There are Halo fans, and then there are Halo fans. There are gamers who preorder the game as soon as such an opportunity is available, spend months patiently awaiting its release, attend the midnight distribution to acquire their copy, and rush home to spend hours blitzing through campaign missions. That's devotion, right? Not even close.
The Halo franchise has made a hefty impact on culture worldwide, most significantly Western culture, and millions across the globe have experienced the wonder of turning on the Xbox and hearing that timeless, haunting Gregorian melody which precludes the coming joyride. It's only natural that within the fan base there would be people who take the concept of being a "fan" to another level entirely. While many are "Normal mode" fans, these individuals would be best classified as "Legendary," or dare I say "Mythic mode" fans-- those who go above and beyond the call of duty (no pun intended) to express their love for Halo. They flock to conventions outfitted in homemade armor, fixed and painted to resemble Spartan MJOLNIR as closely as possible, or perhaps one of the notorious ODST body suits. They set up online wikis and create thousands of articles, authoring fanfictions and providing new and amazing ways for one to glimpse into the Halo universe. They spend hard-earned money on figures and memorabilia and study the Halo novels as if they are preparing to write a dissertation on the Master Chief himself. While some would scoff at these behaviors-- "What's the point?" they snort, shaking their heads-- perhaps we should take a closer look at what makes these fans tick.
Oh, we all know why people love Halo. It was one of the first FPS games of its kind, and its unique array of characters and concepts drew the curious in like moths to a flame. After Combat Evolved, the sequels came, then prequels and in-betweens. The multiplayer features introduced in Halo 2 were revolutionary, summoning players to get online and kill each other's Spartan and Elite avatars in thousands of creative, explosive ways. But what makes people loyal to Halo other than an interesting and challenging game experience?
First off, there is the Master Chief. His identity as a supersoldier is explained and explored in the novels surrounding Combat Evolved, which include The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund, The Flood by William C. Dietz, and First Strike, also by Eric Nylund. Taken at age six and trained to be the best soldier known to humanity, the Master Chief, whose real name is John, is the essence of brute force and unerring skill. Encased in shining olive-green armor and armed with a plethora of wicked-cool weapons, he's the ultimate death machine, and he is the vehicle by which the player is able to shoot, melee and frag Covenant aliens. There is little question why he is such a popular character; after all, who wouldn't want to be Master Chief?
But there is more to Master Chief than the fact that he can "pwn" virtually anything the game engine throws at him. He's not just a soldier, he's a hero, the only hope of the human race, which is precariously close to extinction at the hands of the Covenant Empire. If one studies Halo canon, one gains an understanding of the fictional conflict that brings to light the many aspects which create a bond between us and the characters we see on our TV screens. Master Chief is like Beowulf; a knight destined to kill the dragon and save his people from certain death. The human psyche clings to the concept of a hero because each of us, even if we deny it, has the inner need to put faith in something. The Halo 3 advertisements nearly always featured the word "Believe," and they couldn't have been more accurate. In a world where wars are fought for vague reasons and the lines between good and evil continue to blur by the day, we are like little children, desperate for the bedtime story that will fill our dreams with visions of victory and triumph over darkness. Halo is that bedtime story for many fans. We watch as laconic, faceless Master Chief throws himself at powerful Covenant forces without hesitation and deep in our hearts we are reminded of martyrs, of saints, of real-life heroes who took the same stand against whatever oppression happened to be ongoing at the time. Our world, this nonfictional and unforgiving Earth, has its share of rampaging Brutes and scheming Prophets. It is not the Covenant which commits genocide, it is our own warring factions, and plague and natural disaster claim lives as virulently as any Flood infestation. We do not need aliens and monsters to remind us that we face intimidating and seemingly overwhelming odds as fragile human beings. And we certainly do not need green-armored superhuman Spartans to remind us that there are heroes fighting and dying to preserve what we hold dear. But still, we find ourselves inspired by what we see when we take time to really think about the stories-within-stories that are told by the Halo series.
