The Master Chief: A Character Study – Halo 2

“Sir, finishing this fight…”

In the previous article, we explored the characterisation of the Master Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved and the reception that had was everything I’d hoped! With the enrichment of greater context and a closer look at the cutscenes, the resounding sentiment was that there was definitely more to the Chief than one might expect to see on the surface.

He was not just a “vessel” or a cipher for the worldbuilding, which I tied back to Frank O’Connor’s recent statements regarding the approach to the future of the Chief’s characterisation in Halo 6.

No, he was a well-defined character with fears, flaws, and a deceptively expressive personality that was conveyed through his movements and actions – which I can only describe as antithetical to the notion of the Chief being this vapid, stoic, blank avatar for the player.

I ended on something of an ominous note, that it was all downhill from there for the Chief’s character writing across the rest of the original trilogy. Halo 2 was where this series truly consolidated its popularity and cultural ubiquity, and it just so happens to be the instalment that completely changed the overall presentation of the character…

OFF THE ROCK, THROUGH THE BUSH, NOTHING BUT ONE-LINERS

Just like the original, Halo 2 is another game that transcends just being one of the best and most memorable games in the series. It sits very comfortably in my ‘favourite games of all time’ list. It’s a damn masterpiece in a lot of ways, but, like any artistic work, it’s still extremely flawed and there are always areas that could be improved.

Halo 2 absolutely has its share of issues and I feel that people have slowly come to realise over the years that a lot of them were complaining about the wrong things – things which are lauded as being fan-favourite aspects of the franchise now, but were hated upon their introduction because people just wanted “more Chief”. The introduction of the Arbiter and Gravemind, the political focus of the plot and fleshing out the Covenant, as well as the controversial cliffhanger ending… I couldn’t believe it when I saw how much these things were railed against because they were, to me, what made Halo 2 one of the best sequels I’d ever experienced.

But there is one particular issue that I feel significantly detracts from Halo 2.

It just so happens to be what people were clamouring for more of…

The Master Chief.

To begin: what isn’t a problem is the fact that the Master Chief is not the protagonist of this game, that Thel occupies that role – despite having fewer missions. That’s not a problem because what Bungie did with that character in Halo 2 remains some of the best writing in the whole damn franchise to me.

And yes, Thel is quite indisputably the protagonist of Halo 2. The protagonist is the one who is at the centre of the story, informing the big beats of its plot, typically making the key decisions and experiencing the fallout and consequences of those decisions. It is the Master Chief who is the ‘deuteragonist’, not Thel.

The problem isn’t that Chief’s relevance to the plot’s progression is reduced, it’s that there is simply no character-building for John in this game. While character isn’t solely determined by dialogue, it is notable that he has a grand total of eighteen lines throughout the entire thing, and that’s being generous – I’m counting one-word answers and sounds (like “understood” and “boo”) in that.

Here are all of his lines:

The Heretic
“Tell that to the Covenant.”

Cairo Station
“You told me there wouldn’t be any cameras.”
“Thanks.”
“Yes, sir. I need a weapon.”
“How much time was left?”
“Sir, permission to leave the station. / To give the Covenant back their bomb.”
“So, stay here.”
“I won’t.”

Delta Halo
“Understood.”

Regret
“Are you sure?”
“Commander, we’ve got a problem.”

Gravemind
“Relax. I’d rather not piss this thing off.”
“This thing is right. Halo is a weapon, your Prophets are making a big mistake.”
“Boo.”

High Charity
“Your pal, where’s he going?”
“That Brute has the Index, and Miranda and Johnson. He can activate the ring.”
“After I’m through with Truth…”

The Great Journey
“This is Spartan-117, can anyone hear me? Over. / Sir, finishing this fight.”

Of these lines, only one of them articulates a meaningful expression of character – the promise that Chief makes Cortana at the end of the game, that he’ll come back for her.

Otherwise, most of these are either bland requests for clarification on exposition, acknowledging orders, or one-liners. One-liners definitely have their place in Halo, I’ve got absolutely no qualms with the endearing goofiness that is one of the trademark aspects of this franchise… but the issue is that this is practically all there is to the Master Chief in Halo 2.

It’s not in the same boat as his subtle and slight humour in Halo 1, it’s more along the lines of the kind of thing you’d expect out of a bombastic 80s action flick, which is what Halo 2 kind of tries to emulate with all of the awesome spectacle and lame dialogue that punctuates the Chief ‘episodes’ of the story.

