Master Chief is one of the most recognizable characters in gaming history, but 20 years since his Xbox debut, he remains a stranger in a strange land when it comes to live-action. Fortunately, after several false starts, Master Chief is finally crash landing on a whole new medium as the star of the Halo series on Paramount+.
While Halo has experimented with live-action ads and web series in the past, it has never attempted a production of this scale. But that’s not for lack of trying. In 2005, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox partnered with Microsoft to adapt Halo into a movie, with Neill Blomkamp directing a script written by Alex Garland and Peter Jackson producing. The film project didn’t work out. Microsoft next turned to director Steven Spielberg to executive produce a TV series with his Amblin Television production arm in 2013. Several delays and changes in the creative team later, Halo is finally coming to our screens in March.
But a big question remains: can a video game franchise as exalted as Halo actually work as a long-form live-action TV series?
Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer and head of Halo transmedia at game studio 343 Industries, the studio in charge of making Halo games and writing the lore, says that “both successes and failures” in the shorter live-action projects showed 343i how this series could work.
“We’ve done a lot of live action TV ads and trailers, which was really good at helping distill a Halo message, but the scope and scale of this TV series is exponentially bigger,” Wolfkill says. “In terms of working with creative teams, a lot was learned from those previous two, but in terms of scope it’s very expansive, and that’s fresh.”
Length is a major difference between those earlier efforts and this TV series, but so is the show’s place in Halo canon. The TV series is set in “the Silver timeline,” outside of the established continuity in the games. It’s basically a permission slip for the show to tell stories with familiar characters without getting bogged down in video game lore.
“From the very beginning, it was clear that in order to let the story evolve and grow the way it needed to, in order to really go deeply into these character arcs, we would need to make some changes,” Wolfkill says. “Sometimes it was even just a perspective change. Sometimes it was something you just didn’t get a view into from the game or even the books. We knew we needed to let the story breathe on its own.”
That means being true to the core message of the characters, storylines, and world-building, but not necessarily telling events in the same order. For example, the fall of Reach, a major battle that directly sets up how the heroes discover the titular Halo ring, takes place before the original game, but it hasn’t yet happened on the show when we first meet Master Chief.
“At the end of the day, it all comes down to being able to make moment-to-moment decisions,” Wolfkill says. “Every day there were decisions to be made about: do we do something exactly as it was done in the game or are there good reasons to do it differently? And, if so, how do we keep it true to the spirit of Halo but at the same time keep the voice of all these incredible creators coming through?”
It’s no secret that this is a risky approach. Diverting from the established formula or canon will please some fans but could alienate many others. Just look at the outrage when Halo 5: Guardians turned Cortana into a villain, or when Halo 2 introduced an unexpected new main character. Gamers, and fans in general, tend to not like change. But Halo showrunner Steven Kane thinks the new medium will ultimately justify the changes that are coming.
Breaking the Story
“You don’t want to just tell the game in television form,” Kane says. “You want to have a conversation with the material. The game has been around for so long, the canon is not only deep but wide. There are opportunities to dig into the canon and find characters that were only hinted at and stories only half mentioned, and dig in and invent new stuff.”
That mix of old and new is showcased in the cast and setup of the story. Humanity in the 26th century is under threat from the Covenant, an alien empire ruled by religious zealots. But there’s also trouble brewing at home between the Earth-based United Nations Space Command (UNSC) and its outer colonies. It’s this threat of war that leads scientist Dr. Catherine Halsey (Natascha McElhone) to create the top-secret Spartan program that birthed enhanced super soldier Master Chief John-117. As in the games, Master Chief (Pablo Schreiber) and his AI partner Cortana (Jen Taylor) headline the story.
But along the way, we will also meet shrewd teenage colonist Kwan Ha, a new character portrayed by Yerin Ha; Bokeem Woodbine’s Soren-066, a Spartan who’s only previously appeared in a tie-in short story; and Makee (Charlie Murphy), an intriguing character created just for the show—a human orphan who was raised by the Covenant and now hates humanity as much as they do.
Since Spartans were originally made to fight Insurrectionists—a fact most people in the games conveniently forget when the aliens arrive—they aren’t symbols of hope for Kwan. Instead, they’re the oppressors.
