“I think we’re just getting started…”
The Master Chief…
There’s been quite a bit of discussion over the last few weeks, following Frank O’Connor’s stated intentions of doubling down on the Chief focus in Halo 6 – but the angle from which he spoke about that particular ‘lesson learned’ from Halo 5 left me somewhat concerned.
“Chief we tend to think of as kind of a vessel for your adventure rather than necessarily this major character in the universe. He’s really just your entry into the universe.” [Frank O’Connor, WCCFTech interview (25/4/17)]
I have never personally agreed with this articulation of the Master Chief’s character, which is something that I’ve not really talked about in any great detail. And then, as if the universe was trying to further encourage me, just last week Halo: Combat Evolved was inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame. Naturally, I fired up the Master Chief Collection and decided to play through the games again from the beginning to renew my perspective on this topic.
In doing so, I decided it’d be fun to write an extensive character analysis, broken up into three or four parts, covering each major game, to really dig into the substance of this character.
Halo: Combat Evolved (hereafter referred to just as Halo 1) is one of my favourite games of all time.
It’s one of those titles that has never gotten ‘old’ for me, despite the passage of almost sixteen years, the release of numerous sequels and spin-offs and expanded media, and a set of mechanics which are definitely dated at this point… Playing and replaying Halo 1 has never once felt repetitive or dull to me, which is something that I’m sure some people will raise their brows at because Halo 1‘s third act effectively has you replaying the first one backwards – that’s genuinely never sullied my enjoyment of this game.
There’s a ‘feeling’ about Halo 1 that sort of defies description to me, which is something that I usually hate arguing anything from because it’s arbitrary and subjective. But something about it almost feels entirely separate from the rest of the series and I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on exactly what that ‘something’ is.
What we can talk about with greater certainty though, which should serve as an interesting preface to the rest of this topic, is the context of Halo 1‘s development according to information provided to us by Eric Nylund and Eric Trautmann.
And this is where things get interesting regarding the Master Chief’s characterisation in the first game…
In 2001, Eric Trautmann was part of the team that brokered the deal to create the first HALO novels. He was also my editor on the project, and for anyone who has seen one of my first drafts this is a true Herculean labor (the one with the stables). Most important, however, there was a point when the novels were ordered killed and Eric T saved them.
I was halfway through our crash dive schedule to get the FALL OF REACH out in seven weeks when Eric T tells me…
Eric T: The powers that be don’t want the novel anymore. They’ve ordered it killed. They don’t want a backstory for the Master Chief. They want him to be a blank so gamers can just fit into the avatar.
Me: (choking on my 18th cup of coffee that morning) What!? (panicking) What do we do? I’m halfway through this #*%&(% thing.
Eric T: (annoyingly calm): Don’t worry about it. Keep writing. I have it covered.
Me: How do you have it ‘covered’? I’ve only got three weeks left!
Eric T: Here, have another cupa coffee. Keep typing…
So Eric T went away, and in what I can only characterize as a cross between UN diplomacy and the bargain Vito Corleone made to get Johnny Fontaine out of his original contract (i.e. he made them a deal they couldn’t refuse), like magic the objections just … vanished.
The rest as they say is history: More than a dozen HALO novels out, and 2 million copies sold by yours truly alone.
So, next time you’re entertained by all the HALO fiction out there, please give respects to Mr. Trautmann, and if you’re in the area visit his and his wife’s amazing store in Olympia. (the best comic/card store on the West Coast in my opinion). [Eric Nylund, ‘Unsung Hero of the HALO Franchise’, (2/10/15)]
As we know from the testimony of Paul Russel (the ‘godfather’ of Halo), Bungie had no plans to continue Halo – they had no idea that it would become such a sensation and were instead beginning to think about a fantasy game, which is apparently where Destiny has its roots.
The following information comes from a podcast with Eric Trautmann himself, which you can listen to here (Trautmann’s interview begins around the 17 minute mark): The Science Fiction Show, Episode 5: DC Reboot/Eric Trautmann (7/6/2011)
Here is where we get to some of the less savoury aspects of Halo 1′s development, following on from that Corleone-esque deal that Eric Trautmann made in order to save The Fall of Reach…
Bungie and Microsoft’s initial relationship was decidedly not a good one.