Halo 2 is a lot like Halo 1, only it’s Halo 1 on fire, going 130 miles per hour through a hospital zone, being chased by helicopters and ninjas. And, the ninjas are all on fire, too.” [Jason Jones, ‘Halo 2 – Everything We Know’ (7/7/2004)]

The result is that Chief almost feels like more of a comic relief character than Johnson in Halo 2.

Johnson’s role in this game (and in Halo 3) carries a little more weight beyond just making Badass™ speeches and witticisms, as both he and Miranda ultimately serve an important role in Thel’s arc at the end of the second act (where they meet face-to-face in Installation 05’s Library) and the end of the third (where they join forces to take down Tartarus/Tartar-sauce/Mr Mohawk). There is a wider thematic range to Johnson’s involvement in Halo 2‘s narrative and central character arc, but the Chief is just sort of… there.

Chief may have only had 31 lines in Halo 1 (and he only speaks in The Pillar of Autumn, Assault on the Control Room, Two Betrayals, and The Maw), which is still almost double the number of lines he has in Halo 2, but where there was a lack of dialogue there was, as I talked extensively about in the previous article, physical action.

He was animated, he moved around. He emoted. There was a substantial display of character through the Master Chief’s actions.

This is not the case in Halo 2.

Scenes that involve the Chief throughout the game have him doing very little beyond just standing still and stoic while Cortana, Miranda, Lord Hood, Johnson, and everyone else talks.

There’s no sense of the character’s motion throughout the game, the focus is instead passed to the over-the-top action scenes which show off explosive, death-defying feats that take your suspension of disbelief and beat it to death with a thousand rabid Unggoy. And it’s glorious! These are brilliant and unforgettable action sequences… but there’s nothing there, in the Chief’s side of the story, to really provide any sort of contrast.

There’s no moment where Chief’s story ‘gets real’, despite having a number of moments where it, perhaps, should. The real meat of the storytelling material is ultimately left up to Thel’s episodes.One of the most notable changes in the Master Chief’s presentation is the fact that he doesn’t interact with any Marine ‘grunts’ in this game, which is an unfortunate step backwards from Halo 1 where he’s shown to actually care about the people he’s fighting alongside.

You do fight alongside Marines throughout the majority of the missions you play as the Chief, in fact, High Charity is the only one you don’t, which makes it all the more noticeable to me that he never interacts with them. This further links back to my point in the article on Halo 1 about how the player character not talking during gameplay disrupts my immersion as the character, as the Marines will constantly chatter with and around you, they are constantly there, but they might as well not be because the Chief has nothing to say back to them.

A scene that comes to mind is the opening cutscene of Metropolis, as the Scarab heads across the bridge and the Chief links up with the UNSC forces…

One of the Marines, a young man (certainly in the Anniversary coat of paint, but the voice acting and presentation of this particular ‘nobody’ character is clearly indicative of that), wants to get the hell out of dodge. Johnson asks if the Marine is hit, then breaks into one of four of his trademark Badass™ speeches which tells the frightened Marine to suck it up, pull himself together, and that he is lucky to be in this position.

I love a Badass™ speech from Johnson as much as the next person, but I can’t help but draw that contrast to the scene in Halo 1 at the end of the first mission where the Chief comforts the frightened Marine in the escape pod.

I wish there was something of that in this scene…

It would have been nice if the camera took a second to show Chief put a reassuring hand on the frightened Marine’s shoulder, and nods at him, saying through the action: “I acknowledge your fear, but we’ve got this!”

I love the bombastic action hero stuff, it’s good fun, but I do like there to be layers within that. As I said, there has to be a moment where the comedy ‘gets real’ to sell its place within the drama (in this instance, the Covenant being on Earth and steamrolling their way through this city). A very simple opportunity was presented there which Bungie didn’t really pick up on. This particular aspect of Chief’s characterisation, having him sort of be ‘on the same level’ as the regular Marines, being boots in the mud with them, is something that ended up being lost in translation in Halo 2 and 3.

Keep this in the back of your mind, as this is something that I will be going all out on discussing at length in the next article on Halo 3 (with reference to The Fall of ReachThe Flood, and First Strike) because I have a definitive statement to make about this aspect of the Master Chief’s character.The Master Chief doesn’t really develop a particular relationship or camaraderie with Johnson either in this game, beyond making a couple of wise-cracks at each other.

