This article contains spoilers for the Halo franchise and the Hunt the Truth podcast.
An award-winning story built around the marketing for Halo 5, the serial podcast Hunt the Truth is one of the best Halo stories in the franchise. Written by Noah Eichen, Andrew Volpe, Ian Tornay and additional writers from the Ayzenberg advertising agency, it ran in 2015 as essentially the Serial of the Halo universe, following a journalist and a revolutionary who run afoul of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Hunt the Truth leveraged a unique format and new characters to tell a type of story that could never be accomplished in the games.
Halo has a history of using marketing in a unique way. The alternate reality game I Love Bees generated buzz for Halo 2, and before Halo: Combat Evolved had even finished production, “The Cortana Letters” seeded the early idea of the game in fans’ minds. Halo is particularly suited to this style of embedded storytelling because it’s set in a fictionalized far future of our own world. Putting the characters in real world context helps blur the line between fiction and reality. It makes the story seem more convincing and close.
Microsoft even produced mockumentaries in memoriam of Master Chief’s ultimate sacrifice at the end of the Human-Covenant War, with “eyewitness accounts” from veterans who fought alongside John-117 during the battle of Earth. This was a big chunk of the ad campaign for Halo 3. The mockumentary trend has continued in the years since: Halo: Reach trailers showed documentary-style images of civilians fleeing the doomed planet, and Halo 5‘s trailers teased the question of whether the Master Chief was an enemy or ally before Hunt the Truth began.
Hunt the Truth‘s podcast format took this to a dramatic extreme, though. At first, it framed the audience as listeners to an underground transmission. Although the audience’s role faded in and out and changed as the story went on, it did a good job of embeddeding the listener in the Halo universe.
The podcast follows two characters, the reporter Ben Giraud, played by Keegan-Michael Key, and Fero, played by Janina Gavankar. Ben has appeared in Halo comics before as an unnamed journalist, but only in the podcast was he been given a complete story. He is assigned by ONI to write a human interest story about the Master Chief’s origins and heroism, but digging too far into that story leads him to the uncomfortable truth about the Spartan child soldiers that ONI tried to conceal. His investigations provide the push for the first season of Hunt the Truth. They also tied into the rest of Halo 5’s marketing campaign. While other ads asked whether Chief was a “hero” or a “traitor,” Ben investigated whether Chief had gone rogue and attacked civilians. As it turns out, the same government forces that Chief was fighting for were catching Ben up in an elaborate lie.
The characters shine in Hunt the Truth, and the radio transmission format is used to its full extent. Ben Giraud is the cornered reporter determined to expose his ONI handlers, and the constant sense of tension keeps his story strong even—or especially—when he’s doing his job badly. Some Halo material avoids putting judgement on ONI, portraying them as they see themselves—people who sometimes do terrible things for the greater good. The Spartan program operated on the same mentality. (ONI kidnapped children and made them the subjects of terrible experiments that ultimately turned them into the hulking Spartans. Originally, Spartans were meant to keep human colonies in line.) But the ONI that Ben faces is a vicious Big Brother, and the people fighting against it are plucky revolutionaries.
The pluckiest are the the hacker Mshak, played by Kumail Nanjiani, and insurrectionist Bostwick, played by Rosa Salazar. Another supporting character, Petra, also has some terrifically entertaining scenes, while Mishak serves as both comic relief and an expert sometimes too intelligent for his own good. Janina Gavankar performs brilliantly, and big names like Mark Hamill, Alad Tudyk, Peter Serafinowicz, and Cobie Smulders contribute their voices, too. The radio format itself is worked into the writing: the story is all about transmissions and secrets and who is listening in on who, and the acting is naturalistic, full of pauses and uncontrolled reactions.
Halo has always had a large contingent of female characters, and Hunt the Truth adds to them. Female friendships and female leaders are key to the story. I didn’t have to worry about who had or had not been marginalized. The story gave its female characters a lot of time to shine. The journalist Petra and insurrectionist Bostwick both have major parts in the story, but the most significant female character is Fero/Maya, the narrator of the second season.
Originally introduced as the informant Fero, she is revealed to be an ONI agent who turns against ONI in the second season and is determined to finish what Ben started. When Fero realizes that she can’t trust ONI either, she throws off the mantle of a double agent and joins forces with the Insurrectionists with whom she had been embedded.
The final conflict in the show is between Fero/Maya and Bostwick, a rebel whose faith in and friendship with Maya was shaken after she revealed herself as an ONI agent. The story hinges on the trust and betrayal between the two women—and is complicated by another female character, the mad ex-Spartan Ilsa Zane. The story doesn’t veer away from letting these characters hold the weight of the narrative.
