Halo: The Flood Retrospective

William Dietz’s Halo: The Flood released April 2003, in the game between Combat Evolved and Halo 2’s release. The only Halo novelization to date, it has a mixed reception among fans. But this novel was a crucial link into expanding the Halo universe with a richer array of characters and laying the groundwork for what Halo 2 would explore further.

Part of Forward Unto Dawn’s Hindsight: Halo series. This text piece has a video companion you can view here.

At the end of 2001, the Halo universe—initially only hinted at in scraps of interviews and half-apocryphal materials like the Cortana Letters—had burst onto the scene with Halo: Combat Evolved and its novel companion The Fall of Reach. Halo was a steady seller with an excellent attach rate, selling one million copies in a record five months.

With one tie-in novel hit on their hands, Microsoft’s Franchise Development Group looked to cement their success with another book, this time a novelization of their chart-topping video game. Details about the new novel leaked in late 2002, with the title and author revealed. William Dietz, a prolific sci-fi writer with more than a dozen novels under his belt, including licensed books for the Star Wars universe, would be writing Halo: The Flood.1 In November, Bungie’s Dave Candland confirmed that The Flood would be a novelization, not a sequel to the game or some sort of bridge to Halo 2 (which had been announced that September.)2

When approached for the job, Dietz didn’t own an Xbox and hadn’t played Combat Evolved. He picked up an Xbox, played the game, and then conducted some ersatz market research at a nearby game store to see if Halo was really all it was cracked up to be.3 Witnessing the game’s popularity, he agreed to the job, despite only having roughly ten weeks to play the game, create an outline, and write the book (versus his usual pace of six months.)4

The Flood released in April 2003. Despite being a novelization of a game out for years—or, perhaps, because of it—the novel quickly became a Publishers Weekly bestseller. But it’s fair to say that to date, it’s something of an odd duck in the Halo expanded universe. 17 years later, it remains the only Halo novelization. But The Flood laid far more groundwork than it is often given credit for—painting in the spaces between Nylund’s sketched lines, and providing the springboard for a much richer Halo universe that was imminent.

The Flood opens contemporaneously with the game’s opening. The UNSC ship Pillar of Autumn‘s crew prepares for another battle with the alien Covenant, having fled their fallen fortress world of Reach and stumbling across a mysterious alien ringworld, Halo, in the process.

Nylund and Combat Evolved spent some time highlighting the almost supernatural abilities of the Spartans and their almost unearthly stature among mere mortal soldiers, but it’s Dietz who began to build them into the mythical supersoldiers of legend, with the Chief as The Last Spartan™. While the SPARTAN-II Program has been public for several years, actually seeing a Spartan isn’t common, and Sam’s reaction to thawing the Chief out is evocative:

“God in heaven,” Sam whispered.

The Spartan was huge, nearly two-and-a-half meters tall. Encased in pearlescent green battle armor, the man looked like a figure from mythology—otherworldly and terrifying. Master Chief Spartan 117 stepped from his tube and surveyed the cryo bay. The mirrored visor on his helmet made him all the more fearsome, a faceless, impassive soldier built for destruction and death.
Sam was glad that he was up here in the observation theater, rather than down on the Cryo Two main floor with the Spartan. [S01C01]

Adding to Chief’s apparent unflappability is the fact that under normal circumstances, people enter cryo naked to avoid blistered, painful skin on thawing; Sam notes that Chief, packed into cryo in his armor, must be in extreme discomfort, but he remains a faceless, inscrutable shell.

