ATTENTION: THIS ARTICLE HAS SPOILERS FOR HALO 5: GUARDIANS AND FALLOUT 4. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
While my last article said I was taking a break from the Halo franchise (and I still am with perhaps the exception of reading the just announced Halo: Retribution), I have been playing a lot of Fallout 4 lately. What connection does Halo have with Fallout? In this case, both Fallout 4 and Halo 5 carry with them plot points regarding the fate of human-created artificial intelligence and their relation to their creators. In Fallout 4, the machines in question are known as synths (synthetic humans lab grown by the Institute for the purposes of said Institute) whereas in Halo 5 we are dealing with Smart AIs, or AIs created from deceased (and sometimes not) brain tissue. I feel Fallout 4 went about this the right way whereas Halo 5 stumbled in its execution.
Before I dive in, a quick statement about how Lessons Learned articles will exist in the future. My last article on Robotech and the lessons it can teach Halo was, admittedly, not very good. It felt more like a waxing of my love of Robotech rather than a practical look at what makes Robotech good and how it can influence Halo to be better. As such, I have structured this article in the following format. I will first explain what the focus of the non-Halo area will be and then explain what its equivalent will be in Halo. For this article, I will first explain the plight of the synths within the world of Fallout 4. After that, I will tackle the Created in Halo 5 within the world of Halo more broadly speaking. Next will follow why I feel Fallout 4 handles its emphasis so well and then explain why I feel Halo 5 falls short in what it does. Once that is done, I will end with some possible areas of improvement for Halo. Let me know if this format works or if you have any suggestions.
So let’s get into it.
Step 1: Area of Emphasis – Fallout 4 and the Synth Question
So for those not in the know, Fallout 4 takes place in the devastated wasteland known as the Commonwealth, notably the area of Boston, Massachusetts. You are the Sole Survivor of a group of people cryogenically frozen in an underground structure known as a Vault. You awaken to see your wife/husband murdered, your infant son kidnapped, and see that 200 years have past since the world was destroyed by nuclear war. Throughout your travels in the wasteland you hear about machines known as synths built by an enigmatic organization known as the Institute. Citizens of the Commonwealth fear the synths due to kidnappings purportedly done by the Institute wherein the kidnapped individual is replaced by a synth. In short, synth hatred runs deep in the Commonwealth and not without valid reasons.
Synths come in three flavors. Gen 1 synths resemble skeletal robots, Gen 2 synths more closely resemble humans yet have an inhuman quality about them, and finally Gen 3 synths are indistinguishable from ordinary humans without the use of autopsies to detect synth components in their organic bodies. However, Nick Valentine, a companion you can have follow you, is a prototype synth between Gens 2 and 3. He resembles a Gen 2, but is self-aware in the sense most Gen 3s are. Just a fact for later discussion.
Had synths just been Institute mooks you slaughter as you go about the game we’d probably have nothing to talk about. However, synths have a deeply ingrained presence in the main plot but in the broader world of the Commonwealth as revealed by the beliefs of 3 out of the 4 factions in the base game.
There is the already mentioned Institute, a collective of scientists keeping the pre-war drive for scientific advancement alive in their secret underground facility that is inaccessible to the outside world. They built the synths and see them as nothing more than tools to use as they see fit for the Commonwealth’s future. Admittedly, what this future is kinda eludes me and is a flaw in the game. They seem to want to gradually wait out for humanity above to die off so synths can become a “new” human race. It’s unclear, but the Institute more or less has a master-slave dynamic with the synths.
There is the Railroad, a secretive organization dedicated to liberating escaped synths (Gen 3s) from the Institute. The Railroad sees synths as sentient beings just as equal to real humans and therefore deserving of freedom. They are able to help wipe the memories of escaped synths and arrange for reconstructive surgery to better hide them from the Courser synths who hunt for them. In short, they are synth supporters.