“She has an animosity against the Spartans,” Kane says. “She begins as our eyes on the Spartans, what we expect them to be. As she learns more about them, her ideas will change. But she stands on her own as a character on the outer planets who feels she’s meant for something else.”
Unfortunately, that “something else” comes in the form of a tragedy, according to Kane. “[It] hits her and she’s off on her own, and has to discover what her true purpose in the galaxy is.”
Kwan—along with Makee—was created as a potential “in” for people watching the show who aren’t necessarily familiar with the games.
“The other thing we get from her is a very human perspective on the Spartans and these events and all these large-scale elements,” Wolfkill says. “Kwan is a grounded human perspective on that, which I think is definitely unique.”
While the show’s creators had the freedom to come up with new storylines and play with timelines, it was still important for Kane and his team to learn and understand the Halo canon. So 343i held a “boot camp” for the show’s creative team.
“For me, the boot camp really had two levels to it: what does Halo mean and what’s the emotional resonance of Halo, and what are the core values and deeply seeded aspects of Halo,” Wolfkill says. “[These] are at the very heart of anything we do. Regardless of lore or making sure weapons are named correctly or look the right way, there’s a very basic understanding of what Halo is about and why it means certain things to certain people. Why, after 20 years, do we have the fans and audience we do?”
Two answers to that last question for a start: Master Chief and Cortana.
Becoming Master Chief
“I was very aware of the Halo franchise. But I am not a big gamer myself. I grew up without TV in rural British Columbia,” says Pablo Schreiber, who explains that he first really learned the story of Halo and the history of the Master Chief at 343i’s boot camp.
Casting a known actor in the role of Master Chief is another big risk. Both Kane and Schreiber point out that in the games, Master Chief has remained faceless for 20 years for a reason: he’s designed as the hero avatar that represents the player. His identity isn’t as important as how stepping into his armor makes the player feel. But by necessity of the medium, the protagonist of a TV series needs to be more fully fleshed-out. That includes revealing the mysterious character’s face for the very first time in franchise history.
“The difference between a first-person shooter video game and a television series is huge in terms of the immersive experience of an audience member,” Schreiber says. “In a TV show you’re no longer putting the audience member in the center as a character, you’re allowing them to step back and experience this world they have spent hours and hours in in a new and different way.”
For Kane, this TV series was a chance to uncover secrets about the Chief’s past that had never truly been explored in the games.
“The key is that Master Chief is a bit of a cipher,” Kane explains. “In the game you are Master Chief. If you don’t read the books, you don’t know the backstory, but in general he stands in for all of us as we play the game. So this is a chance to get in under the hood, so to speak.”
In Halo lore, John-117 has hints of personality, but doesn’t stray much from the wry, straightforward soldier. On the other hand, the show needed to dig in a bit more.
“The first season explores John’s character by approaching John discovering himself,” Kane says. “He is a man dedicated to honor, integrity, courage, and serving humanity. But he isn’t fully formed out, at least in our description of him. He’s not fully aware of himself as a human being.”
The Silver Timeline’s Chief will interact with an artifact that brings up buried memories from his childhood, which leads him on a quest to try to discover his own history.
“Without giving too much away, what [Master Chief] wants is going to be a constantly shifting tapestry based on the new information he’s being faced with and how it challenges his sense of self and his sense of duty and honor,” Schreiber says.
Exploring Master Chief’s past means excavating the Spartan program itself. The show’s deep dive into Dr. Halsey’s secret initiative—which stole children from their families to turn them into super soldiers tasked with saving humanity—is one way it could tell a unique and pointed story about the underpinnings of this universe.
“If you know the canon, you know the history of how he became a Spartan, and it’s not a pretty history,” Kane says. “That’s what I think actually makes the world of the game so interesting. He’s not just a clean cut superhero type. His past is sort of dark. He’s both a victim and a hero at the same time.”
Schreiber kept this tension in mind in his performance.
“We know the UNSC kidnapped and essentially conscripted child warriors, who they then modified into super soldiers,” he says. “While we know the end result—they ended up Spartan-IIs, which have been our best weapon against the alien invasion—it also opened up a host of moral dilemmas and question marks as to whether it was a moral decision.”
Along with their surgical modifications, the stolen Spartans also wear the iconic Mjolnir armor. The real-world equivalent of Spartan training was required before putting on the costumes, which were made up of around 50 or 60 pounds of plastic, according to Schreiber.
