Lessons Learned From: Robotech

It is no secret that the media you consume can influence how you see other forms of media. For me, I’ve experience science-fiction from a variety of sources and that has shaped how I have examined new entries in the Halo franchise. Therefore, I’ve toyed with the idea of a reflection series of articles on some of these influences and how I think 343 Industries can learn from what has come before. Granted, folks like Synth-Samurai from Full Circle and Haruspis do a far better job than I could at being analytical regarding this sort of thing. So lest you expect the detail they provide, just a heads up that I’m more of a broad strokes kind of guy. For this edition of Lessons Learned From, I will be looking at Robotech.

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For those of you who don’t know, Robotech was a Saturday morning cartoon that first aired in 1985 (almost a decade before I was born) by Harmony Gold. The story begins with an alien ship crashing on Earth and propelling human technology evolution forward. Humanity, just concluding a destructive world war, band together to research the vessel and attempt to repair it. Years later, the ship is due to be officially commissioned as the SDF-1, but a group of giant alien soldiers known as the Zentraedi detect the ship and seek to capture it for themselves. Over the course of the first season, the two species fight each other from Earth to the cold depths of Pluto. The end result is an Earth nearly destroyed, the Zentraedi defeated, but also becoming assimilated into human society, and the revelation of an energy source known as protoculture entering the scene. This is what the Zentraedi were after and it becomes a later source of conflict in the next two series of the show. However, by the end of the first season, humanity and the Zentraedi have joined forces to seek out the beings known as the Robotech Masters, the creators of the Zentraedi, for answers about protoculture and their meddling. The Robotech Masters would eventually come to Earth in the second season in pursuit of the wreckage of the SDF-1 as it is discovered to be the one final source of protoculture manufacturing in the galaxy. While the Robotech Masters would be defeated, a third species called the Invid would arrive after the protoculture in the SDF-1 blooms into the Flower of Life, a powerful source of energy the Invid crave.

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So, yeah, definitely a convoluted set-up at face-value, more so when you realize Robotech was actually three different anime series cobbled together in the West to make Robotech. For those interested, these shows are Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADIA. Still, it lasted 85 episodes altogether with a series of books, games, and movies to go along with it. And while the constant war as displayed in the series does somewhat work against what I felt inspiring about the show, the way characters interacted in the end stands as special. The first series of Robotech effectively ended with the Zentraedi and humanity joining forces to look for the Robotech Masters. However, there was also love that blossomed between members of the two species (a phenomenon at first scary to the Zentraedi since their segregated and militarized society had no concept of love). The same thing happened in the second and third series between the humans and invading forces. Cliché and cheesy, sure, but it showed what was possible for the relationship between enemies once they got to know each other. The fighter-jet/mech battles were awesome, but these character moments are what primarily got my attention.  Consequently, seeing this saga play out over the span of 85 episodes mirrors my feelings about the Halo franchise at the moment. Character interactions and constant war both show Robotech at its best and worst in my opinion and are areas 343 should keep in mind.

Starting with the characters, Robotech had an interesting and diverse cast that made person-to-person moments engaging. These interactions could be roughly placed in two categories, comradery, and romance. For the former, main protagonist Rick Hunter and squadmates Max Sterling and Ben Dixon, along with his adopted older brother Roy Fokker, served as great examples in the first series. Rick’s stereotypical protagonist attitude of cockiness mixed with focus when the heat was turned up played well with Max’s sheer focus as a fighter ace with Ben’s more jovial and laid-back demeanor. Roy was the inspiring leader of the group whose skills would usually bail out members of the squad and whose guidance helped Rick develop as a character. However, the deaths of Roy and Ben over the course of the first series would weigh heavy on Rick and Max. The dynamic between teams extends to the second and third series with Max’s daughter, Dana, leading a ground-based team on Earth composed of ragtag misfits that her bubbly personality oftentimes united as much as if annoyed.

