The Marketing of Halo 5: Guardians

Halo2

As the Halo series progressed, the ad budget fattened with generous Microsoft money — for their console, they had a flagship title after game one. The only thing missing from Combat Evolved was online multiplayer, and this was immediately rectified for Halo 2. The big hit got bigger, and Halo paved the way for the modern half-billion dollar launches of video-games, before it became one itself with Halo 3 and Reach. We saw this progression reflected in promotional material: live-action teasers by the actual factual Halo movie director, a series of abstract videos with old men and dioramas, more live-action mood pieces, webseries, and finally, two television series produced by Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg.

Some of the middle-era pieces, among them “Starry Night,” as directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) at that time an industry-award winner for the “Mad World” Gears of War trailer, were effective. The ads for ODST were probably the apex in my opinion — spectacle adaptations of the virtual world with an attention for humanity in the briefest of economical acting and direction.

As Bungie continues the live-action tradition with Destiny, 343 Industries is even more ambitious, legitimizing their new series by paying tribute to the old, remaking the original game and going on to revamp Halo 2 for its ten-year anniversary in an upcoming Master Chief Collection.

This marks a dynamic shift in what might be the “super story-arc,” reflecting it on a dramatic level. The “Master Chief Collection” is not accidentally titled, given hints about the protagonist in Halo 5: Guardians, who may very well be the mysterious Agent Locke.

His debut is in the Halo 5 official trailer, which premiered at E3 2014. Here we have the return of an old friend, and some reminiscing in tales of the glory. It’s this trailer, in tandem with the teaser released over a year prior, that tells a story in the cracks between an ongoing ‘modern epic.’

What kind of story should be told in this way? What can be? Well, this is marketing, so we’re meant to take away only tantalizing glimpses of our adventure to come, but that doesn’t mean only throwaway narratives can sprout there, just that most other ad agencies or departments don’t have thirteen years with the same story product to evolve with.

The teaser trailer sees Master Chief’s encounter with the unknown at the fringe of human experience. He’s alone, mourning Cortana. What better environment to express this feeling than at the edge of the universe? The official trailer has Agent Locke and the Arbiter (still voiced by genre veteran Keith David) contemplating the Master Chief’s location, and his legacy. The Arbiter says: “To find him, you have to forget the stories. Forget the legends. … For he is more than the sum of his actions.”

Halo1

Chronology in this situation counts, and the effect would’ve been better if we saw the Locke trailer first, and then learned where the Chief was, so that his strange encounter would be primed with those lines in our minds. The two trailers have a good interplay regardless, and speak to an overall state of transition — which might’ve made better sense going into Halo 4 rather than 5, but the theme of deconstruction is more appropriate here.

To the Covenant, Master Chief became a demon, making the unstoppable killing machine power of the player manifest in the game-world, and after surviving a fall from orbit, one’s apt to become legendary in human eyes as well. Halo 4 was determined to explore Master Chief’s humanity by closing the book on Cortana, and so what this game is promising here, in its marketing, is to push forward and break legends down toward understanding a godlike character’s inner self.

That’s some kind of characterization. The Master Chief, often charming and always heroic, is inescapably the faceless avatar of violence, and so makes for the perfect character a ‘sequel’ (series) might take apart and examine. He isn’t conventionally compelling, but could open thematic conversations about military dehumanization and war. With this sequel series, we do open the possibility for another shot at conventional characterization, now that Halo has taken a new direction.

However, the unforeseen, yet foolish, consequence of the Locke premiere is fan speculation over his ‘true’ identity, his after all being behind a mask and silent for the moment. People are claiming that it’s Noble 6, the doomed hero from Halo: Reach, or Master Chief’s son (more jokingly, I trust), who he conceived with…? I didn’t choose that romance option. This minor frenzy will make the innocent reveal that 343 created an original character feel like a letdown.

The previously alluded to Halo movie, penned by Alex Garland and to have been directed by Neill Blomkamp, was to introduce an audience proxy’s perspective on the Master Chief, a roundabout boxing of him into the spotlight. If this is the idea with Agent Locke, whose own story will be explored in Halo: Nightfall, he could take the human center previously occupied by Cortana, and evaluate Master Chief from that perspective. If that does come to pass, these trailers will indeed prove to be a kind of thesis for the game and series going forward.

Should trailers aspire to be legitimate (if optional) keys to an ongoing story? Or should they just be fun diversions to remind us of an upcoming title we were already excited about? Storytelling potential exists broadly — leave it to video-games to blaze new trails.

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