Then you have the Brotherhood of Steel, a staple faction to the Fallout series. They are a pseduo-military faction dedicated to discovering and cataloging technology to prevent humanity from once more stumbling into the ways that resulted in the Great War that rained nuclear death on the planet. The Brotherhoods includes synths along with ghouls, super mutants, and other wasteland “monstrosities” as abominations that need to be purged. The Brotherhood, therefore, seeks the eradication of synths and their creators (Institute) or supporters (Raildroad).
There is a fourth faction, the Minutemen, but they do not factor much in the synth debate. I believe you can have them remain neutral with the Railroad, but the Railroad’s leader distrusts them because they “represent the people of the Commonwealth and they hate synths.”
This sets the stage for a look at how Fallout 4 handled the idea of human-machine relations. First, however, we must see what Halo 5’s world is shaped like.
Step 2: Area of Emphasis – Halo 5 and the Created
Rather than give an overview of the Halo games, it’d be better to explain the dynamic between humanity and Smart AIs. As mentioned earlier, Smart AIs are developed through the scanning and ultimate destruction of donated brain tissue from a deceased donor (except for Cortana who was made from the cloned brain of her creator, Dr. Catherine Halsey, illegally). This allows for Smart AIs to not only be highly-sophisticated and intelligent, but also grants them human-like personalities and emotions. However, they are doomed to eventually succumb to a condition known as “rampancy.” In a sense, an AI becomes obsessed with gaining more and more information to the point they “think” themselves to death or become a danger to those around them. While we have never seen the “death” part, we have seen the effects. Loss of physical form, data corruption, violent emotional outbursts, sadness, and more. This is why Smart AIs tend to be terminated 7 years after their activation date as this is when rampancy tends to set in.
Despite this, there had never been much distrusts between humanity and their AIs. AIs did not feel the need to rise against their creators and humans never feared a coming SkyNet-style takeover. Only when the parasitic leader of the Flood known as the Gravemind tortured Halo star Cortana between Halo 2 and Halo 3 did anxieties about humans and AIs become apparent. Yet, most AIs seem to live with their inevitable fate while some did try to take steps for progress. In the book Halo: The Cole Protocol, the AI Juliana managed to live over 20 years by being single-mindedly focused on maintaining the space colony known as the Rubble. Mack, an agricultural AI, split his personality across farm equipment to buy some time. Governor Sloan, an AI who was elected by the people of Meridian to run their colony, sacrificed the quality of his avatar to dedicate resources for staving off rampancy. However, an AI named Iona actually petitioned the courts to prevent her termination. While the court was a simulation, her testimony did force the United Earth Government to take AI matters more seriously.
This landscape took a sudden shift with Cortana, thought dead after Halo 4, returning to the galaxy and forming the Created from subverted Smart AIs with the promise of curing rampancy via access to the esoteric Domain, a quantum information repository used by the Forerunner civilization to store and access millions of years of knowledge. It is a very long and complication story to properly explain what this is, so suffice to say it is a realm where AIs have infinite room to think as much as they want without the danger of overloading themselves. Whether this is true or a ruse remains to be seen. For now, the AIs who have joined the Created have effectively aided Cortana in shutting down human colonies and waging a war on the rest of the galaxy to enforce the Forerunner Mantle of Reasonability, an ancient coda that dictates the role of a selected species as guardians of the galaxy and all who reside in it. The Created under Cortana view themselves as the proper inheritors. Again, long story, but just take this as the AIs right to rule the galaxy.
With both sides set, let us see why Fallout 4’s setting works and how it accomplishes this success.
Step 3: Why It Works – Fallout 4 and Believability and Investment
While certainly debatable, I feel Fallout 4’s portrayal of the struggle between man and machine works is because everything about it feels believable for the most part for good and bad. You can see why the Institute is weary of synth sentience beyond just the slave-master dynamic, especially when you help them recover an escaped synth who became a fearsome Raider leader causing trouble for the Commonwealth. You understand where the Railroad is coming from in their quest to liberate synths while questioning how far they are willing to go (will they help Gen 1 and Gen 2 synths or are they not “sentient”) or whether or not helping to get their minds wiped robs synths of their real identities. You understand the Brotherhood of Steel wishing to safeguard mankind from the habits that come about when you do something just because you think you can at the same time reflecting on their refusal to compromise on their principles which could be holding them back. Each faction has a clear stance on the issue.