A major point of fan criticism with The Flood has always revolved around Dietz’s depiction of Chief. While I would argue that it’s in fact Nylund’s depiction that’s further from the pattern established by the games than the one here, Dietz’s interpretation of Chief does lean more heavily into the Chief as an action hero, complete with one-liners—when 343 Guilty Spark mentions he is a genius, Chief responds, “Right. And I’m a Vice Admiral.” But I’d argue that those traits were abundantly clear in Combat Evolved—Chief’s response to Cortana’s jab at “sleeping well” is “no thanks to your driving”, and he sets up a visual punchline when Cortana despairs about how to blow up the Autumn near the climax of the game:

More broadly, though Chief keeps a cold exterior (and appears stoic and machine-like to the other soldiers he serves with) it’s apparent from the get-go that underneath the armor there’s a real person. In cryo, Chief has a dream that turns to a nightmare, and it’s particularly illuminating. There’s a threat on the horizon, and when Chief turns to fight it he’s turned into his unaugmented, six-year-old self, unable to protect his mother figure, Catherine Halsey. Later on, Dietz gives Chief a moment where he suddenly realizes that he’s been acting like his fellow Spartans still had his back—readers see the formation of the “lone wolf” Chief that would be the mainstay of the video games.

But Chief’s humanity probably comes through most strongly in his dealing with the marines. While some players (myself included) tried to play Halo in a way to save the plucky, out-of-their depth marines as much as possible, they were essentially archetypes (and were made of tissue paper on higher difficulty.) While Chief becomes a more active member of the story by necessity of translating a game to a novel, it’s the regular humans who get a surprising amount of rounding. The book starts from the perspective of a lowly Pillar of Autumn technician. In the game, he’s the first person players see die in the game; in the book, he’s a clear and early casualty in what is clearly a long war with bitter consequences. And these casualties affect Chief, perhaps more than in any other representation until Troy Denning’s turn. He bristles with anger when fellow soldiers die, mourns them, and blames himself when those under his care die.

Dietz’s representation of Chief is also novel in that, for perhaps the only time in the books, the reader is Chief, the same way Bungie intended players to inhabit the role in the game. Dietz played the game extensively before writing the novel, and at times his Chief has reactions that mirror those of the players going through the campaign.5 To wit, Chief asks Cortana a question many players might have wondered as they pop into enemy-filled rooms:

“Tell me something, Cortana,” the Master Chief said, as he lowered himself to the ground. “How come you’re always advising me to go up gravity lifts, run down corridors, and sneak through forests while making no mention of all the enemy troops that seem to inhabit such places?”

Later, Chief asks the valid question of just where exactly all the Sentinels in the Library disappear off to, leaving the player alone, or why Cortana couldn’t just teleport Chief to the pulse generators, cutting out the mission “Two Betrayals” entirely. When they are separated by the story, Chief likewise mentions the feeling of isolation that comes from not having the AI chip commands and directions in the player’s ear, an element that ramps up the tension in “343 Guilty Spark” and makes the appearance of the Flood such an effective twist.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s in The Flood that the most central relationship in Halo really gets going. The Chief and Cortana relationship is only barely there in The Fall of Reach, and overshadowed by the relationships between Chief and his mentors and fellow soldiers. Cortana doesn’t appear until the last third of the book and has relatively little time with Chief. So it’s in the Flood where that relationship first starts to deepen into something that would prove pivotal in games like Halo 4. Dietz makes Chief and Cortana both occasionally uneasy partners in their desperate circumstances—the Chief, still smarting from the loss of potentially all of his brethren on Reach, and Cortana, forced to rely on a single soldier instead of being ensconced behind sprawling computer systems. While the Chief and Cortana came together to survive their trial by fire on Reach, it’s in their experiences on Installation 04 that the relationship is plumbed and deepened. Chief finds Cortana’s presence at first embarrassing, then welcome, and actively seeks her approval. Cortana, meanwhile, balances the needs of the mission against the stress of endangering her host, and coming to terms with the fact that she is dependent on his survival for her own. At one point, a Flood infection form very nearly assimilates Chief—only a desperate channeled electrical charge from Cortana is able to save them both.

