I’m prone to over-analyzing things. I do like to play with my food, even if some of it is the intellectual equivalent of gristle between the mental teeth.
One such example comes from the ‘Halo’ series of computer games.
I’ve read several interviews with Neill Blomkamp, about the now-aborted Halo movie. He said one thing in particular that stuck in my head. He described the Master Chief as a ‘victim of the military industrial complex‘. This is interesting – as it’s very probably true.
Why don’t we dig into this a bit?
First of all, as games Halo and Halo 2 are reasonably-entertaining. I enjoyed both, didn’t find them too easy or too difficult and didn’t get hopelessly-stuck. There was a variety of enemies and it wasn’t just the same mix in every place, either. And the two-weapons limit did make you have to think about what you were doing. So, as a game, I enjoyed it.
The Halo series prides itself on its extensive background and its (supposedly) innovative storyline. As for the latter, well, the storyline is passable for a computer game. It wouldn’t stand up at all as (say) an SF novel, of course, but the demands of a book and an FPS are quite different, so this isn’t really a surprise. As for the background, well, the boast that it’s extensive is certainly true. And it does have a degree of narrative consistency. But, it has more than a few uncomfortable issues. I’m not 100% sure whether these are consciously-intended or not. Is there a deliberate message lurking in there? And is it something we’d actually like?
1: The SPARTAN Project … which can best be described as living inside a moral singularity. Briefly, the main character of the games is the Master Chief, a cybernetically- and genetically-enchanced, power armour-wearing supersoldier. (Yes, there maybe just a few echoes of something else there.) The MC is one of the products of something called the SPARTAN project, which essentially breeds supersoldiers.
It does this using abducted children.
Just to reiterate, the kids aren’t volunteers. The parents aren’t informed – their kids are taken and swapped with clones (who are all programmed to die shortly afterwards, doubtless leaving distraught and grieving families behind). Medical procedures are carried out on the children without parental consent. Furthermore, the training process apparently kills a lot of them. The children in question are systematically brutalised and, some of the source material suggests, forced even to kill each. And then there’s all the ones killed in live-fire ‘accidents’ and so on. (The training instructors don’t seem to quite ‘get’ the idea that dead men have learnt no lessons.)
The SPARTAN project could be described as a combination of slavery and child abuse, with an added side order of uncritical Starship Troopers-style militarism. I found this mix to be disquieting.
Now, if this had happened after the start of the Covenant war, the UNSC might be able to claim a necessity defence. However, the source material makes clear, it was began beforehand. The original intention, apparently, was to combat a growing problem with insurgencies on Earth’s colong worlds. Also, the program was apparently done in complete secrecy. It seems the military didn’t bother to even inform the government that it was abducting and murdering its citizens.
This brings us onto point 2.
2: UNSC – is the ‘C’ for ‘Coup’? Apparently, pretty much the first thing the United Nations Space Command did at the start of the Covenant war was topple the constitutionally-legitimate government. So much for democracy, then. Reading between the lines, I formed the impression that the United Earth Government was never much more than a public front for de facto military rule, anyway. There is also mention of extensive insurgencies on many of the colony planets, which seems to imply that the quality of the government they received can’t have been very good.
(Perhaps a real-world parallel might be the Brazillian Congress under the junta in the 1960s and 70s. It still existed, but enjoyed no power. And I do find an urge to compare the Spartan project to Operation Condor…)
3: The problem of presentation. Now, all of this would bother me less if these things were presented differently. My problem, essentially, is that the game series seems to present all of these things as good and vindicated.
Now, one might well suggest that the personal heroism of the SPARTAN-IIs themselves is a separate issue from the sick-and-sleazy behaviour of their government – and this would be a good distinction. However, at no point did I feel that this distinction was actually made. One might also suggest that there is such a thing as worrying too much about computer game plotlines. This is also a good point (and you have me bang to rights there). However, if a game prides itself on its storyline and setting, it shouldn’t then be surprised if they draw some attention.
Also, the unquestioning way in which all of this is presented could make you wonder if the designers actually approve of what’s going on in their little playground. And there’s a whole new can of rancid worms sitting out in the sunlight there.
4: Conclusion As games, I have no issues with either of the first two Halos. (I can’t comment on #3 as I haven’t played it.) They’re fun, the graphics are pretty and the game-play is passable. I can’t say the same of the setting, however. The feel of ’70s-South-America-in Space from its story left me distinctly uncomfortable. I felt that the backstory could have been improved if some things had been presented in a more critical light.