Twenty Years of Halo: The Cortana Letters & The Fall of Reach

Artwork by Usbaia

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Our long journey to explore the Halo series begins well before the first game even came out as Bungie was building its universe and teasing their fans long before they even knew what the game was going to be!  The seemingly haphazard nature of the production of Halo: Combat Evolved which went through name changes and story changes all the way down to switching the genre at something approaching the last minute can certainly be reflected in these two early works which are interesting time capsules of that period of the development, but beyond their places as being the earlies entries on the timeline, do they hold up as genuinely interesting pieces of media in their own right?  Let’s find out!!

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The Cortana Letters – 1999

Having read these letters, I’m starting to remember why I didn’t bother diving deep into this stuff back when I was playing it!  As far as I can tell, the Cortana letters are the first things Halo related that was released to the public; in this case being eight cryptic e-mails sent from someone at Bungie claiming to be Cortana that were sent to a Marathon fan page; Marathon, in case you were wondering, being a game series that Bungie had worked on in the nineties that may or may not connect to Halo in some tangential way.  I guess I’ll learn more about any implicit or explicit connections the further I get into the lore of this, but needless to say that these letters are not the ideal way to START your Halo journey if you wish to experience the series from the beginning.  They are intentionally vague and full of cryptic language, and their status as canonical is dubious at best; especially since Halo was still in the conceptual stages in 1999 and was MASSIVELY overhauled when Bungie was acquired by Microsoft in 2000.

Follow the white rabbit!  Save the cheerleader, save the world!  WHO ARE THE PATRIOTS!?

The only one that seems to be eluding to concrete elements are in letter three which make allusions to the Forerunners and Halo (“Whoever made such a place must now live in chains; there is no other explanation for their absence.”), the Covenant (“They own nothing which they have not stolen. I can barely make sense of their incessant rhetoric, except to know that you seem to be their Devil.”), and even the Master Chief himself (“Congratulations – you manage to make friends wherever you go and, apparently, places you haven’t.”), though aside from that I have trouble making heads or tails of what’s being written and frankly it’s pretty much irrelevant at this point outside of a curious little time capsule.

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Halo: The Fall of Reach (Novel) – 2001

Written by Eric Nylund

There was a lot about the production of Halo: Combat Evolved that could have gone wrong (as stated earlier, they hadn’t even settled on a genre until AFTER the studio was bought by Microsoft), but with legends of the Halo Bible floating on the internet and even interviews with Eric Nylund himself, it seems clear that they always had a plan for what the story would be and the world they were crafting.  Granted, you don’t go into a venture like this WITHOUT some ambition, but it seems like they had A LOT of ideas for this to be a franchise even while they were struggling just to get the first game done.  In any case, The Fall of Reach released in October of 2001 which was about a month before the first game came out and serves as a prequel; filling in the backstory of the characters and setting the stage for Master Chief’s adventure on the ring planet.  The result is… a mixed bag.  So you know how Starship Troopers the movie is a satire on the genre of over the top sci-fi militaristic nonsense?  Well this kind of feels like trying to put that genie back in the bottle; minor concessions to the overall silliness (and moral bleakness) of many of its tropes, but trying to infuse them with enough pathos and action to keep it from feeling like pro-military propaganda.  Make no mistake though, that is EXACTLY what it is as the whole book is all about WARRIOR’S CODE and HONOR IN DEATH IF IT’S FOR A CAUSE type of thing while carefully sidestepping anything specific enough to make it seem politically charged.  To that end I think it succeeds a bit as the Halo universe is so far removed from our own that it might as well be Star Wars, but there are definitely a few moments where they don’t hide it well enough.  Before we get into all that, let’s give a brief overview of the story.  The Spartan program essentially has the UNSC (basically Earth’s Space Force) kidnapping young children, putting them through full boot camp, AND THEN injecting them with a bunch of enhancements that they KNEW would likely injure or even KILL these children; which of course happens to many of them.  One of the lucky ones is John, AKA Cadet 117 who was the best of the best and became the leader of the squad by the time he was a teenager.  The project was primarily overseen by a scientist named Dr. Halsey who spends more than few chapters biting her lip and wondering the ethical implications of what she’s doing before jabbing needles into these children and creating clones to send back to their families.  Yeah, that kind of stuck out for me as a needlessly complicated explanation for why there aren’t hundreds of families looking for their stolen kids and it raises a WHOLE lot of questions (why don’t they just go full Star Wars and make a clone army!?) that will hopefully be answered in later entries in the series.  This is all in the first third or so of the book and yet despite the utter depravity with which this all reads, the book is so straightforward in its writing that you don’t get to KNOW many of the kids enough to genuinely care, nor does Dr. Halsey’s token self-recrimination have any impact or even sway the framing of the story in any significant way.

