The Hidden Meaning in Halo
Watch as we crack into the HALO franchise – one of the best selling video game franchises of ALL TIME! Who is the master Chief? With more than sixty five million game titles sold, it’s kind of crazy that this question still remains an enigma. But it is sort of THE reason to play the game (beyond blowing up aliens and riding around in warthogs). Master Chief is often regarded as one of the top rated video game characters of all time—but how is that possible if we know so little about United Nations Space Command, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117?
The Hidden Meaning of Halo
Part 1: Identity and the Master Chief
Part 2: Fundamentalism and the Covenant
Part 3. Colonization and Halo.
Edited by Patrick Stenglein
Written by Matt Reichle
The Hidden Meaning of Halo
Part 1: Identity and the Master Chief
Hey everyone. This is Jared, one of the creators here at Wisecrack. With Halo 5 out now, we thought there’s no better time to explore some the more interesting things happening under the surface of this blockbuster franchise. So without further adieu, Welcome to this episode on Identity and Religion in Halo.
Who is the master Chief? With more than sixty five million game titles sold, it’s kind of crazy that this question still remains an enigma. But it is sort of THE reason to play the game (beyond blowing up aliens and riding around in warthogs). Master Chief is often regarded as one of the top rated video game characters of all time—but how is that possible if we know so little about United Nations Space Command, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117?
I suppose the problem starts with a much more complicated issue: Identity itself. One’s identity is never cut and dry, easily understandable. Identity is always messy, unclear, and ambiguous.
Not only is Master Chief’s mysterious because we never see his face, there’s more: his name is essentially a rank and number, and also because he isn’t really alone in all that armor.
As Master Chief’s AI, Cortana is your guide through the Halo universe—she progresses John through the game, explains most of the story line, and is also a sort of quasi lover for the Chief.
It might be possible to read HALO as a feminist text by discussing the hybrid space created by John and Cortana’s cyborg existence ala Donna Harroway and her Cyborg Manifesto (Yes that’s a real thing go look it up… actually we could probably do an entire episode on just THIS/ Oh academia..) but Halo 4 pretty much shits all over that possibility when the message essentially becomes:.
Cortana is a damsel in distress, who as a woman shouldn’t think too much because… well… that is dangerous (Literally… Cortana’s rampancy causes her to think her self… to death).
Cortana flickering in Halo 4 during Rampancy—freaking out.
But I guess the important thing is that everything is resolved because she serves her man well. Cortana’s entire story line is supposed to be redeemed by getting to touch the chief just once. Something about men in uniform, am I right?
Perhaps identity in Halo can be best understood through the lens of American Political Scientist and Philosopher William Connolly. He describes identity formation as a process of becoming—where a person is taught and chooses how they wish to be through an encounter with difference.
Essentially—people not only define themselves by copying what is deemed cool or acceptable, but also by distancing themselves from things deemed unacceptable by society. It is through this process of differentiating that people form communities and self identify- whether it be as a mother, son, queer, garbage man, white, soldier, writer, gamer, etc.
Identity, in some modality or other, is an indispensable feature of human life. Let’s feign these truths to be self-evident: that each individual needs an identity; that every stable way of life invokes claims to collective identity that enter in various ways into the interior identifications and resistances of those who share it; that no god created humanity so that contending claims to identity will coalesce into some harmonious whole or be dissolved into some stable, recognizable, and transcendent principle; that the singular hegemony of any set of identities requires the subordination or exclusion of that which differs from them.
Which brings us to the essential aspect that permeates the narrative of Halo as well as the second section of this video: fear of the unknown, or as fancy philosophers like to say: fear of “the other.”
