Battle rifles, Phantoms, Cortana—for those in the know, the references come thick and fast in the new Halo series. Paramount shelled out $10 million an episode to adapt Bungie's first-person shooter for the screen, and with every knowing wink, the message gets louder: This show is for the fans. The first episode closes with the iconic Gregorian chant of the original soundtrack, which, the internet has noted, was not present in the original trailer. We wait with bated breath for the Master Chief to teabag a dead Elite.
Halo finds itself atop an unenviable heap: the carcasses of failed video game adaptations. No game has ever been turned into a compelling movie or TV show, and (on the evidence of the first two episodes, at least) this one, which drops Thursday, is no different. At best it’s emblematic of the peculiar way these adaptations are made. They serve, first and foremost, to expand the universe of the game. A uniquely obsequious kind of entertainment, they spend their time onscreen yoked to their lore. They seek to please one type of fan, who will recognize, and be thrilled, by every nod aimed in their direction. All the writers must do is arrange callbacks in just the right order—what would normally be called plot is, in this case, nothing more than hiding Easter eggs. Halo’s creators stress they’ve written a new story, but, as is typical of these adaptations, the show still progresses like a long, clichéd cutscene. A game designer told me recently that he dislikes cinematic games, labeling them “content-delivery machines.” That phrase also neatly describes adaptations like Halo: The content they deliver is the rush of recognition, nostalgia for when they last got to play the protagonist.
As Halo (the show) begins, the audience is introduced to a colony of rebels, stuck in the middle of some forever war over something called deuterium. One of the rebels, a grizzled Scotsman—“with scars older than you”—tells tall tales of Spartans, monstrous inhuman super soldiers, who the audience suspects aren’t as bloodthirsty as he declares. The scene cuts to Kwan Ha Boo (Yerin Ha), daughter of the rebel leader, out with her friends hunting down the hallucinogen known as Madrigal. Containing the universe's “highest concentration of heavy hydrogen,” it’s the same plant that powers the spaceships that will help her “get off this stupid rock.” (Why do sci-fi protagonists always want to leave the planet—can’t they just move to a different country?) Then the Covenant show up: prune-skinned aliens with predatory four-petaled mouths, who come packing their famous energy swords and active camo. They murder Kwan’s family and her tripping pals. (The show is bloodthirsty, perhaps the most notable divergence from the games; previous Elites never took such pleasure in mowing down human children.) Kwan will have to leave her rock, but not in the way she’d intended. Namely, in the protection of her savior, the Master Chief, also known as John (Pablo Schrieber). In the first episode they escape the Chief’s employers—the human-run UNSC—to a cyberpunk outlaw area, which you know is rebellious because the residents are haggling loudly and driving motorbikes indoors. A narrative creaks into motion.
Games often overexplain their stories, relentlessly reminding you of the context for your play. For many, it’s a relief when they’re allowed to take control. There is no similar repose here. Halo (the game) was about you, Master Chief, and your fellow Spartans fighting a theocratic alien race. Halo (the show) is about you watching that, and because it must be shown, not played, the series is constantly describing itself, laying out its world's rules. In this sense, Halo, and other video game adaptations, adopt one of the least artful things about games: the tutorial. Dialog never settles into the moment, it is always oriented toward what has or will happen, or toward the world’s broader politics. It’s the opposite of something like Dune, which skirted over the book’s incessant world-building on the faith that the audience would be content with some level of ignorance.
This kind of exposition isn’t for non-players. It’s the opposite, in fact. It serves the in-the-know fan. The effect of watching these shows and movies is like tuning in to a Royal Rumble, waiting for the arrival of your favorite wrestler: for Mewtwo to escape the lab in Detective Pikachu; for Scorpion to say “get over here” in Mortal Kombat (despite speaking Japanese the entire film). When the Elites first arrive in Halo, they emerge through a gate, shrouded in smoke, like the Undertaker.