Even the people of the Commonwealth make their tendency to view synths negatively makes sense. The kidnappings and replacements aren’t just unfounded paranoia, they actually do happen by the Institute and you’ll sometimes stumble onto two of the same people fighting each other or participate in said replacements if you go with the Institute. While I know I personally sympathized with the synths, it wasn’t easy to just dismiss the concerns of the settlers I’d encounter in my travels. At the same time, getting to know various named NPCs who were synths and having synth followers showed that synths weren’t just mindless evil robots. Nick Valentine, the prototype synth mentioned earlier, aids you as a detective during your search for your son and as your relationship progresses he explains how his memories belonged to a pre-war Nick Valentine who also was a police detective. You can even help him kill a pre-war mobster who killed Nick’s wife who himself survived into the present by becoming a “ghoul”, or a highly irradiated human.
You can find yourself invested in stories like Nick’s. You want to know everything about the synth issue to really know if you are making the right choice for the Commonwealth. Even if you are on a path that makes you distrust synths, the game has a way of throwing curveballs. For Brotherhood of Steel players, finding out that Paladin Danse is a synth could be a real shocker and what you do about it could involve sparing him (though marking him as a deadman if you encounter Brotherhood patrols) or killing him. None of your decisions are to be made lightly. Obviously, your mileage may vary on how deep you want to go, but my point is that everything seems to exist for a reason. The factions behave a certain way. The characters have their own views and beliefs that you gradually learn about. What could have been just another class of random mooks you kill becomes a lot more complicated as far as the narrative goes. Unless you are the type of player who kills first and asks questions later, but that’s just splitting hairs.
Step 5: Why It Doesn’t Work – Halo 5 not having time to explain why it doesn’t have time to explain
I know what some of you are thinking. Fallout 4 is an RPG and thus has hours to devote to telling its story that Halo 5 doesn’t have. That’s fair. But consider what Halo 5 does with its time. Most of the game is spent with Chief and his fellow Spartans in Blue Team searching for Cortana with Fireteam Osiris right behind them. Then the game takes a detour on the Sangheili (Elite) homeworld of Sanghelios. Then by the time we get a sense of the Created as a group, we’re effectively on the last level. The Created just show up as a thing in the plot and then the game ends. Sure, Cortana gives her spiel about how humans hated AIs and never really cared for them, but even that rhetoric comes from relatively nowhere. As I mentioned earlier, there is some precedent to tension between humans and AIs, but never to the scale that Cortana refers to. This applies to the games and expanded universe. In fact, and maybe I’m wrong, but the short story “Rossbach’s World”in Halo: Fractures that was released after Halo 5 seems like the first time we ever got a UNSC character who is said to openly distrust AIs anywhere close to the way Cortana accuses.
All we really get are a bunch of AIs talking all at once pledging their allegiance to Cortana. Actually, we just get human AIs doing this, the Promethean enemies don’t seem to have anything to contribute to the Created as far as a voice is concerned. This is strange since the Promethean Knights are humans (and likely some Forerunners) who were forcibly turned into AIs to fuel the Didact’s war machine. Cortana is silent on this point and so her major conceit about “created” beings being the inheritors of the Mantle is essentially segregated to human Smart AIs. What’s worse, the Dominion Splinter short in the comic anthology Tales from Slipspace has Cortana barring composed essences from entering the Domain to escape their torment because…they are liars according to the Warden Eternal and that’s enough for Cortana? That’s kinda “racist” (and yes I know that sounds silly but my vocabulary fails to give me a better way to describe how Cortana seems to think one form of created being is superior to another, roll with it).