The folks at Bungie had previously enjoyed a lot of creative freedom without much in the way of time constraints being imposed on them because they weren’t attached to any big publishers when they made their earlier games.
Suddenly, they’d been swept up by Microsoft and were operating under completely different conditions to what they were used to – right down to the office space, which wasn’t at all like the kind of ‘open house’ layout they had previously operated in. To this small company, Microsoft was something of a Big Brother figure that was trying to interfere with the process of making their game.
On the other hand, Microsoft felt that they absolutely did have a stake in this project because it was a launch title for their very first console. The pressure was on for them to break into a new market, which meant they needed games that would be ‘heavy hitters’ and system sellers: games that would make the Xbox stand out from its competition. If you look at the line-up of launch titles for the original Xbox, there was some good stuff there but not very many that would put Microsoft’s console above and beyond anything else that was already available…
Where Bungie was interested in making a game, Microsoft was thinking more about the long-term needs for their console – they were interested in a series.Both perspectives are easy to sympathise with, especially since we now have the benefit of hindsight and understanding the pressures that Bungie and Microsoft were under. At the time, this was the cause of a lot of hostility.
According to Trautmann, Microsoft were doing much of the heavy lifting for the writing of Halo 1 and saw Bungie as being run by people who were belligerent and uncooperative, who had developed a greater sense of self-importance than collaborative spirit. Various Bungie employees in meetings with Trautmann allegedly outright just called him an “idiot” because he worked for Microsoft, rather than being somebody who had been with Bungie when they worked in Chicago before their acquisition.
Things were further complicated by the fact that Trautmann and his co-writers weren’t even allowed to look at the game at this time.
Trautmann’s deal to save The Fall of Reach came with the asterisk that he, Brannon Boren, and Matt Soell had to write about 80% of the game’s dialogue, as this was a particular aspect that had taken a bit of a back seat.
The reason for this was likely a result of Halo 1 undergoing several huge changes – originally being made as a Real-Time Strategy, then a sort of open world Third-Person Shooter for the PC and Mac, before finally settling on a First-Person Shooter. Trautmann states in the podcast that Bungie were being rushed to finish the game and the script that they had proposed to Microsoft was something that nobody was really happy with, so it ended up being scrapped.
As a result, Trautmann, Boren, and Soell had to pick up on the writing with very limited time (a couple of days, according to the podcast), with little more than vague descriptions about what was going on in each level because they couldn’t see the game. They had the gist of what was going to happen in the story, what your objectives would be, and what the environments looked like – and they had to go from there.
Trautmann brings up that infamous “this cave is not a natural formation…” line of Cortana’s, which, we learn, wasn’t actually just a product of bad writing! The initial description of the cave provided for these writers was that it actually looked like a natural rock cave that led to an underground facility (probably more like the cave leading to the tunnels on Assault on the Control Room and Two Betrayals), rather than actual Forerunner tunnels – but it was later redesigned and it was too late to change the dialogue (or nobody cared to).
This all means that it’s really quite difficult to talk about arbitrarily defined things like ‘the Bungie era’, to speak as if everything naturally came together solely because of them and Microsoft was just serving the role of publisher and getting in the way with deadlines, contrasting with 343 where some people like to think they’re exerting more control.
The reality is a lot messier than that, and a lot more interesting…Which brings us to the actual campaign of Halo 1, with that context now established. We know that there was a fundamental disagreement between Microsoft and Bungie as to how the Master Chief should be characterised. It is that difference in interpretation of the character that these three or four articles will be analysing and critiquing.
Bungie wanted a completely blank slate, whereas Trautmann and Nylund worked tirelessly on The Fall of Reach (for which Trautmann was the editor) to establish the character’s backstory and personality to set the stage for the game’s narrative. Indeed, the majority of the writing for Halo 1 was done by the man working on that stuff.
And y’know what? I think that Halo 1 doesn’t get enough credit for delivering on Chief’s characterisation.
As I sat down to play through the game, I had my notepad next to me so I could jot down what I expected would probably be about half a page of notes. Well, I ended up writing down about three whole pages of examples and analysis of specific actions and lines his character is serviced with – things that subtly demonstrate character while leaving you to infer the substance of it.
