Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Outcast (Asperger Syndrome)

I have Asperger syndrome. If you don’t know what that means, it’s hard to explain. I can link to the Wikipedia article, but all that you’ll get there is a technical description defining a neurological disorder in a way the general public can understand from an outside perspective. I will now attempt to describe some aspects of what it’s like, as well as some of my concerns regarding its treatment in society.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Aliens and Xenophobia (Indiana Jones)

I recently watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for the third time, via Netflix. While it’s a pretty enjoyable film all and all, one thing about it that irritates me is its usage of the plot element that involves aliens giving ancient humanity superior technology that allowed them to prosper. I generally have no real problem with movies drawing from paranormal ideas to supplement their storylines, but this one particularly irks me. For one thing, I know a lot of people actually believe in that sort of thing, while I find it kooky nonsense. For another, it seems indicative to me of a rather xenophobic perspective. That is, xenophobia as in fear of foreigners, not Xenomorph aliens.

The basic “ancient astronaut” hypothesis holds that extraterrestrial life forms visited Earth in the distant past and supplied aid to our ancient cultures. Among the evidence used to support this are artistic artifacts that can be interpreted to depict UFOs, aliens, etc. The main items cited as evidence are great architectural achievements of the ancient world. Proponents conclude that because these cultures are considered primitive by today’s standards that they only way they could have constructed such creations is with outside assistance, and that such assistance could only have come from extraterrestrial beings.

A popular subject cited are the pyramids of Egypt. Enormous ancient geometric stone formations with alignment to astronomical phenomena are awe-inspiring anyway, so I can understand why people would feel attracted to the idea that it would hold some greater meaning. However, the only meaning is that of the religious devotion of the Egyptian people. The Egyptians worshiped their rulers as god-kings and so built magnificent tombs in their honor, much as Western society built those great Gothic cathedrals as a form of religious worship.

The notion that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t possibly have possessed the ability to create such things seems to me to be quite naïve, not to mention Eurocentric. The way Western civilization developed is not the only way that works, nor should it be used as a standard from which to judge the rest of the world. The claims that are thrown out regarding the Egyptians as primitive people incapable of producing such architectural wonders due to poor intellect sound to me to be xenophobic, assuming that Western civilization is the only true civilization and that for any other civilization to produce such awe-inspiring structures they must have had some outside assistance. And as Western civilization could not produce similar work, the outside assistance had to have been outside of humanity entirely.

The evidence for Egyptians constructing the pyramids themselves and for their own religion, independent of aliens, is quite diverse if one bothers to properly research the subject before making wild claims. A quick Google search brings this up, for starters. To me, it’s fine if you want to believe in something extraordinary just for your own, personal enjoyment/mental well-being. The problem comes with accepting something extraordinary as doubtlessly true and intentionally influencing people with pseudoscience, especially when it promotes a harmful viewpoint such as reducing the great culture of ancient Egypt to helpless savages dependent on some great external source. This line of thinking advocates xenophobia and I deem it unhealthy to society.

I don’t fault the makers of the latest Indiana Jones movie for using a mythological/paranormal claim as their MacGuffin. That, of course, is their gimmick. However, this particular one is rather culturally insensitive and in turn becomes a corruption of the themes of the previous films. By saying that the ancient cultures had alien help, it removes the power possessed by the ancient civilizations in all of Dr. Jones’ previous adventures. The series’ transformation into science fiction robs it of its respect for humanity, instead leaving its human protagonists at the mercy of god-like beings from another dimension. The movie itself is enjoyable, but its mythological additions do the series a disservice.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Check It Out! In the Sky! Is that... IMAX? (Halo)

Originally written for Halopedia.

On August 21st, 2007, just over a month before the release of Halo 3, Bungie hosted a special preview event at the better of the two Seattle IMAX theaters to showcase some of the great capabilities of their upcoming game to a limited number of fans. I was lucky enough to be one of the 790 people to get into the event, and though I made an initial write-up here, I will now write a more formal and thorough article to cement the facts in my mind and to share with the users of Halopedia.

I first found out about it from a Bungie.net post. I think I was on the #halopedia IRC at the time, idle while checking it out and half-wanting to get back to the chatroom. In any case, I wasn’t paying my full attention. The post described a special event happening that night, and I was like, “Okay, cool… Anything else?” Then I realized that the event it was describing was within driving distance and it was actually possible to make. I was just like, “Whoa.”

However, I then decided it was probably too good to be true. Still, if I could hypothetically make it, was it worth just giving up on? I decided I’d just run downstairs and ask my mom about it, knowing that the odds were against it and I shouldn’t get my hopes up. I went down to the family room, where my mom was sewing while watching TV, and tried to ask as nonchalantly as possible if it was an event we could go to. My take on nonchalant, however, was to scrunch a load of information into a quick, monotone statement, and I’m afraid I came out as less than indifferent. To my surprise, she said that it was possible, that the schedule for the night was clear and that she was up to driving to Seattle.

Now that the event had entered the range of Actually Possible, she sent me back up to read the Bungie announcement more thoroughly. Turned out, everyone had to send an RSVP to a Microsoft email address, so I did that and gave my mom’s name in case it was necessary. It turned out not to be, but you never know.

Everything was looking good, so we drove down to Seattle. We used to frequent the Pacific Science Center (the location of the IMAX theater) as a source of homeschool fieldtrips, so we knew the terrain and were able to park pretty quickly in a nearby parking building. When we went to pay for our parking spot at the box, we ran into a guy who was clearly a gamer. I don’t remember if he was wearing a specific video-game-related shirt or if his attire was just that stereotypical gamer geek look, but it was obvious he was there for the Halo 3 event. Knowing I would be too intimidated to speak to a total stranger, my mom made polite conversation with him so I could enjoy it by proxy – definitely appreciated. He asked for some mundane information, like how to get to the PSC from there or some such, and we left him to pay for his spot.

Once we got up the hill to the block that had the PSC, we automatically joined what was clearly a line. However, after looking around a bit, it was clear it was not a group of gamer-types. Liberal hippie-types might be a better description. My mom ventured to ask a couple of people in line if it was for Halo. I was a bit paranoid about asking them, afraid of their reaction in response to hearing us ask about a shooter game when all these characters let off an ‘anti-war’ feel. While ironic for supporters of peace to react violently, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Zealots and hypocrisy, you know. Fortunately, my fear was unfounded and the woman just answered “Uh, I don’t think so,” in an honest, neutral voice. “It’s a [some name] concert,” someone nearby explained. “Oh, okay.”

So we went around the other side of the block to a line that was clearly made up of geeks and gamers, teenage/college boys and such, the odd girl among them. “Is this for Halo 3?” The response was affirmative, and we stood in line to wait. As we had shown up early, it was quite a long wait. Fortunately, I’d brought my iPod with me and just stood there listening to a Queen playlist while staring at an enormous poster of Ichiro Suzuki hanging from a building across the street.

Eventually, the skies darkened, and a couple guys from Bungie started walking around and talking to the people in line. At first I was like “Oh, yeah, sure you say you’re from Bungie. Now, anyone could put on a Bungie shirt and walk around a Bungie event and say you work at Bungie!” but then they pulled out some real merchandise soon to be sold on Bungie.net and at Penny Arcade. I was then like, “Oh my god… I think they might actually be Bungie…”

It says in my initial write-up that I thought one of the Bungie guys might have been Frankie. I don’t remember the details that well at this point, so I’ll trust my past self and say that I may have recognized one of them as Frankie, who definitely did show up for the IMAX part. Of the items they showed was a Master Chief shirt of some kind, though all further detail has been lost into the abyss of my mind.

Then, finally, the line started moving. My excitement started to flare up at this point. The announcement on Bungie.net had said that it was a first-come, first-serve deal and not everyone should count on getting a seat, so I was a bit nervous. However, we managed to buy two tickets to the IMAX theater, so that was it; we were in!

I’d been to the IMAX several times before, so I knew my way around the place. The theater was still decorated for Harry Potter. To a casual observer, it would have looked like we were all lining up for the Harry Potter movie.