Take the Deliver Hope trailer, for instance. Released shortly before the 2010 game Halo:Reach hit stores, the live-action and CGI short featured Reach's Noble Team, particularly the female Spartan Catherine-320 or "Kat." In the commercial, Kat is running across a raging battlefield, carrying a bomb while her teammates cover her. However, her errand is interrupted when a Covenant flying vehicle known as a "Banshee" swoops low and fires a missile at her, halting her progress and gravely injuring her. The screen goes black for one or two seconds, then she comes to and sees her teammate Thom-293 standing over her. He picks up the bomb she dropped, which is still counting down to detonation, and activates his jetpack, blasting upward toward the massive Covenant ship that dominates the sky. As he ascends, we see part of Kat's face, most prominently her eyes. This is obviously a tragic situation, and the sadness in them is unmistakable. Thom flies all the way into the Covenant ship and throws the bomb, and it goes off before he can leave, destroying the enemy vessel.
"It's just a commercial," some argue. "It's just a fabrication. Actors and animation and sound effects. So why bother figuring out all the internal stuff?" Why, indeed?! People cry when they watch sad movies because we as human beings are capable of empathy. The pain of one character becomes our pain, and their dilemma becomes ours as well. Thom rectifies Kat's mistake with his own life, completing the mission for her. Real men have done far more "noble" deeds on battlefields across our globe, and we have heard their stories. We see Thom's actions in Deliver Hope and think, "Humans really are capable of such greatness." It is not a fact taught to us by the commercial. It is something we already knew that is fanned to warmer flames by the knowledge that fiction mirrors true events in more ways than we can really know.
Halo:Reach is no less somber in its presentation. You enter the game as a customizable character known simply as "Noble Six" who, in the first level, is introduced to his/her new team: Noble Team. Over the course of the game, the Covenant invades Reach, begins systematically slaughtering its population, and eventually gains the upper hand as the Spartans and their allies attempt in vain to turn the tide in humanity's favor. Of the six Spartans of Noble Team, three meet their end deliberately, while two are caught by surprise and one's fate is obscure. In the end, it is you, Noble Six, who is left alone and unaided in the desolate wasteland that was once a thriving world, and though your death is not explicitly shown, it is understood that you did not make it out alive. A depressing game, some think, but those who know the full story know that glory lies in the future, a future brightened by the victorious Master Chief. What is Reach if not a retelling of the same solemn, neverending, almost biblical story about human beings dying so that others might live? Men and women have died for much less than an entire planet but we remember them as true heroes, and thus they are immortalized. It is as if they are being honored by their fictional successors, their sacrifice and determination shining through as much more than fiction.
Perhaps this entire piece has been a waste of time and I am rambling to deaf ears. But for those who actually gave this a chance and read it all the way through, I must add more. Yes, I know that the Halo franchise is a monstrous moneymaker for Microsoft. Yes, I know that it's just a video game series, and that it has many flaws and shortcomings. But I also know this: Halo is one of the most popular video games of all time not just because it's a fun gaming experience, but because it makes us want to believe. We want to believe that there's somebody in shining armor who's going to whip out a huge rifle and blow our tribulations away. Deep down, we all need heroes like that. But consider this: we dress up like Spartans and ODSTs and write fanfiction and daydream about the fields and mountains of Reach not because we are becoming the characters, but because the characters are becoming us. We see bits of ourselves in them, or maybe it's the ourselves we wish we were.
Stories are what shape us as cultures, as human beings, and the Halo series is as fine a story as any. Would any of us volunteer to detonate a Slipspace bomb for the sake of our planet, or venture onto an alien ringworld to seek out salvation for our race? Probably not. But then again, there are many of our kind who, to quote the character Lord Hood, have gone "into the howling dark, and did not return... They ennobled all of us, and they shall not be forgotten." We are each and every one of us capable of such things, if we will only take the time to understand how we are molded by what we view as "just a video game." After all, we must remember that such "fairy tales" were not intended to teach us that dragons exist... they show us that the dragons can be beaten.