Last time, you asked me, if it was my choice, would I do it? Having had considerable time to ponder your query, my answer has not changed. There is no choice.
— 343 Guilty Spark to Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, HALO: Combat Evolved
Back in late 2013, someone asked me whether the latest HALO game at the time, HALO 4, was a bit feminist-slanted, what with the fact that Catherine Halsey was up to her usual mischief, the revelations of the Librarian’s machinations through the extended back-story in Greg Bear’s Forerunner Trilogy, and given that the commander of the new SPARTAN-IVs was female.
Back then, I didn’t exactly disagree. Having had considerable time to ponder the query, my answer has not changed. There is indeed a problem with the HALO series in terms of its embrace of feminism.
Fortunately, it’s not a terminal situation. Not yet.
Enough With the Warrior Women
There is no question that the “equality through estrogen” crowd has thoroughly infected gaming at this point. Whether we’re talking BioWare’s last few releases, the fact that the latest Call of Duty and Battlefield games feature playable badass girrrrrls with rifles, or the utterly screwed-up reboot of Tomb Raider, gamers have been subjected to an endless barrage of messages delivered through our gaming consoles that ALL games need Strong Female Characters. In the minds of the politically correct corporate types whose job it is to sell these games, the worst crime that they can possibly commit is not to deliver a terrible game—it is to offend the Lady High Panjandrums of the feminist left with their lack of zeal in representing women in their games.
In the end, gamers like you and me are the ones who really suffer from this literally retarded insistence on having MOAR ESTROGEN in our games. The reason is simple: the gameplay, the plot, and the characterisation, all of which create a believable, immersive, and fun experience for us as gamers, suffer terribly.
This insistence on including more women in situations where they would be patently out of place at best, and a huge liability at worst, must be treated with every bit of the utter contempt that it deserves.
BDUs with Breasts
The entire point of gaming is escapism. A great game delivers an escape into a completely different, yet somehow believable, reality that sucks the player in and keeps him there. To accomplish this, a great game absolutely must be able to get the player to suspend his sense of disbelief; he must, at some level, believe that what he’s seeing on the screen is real, or at least realistic.
There is nothing realistic about women in full battle dress fighting on the front lines.
In reality, a woman in combat is going to be at a truly staggering disadvantage against her male peers in terms of strength, endurance, and work capacity. And this is before we get to the reality that having women serving on the front lines will inevitably lead to a certain degree of, er, fraternisation among the troops, which is thoroughly forbidden, and with complete justification. There is nothing so corrosive and destructive to the morale of a unit as sexual tension tearing apart the bonds of camaraderie and brotherhood that keep a military unit functioning in the crucible of war.
These are all basic facts of human biology and psychology. There is no way to get around them or change them; they are immutable and timeless laws, and no amount of politically correct propaganda is ever going to make them budge even one millimetre.
So when game developers and marketers insist on putting women in combat situations, where they absolutely do not belong, even the fattest, most thoroughly neck-bearded couch-potato of a gamer is going to have a very difficult time suspending his disbelief in order to play the pile of turds that has been crapped out in front of him and tarted up with fancy packaging as a “game”.
Therefore, a combat/shooter game that tries to be “politically correct” by introducing women just for the sake of having more women in it, has failed to display the single most important attribute of any good game: the capacity for suspending disbelief.
The Women of HALO
Now at this point, I will admit that in the HALO universe, all SPARTANs wear highly advanced suits of powered and shielded armour that vastly increase the strength, speed, and reflexes of the user. And as the canonical lore points out, the female SPARTAN candidates go through the same augmentation procedures as male candidates do, which gives them strength and stamina far beyond that of a baseline human. In a setting like the HALO universe, it could theoretically be possible to introduce female characters that are not completely ridiculous- provided that it’s done right.
So it is worth exploring exactly how the HALO saga has used female characters in the past, and see why, for the most part, Bungie and 343i have managed to get it right.
First and foremost, of course, we have Cortana, the single most important female character in the entire series and canon. Despite her considerable, uh, assets, Cortana isn’t there just for eye-candy.
Cortana exists in the main series to provide tactical support, intel, and tremendously enhanced reflexes and battlefield cognition to the already formidable array of talents and weapons available to the Master Chief. Most of the time in the games, you don’t even see her—you’re carrying her from point to point, or you’re trying to rescue her. She’s basically your average Damsel In Distress who can hack military-grade supercomputers in nanoseconds and has enough computing power to not only run an entire battleship or space station, but massacre any ship stupid enough to get within range.
Helpless, she is not.
The best thing about Cortana, though, is the fact that her witty, mildly sarcastic personality shines through, thanks to Jen Taylor’s superb voice acting and the great scripts that the developers keep coming up with for her. Through the four (and counting) games starring John-117 as the protagonist, she builds a real rapport with the Chief and, by extension, the player. She helps the games do exactly what great games should do: draw you into a world of wonder and keep you there.
