Halo 2 draws uncomfortable parallels to current US military campaigns. It grapples with racial conflict, religious doubt, and genocide. Despite the weight of the tasks it takes upon its back, it handles them with frivolousness. Halo 2 hints at a nuanced depiction of religious conflict and the dangers of a militarized society, but the game never goes all in. Instead, it paints a broad picture of good and evil, that gives its harmful parallels too much power.
Halo’s basic premise is as follows: an alien menace has attacked mankind. They are a unified group of alien races known as the Covenant. Despite their technological and military prowess, they are astonishingly ignorant. They believe that by activating ancient space structures, called Halos, they will embark on a pilgrimage to heaven, known as the Great Journey. These superstructures were actually built to prevent the rise of a zombie-like alien race, called the Flood and will destroy all sentient life in the universe if activated. Throughout the first few games of the series, the aliens are trying to activate the Halos, to begin the Great Journey. The player, a super-solider known as Master Chief, must stop them.
This very premise draws uncomfortable parallels to our politics. The game’s human military, despite being stripped of nationalism, has all the imagery of the United States. WWII idealism, marines, hash commanders, and hokey accents are all accounted for. Master Chief himself personifies this as a stoic, self-sacrificing hero. A hyper-competent, unquestioning solider; he is the ideal of the US military, and by extension the fictional U.N.S.C.
The Covenant resemble Isis or the Taliban, albeit on a massive scale. Rather than being a small, but powerful group, generally a threat to dozens of American lives at home and thousands in the Middle East, the Covenant are huge enough to threaten billions. Unlike their counterparts, the religion of the Covenant has no complexity. It is a monolith. There are, at least as appears in the games, no sects. It is singular in purpose, with a vague and destructive ideology.
Therefore, the Halo franchise reframes the Afghanistan war. Coded Americans are the invaded. Religious aliens are the invaders. The threat they pose is massive and undeniable. Military force is completely justified. It is a “good war” with all the inherent complexity and nuance of any military action stripped out.
Halo 2, however, begins to complicate this narrative by making one of its two player characters one of the alien menace. He is a foil to Master Chief, given a similar, ominous military title: the Arbiter. They both act as guardian deities of militaristic cults, chosen as extraordinary soldiers. The opening cutscene shows Master Chief awarded and triumphant and the Arbiter disgraced using the same camera movements. By setting up these two characters as parallels, the game begins to point out the hollowness of othering and the way military structures dehumanize.
The very names of the differing alien races points to how their society views them: Hunters, Grunts, Brutes, and Elites. They are all military titles. These different races are used as cannon fodder by their leaders. By giving one of the them a face, a name, and a personhood, the game begins to step back from this portrayal. It paints the Covenant as “evil” without leaning so heavily on “the other” or their alien nature. It hints at an actual, toxic ideology that drives the structures of the Covenant.
However, the game never takes the next step and separates ideology from race. As the Arbiter you never fight humans, but rather other aliens, who have split off from the Covenant. Seeing the human race otherized in the way the game others the aliens, could have been a powerful message and could have reenforced the Arbiter’s personhood. It would show how the aliens see humans the way the humans see the aliens. But the game knows that the player will be forced to confront the violence they are committing if they did so. So, it backs off, leaning on seeing the aliens as inhuman enough to be worthy of killing.
Throughout the game, the Arbiter watches as his own race, the Elites, are pushed out by the ambitious Brutes. This culminates in a horrific act of genocide, with the Brutes systematically killing the Elites. At which point the Arbiter and his alien race realize the true nature of the Covenant and join to fight with the U.N.S.C. The game undermines the impact of this through the callous depiction of the genocide itself.
We see the violence mostly through the eyes of Master Chief. The primary emotion is the glee of watching enemies destroy each other. There is no horror, merely the thrill of hunting and of watching a remarkable AI system at work. The fact that the aliens are killing each other, allows Master Chief to watch and wait for opportunities to kill or sneak around enemies. It is a new strategic situation rather than a horrifying moment of violence. Cortana, Master Chief’s AI companion remarks on this when she says, “Look on the bright side, for now they look more interested in killing each other.” The value of their life is irrelevant, lost in the vision of justified violence. Even when we view the genocide from the eyes of the Arbiter, it remains cold. It focuses more on killing the Brutes, on vengeance, then on the sorrow of losing millions of one’s own kind. There was an opportunity to unveil the personhood of the elites, but the game chooses to suddenly label them good and the Brutes bad, without actually giving them the spark of real humanity, for lack of a better term.
To be clear, the Brutes are committing genocide and violence against them is more than justified. But the way the game depicts them, as savage and brutish, inherently violent smacks of colonial racism. When the player gets close to killing a Brute, the Brute drops their weapons and charges the player in a rage. Savage. Wild. Not people. To truly confront horrific acts of violence, we must confront the humanity of those who commit them. Whether on the hand of the oppressed or the oppressors, the implication of innate savagery does harm. It implies that people who commit evil acts cannot help themselves and true evil goes undetected. Halo 2 makes evil distant and savage. It ties it to race, implying the innate violence of certain groups of people. Though the game changes the faces of those you shoot, that does not remove the game’s xenophobic streak.
The game approaches intellectual and emotional honesty in its portrayal of religious doubt. The basic arc of the game is hinted at by Master Chief’s name: John 117. Some theorize that it refers to the scripture John 1:17: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” At the beginning of the game, the Arbiter is an exacting believer. When he is punished and then given a new mission by the Prophets, he seeks only to do their will. As he encounters the heretic aliens’s ideas and is betrayed by both the Prophets and the Brutes, he realizes his complicity in the Covenant’s destructive work. Once the Arbiter realizes religion won’t save him, he turns to his conscience. He tears himself from the law that has defined him, and gives himself over to grace and truth. Granted, the Arbiter has little personality beyond “determined” and his rejection of the Covenant is far less fraught than such a rejection would actually be. Nevertheless, his turn away from religion is surprisingly subtle. Even after the prophets have betrayed him, he attempts holds to his religious values, acting antagonistically toward Master Chief and asserting his desire to go on the great journey. Holding onto beliefs as they shatter is a human thing and it is one of the few moments of subtly the game allows itself.
This flickering moment of nuance highlights its distinct lack that stalks the rest of the game. The plot points of Halo 2 begin to add elements of subtly, but remains too vague to say anything. Therefore, its message defaults to its cultural signifiers. The Covenant are bad because they are other, coded like muslim extremists. The USNC is good because they are western. American accents, black stereotypes, and rampant militarism thrive here; doesn’t it feel like home? Unlike the Arbiter, it remains mired in the systems and ideas that inspired it. It toys with breaking free, but never does so. There is a more imaginative game in Halo 2. In its approach to complexity, it refutes the idea that popular games cannot deal with nuanced ideas. However, it loses all of it in a need to preserve the status quo.