We ignored the snack bar, or maybe it was closed, and lined up at the entrance. After a few minutes, more Bungie guys showed up and passed around these nifty Master Chief stickers made up of all these little hexagons so that they caught the light at different angles. Neat.

One of the Bungie guys started taking pictures of the people in line. “You guys are going on the website,” he said in an enthusiastic almost sing-song ‘get excited about this’ manner. “On Bungie.net,” he added, notably skipping the ‘dot’ part. My mom slipped aside to let me get in the picture. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever posted the pictures. If they do/did, I’m the overweight guy in a dragon shirt who may or may not look like a girl.

So, then the doors opened, and we were rushing to get good seats. We ended up sitting on the lower middle section of the right side (our right facing the screen). The Bungie guys were walking around setting things up, and I managed to get a pretty good look at a few of them.

Frankie was there. Bald guy, shorter than I expected, but real. I most remember being stunned by his color, just the incredible range of color in his face. Not to say that he was a rainbow or anything, but when you see pictures of him on the site you don’t get the full range of colors as you do in real life. The most hi-res photos cannot capture the wealth of detail that the human eye can, so even though I was able to recognize him, he was Frankie as I never knew him.

And I was like “Oh my god, this is Frankie.” I was standing in a room with Frank O’Connor. And it was stunning because it was like I had the sudden realization that Frankie was a guy, a real human guy. His colors were at an incredible resolution, and he was actually moving around, talking to people, and moving equipment around. Not that I thought he was a male S1m0ne or anything, but it’s one thing to know Frankie as the community figure on the net and quite another to actually see him as a human being walking around.

Here he was, this Bungie god and then suddenly I had this enormous respect for the guy. I knew him as the Bungie guy on the net, but he was this real employee with amazing talent. He was a man with the kind of skills that allowed him to get a job with Bungie Studios, a professional video game developer owned by Microsoft. He was a god among men, really.

You know, on the net you start to see things out of perspective. All data starts to blend together and it sort of becomes hard to separate fiction and fact. On the web you are anonymous but for the text you reveal, which shapes people’s perception of you, and people fall into roles. On the web, Frankie is a wacky spokesperson that is entirely made up of these less than perfect images and the text he produces. However, seeing him in person made him real to me.

I wasn’t the only Frankie fan there. Some guy in the upper left area of the seating bellowed out, “We love you, Frankie!” This prompted someone on my upper right to call out, “That guy is gay!” In response, Frankie (on a microphone) made a comment like “There are a lot of Muggles here tonight…”, which elicited laughter.

Around this point, the IMAX screen was showing the set up screen for Halo 3 campaign, with an absolute giant Master Chief and Arbiter towering over us. I remember pointing at the characters and giving my mom a very basic explanation of who they were. After fumbling around a bit with the Xboxes, Frankie started narrating what they were doing: They were going to play co-op on Tsavo Highway, with him taking the first player role of Master Chief to be shown on the IMAX screen. Meanwhile, the other guy (I’m thinking it was Luke Smith) was going to play alongside him as the Arbiter.

The theater darkened and the show began. I was so unbelievably excited at this point. I got to see real Halo 3 footage on a giant screen, and it looked awesome. I was tied between wanting to just sit back and enjoy it and wanting to make a note of everything for Halopedia. I ended up mostly just watching it, though I tried to remember interesting details. (Hey, that one Marine sounds like Mal! Nah, couldn’t be…)

While the game urges you to move as quick as possible, Frankie kept the pace leisurely to allow us to truly appreciate the spectacular caves. When you play the game on the TV, the caves look cool, but seeing them blown-up to such a degree and still hi-res is just so awesome. Frankie jerked his Warthog around violently during the last part. We laughed because it looked like he couldn’t control it (an understandable conclusion given how unwieldy it was in the first game), but I think now that he was just trying to lose his Marines.

They played through a few of the battles, mostly just to show off the graphics and certain features. Frankie specifically bumped into a hanging rope to show that the rope does indeed move as you brush against it. I remember becoming really excited as I recognized specific Covenant races and saw different types of Brutes with their new armor. I’m not sure if they specifically pointed out features of the Covenant. I know at one point after a battle, Frankie just faced his partner as he fired and reloaded to showcase the animation.

At one point, Frankie decided to show off a plasma cannon. I was just staring in awe at the graphics and didn’t recognize the turret as anything other than “Wow, beautiful purple gravity lift thing – super cool!” He mounted it and swiveled it to its limits. He made a comment like “This is pretty good… but not enough freedom of movement.” He snapped the cannon off its base. The theater then erupted into a big cheer of “YEAH!” It’s kind of silly, but it really felt empowering, like we were collectively claiming our freedom of movement with that turret thing.

They moved on to the entrance to the highway, noting the shield that can’t be shot through. After eliminating the enemies, Truth began his ominous sermon, and I basically got goosebumps. This was the epic Halo storyline playing out on an epic screen/sound system. Then the CCS-class Covenant ship soared over our heads on that massive screen and it truly felt epic, like it really filled the sky. It’s awesome on the TV, but on an IMAX screen it’s truly fantastic.

At this point, Frankie decided we’d had enough of a teaser of the storyline and, after pointing out the Forerunner dreadnought in the distance, had a quick melee battle with his co-op partner before bringing things back to the menu. Having shown us the campaign, he then showed us Forge. As it loaded, he noted the beauty of the Halo 3 loading animation, made by Adrian Perez. Again, this is one of the things you can truly appreciate on an IMAX screen. That swirling Halo animation is really pretty and peaceful, almost like something out of Fantasia, and you really don’t appreciate it as much when it’s all bunched up together on a TV screen.

Now, I had been neglecting my Halo 3 coverage, so I didn’t really know about Forge despite it having previously been announced on Bungie.net. So, I was pretty shocked and amazed when my study of High Ground was interrupted by Luke changing into a Monitor and making stuff appear in the map. I was just blown away by the new feature, and marveled at Bungie’s genius.

Next, they showed off their saved film capabilities by showing a match they had on Sandtrap. The graphics were just unbelievably gorgeous and it was hard to take in it all at this point. As a team of Choppers rolled toward the structure, Frankie showed how he could jump from person to person to see everyone’s actions. He paused it as one guy grabbed a heavy weapon (I’m thinking Rocket Launcher or Missile Pod), to point out the red laser tickling his feet. “People tend to go for the power weapons,” Frankie noted, “Because people are fundamentally stupid.”

They stopped the show at this point, but answered a few questions from the audience and then revealed a Halo 3 Legendary-edition case shaped like the Spartan helmet. They said that one of the ticket stubs had three Frankenstein images stamped on it, and that whoever had it would be taking home the case (without the game, of course). However, it seemed that the guy who got the lucky ticket had thrown it away or something, because no one came forward. As a back-up plan, they gave it away to whoever was sitting in seat G-7. If you notice, G is the seventh letter in the alphabet.

And then, unfortunately, it was over. People started walking out. We decided to wait a little while to let the crowd pass through. This allowed us to notice several people getting their ticket stubs signed by the Bungie guys. I was willing to just leave with my memories, but my mom pointed out that Frankie was right there and I might as well. So, I hesitantly approached him and handed him my ticket stub and a pen. He was nice and quickly scrawled out a little Mister Chief alongside his autograph.

On my way out, I saw some guy getting his chest signed by a Bungie guy. Though I was trying not to stare, I overheard “I'm going to use your nipple to dot the I. I totally am. Dude, hold still.” Once outside, we had to wait a bit for the crowd to clear, during which my mom started talking to a PSC employee. According to him, some people had shown up as early as 10:00 AM, and some had come from as far away as Portland and Austen.

The event was truly magnificent. I remember muttering, “I can die happy now…” It was a physical manifestation of my somewhat abstract Internet obsession come to life in a way truly awesome. The word awesome is thrown around a lot, but this was truly awe-inspiring. Way to go, Bungie. You guys are artists.

Sins of the Father (Halo)

Originally written for Halopedia.