Much complaint of The Flood focuses on the repetitive combat sections, as Dietz relates the events of the game—events that are exciting when played, but stultifying when read. If Nylund’s penchant for indulgence is the physics of space combat, for Dietz it’s waxing rhapsodic over technical details of bullet casings. Yet I don’t think he’s given credit for turning that repetition into a kind of strength, as the book relates the increasing toll the combat takes on Master Chief. As the game continues, more and more of the combat sequences are smushed together, highlighting the relentless feeling of combat:

He was numb from creeping exhaustion, hunger, and combat. The planned escape route back to the shuttle bay was littered with Flood and Covenant alike. The Spartan moved almost as if he was on autopilot—he simply killed and killed and killed [S03]

I wouldn’t go far as to say “the relentless monotony of the combat sections is the whole point”, but given the straw he was given, Dietz spins as much gold as he can spin, and skips large chunks of several levels to move things along. With the constant constraint of replicating a game (who even its fans would admit contains a large amount of backtracking and padding), Dietz leaned hard into fleshing out these characters, little vignettes that were left out of the game, and answering questions that the game teased but didn’t have the scale or time to cover. Like Nylund, Dietz gives time to the grunts on the ground. But whereas Nylund has a background in science that informs his detailed portrait of battle, Dietz was a US Armed Forces medic, and it shows in his preference for the regular soldiers in battle. These fighters run the gamut from courageous to cowardly, stoic to cheeky (giving “one-fingered salutes” to annoying leaders) and are given inner lives for even the brief moments the story tracks them; even a single marine we never see again in the middle of a pitched battle has his own small arc in the ebb and flow of the combat. Foehammer, who until the book some fans assumed was actually a computer instead of a person, gets a time to shine by imitating her own plan to get Pelicans off Pillar of Autumn (Dietz also gets to explain why the Pelicans have no ammo for their guns, papering over that nitpick.)

But Dietz pushed and negotiated with Bungie not just to relate the game’s content in prose, but to further it, fleshing out the story with parallel narratives between the game’s cutscenes (and cutting out some of Bungie’s narrative in the process.)5 As a result, perhaps the most interesting human characters are almost entirely made up by Dietz—the Orbital Shock Drop Trooper leader Antonio Silva, his second-in-command Melissa McKay, and the doomed marine Wallace Jenkins. Silva and McKay are completely new additions to the game’s story, and they detail the pitched battle all the Marines Chief doesn’t encounter are engaged in. Silva is an excellent character, a fearless and capable leader who nonetheless is ultimately blinded by his prejudices and his desire for glory. In a standout scene, Silva dresses down Chief, calling him and his recently-dead Spartans freaks, and insisting that the ODSTs will save humanity, not Spartans. Dietz is the first author to flesh out the ODSTs, although at this point in Halo‘s franchise development he envisioned them more as just special marines rather than a more separate division with unique armor. Still, he gives them the “feet first into hell” mantra, their drop pods, and even Halo‘s first deeper look at a dumb AI in the delightful Wellsley, who assists Silva. While Silva’s actions nearly doom humanity, he’s a compelling character, and one of the few examples of a human character in the Halo franchise—especially at this early stage—who is allowed to be not purely heroic or villainous.

McKay, meanwhile, mostly functions as a contrast, observing things from a different lens than Silva, and at a critical juncture both prioritizing the soldiers under her command more than glory, and tragically having to sacrifice all of them for the greater good. Dietz also weaves in some subtle sexual tension with the Chief, which feels a little out of place (as does the highlighting of how McKay is a woman at points) but she serves as a strong, empathic heart at the center of the marines’ story. She blazes the trail for other dedicated boots-on-the-ground leaders in Halo like Sergeant Lopez and Gunnery Sergeant Buck.

And then there’s Jenkins. Only an abandoned helmet in the game, Jenkins gets a star turn in The Flood. Instead of being fully consumed by the parasitic Flood, Jenkins is left horrifyingly aware of his fate, and the body horror it presents is novel among Halo media. Unable to stop the intelligence that perverted his body from attacking his allies, he longs for death, but is able to retain enough of his humanity to warn his marines about a threat underneath their feet, and to ultimately convince McKay what has to be done to stop the spread of the Flood.

