It was 2012, and I had just gotten off work and gone home to my tiny, one-bedroom apartment. I lived in a small place on the second story above a business with my boyfriend (now husband), Jordan, who was a self-professed nerd and gamer.
I had been a gamer as a kid but in my adulthood, I was no longer very active. I had grown up playing PlayStation mainstays such as Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and my personal favorite, Tomb Raider. Jordan had played most of those as well, but also continued to play games such as World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and a series of games I had of course heard about, but never felt the call to play, Halo.
Now it wasn’t that I had anything against Halo per se, I had just never been interested in any first-person shooters at all. I never imagined that these games could ever have much of a story to tell. And as a person who only played games where you could see your character, a FPS was a very strange concept to me
On this particular day, I arrived home, exhausted and probably smelling of popcorn (I worked at a movie theatre), and I plopped down on the couch deciding to watch as Jordan played a game that had just come out called Halo 4. I honestly couldn’t tell you if he had been excited waiting for the game to release, as I hadn’t followed the hype of this new Halo at all. I literally knew nothing about the game as I watched a man in green armor talk to a small, holographic blue woman. The first reaction I remember having was being absolutely blown away by the beautiful movie-like quality of the cutscene. Not to mention my surprise that there would even be anything like what I was seeing in a game like that; a captivating story…in a first-person shooter? In the cutscene I watched, the female character was despairing about something that had just happened, and the man seemed determined to soldier on while offering the comfort he was capable of offering.
“What’s the matter with her?” I asked Jordan.
Jordan glanced at me, maybe as surprised as I was maybe that I was showing interest in something I had never really cared about before.
“Well, she’s an AI and she’s at the end of her lifespan,” he explained.
I know I followed up with more questions, asking who she was to him, and had she been there throughout all the games that had come before, but I can pinpoint this exact moment as the one where I was hooked to the story of Halo.
So, I began to watch him play and started to ask him to wait for me so I could watch the story unfold. Jordan eventually suggested that since I was so invested, I should try to play the game myself. I was intimidated about trying it, having only played 3rd person games. And the long break I had taken from gaming had left me doubtful of any gaming skill I might have had, but I felt that I should at least try it once.
And let me tell you, that first experience was hilariously bad. Jordan fired up the game, put it on easy, and I started the first mission, Dawn. But soon enough I was running into walls, not really knowing how to control the camera, shooting wildly, having Jordan tell me in incredulous but amused tones, ”YES, you actually run out of ammo and need to pick up more” to my amazed query of “It doesn’t have unlimited ammo?!” (I guess in my mind, shooters would have at least one weapon with unlimited ammo.) So, I laughingly put down the controller, in the moment writing it off as a spectacularly failed experiment. But the game’s poignant story and my desire to play it myself stayed with me.
Other new games like the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot helped me gain the confidence of navigating current video game combat well enough to try Halo 4 again. I slowly tackled it on Normal difficulty and was able to soak in the story fully and completely. After Halo 4 opened my eyes to the rich story and lore that all of Halo had, I followed it up with 2, 3, and finally, Combat Evolved. I’ll be the first to say that it was a very strange order to play, and part of me sometimes wishes I’d seen the story unfold the way it was meant to. Luckily for me, I had Jordan to help fill me in on story if I was ever lost due to playing it out of order.
My first play through of Halo 4 was an experience that is still hard to beat. Mechanic-wise, I learned the absolute satisfaction that came from watching an Elite’s shield pop. I learned to aim for the glowing heads of the Promethean crawlers, how to drive Warthogs and Ghosts, and the badass feeling of jumping into a Mantis to decimate all the enemies in Chief’s path.
But there was so much more than that. I was introduced to the characters that would become some of my favorite characters in any work of fiction. I met the Master Chief and Cortana, and though I didn’t yet know them as well as someone who grew up playing 1-3, their connection and unique relationship had me fully invested in Chief’s quest to save his friend. Being on the shield world of Requiem never felt as lonely as it probably should have when you knew that Cortana was in Chief’s head, ready to offer conversation or nuggets of information. Their banter gave me a clear sense of who they both were. Interestingly, because I had started with 4, it was a little strange for me to go back and play 1-3 where Chief never talks in gameplay at all.