Johnson demonstrates a clear fondness of the Master Chief, but you never really see the Chief do anything to meaningfully reciprocate it – even in Halo 3, where they’re reunited after the Chief falls from the Keyship and Johnson says that they’re not leaving him behind, the Chief just says “yeah, you’re not” and nothing else. Considering the fact that the last time the Chief saw Johnson, he and Miranda were being ferried off to Installation 05 and we missed rescuing them by mere seconds, it’s pretty strange that the Chief doesn’t express some relief that at least one of his friends is still around and has his back.

You’d think that more would have been done here, that Johnson is somebody the Chief can be a little more open and vulnerable around because they’ve been through the same hell together in Halo 1 and come out the other side of it – not unscathed by any stretch of the imagination, but alive…

There’s only really one line that is indicative of the two of them even being on informal speaking terms outside of their usual working hours when it comes to saving the galaxy:

Chief: “You told me there wouldn’t be any cameras”

Johnson: “And you told me you were gonna wear something nice!”

A better-written relationship between the Chief and Johnson could have served as a really strong mirror to the relationship between Thel and Rtas in this game, as the two of them were likewise defined in some ways by the events that occurred in Halo 1 (which has been explored in the expanded universe, of course).

The reason why this lack of proper characterisation particularly bugs me in Halo 2 is because the entire point of the second act of a trilogy is to focus on the characters.

The first act of a trilogy tends to have a very basic plot which is used as a framework for establishing the characters, the setting, and the themes – which Halo 1 accomplished beautifully.

Halo 2 is kind of unique as a second act because it does have a more substantial and complex plot than most second acts, while still pulling off some of the franchise’s best character writing and doubling down on the worldbuilding by exploring the Covenant’s perspective… but it seems like none of that imagination went into writing for the Chief.

His promise at the end of the penultimate mission to come back for Cortana is the closest we really get to seeing proper, emotional characterisation for him, but it’s something that falls rather flat when you get down to it, since Chief says a grand total of seven lines to her throughout the entire game. Just as the case was with Johnson, there’s no substantial reciprocation or indication of a meaningful relationship being developed, and then we’re asked to take “I’ll come back for you” as that pay-off at the end of the game.Another point to make, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but feeds into the overarching feeling of Chief’s irrelevance in Halo 2, is the fact that almost nothing the Master Chief does in the game actually does anything to move the plot forward.

He blows a Covenant ship up at the start of the game, but that ship was obviously something that was written into the scene to be there for him to do that – it doesn’t serve any unique purpose in the narrative, it’s just there to be blown up.

He spends two missions pursuing a Scarab and destroys it, but the Prophet of Regret ends up leaving Earth to jet off to Installation 05 regardless of whether that Scarab was going to be around or not. And this happens without any context as well, since it wasn’t until Halo 2 Anniversary, ten years later, that the question of how Regret learned of Installation 05’s location was addressed.

There’s no progressive logic that really holds this part of the story together, it’s just stuff happening. And I’d be totally fine with that if it was all done to service the characters, but, with the Chief in particular, it simply isn’t.

He assassinates the Prophet of Regret, which triggers the Changing of the Guard within the Covenant and results in the Great Schism, changing the entire dynamic of the war. This is the one thing that can definitely be argued to be a contribution he makes… but, at the same time, it can be argued that it kind of isn’t as well. The Prophet of Truth had been planning this for decades, all we did was give an inevitable event a little push sooner rather than later.

He stows away on the Keyship and attempts to assassinate the Prophet of Truth (the results of which you only see in a comic), but, narratively, the Prophet of Truth isn’t for John to kill. The Prophet of Truth is written to be a focal point in Thel’s arc, which Bungie evidently realised. So, structurally, this was just about finding a way to make sure John is on Earth for Halo 3 and separated for Cortana.

Since the Chief has such an insubstantial role in determining and pushing forward the plot, one would expect that the natural way to pick up the slack for that would be for Bungie to write more of a character-driven piece for his episodes.

They didn’t.To illustrate some context: 2004 was where Eric Trautmann’s involvement on Halo sadly came to an end.

After working on the Halo Graphic Novel and The Art of Halo, and setting set up a franchise group for the series (a creative team who would work on the expanded universe materials), Bungie’s management were unhappy with the choice of people on that team because they wanted big names like Joe Kubert and Alan Moore working with them – something which Trautmann asserted was an absolutely ludicrous and unrealistic ask for what was, at that point, still a new and unproven video game series.

Another interesting tidbit of information that Trautmann raises in the podcast (which I discussed in the previous article and can be listened to here) is that he and Brannon Boren had to fight Bungie to get ODSTs in the game, as Bungie didn’t believe that people would recognise or really care about them.

