header is screenshot from Halo Infinite
Halo, Infinite
Reid McCarter

This will go on forever. Halo Infinite, the aptly titled latest entry to a series of videogames whose first entry was released in 2001, will outlive you. It may outlive the next generation of humans and the generations beyond them. It is a perpetual motion machine designed to suck in attention and spit out appropriately healthy profits until the investment equation shifts unfavourably or we die out as a species. Halo Infinite is Halo, infinite: both a promise and a threat and, ultimately, a cultural vacuum of an all too familiar type.

Infinite’s very first scene asks players not just to remember the plot points and terminology of a story that’s been in the telling for two decades now, but also to have engaged with spin-off games and novels—whole wikis worth of details that make the obsessive feel gratified while alienating even the faithful long-term fan whose interests spread beyond the world of Halo. The intent is clear enough: serialization of this type lightly punishes the idle fan, rewards the diehard, and promises continual, ongoing narrative rewards for those willing to devote themselves to the Franchise+.

This isn’t unique to videogames, of course. Superhero comic books have always provided the same kind of slippery invitation to obsession, and their movie counterparts (especially in the case of Marvel) have succeeded at dominating the cultural headspace using the same hermetically sealed approach to selling new branches of “cinematic universes” to viewers, regularly released at optimal points during each financial quarter. But the way videogames have already learned how to design cynical time sinks out of enormous “open worlds” filled with chores and the attention tapeworms of constantly updating “live service” games means that the medium is well positioned to turn eternal, franchisable storytelling into a far more comprehensive dead end than superhero comics and movies could ever hope to achieve.

It would be something of an uphill battle to create a worthwhile story for a game designed to be the latest entry in a multiple-decade-long, medium-spanning narrative. The desire to keep audiences stuck into fictional worlds that grow convoluted enough to demand nearly biblical exegesis means that those audiences must allow themselves to be cut off from engaging fully with the wider culture of the world around them. The eternal game doesn’t want its players to have time to read books written by other authors (better: Content Creators), say, or even play a wide variety of other work created outside of its profit-generating ecosystem. It cares for outside references only insofar as it can absorb them into itself++. And it must tell a story that incorporates the mass of fiction it's metastasized into existence over years and years and years. The infinite game must, in short, play it safe and keep itself insular.

This becomes clear in how Infinite, like so many eternal stories, avoids any design or narrative decisions that could potentially discomfort fans of the franchise. In order to appear novel, the game takes a halfway step toward “evolving” the series by peppering in Ubisoft-proven open world activities (special aliens to kill; enemy bases to take over; collectible items to find tucked away in hidden corners) while making sure it remains conservative enough not to fully shift its genre too far from the more linear battlefield-to-battlefield progression of past games.

The result is exceptional only in its dullness.

Instead of the often thoughtfully paced series of levels that make up past games, Infinite is filled with aggressively undesigned spaces populated by enemies that can kill the player with single hits from dozens of metres away. There are jeeps and buggies to drive, but outcroppings of rock everywhere eager to flip them over at the slightest nudge. There’s a collection of enemies, calibrated decades ago to offer various, fulfilling on-the-fly tactical decision-making possibilities when presented in various configurations, which now mostly stand around in clumps on wide-open plains or in the mouths of large corridors.

Whereas other Halo games give a sense of progressing toward something, Infinite feels like treading water—like it's buying time for as long as it can until returning to an older design ethos for the much more successful run of non-“open” missions that make up its conclusion.

The plot attempts mild reinvention but quickly retreats to the safety of established character motivations and archetypes whenever it gets too close to venturing into new narrative territory. Though Cortana is gone, aged into insanity and obsolescence, a new, younger, essentially identical version of her has appeared+++. “Weapon” is spritely, unquestioning, and almost always, quite literally, kept in the palm of the player’s hand thanks to Master Chief’s image-projecting glove. She is, like Cortana, a constant companion and a technological tool that provides the same function as her predecessor. The implications of her continual presence as a tool/eagerly obliging hologirlfriend goes unexamined. 

Rather than allow a character who’s spent 20 years starring in Halo games to become complicated by his history, Master Chief also remains stuck in stasis. He has the emotional range of a sullen 12-year-old, sulking over his past and lashing out at those who try to help him before retreating to gruff one-liners and, most often, silence. His stunted maturity may be a good condemnation of the effects of life-long soldiering but it’s hardly compelling drama, which seem to be what Infinite's creators were going for, if the operatics of its slavering Saturday morning cartoon villains, traumatized pilot character, and maudlin ending are any indication.

Any attempts to complicate the boilerplate military adventure come across as forced concessions to a level of thematic depth that the game’s makers know is expected of them but that they’re uninterested in providing. The aforementioned pilot, for instance, is sometimes positioned as an everyman victim of the wars that Master Chief fights so stoically. Chief cares for his safety enough that he risks himself for the pilot, seeing in him the humanity he’s estranged from but is driven to protect. Unfortunately for Infinite’s narrative, the same consideration isn’t given to the many nameless marines who populate the world for no reason other than to man turrets, yell out compliments after sweet jeep jumps, or stroke the player’s ego by complimenting their combat prowess. These soldiers, unlike the pilot, die often, alone, and unremarked upon. Their stories cannot be factored into this new plot because they never were in the old ones. Giving them greater depth would be a potentially uncomfortable departure from expectations.

Infinite is, in short, always desperate to reassure and comfort the player by keeping them firmly ensconced within the same franchise conventions it first invited them into two decades ago. It wants them to feel validated in their devotion to the eternal story. It wants them to listen carefully, and believe what they’re hearing, during extended sequences in which Cortana whispers affirmational ASMR to Chief and, therefore, the player, explaining how “good” and precious he is.

And this, more than anything else, is the horror at the heart of the kind of forever story that Infinite represents. In return for the allegiance required to get the most out of the game’s design, it will caress its audience with warm waves of nostalgia and reassurance, promising a narrative salvation purchasable with regularly given devotionals of time and attention. That nothing exists outside of itself is besides the point. The entertainment is its own way of life and, when we’re all long gone, it will continue to spread itself, unchanging in essence and eternal, infinite.    


+ It’s a bit like reading classical literature in this sense, except that the footnotes lead to more privately-owned intellectual property spawn rather than a greater knowledge of the vastness of human history that’s been explored and depicted outside the domain of corporate lawyers.

++ Toward the end of Infinite, we learn that Master Chief mysteriously disappeared for an extended period of time after the final boss fight. “Three days to be precise,” his AI assistant tells us, raising the question of whether the Christian messiah will save the eternal souls of laser-sword wielding aliens when he returns, too. When another AI assistant cribs from Virginia Woolfe’s suicide note in her dialogue, as Cameron Kunzelman notes in his review, we can only hope against hope that its designers thought players wouldn’t get the reference.

+++ The explanation for this is eventually given and it’s a stunning backpedal from the past games’ plot developments, neatly re-establishing the status quo even more directly than the AI’s facsimile appearance and narrative function did in the first place.  


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.