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Halo: Is Master Chief a Good Protagonist?

Master Chief

At this point in time, the only knowledge we have of the next instalment of the long-running Halo franchise is this deliberately uninformative teaser, shown at E3 earlier in the year. A man in a long, billowing cloak wanders through the desert to be confronted with what appears to be an escapee from Michael Bay’s latest Transformers production. The teaser climaxes with a gust of wind blowing back the hood of the cloak to reveal everyone’s favourite green, faceless, cybernetically-enhanced supersoldier. It’s all the fans of this franchise need to be satisfied, or rather to guarantee their placement of a pre-order; no time is wasted hinting at gameplay or story, simply a shot of the protagonist will do. It was much the same with the memorable 2006 E3 trailer for Halo 3, one of the most eagerly anticipated sequels in video game history, which had a similar reveal. At least that was supported by Martin O’Donnell’s beautifully crafted “Finish the Fight” theme.

It’s a strange state we find ourselves in, then, that one of the biggest franchises of all time can be more or less condensed into a single character. Master Chief has been appearing on the front of boxes since late 2001, and hasn’t gone away since. In the space of a relatively short 12 years he has become one of the defining icons of video game culture. Very much the face of Halo, and perhaps even Xbox, Microsoft marketing campaigns will consistently focus on the character, as it guarantees the attention of a large audience of fans. Who can forget the shameful image of Geoff Keighley, one of the most prominent games journalists in the world, appearing to have sold his soul to the Doritos- and Mountain Dew-sponsored franchise? Even the image of the Chief himself in the background appears to be judging him.

Geoff Keighley

Much of the enduring popularity of the series can be attributed to the role the character plays within the game, and the relationship that exists between him and the player. The Chief is not a silent protagonist, but he might as well be; much like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, he speaks sparingly (even in cutscenes) typically with a wryly cynical comment, or engaging in the minimal amount of dialogue simply to progress the story. When asked by his AI companion Cortana what his escape plan is, he responds, “Thought I’d try shooting my way out. Mix things up a little.” His personality is insignificant with the events occurring around him. He does his job, kills aliens, usually with a stylish headshot or beat down, and goes home. The end.

So why is his character so enduringly popular? Transplanted into another medium, Master Chief would never survive. Asking the audience of a film, or the readers of a book, to empathise with a man who never removes his helmet and always follows orders would be challenging to say the least (although Dredd seemed to do okay). Yet in video games, it’s the fact that the player controls him that establishes the Chief as a pop-culture legend. In an interview with IGN, Bungie Studios’ Frank O’Connor says that he is:

“so quiet and so invisible, literally, that the player gets to pretend they’re the chief. The player gets to inhabit those shoes – men and women can apply their own personality. In a way, that makes it very easy for the writer; they don’t have to define the Chief’s personality.”

O’Connor stresses the importance of immersion in video games, and how the player wants to feel like something they are not (in this case an all-powerful space marine). The presence of personality is a distraction from this, as it reminds the player that they are inhabiting the shoes of a character.

Halo 3

But is this actually true? Yes, immersion is important in video games. We all play them to experience something different, to pretend we’re someone else, be it a spy with a penchant for cardboard boxes, a surprisingly acrobatic Italian plumber, or even a pill-popping yellow blob. In many ways the Chief gives some sense of accessibility to players in exploring Halo’s wide narrative scope (it’s easy to get lost somewhere in the narrative in a confusing mix of biblical references and nonsensical alien names). Yet that’s no excuse for lazy writing. Imagine if Frodo was unwavering in his delivery of the ring to Mordor, throwing it in the fire without a single slip in moral integrity. Imagine if Luke Skywalker just accepted the fact that he was a Jedi, blowing up the Death Star on his first try. There needs to be some sense of conflict in a character to make a story interesting, and this just isn’t present in the Chief.

That’s not to say that a silent protagonist is always a terrible thing. Gordon Freeman worked because the entire game was seen through his eyes. There were no formal cutscenes in Half Life, only scripted events which occurred around him. Add to that the fact that he’s alone for such extended periods of time, and that he was a nerdy scientist who wasn’t likely to talk much anyway, and the entire thing becomes more acceptable (it helps of course that the other characters were well-written, too). One could claim that he does talk, we just don’t experience it. But I’ve already mentioned that Master Chief isn’t a silent protagonist, but neither is he an active one. He occupies this strange middle-ground instead, standing there awkwardly in cutscenes but never truly engaging. It’s like a Batman film without Bruce Wayne; we never see behind the mask, and over time this leads to narrative stagnation.