The irony, of course, being that, just four years later, Bungie would begin working on a spin-off game entirely about ODSTs, who are one of the most recognisable and beloved staples of the franchise, with many people preferring them even over the Spartans.

I don’t think people would be against getting a sequel or spiritual successor to Halo 3: ODST either (I certainly wouldn’t be, ODST is still one of my favourites).

It’s clear from his testimony in the podcast that Trautmann really cared about getting Halo off the ground as a multimedia franchise, but was met with a lot of push-back and hostility, and decided, after Halo 2 shipped, that enough was enough.

This is also the point where the games and expanded universe developed into two wholly separate entities, since Bungie was more fully involved in writing the game and had more creative freedom to enforce their vision, whereas Trautmann’s angle seemed to be shooting for gradually developing the series more into what we have with 343 Industries’ approach today. That statement is probably going to be read with whatever feelings you have towards 343, which is a parallel that I’d discourage because it’s something that we never saw come to fruition. It could’ve been better, it could’ve been worse, it could have been about the same. We don’t (and will never) know.

Indeed, Joe Staten’s response to the question of whether the books make the cut for canonical status in an interview back in 2004 carries a bit of a mordacious edge to it:

“The books are, for better or worse, part of the canon. In the future we may choose to revise or flat-out ignore some of the less appealing ideas (Johnson’s biological immunity to the Flood, for example), but folks should treat them as defining elements of the Halo universe.” [Joe Staten, H.B.O interview (October 2004)]

We saw the whole “we may choose to revise or flat-out ignore” some aspects of the canon a number of times over the years, culminating with Halo: Reach which made holes that are still, seven years later, in the process of being plugged up – but I’ve already talked about that

Suffice to say, it was an attitude that left me, and many other fans of the lore, rather disappointed.I’ve been pretty critical of Halo 2‘s writing for the Chief thus far… more critical than I think I ever have been of Halo 2 before, but there is one scene that does actually do something to elevate his character in my eyes.

The whole irony of the Prophets’ names has been talked about since the game came out, obviously. That’s not new by any stretch of the imagination.

The Prophet of Regret showed none.

The Prophet of Truth spoke none.

The Prophet of Mercy received none.

Now, the latter, about the Prophet of Mercy, is not untrue, but it’s sort of only half way there to the full measure of this character’s ironic fate.

The Prophet of Mercy received none from his own people, as Truth and Tartarus left him to die…

…but the double layer of irony comes in as he did receive mercy from a human – the Master Chief.

When the Chief comes across Mercy, in the process of being devoured by a Flood infection form, he asks where Truth is going and receives a typically zealous answer from him – that he’s going to Earth and humanity will, at last, be wiped out.

Then, instead of just leaving him there to go through the agony of Flood infection as some kind of retribution for everything he’s been responsible for and complicit with for the last three decades… John performs a mercy killing by destroying the infection form. Note that the already aged and frail Mercy dies almost immediately after it’s pulled from his neck, the implication being that the infection form was keeping him alive while it was slowly feeding on him.

It strikes me as being indicative of the Chief believing that he wouldn’t unleash the Flood even on his worst enemy. Here he is, standing over one of the three leaders of the Covenant, with the chance to just walk away.

And he shows him mercy.

That single moment is a truly wonderful statement about the Master Chief’s humanity that I wish we had seen more of in this game. I’ll be talking more about the Flood in-relation to the Master Chief in the next article, on Halo 3, but I really wanted to take a break from the criticism to appreciate that moment here.To bring what I have to say on Halo 2 to a conclusion: The bulk of what we do get with Chief is some excellent worldbuilding and emphasis on really developing the details of the setting. The levels where you play as him are generally considered to be the best in the game, in no small part because they’re the ones that have you on more of a world-hopping odyssey with more open and varied environments, whereas Thel’s missions are a lot more contained and linear.

But the good stuff there isn’t because he’s being used as some sort of cipher for these worlds, it’s because… it’s just good worldbuilding.

“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)]

My concern here is that this is exactly what Frank O’Connor is describing – where Chief is “a vessel for your adventure” and “just your entry into the universe”, and there’s nothing else there for him to be or do. I am not at all enthused about the prospect of returning to anything even close to that philosophy for his character. The extent to which the Chief needs to be characterised as a vessel for the player is by simply not showing his face – by positing him so that you would look into his visor and see a reflection of yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to start tearing away his actual character.