There’s the obvious example to pick out, that the Chief’s second line of dialogue in the game is a bit of flirty banter with Cortana about her driving, spoken in front of Captain ‘Third Wheel’ Keyes – that’s always something that makes me giggle.
But there’s something that happens at the end of the first mission, The Pillar of Autumn, that intrigues me…
The cutscene begins with a Marine being thrown to the floor as the Pillar of Autumn takes fire from the Covenant, with the Chief tossing him into the last escape pod and giving the order to “punch it”. As they get underway, one of the Marines turns to John and says:
“We’re gonna make it, aren’t we, sir? I don’t wanna die out here!”
And the Master Chief responds by gently placing a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder.
The Chief doesn’t berate him, tell him to suck it up and get over his fear. He doesn’t even know this person – the game doesn’t provide any further detail either, this is just a random, nameless ‘grunt’ who is scared for his life.
And the Chief reaches out a hand to acknowledge the man’s fear…
Because the Chief is scared too.
Since Trautmann worked on The Fall of Reach as Nylund’s editor, and since the book was written over the course of Halo 1‘s final two months of development, it’s difficult for me to take it as being separate from Halo 1.
Especially when the very first chapter of the very first piece of canonical Halo fiction tells us this:
They docked in the port bay of the UNSC destroyer Resolute. Despite being surrounded by two metres of titanium-A battle plate and an array of modern weapons, the Chief preferred to have his feet on the ground, with real gravity, and real atmosphere – a place where he was in control, and where his life wasn’t held in the hands of anonymous pilots. [Halo: The Fall of Reach, page 6-7 (Kindle edition)]
He left the battle of Reach, the fate of his fellow Spartans unknown, and ended up in the middle of nowhere.
The only Spartan he managed to bring with him is clinically dead in a cryo pod aboard the ship that is under fire from the Covenant while Captain Keyes tries to manually crash land it on this mysterious alien ringworld they’ve stumbled across that will change the landscape of the setting for years to come.
The situation presented by the game is clear enough for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but the layer of context provided by The Fall of Reach just makes this simple act of reassuringly touching the Marine’s shoulder all the more poignant and meaningful.
“I don’t wanna die out here” puts into words the thoughts that are undoubtedly going through the Chief’s mind in the moment. It humanises him really well, to have this nameless grunt and the genetically-enhanced supersoldier in power armour be emotionally on the same page – it’s opening the game through a subtle display of vulnerability, which, if I were writing a handbook on How To Write The Master Chief Well, would be one of the top five tips. It’s also something that we don’t see written back into him until Halo 4…
At this point, I had it in my head that I was going to note down each instance of where the Chief is moving in a specific way – it was custom animated, after all, by Joe Staten (then the cinematics director), so there is intention to be read into these moments.
From there, it’s hard to stop noticing how very animated the Chief is throughout this game, in the sense that he emotes a lot and demonstrates his feelings and reactions through movement, especially compared to other characters (though it’s worth noting that there are only a few characters in this game, and, in fairness, one of them doesn’t even have limbs to move).
Keyes almost exclusively stands to attention, only occasionally breaking out his pipe (you don’t wanna know how many times I had to rewrite this sentence in a futile effort to lessen how euphemistic it sounds).
Cortana becomes more animated when she’s in Installation 04’s control room (largely with frustrated gesticulations as Chief almost kills everyone in the galaxy), but otherwise tends to stand in a relatively static position with her hands on her hips. Her emotion comes more from her voice and the changes in her facial expressions.
Chief, meanwhile, has a fair number of slightly exaggerated movements.It’s in the way he sassily sways when snarking at Cortana on the Pillar of Autumn’s bridge; how he looks around the big, empty Forerunner spaces during those ten second vignettes of the environments you encounter in what’s probably about as close as you can get to demonstrating him being in awe… I really liked those little vignettes and it’s another thing that none of the other Halo games since have really done to accentuate the scale of the setting.
It’s how he casually kicks a bit of debris (or, in the Anniversary version, an Unggoy’s methane mask) down the Cartographer’s shaft and reacts to just not hearing it hit the bottom.
He shrugs when he doesn’t understand what he’s being told (notably, at the end of Assault on the Control Room); his movements are jumpy in the Flood containment facility as he stands outside the room where he finds Jenkins’ helmet, and shakes his head while holding the helmet in his hands.