The Arbiter

The highlight of the Halo franchise for me was the moment in Halo 2 when the player took on the role of alien army captain The Arbiter, a more developed character than the Chief. The deuteragonist of the instalment, it was interesting not only to observe but to participate in his progression from disgraced soldier to commanding military leader, given a chance for redemption, only to be betrayed as he began to see through the Prophets’ lies. It makes the final level of the game all the more powerful following this struggle – I was invested in the character as he confronted his nemesis Tartarus, experiencing the conflict the entire game had been building towards. When he made the decision to ally himself with the humans, it felt like a satisfying and logical conclusion to his character arc. Compare this to Master Chief’s journey. He goes from Point A to Point B, mostly being told what to do by others, with limited freedom to make his own decisions. There are no moral choices here, he’s no Commander Shepherd; his one goal is to save the world, to save humanity, and that’s it.

As video games mature, I predict the presence of silent (or near-silent) protagonists will diminish. We’ve already seen incredible examples of games with good central character development – John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite – who talk liberally and develop dramatically over the course of the game. So will the Master Chief soon be seen as outdated? A relic of the past? It’s certainly possible. There’s a limit to how much patience an audience can have with one character, particularly one as prominent as this one, and while 12 years isn’t that a long time, the speed at which video games are developing is remarkable. And while I’m sure that Halo 5 will sell like hotcakes, it’s possible that another 12 years will not look upon our green friend favourably.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Sam is a Film and English student with an interest in screenwriting, video games, Stephen King novels and David Lynch films.

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37 Comments

  1. Jo Cortez
    0

    This is a neat article. I always thought his suit design was poor and the helmet reminded me of a a BMX helmet from the 80’s. Fortunately you didn’t see him that often and the overall enemy and scenery design made up for it.

  2. Cunningham
    0

    Never really got into Halo. Really liked the 1st one’s story mode. That was fun. The rest of them story-wise were confusing and boring. I have 1, 2,, 3, and 4. Played through the 1st, never beat the 2nd, played through the 3rd once. Halo Reach I played about an hour when I first got it while listening to a NE Patriots coach conference on my laptop with headphones on. Haven’t picked it back up since. It’s just sitting over there. Yeah I’m never buying another Halo game again.

    • Sam Gray

      Perhaps a little drastic but I understand your point. For some reason the storytelling in the later Halo games became quite convoluted, particularly with Halo 4 (‘Librarian’, ‘Didact’, ‘Composer’ – all words I should have understood but, in the context of the narrative, I did not).

  3. Shari Drake
    0

    If 343 are really wanting to develop the Master Chief as a character, he has to express some semblance of humanity for people to relate with. You can’t have a developed character and the “blank slate” for players to project themselves onto. It doesn’t work that way. Master Chief has been through some genuinely traumatic and horrifying s**t and I’d like to see that start to get at him, like to see his armor crack a bit so to speak. I know the dumb teenagers (or adults with the dumb teenage mentality) don’t want to play as a real person, but rather a personification of the badassery they lack in reality. That goes for games like Mass Effect as well; you’d think that with all the things that Shepard has been through the stress would start to wear on him/her. Yet he/she stoically marches on. Yawn.

    • I agree. Real character development with honest-to-goodness emotional involvement can turn a good story into the sort of epic (so tired of that word) tale that stays with you. Even years later.

    • Quantum
      0

      I personally like the fact that the Chief has no personality… I really hope they don’t change that too much.

  4. The thing I have always hated most are the gameplay mechanics for master chief & the way some of the guns feel.I have always felt that the machine gins felt like pebbles shooting out of a BB gun & have always wanted Master chiefs core mechanic to feel more like cod or half life.

  5. Kristine
    0

    This is a surprisingly interesting article. I did not expect to be intrigued.

  6. William
    0

    I like Halo just as much as the next guy, but I do find it a bit amusing that people romanticizing a character that has about as much personality as a doorknob.