In the end, Fero has one of the most unique stories in the Halo universe because she is a human who becomes an AI. After the disastrous finale, it is revealed that her brain was being scanned by an AI named BB the whole time, and she’s revived—a unique and potentially game-changing look at the way the Halo universe handles AI. Although we know that smart AI in the Halo universe are based on human brains—Cortana is based on Halsey— the connection has never been this clear before, and some AI don’t even know who their human host was. Maya/Fero is in a unique position in that she remembers.
This switch in perspective is part of what lets Hunt the Truth tell stories a video game couldn’t. Because of the radio show format, we’re both inside Fero’s head and constantly aware of the type of surveillance she is trying to avoid. How could Fero’s recordings have survived if she died? The story answers this neatly by revealing that BB perserved them.
Halo Expanded Universe fans will recognize some pre-existing characters, too. While Master Chief isn’t really the central figure of the hunt supposedly built around him, there is more to discover about him in the podcast. The newly-voiced BB (Peter Serafinowicz) seems perfectly in character compared to his first portrayal in the Kilo-Five novel series. BB is also particularly great as a voice of reason, although, since he takes orders from ONI, it’s a particularly bloodthirsty reason. When Fero forces BB to help her escape a Kig-yar ship in season two, both of them are subjected to electric shocks—and the voice acting from both of them is hilarious and sells the horrific situation at the same time.
The scene in the Kig-yar ship shows the strength of the sound editing in Hunt the Truth, too. The rich array of noises brings the Halo universe to life in a different way than before, audibly painting a picture of Kig-yar, a rampaging Spartan, a cult, or a gunfight. When Ben travels to a glassed planet to dig through the remains of a Covenant attack in order to find ONI secrets, the sound of the wind and the glass rain is utterly convincing and realistic. I was walking in full daylight when I first heard it, but it made me want to find shelter.
The ending of the series also uses sound well, creating a strange, disorienting scene during the rising of one of the Guardians seen in Halo 5. The ending completely upended my expectations of where the story was going to go, and tied into other elements of the Halo universe in a way both unexpected and fitting.
With all of these strengths, the fact remains that Hunt the Truth starts out feeling gaudier and cheaper than it ends up being. The voice acting tends toward the over-dramatic in the first few episodes, but when the show gets going, it really gets going, and by the end it has hit its stride in terms of quality as well as taken some chances to mock itself.
Oddly enough, after Halo 5 came out, the connection between the game and what was essentially a two-season advertising campaign began to fray. Chief’s guilt or innocence was not the major driver of Halo 5’s plot. Instead, Cortana and the attacks by her Guardians came to the forefront, leaving 343’s carefully written, beautifully orchestrated marketing campaign stranded pretty far from the actual game. Why? Was it simply that Hunt the Truth couldn’t build too much on Chief’s story both in fear of spoilers and because the obfuscation of the Spartan program was exactly the point? Or was something cut out of the game that might have given more context to ONI setting Chief up for a fall?
Instead, Hunt the Truth was more about revealing the truth about the Spartan program than of Chief himself. Like Halo 5, it didn’t add a lot of personality behind the mask. It never answered the question of whether or not Chief himself was a hero, instead wrapping up one story that had tried to frame him—the incident with the diplomatic summit—and then veering off on other, highly entertaining but less relevant tangents. The central question of Halo 5 was not the question Hunt the Truth had been asking all along. It was not “Is the Master Chief the hero or the villain?” The only way Halo 5 asked that question was in the gameplay: in allowing the player to fight as Team Osiris, they were forced to act as if the Master Chief were the enemy. But Osiris’ motivation didn’t have much behind it except for ONI’s orders, and fans’ reactions to Osiris varied.
Hunt the Truth came at that idea from a different angle. Instead of playing as one side or the other, the stories of Ben Giraud and Fero looked at both sides with suspicion. Oddly enough, what might be the strongest marketing campaign Halo has ever created bypassed the plot and themes of the game pretty thoroughly. The podcast did include the Guardians, tying into the events of Halo 5 by including the giant robot-artifacts rising from underground. Although we didn’t learn much about them in the podcast—the twist that Cortana was using them was still to come—there were dramatic scenes of the Guardians destroying the cities under which they had been buried, lending a new perspective to the events of the game.
However successful it was or was not at connecting to the themes of Halo 5, Hunt the Truth still stands as a creative, engrossing piece of Halo fiction and a unique marketing tool. The podcast format enables it to deliver the sounds and voices of a universe primarily presented in a very visual medium. Master Chief may be the quintessential strong and silent hero, but Ben’s and Fero’s voices are what make Hunt the Truth an important part of Halo continuity.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.