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Scott Bernard in the third series led a similar group of misfits rebels against the Invid. I want to focus more time on this group because I feel the backgrounds and the effects thereof his team truly exemplify the comradery category with Robotech’s characters. Scott was a member of the Robotech Expeditionary Force from Mars that came to liberate Earth, yet the fleet was cut to pieces and Scott ends up stranded on Earth. His first ally was a scavenger named Rand who initially wants the Cyclone armor/motorbike gear found from crashed Expeditionary Force ships, but eventually, is won over to help defeat the Invid. Nothing too major as far as a relationship goes, but the fact Scott could win over someone content to just scavenge for junk while Earth was occupied is a testament to his charisma. Another civilian, Rook, joins the group. She formerly helped run a biker gang and upon being defeated by a rival gang turned to vigilantism. Scott isn’t able to win her over at first, but she joins eventually and the group actually help her confront the rival gang that harmed her and allows her to finally make peace with herself. Two former soldiers also join up, Lunk and Lancer. Lunk was a deserter who lost his nerve during an Invid attack and was terrorized by the gang that opposed Rook before Scott’s group helped him find his courage again. Lancer is an interesting case. A former pilot, Lancer crashed and was nursed back to health by a woman. To evade detection by the Invid, Lancer was disguised as a woman and would continue this disguise and assumed the persona of Yellow Dancer, a popular singer that threw off suspicion while allowing for Lancer to give information to other freedom fighters. Scott’s group gave him a reason to more directly fight the Invid while using his disguise when needed to aid the group.

There was also a little girl who joined the group named Annie, but she mostly filled the “annoying brat” role of the show. However, there was an episode where the group helps throw her a birthday that just stands to how well the group worked together. Even during a war, they knew Annie needed an excuse to be a kid for a change and did all they could to make it happen. Rounding out the group was Ariel, a secret Invid princess with amnesia. She would act as an early warning system for the group as Invid would arrive to attack. Ariel formed a relationship with Scott, but that will be relevant later. The main takeaway here is that all these characters all come from different places that did not all align as freedom fighters. However, as they met up and formed their ragtag group, they helped each other get over issues they had or gave each other purpose to fight.

The other character interactions I want to go over briefly is that of romance. Yes, romance does in a way help the human characters beat their alien enemies. Cliche, yes, but there is a deeper message here. In the first series, Max Sterling and a Zentraedi named Miriya fall in love after the latter tries killing the other due to his battle prowess and eventually become a power couple who fought together. In the second series, a member of Dana’s team named Bowie falls in love with a muse of the Robotech Masters named Musica. Her role was playing music that kept the clones created by the Masters who served as their soldiers complacent, yet she abandons her duty and fellow muses to pursue a relationship with Bowie. Finally, as mentioned above, Scott Bernard and Ariel form a relationship and this bond helps Ariel convince the Invid queen to not exterminate humanity on Earth. What these relationships ultimately do is break down the barriers between opposing forces and provide the means for reconciliation after the conflict’s end.

Wedding_Bells

These character interactions work because of the reason that Brian Reed actually points to prior to Halo 5’s release:

“We’ve got this big galaxy spanning story, somebody stop it! Somebody save the day! But at the heart of it is this story of these two families, and these two things that they want. And without those quiet intimate moments, no one is going to care how many planets you blow up. “

– Brian Reed

Robotech allowed for the quiet moments before mech battles that made you attached to characters and hope for them. You wanted Rick Hunter, Dana Sterling, or Scott Bernard liberate Earth from alien oppression. You wanted people like Lunk to redeem themselves. You felt the pain Rook felt upon being defeated by a rival gang and why she felt the need to run away from her past. When the connections are that strong, even something as mundane as a birthday party for a little girl can outshine even the flashiest of mech battles.

Arguably, Halo has had a mixed ability to fulfill this kind of character interactions in recent years. Halo: Hunters in the Dark nails it with Spartan Kodiak and N’tho ‘Sraom starting off as hostiles yet gradually becoming comrades by the end of the book. ‘Sraom apologizes for the pain he caused Kodiak during the war, notably cutting off his arm, and Kodiak forgives ‘Sraom.  Veta Lopis and Fred-104 in Last Light start off at odds towards the start due to the UNSC-insurrectionist tensions on the planet Gao, but become what you could call friends by the end of the book. That is nothing to say about Veta and the Spartan-IIIs of Team Saber having one of the funniest, but touching relationships I’ve seen in Halo. Halo 5, however, presents problems. Osiris has the potential to work well, but they never have the time to let the audience know them, so it’s arguably the interactions they have that hint at past connections don’t work too well. And Blue Team…Blue Team are almost an afterthought in the story for the little they get to do in the story despite their legendary history with Chief. When one of your characters inquires about Chief’s connection with Cortana and could have served as a character building moment and you have Chief reply with brushing off that question, you’ve wasted that opportunity.