  7. H. Ramirez
    0

    Master chief is my dream hero. I get bad dream, Master chief will get me out of the nightmare.

  8. Tyler McPherson

    This was a really good article. Whereas the character of Master Chief is created for you to play as though you are him, the character of Cortana can get you invested in the story. In Halo 4 with the plot, you wanted to find out what was wrong with her and whether or not you could save her. Her character is probably the only thing that gives Master chief a bit of characterization with their exchanges. Its been a while since i played the older ones so i could be wrong.

    • Sam Gray

      Good point – despite all the problems I had with Halo 4, I think characterisation was one of the few improvements made to the series. But now Cortana’s gone I can’t see how they’ll continue that trend.

  9. J. Bryan Jones

    I find it odd to ask this question, though after reading, I understand what you’re going at. Halo 4 toys with that a bit… A lot. 343 has a goal in mind to humanize Master Chief. Losing Cortana is just the first step. Personally, I believe in this franchise, 343, and their story-telling ability.

  10. M Lawrence
    0

    Master Chief was less of an impassive warrior and more of a bumbling idiot running around and trying desperately not to get killed. That’s got to count for something in the interesting character department.

    • No comment is more truthful and realistic than this one. And so funny. Of course, after he’s died and respawned often enough he becomes invincible and capable of destroying entire armies with the greatest of ease using any of a variety of methods.

  11. Halo 2’s story always really appealed to me. The way they widened the narrative to include the Covenant’s power struggle really surprised me when I first played it, because the first game had been a normal by-the-numbers space marine shooterfest with some interesting scifi ideas. There’s something about the weighty plot and almost Shakespearean dialogue everyone speaks with that just resonates with me.

  12. I know a lot of people complain that Master Chief is a borderline God of a character, and that’s a perfectly legitimate complaint, but if you’re willing to invest the time in playing on Legendary I think that negates some of the criticisms. When any random grunt can destroy you if you aren’t careful it begins to feel like the Chief is less an invincible avatar of war and more a soldier who is both very good and very lucky.

    Granted, if you need to play a game on a specific difficulty level to like the character then you probably don’t have a very good character, but I like the idea of a difficulty level serving as a narrative device.

  13. darin holmes
    0

    The Chief kind of had that “badass normal” quality in the first game. I mean he’s an engineered super soldier sure, but that puts him at Captain America levels. By the second game he was jumping into Earth’s atmosphere with just his armor, so Superman basically.

  14. Joseph Smith
    0

    Master Chief has always baffled me. I’ve never understood why this personality-free piece of cyborg has devoted fans. I’ve never understood why Bungee thought that he would be a good series protagonist either. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard all that B.S. about how a silent protagonist increases player immersion, but that’s obviously nonsense. For one thing, I find it hard to imagine that Master Chief can serve as an audience surrogate when most audience members have never been a cyborg fighting aliens in a hopeless future. For another thing, I’m not sold on the whole principle of an audience surrogate. It doesn’t help me get more involved in Half-Life or Zelda if my character never says anything. Rather, it’s a contrivance that I am aware of and I take for granted. On the other hand, there have been plenty of protagonists whose charisma and personality have gotten me more involved in the story.

  15. herrera
    0

    I’ve always just seen Master Chief as the Doom Marine of Halo. But then I assume Halo has basically the same kind of attention to its plot as the Doom games: Monsters done come. Human SPACE MARINES must convince the monsters of the error of their arrival by means of increasingly bad-ass weaponry.

    Talking would be a bit beside the point, I’d assume.

    …I don’t actually play Halo, my FPS knowledge is exclusively PC.

  16. Natasha
    0

    Master Chief is one thing. But even as a fan of the series. It really confuses me when people think Link is a character. He isn’t. He’s a vapid player avatar in an iconic outfit and that does nothing to for the story.

  17. A great article with interesting questions, it’s also nice to see someone who found the Arbiter in Halo 2 an engaging character, as they seem to be in the minority. I think you’re right that the growing complexity and cinematic personality of games will give silent (or near silent) protagonists less purchase for an entire franchise such as Halo. Great work anyway.

