This week, while a lot of you will be (re)exploring the galaxy of the original Mass Effect trilogy, we thought it would be fun to revisit some of our own favourite video game planets. First up, Oli remembers the glory of Halo. Halo’s a planet right? It isn’t? Oh well, nobody said this stuff was simple – just ask Pluto.
Halo, the series, owes a lot more than just its name to its original setting. The name is a pretty good start, though, with its evocation of holy reverence, of refracted glory, of encircled perfection. It is the name the religious zealots of the Covenant have bestowed upon a mysterious celestial body: a ringworld orbiting a gas giant, and an artificial paradise harbouring a dark purpose. Its creators, a long-lost race known as the Forerunners, called it, rather prosaically, Installation 04.
Whichever angle you approach it from, the Halo inspires awe. Lore first: the Halo is both ancient, a hundred thousand years old, and futuristic, created by a society far more advanced than either the humans or aliens of the game’s nearish future. Over the course of Halo: Combat Evolved, you discover that it is both a research station and a terrifying weapon. The Forerunners created an array of such Halos that, when triggered together, would destroy all sentient life in the galaxy, to prevent it being overrun by the parasitic Flood. It’s terrifying!
But also, it’s really, really cool. This is the science angle, the engineering angle. It’s a ringworld, more or less as posited by the science-fiction author Larry Niven – a giant, engineered ring in space that is inhabited on its inner surface, where the centrifugal force of the ring’s rotation creates a gravity-like effect. Unlike Niven’s unimaginably huge creation, which encircled its star with a circumference the size of Earth’s orbit, the Halo is small enough that our mind can get to grips with how incredibly big it is. Its band is just 200 miles wide, with a diameter a little smaller than Earth’s. It’s also not a planet, but a moon – or, I guess, a satellite – orbiting the planet Threshold, suspended neatly at the Lagrange point that balances the gravitational pulls of the gas giant and its largest moon. This is good, hard sci-fi – at least, by the standards of as silly a space-opera as Halo: a hypothesis that’s fun just to think about.
The Halo’s biggest impact, though, is purely visual. The sheer sight of it curving up into the sky, contrasted with the huge, spherical bulk of Threshold glowering through Installation 04’s atmosphere, is so evocative and exciting. It’s alien but comprehensible, and it imbues everything with a sense of enormous scale, while also supplying the artists at Halo creator Bungie with a beautiful, arcing focal point for a series of extremely gorgeous skyboxes that evoke the great airbrush sci-fi art of the 1970s and 80s, such as the work of Chris Foss. There’s something inherently uplifting, almost hopeful, about the curve the ring describes in the sky.
What Bungie’s artists chose to do with the surface of this world, though, is what makes it really special. And that was: not make it special at all. It is extremely Earth-like, with rugged mountainous areas, islands and beaches, recognisable weather systems. It’s as if chunks of Colorado sloped down into perfect Seychelles sands. Typically – in the images burned into the minds of a generation of players by Halo: Combat Evolved’s second and fourth missions, ‘Halo’ and ‘The Silent Cartographer’ – it is seen in a clear, slightly hazy light, the sky a brilliant blue, the air sparkling and fresh. Good hiking weather.
The soundscape is crucial, too. You can hear the wind sighing in the tall pine trees. There isn’t much evidence of animal life, although you can hear a shimmering buzz come and go that might be crickets. It’s hushed. It feels deserted, but not in a desolate way; it feels becalmed and peaceful. When the sounds of battle and strife intrude, they don’t resound, but are clipped and dampened by the cool air. The action is urgent and exciting, but the ring is not moved by it.
It’s not just that it’s a beautiful place to be. By making it so familiar and relatable, Bungie ensured that its outlandish concept and scale – that impossible ribbon of world, curving up and in, rather than out and round – would really hit home. By making it so quiet, so pleasant, so toned-down, the developers ensured that the characters and bursts of action would really stand out, like the foreign bodies they are. (Remember that Halo started life as a real-time strategy game, with a lofty camera looking down at these creatures crawling across the surface of the placid ring.)
Amid this unnatural paradise, we find the Forerunners’ structures. They are mythic and monumental enough to make you gasp, but again, less is more: the design is clean and minimal, the surfaces austere. They suggest something functional, something engineered, the parts of a humongous engine. It’s here you get the sense that the lovely planetary surface is a skin, and beneath it this world is a machine, unfeeling and implacable. A subtle contrast, but a powerful one.
What a creation. So frightening and so lovely, so familiar and strange, so seductive and unknowable. Look at it arc into the sky, to an almost-vanishing point; crane your neck, squint your eyes at the solar glare and see the ribbon flare back out from nothing and return to you. Like any great sci-fi, it’s amazing to contemplate, but Bungie’s greatest achievement was simply to put you there so convincingly, standing inside the ring.