Halo’s transmedia strategy: The Matrix vs. Star Wars
In 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was released as a launch title and the killer app for the Xbox. It was praised heavily for its graphics and gameplay, as well as its environments. It won high accolades (currently boasting a 97 on Metacritic) and several Game of the Year awards and was the second best-selling game for the console over the course of its life (behind its sequel Halo 2). At the time, its plot was commended, though as the initial luster of the series has faded, the story of the games is one of the first things to come under criticism.
However, that story, as bare as it can be at times, is not the full story. The first release in the Halo series was technically The Fall of Reach, a prequel book released two weeks before the game. This was the first step of the series in moving beyond yet another 3D console shooter, such as Rare’s acclaimed Perfect Dark, and instead moving toward a transmedia experience more similar to Star Wars or The Matrix. But Star Wars and The Matrix, both spanning films, games, cartoons and literature, take two very different approaches to transmedia storytelling, and I’m interested in finding where Halo, arguably alone among video game universes in the breadth of its transmedia presence, compares to these two empires.
I suppose it would be relevant for me to state that I am going to be treating Star Wars and The Matrix as two largely opposite forms of transmedia. While simply expressing the story of a universe through various media is enough to constitute a transmedia experience, the quality of that experience varies heavily, maybe enough to largely devalue the point of a transmedia empire. While providing some very good standalone stories in its broader arsenal of media, I would argue that the Star Wars franchise’s presence is largely unsuccessful at providing a true transmedia experience. The Matrix, on the other hand, was argued by Henry Jenkins to be more than the sum of its parts. Narratively speaking, the films were merely important, rather than vital. They did not overwrite or ignore the comics, games or stories, even though the attention on the franchise commercially and popularly centered on the film series. While this approach was derided by film critics for making the movies individually confusing, and the films themselves were derided by hardcore fans for not answering plot holes (real-world Matrix powers?), it did show the viability of a franchise that narratively unfolds more in its community rather than its centerpiece.
It seems to me that Halo, while being thematically and aesthetically closer to Star Wars (along with other space opera sci-fi works like Aliens and Ender’s Game), is much closer to The Matrix in its transmedia approach, especially since the franchise was taken over by Microsoft’s in house 343 Industries from the newly-independent Bungie Studios.
It is important to note that the predominate forms of media in the Halo universe are the games, of which 7 have been released, and novels, numbering 12 with a planned 13th on the way. There are also an Animatrix-like collection of short anime films, several short film series, two graphic novels, a short story canon backstory trailers and one of the first successful ARGs, I Love Bees (However, these generally exist to tell individual stories; it is in the books and games that extensive universe creation takes place, and it is these that will be looked at more in-depth). The first tease of the series came from the Cortana Letters, a series of emails sent to fans of Bungie’s past Marathon game series. However, these letters were sent early in development and are not considered canon.
This should be compared to the Star Wars franchise, with the six films being supported by licensed novels, television series, video games, short stories, comic books and the Star Wars Holiday Special. On Wookiepedia, Star Wars is listed as encompassing over 2,300 individual entries. The Matrix, on the other hand, complements its 3 films with the Animatrix, three video games, some short stories and some comics.
In a GDC panel in 2013, two representatives from 343i gave an hour-long talk about their approach to the Halo series as a transmedia entity. They discussed the structure of their different media timelines; the creative and business relationships they form with third party authors, directors and studios that create their stories; and showed examples of game interactions that reference other media. The most interesting part was their delegation of roles to different media. They contrasted their approach with a typical film/book transmedia franchise that treated their entire plot as a continuous chronology, having films that are chronologically disconnected and simply using books to fill the intervening time.
343, however, took a more Matrix-like approach by keeping each of its media cohesive, yet separate. Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the largely self-contained stories told in each are designed to take advantage of the medium’s qualities. The books, for example, contain several different plot threads and characters that run concurrent with the games yet do not intersect in major ways. However, one of the two main antagonists in Halo 4 was the main antagonist of a trilogy of books written by Karen Traviss, while the other was a major character in a completely separate trilogy of books set tens of thousands of years prior to the start of the game. One of the examples used in the GDC video is that of Thomas Lasky, the protagonist of the short film series Forward Unto Dawn, that appears as a major supporting character in Halo 4. Halo 4 is not in any way required to understand Forward Unto Dawn, nor is it required to understand any of the other books; they exist as independent stories that simply reference the other works of the series, building a universe with many moving, detailed parts.
Halo benefits in its universe by having its creative forces guiding and approving all media, similar to how the Wachowskis ran the transmedia efforts of the Matrix franchise. This is fundamentally different than the Star Wars franchise, where the (now former) creative director, George Lucas, had little interest in the works of the Expanded Universe and would overwrite them in one of his films without much care. Indeed, this pushed many of the more in-depth EU offerings into timelines far removed from the main series, such as the Knights of the Old Republic series, set 4,000 years before the films, or the acclaimed Thrawn book series, set five years after the last film. While the Star Wars series is by definition transmedia, I find it difficult to classify it in the same category as Halo or The Matrix; the lack of a central, guiding authority makes the series seem closer to a merchandising empire than a transmedia republic.
Certainly, Halo has not been perfect, especially with the Bungie games. Halo: Reach, covering a time period already covered by the first book, managed to rewrite a lot of established lore and leave some confusing plot holes. Despite this, since taking over the franchise, 343 has demonstrated an apparent dedication to their transmedia offerings that is heartening. Overall, however, it would be difficult to argue that Halo’s books, films and comics are a simple cash grab. While the games may not rely on their extended work as heavily as the Matrix sequels did, this is a conscious decision on the part of the creators. They have managed to build a universe nearing the depth and complexity of The Matrix but with the scope and aesthetics of Star Wars. This is what is so intriguing about Halo, it’s not competing with Killzone or Call of Duty, but with Star Wars. It’s not a story so convoluted that it unfolds on internet forums, but there is always something to be gained by reading another form of media. Halo, especially now, does transmedia right.