  18. As far as Video Game protagonists go, I find Master Chief one of the less engaging ones. I have to agree that he’s no Commander Sheppard – the game is enjoyable to play, but it doesn’t have the almost ‘literary’ quality which sets games like Red Dead Redemption or GTAV apart from the crowd.

  19. HariMackinnon

    This article is very cool and has lots of food for though. I sort of agree and I sort of don’t agree with what you say here. John Marsden, Booker DeWitt etc. are great – and that’s one way of doing narrative for video-games. But I think you’re missing something by putting a huge focus on what characters say. One of the first things they tell you when you start writing fiction is that character is mainly constructed not through what they say but what they DO, and the decisions they make when faced with choices. That’s why the Persona protagonist are so strong, even though they say nothing. You’re given a lot of decisions about how you spend your time in those games, and so you’re constantly constructing the protagonist through what he does. Master Chief doesn’t say anything but he does do a lot, mostly he shoots loads of aliens. We don’t think of this – the fact that he’s an experienced soldier – as a significant character trait in videogames because it’s such a common one, but it is a hugely defining aspect of a person.

    Another thing is that in videogames we understand the physicality of a character in a much more nuanced way than in any other medium. A significant part of Master Chief’s character is the way he ‘feels’ to play. When I play Halo it ‘feels’ like Master Chief. When we boot up Devil May Cry there’s a way that we expect Dante to control, and if he didn’t control in that way we’d say “this isn’t Dante.” Even when he appears in a game like Marvel Vs. Capcom we expect him to play in a certain way. The way in which we engage with Master Chief mechanically is one of the biggest parts of his character and I don’t think it makes sense to discount that in a discussion of his relative merits as a protagonist for a video-game. Interestingly that was something a lot of people said back when Metroid Prime was released and people worried about putting Samus in a First-Person Shooter. Quite tellingly I remember someone asking, “Will it feel like I’m playing as Samus, or will it feel like I’m playing as Master Chief?” Like you said I think characters with dialogue and fleshed out dramatic/narrative arcs are great and I hope there are more and more of them. But I think the silent protagonist is a VERY interesting, and very uniquely ‘video-gameic’ method of constructing character and it’d be a real shame if we ended up losing them.

  20. Interesting thoughts, Sam.

    I’m simply going to share what the Master Chief has meant to me. In the first Halo, the only reason I bought an Xbox, he was a mystery. He was a science experiment. Sure, I could be a soldier in almost any game, heck even advanced soldiers, like Solid Snake, but I hadn’t been afforded the chance to be a super soldier. His background being essentially redacted from us made it all the more interesting.

    More than all that, though, was the fact that he was the definition of confidence.

    When the escape pod is out of control and barreling toward the Halo, Cortana panics, the voice of an AI becomes shrill and unnerving. What does the Chief say? “We’ll be fine.” No wavering. No insecurity. No doubt.

    Throughout that whole game, as lush seaside groves turned to damp forests of hellspawn (the Flood) I knew he’d get me through it more than I would him. He was what I wanted my inner self to be.

    Then I read the Halo Reach book and I finally understood why he was who he was. He has seen the massacre of his people. For him, death is extinction, not just of the Spartan program, but of humanity as well. He has seen things that will not be purged, but they give him purpose. He needs to be the way he is, otherwise humanity, people who he used to be like, will just become what he is, scarred, maimed, an implementation of war. He does what he does to prevent us from becoming him.

    He doesn’t ask for your sympathy or empathy or understanding. He doesn’t feel that. He’s essentially a broken man, but he knows his place. He knows what he’s here for. I think therein lies the connection, even on a subconscious level. A man who knows why he is here creates a respect and sense of longing in the player.

  21. I’ve never really taken much interest in the Halo franchise, and although I can’t really say that I’m a fan, I think it’s important to remember that narrative and immersion aside, people play video games because the entertainment factor. This is why the Master Chief as a character thrives, because Halo is a gameplay-driven franchise. Not driven in the sense that the player choices affect the way the story unfolds, but rather, the events that you play in as Master Chief is dependent on how the writers choose to set it up. So, it’s not that the writers are facing stagnation or are getting lazy, necessarily, but perhaps they’ve found their target audience in people who play their games because they like the anonymity that Master Chief offers, just another soldier, who just happens to be above the rest. People, who much rather have the story given to them, rather than being forced to immerse themselves in becoming a character that they just can’t relate to. I know, when I play Halo, I always skip the cutscenes.

