The foreboding ring-shaped structure immediately paid homage to Biblical roots: Halo. In Medieval art, it refers to a glistening ring above the head of divine beings. In the games’ lore, it’s a super-weapon capable of eliminating all sentient life in the galaxy, created by not-so-divine beings known as the Forerunners. The Halo games play on religious events, people, and themes as a tool to familiarize players with the exotic worlds they are free to explore. This sense of familiarity culminates in a grounded reality that is recognizable, instead of a far-off tale surrounding concepts alien to the player from the get-go.
Players are introduced to a sci-fi epic about an alliance of several space-faring species known as the Covenant, but everything still feels easy to grasp. The Covenant have Prophets, who have a goal they call the Great Journey. The religious influences are front and center: the Great Journey akin to Biblical salvation, the Covenant entity themselves mirroring the covenant of God with the Prophets, Master Chief as the savior figure, and of course the God-like status of the Forerunners. People understand the story of Noah’s Ark, so when they experience the turbulent spore-like Flood in the Halo games it’s a much more believable tale when those same Flood go on to then attack the Ark, the facility which stores the Halo rings. Coincidentally the Ark also stores a male and female variant of each species in controlled space as the Forerunners set up this contingency plan as a way to resurrect life in the universe after the firing of the Halo arrays.
Whether one believes them to be the all-encompassing truth or just an interesting collection of ancient tales, the stories and events told in religious doctrine have a way of kindling something within us. Their grandiose nature and ability to hit on shared human values are understood through all languages. The Halo games play on this to create a setting that players can relate to while being able to follow along with the overarching story beats throughout the game.
When the Prophets of the aforementioned Covenant speak about their Great Journey, no exposition is needed. It immediately alerts the player to their goals and how much they will sacrifice for victory. The next time an Elite— a high ranking soldier in the Covenant— brandishes his energy sword, the player already knows so much about his foe, from its motivations to its plans. When you come up against them, you immediately think to all of the religious wars you were taught about in school of Crusaders and colonialists willing to sacrifice everything to achieve their goals in the name of a higher power. You understand their relationship and obedience to their Prophets like you have learned about the followers of the Biblical Abraham and Moses whose people either staunchly obeyed or fought them. These Prophets claim knowledge of the unseen, and you know how hard you must strive to break that barrier and eventually, you hope, save humanity from extinction.
The Master Chief can be seen as the Christ-like savior, and the scriptural references and similarities are numerous. Developer Bungie made it their mission to elevate him to this savior status, be it by the “BELIEVE” marketing slogan of Halo 3 or the inevitable resurrection of the Chief in Halo 4 from cryo-sleep, a temporary abode until the begotten Son of Nazareth returns. In the Gospel of St. John 1:1-7, with 117 being the Master Chief’s service tag, it talks about Jesus as the light of men in the darkness and ends with, “The same came for a witness, to bear the witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” The “BELIEVE” mantra appropriates John as humanity’s sole hope, and the player takes control in-game while soldier’s quietly whisper, “It’s the Chief!”, as you walk into a briefing room or the alien Grunts screaming “Demon!” as the player enters the battlefield and mows down Covenant forces. All of the subplots and side stories seem to only share a different perspective on John-117, the same way the Biblical story of Christ overshadows everything that came before it in regards to the Prophets and their experiences serving almost just as supporting roles in the main plot.
The upcoming Halo 5: Guardians continues to develop new allegories to ancient scripture, this time focusing on the wider fiction of the universe. With Halo 4, new Halo developers 343 Industries began what they’re calling the Reclaimer saga, which will continue the storyline after Halo 3 concluded the previous arc. One of the more important story beats follows the concept of the Mantle of Responsibility. The Halo rings were originally built by a society preceding the Forerunners. The Mantle was claimed by the Forerunners as they defeated their Precursor overlords and conquered huge swaths of the universe. As they lost power and eventually had to activate the Halo rings to destroy the Flood spores, it was humanity who was deserving of that right. Whoever attains the Mantle in theory become the stewards of all life in the universe. This strikes a compelling resemblance to the Catholic concept of the Stewardship of Creation which pits humans as caretakers of the creation of God, imposing the same responsibility the Mantle has over its holders or those that strive to attain it. Playing through Halo 4, where the concept of the Mantle was first brought to the video game side of the Halo multi-media machine, the player realizes the weight of responsibility the Mantle holds through various cutscenes alluding to and first introducing the concept as this is the first time a Forerunner being is present in a Halo game and thus the first time the Mantle is introduced. The main villain of Halo 4 and the prime instigator of the Mantle concept is an ancient Forerunner warrior known as the Didact.
The Didact is obsessed with keeping this status of responsibility for his species, as he has been overtaken with the sense of failing to combat the Flood before when the Mantle was originally taken from the Forerunners. In the epilogue to Halo 4, the fallen Forerunner warrior, with a flurry of themes from scripture to evoke players with a sense of religious Armageddon, triumphantly stresses the need to eradicate humanity and take back the Mantle for the Forerunners as the rightful inheritors. He states, “Humanity stands as the greatest threat in the galaxy. Refusing to eradicate them is a fool’s gambit. We squander eons in the darkness, while they seize our triumphs for their own. The Mantle of Responsibility, for all things, belongs to Forerunners alone!”
At the end of the first Halo, John-117 activates an unfinished Halo ring that subsequently tears apart the Ark. And among Chief’s final words are, “It’s finished.” It is fitting, then, that the Biblical end of Jesus, as stated in the Gospel of John 19:30, is, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ’It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Chief then ultimately ends with, “Wake me, when you need me”—another nod to the Biblical accounts that the Messiah will return. The Master Chief is Halo’s main avenue of scriptural expression. The ability to familiarize players in a world that should feel distinctly alien and far-flung, but that instead feels recognizable through the religious undertones we all understand, is a testament to the world-building ability of the original Halo team at Bungie Inc.
The famous monk-laden theme that evokes religiosity and the sense of stepping into a grand cathedral helps with this objective, but John-117 is the torchbearer of Halo’s Biblical touchstones, now and far into the future.