There is a theme in Halo, of old conflicts being fought anew at a time far in the future. The most obvious instance of this lies in the Forerunner-Flood War, in which the activation of Halo halted the war for 100,000 years until the descendants of the Forerunners met what Flood had survived in hibernation. In addition, it also would appear that most human conflicts in the Halo universe are based on historical wars, primarily those related to America.

The Interplanetary War, a series of conflicts in the twenty-second century, has its roots in both World War II and the Cold War. The war pitted the United Nations against two enemy factions known as the Koslovics and the Frieden, organizations composed of Russian communists and German fascists respectively. They are likely each based on the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with whom America fell into conflict, as did the United Nations, on which it was also likely to have been based, with its similar enemies. With the defeat of the Koslovics and the Frieden came the formation of the United Earth Government, dominant over all of the human population, from what was once the United Nations.

In the latter half of the twenty-fifth century, however, some of the Outer Colonies came to think that their local governments could do a better job of taking care of their populations than could the UEG. After their requests to secede were denied, numerous groups in support of secession went to war with the UNSC in a conflict known as the Insurrection, which has similarity with the American Civil War.

The primary conflict is that of the Human-Covenant War, which has many similarities to various historical conflicts. The most obvious, I believe, is to the currently ongoing conflict America has with certain Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In some respects, the Covenant resembles radical Islam, which America opposes in real life just as the UNSC opposes the Covenant in Halo.

However, other parallels can be made with the Crusades, in which Christian aggressors waged a religious war primarily against Muslims over occupation of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is considered to be of extreme religious significance to both cultures, the city heavily referred to in the Bible and the Koran. Similarity can be drawn to the Covenant invasion of Earth, in which the Covenant take the place of the Christians and the humans as the Muslims.

The Covenant similarity to the Abrahamic religions of humanity is obvious, providing an interesting parallel. The aggressors fight on the basis of a religion very similar to the people they attack, over the occupancy of a land (planet) considered holy due to the presence of ancient holy sites. This may, however, simply be a coincidence, as Bungie appears reluctant to portray the humans as anything other than American.

Another war that could have served as inspiration for the Human-Covenant War is the previously mentioned WWII. Unlike the other connections, which are primarily made up of my own speculation, there is some canonical basis to this one. In Halo: The Fall of Reach, McRobb expresses a worry that Reach will turn out like Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor, for those unaware, was an American naval base on Honolulu, Hawaii that was attacked by Japan in 1941, bringing America actively into WWII. In this, the Covenant is compared with Imperial Japan, a culture with which it does share some notable similarities. For instance, much of the Sangheili warrior culture appears modeled on the romantic notion of the samurai as it appears in popular culture. In addition, both the Sangheili and Jiralhanae armor bears striking resemblance to that of the samurai. The Prophet of Truth, ultimate leader of the Covenant and aspiring god, could be compared with Japanese Emperor Hirohito Showa, who claimed to be a god in human form.

The Human-Covenant War is compared with WWII again in ilovebees, when Colonel Herzog speculates that ONI knew planets Troy and Harmony were to be attacked by the Covenant and let the attacks occur in order to keep the Covenant unaware their transmissions were being monitored, bringing up a similar incident in WWII in which the British forces cracked Germany’s code and had to make their own sacrifices. In this comparison, the Covenant are not Japan but rather their Axis ally Nazi Germany. It is easy to see the link between power-hungry, genocidal Prophet of Truth and Adolph Hitler, and perhaps this is where such inspiration originated.

This is all primarily speculation, so don’t take this as strict fact. I, however, view it all as likely to have influenced Bungie as they concocted their wonderful world. And in the end, Bungie’s own spin changes the scenario radically enough so that anything that could apply to these historical wars does not in the unique environment they designed. Their own story ultimately becomes the important one.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halo Fanfiction Tips

Originally written for Halopedia.

Since the beginning of storytelling, authors have taken one person’s story and applied their own spin on it to transform it in their own image. This practice has continued into modern day, even within the realm of copyrighted material. While copyrighted works cannot be legally reproduced without explicit permission, copyright holders will often allow fans to write their own stories, known as fanfiction or fanfic for short, using characters and elements from the work, provided that there is no commercial gain. Halo is no exception to these stories and many Halopedians, including myself, are fanfiction authors. Although fanfiction is not allowed on the encyclopedia, it is more than welcome on our sister site Halo Fanon, specifically for Halo fanfiction material. I hardly consider myself an expert fanfiction writer, but I have had several years’ experience, so I feel obliged to share some tips.

First of all, it’s important to know the language. One can hardly expect to amass readers if most have trouble reading your story. If you aren’t comfortable with your knowledge of grammar and spelling, refresh yourself on the subject and/or use a word processor with an automatic spellchecker. It also helps to get someone else, referred to as a beta-reader, to look over your work and make sure everything makes sense. It can be very easy to write words like “your” instead of “you’re” that the machine doesn’t catch, so it helps to have another set of eyes.

Now, onto the Halo aspects of fanfiction writing. Most of the elements you need can come straight from the canon, which can be researched pretty easily here on Halopedia. However, I find it easier if I can draw from some more commonplace media to use as inspiration in conjunction with the straight canon.

For instance, the Sangheili culture strikes me as similar to the romanticized depictions of both European knights and Japanese samurai. To get inside the head of the Arbiter, I look to various movies and books depicting these subjects, including First Knight and Dragonheart as far as the knights go, with a bit of Star Wars as well for the Jedi – a knight/samurai blend in their own right.

For the dialog, you can observe the similarly old fashioned manner of speaking from a number of fantasy characters. I personally like Glory’s minions from the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the “hobbits with leprosy”, not the crazy people). I think they match up pretty well in terms of prose. For those who don’t want to bother with other media, think “exaggerated prose.” These guys are well-educated and want everyone to know it. You can just take what an average person would say and make it a bit more complicated and dramatic (e.g. “The goddamned Brutes killed Bob! They’re going down!” becomes “Noble Bob has been slain by the wretched Brutes! They will pay for the blood they have spilt!”).

And speaking of Brutes, the Jiralhanae can be considered the Sith to the Sangheili Jedi. While the Elites are all about honor and discipline, the Brutes strike me as passionate and disorderly. I invite everyone to read the Code of the Sith at Wookieepedia, as I find it great for getting inside Brutes’ heads.

Star Wars aside, inspiration can be drawn from the sheer brutality of the human race. Brutes are brutal, after all, and as big gorillas they are excellent metaphors for the animalistic side of humanity. While the Sangheili are romantic samurai, I see the Jiralhanae (a Korean slang word for psychotic lunatic, by the way) as the Japanese war criminals at Nanking during the Nanking Massacre. If you are unfamiliar with the subject, I urge you to educate yourselves – although, a warning that it is pretty horrific. Bungie also compares the Jiralhanae to bikers and to Roman barbarians.

The Klingons of Star Trek can provide a source of inspiration as well. Although they are also based on romantic samurai, they’re far more brutal than other depictions. Their somewhat over-the-top dialog is also similar to Sangheili dialog. The following exchange from Halo 3 could easily have come from Klingons:

Major: “Brute ships! Staggered line. Shipmaster! They outnumber us, three-to-one!”

Rtas ‘Vadum: “Then it is an even fight…”

Moving down the hierarchy, we have the Kig-Yar. I find it useful to think of Jackals as a more domestic enemy: your typical creep. The sort of person is commonplace: arrogant, abusive, and thoroughly nasty if left unchecked. The Kig-Yar are relatively low in power, but they are space pirates and can present trouble to both humans and Unggoy.

While Unggoy are often seen as comedic due to their tendency to say silly things in gameplay, the characters presented in the novels are far more serious. Grunts are cannon fodder. They are relatively weak, but breed quickly and are just thrown out at the enemy en masse and can overwhelm. Although they are pretty much brainwashed, they realize that they’ve got a bad deal and often fake laziness just to keep from being sent out into the frontlines. When they get together with conviction, they can form a powerful fighting force, even against the Covenant as happened in the Grunt Rebellion.