The horror of Jenkins’ fate is a key aspect of the novel, as is the larger, outright brutally gruesome description of the game’s combat. In The Fall of Reach retrospective, I mentioned that Nylund was able to convey a little of grit and reality to war that the game couldn’t, from a technical and thematic standpoint. Dietz, meanwhile, cranks this up to 11, and I imagine his professional experience as a military medic played into this. Flood explode into chunks of “raw meat” from explosions. A poor ODST’s pod malfunctions and she burns up on reentry. Chief finds a human 343 Guilty Spark recruited before him to run the gauntlet of the Library, and poor Marvin Mobuto is so ripped apart from the ordeal he could not be used by the Flood. A sniper is ripped in half, and is still screaming as he falls into the pile of his intestines. The video game version of this book would be rated Adults Only by the ESRB and banned from wide release. Especially when the graphics of the time could not adequately represent the nature of Flood transformation (different Flood forms were cut in the rush to ship), it’s the book that gives the haunting descriptions of what fighting them must be like, mirrored in how even the stoic Chief is deeply affected by the experience.

The horror of the Flood is also related in a different way in the fate of Captain Keyes. While players could imagine getting turned into the Flood was not a great way to go, it’s Dietz who made the captain’s final moments both admirable and wretched, as in order to hide the location of Earth, Keyes is forced to slowly give up essential parts of himself to the Flood intelligence that is flaying his mind. While the concept of the overarching Flood intelligence was still merely implied, rather than displayed, Keyes’ fight is perhaps even more terrifying as a result, a yawning hunger that cannot be reasoned or bargained with. It was such an effective part of the book that it was turned into a standout extra Terminal added to Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.

As much time as Dietz spends humanizing the ancillary human characters, he spends as much time on a far more consequential task—humanizing the Covenant. In The Fall of Reach, the Covenant are ultimately just an enemy. There is no time really spent in their headspace; they are antagonists that the main characters react to, and at times they feel more like dangerous beasts than sentient creatures.

The Flood is the first time that the curtain is pulled back on the Covenant, setting the groundwork that Halo 2 would follow in exploring more of the Covenant hierarchy, its military, and its politics. Dietz apparently pursued this tack of exploring the Covenant on his own4—that Bungie would take the ball running with their follow-up game is probably not because of Dietz’s work, but it nonetheless helped lay the groundwork for the Covenant we came to know.

Rereading the Covenant sections with hindsight, Dietz doesn’t get enough credit for making the Covenant feel suitably alien while still relatable—in fact, in some respects the depiction of the Covenant races regressed in later books. The Bushido flavor to the Covenant Elites simply hadn’t been developed, but the end result was that the Elites actually feel more dimensional than they did in some later novels. The antagonism between the Elites and Prophets is amply demonstrated, with the opening Covenant perspective scene showing why the Pillar of Autumn managed to land on the ring—the Prophet on board thought nothing of wasting soldier’s lives in a costly bid to capture the ship. The follow exchange crystallizes the schism that would flower in Halo 2:

“The opportunity to transcend the physical is a gift to be sought after,” the [Prophet] responded. “The humans are willing to spend their lives—can we do less?”
No, ‘Fulsamee thought, but we should aspire to more.”

The Elites we see in The Flood are not solely honor-bound and dogmatic, but are allowed a variety of personalities and roles. The novel spends the most time with Zuka ‘Zamamee, a character that in the game exists only as an Elite players killed without a thought at the end of the Pillar of Autumn, but is given a rich interleaving story in the novel as Ahab, hunting his white whale—the Master Chief. ‘Zamamee is smart and devious, but also prideful and self-aggrandizing. In comparison to the shipmaster quarreling with the Prophet and his obsequious Elite aide, ‘Zamamee notes the Prophet’s gravity throne, and admires the way it conveys status and power. For the first time, Hunters are given personalities (though it would be tweaked a bit as the lore developed), and Dietz turns a story of Chief blowing up two of them with a rocket launcher into something that’s actually kind of tragic. Even the Chief, in the middle of killing hundreds of the aliens, admits understanding their bravery and feeling a moment of kinship as soldiers in a quiet interlude.