In addition to loving the two protagonists, I think that Halo 4 is breathtakingly beautiful. To this day, I am amazed that it was an Xbox 360 game and not a next gen title. All the environments were interesting and unique; from the dilapidated UNSC ship, Forward Unto Dawn, to the lush jungles of Requiem, all the way to the Mantle’s Approach as it menacingly hovered above Earth. I enjoyed the cool blues and fiery oranges that were the color scheme for all things Promethean in Halo 4. I also thought the human characters were very realistic and life-like especially for games of the time. You could legitimately see the emotions in their faces; belligerent rage in Captain Del Rio, the down-to-earth kindness in Thomas Lasky, and the cool authoritative confidence of Sarah Palmer.
You can’t talk about protagonists without also discussing Halo 4’s antagonist, The Didact. His character introduction was such an epic, yet foreboding moment as he descends from the Cryptum and his armor forms around him. I was 100% engaged whenever he would speak, and his monologue at the end of the game ranks up in my favorite monologues of all time. I will still get chills to this day when I hear it. The Didact’s hatred for humans interestingly contrasted with his growing, begrudging respect for the Master Chief as Chief stubbornly pressed through every obstacle. Chief faces off against this last surviving Forerunner who proves to be more than a match for him. The powerful villain ties beautifully into Halo 4’s theme that you can’t win every battle, and even Chief’s victories come at a great cost.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much I love that soundtrack. Having become familiar with all the Halo soundtracks after the fact, I will agree with the observation that 4’s is indeed different from the soundtracks that came before it. But it is without question my personal favorite. “117” is the perfect theme for Chief, heroic with a military flavor. And something I’ve found is that it sounds epic no matter the instrument! There is an 8-bit cover of 117 on YouTube that is simply amazing. “Requiem” is a beautiful piece that embodies the mystery and wonder of Requiem, and it’s easy for me to close my eyes while listening to it and picture the scene where Chief emerges from a cave to see floating Forerunner structures off in the distance. Possibly my favorite though, is “Arrival,” the music that plays in the last level, Midnight where Chief is desperately trying to stop the Didact before he composes everyone on Earth while also knowing that his close friend and battle companion hovers close to death. “Arrival” perfectly conveys the high personal stakes, and the music was so good I honestly didn’t mind dying as much to hear it start over.
After I beat the game, I wanted more. More Halo, more of these characters, and of this incredible universe. As I played through 1-3, Reach and ODST, I began to play them on harder and harder modes until I had beaten them all on legendary. Granted, there was a hiatus of me playing when I got deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-14, but while I was gone, I read the books in earnest, starting with The Fall of Reach and continuing until I had quite the collection.
Even after I went back to play and fall in love with the first three, it didn’t change the way I felt about 4. It even enhanced my feelings for it, as now I had a complete understanding of the history of Chief and Cortana, and the earned payoff of encountering an actual Forerunner in the Didact after having the Forerunners be a question mark for so long. I had even more of an appreciation for the Didact as a villain who was not only a physical match for Chief, but one who could easily defeat him. And having the first three as a foundation made it so I now had a better understanding of why Chief was so legendary even within the universe of the game as a rare Spartan II amongst other the Spartan IV’s. As emotionally invested as I was on that first play through, I was even more so after playing through 1-3. And the rest, as they say, is history. Going on 7 years after the release of Halo 4, I have continued to be fascinated with Halo. Not just the games, but the books, the graphic novels, the TV series, and the entire world in general. Halo continues to inspire me to make Halo-related art, and I have met the best people within the community that share my passion. I was able to meet Steve Downes and Jen Taylor, the people whose voices bring the Master Chief and Cortana to life at the amazing Halo Outpost event. And the whole time I spent at Outpost ranks as one of the best, most memorable experience of my life. As of this writing, we are at the precipice before we receive news of the newest installment, Halo Infinite, and I don’t have adequate words to explain how ridiculously excited I am to continue this story and see what will happen next.
And it all began with Halo 4.