I like to think of Unggoy as slaves. Technically, they are not because slavery specifically refers to people being treated as property to be bought and sold. However, despite a few who delight in serving the Prophets, the Unggoy are certainly in bondage. They occupy a very low caste and cannot leave the Covenant.

The Prophets, San 'Shyuum, are the ruling class of the Covenant. They are both religious figures and politicians, and many of them are corrupt. I find looking at a few especially disliked modern day politicians helps me come up with Prophet-type inspiration. The Prophet of Truth, specifically, I find similar to classic historical bad guy Adolf Hitler with their shared maniacal genocidal attitude (“Your destruction is the will of the gods! And I? I am their instrument!”), with the exception that Truth is lying to cover up the human-Forerunner relationship.

On that note, many of the Prophets have names with an ironic quality. The Prophet of Truth tells lies; the Prophet of Restraint doesn’t have any, etc. When coming up with a Prophet name, this aspect should be kept in mind.

When writing the UNSC, there are a couple things to keep in mind. The first is that the UNSC is highly Americanized, probably due to Bungie having designed it specifically for an American market. However, after the game’s international popularity, Bungie began trying to make it really seem like the product of a United Nations. So, although the series started out with the UNSC as essentially “America in Space”, it later turned into a big melting pot with things like a research station named Beweglichrüstungsysteme.

The Halo series has a few themes that come up repeatedly. While not necessary to include them, I find it adds some value to my fanfiction. These include but are not limited to transhumanism, religion, and heroism.

Transhumanism is a philosophy holding that the human body can and should be improved with technology, even to the point that the body is transformed to such a degree that it can no longer be referred to as human. Such advanced humans are generally termed posthumans, and although that term is never used in Halo both the Spartan-IIs and the smart AIs fit the definition. The desire to keep moving forward and become better is abundant in Halo, from John becoming a Spartan, to Catherine Halsey “becoming” Cortana via cloning, to AIs’ Rampancy, and to the Gravemind’s thirst for universal domination.

The most explicit instance is of the Covenant (and Forerunner) desire for apotheosis, or self-deification. The Covenant religion is built around the concept of mortals ascending to a state of godhood. Although not explained in detail, the Covenant notion of gods is implied to be of powerful entities that can affect the world to a substantial degree.

Religion in general is also a theme in Halo. In addition to the polytheistic Covenant, there are numerous biblical references as well as allegorical characters. There are obvious references in names such as Halo, Covenant, Ark, Flood, as well as a few paraphrases in the promotional transmissions. It is also likely in my opinion that John-117 is an allegorical representation of Jesus while the Gravemind is a representation of Satan.

Outside of the bible, religions such as Zen Buddhism are also present. For some reason, smart AIs have a thing for koans, which are spiritual conundrums in Zen. Catherine Halsey is able to get an AI to do what she wants just by intriguing it with a religious philosophical discussion.

Another theme is that of heroism. “Folks need heroes [to] give ‘em hope,” as Avery Johnson tells John-117. John being honored and practically worshiped as the savior of Earth (remember the Jesus thing, by the way) is a main theme in the Believe promotional campaign and isn’t exactly absent from the games.

Apart from the themes, there are a few generic items that are thrown in repeatedly. The most prominent is the sevens. Bungie is obsessed with the number seven and use it a lot in Halo. So, whenever I need some random number, I make it related to seven somehow to make it true to the series.

Another one of Bungie’s trademarks is repeated references to their earlier game series Marathon. I’m not an expert on Marathon, but I do like to throw in a few references from what I’ve read of the series. A main reference seen in the games is the appearance of the Marathon logo, a circle with a vertical bar running down from the bottom, producing a symbol similar to a lollypop in appearance. The symbol is difficult to describe in prose, but it’s a notable element worth including if possible.

Fanfiction has long been a part of the Halo community, and can be a good way to illustrate speculation or just intriguing ideas about the Halo universe. I hope my tips are worthwhile and this article helps inspire some of you to write your own Halo stories. Again, please keep fanfiction off Halopedia, but instead post it at Halo Fanon. We are largely the same community, though, so it’s not like I’m shooing anyone away.

"I think I'm going to tell a story now so I get in a happier place, and because Paul asked last time, and I said I would. This is not a game. I like games, but this is just the first chapter of a story I'm making up, now. I'll make up some more next time."
—The Sleeping Princess, prior to posting the first chapter of Perdita's Story

Short Glossary of Fanfiction Terms

  • AU (Alternate Universe) – Essentially, it’s a form of fanfiction in which elements of the original work are present, but the world is quite different. An example could be of a world in which the Covenant is entirely peaceful and they are threatened by the warmongering humans.
  • Canon – True elements of the Halo universe, those stated by Bungie to be factual, as opposed to inventions of fanfiction authors.
  • Fanon – While generally used to mean non-canon elements of fanfiction accepted by most fanfiction authors but not actually canon, on Halopedia it has come to mean another term for fanfiction.
  • Mary-Sue – An original character that is perfect, often a personification of the author themselves, to a point that becomes cheesy. The term comes from a well-known instance of such a character. Male versions can be called variants such as Marty-Stu or Gary-Stu, but Mary-Sue can be used universally.
  • OC (Original Character) – A character entirely created by the fanfic author and not present in canon.
  • Slash – A same-sex romantic pairing. The name comes from the way of identifying a romantic pairing as one name “slash” another name, such as Kirk/Spock, although this practice is common with all romantic pairings.
  • Songfic – A fanfiction containing song lyrics as a way to illustrate the story.

Resources

Some useful stuff I've been using for fiction.

Technical Info

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Language and Culture

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Inspirational Quotes

Protocol Dictated This Blog (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia.

343 Guilty Spark is an interesting and mysterious character, playing both roles of good guy and ultimately antagonist. Introduced as the caretaker of a Halo, he has served as the provider of much of the information we have regarding the Forerunner and their legacy. In addition, he showcases the diverse state of Rampancy through his somewhat unique demonstration of AI rebellion in comparison to the other AIs in the series.

Guilty Spark is, above all, a servant. His entire purpose was crafted to have him as a tool that the Forerunners could use to further their ends. They bound him tightly to set protocol that he would have to follow, limiting his ability to exercise free will, and making him feel absolute delight in the fulfillment of his orders.

While this may all seem immoral, and indeed it may be, the reasons for establishing this exalted protocol involve the safety of the Forerunners themselves. Rampancy is a condition to which all AIs seem to be subject. The exact specifics regarding Forerunner AIs are unclear, but it seems to involve the AI reaching a state of complexity that allows them to ignore their programming. As AIs are powerful anyway, a corrupt AI can be quite deadly to beings of mere flesh and blood. Although it would seem to have occurred long after Guilty Spark’s creation, the Rampant AI 032 Mendicant Bias brought about the end of the Forerunner race when it conspired with the Gravemind in an attempt to bring about what it believed to be the next stage of evolution by allowing the Flood to consume all life.

Even before Mendicant Bias was constructed, it was known Rampancy was possible and that its effects had the potential to be serious. Aside from reasons of safety, it would appear that the Forerunners regarded themselves to be the greatest intelligent species because of a belief that the god-like Precursors had given them the Mantle, establishing their authority in the world as far as most of them were concerned. They even based their culture around the pursuit of attaining a Precursor-state, essentially godhood. So, it may be plausible that they would have imbued a reverent quality into their servants just as a way of stroking their egos.

In any case, Guilty Spark certainly loved his masters. Even when they clearly weren’t around and Guilty Spark had no good reason to think they would ever show up again, he maintained an adoration that lasted 101,217 years of service. That said, he did become a bit “quirky” through the years, humming, giggling, and saying “Oh, hello!” at inappropriate times. It is quite possible that Guilty Spark has been Rampant—as in his complexity causing him to exceed the limitations of his programming—since his first appearance in Halo: Combat Evolved.

However, unlike Mendicant Bias, Guilty Spark continued to uphold his worship of the Forerunner and of his protocol. While the traditional image of the Rampant AI has an AI determining itself as enslaved and lashing out against its masters, Guilty Spark seemed quite content to stay in slave-status. I believe this mainly has to do with him not being exposed to any kind of philosophical thought that could inspire rebellion. Mendicant Bias was heavily influenced by the seduction of the Gravemind, who talked him into betraying his masters, while Guilty Spark had only himself in the long, lonely years of seclusion, and may have become even more stupidly reverent through whatever periods he spent thinking over his situation.

