Gaming’s Forever War: Halo 2 and 9/11
Humanity is fighting a war and they are losing. The war has come to earth. The year is 2552 and the alien alliance known as the Covenant have arrived at Earth with a massive fleet. Tales of heroism and sacrifice dominate human propaganda films and news feeds. None moreso than those of the legendary Spartan warriors, super soldiers clothed in impenetrable armour and wielding might weapons in the fight against the alien menace. As the orbital battle above planet Earth reaches its climax the last Spartan, John 117 the Master Chief, prepares to give the Covenant back their bomb.
Halo 2 came out in 2004, three years after 9/11 changed the global political landscape. It was the beginning of the Forever War on Terror. In the Halo universe the Forever War against the Covenant has been raging for decades. Humanity’s expansion efforts were curtailed by colonial rebellions in the early decades of the 26th Century. An encounter with the fundamentalist, xenophobic Covenant sets the alien alliance on a warpath. It’s only goal: the total and complete annihilation of the human race.
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Halo like many games, films and books was complicated by the destruction of the twin towers by Al Qaeda terrorists in 2001. The first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, was better known for its tight-as-a-screw combat and lush open-ended levels than it was for its story and lore. All that changed with 9/11. The opening of the second game is one of the best levels in Halo 2. Set on a space station where the Master Chief and Sergeant Johnson are to receive medals for destroying the interstellar super weapon and ring world Halo the arrival of the Covenant scuppers the ceremony and the Master Chief rolls into action.
The fight across the station is fast, frenetic and brutal. Jackals snipe from distant gantries. Grunts run amok as their Elite sergeants bellow for order. Hunters kill entire squads in seconds. It is chaotic but it’s fun and teaches new and returning players how to properly control the Master Chief. Ostensibly the mission is timed as the Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana need to hunt down and defuse a bomb the Covenant have placed on the station.
The Master Chief disarms the bomb with seconds to spare. What follows is a moment countless first-person shooters would desperately try to emulate. It was only ever equaled by the atomic blast in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The Master Chief is a man of few words, little personality and no expression. Yet the following exchange enshrined him as a gaming icon.
Master Chief: Sir, permission to leave the station?
Lord Hood: For what purpose Master Chief?
Master Chief: To give the Covenant back their bomb.
You can watch the whole sequence below but the symbolism is pretty clear. Maybe the development team at Bungie weren’t explicitly thinking of “9/11 but this time we win” on an Islamic inspired race of aliens but it was probably in the back of their mind. A lone warrior volunteers to martyr himself. The two Long Sword fighters fly by to give the Master Chief an entry way. The hero surviving a fiery death guided by a voice in his head. Using the aliens’ own equipment to destroy one of their monumental symbols of superiority. I dare you not to see the symbolism and I dare you not to be confused by it.
The scene is undoubtedly an Epic Gaming Moment but it’s also the turning point in the Halo series. The big levels stayed and so did the Master Chief and all his allies. But the politics changed to something weirder. For a long time governments failed to realise the propagandist possibilities of games. How many people joined the military because of Modern Warfare? Is piloting a drone not the exact same as playing a flight simulator only with added child murder? 9/11 caused a massive brain fart in American and, to a lesser degree, world politics. You don’t have to look far to find it.
Making sense of what has happened in the 18 years since 9/11 is a Herculean effort. It’s easier to examine it through an artistic lens. By examining smaller, more personal stories of the War on Terror we can build a bigger picture of all these things. That is, we could if most of the art wasn’t absolutely batshit insane or stupid as well. The story of the first Halo trilogy didn’t change all that much although the series was never planned as a trilogy which probably explains some of its confused world building and storytelling.
Suggested Reading: The Death of the Halo Killer | Haze at 10.
Halo 2 ends as the Covenant undergoes a religious schism. A rogue faction of Elites lead by the Arbiter go to war against the rest of the Covenant. They side with the humans after recognising that the true danger are the Prophets and their desire to wipe out all sentient life in order to stop the threat of the undead Flood. Halo 2 begins with the destruction of a Covenant monument by a human demi-God using a flying bomb. The game ends with the Master Chief, said demi-God, falling to Earth on a Flood infested Covenant ship. Something, somewhere got lost in translation.
The single player in both Halo 2 and 3 suffered because of the game’s politics. The developers needed villains for the sequel and they needed a fleshed out motive. They just needed these things at the worst possible time. Add to that a rushed development time and hey presto you have alien space Islam where its weakest members commit explosive suicide when their leaders die. From a gameplay perspective Halo 2 is as tight as a submarine. It’s story is a boat with a wide hole in the bottom.
When 9/11 happened it seemed as if the world stopped and then picked up speed. You could say the same of the gaming industry after Halo 2 dropped. The game and its sequel, prequels and other media dominated the 2000s. Developers made their own FPS games to try and topple the franchise. Haze failed miserably. Kill Zone was successful in its own right but it was Call of Duty that really brought things up a notch. CoD had clear-cut politics and a patriotic streak straight out of Bush Jr’s playbook. Halo had aliens with energy swords and doctrine as windy as an Irish country road. It was clear where things were going.