I was going to wait until my Halo 3 review to talk about this series again. But I just couldn’t help myself. There’s been something on my mind for a little while now and I just had to talk about it.
When Bungie stepped away from Halo and left it to 343, there was a noticeable change in the franchise’s storytelling. The three main games and even Reach had pretty simple, dark, and enjoyable stories. It didn’t drop anything complicated on you. It focused much more on the ambience of the world, bringing the NPCs to life, and most importantly: making the game fun.
343 has a very different approach. They try to dive deep into the world by adding a ton of extra lore. More importantly, however: they tried to flesh out the characters of Master Chief and Cortana. After all, you need a character with more depth than ‘badass’ to tell a character-driven story.
Let me explain why that was a mistake and I hate it more than anything.
The original Halo came out in the early days of the FPS game. Back when the stories were basically non-existent and the characters were just ‘cool’. Look at Doomguy and… Wolfenstein-guy (I don’t know his name and I can’t be fucked to look it up, I’m sorry). At the time, neither one had any more depth than the following two points.
- Is cool
- Murders demons/nazis. Because they’re so cool.
And that’s it. That’s all they needed.
While Halo did try to have a more complex story and somewhat succeeded, the writers at Bungie didn’t bother trying to make the Master Chief a deep and complex character. Because… well, he didn’t need to be. As far as the player was concerned, all he needed to be was a cool robot-man that murders aliens.
Where did he come from? How did he become a badass? Why does he fight for humanity? The answer is: who cares? Just go kill aliens and have fun, dude!
But then 343 came along and went “WE GOTTA GIVE THE CHIEF A SAD BACKSTORY!! WE HAFTA GIVE ‘IM EMOTIONS AND STUFF!!”
The Chief isn’t just a faceless hero. Turns out, he was taken as a child and brewed to be a child soldier under grueling, painful experiments and training. He went through actual hell, ultimately becoming the greatest Spartan that ever lived. Now, he has a strong emotional connection to Cortana, one so strong that he’d do anything to save her.
Hey, remember that time at the end of Halo 2? When Chief left her behind in order to save humanity with only a brief moment of hesitation? Just wanted to put that out there.
Now, I will say this: trying to flesh out a one-dimensional character isn’t always a bad thing. Trying to give them more personality and emotion should be a good thing! But there’s kind of a huge problem with doing it to Master Chief. What is that problem?
The mother fucker don’t got a face! How is he supposed to emote if he doesn’t got one of those?!
Let me ask you this: would you want to see under the Master Chief’s helmet? No, of course not! As far as you’re concerned, Chief’s helmet is his face! Having him be a faceless hero makes it easy to put yourself in his shoes!
You have to remember: playing as characters like Doomguy and Chief are meant to make you, the player, feel powerful. You’re the badass that’s fighting off an entire alien army! You’re the hero of this story!
But for a more traditional, fleshed-out character, they need to have their own face. They have to be able to show their emotions to make the audience connect with them. That’s one of the main reasons the Destiny series fails so often in storytelling: so many of those characters are masked or faceless robots that can’t emote! How am I supposed to get attached and empathize with someone when I can’t make eye contact with them?!
If 343 wanted to make Chief a more interesting character, they’d need to start by revealing his face. But you can’t do that or you’ll disappoint the fans! So they tried to have their cake and eat it too. Which… you kinda can’t do.
It certainly doesn’t help that Chief’s story is kinda… done. He defeated the Flood and the Covenant and saved humanity at the end of Halo 3. That’s it. Done deal. He doesn’t need to have any more adventures. The tale of Spartan 117 is over.
But you can’t have a Halo game without Chief, right?!
Oh yeah. They did that.
You can still have Chief be a character in later Halo games. Just not the main character. Maybe the later Halos could take a Devil May Cry approach and introduce a Halo-equivalent of Nero: a new, inexperienced Spartan that could take up Chief’s legacy. Maybe he and Chief are the last survivors of a brutal mission and Chief needs to train him to be able to keep up. Something like that could be amazing!
That, or Chief could become a legend and step down from the story itself. Maybe Chief retires and goes down as a man of legend, someone whom the other Spartans can’t possibly live up to. When things get bad on the battlefield and your character shows up, soldiers could cry out “I wish Chief were here!” or something like that.
There are ways to make Halo stories more character-driven and emotional. But you can’t do that with Chief as the main character. He was designed to be a one-dimensional bad-ass machine, and he succeeded at that flawlessly. His character just doesn’t work, on a fundamental level, with more complex styles of storytelling.
343 will never abandon the Chief. So long as there is Halo, Master Chief will be the protagonist. That’s just how it works. Hopefully, for Infinite, they’ll understand what made him so cool in the first place and stop trying this ultra-complex emotional stuff that we’ve been getting with games like Halo 4 and 5.
Am I foolish to hope? Probably. But I refuse to give up on them. I love Halo too much to do that.