The “expanded universe” concept is hardly unique to Halo. A lot of big nerd franchises have them, most notable, perhaps, Star Wars, which had so many ancillary stories and a big enough following for those stories that LucasFilm had to actually issue a statement last year declaring that it was so unwieldy that everything aside from the movies and TV shows would be disregarded in order to make way for the new films.
The typical modus operandi for these sorts of sprawling franchises is to compartmentalize everything in hopes that each individual piece works on its own. So in Star Wars, you had six movies that stood by themselves; you had the Clone Wars TV series that told its own story; and you had individual books or book series that you could get into without reading other things for the most part. And so forth.
The idea is to be accessible, so that the people you want to give you money can do so without necessarily feeling like they missed out by not going through every bit of material that had previously been produced. But if you did manage to get through it all, it should in theory be rewarding. Having more context and a deeper understanding is great.
Halo’s expanded universe actually began before the first game was released—the novel Halo: The Fall of Reach was released in 2001 a couple of weeks ahead of Halo: Combat Evolved on Xbox. But even though the series is no stranger to having a pile of ancillary materials, Halo 1, 2 and 3 stood on their own as a saga that you really didn’t need anything else to follow, and Reach served as a standalone prequel in the same way.
But then series creator Bungie, the developer of those four games, handed the series off to Microsoft’s 343 Industries, a company established for the sole purpose of being caretaker of Halo forever. It hasn’t been a smooth transition, because they’ve ramped up that expanded universe in such a way that the new games they’re creating don’t hold up at all on their own. This is a huge problem with Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians, which contain stories that make no sense and hold little meaning if your experience with the series never extended beyond the video games.
What 343 has done is, more or less, institute a rather intense transmedia storytelling initiative. The story of Halo is a grand one and always has been, and there’s no harm in fleshing it out beyond the games. But it falls apart because these two games depend heavily on information that was introduced in ancillary stories but makes no attempt to introduce them anew or even contextualize them for the sake of players who didn’t read the Forerunner Saga novels or watch Halo: Nightfall or go through literally every other piece of Halo media that exists (because most of it becomes explicitly relevant at some point or other). Even though that group of players, one could safely assume, is much larger than the number of people who do dive into all this extra stuff.
Halo 4’s most egregious sin was the Didact, the main villain of the game. If you start playing Halo 4 never having heard of the Didact, you’re probably going to be pretty lost for a large part of that game. This is a character introduced in hidden terminals in Halo 3 and who is a major character in the Forerunner Saga books. Halo 4 assumes you know who he is—Cortana casually mentions his name and Master Chief never really bothers to ask her for an explanation even though knowing who the Didact is is key to understanding the plot. When the Didact shows up he starts making speeches describing some old vendetta I knew nothing about and thus couldn’t follow. Fortunately, Didact monologues at you so much that you can get the picture, but there’s a long stretch where I was really confused about what the hell was going on. In fact, I had to turn on subtitles just to figure out what Cortana was calling him because “Didact” is a pretty out-there word and i really didn’t know what she was saying.
Halo 4 is full of that kind of confusion because it serves more as a sequel to the Forerunner Saga than it does the previous Halo games. Halo 5: Guardians, bizarrely enough, opens with a mission that serves to wrap up the plot of the Spartan Ops co-op mode from Halo 4, in which Dr. Halsey was kidnapped by Jul ‘Mdama, the leader of a Covenant splinter faction that is in open rebellion against the Arbiter. As Halo 5 begins, you and Fireteam Osiris are charged with rescuing her. It’s disorienting because who the hell even played Spartan Ops? Despite having its own story that was apparently important, the mode was little more than a multiplayer-focused retread through areas from the main Halo 4 campaign, which itself supported co-op and was intact from the start, whereas half of Spartan Ops was released episodically as extra downloadable content. And yet Halo 5 starts up by talking about the allegedly important and famous Jul ‘Mdama, star of Spartan Ops and a couple of novels.
Speaking of ‘Mdama, later in the game you’re dropped into the middle of the previously mentioned war between his “Covenant Remnant” and the Arbiter’s forces, and nobody ever really explains the situation. In looking ‘Mdama up to find out why anyone cares about him I discovered that his Covenant Remnant are those Covenant folks I had to fight with on Requiem in Halo 4. They weren’t explained in that game either except, yes, in Spartan Ops.
There’s a way to do this, and there’s the way 343 does it. Look at Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, for an example besides Star Wars—you can watch Captain America: Winter Soldier without having seen dozens of episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but having watched the show gives added context and enjoyment to movie viewers. Halo 4 and 5 are badly told stories in large part because they assume you know all the background for everything in them and don’t bother spending time on even cursory recaps. Microsoft and 343 also fail to properly push what those ancillary materials mean to the stories in these games. In effect, every bit of the Halo universe is on equal footing, but they aren’t actively trying to make sure everyone knows it.
This year alone they’ve released three novels, a novella and a bunch of issues of the monthly Halo: Escalation comics. It’s all Important Stuff that is never publicly emphasized the way the games are. You don’t see Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, aka the public face of Xbox, tweeting incessantly about these novels every time they put out a new one. You don’t see news blasts letting us know that these things will be hugely relevant to our enjoyment of the next game.
Since they aren’t presented to us as being on equal footing, we assume they aren’t and go our merry way until a new game comes out that makes no sense. 343 is two for two in that respect now because in lieu of proper story development and presentation they use all this other side stuff as a crutch, as if they assume that anybody who really cares about plot in a Halo game probably read or watched all that stuff anyway. And given the general reception to Halo 5 thus far, maybe they’re right. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect better.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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