But perhaps the biggest work Dietz did was making the Grunts into something besides goofy comic relief to shoot (in the games) or animalistic savages (in The Fall of Reach.) Yayap, the intrepid Grunt who just wants to live a bit longer than his commanders particularly care about, is a standout of the book, and his reluctant turn as ‘Zamamee’s aide in his attempts to kill Chief is alternatively humorous and sad. Dietz makes it clear that the Unggoy are not all the idiots the rest of the Covenant treat them as, and that Yayap uses that knowledge to occasionally turn things to his advantage. In Yayap, you can see the genesis of the other great Unggoy characters fans have enjoyed over the years, from Dadab to Stolt.

The repeated failures of ‘Zamamee to kill Master Chief in various encounters players experienced in the campaign also comes with it a side Halo rarely embraces—comedy. The tragic comedy of ‘Zamamee’s efforts to kill the Chief failing repeatedly due to single chance errors or simple mistaken timing is a surprising bit of levity in the book, and it’s a flavor that until the recent Halo: Oblivion most other authors have shied away from.

Like The Fall of Reach, The Flood occasionally suffers from the “early installment weirdness” that dates early franchise media, with some details not firmed out and others later overwritten. While The Flood treats Elites as regular combatants (in comparison to The Fall of Reach which had Master Chief fight them for the first time mere days before) Hunters are referred to as a relatively new foe, belying the fact that later media showed humans fighting them decades earlier (with Chief himself memorably going up against one in Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.) The exact nature of the SPARTAN-II Program and who knows what is also a bit muddled—Silva treats Master Chief’s child soldier origins as unclassified information, and Keyes is likewise curiously loose-lipped about it.

But amid the building blocks Dietz layered on the Halo franchise’s foundations, perhaps the most forgotten bit is a foundational element that Greg Bear would one day weave into the Forerunner Trilogy. When attempting to activate a light bridge, Chief has a strange experience:

He stopped at the source of the light: A pair of small, glowing orbs hung suspended above a roughly rectangular frame of blue matte metal. Floating within the frame were a series of pulsing, shifting displays—semitransparent, like Cortana’s holographic appearance, though there was no visible projection device. The display’s shimmering geometric patterns nagged at him, as if he should recognize them somehow. Even with his enhanced memory, he couldn’t place where he’d seen them before. They just seemed . . . familiar.

He reached a finger out to one of the symbols, a blue-green circle. The Spartan expected his finger to pass through nothing more than air. He was surprised when his finger met resistance—and the panel lights began to pulse more quickly.

“What did you do?” Cortana asked, her voice alarmed. “I’m detecting an energy spike.”

“I . . . don’t know,” the Spartan admitted. He wasn’t sure why he touched the “button” on the display. He just knew it felt right. [S01C03]

Here, in a small aside early in the book, is the very first textual basis for the concept of a geas, the genetic imprint left behind in humanity by the Forerunner Librarian that enables humanity as Reclaimers to actually, well, reclaim and operate Forerunner tech.

Despite its divisive critical opinion when it launched, I think it’s fair to say The Flood has had something of a reevaluation in recent years, and in my opinion it’s well due. As with The Fall of Reach, so much of the ground The Flood lays down is built upon by successive books, and just wouldn’t have evolved the same way without it. The plot of the human side stories helped form the basis of the arcade cabinet game Fireteam Raven, with Silva and Wellsley making their first visual appearances. The Flood was a foundational book that expanded the universe almost as much as The Fall of Reach did, and provided a human core to match the action of the video game it was based on.

  1. Claude Errera (September 9, 2002). “Halo book details surface”. Halo.Bungie.Org
  2. David Candland (November 7, 2002). “Re: Halo: The Flood book”. Halo.Bungie.Org
  3. UNSC Trooper (June 7, 2008). “Interview with William C. Dietz”. HBO Fan Fiction Forums.
  4. Lunaramethyst (February 18, 2015). “Exclusive Interview: William Dietz”. Halo.fr.
  5. David Fuchs & Dani Moore (November 9, 2019). “William Dietz Skype Interview”. Forward Unto Dawn.

One Comment

  1. James M
    April 2, 2020

    Well written! I enjoyed the video and this piece.

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