Halo’s Expanded Universe Makes Me Feel Left Out

It’s a beautiful world. I don’t understand a lot about it, though.

Last night, I finished Halo 4’s campaign, and it was a lot of fun. But, as always with the Halo games, there were a few things I didn’t quite understand, so I loaded up pages for TV Tropes and the Halo Wiki to fill the gaps in my knowledge.

The difference, this time, is that a lot of that information didn’t just go over my head, I couldn’t have known it. Unless I’d read the series of Halo novels.

Halo has a lot of supplementary material, and fans of the series have taken much of it to heart. Perhaps a better term for this is ‘expanded universe’, which is great on its own, but troubling when it mixes with game canon. While past games haven’t involved much of this supplementary material, Halo 4 borrows from it extensively, and it really shows.

Why is this character under question? What’s up with this guy and that other lady who talked to me once (deliberate vagueness here)? Why are the Covenant doing this and that? I understand that they’re doing things, I just don’t understand why. Understanding character motivations is crucial to me, so being unable to understand them gets a little frustrating.

I’ll admit that you don’t really need to know the answer to those questions to appreciate the game, because I still enjoyed it, and you can make simple assumptions and carry on. It doesn’t matter why this character is under question, what matters is what they’re saying. But it does feel like the experience isn’t as good as it should be.

I don’t like the idea that I need to read a wealth of supplementary material to understand the plot of this game. I understood enough of it, but I feel like I’ve been locked out of a richer narrative (assuming you like the complicated precursor stories, which I do).

Who’s this guy?

That’s an example of a series that I don’t follow as closely, so let’s look at something I’m more familiar with. Assassin’s Creed III did something similar, incorporating characters that were the focus of a series of side comics. I’ve talked to people on TAY before who’ve had no idea who these characters were.

From my perspective, seeing a character I’ve read about now fully realized in the game world is a delight. Sometimes these characters can be the best parts of the game – the mission at Grissom Academy is my favourite in all of Mass Effect 3 because of how much it dives into the expanded universe. But it has to work the other way, too.

I imagine the appearance of this character from the Assassin’s Creed comics. He’s just this guy, you don’t know anything about him, but half of the main cast are spouting off backstory because they know everyone about him. That has to be jarring.

In these situations, there needs to be a balance. The game needs to introduce these characters to players who’ve never heard of them before, without going in-depth and boring the players who know everything about them. With Assassin’s Creed III, a monologue explains the particulars of this new character, and it comes across as lazy. There’s this underlying question – ‘you should know this, why don’t you know this?’

I think expanded universes are great. I like having these extra stories that can tide me over between games, or more generally satisfy a craving for more content from a series I love. But it’s difficult to marry these stories with the games. It’s so easy to alienate a large portion of your audience. Of these examples, Mass Effect 3 probably handled it best, because its universe naturally allows for this sort of thing. For everything else, it’s a bit of a problem.

Now, back to the Halo Wiki! There’s so much to learn.

One comment

  1. I only half knew who Aaron Cross was, so it was a bit jarring. I agree that Mass Effect handled it well- I had no idea who the Grissom Academy characters were but I understood everything I needed to from the context.

    Another one I though was handled well was Nova, from Starcraft Ghost. Her appearance in the SC2 narrative was a cameo, but to those who’d heard of her it was a nice surprise

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