Friday, October 24, 2008

The Religiousness of Halo (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia

The Halo series, as awesome as it is (pardon my fanboy bias), has been criticized by various people for perceived weaknesses. While there’s not much I can say regarding gameplay issues besides “to each their own,” one thing that sticks out at me is the supposed anti-Christian or generally anti-religious message some see in the games. As an atheist, I have no real problem with the opposition of religion in fiction, but I would have to say that the Halo series is neither very atheistic nor anti-Christian in its message. While the story may depict a godless world, the plot itself appears to be a biblical allusion or allegory, intended for a Christian market.

The main problem people have with the story is the aliens-are-God scenario. In the story, the Forerunners are an ancient species of alien who were locked in a struggle with the Flood parasite. They built the Halo, seven weapons of mass destruction that would collectively kill every living creature in the galaxy that could be consumed by the Flood, in an attempt to starve them to death. In order to maintain the continuation of sentient species, the Forerunners temporarily moved a selection of all of them to the Ark, a facility located outside of the galaxy. This obvious reimagining of the biblical Noah story ends with the surviving humans being brought to a garden in Kenya called Eden, created by the Forerunner known as the Librarian, from which they could repopulate the Earth. The Forerunner known as the Didact, the Librarian’s lover, came to Eden as the last surviving Forerunner to pass along the Forerunner legacy to humans.

So, yes, in the story, the bible is a mostly false history. God is just a couple aliens and people got confused. This, however, does not necessarily determine the overall message of the story and what the American public was supposed to get from it.

Besides the Forerunner, a main issue is the Covenant. The Covenant are a fanatical and warlike religious sect worshiping the deceased Forerunner, whom they mistakenly believe to have ascended to a divine state by activating Halo, and hope to follow in their path. The Covenant’s leaders promise that the path to salvation is wide enough for everyone and they seek out people to convert, violently “taming” those wise enough to reject their invitation.

The real world parallels are obvious, both to Christianity during the Crusades and radical Islam in the present day. Although, Microsoft made Bungie change the name of the Covenant figure “Arbiter” from the original name of “Dervish” for the sake of political correctness, so perhaps closer parallels can be drawn to violent, state-driven Islam – close on the minds of every American since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent wars. The Covenant are essentially a metaphor for Abrahamic religion, with an oppressive government not dissimilar to certain Middle Eastern countries. The UNSC is very much American, providing a similar mindset for the player to slide into as they play as the Master Chief.

However, the Covenant storyline as seen through the eyes of the Arbiter (and Tartarus to some extent) focuses more on the corruption of the society than on anti-religious principles. Power corrupts, and the Prophet of Truth is thoroughly corrupted. Even when the Arbiter reveals the truth via 343 Guilty Spark, his focus is on the Prophets’ betrayal. Blind faith and devotion is criticized when Tartarus, whose morals were earlier thrown out when he obeyed Truth’s order to let Mercy die, refuses to accept that he was mislead. Again, the negative aspects are more brought on by bad leaders than anything.

The major antagonist in the game series is the Gravemind, a collective intelligence among a myriad of freakish zombie-like beings. With a repulsive appearance and a love of mysterious and morbid poetry, the Gravemind makes a very nice Satan figure to go with the Christ figure of John-117. Just as the biblical Satan attempts to seduce Jesus to the dark side, so does the Gravemind with John.

"I am peace… I am salvation…"
—Gravemind
"I am an endless chorus. Join your voice with mine and sing victory everlasting."
—Gravemind

John rejects the Gravemind’s mental (and physical) assault, rescues the damsel in distress, and moves to seriously injure the Gravemind so that it would be unable to take action for a very long time. In the scene before the credits, it is implied that John did not make it out alive. On Earth, his memory is honored while the war is finally over. He is viewed as a hero and a martyr, who gave his life for the good of all people in the world. Of course, he’s not really dead, as is revealed in the final scene, just sleeping for a good long while… until…

Anyway, I think it’s clear Bungie was making distinct biblical allusions with the protagonist. In all probability, the Bungie guys who wrote the story are Christians. The Halo series, though it hasn’t performed particularly badly overseas, was marketed specifically for the American people. A large majority of America’s population is made up of Christians, something of which Bungie would have been well aware. Bungie obviously needs to pander to their respective market, and in the contemporary American media an anti-religious message would be suicide. Even though protagonist Sergeant Johnson, a Christian, may be wrong within the context of the story, he’s a moral (and funny) character that players can like and enjoy. In the end, the exact story is unimportant compared to the symbolism of the piece. No player is expected to suddenly believe that God was a couple aliens anymore than a child is expected to believe that they can walk on empty air as long as they don’t look down after watching Road Runner cartoons.

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