FPS crown from the PC and showed everyone that games requiring accuracy and hair-trigger reactions could be played in the living room. Taking an experience like that into a social space is what really struck a universal chord and broadened the game's appeal into a new demographic.
Thanks to this gaming no longer belonged exclusively to us unwashed nerds and geeks. Halo brought it into the realm of the casual guy who previously didn’t care about games.
But popularity alone hasn’t given Halo that magical essence I believe it has. Although the space opera storyline that the first game introduced isn’t particular unique, it had a hidden depth that’s been slowly mined since its creation.
This depth is partly due to the clever use of backstory throughout the games and novels. The original Halo gave very little away as it plunged the player into the action. Putting story behind content in this fashion, much like Half-Life 2, can create an enticing universe that captures the mind and fires the imagination.
All this was achieved without being particularly original or revolutionary. Drawing on so many different sources can lead to the end product having no soul at all – a zombified mash of different influences and inspirations.
Yet Halo pieced together its lore with care and precision - drawing on ancient mythology and history for the SPARTAN programme and the over-arching storyline giving it a certain authenticity. There are also obvious analogies with the parasitic and viral creatures The Flood, working the same effect as the cataclysmic flood of the Bible.
Religion is also heavily referenced, with the Covenant’s fanatic devotion to the Prophets being the source of their hatred for humanity. Interestingly the human side of the conflict never shows any religious leanings. Perhaps because the Covenant’s spiritual structure could be seen as an analogy for radical Islamic beliefs, despite their obvious alien nature.
There are also a host of modern references that load the games and backstory with more texture. Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ and Iain M Banks ‘The Culture’ stand out the most. Nothing has been wholesale ripped from any of these sources - even the Ringworld series of books were not the first to describe a world on a circular ring.
It is these influences and the way they are used that make the Halo franchise such a strong and irresistible entity. Playing the games or reading the novels not only gave a great gaming experience but it also uncovers more of the entire Halo universe as well – if you look for it.
Of course, hitting the player with strong obvious characters helps to draw in devotees too. Although Master Chief is far too one-dimensional for my tastes, his cardboard personality allows players to inhabit his space and become him easily. In the books and especially the prequel –The Fall of Reach by Eric Nyland – the character of John is far more interesting and complex. But the decision to neuter his personality is completely understandable.
Along with the Master Chief, no franchise would be complete without a strong female character. Instead of a real love interest that so many stories compulsively put in, Halo made an artificial intelligence hologram the focus of pre & post-pubescent fantasy. Cortana was the sassy girl-next-door partner that we assumed would never age or die, betray the main character or even fall in love. Assumptions that the game successfully turned on its head and played around with in Halo’s 2 & 3.
These characters, along with the themes of duty and sacrifice, give Halo its core essence that stretches beyond the FPS trilogy. The far reaching consequence of this means the series can continue on even without its main character.
This has been demonstrated by the recent Halo Wars - showing that a successful Halo game could be made without the Master Chief and his familiar cohorts. Although it was a dramatic step away from the first-person shooter into the RTS-lite genre, it still drew on the same lore and backstory giving it that special Halo magic.
The next iteration will be Halo: ODST - a game that completely eschews the SPARTAN association for a less superhuman focus. Beyond that the novels will continue and the story will evolve and be made richer. When the Master Chief returns (launching Microsoft’s new console I would imagine) he’ll step back into a universe brimming with its own stories and experiences.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Halo is the Star Wars of the videogame generation. It will have its detractors and it will constantly be individually bettered by other media, but its collective meaning gives it a lasting legacy that ensures its continuation for many years.