Fear of the Flood is something that I’ll endeavour to talk more about with regards to where Halo 2 and 3 really fall flat, but I want to take a moment to look back on that scene in the mission 343 Guilty Spark just before the Master Chief opens the door and Mendoza’s body falls into his arms.
Halo 1 does a hell of a job when it comes to conveying John’s fear of the Flood because the cinematics are so rich with style.
The scene switches between Dutch angles, close-ups, and first-person perspective shots in a dark and claustrophobic space that feels as if the walls might just starting pressing in on you.
Joe Staten poked fun at himself in the Halo 1 developer’s commentary for going all-out on the Dutch angles, but he created such a brilliantly tangible sense of visual tension in a scene where the Master Chief is just standing outside a locked door.
This was storytelling through style, which is why 343 Guilty Spark is a mission that still terrifies me to this day.
They managed to make the Flood scary before they’d even been introduced and without them even being there.Back to further examples that came to mind: The Chief clumsily kind of fumbles picking up the Index at the end of The Library. He demonstrates his loyalty to people he considers his friends when Spark demands that John hands Cortana over (oh, the pay-off we get in Halo 4 in a scene that mirrors this!)
And he dramatically holds his arms out between Guilty Spark and Cortana back in the control room as if he’s breaking up a fight between children. I was actually discussing this with a friend the other day, who articulated this as part of his characterisation in the books:
“John parents much more than he leads in the sense that, say, Captain Keyes does. Keyes mostly can get people to do their best by being inspirational (see also Sarah Palmer, Johnson, Lasky). John on the other hand is very good at knowing what everyone needs to perform their best, and then organizing that. In First Strike, there’s at least two different scenes of this, one in the present where he’s talking to the survivors from Halo, and then a flashback about the all clear code, and there’s this very thorough description of his thought process with each soldier where he goes ‘okay, well Johnson is up for anything, but the others are too tired. Locklear needs me to give him things to do so he doesn’t freak out, Polaski seems pretty calm, etc etc’.”
At the start of Keyes, he hits the side of his helmet to tell Cortana to knock it off when she translocates him onto the Truth and Reconciliation upside down, mockingly saying she’s figured out the trick to doing it right after he’s fallen to the ground, rather than outright telling her to knock it off.
There’s that wonderfully goofy moment at the start of The Maw, following that incredible camera sweep across the Autumn’s crash site, where Chief crashes a Banshee into the side of the Pillar of Autumn as a joke, and then playfully tosses a frag grenade when Cortana turns back to him after he asks how much firepower would be needed to crack the shields of the Autumn’s engines.
When the Sentinels arrive at the bridge and shatter the viewscreen, after Spark halts the self-destruct sequence – notice how John takes direct fire for a couple of seconds before ducking into cover. I never managed to really notice why that was before, I always assumed it was an animation glitch, that the timing for that ‘pop’ wasn’t properly synced, but I finally saw what he was doing this time around…
Taking Cortana’s chip out of the holopanel.
He had his shields up, of course, but he allowed himself to take direct fire for several seconds (which, in-lore, is about as strong as energy shields are) in order to ensure she was safe.
As an aside, I always like it when characters are depicted as having energy shields, which a lot of subsequent visual media tends to either forget about or ignore for the sake of more fluid, general action sequences which has its pros and cons.Another thing that I found particularly interesting was a particular line at the start of Two Betrayals, where he quite pointedly calls Spark a “friend”.
Not “ally”, or any sort of neutral word that implies more of a function than an emotion.
He calls Spark a friend…
That’s a really fascinating word choice for Chief, which Cortana chastises him for – so it’s not just a word picked without thought on the part of the writers, there is intent in that.
Chief has what is literally one of the most traumatic experiences of his life in encountering the Flood, escapes into a swamp, then meets this floating glowy orb who teleports him to hell in order to retrieve the key to a doomsday weapon, and Chief decides that Spark is his new friend!
It kind of highlights how Chief is a little bit naive, in the sense that there is a complete absence of artificiality with him because he’s not typically had to navigate a lot of social situations where he’s had to divulge information from a personality hidden behind a mask (ironically enough). He receives orders and then acts, which plays well into the overall construction of his dialogue in this game because the way in which he poses his questions lean towards him essentially asking how to reconcile new information or context into an objective – which, again, Halo 4 picks up on in some very poignant ways.