An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity. Entrenched in this indispensable relation is a second set of tendencies … to congeal established identities into fixed forms, thought and lived as if their structure expressed the true order of things. . . . Identity requires difference in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty. Identity is relational and collective. My personal identity is defined through the collective constituencies with which I identify or am identified by others (as white, male, American, a sports fan, and so on); it is further specified by comparison to a variety of things I am not. Identity, then, is always connected to a series of differences that help it be what it is. The initial tendency is to describe the differences on which you depend in a way that gives privilege or priority to you… Built into the dynamic of identity is a polemical temptation to translate differences through which it is specified into moral failings or abnormalities. The pursuit of identity feeds the polemicism Foucault describes in the epigraph at the beginning of this essay. You need identity to act and to be ethical, but there is a drive to diminish difference to complete itself inside the pursuit of identity. There is thus a paradoxical element in the politics of identity. It is not an airtight paradox conforming to a textbook example in logic, but a social paradox that might be negotiated. It operates as pressure to make space for the fullness of self-identity for one constituency by marginalizing, demeaning, or excluding the differences on which it depends to specify itself. The depth grammar of a political theory is shaped, first, by the way in which it either acknowledges or suppresses this paradox, and, second, by whether it negotiates it pluralistically or translates it into an aggressive politics of exclusive universality.
It’s important to remember the historical context surrounding Halo. Premiering in November 2001, it would perhaps be naïve to assume that game is free of the ideological politics of the time. Coming directly after the 9/11 attacks—Halo mirrors several elements of the current war on terrorism.
I mean, for one-the Arbiter—a disgraced warrior- is promised forgiveness and eternal salvation if he accepts a suicide mission. No elaboration necessary.
Whether it’s something like the Radical Islam at the center of the world trade center attacks or the fanatical Christianity that motivated the Oklahoma City federal building bombing- At the heart of terrorism is fundamentalism—or the belief that a particular creed or faith is objectively correct—and worth dying or killing for.
Fundamentalism, as conventionally understood in the country where the term was introduced, is a general imperative to assert an absolute, singular ground of authority; to ground your own identity and allegiances in this unquestionable source; to define political issues in a vocabulary of God, morality, or nature that invokes such a certain, authoritative source… Fundamentalism, then, is a political formula of self-aggrandizement through the translation of stresses and disturbances in your doctrine or identity into resources for its stabilization and aggrandizement. It converts stresses and strains in itself into evidence of deviation and immorality in the other; and it conceals the political dynamic of this strategy of self-protection by enclosing it in a vocabulary of God, nature, reason, nation, or normality elevated above the possibility of critical reflection. It is marked by the stringency of its exclusionary form and its insistence upon treating the putative sources of exclusion into certain, unquestionable dogmas.
It doesn’t take too much digging to draw parallels between the Covenant and fundamentalism.
A highly religious people guided by the teaching of a triumvirate of prophets : Truth, Mercy, and Regret, the Covenant are positioned as the games antagonist—sort of cosmic religious terrorists.
Religious dogmatism is essentially the guiding force behind the conflict in the games. The term “Covenant” itself is a reference to a pact between a chosen people and their god. The seven Halos rings are allusions to the seven seals of the apocalypse and the seven trumpet blasts that bring about the end of the world.
The arch is a key component to activating the Halo ring—which is in part a reference to the covenant between Noah and God, as a way to survive the great flood.
Knowing that the flood was an unstoppable force—the forerunners created the arch and the halo rings as a way to survive the flood… get it? The arch is how you survive… the flood.
Captain Keyes serves as a sort of John the Baptist, Baptizing the Master Chief by giving him his first gun… and also like John the Baptist, Keyes loses his head.
Consider also the name we are given for the Master Chief is John 117. John Book one verse 17 of the King James bible reads “For the law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ.” Just as Jesus gives force to the law with his Eternal Grace, Master Chief gives force to the law with his overpowered pistol.
Given the multiple times that MC is resurrected at the end of each Halo game it’s not too much of a stretch to draw the comparison between Master Chief and the big JC. Yes- It doesn’t take a philosophy major to see the religious undertones in all of this.
The covenant worship the forerunners—an ancient alien race that constructed the Halo rings. The Covenant believe these rings were constructed for them as the chosen people or “reclaimers” of the forerunners mantel… Only by activating the rings will their people achieve eternal salvation.
