Halo: Is Master Chief a Good Protagonist?
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.
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.
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 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.