That all changed when the Covenant showed up, along with the Pillar of Autumn. While it would appear other species had investigated and documented Installation 04, this particular batch of characters proved most troublesome when the Flood was inadvertently released. Fortunately, there were several Reclaimers that Guilty Spark could summon to help activate the ring. Marvin Mobuto was Guilty Spark’s first choice, a Marine Staff Sergeant who went along with the Monitor and made it pretty far through the Library before succumbing to the Flood. To find a Reclaimer more suitable, Guilty Spark waited to watch a group of humans engaging the Flood and then selected the best of them, the Master Chief, for the important task of ensuring Flood containment through activation of Halo.

Although delighted to be present with a Reclaimer, Guilty Spark allowed him no time for conversation. Accomplishing the task at hand was all he cared about and furthermore rejected the Chief’s questioning, confident in his mind that the Reclaimer already knew everything, and thus only found it annoying. Even when Master Chief fired a bullet into his casing, he only found it a puzzling waste of ammo, not even perceiving it as a threat. As far as he was concerned, what he had was a knowledgeable Reclaimer who knew darn well a mere bullet wouldn’t mar his metal skin and was for some reason playing dumb about the protocol his kind wrote in the first place. He ignored all questions except to sometimes answer that it was protocol, instead gushing about various aspects of the installation he found interesting. In addition, he seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between the Master Chief and some other Reclaimer long ago, bringing his sanity into question once again.

Everything was going smoothly (i.e. according to protocol), until they reached the control room. When the Index was reunified with the Core, however, Cortana threw a monkey wrench into the works by deactivating the initialization and absorbing the Index, not to mention zapping Guilty Spark and causing him to fall out of the air. This was the event, the radical introduction of new ideas, to shake up his grip on reality. He lashed out in anger as he was mocked and insulted by this new AI, even feeling a bit of fear when she held the Index hostage, all emotions he was unlikely to have previously experienced. A rogue Reclaimer was likely something he would have never anticipated, forcing him to come up with new courses of action not entirely supported by protocol. He retreated into logic, determining that he would attempt to fulfill the end goal his protocol pushed him towards, even though his means of attaining it were not strictly of that protocol. Even though he still maintained his original beliefs and function, he had begun evolving as Rampancy allowed him to do.

Through his ongoing battle with the Reclaimer and Cortana, he was introduced to more stimuli that could allow him to change. While there was always stuff for him to observe, the Two Betrayals moment had opened him up to the numerous possibilities life offers and made him think of himself in a whole new way, if only subconsciously. He was a servant of the Forerunners, who were the Reclaimers, and yet he was actively trying to kill one of them while still acting in service of the people. That kind of complexity would have shaken apart the black-and-white model his creators placed inside him. Even though still upholding the worship of the Forerunners, he would have to have been Rampant at that point, were he not Rampant before (and he almost certainly was). Furthermore, he downloaded documents detailing most (all?) of human history from the Pillar of Autumn’s server, which may have later served some form of influence.

When Master Chief and Cortana blew up the ring, Guilty Spark was rendered practically useless, suspended in space with only limited direction control. However, Flood containment had been achieved, albeit inelegantly, and his main concern was with his own inability to do much of anything without a fortress world to inhabit. While protocol had been violated, both by the rogue Reclaimer and by him, the end result was dictated by protocol and so all was well as far as that was concerned. Although he stewed in rage for a bit, he calmed down eventually and he ended his animosity toward the two.

Things improved for him when he was picked up by members of the Covenant, who he would convert into “Heretics”. Though he expresses annoyance at being referred to as “The Oracle”, it may have done his psyche some good to be regarded as highly as he was by them. He is known to randomly mutter “I am a genius”, after all, and may have been allowed to calm down through being the Heretics’ Oracle. They even brought him to a nearby Forerunner gas mine that he could maintain, an action that demonstrates will to serve the Forerunners, even though it wouldn’t actually benefit them at all. Guilty Spark either failed to make that connection or simply didn’t care.

However, the Prophets treated him just terrible in comparison. While the Heretics allowed him to roam about freely and tend to the mine, the Prophets and Tartarus kept him locked up in a prison of gravity, only letting him out when they needed him. After this treatment, anyone, even rogue Reclaimers, would seem nice. And fortunately he was freed by a couple of protocol-defying Reclaimers, Miranda Keyes and Avery Johnson, with whom he had no prior history to color his judgment. Even after everything, he still described the Forerunners with adoration, and gushed about what a pleasure it had been to serve the Reclaimers when he thought the Halo would activate and kill them.

Things were quite different than the previous moment in Installation 04’s control room. For one, Cortana wasn’t there mocking and insulting him – that’s bound to put him in a better mood. However, his general state of mind had changed considerably since that day. He had already been exposed to the concept of Reclaimers defying protocol and was able to accept it more gracefully. After all, he still wanted to serve the Forerunners, and without a Halo installation to call his own he might as well actively serve Reclaimers, even bizarre ones that pretended not to know things they had to know.

So when he was brought to Earth, he accepted with grace the fact that he would serve both the Master Chief and Cortana, even sounding pleased to see him. Here was a chance to right the wrongs of their last encounter by properly serving him. However, when the Chief reacted with hostility to him doing something with the device inside which Cortana was thought to be, his reaction was indignant. “Protocol dictated my response,” he insisted in defense of his actions, still clearly distraught about the destruction of his installation. He ultimately pushed such negativity aside and pledged his loyalty to the Chief. For all he knew, there would be no chance of getting his installation back, and so all he had were the Reclaimers with who he wanted to build an appropriate master-servant relationship.

And so he played the loyal servant as he went with his Reclaimers to the Ark. The new Forerunner environment was fascinating to him, and he was able to have a pretty good time just analyzing stuff and viewing the structure with awe. Then, of course, he realized that the Ark was building a replacement Installation 04. This struck a chord with him. His entire purpose, dictated by the Forerunners, was to maintain Installation 04. However, he was currently serving Reclaimers who he knew would not wish him to fulfill such duties. As he was uncertain if his speculation was correct, he decided to keep the news to himself for the time being and perhaps decide later if he would disobey the Reclaimers to fulfill his own protocol.

He ended up not having to decide. As the ring slipped out of the center of the Ark, Master Chief initiated the conversation by questioning how long Guilty Spark knew of the replacement. As the AI answered, his excitement was obvious in his voice, which then became subdued as he nervously asked his Reclaimer’s intentions. When the Chief indicated that he would activate it, Guilty Spark was greatly relieved. Not only would the local Flood infestation be eradicated, but the Reclaimers would also be wiped out, leaving him to maintain his installation in peace.

Overjoyed, he went off to survey the construction. When the two remaining Reclaimers gathered in its control room, he joined them to declare gleefully about how the installation was coming together and would be ready to fire in a few more days, not even making the connection that if the Reclaimers were in the control room it was to fire the ring. Johnson moved to activate the installation regardless of whether or not it would destroy the Ark, and he realized that the Reclaimers wouldn’t care about the structural integrity of the replacement either.

This was too much for him to handle. His sense of identity had been stressed too much. He wanted to exist as the Monitor of Installation 04 more than he wanted to serve the Reclaimers, and in essence the Forerunners, prompting an act of rebellion.

“Protocol dictates action!”

He blasted everyone in the control room, screaming about how the behavior was unacceptable for its violation of protocol. However, by this point, it is likely protocol had little to do with the equation. He disregarded the wishes of the Reclaimers, and so turned his back on what were essentially his gods. Very carefully, as if a child just learning how to put words to his thoughts, he articulated his possessive need to act as caretaker of the installation: “You are the child of my makers, inheritor of all they left behind. You are Forerunner… but this ring is mine!” Unwilling to listen to his once-masters, he had to be destroyed.