I love Halo 2, but the one thing that sours it for me is that this is quite definitively the point where the Master Chief stopped being written as a defined character.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Halo 2 was where the popularity and cultural ubiquity of this series was wholly consolidated. It was, at the time, the biggest launch event in video game history and established brand new, immensely popular social features that brought people together, experiencing this game and being able to talk about this story in ways that hadn’t really been possible before.

For a lot of people, this was the Chief that they really came to know.

For me, that Chief was a hollow reflection of what the character had previously been in Halo 1.That about does it for what I have to say on Halo 2, which, I realise, is a lot shorter than my usual content which is down to there simply being very little to analyse about the Chief in this game.

Had this been about Thel’s character arc, I suspect it’d be at least three times longer.

In fact, if you want exactly that, a very dear friend of mine has you covered with her sixteen part-long analysis of Thel’s story through the lens of the Classical Hero’s Journey: Hero’s Journey – Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam

I had initially planned to include Halo 3 in this article, but there’s a lengthier analysis of points that I want to pay off in there which bulked the word count of this article up to about ten thousand words… I’m writing these particular articles with the intention of making them more accessible than my usual stuff, so I will be addressing each of the main games in the series individually, rather than cramming it all into one.

To end on more of an upbeat tone with a rather funny anecdote, Steve Downes has pointed to his performance in Halo 2 as something he second guesses when asked about how he feels about going back to the older games from the point of view of an actor… because he had a cold during the voice recording sessions.

“I remember when we did Halo 2, I had a cold through all of the sessions. And every time I hear Halo 2, I hear myself… y’know, with a cold! And I’m like: ‘gee, I wish I coud’ve done it when I wasn’t sick!’ And the other day I told that story in front of Jen [Taylor] and she said: ‘y’know, I had a cold too!’ So we were both sick when we did that.” [4 Guys With Quarters, Podcast #104 – Steve Downes (13/9/2016)]

Perhaps we can reconcile this canonically, saying that Chief didn’t talk much in Halo 2 because he was suffering from man flu…

No?

Well, in that case, we’ll pick this up next time with the final instalment of the original trilogy, Halo 3.

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About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Master Chief: A Character Study – Halo 2

  1. John Joe says:

    Chief in Halo 2 made him a legend to me as a kid.

    That carried over all the way until reading Halo Evolutions, and then all the other books.

    By Halo 4, I was ready for his character to be tapped into a little more, but what I got was an amazing character-driven story.

    Basicly, I view Halo 2 as an example of why the Master Chief is regarded as such a legend, which is why seeing him open up in Halo 4 was so interesting.

    Halo 2 and 3 is not a low point of Chief’s character to me because it sets up the Master Chief as a unshakeable legend, and Halo 4 breaks that legend down and shows us the man underneath the armor.

  2. ReteroX says:

    I had never fully considered why I found Thel a more compelling character (during Halo 2) than our beloved mean-green-man-machine, and I think you’ve finally helped me​ put that question to rest; Cheif is barely present on an emotional level.

    I have to say, in response to the whole “vessel” argument, I personally crave an emotional connection with my favourite characters and I find it easier to sympathise and bond with a character who makes mistakes, has regrets and shows emotions, even if they are only brief. I can’t believe 343 could think that a an empty shell is preferable to character that you can relate to and share an experience with.

    This is my first post here; I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your work, it has entertained and engaged me on many a sleepless night.

  3. Pingback: The Master Chief: A Character Study – Halo 3 | haruspis

  4. HaloTupolev says:

    >”I couldn’t believe it when I saw how much these things were railed against”

    Dislike toward Arby was probably partly driven by plain old level design impressions. Arby got especially shafted on first impressions by having Arby/Oracle cliffhang Outskirts/Metro, which is by far the most popular level in the game. And the chief gets to take advantage of the breath-of-fresh-air effect by having DH come right after Oracle.

    Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the dislike about elites speaking English was due to implementation. Half-Jaw is great, Arby is great. Everyone else sounds like a bad Shakespeare actor speaking melodrama through their nose. The English probably made it difficult to maintain their old characterization, but even so…

  5. Kyle says:

    I would say I was in the camp of hating Halo 2’s campaign when I first played it. I hated the cliff hanger and I didn’t like Thel. However, as I have gotten older the game has aged with me like a fine wine and I find it to be a great game. Halo 4, though, still being my favorite Halo game and ultimate vision/dream come true when it comes to how I believe the Master Chief should be as a character.

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