Caboose or Master Chief? Halo and Red vs Blue

Let’s talk about fanworks overshadowing the original product they’re based on. Since the example is Halo, you might think that’s a bit difficult. It’s such a huge, well-known franchise. How do you overshadow that? I think it’s possible.

Halo, of course, has something of a mascot, an iconic figure that springs to mind whenever someone mentions the game, or even just the world ‘halo’. Master Chief is like a form of brand association. You see him on a box or a piece of advertising – ‘hey! That’s Halo!’ It works.

But for me, if you say Halo, I immediately think of Caboose, the loveable bumbling idiot from the blue team in Roosterteeth’s web series Red vs Blue.

Or maybe I think of Sarge, the war-loving leader of the red team with a passionate-borderline-homicidal hatred for one of his own troops. They both look the same as Master Chief, just in different coloured armour. They’ve become representative of Halo to me, even if they’re just fan created characters.

Fan created characters in a show that brought machinima into the spotlight, mind. This year Roosterteeth celebrates the tenth anniversary of the show and their company, with season 11 set to begin streaming on their site next month. With support from Bungie themselves, Roosterteeth has grown from being a small show recorded in one man’s bedroom to a full-scale production by a company-wide team. They sell DVDs and shirts and other merchandise and appear frequently at conventions worldwide. Burnie Burns, the writer of the series, has even appeared on Halo panels devoted to discussing the Halo series’ lore. Characters from Red vs Blue have made a variety of cameo appearances in most every Halo game released since the original.

The result of this astounding growth is that Red vs Blue has drawn a wider audience into the Halo community, even if they don’t play the games at all. My sister has seen and adores Red vs Blue but has never touched a Halo game in her life. I don’t think she even knows who Master Chief is. Halo is Red vs Blue to her.

In other cases, Red vs Blue draws people into playing the games despite having no prior interest in them. I’d played Halo 3 for a long time before watching the series but it wasn’t until I’d watched it that I took a more genuine interest in Bungie’s works. It’s a relationship with mutual benefits for Roosterteeth and Bungie. Both give support to the other and the audience from one product becomes the audience of the other.

Red vs Blue’s structure as a Work Com (a sitcom in a place of employment) with very limited references to its source material means it’s capable of drawing in a wider audience than the Halo games ever could. Its focus on comedy over action (for the most part) makes it an easy watch, even if you don’t understand a thing about Halo lore. The humour comes not from references to the Halo series but from the characters who essentially stand around and talk for entire episodes. It’s very inclusive.

But where that’s successful it also feels that it’s become so popular in certain internet circles (and certainly, in my own home) that it’s easy to associate Halo with the cast of Red vs Blue over anything in the game series proper. And it’s difficult to tell if that’s a good thing. Is it okay to like a fanwork over the original product? Who cares as long as you’re getting enjoyment out of it? Is there even a problem here at all?

Halo is a massive franchise. It launched the Xbox into success, it’s a major title that everyone has come to associate with Microsoft’s consoles. The Xbox One was announced? When will we hear news of Halo 5? Halo does well enough for itself that my questions now shouldn’t be an issue. Maybe Red vs Blue will never overshadow the games. In fact, let’s just say it never will. Not for the majority. But it is such a large part of Halo nowadays, and so wildly different in tone from the rest of the ‘expanded universe’.

Master Chief is Halo. You can’t look at him and not see that association. But now, Caboose is Halo, too. And Sarge is Halo. And for some people, that’s all that Halo is: Caboose and Sarge (and everybody else in Red vs Blue). They associate Halo with the story of two teams fighting over nothing in the middle of a box canyon. Is that a bad thing?

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