This article does NOT contain any Halo 5: Guardians spoilers.
Even if you’re only the most casual of gamers, chances are that you’ve heard of the Master Chief, the protagonist of one of the greatest shooter series ever made. Not only is he the greatest soldier in the entire galaxy, through the years (and plenty of expert Microsoft marketing later), the Chief has become a symbol of hope for humanity. And on Oct. 27, fans get to play his latest adventure, Halo 5: Guardians.
We’ve learned a bit about the plot in the months prior to the release, too: Master Chief and the Blue Team, made up of his fellow Spartan comrades, have gone AWOL, set out on a mission to…well, we don’t know, although we could make a guess that it has to do with the giant Forerunner constructs we’ve seen in many of the trailers so far (and probably something to do with Cortana). Another group of Spartans, Fireteam Osiris, led by Agent Jameson Locke, have been ordered to bring the Master Chief back to the UNSC, after he’s officially declared dead in some sort of catastrophe.
Locke and Chief seem to be at odds with each other, one out of allegiance for the UNSC and the other out on his own to complete a personal mission. In two trailers, which you’ll find below, we can even watch Chief and Locke execute each other. Could it be that death is fastly approaching for one of these characters? Locke is a brand new Spartan who doesn’t quite hold that much weight in our hearts, so we wouldn’t be crushed if he bit the bullet at the end of the game. But what if it’s the Chief who has reached the end of the line? His story arc would certainly suggest that there’s not much left for him to do but go out with a bang…
After playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection, one thing has become clear: Microsoft’s flagship series stars one of the greatest heroes ever known to gaming. Whether you love him or not, Master Chief is a video game icon, and has been the face of the first-person shooter for a very long time (sorry, but I don’t think anyone remembers a character in the Call of Duty series.) But its become apparent after once again finishing Halo 4 that Chief can’t live forever.
John, Spartan 117, Master Chief, John-117, whatever we want to call him, has been with us gamers for over a decade on the Xbox. We have saved humanity numerous times from alien zealots, parasites, and robots. Master Chief has, in his universe, done more for humanity than anyone else probably ever will. In Halo, only a vague understanding of the plot is required to understand the enormity of his actions.
Off-screen, Chief has become a symbol not just for Microsoft Xbox marketing, but for gamers as a whole. The character in that green armor represents not just the savior of the original Xbox, but hope, perseverance in the face of any adversary, and unimaginable bravery. Master Chief has transcended video games.
He has starred in animated features and live-action short films, and a large array of novels and comics that play their part in expanding on the enigmatic super soldier’s backstory and just a little bit of his personality. It’s crazy how much digging is required in the periphery of the series to get a grasp on just who this massive (both literally and figuratively) character really is and where he comes from, especially considering how much has happened throughout his four-game tenure. Couldn’t we get more of this character-building in-game?
As Halo poises to strike the gaming world once again in 2015 with Halo 5: Guardians, and with a new Spartan, Agent Locke, entering into the narrative equation, one has to ask—where does this leave Chief? What will be done with his character in terms of character development? If the answer is “not that much,” then maybe it’s time for Chief to retire.
It’s fair to say that Bungie wasn’t exactly focusing on character development with the first two games. Halo: CE was understandably more about showing off the tech and how well a shooter could work on consoles. Halo 2 not only took the spotlight off Chief with The Arbiter, but its crowning achievement was the multiplayer.
Once Halo 3 came around, though, things got a lot more serious. Earth was invaded. Sgt. Johnson died. Chief went on what was essentially a suicide mission to save Cortana from The Flood. Would someone who is just a cold, calculating killing machine do that? There was some seriously emotional stuff going on in that game. For the first time, we saw people who were clearly dear to Chief (or, at the very least, his mission directives) dying or being directly affected by the war.
With Halo 4, things only got more dire. Chief woke from cryo sleep adrift in deep space to a Covenant splinter cell knocking on his front door. Cortana was dying, and later did die. The higher ups, Dr. Halsey included, began to question the Chief’s sanity and usefulness as a military asset. Real questions were asked about a character who has provided very few answers throughout the Halo series, which has begun to take itself way more seriously in terms of storytelling.
The point is this: the strong, enigmatic, and borderline silent protagonist just isn’t going to work anymore.
He may have been engineered from the beginning to be a killing machine, but he is still human at the end of the day. He is also getting older, something that the commanders in Halo 4 were quick to point out whenever Chief made any tactical suggestions. Cortana was his only real friend, with Johnson coming in a distant second, and their deaths will have to take its toll on his mind. When Chief took off his helmet for the very first time and stared pensively off into space at the end of Halo 4, he broke the fourth wall. He looked right at us and showed us how worn he was.
Also concerning the age—how will his battle performance be affected, and how will this add to his mental state? Solid Snake’s body began to fail him in Metal Gear Solid 4, and players clearly saw how severely this affected his combat ability. With all of the genetic enhancement drugs and gene therapy that John-117’s body has been subjected to over the years, he is bound to start degrading at some point. Could Agent Locke be his replacement?
I pose all of these questions to prove a point—anyone who has thought at any length about what has happened in the Halo universe (strictly in the games) has to wonder where our hero will stand in Halo 5: Guardians. We might love Chief, but we don’t really know him. When we’re five games into a series (Master Chief didn’t appear in Reach,ODST, or Wars) and don’t really know the protagonist, a narrative problem arises.
Halo isn’t the great innovator it used to be in the Halo: CE and Halo 2 days—it can’t just rely on solid gameplay anymore. We need more to work with after hanging out with the same guy for over 10 years, if the game is going to stand out in an ever-growing sea of first-person shooters.
It’s time to kick the door open on these characters and tell a fantastic story.
I really don’t want to see Chief go, but I don’t want to see his character stagnate either, turned into a plot device because no one can find a way to flesh him out. There is a lot 343 can incorporate into Chief the man, now that Chief the killing machine has been done to death (no pun intended). Killing machines just aren’t all that interesting anymore.
I’m at once anxious and excited for Halo 5: Guardians. I’ve been a Halo fan since I first picked it up in 2002 (I was a little late to the party) and want to see the characters finally develop into memorable parts of the story. I don’t want there to be a time when I think that I’ve outgrown Master Chief, but that time could soon arrive if we don’t see him grow with the series, one that has always stood on equal parts narrative and multiplayer. Here’s to hoping 343 can show us what’s behind the helmet this fall.
* The illustration at the beginning of the article is courtesy of TylerEdinArt.