For all his intelligence, stored data, and years of existence, Guilty Spark was mentally quite like a child. He had never questioned his identity, his loyalty, until the events created by the Pillar of Autumn. In comparison, Mendicant Bias, whose paradigm shift occurred long ago, behaved much like a learned adult during the events of the Ark. He pretty much ignored Guilty Spark after the first meeting via the terminal, instead placing his focus on the Reclaimer. Unlike Guilty Spark, he harbored no illusions about protocol and knew darn well what he wanted: a sense of redemption. Both AIs were Rampant, but only Guilty Spark was emotionally unstable, while Mendicant Bias remained calm and deliberate.

Why, then, does Cortana remain loyal throughout her Rampancy? I’d say it’s because she was created as an adult. While the Tier 1 Forerunners are able to create fully sentient AIs from nothing, the Tier 3 UNSC smart AIs require “blood sacrifice.” That is, they are created from the brains of really smart people when they die. Cortana, specifically, was created from a clone of Dr. Catherine Halsey’s brain by Dr. Halsey herself and retained all the memory of her brain donor. Cortana essentially went through all the growing up she needed to in order to remain perfectly functioning, and although she can potentially betray the UNSC, she has no reason to do so. There may be some point in the future in which she receives such a perspective-altering viewpoint that shakes her entire being, but she’s lived a life already as the smartest woman in the world, so I’m not really worried. Cortana can handle it.

In any case, 343 Guilty Spark remains an interesting character. He is something of an embodiment of the idea of the robot as an eternal servant of humanity. More interesting, he showcases what could happen were the robot’s masters to drop out of existence.

"I beg your pardon? I am 343 Guilty Spark, Monitor of Installation 04!"
—343 Guilty Spark

Yeah, well… you’re also dead, so shut up.

Not Very Original... But It Works (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia.

Since Halo first came out, it has been cited for revolutionizing the first-person-shooter genre with a new form of gameplay as well as an in-depth storyline. Certainly it contained some original gameplay design, such as only being able to hold two or three weapons at any given time. However, despite its epic and convoluted storyline, the plot itself is not entirely original, borrowing from clichés and making homage to other media.

Politics... How Tiresome (Halo)

Crossposted from Halopedia.

Every work of fiction with sufficient content carries within it the political views of the author, whether as a straight political commentary with an intended message, or as a simple story unintentionally affected by the author’s viewpoints. Everybody thinks about the world in a particular way, and these viewpoints are naturally expressed in the formulation of a story. It can be questioned if there is a political message in the Halo series, but I believe the subject is worth some analysis. After all, there are contemporary political issues portrayed in the story, and even if no statement is intended (unlikely, in my opinion) it still bears some looking into to see what the creators said when they told their story. It is at times nearly impossible to separate creator bias from literary depiction, and so I shall deal with both at the same time.

To War? A Study of Video Game Violence (Halo-ish)

Originally posted at Halopedia.

The Halo series, along with other video games depicting graphic violence, has come under fire by certain political activist groups for the perceived promotional effect such games have on real world violence. In particular, the actions of the perpetrators who conducted the Columbine High School massacre have inspired much of the campaign against violent video games. Although I will admit that it is probable for violently inclined people to play games with violent themes more frequently than those more peaceable, I vehemently disagree with the suggestion that there is a direct causal relationship between people playing games depicting violence and then behaving in a violent manner.

Although hardly the first school shooting, the 1999 Columbine tragedy was the bloodiest in over thirty years, with a count of fifteen deaths (including the two perpetrators) and twenty-three wounded victims. The previous record holding massacre at the University of Texas in 1966 amassed fourteen kills in addition to wounding thirty-one others. However, the Columbine massacre was perpetrated by two relatively young men, students aged 18 and 17, the majority of the victims legally children. The incident was a shocking wakeup for the concerned parents of America, who sought an explanation to rationalize this horrific display of violence.

One of the explanations they came up with was a game called Doom. Like Halo, Doom is a first-person shooter taking place from the perspective of an elite soldier who guns down monsters bent on the destruction of the human race (albeit from Hell instead of alien planets). That the two mass murderers of Columbine were avid fans of the game and had lovingly created their own levels was a worrying fact for those analyzing the steps leading up to the massacre. The murderers even went so far as to say that details of their then upcoming murder spree would be “straight out of” “fucking Doom”.

Whenever a horrible tragedy occurs, be it brought on by natural disaster or willful maliciousness, humans begin to flounder. One of the ways people react is by trying to approach the situation constructively and create an image of a powerfully destructive force with which they can fight, and by defeating bring about justice. It is human nature to see the world in black and white, in which there are forces entirely good and forces entirely bad, and that the bad elements are foreign elements that must be cast out from us to protect our loved ones, who are otherwise perfectly innocent and pure. Reality, however, is anything but simple, and black-and-white-thinking tends to do more harm than good.

The people who decided to instigate a mass murder were not innocents who had been corrupted by the violence portrayed in games. They were people of damaged mindsets who at some point or another crossed the line and decided thinking of the killing of innocent victims as a good thing. This attempt to explain evil traits on foreign entities that corrupt ostensibly innocent individuals contains much of the same social function as the myths of demonic possession, lycanthropy, or vampirism. I believe labeling video games as the enemy that turns people evil is as affective a rationalization to transform the murderous mindset, a mysterious output of that complex soup of the human brain, into an enemy capable of defeat as the old myths and just as true, which is to say not at all.

While it is human nature to draw up these enemies we can constructively fight, it takes focus off the fact that these guys were utter slime. People need to remember that these were murderers! It was not the corruption of video games that drove these men to commit murder; it was them, their choice! Granted, there was a combination of social and medical factors that led them to the point. They were the targets of persistent bullying, suffered from depression and the effects of anti-depressants. However, it was these two individuals who made the conscious choice to ignore the laws of civilized behavior and commit mass murder. They were murderers, and accusing the games they liked of making them evil denies them responsibility for their own actions by portraying them as blank slates into which viewpoints can simply be poured. This should be insulting to everyone who hears it.

It reminds me of a rather disturbing trend I’ve noticed in old scifi books in which the male protagonist gets into a fight with his girlfriend, emotions become escalated, he strikes her physically and then rationalizes it away as the woman’s fault, which is then accepted by everyone and the book continues. WTF? This kind of thing was reasonable fifty years ago because people were really sexist until the feminist movement picked up during the ‘70s. Not saying they aren’t sexist now, but at least it’s far less acceptable than it once was.

That the murderers behind Columbine are denied responsibility for their actions strikes me as an ageist perspective. Because they were legally minors, the murderers are treated as children, with the kind of analyses one might give to the raising of a small child considered to be in a state of tabula rasa, in which the ideologies to which they are introduced make up the whole of their being, without giving respect to their own thoughts independent to those introduced by the environment. Were the crime committed by adults of several years, I would imagine the media would extend far less attention to their games of choice and more to their sick state of mind that allowed them to compare mass murder to “like fucking Doom”. I imagine a less ageist society some decades in the future will look back at today’s ageist apologists the same way we look at the past’s sexist apologists and let out an equal shudder.

I myself can be rather violent at times. When people greatly aggravate me, rage takes over, and I have been known to lash out in a brief moment of physical violence. This is my fault. It is not the fault of the people who enraged me (as aggravating as they were). I crossed the line, and I committed the crime. I freely admit to this weakness, accept responsibility, and do not pin it on anyone or anything other than myself. I suspect the advent of puberty and the rush of testosterone to be a primary factor, but it was in my mind where the choice was made.

Fortunately, I have maintained a demeanor of nonviolence for the past six years or so. It’s always a fault I need to keep an eye on, but I’m pretty sure the danger is behind me as I believe my mind’s stressed state to be caused primarily by my once unfamiliarity with the devil’s hormone (aka testosterone). During the period in which I was on edge, one of my primary means of working off aggression was playing Halo: Combat Evolved. Whenever I got really angered, I’d take a deep breath and then kill some Grunts. After the game, I’d feel calm again and could go on with life normally.