Likewise, this is a rare instance where the Chief’s adherence to following orders from a superior actually affects the story because, y’know, he almost wipes out all life in the galaxy by firing Installation 04. He never asked Spark for more information, as this was all quite beyond his comprehension. So we have a personal flaw established through this.
This is perhaps best evidenced from dialogue between him and Cortana at the end of Assault on the Control Room:
John-117: “So, what sort of weapon is it?”
Cortana: “What are you talking about?”
John-117: “Let’s stay focused. Halo… how do we use it against the Covenant?”
Cortana: “This ring isn’t a cudgel, you barbarian, it’s something else… something much more important. The Covenant were right… this ring… it’s Forerunner. Give me a second to access… Yes, the Forerunners built this place, what they called a ‘fortress world’, in order to… no, that can’t be. Oh, those Covenant fools, they must have known, there must have been signs!”
John-117: “Slow down. You’re losing me.”
Cortana: “The Covenant found something, buried in this ring, something horrible, and now… they’re afraid.”
John-117: “Something buried? Where?”
Cortana: “The Captain, we’ve got to stop the Captain!”
John-117: “Keyes? What do we–“
Cortana: “The weapons cache he’s looking for. It’s not really– We can’t let him get inside!”
John-117: “I don’t understand–“
Cortana: “There’s no time. Get out of here, find Keyes, stop him! Before it’s too late!”
Cortana is processing all this information and Chief is trying to keep up, which he attempts to do by asking questions that will turn her exposition into an objective – something for him to do.
That obviously serves a functional purpose to engage the player through the unloading of this exposition as the tone of the story undergoes a huge shift with the Flood twist, but it plays really quite well into an actual aspect of the Chief’s characterisation because of course that’s the way he thinks, or, rather, has been conditioned to think.Now, this isn’t to say that Halo 1’s characterisation of the Master Chief is perfect, or even ‘great’. It’s definitely a major net-positive aspect of the game that I feel is rather underappreciated (though, that’s somewhat understandable because the central focus of Halo 1, and its greatest strength, is its worldbuilding), but there are some areas where it does fall short.
For one, I really wish that Chief had some lines of dialogue during gameplay. For me, that is an integral part of my personal immersion into a character, which is broken when an NPC says something to me, or asks something, and it seems to just fall on deaf ears.
That is something that has always taken me out of an experience, whereas other people don’t necessarily want to hear the main character’s dialogue during gameplay. Obviously, that’s totally valid, and it definitely does work in certain games, but I don’t think it works very well with the Master Chief, as I view him, in the original trilogy. In fact, I will be bringing up a number of examples in the next article on Halo 2 and 3 where I found it particularly egregious.
This is why I tend to feel rather vexed by Keyes, the penultimate mission, because Cortana is in considerable distress over the Captain’s delirious messages and the Chief offers absolutely no comfort…
It’s a pretty stark contrast to that scene I gushed about earlier where he reassures the frightened Marine in the escape pod, that he doesn’t even say something as simple as “it’ll be okay” to somebody who is supposed to be his friend. Aside from the brief hesitation we see in Chief’s movement as he ponders having to smash his fist through Keyes’ skull to get his neural implants out of the Proto-Gravemind, he has no real reaction.
At the same time, we know that Keyes was one of those levels that had to be somewhat rushed, which is why it just reuses the same geometry from The Truth and Reconciliation.
It’s further unclear as to whether it was a deliberate design decision to have the Chief not talk during gameplay or if that was down to the very little time that Trautmann, Boren, and Soell had to write the bulk of the game, so, again, there’s a greater context to be aware of – but it’s still something that lets me down.I’ve talked about the game and its relation to The Fall of Reach, but it would be remiss of me not to likewise talk about The Flood, the novel adaptation of this game by William C. Dietz (yes, that William C. Dietz – the one who also wrote Mass Effect: Deception).
Deitz gets a lot of flack for his writing, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy quite a bit of his contribution to the Halo series. There’s some genuinely great stuff in there, which reaches its highest quality when it’s exploring the stuff that we don’t see in the game – the chapters where the perspective shifts to the Marines (like Melissa McKay), and to the Covenant characters like Zuka ‘Zamamee and Yayap. It’s also notable for establishing some of the earliest Lekgolo lore, as the two Hunters you encounter outside the Cartographer in the game are given names (Igido Nosa Hurru and Ogada Nosa Fasu) and a lens through which we see a bit more of how their very unique, very alien ‘society’ works.