Then there is SPARTAN Catherine B-320, who is seen in HALO: Reach. She is very much the badass girl—with an Israeli voice actress, to boot—but she doesn’t waste the player’s time. She exists to be the same kind of unstoppable demon on the battlefield as any other SPARTAN. She provides tactical intel and tells you who to shoot. She occasionally gets involved in the down-and-dirty realities of ground ops. And she clearly has a long professional history with Noble Leader, SPARTAN Carter A-259, and so provides another personality within Noble Team that the player gets emotionally invested in so that, when she dies in the game, it comes as a real shock.
So far, so good. But there are instances where the game developers for the HALO series have screwed up, badly.
For one, there are the female marines, voiced by none other than Hollywood’s go-to tough girl Michelle Rodriguez, seen previously in HALO 2. There is absolutely nothing even the slightest bit realistic about a girl Marine, especially not when you realise that, here in the real world, female candidates for the Marine Corps have failed to pass the requirements of the Corps’ basic training programme at a rate sometimes approaching ninety-seven percent.
For a game series that spends so much time an effort on making its combat effects, sounds, and weapons as realistic as possible, the folks over at Bungie, Ensemble Studios (yes, HALO Wars was guilty of this sin too), and 343 Industries all seem hell-bent on ignoring grade-school physics and biology in order to satisfy a non-existent demand for Strong Female Characters among its hardcore fans.
For another, there is Sarah Palmer, the new commander of the SPARTAN-IV units. Her presence in HALO 4 makes virtually zero difference to the plot, gameplay, and characterisation, so why was she even there in the first place? Even if you play through the episodic blend of multiplayer and campaign gaming that was Spartan Ops (I really enjoyed those), there is literally nothing to be gained from her presence.
The future games of the HALO saga do not need more Sarah Palmers. They do not need more female marines. They do not really need any more female SPARTANs. They simply need believable, interesting characters who add dimension and depth to the plots of already amazing games that have delivered a phenomenal experience to the player with each and every single installment, on every platform, across nearly 15 years and counting.
Stick to the Basics: Plot and Character
With all of that said, let me also say this in defence of the HALO saga: if the goal of the developers was to enhance the gameplay by adding women, I believe that thus far, they have mostly succeeded.
Several of the women in the HALO saga have been there to provide colour and ancillary personality to the otherwise wordless strong, silent protagonists that the player becomes. In the main HALO series, the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana becomes one of deep mutual trust, forged into a bond of iron, and when Cortana dies in HALO 4, only the most hard-hearted and callous player would feel anything other than an emotional gut-punch.
In HALO: Reach, Cat’s presence serves to humanise the otherwise relentless, machine-like quality of Noble 6, especially as the SPARTANs of Noble Team begin to die, one by one, during the desperate and terrible Fall of Reach.
In HALO 3: ODST, the only female character of any consequence whatsoever is Captain Veronica Dare, whose personality serves as a great foil to Gunnery Sgt. Buck’s and whose existence is critical to the entire plot of a truly great standalone game.
Even in HALO Wars, Eileen Anders is there strictly for the purpose of driving the plot forward, rather than for making any Big Important Points About Diversity.
And let’s not forget Dr. Catherine Halsey. Without her, the entire SPARTAN programme would never have existed, and the HALO canon would not have been the same. It is very difficult to imagine a male scientist making the kinds of ethically compromised decisions that she makes, and yet being so emotionally conflicted about what she has done; a man with the same capacity for ruthlessness and the same devotion to reason would long since have come to terms with his guilt, whereas Dr. Halsey’s guilt for her sins drives her to take very odd decisions, which ultimately serve to further the plot and drive the development of other characters.
This is exactly how things should be. Women in the HALO franchise serve as foils to build up the gameplay and provide real context for the plot. Most importantly, they serve to humanise the protagonists, who are for the most part faceless and nameless, thereby allowing the player to feel like he’s really become a SPARTAN or an ODST.
I love the HALO franchise. I have done ever since I first figured out how to beat the original HALO: Combat Evolved all the way back in 2010. (I tend to catch on a bit slowly with certain things.) I have watched first Bungie, and then 343 Industries, take the helm of the franchise and build out an amazing universe of wonder, into which a gamer can insert himself and be lost instantly.
The developers have tinkered around the edges of the franchise, changing this feature and adding that upgrade, but the fundamental essence of HALO has never changed. The games have always been driven by an amazing story, incredibly engaging gameplay, completely intuitive controls, and an emphasis on engrossing, brutal, challenging combat.
All of this will change if 343 Industries decides to focus instead on being politically correct.
Fortunately, they don’t appear to be going down that road—yet. Let’s hope that they never do.