My friend Josh loves Halo. For nineteen years now, whenever a new Halo has come out, I’ve gone round to his place, and we’ve spent a night playing through its campaign as a sort of ritual. I’m garbage at shooters, mind, and Josh insists on playing on Heroic mode, so the whole experience boils down to him protecting me from aliens while we chat about our lives. There are few occasions I look forward to more.
But the actual game is virtually background noise: it’s a way for us to grab a few hours together and really catch up, in the same way that golf provides many grim men with a place to talk about deals. But still, I can’t help it – so many years of memories have given me a sort of emotional screenburn; an immense, vague fondness for Halo that has barely anything to do with what happens in-game.
Of course, it helps that Halo games have level designs so intuitive you could follow them in your sleep, and action perfectly paced into little, challenging morsels, with set pieces just where you want them. Plus it has a science fiction backstory that’s competent enough to pay attention to, cutscenes that last exactly the right amount of time, and beautiful battlefields full of glowing, coloured lights.
But with the exception of its musical scores (which are genuinely outstanding at their best), there’s nothing I find truly exceptional about the Halo games – certainly nothing that justifies how much affection I feel for them. They’re just great, wholesome, all-rounders – and nothing about them exemplifies this lovely mediocrity so much as their protagonist, the Master Chief.
He’s a big green lunk with a motocross helmet, whose name is just two different words for boss. He talks in the most amazing gruff monotone, and he never really gets angry, or laughs, or makes mistakes. I’d struggle desperately to write much more than a paragraph describing his character, and yet it still feels uncannily like he has one. My wife really fancies him, and I totally get it.
A geezer wakes up in a borked spaceship and fixes it, before barrelling into that cheap, hackneyed cliche in which a lonely space person watches a grainy video of their distant spouse, recording a message with a burbly toddler. I have a baby girl and am very easy to emotionally manipulate, but still this seemed very pointless.
Anyway, it’s then – nearly two and a half minutes into the trailer – that the important thing happens. The geezer looks out into space and discovers Master Chief floating outside the window, like a big metal carrier bag in a canal. Discovering the Chief is hibernating, the geezer jumpstarts his special armour… and the camera switches to Chief’s-eye view! This does not transition into gameplay footage, however, prompting roars of frustration from many when it slips back to third person. We see a halo, hear the halo monks sing, and the Chief instructs the geezer to get ready to have a fight, before jumping into a nimbus of purple light. Cortana says something spooky over a big hologram, and that’s that.
But for me, the job was done. It was all summed up in a text from Josh in the early hours of this morning, linking to the trailer with the message “Chief, I’ve missed you so!”. That was all this trailer needed to do: remind us that (for whatever unfathomable reason) we miss the Chief, but also that we will get to spend time with him soon.
It’s the Apotheosis of the mascot concept: just as the grinning face of the Colonel looming over a flyover promises the taste of hot chicken just moments away, so does the Chief, floating in space alongside four haunting piano notes, promise more of whatever Halo means to us. As Alice Bee put it brilliantly as we watched the Microsoft presser, “remember the army man? You like the army man!”
I like the army man. And it doesn’t really matter what adventure he’ll be on this time, either. When the day comes, I’ll head over to Josh’s. We’ll order two A1 set meals from the local Chinese takeaway, just like we have done every Halo for the last two decades, and then we’ll send his sons to bed and get to work. No trailer could change my expectations of that night one bit — I’ve seen the motocross helmet, and so I know it’ll be perfect yet again, no matter what the game is like.
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