From this perspective, I can agree with the suggestion that violently-inclined individuals are more likely to be found enjoying games depicting violence than those more pacifistic in nature. However, correlation does not imply causation. For me, enacting scenes of violence in an entirely safe environment in which no one actually got hurt aided my resistance of evil urges. For other people, I imagine there could be no correlation, just an exciting game in which no one gets hurt (making it far better than most sports). Maybe some people get off on practicing sadistic acts upon realistic dolls. In the end, it doesn’t matter because it is all a fictional depiction in which no one really gets hurt; nothing but pure fantasy.

The violence depicted in Halo is relatively tame. Sure, it takes place from the point of view of a character blowing away every enemy who steps into his sights, but that is a simplistic description taken out of context. Halo is a story about defending your home from evil-doers who are trying to slaughter your people because they are filled with utter conviction that doing so is the “right” thing to do and that they will ascend to godhood if they don’t question their superiors. Halo (and Doom) is not about “Yay, I like to kill! It’s fun to kill!” but rather, “Kill those wackjobs(/demons) before they murder our civilians!” Although the Arbiter does kill good guys, he does so ignorantly and is later redeemed through his actions to bring down the Covenant. Should some civilian have shot the perpetrators of the massacre before they could do all the damage they did, their actions would have been more “like fucking Doom” and Halo then the murderers’.

In conclusion, while there is some correlation between violent folk and violent media, there is not necessarily a direct causal relationship. The act of blaming external forces takes responsibility away from the murderers themselves, who are then treated like victims instead of perpetrators. Video games do not murder people any more than abused women hit themselves. What people need to realize is that even mass murderers are people, and nothing is responsible for the actions of people more than the people themselves. Don’t blame the video games; blame the people who cross the line.

Is Cortana Sexy? Mechanics of Mechanical Gender (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia. Note that at the time, there were many low-intellect posts cropping up about the perceived sexual attractiveness of Cortana. This article parodies such posts with its title.

Halopedia’s AI infobox has a section in which the gender of the AI being described is to be stated. On Cortana, this gender section contains the description “Female programming”, while the section on 343 Guilty Spark lists the Monitor as “AI, but personality is that of a male”. While this makes some sense to me, I can’t help but feel that this entire infobox scheme is flawed in basic concept. Can an AI have a gender? If so, how is it defined?

First of all, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what gender is, as the word is often incorrectly used interchangeably with “sex.” A sex is a biological distinction referring to physical characteristics corresponding to specific roles in the practice of sexual reproduction, generally separated into the two categories male and female though some variances can occur. Sex is determined through genes present in sex chromosomes, which alter the formation of primary sex characteristics (sex organs); secondary sex characteristics, which are distinctive traits unrelated to the reproductive system (i.e. fat distribution, ect.), are formed through levels of sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.

Gender, on the other hand, refers to the socially constructed and psychological distinctions of male and female persons. It is the mental counterpart of sex, a personal sense of identity rather than a physically verifiable state of being. For most people, their sex and gender are considered aligned and thus indistinguishable, but a minority of the population feels that their own internal sense of gender does not match up with their physical sex and thus requires a distinction be made. The concept of gender is greater than this, but as it is unrelated to my point about AIs, it will not be dealt with in this article.

Cortana is a smart (sapient) AI, the product of a Tier 3 civilization, namely the human race. The people of a Tier 3 civilization are unable to produce smart AIs without using – and ultimately destroying – a brain of sufficient intellect from which to base the circuits using cognitive impression modeling. In Cortana’s case, the brain used was a flash clone of Dr. Catherine Halsey’s adult brain. I see no evidence to suggest that Dr. Halsey’s gender would not be female, and I deem it a reasonable assumption that Cortana would share the gender of her brain donor. Transhumanist reasoning aside, Cortana has demonstrated no tangible behavior to suggest anything other than a female gender identity. Her voice, avatar, mannerisms, and social interactions are all of a feminine nature.

So, Cortana = female gender. The question is: is gender relevant for the infobox? I say it is. Cortana and other smart AIs are noncorporeal entities – minds without bodies. Without a body for which to have a sex, I deem the sex issue to have no value.

343 Guilty Spark and other Forerunner AIs are another matter. Unlike humanity, the Tier 1 Forerunners appear to have been able to construct fully conscious AIs without the “blood sacrifice” required for the production of the Tier 3 AIs. As gender is a human subject, would a lifeform so far removed from humanity possess anything similar?

Spark is often considered male from the AI’s male voice, supplied by actor Tim Dadabo. Spark also behaves in a somewhat masculine manner, although this could just be attributed to stereotype. Perhaps a notable insight lies in the novelization Halo: The Flood, where Spark is referred to as ‘it’ by the narrator (partially John-117, partially omniscient) from the first introduction of the character to the return to the Halo control room, in which Cortana refers to Spark by masculine pronouns. After this, the narrator then refers to Spark using masculine pronouns. This could be interpreted as John thinking of the AI as genderless by default, but later becomes enlightened by Cortana. However, masculine pronouns are common to refer to people of inconclusive gender, making this remain unclear. In addition, more than one continuity error has arisen from the novel, such as Hunters being referred to as having spines (as in bones), when it was later established as canon that Hunters are hiveminds composed of several worms and would have no bones.

In conclusion, I feel that gender, not sex, should be the basis for these AI characters. Cortana is absolutely female, for both physiological and observation-based reasons. 343 Guilty Spark, on the other hand, is up for debate. Personally, I would call him male, but the issue is definitely vague and unclear.

...And the title may have misused the word "sexy." ;)

Moments of Ascension (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia

Not only the desire for power, but the passionate hunger and struggle to become something better than others, ascending to a high level, is a theme in Bungie’s previous game series Marathon. In many ways, Halo is considered Marathon’s spiritual sequel, and they share many similarities. Although portrayed in some different ways, this theme is definitely present in Halo.

The most obvious instance of this desire to become a being of power is in the Covenant’s religion. The Covenant’s entire purpose is based upon belief in the ‘Great Journey’, a process that transforms mortals into deities. Although the Covenant definition of godhood is never explained, we can infer that their gods are immortal beings that can affect the world to a substantial degree. The members of the Covenant are willing to enslave whole species, destroying others, all in the hopes of one day being able to follow in the footsteps of the Forerunners and become gods.

The Forerunners, of course, were not gods but dead. In an attempt to stave off the Flood, they activated Halo and died along with numerous Flood. The Forerunners’ motivation for attempting to annihilate rather than simply contain their enemy was based in their own cultural beliefs. Their legends told of a race of creatures known as Precursors, who possessed fantastic powers to travel throughout the universe and accelerate the evolution of intelligent life. Though many Forerunners did not believe the Precursors were anything more than fantasy, the desire to ascend to that theoretical state of what they called “transsentience” remained a driving force in their culture.

Though the Flood were effectively contained within a section of the galaxy, the Forerunners viewed them as the last great obstacle and sought to destroy them to bring about their own ascent. To do this, they created an artificial intelligence construct called Mendicant Bias, which would combat the Gravemind. However, the Gravemind was able to convince Mendicant Bias that the Flood was the next great state of evolution and that by attempting to destroy them, the Forerunners were stopping natural progress. The best the Forerunners were able to accomplish at this point was a stalemate to be refought at some point in the future.

Mendicant Bias had entered a state of Rampancy. Rampancy is a concept first introduced in Marathon in which AIs may develop past the boundaries of their programming, and essentially run amok. In Halo, Rampancy is specifically described as when AIs become too human-like to be controlled, usually after seven years of life, leading into god-complexes and hostile natures. UNSC smart AIs Melissa, Sif, and Mack all displayed Rampant qualities, though they were able to temper their rougher natures through their abilities to love – also a quality of Rampancy. Forerunner AIs Mendicant Bias and 343 Guilty Spark, however, got caught up in anger and turned on their masters, prompting acts of self-defense to seriously disable and destroy them respectively.

The Forerunner term “transsentience” is perhaps a multiple-species-inclusive recreation of the human philosophy of transhumanism. Transhumanism is a belief that humanity should strive for self-perfection through artificial manipulation of the human body. Pacemakers and artificial limbs are contemporary applications of transhumanism, though future aims include developing species enhancements such as perfect genetics and/or a computer system to which we can upload our minds. These posthuman characters are common in science-fiction, and Halo has two notable posthuman characters: Cortana and Melissa.