However, Robotech is mostly remembered for his mech battles and other scenes of war. While still cool to watch, the constant invasions of Earth reveal the problems of the show. For one, it shows how blatantly each season was stitched from a different series entirely. Yet the biggest issue is how it makes the struggles of each cast moot by the end of each season. The First Robotech War ends between humanity and the Zentraedi and attempts to rebuild occur only for the Robotech Masters to arrive to start the Second Robotech War. Then that conflict ends only for the Invid to invade and start the Third Robotech War. Oh, a Fourth Robotech War happened as well in the movie Shadow Chronicles. You kinda get desensitized to planetary destruction after it happens three times. One of the major scenes from the first season was the bombardment of Earth by 4 MILLION Zentraedi warships that destroyed 70% of Earth’s surface as can be seen here.

Devastating, but it becomes old when the Masters and Invid pull the same move. How much more destroyed can Earth get? This problem with bringing in too many threats and escalating the stakes too many times is something Halo seems to be falling into:

“Halo 5 was all about turning the Universe in a new direction explicitly so we could do stories like this. We wanted the galaxy to be big and scary and dangerous in a way that it really has not been for our heroes in a while. There’s a threat level now potentially on-par with the Covenant in its glory days, but unlike them, this threat knows everything there is to know about us. Even something as basic as traveling from one planet to another is once more a deadly proposition in the Halo Universe.” – Brian Reed

Halo 3 saw the Human-Covenant war come to an end, at least an end as far as it being a galaxy-spanning conflict is concerned. There were will skirmish and black ops dealing with we saw with the Kilo-5 team and Blue Team on Gao, but smaller scale conflicts appeared to be the norm going forward. There was no need for a major villain to come along and throw the entire galaxy into chaos. True, the Didact could have done this, but Halo 4’s ending could have had him vanish to parts unknown rather than composed (but not really) in Halo: Escalation and brought back “whenever.” And I’d be remiss to forget Hunters in the Dark and its “The Halos are activating…again” plot until that is undercut later on. But besides these two events, the rest of the Halo canon before Halo 5 was more…localized. The Kilo-5 team shipped arms and destroyed a Covenant ship, nothing world-shattering. Blue Team recovered a Forerunner ancilla on an insurrectionist world and, subsequently, saw it fall to the rebels. The New Colonial Alliance was a consistent threat, though not anywhere near the scale of groups like the Covenant. There was simply so much room for the plot to grow and breath.

However, we now have the Created and they are hyped up as big a threat as the Covenant was. It feels unnecessary when the universe already was teeming with opposition and all the Created do is break the setting by being so insanely powerful with the Guardians being able to cripple anything any force could throw at them. Throw in the Banished and now there is another huge force in the setting now along with the Created. Consider the likelihood of the Flood returning at some future date in the franchise and the perception of “bigger and badder” threats piling up is hard to miss. It didn’t work for Robotech and it isn’t working with Halo.

So, there we have it folks. I apologize if this is more of a love letter to Robotech than that of something related to Halo. My intention was to show the benefits considering what helped and hurt Robotech could do for Halo. For the characters, 343 needs to make players care for the struggles of the characters while allowing the characters to genuinely work with and off of each other. That dynamic element worked in Robotech yet has been scattershot in Halo. Constantly upping the danger and number of enemies made the conflicts of Robotech a chore to keep concerned about due to its heroes always losing by the end of whatever the current season was. The same can apply to Halo and its seeming need for some major evil force throwing everything out of whack. I’ll work to better refine the format in future editions, but in the meantime, I’d recommend watching Robotech (or the anime originals if you prefer) to see what I mean. Just be ready for some classic 80s cartoon cheese. Yet, what would Halo be without its cheesy moments? Food for thought.

“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”

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