“The challenge is huge for us as the Spartans. We had to get in the best shape we could to be able to manipulate the costumes in a way that looks believable,” Schreiber says. “The onus, of course, lies in production and the visual effects department to make these suits look super capable.”
It also took some lower-tech solutions.
“The fact is, when we put on the armor, none of us could fit in the cast chairs,” Schreiber says. “And they brought in these hilarious fold-out chairs four or five times the size of a normal camping chair. And if you sit in these Texas-sized chairs without the Mjolnir, you look like [you’re in] Alice in Wonderland.”
Inside the Mind of Cortana
As the voice of Cortana for over two decades, Jen Taylor is in a unique position among the show’s actors. She sees better than anyone else in the cast how the show is taking the Halo story in new directions, both similar to and different from the games.
“The writers were always asking me, ‘Does this feel right to you?’” Taylor says of the process of bringing Cortana to the TV series. “I don’t have a ton of experience on TV shows, honestly, but that felt really respectful to me. And if there was a no, I could say ‘Could we talk about this? Because this feels weird.’ People were marvelous about it.”
Sometimes that involved conferring with on-set narrative experts: “We have big old Halo game nerds walking around to ensure that we’re being true to the game as much as we can within our storytelling,” Taylor says.
“It was such an interesting journey with Jen,” Wolfkill says, “because she was experiencing in real time that intersection of coming from the games and all of that historical detail and the story that was moving us forward.”
Taylor filmed her motion-capture scenes at the same time as the other actors. However, because of the technology used to film Cortana (including an “umbilical cord”-style wire connected to her mo-cap suit when the set had Wi-Fi trouble), she played her part just to the side of the rest of the scene. This created challenges with matching eye lines and synching up with the rest of the actors.
“So I’m next to the key grip and the crew. I have to memorize what everybody’s doing physically in the scene so I can follow them with my eyes,” Taylor explains. “I remember one scene where there were maybe four people and I had to figure out where all of them were moving and who I was looking at in each moment.”
It took “every technical skill she had,” according to Taylor, “to be in the same emotional space with the urgency I needed to have” while essentially looking at a wall instead of another actor.
Cortana often travels with and helps Chief. But she’s also her own person, with her own motivations. What she wants “shifts greatly throughout the season,” Taylor says. “It’s so fascinating because she’s a computer, right? So she has more knowledge just in the instant we first meet her than any human does. So how to carry that around is pretty remarkable. She wants to be of service. That’s really what she wants to be.”
Taylor has enjoyed watching Cortana evolve over the last 20 years, and is excited to see that evolution continue in a new medium.
“Throughout this journey she’s morphed in such a remarkable way,” Taylor says. “It’s scary to do that. I have to trust in the writers. I have to trust in what I’ve laid down before so that I can continue to maintain this with integrity. It’s a little scary because I want to honor her at all times. I feel like this TV show does that.”
Cortana’s connection to Chief will still be an essential part of the story, if perhaps not exactly in the ways fans recognize: “We’re at a different place in their relationship, and so it will evolve as the season goes on,” Schreiber says.
The beauty of Halo’s Silver Timeline is that it gives the show a chance to revisit things Halo fans may know a lot about, such as the Spartan program or the Covenant, from a different perspective.
“Those who know the lore know the Insurrection and the battle between the outer and inner colonies took place well before the events of the games, and it’s something we have pulled forward a little bit,” Wolfkill reveals. “So, you get that perspective on the UNSC and Spartans, which is very different from what we get in the games.”
Halo’s Spartans—simultaneously children without a childhood and military-owned killing machines—have fueled the game with a mix of butt-kicking action and glimmers of empathy. The TV show’s focus on Master Chief as a person is a chance to sharpen that concept to a point. Meanwhile, new characters like Makee give extra insight into the Covenant.
But the point still stands: live-action video game adaptations are infamously difficult to get right. Halo will have to battle against the video game industry’s legacy of flops on the big and small screens. But then, what’s a Spartan mission without long odds?
“We want people to see that John is the most lethal weapon a human can be, but in trade for that he paid the price of his humanity,” Kane says. “That’s the story of everyone in this season. Everyone is discovering the limits of their own humanity or what was lost of their humanity because they’re all in this giant existential war.”
Halo premieres on Paramount+ on March 24. The world premiere takes place on March 14 at SXSW.