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For 20 years, Halo has reigned supreme as one of the greatest video game franchises ever. It is not, however, been the most emotionally rich video game series. There are some gripping parts of the (fairly bare-bones) storyline in the games, but for the most part, the emotional aspect of Halo came in the form of typical feelings of first-person shoot tension, the occasional temple sweating, or anger after being wiped out. Halo was gameplay-driven, not story-driven.
However, in the media tie-in world building up the story of the main character, supersoldier Master Chief "John" Sierra-117, has been a priority. In fact, the titles were specifically designed to woo those interested gamers curious about John's origin story. And, there was a lot to tell because in the game Master Chief is essentially an avatar for the player. Cut scenes or sparse pieces of dialogue reveal some background, but not much. And so it was Halo's publishing program for the franchise — including the original books, novelizations of the games, and even the original comics — where the playable characters and narrative support characters found a more robust story arc in the war for humanity's survival against the alien Covenant.
Now there's the much-anticipated Halo TV series streaming on Paramount+, an adaptation that all of the various Halo fans have been curious to see unfold. Would the series be a big budget, shoot-em up where characters are just quipsters in service of the alien killing, or would it be something more akin to the books like 2001's The Fall of Reach which details the start of the Spartan project?
Surprisingly, the Halo creative keepers, 343 Industries, and the series executive producers have instilled a big old heart underneath Master Chief's powered armor. They even let the Master Chief take off his trademark helmet so we can see actor Pablo Schreiber, who plays Spartan Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, use that emotive face of his to show there's more to the supersoldier than just armor plating.
Even more unexpected is discovering that the real emotional engine of the Halo streaming series narrative is the brand-new character of Kwan Ha Bo played by Yerin Ha. A teen living within the boundaries of a remote mining compound on Planet Madrigal, it's her story that opens the pilot episode. And it's her plight that spurs Master Chief to go against his programmed orders to go rogue for the very first time in order to keep her alive.
Why does it work when shooting stuff might be more than enough for Halo fans? First off, Ha sells Kwan's scrappiness during the massive battle that sets the stakes in the pilot. She also easily brings across her character's shock and sorrow at having her world turned upside down in the span of one battle with Covenant alien invaders. Her predicament of suddenly being rendered an abandoned orphan mixed with Master Chief's contact with an ancient rune he finds on Madrigal jumps starts his own muzzy memories of a childhood that feels similar. It's a gentle bond that's sold in just a few scenes, which is entirely unexpected but native to this series. And makes all the difference in giving gamers and non-gamers alike a reason to care about the characters outside of the futuristic tech, guns and weapons that mainly drive the gameplay.
The show bolsters that relationship with that of John's one-time fellow supersoldier Soren-066. A fellow soldier in the Spartan program years before, Soren actually beat feet early in the training with John's help. Representing his only other moment going “off book,” John seeks out Soren for some guidance and help with Kwan which adds more history to John's story and another voice to push against John's instinct to just obey. Woodbine comes at the role with a lot of charm and humor which is also sorely needed in so much sci-fi storytelling that is so heavy these days. There's no better way to make us care than by making us laugh a little too. And yes, it's grim out there but we gotta laugh to release those emotional pressure valves.
For the Halo purists, don't worry that the series is too touchy-feely. There are still plenty of war stories to ingest as humanity's dire threat from the relentless alien warriors of the Covenant takes up a lot of screen time too. But you need to worry about how is getting wiped out to invest in an on-going narrative, and Halo is laying the right emotional pipe to invest us in John, Kwan and Soren so there's something to fight for in the long run.
New episodes of Halo premiere on Paramount+ on Thursdays.