If there’s a genesis for this type of storytelling, it’s likely the Marvel films. Engrossing yourself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe enhances watching any one particular movie. Those who are oblivious to all these references miss out. It’s a conceited kind of filmmaking that assumes that the fan is the most important member of the audience. Yet, unlike the best of the Marvel films, which draw on decades of comics to produce films that have broader appeal, video game adaptations are nothing without their references. Basically, Halo’s world is not interesting enough to sustain an entire TV series.
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Game stories, Susan O’Connor, a writer who worked on Bioshock, explained to me last year, do way more with less. The point, she noted, is that controlling a character is so compelling that it can override our need for deeper stories and elevate our attachment to shallower ones. What is most interesting about Halo is not the story on its own but the way that story interweaves with innovations present only in games: the slickness of a sniper’s aim and the arc of a plasma grenade; the openness of the world and the test of its difficulty. The Master Chief is not just the Master Chief: He is also you, a cypher for your triumph. His iconic lines, “I need a weapon” and “Sir, finishing this fight,” reflect that his creation is primarily a surreal pretense to get a gun in your hand. Leaving aside nostalgia, which can make even the most trivial memories iconic, the kinesthetic pleasures of Halo transfigure cliché. Art doesn’t have to simulate life, of course, but games are much closer to simulating life than other mediums, and life is thrilling even when it’s clichéd.
Steven Spielberg, who was reportedly extremely involved in the Halo script (and its 265 revisions) would never understand this, because he’s the same Spielberg who claimed back in 2013 that when “you pick up the controller, the heart turns off” and that the players of a game and its characters are separated by a “great abyss” in empathy. Even if he has changed his position, Spielberg always had this backward: Players bond with even the most vapidly constructed characters in a game because of this interactivity. There are attempts to capture this pleasure in the Halo TV show: the first-person vision, the sounds of Chief’s gun reloading, the quick editing of an assault rifle being discarded. But the move from an interactive medium into a passive one always runs the risk of feeling like a reduction, or a step back. It’s deeper than just storytelling. Non-players watch Halo and wonder why gamers are so taken by the big guy in the green suit; those who have fought as the Master Chief feel empty watching someone else embody him.
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So what's the answer? A simple one, really: Succeed where a lot of games fail. These adaptations need deep characterization and daring writing that must, by necessity, barely resemble the source material. Chief himself, for instance, is basically RoboCop. He’s humanity’s best weapon, a robotic fascist, chugging “hormonal pills to suppress his emotions.” There’s some suggestion, particularly at the end of episode two, that the show would like to explore the Chief’s psyche. But it’s established in the first five minutes that he is more man than machine; a magic MacGuffin “stimulates his connective tissue,” revealing his childhood, giving him feelings. Then he saves Kwan’s life. Perhaps later episodes will divert tonally from the games and dig deep beneath the character's skin, as Battlestar Galactica and early Game of Thrones did, but there’s nothing so far to suggest Chief is anything more than a collection of bromidic influences. More likely they will resolve him to be—in the words of Joseph Staten, creative director at 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio that now develops Halo—“a bright green hopeful hero.”
Leaving aside the impossibility of getting two corporations to agree on the vision of their flagship hero, part of the problem here is that Hollywood has an idea of a certain kind of fan and what they want to see. Books and films can form communities. There are the Joyce wars, featuring battles over the correct punctuation in Ulysses, or people who dress up as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. But games, partly because they’ve flourished in the internet era, partly because they are often played together, nearly always do. Adaptations are made because they have these built-in audiences, but if adapting something just amounts to daisy-chaining together a bunch of references, you miss an opportunity to round out the characters around which those communities formed.
This kind of filmmaking seems driven by the belief that “gamers” enjoy trashier stories, whatever the medium. Gamers, the logic goes, have lower standards than the average film aficionado and don’t want to be challenged. I disagree. The audiences that expect deep storytelling in their film and TV series but bond with a different kind of character in their games, are, in the end, the same audience. That means it isn’t just people who don’t play Halo who will be disappointed by Halo. Because as long as these shows remain so faithful to their source material, not one fan will love the adaptation more than they love the game.
Updated 3-24-22, 2 pm EST: This story was updated to correct who said “get over here” in Mortal Kombat.
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