You see?  Clones don’t pay attention like that.  This is why you need home grown, extraordinarily young, ripped from their families, innocent children to joint your Space Army!

Thankfully it gets better after that first third once it’s more about setting up the Covenant threat rather than the despicableness of the Spartan program, but then we run into the second problem I have with the book which is the character of John; AKA Master Chief.  It took me a while to REALLY put my finger on it, but the fact of the matter is that John comes off as SUPREMELY naive and about as green as the armor he wears.  This would be fine if it was contained to just an origin story as I don’t expect him to burst onto the scene fully formed, but the fact is that the book comes right up to the start of the first game which doesn’t leave a lot of room for him to develop the grit, experience, and age that came across when I was playing the game.  Take the part in the book where we see the Spartan’s in a proper mission for the first time which is a Covenant attack on a human colonized planet.  It’s probably the best sequence in the book as the stakes are set up quite well and the desperation of the UNSC troops is evident before The Spartans come in and clean house with John and his troops being tough, professional, and getting the job done with the heroic brutality that you’d expect.  And then right as the mission comes to a close…

Because when I think of tough as nails bad ass video game protagonists, I think of the gesture a dog makes when you show them a new toy!

No matter how much time he spent learning to be a badass, he never learned to be a HUMAN and so he comes off less like Captain American and more like Bud Manstrong.  This is the danger when trying to fill in a backstory that the people playing the game can build up in their mind, and granted this book came out alongside the first game which makes it as contiguous with the developer’s vision as anyone could possibly hope for, but coming back to this franchise and trying to put my fuzzy memories of awesome campaigns and Steve Downes’s sexy voice into some sort of context, I’m finding it less interesting than I had hoped for.  The third act is mostly setting up the circumstances that lead into the first game as we’re introduced to Cortana who we learn is an AI built off of the mind of Dr. Halsey, as well as Admiral Keyes, his crew, and the fall of Reach which is the planet that John was trained at from a young child and the primary operations center for the UNSC.  If there’s anything that manages to rise above the straightforward jingoism, it’s the scenes with Keyes and his crew; one of whom named William Lovell even gets a whole chapter to himself so I’m interested to see if it’s building toward a much larger role in future books.  Where John lacks the wit or even the charisma to come off as more than a blunt object, Keyes has genuine experience and even a small degree of cynicism for the higher brass that keeps his storyline interesting outside of how well he can blow stuff up.  The book keeps HINTING that something is going on with the higher ups but it never commits to it and that’s kind of the best way to sum up the book.  We keep toying with big ideas, though challenges, and even gruesome horrors, but at the end of the day everything comes down to righteous stoicism which leaves things feeling rather flavorless.  Towards the end of the book, not too long after Cortana is created, Dr. Halsey comes up with a plan to win the war for the UNSC by having her Spartans (now tricked out in badass MJOLNIR power armor) find a Covenant ship, board it, take it back to the Covenant home planet with the help of Cortana, and kidnap one of their Prophets to negotiate a peace treaty.  Before they can put their plan in motion however, a HUGE armada of Covenant ships manage to find Reach and blow it to bits despite the valliant efforts of the UNSC and the Spartan soldiers.  By the end of the battle, John is the last surviving Spartan and Reach is destroyed.  Keyes’s ship, The Pillar of Autumn, is one of the last to survive and is charged with going on the mission that now looks to be as doomed as the Reach itself.  Still, they’ve got Cortana on their side as well as the Master Chief himself, Spartan 117, ready to punch aliens in the face and goes into Cryo-Sleep until he is needed.

I KNOW WHAT IT IS!!

Perhaps all of this additional context will help me to understand and appreciate the story in the first game, and it’s not even THAT bad of a book overall.  Nyland rights some very impressive action sequences, including a few spaceship battles with Keyes, and it’s an easy enough read as long as you don’t mind something that will make you roll your eyes every few pages.  Those eye rolls will come pretty fast and quite consistently with a few moments probably going so far as to make you groan, but they’ve got to start somewhere and we can only hope that the books only get better from here.

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While the Cortana Letters seem like a novelty at best with how intentionally obtuse they are, Fall of Reach certainly reflected what Bungie wanted Halo to be at the time of its creation.  Whether or not it reflects what the series has BECOME over time is something we’ll learn along the way (I can’t IMAGINE that whole “cloning” thing being a significant part of this series going forward), but it was certainly interesting to see where a lot of concepts and ideas in the series initially came from.  Now that we’ve laid the groundwork of the story and the franchise’s lore, next time we’ll be looking at the first game in the series that changed the video game industry forever!  Is it as good as we all remember it, or have the cracks started to show now that we’re two decades out from its release?  Join me next week to find out!

Next: Halo Combat Evolved
Previous: Where To Even Start?

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