Any threat to this salvation is met with violence. With humanity, the covenant are confronted with a race of people that make a similar claim to ascension and access to the divine. When confronted with an ideology in direct opposition of their own there are a few options—the covenant can accept that there are multiple claims to the Truth or they can exterminate any threats to their faith.
Connolly uses the term “Exclusive humanism” to describe the belief that people have when they assert that they have the god market cornered and everyone else can go to hell—literally.
But as Taylor says, the rise of “exclusive humanism” as a relatively popular option in Europe and, to a much lesser degree, in the United States, combines with extensive encounters with alternatives beyond Christianity and Judaism to intensity the effect. Under these conditions each constituency faces the task of affirming its existential creed without becoming overwhelmed with resentment by the fact that it faces living challenges to it at numerous sites and turns. This condition of existence increases the pressure to pour a spirituality of resentment into your faith and, beyond that, either to seek enclaves protected from these pressures or to translate this resentment into tactics of revenge against vulnerable constituencies whose very existence poses a threat to your self-confidence and self-assurance.
The Interplanetary war in Halo starts with an attack on a human colony planet called Harvest, where the Covenant attackers proclaim: “Your destruction is the will of the gods, and we are their instrument.”
Promised “The Great Journey” by the covenant prophets—the covenant elites, brutes, jackals, and other mobs fall in line and start blowing shit up. It turns out isn’t so much salvation as it is a cosmic death trap but that’s neither here not there.
When you take in to account the clearly deliberate names “Harvest” and “The Great Journey,” all this starts to sound less like religious fundamentalism and more like Manifest Destiny- or the idea behind the “civilizing” missions of early Colonial America.
“Harvest” is reminiscent of early colony life—the harvest of crops, thanksgiving, and the pilgrims that originally came to America are all part of the sort of story book version of American settlement that we were taught in grade school. When in reality, it was anything but a great journey or a children’s tale.
“The Great Journey” is salvation promised only for the advanced. For the covenant, the human race is primitive, and can’t ascend—they aren’t promised salvation.
This language of primitivism versus the rational or civilized goes all the way back to Descartes- Basically, it’s easier to subjugate and entire population when they are reduced to a status less than human—as inferior.
Addressing the problems of skepticism and solipsism led many philosophers into an epistemological thicket, but others dealt with these problems either by arguing that individual mind cannot be understood apart from the social interaction that gives rise to it, or simply by assuming that other people do have minds of one sort or another. Some of the latter doubted, however, whether commoners, women, and New World natives possessed rational minds, that is to say, minds like those of modern, educated, male Europeans. Contemporary critics charge that those thinkers ratified an ethno-logo-theo-phallo-centrism that justified subordination of non-Western peoples, women, and lower class males, whose subjectivity allegedly lacks the rationality necessary for inclusion in the class of fully human beings.
Similar to the dynamic between the humans and the Covenant, The construction of American Sovereignty—of national identity creation- comes partly from the displacement, assimilation, and eradication of the native cultures of North America. Stripping of land rights from the Natives was justified in part through the dehumanization of their people—they were uncivilized savages, primitives, brutes, heathens—not people.
The major event that frames Halo is the fall of Reach—a human colony laid to waste by the Covenant. By following a UNSC ship named “the Iroquois,” the covenant are able to find Reach. Iroquois ought to sound familiar, it’s a native American nation that was part of the “Seven Year’s War” or “the French and Indian War” (to Americans).
There’s some Irony here in naming a ship intended to facilitate space colonization after an indigenous nation. In fact, a kind of strange historical reversal takes place—the UNSC, with their space marines serve as a sort of extension of American colonialism—and yet, the very same fleet positions itself as the colonized victim of the covenant.
If, as Connolly says, identity is constructed through differentiating ourselves from others, then mixing imagery from Religious Extremism and Manifest Destiny is perhaps the peak of irony for the creators. For the “otherness” the west fears in Religious- specifically Islamic- fundamentalism is not only embodied in the covenant but also in our very own history of colonization.
Perhaps by projecting our fear of the other on the covenant and flood, the developers in turn, make us reflect on the fact that our own history, is not so different from the evil aliens that we all love to blow to shit- game after game after game.