  22. Here is the problem I am having with this article: Your title is questioning, I think, two roads that diverge too far from one another and do NOT cross each other at any point so let me try to reason out which one it is. You are asking if Master Chief is a good protagonist in the sense of whether or not he accomplishes his goals as a protagonist should in comparison to, say, a literary genre of protagonist in that sense. The other road I am feeling is that there is an insinuation of questioning the choice of Master Chief and what it symbolizes as a protagonist “of the future” kind (because you do make mention of the relative silence the protagonist embodies in much of his scenes). I am going to assume that you are asking if Master Chief is a good representative here for a protagonist in the sense of what a protagonist embodies.

    First, Master Chief is the protagonist simply due to the game’s plot centering around him. However, this does not answer whether or not it embodies the characteristics of a protagonist generally held to have. A protagonist has depth to their character, they are the virtuous, they are the tragic hero (and sometimes anti-hero), etc. With the introduction of the Master Chief from the first two games, relatively little was known about Master Chief. In fact, his mentality is very base (crude even), and his silence is not deafening, but is very quiet; he is a tested character. The development of Master Chief’s psyche wasn’t developed because he was, in all aspects, a beta hero. While games do require immersion because of their roleplaying nature, at the onset of the Halo franchise, Master Chief would not be considered the “protagonist” necessarily. He is a stock character in a stock genre in a stock universe. However, this changes as the game sequels move on and his psyche does become developed.

    This is also why the developed Fall of Reach. The engine knew that the onset of Master Chief being a protagonist with relatively little mental development would be a black mark against the franchise because it would seem to pit Master Chief is one lucky super marine. With the creation of Fall of Reach, we understand why Master Chief was the way that he was in the original Halo game, which serves the purpose that he was, and always has been, the protagonist from the very beginning, because, while we played as various Spartans in the game, the true creation of Master Chief began then. Seeing what Master Chief saw developed him so much that his psyche became disrupted by the time the original game starring him began. The subsequent games afterward served their purpose, then, to “re-develop” a Master Chief that was once all put together again. Contrary to what people say about the latest game coming out being the “climax” expressing Master Chief is a full protagonist, this was developed far earlier as explained here. True, the latest game had its most climactic moment because Cortana means the most to Master Chief, but that just shows Master Chief as a Tragic Hero archetype (since he couldn’t be considered tragic until he lost something).

    Well that is all the time I have here. Look forward to hearing more.

  23. smath006

    Sam,

    I certainly believe this kind of passive video game protagonist will go away, though we might see a return of the completely silent protagonist. As budgets and audiences continue to dilate, I predict a continued homogenization of narrative arcs, character archetypes, aesthetics, etc. If the Halo series has crippled in writing effectiveness, it is because of the mechanization and rapid acceleration of the gaming industry. Master Chief made sense during the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era; he has now become mere product placement. Now, however, independent game developers can and should resist contemporary trends and embark on new and exciting projects within the field. We need entirely new models of storytelling in gaming. We might even see a de-emphasis or elimination of the protagonist while game developers continue to experiment with the form. Anyway, I really enjoyed your article, as you raise some fascinating points I had never considered. Thanks for the walk down a memory lane bespattered with plasma damage and grunt blood.

    Cheers,
    Sean

  24. don’t even need an article to figure it out, Master Chief is bland and boring. he’s a genetically engineered weapon made to do nothing but kill and be killed. and the bulk of his personality is summed up in his only line that anyone remembers: “i need a weapon.”

    more like “i need a therapist to work out the ark-sized boat full of emotional and mental damage i have.” unless he was engineered to not feel emotional pain; in that case, he’s a sociopath who would immediately disregard any orders. unless he was also engineered to blindly follow orders; in that case, he’s not a character, he’s just a vessel for the player to hold guns. it also brings up some questions about who the real evil in the story is. but Halo doesn’t really bother with any of that, they just give instructions to literally “point the skinny end at the bad guy and squeeze,” verbatim from the second game in the series if memory serves.

    long story short, Halo is a poorly written game with a poorly written protagonist.