And who could forget that scene with Jacob Keyes, which was adapted into a Terminal in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary?
So I do like to acknowledge that The Flood brought a number of things of value to the series, especially since Dietz had a much more rigid writing schedule for this book than even Nylund had for The Fall of Reach (and even that had to be done in seven weeks).
While I’m not a particularly big fan of the way in which this novel characterises the Master Chief, making him really quite abrasive, like a cynical, burned out cop from an 80s action flick. But, there are some excellent scenes in there which do a lot to really nail down his humanity. I’d like to posit two examples – the first of which I’ll talk about here, and the second will be brought up in the section on Halo 3.
Alpha Base didn’t offer a whole lot of amenities, but the Spartan took full advantage of what few there were. First came a full ten hours of completely uninterrupted sleep, followed by components selected from two MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, and a two-minute hot shower.
The water was provided by the ring itself, the heat was courtesy of a Covenant power plant, and the showerhead had been fabricated by one of the techs from the Pillar of Autumn. Though brief, the shower felt good, very good, and the Spartan enjoyed every second of it.
The Master Chief had dried off, scrounged a fresh set of utilities, and was just about to run a routine maintenance check on his armor when a private stuck his head into the Spartan’s quarters, a prefab memory-plastic cubicle that had replaced the archaic concept of tents.
“Sorry to bother you, Chief, but Major Silva would like to see you in the Command Post… on the double.”
The Spartan wiped his hands with a rag. “I’ll be right there.”
The Master Chief was just about to take the armor off standby when the Marine reappeared. “One more thing… The Major said to leave your armour here.”
The Spartan frowned. He didn’t like to be separated from his armour, especially in a combat zone. But an order was an order, and until he determined what had happened to Keyes, Silva was in command. [Halo: The Flood]
(Nina, the inclusion of this scene is dedicated to you.)
He gets to sleep. He gets to sit down and eat a warm meal… and he gets to shower – which Dietz then goes on to describe in some detail how he feels about these basic needs that have come to him like luxuries. A warm, two minute shower is something that the Chief enjoys every second of.
We’re seeing him, both literally and figuratively, naked.
It’s actually quite poignant because this is told to us in just a few lines: he slept, ate, and showered, and he enjoyed every second of it. And then we get back to the action. The brevity of this scene is important because it’s a rather depressing reflection of how fast that time must have passed for John, how these basic needs are just stepping stones that momentarily come and go in order to keep him fighting at peak effectiveness.
Really, it’s downright criminal that this was removed from the 2010 edition of the novel. It was such a wonderfully humanising moment for Chief and I wish we’d could see more of that kind of characterisation.
Also, I’m sure there’s definitely an audience out there eager for the Chief to have a shower scene…When I replay Halo 1 and consider the Master Chief, I do not see Frank O’Connor’s rather one-note description of him as “a vessel for your adventure” who is “just your entry into the universe”.
I see a clear effort from both the writing and the animation put into characterising him with clearly defined traits and a personality that does actually have some layers to it.
As I said, despite minimal dialogue, there’s a whole lot that’s done with his movements that portray him as reacting and emoting and relating to people in very human ways. Ways that were not really carried forward into Halo 2 and 3, and were largely forgotten as part of the character’s DNA because it was Halo 2 and 3 that consolidated the popularity and cultural ubiquity of the series – and, as a result, popularised the notion that Chief is just this stoic, inanimate “vessel” because that’s how I’ll be arguing those games handled his characterisation.
For me, Halo 1 has the Master Chief at his most interesting and emotionally complex in the original trilogy. For that (and many other wonderful things in this series), credit really has to go to the writing from Trautmann, Boren, and Soell, the additional depth of context provided by Nylund’s The Fall of Reach novel, as well as Joe Staten’s fantastic cinematic directing style and the way in which the character was animated.
And, of course, to Steve Downes, for establishing the voice of this iconic character. It wouldn’t be the same without him.
Sadly, for the rest of the original trilogy, it’s all downhill from here…