This article was first published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. You can find out about that issue and everything else in it by clicking here.
It’s a very big year for Halo, the space opera franchise that changed the face of video games, particularly the shooter genre, and ignited a growing trend in the industry: the video game as multimedia franchise. Since Halo: Combat Evolved launched in 2001 to huge critical acclaim and blockbuster success, there have been books, comics, and TV specials that expand the universe of the games. Halo 5: Guardians is the next big chapter in the series, arriving on Oct. 20 to the Xbox One. It will introduce new stories to the epic saga, many of which are rooted in the expanded universe.
Fans who never look beyond the Halo games are missing the rich expanded universe that solidified the best video game franchise of all time. Microsoft, through the efforts of Bungie and 343 Industries, designed an interwoven project that branches out into different parts of a layered and entertaining story. Besides 10 video games, the Halo franchise boasts 13 novels, one short story collection, six comic series, the Halo Graphic Novel collection, the live-action film Forward Unto Dawn, and special promotional material like Dr. Halsey’s journal or the ARG game I Love Bees.
Not to mention Ridley Scott’s effort, a digital series called Nightfall, which introduces the co-star of the latest Halo game, Agent Locke. And even before that, director Neill Blomkamp's films District 9 and Elysium have been more than a little reminiscent of a particular sci-fi video game series.
One game sparked the imagination of authors, artists, and filmmakers over night, and the Halo Expanded Universe was born. The books vary from relatively straightforward novelizations of the games, like The Flood by William C. Deitz, to entirely standalone series, such as Karen Traviss’ Kilo-Five Trilogy.
So, where should fans who wants to dive into the world of Spartans and space marines start?
It’s probably a good idea to start with the books set just before Halo: Combat Evolved and go chronologically from there.
The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund is a fascinating look at the Master Chief’s training, and a good entrance into the world of Spartans and the Covenant since Chief is learning about it at the same pace as the reader. Other characters like Kurt-052 and the Spartans of Blue Team stick around for multiple books and draw readers in with their camaraderie. The Fall of Reach comic series covers roughly the same ground as the novel.
The Fall of Reach is followed by The Flood, First Strike, Ghosts of Onyx, Contact Harvest, and The Cole Protocol, contiguous books that follow Spartan teams Blue and Gray.
The Kilo-Five Trilogy, written by Karen Traviss, directly follows the previous novels while introducing a new cast of characters. In Karen Traviss’ books, the very existence of the Spartan program is explored as morally wrong. The army for which the Master Chief fights isn’t a one-dimensional recruitment ad - the Marines are noble, but the intelligence division is providing weapons to the enemy.
The books mostly follow soldiers, lending backstory and context to Master Chief’s friends and allies. Some of the books are ancient history, like the Forerunner Trilogy (Cryptum, Primordium, and Silentium) by notable science fiction author Greg Bear, which directly tie into Halo 4. Bear’s books explain the motivations of the villain and the side characters more fully than in the game, but are also so far separated from the games in time that they feel like original science fiction.
If you find yourself interested in the Forerunners of Halo 4, you’ll find that Bear’s novel series, set tens of thousands of years before the games, explains their backstory and culture. The upcoming Broken Circle goes into the more recent past, focusing on the Covenant before the games.
The short story collection Evolutions contains a great variety of tales that can help fans fit the expanded universe together. Especially memorable are “Human Weakness,” showing Cortana’s perspective during Halo 2, and the exquisite “Mona Lisa,” in which a lack of resolution makes the expanded universe feel like an ongoing, dangerous place.
The Halo Graphic Novel, published by Marvel, is likewise an anthology that offers readers various perspectives on the universe. The short, sweet “Armor Testing” is a simple story with a twist that tells as much about the reader as the fictional characters. The gory, stylized adventures of Sergeant Johnson in “Breaking Quarantine" shows how the Sarge escaped the Flood on Installation 04.
The series Uprising follows the Master Chief between Halo 2 and Halo 3. Other Marvel books Blood Line and Helljumper follow Spartan Black Team and ODSTs, respectively. Both are five-part series.
Dark Horse has published two series that tie in with Halo 4. Initiation is set before the game and tells the story of Spartan-IV commander Sarah Palmer. Escalation follows Palmer, Infinity executive officer Thomas Lasky, and other Spartan-IVs into a negotiation with the Covenant that could turn into an all-out war.
If you want to jump into the expanded universe in the comics, it’s probably best to start with Uprising, or try out the collected Graphic Novel to get a taste for Halo comics.
Halo has an anthology: the animated Legends, which was produced in 2010. It features a variety of stories - seven vignettes from six different production studios. The stories don’t always quite line up with the main canon, like "The Package," in which Master Chief and Blue Team rescue Dr. Halsey or “Odd One Out,” a wacky, humorous tale about “Spartan-1337.”
Legends also includes “The Duel,” a stylized historical epic about an Elite Arbiter, and “Homecoming,” a quiet, heartwrenching look at the side effects of the Spartan-II program.
The live action web series Forward Unto Dawn comes from the period of Halo 4 tie-ins and tells Lasky’s history. It also contains a cameo by Master Chief. It wasn’t the first live action Halo film, though - that honor goes to Landfall, a short promotional trailer campaign for Halo 3.
Last October, we saw the release of Halo: Nightfall, which came bundled with The Master Chief Collection. This digital feature shed light on the origin of Agent Locke, the new Spartan featured in Halo 5: Guardians. It’s probably a good idea to watch this one if you’re interested in playing the new game.
Fan series Red vs Blue has gained a life of its own, separate from Halo, but the 12-season science fiction series is still filmed using all things Halo - and has the Microsoft stamp of approval.
Red vs Blue is only tangentially related to the Halo story - Master Chief’s name is dropped in the first season and never mentioned again - but it uses canon Halo ideas like armor enhancements and artificial intelligence to tell a story about hapless space marines and tragic supersoldiers. This Machinima series started out as a comedy produced by a group of friends in their spare time, and became the flagship product for what is now a fully fledged internet content company, RoosterTeeth. It’s highly recommended whether you’re knowledgeable about the rest of the Halo universe or not.