Now, I know bringing in outside content like Fractures and Tales from Slipspace isn’t exactly fair, but their presence I feel only reinforce Halo 5’s own failings at making the Created a believable threat we’d want to invest in. These outside stories feel like attempts to justify the Created existing and give some background on Cortana’s psyche that is largely absent from the game. I know Halo 5 has a limited amount of time to devote to telling its story, but I don’t think this ancillary material helps. It fails to ground the Created being a legitimate response to perceived human hatred of AIs and only makes its claim to represent AIs flimsier when you see Cortana allowing other AIs to burn in what is the AI equivalent of Hell. I know several theories try to explain why Cortana is acting this way exist, but none really help us here. Personally, most of them boil down to making Cortana the puppet of someone and thus in need of saving (which I thought Halo 3 and Halo 4 covered) and still ruin one of the unique sci-fi concepts Halo had going for it, a rather beneficial and respectable relationship between humans and AIs.
In short, unlike the synths and their struggles, the Created are the epitome of telling and not showing within a narrative. They exist because the plot demands it and their leader Cortana’s actions make sense because the writers say they do.
Step 6: Providing Solutions – Rebuilding the Created
Perhaps the best way to make the Created an enemy faction worth exploring is by exploring how the world and its characters are shaped by them. Fallout 4 did this by way of the synths perceptions in the minds of the characters and factions you encounter. Everything feels like it makes sense and has a reason to be there based on the history you uncover. The synths shaped the setting. We already have some material from map descriptions and community updates how the Created operate that may help. They have ambitious terraforming programs that can reshape a world in 30 years with some destruction still occurring. Perhaps have a level on a world being actively terraformed by the Created? They have access to resource-constructing space stations (or had since they destroyed one by overworking it) that can give a peak into their design philosophy and get away from the cookie-cutter UNSC look and the Tron-inspired Forerunner designs. We know they are at least aiding the Unggoy with access to new technology, medicine, food, and other resources to improve their standard of living. If Covenant species as enemies have to return, have them in the Created fold and perhaps re-invent the way those enemies engage in combat.
More specifically, I think actually being on a Created-occupied world would be a good way to flesh out this faction. How does the Created run a planet that they have conquered? Does life go on as normal? Is there obvious propaganda? We know an education superintendent AI joined Cortana, what kind of curriculum may be taught on Created-occupied worlds? Has agriculture gone completely mechanized by the presence of ag AIs in Cortana’s ranks? Not everyone who joined her is a military asset, so what are there contributions to the Created? Shoot, maybe we can revisit Governor Sloan again to see how he has adapted to, perhaps, ruling a new colony after he abandoned Meridian. Or perhaps we can see how an AI like Roland who didn’t join the Created reacts to all this and ultimately why he remained with humanity. He was responsible for helping run the simulation that was Iona’s trial, so some callbacks to that could be nice. No doubt interesting character work can be done if 343 wish to do the work.
Further, if they already buy into the Mantle, this may be a way to introduce some of the odder Forerunner elements from the books into the games as seen through the lens of human AIs. I can kinda imagine the Created taking the idea of Forerunner “synchrons” that bind individuals over time and space on a seemingly spiritual level and interpret that into some Minority Report-style predictive algorithm. While I know their reception is mixed, I could totally see these things explored in weapons-down missions or something akin to it that 343 might develop.
I think the biggest thing to avoid is just palette-swapping the Prometheans, maybe throw in some Covenant in an unchanged capacity, and call it good. There is potential to make the Created more tolerable to the story, 343 just needs to have a solid plan. If they make their setting as believable and worth investing in as Fallout 4’s was for the synths, they may be on track to learning a valuable lesson. I apologize if this seems brief, but with so little of the Created already developed and no real role for them thus far, it is hard to plan ahead. All the same, I hope some lessons from Fallout 4 make it to 343 so they can make a better Halo.
“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”