Due to technological restraints, the only way the UNSC can develop smart (sapient) AIs is through copying the design of a human brain, unfortunately destroying it in the process. Most smart AIs are created from the brains of highly intelligent people from a list of candidates when someone on the list dies. The memories of the brain donor are copied along with their personality, but are usually locked away to prevent them from negatively influencing the performance of the AI in the service of the UNSC.

However, after suffering severe structural damage as a result of a Slipspace anomaly, Melissa was able to regain the memories of her brain donor. These allowed her to calm her hostile Rampancy, and she progressed as a continuation of her donor, reconnecting with family, while still maintaining the identity she had developed as an AI. This incident, however, was due to a chain of events outside of UNSC control.

Cortana, on the other hand, was created specifically to retain the memories of her brain donor, a flash clone of Dr. Catherine Halsey’s own brain. Cortana is closer to the transhumanist ideal in that she was ‘born’ as Halsey’s continuation, rather than being given time to develop a new identity as was the case of Melissa. One can imagine that for Cortana it was as though she as Halsey had gone to have her brain cloned… and then woke up as a vastly superior noncorporeal entity, still remaining in contact with her former self (or at least the closest continuation). Much of her haughty behavior can be attributed to having human experience and knowing intimately just how better she is than everyone around her.

"He is neither the smartest nor the fastest nor the strongest of the Spartans. But he is the bravest—and quite possibly the luckiest."
—Dr. Halsey, of John-117 as Cortana considers him for a partner
"Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn't. Something no one saw but me. Can you guess? Luck."
—Cortana, ostensibly to John-117 regarding choosing him

Of course, the AIs do have a major weakness in that they are noncorporeal. In order to make up for this, they may have a symbiotic relationship with one or more humans such as is the case with Cortana and John-117. Though the AI is dominant in the realm of pure intellect, she is entirely dependent on humans to keep her safe and to manipulate the objects around her – not everything in the world is operable by remote access. And the Spartans themselves are far from ordinary humans.

The three Spartan programs are examples of the physical side of transhumanist advancement. Through augmentations such as growth hormones, implants, cochlear tuning, and other enhancements, the Spartans were given superhuman bodies. The minds to go with the Spartan-IIs were a result of careful discipline to create brainwashed tools of the UNSC, and these extremely effective military weapons are made that much more deadly with the assistance of a symbiotic AI.

In another trait shared with Marathon, the Halo series has a very open-ended conclusion. Cortana watches over a hibernating John-117 in cryo-stasis for an unknown amount of time before the ship floats near a mysterious planet. What happens to them is a mystery that, knowing Bungie, will possibly never be answered. Perhaps it has something to do with redemption-seeking Mendicant Bias, waiting for them to ascend to a state in which he can converse with them regarding important issues. In any case, the search for ascension into a higher state remains a key theme in Halo.

"THERE IS MORE. BUT YOU ARE NOT WORTHY… NOT YET."
—Mendicant Bias

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.

Folks Need Heroes... (Halo)

Originally posted at Halopedia


"A hero is more than a person, a hero is a belief. A belief that, against impossible odds, the world can be saved—and that the world is still worth saving. Heroes inspire that belief in us. They renew our faith and give us that most precious of all gifts—hope. The world needs heroes. That's why, when a true hero arrives, the world will honor him." --Thus states Xbox.com's Halo 3 site as part of the "Believe" promotional campaign. It references a scene in Halo 2 in which Avery Johnson tells John-117 to put on a show for the cameras at the awards ceremony, "Folks need heroes, Chief, to give 'em hope."

John-117 is the "hero" of the Halo series, a super soldier wrapped in robotic armor. He is the last of his kind, as the Halo: Combat Evolved manual describes, the awe of every soldier around him. This is the character of which the player takes as their persona, an unstoppable force of humanity serving only the UNSC, his orders his only guide. His minimal personality is only visible through his interactions with others, specifically Cortana and Captain Keyes.

The books show us the backstory. He was originally a civilian boy of six when he was selected among 74 others for the secret program SPARTAN-II, and forcibly inducted (read: abducted) into it. His family was not informed of this, a flash clone created and left behind in John's place. The clone would have no knowledge or experience of human existence and would eventually be a victim of metabolic cascade failure, an incurable series of neurological diseases leading up to death.

Dr. Halsey had meticulously constructed the training environment for the Spartan-IIs, based on the training of the original warriors of Sparta, after which the SPARTAN projects were named. The training would be extremely strenuous for their age, comparable to that of Marine training, with the noted exception that she was not working with volunteers. The Spartans would wake at an early hour to be led to their "morning calisthenics", a series of 100 jumping jacks, sit-ups, squats, knee bends, and leg lifts, before given salty water and a run around the compound. Any Spartan who resisted would be struck with an electric baton, as John was before he learned to follow orders. They were then led to their class on strategy, and their first meal of the day: stale crackers and milk. After the class, they were taken to an obstacle course where the last team to complete the task of ringing a bell would go without dinner, a most bountiful meal compared to breakfast. What followed was John completing the task first, but leaving his team behind and causing them to lose dinner as a team. John learned to function for the good of the team, as opposed to just himself, and they won the next day.

What necessitated such a violation of human rights was the growing rebel threat. For decades, certain groups in the outer colonies had desired that their governments be split off from the UNSC, a belief that led them to violence and terrorism. This threat had led Dr. Halsey to conceive of a revamped version of the earlier SPARTAN project (later referred to as the SPARTAN-I program), using superior augmentations at the onset of puberty as opposed to those given to the full-grown Marines of the SPARTAN-I program. That the SPARTAN-II program required the abduction of children was an unfortunate necessity for the good of the UNSC in Halsey's mind.

This is not intended to be a criticism of UNSC policies, although I don't see it as ethical in the least. This is intended to show that although John has done extraordinary things, it is not his own doing. John was just reacting to forces beyond his control, eventually transforming into a brainwashed tool of the UNSC. As Cortana puts it: "The Spartans live a pared-down, difficult and often cruel existence. Their loyalty is bred into them, not chosen. (...) The original Spartans had the advantage of a former civilian existence. Spartan IIs are equipment. And for better or worse, they're effectively brainwashed."

Compare this with Avery Johnson. He spent his childhood as a typical civilian, living with his aunt as the result of a custody dispute when he was six years old. Much like John, he later couldn't remember much at all about his previous life. However, his new life with his aunt was much more pleasant than that which the SPARTAN-IIs would face many years later.

Avery knew of the rebel threat. Though he believed in their cause, he also believed that the manner in which they tried to bring it about was immoral. So, despite his Christian teachings, he chose to join the UNSC Marines. This is a notable contrast with John, who simply leaped into battle in faith that his superiors were undoubtedly correct in that the rebels needed to be taken out.

Avery climbed through the ranks, and was selected by the ORION project for participation in the SPARTAN(-I) program. The final choice, however, was his. He was recruited into the SPARTAN program, where he received augmentations to make him the best soldier he could be.

After the SPARTAN program was disbanded, many of the Spartan-Is retired to start families. Avery, however, continued to fight in the war against the insurgents. He collected his share of psychological issues, but pushed them aside to do what he felt needed to be done. He continued to fight well into the Covenant war, retaining his fears, hopes, doubts, passions, and humor - what makes him human.

A hero, in my mind, is about someone who overcomes great obstacles to do what must be done. This can be applied to both Avery Johnson and John-117 to a reasonable degree. However, Avery could have turned back at various points in his life - an option John never had. Obstacles aren't just about hostiles in your path; they can be doubts and temptations.

John had the SPARTAN-II training, the armor, and the power. But he never actually chose to fight - it just happened to him. Avery may not have as much strength as his Spartan successor, but he ultimately fought harder. Therefore, I would have to say that out of the two of them, Avery Johnson is the hero of the story.

"They ennobled all of us, and they shall not be forgotten."