  25. Maybe it’s because I have more context from reading the first few Halo novelizations, but I never had trouble seeing the Chief as a human protagonist. Admittedly, I grew up on badass space marines (The Doom novels and Armor by John Steakley, to name a couple) so it doesn’t strike me as that unusual for a soldier to keep soldering on in the face of all adversity. I wouldn’t expect a character like this to break down and start crying, or flash back to his childhood in a touching moment of epiphany. If anything, a character like the Chief will hold everything in until after all the fighting is finally over. And then, probably, develop the universe’s worst case of PTSD.

  26. I think Master Chief is changing with the 343 studio taking over control of the franchise. The O’Conner quote at the beginning of this article refers very strongly to the kind of character that Chief was in the beginning of the series. He says almost nothing in those games. I might be wrong, but it seems like 343 is trying to change that. Halo 4’s story, while complicated, was much more fulfilling than any game before that, and Chief participated in dialogue and developed more of a personality in that game than in the previous Halo titles. The Halo series also persists on the strength of its multiplayer experience. Many gamers are entirely uninterested in story and character development. I think that the future of gaming might not be kind to the version of master chief that we experienced over the past decade, but I think Chief, and the Halo series will be able to adapt to the landscape.

  27. I congratulate you on your well written article. Your analysis of Master Chief is pretty convincing and drives me to think in new ways about Master Chief. I agree that near-silent protagonists will start to diminish. I just played Farcry 3 and the development of the protagonist to insanity is brilliant and shocking. In this way the very vocal protagonist makes the video game that much more exciting and makes the player that much more invested. Video games are no longer going to be about immersion in my opinion. The video game industry is poisoned with the idea, much like the film industry, that the more real it appears, the better it will be. However, film and video games are not about the real, but about the unreal. It’s to glue the viewer to the screen and convincing them of completely unrealistic things. Things that defy logic but capture our attention. The protagonist will no longer be a blank canvas to paint the interaction of the gamer onto. The protagonist will be a protagonist because video games are no longer about the arcade ideal of pure distract-ability. Video games are now aimed at telling stories. Many of these other comments are about how 343 has taken Master Chief and tried to “humanize” him. I would agree with this sentiment but I would push this even further to say that 343 is pushing to make Master Chief into a story instead of a medium for explosions and warthog kills.

  28. I think the reason why Master Chief is so successful is because he is, as you mentioned, a very silent character. For some reason, we relate power and ‘coolness’ with silent characters. If you are a fan of anime, then a very similar character would be Brandon Heat from the show Gungrave. He does not say much at all throughout the story but it is this very fact that makes him seem so powerful. I think the writers purposefully made him so quiet to make a point on cybernetic enhancements. Even though he is human, he is not human at the same time in the sense that he does not have real social connections. Even though he is in the same shape or form as us, he is infinitely times more powerful to the point where he doesn’t even need to speak in the face of nature. All he knows is war. That in a sense is why is so powerful but also why he is such a tragic hero.

  29. I agree whole hearty with your last sentence, Master Chief is a forgettable character, and will probably only have his iconic armor immortalized instead of his name.

  30. Master Chief isn’t a great character by normal standards, but he’s hardly a forgettable one either – his status as the de facto mascot of Xbox proves that. It’s a difficult balance to strike, because, in my opinion, gaming protagonists with too much personality also don’t work. The example that jumps to mind is Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire, who makes some stupid decisions and is actually not a very likeable person for much of the game – and when the player doesn’t want to be like the main character they can distance themselves from them and lose immersion from the game.

  31. I am going to disagree and say that Master Chief is actually an elegantly executed protagonist.

    He projects almost no emotion, which people seem to inherently write off as bad. The issue is that he is a soldier who has been in the most intensive training know to man since he was, like, six. Of course he isn’t going to be expressing himself eloquently at every opportunity. That isn’t his job. His job is to shoot things, and he is the absolute best at his job.

    Though, it would be boring if he were a total robot, and he isn’t. He takes almost every order he is given, no matter how suicidal, but refuses to hand over Cortana when ordered to by a superior officer. Regulations can be broken when it actually matters to John, the person. Moments like this, where we get insight into John’s loneliness and total dependence on Cortana’s companionship, make him go beyond being a totally flat character.

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