In this week’s edition of Protagonist Profiles, we tackle the world of one of the most influential gaming franchises of all time, as we take a closer look at the hero in the forefront of it all. This space shooter changed the game upon it’s release back in 2001, complimented by a protagonist that transcended the franchise itself. We are of course talking about Master Chief, the armoured cybernetic supersoldier and central protagonist of the Halo franchise of video games. One of the most iconic video game characters of all time, we’re going to take a closer look at how developers Bungie and Microsoft created the faceless hero, and why he became the culturally significant figure he is today. Let’s not waste anymore time and get stuck in!
Master Chief is the protagonist of the Halo series of games (at least, the main 5 games in the series) and serves as the central figure throughout the game’s story arc. He is a 7 foot tall, 1000 pound faceless cybernetically-enhanced supersoldier who has never been seen without wearing his trademark green battle armour and helmet. This Samus-esque appearance came about as a conceptual drawing by Shi Kai Wang, an artist hired by Bungie employees Rob McLees (artist) and Marcus Lehro (art director). Wang’s original sketch of Master Chief (seen below) was approved by McLees and Lehro, who bulked up the armour to avoid the character looking “too slender” (especially on a 3D plain). Over the course of the games 2 year long development cycle, the character received some minor changes, such as the paint job to his armour and the removal of an antenna that was present in early designs of the character.
The creation of this character design was what truly kicked in the creative juices of Bungie, as the design remained consistent even as the game itself changed around him. Yes, Halo was first conceived as a third person strategy game, but after Bungie’s acquisition to Microsoft, it changed to a first person shooter with the character at the forefront as the player-controlled avatar. In this time, the team were struggling with what to name their protagonist, and so gave him the placeholder name of Master Chief, named after his military rank, but the name stuck and the team settled with it.
Pondering whether to leave their protagonist voiceless as well as faceless, Bungie eventually went to disk jockey Steve Dowes to voice the character. Dowes, who has never played a video game in his life, received a phone call asking him to voice the part, and has done so ever since. Despite his near 15 year long work as the Chief, Dowes doesn’t think much of the character and for several years, never appeared at Bungie or Microsoft events. It wasn’t until he had a line of people around the block asking for his autograph a year after the first game was released, did he realise the popularity of the game and character. When recording for the character, Dowes was given a lot of creative leeway, as the team didn’t have much criteria for the Chief’s personality. The only main notes was that he would be a silent, ‘Clint Eastwood’ type, a man of few words who’s only there to do the job and walk away when it’s over. This was done because Bungie wanted to create the feeling that anyone could pretend that they were the Chief during the game. For this reason, the character never talks during gameplay and seldom talks even during cutscenes. And let’s not even talk about the face reveal. Us gamers have been continually teased us with a face reveal, the closest we’ve ever gotten in-game to seeing the man behind the helmet was a quick shot of his eyes at the end of Halo 4.
The Halo series takes place 500 years in the future, after the discovery of faster-than-light travel. Using this technology, humans have successfully colonized other planets once Earth became overpopulated. One of the key naval yards that has helped with this large-scale mission has been the planet Reach. The planet has also been developing technology to build a biologically engineered cyborg supersoldier army to help defend humans from any potential invaders. These invaders arrive, in the form of the Covenant, an alien race who attack the humans as they claim humanity to be an affront to their Gods. The Covenant are successful in destroying the colony of Reach (which is detailed in the spin-off game Halo: Reach) and few ships make it out alive. One of these ships, the Pillar of Autumn, contains Master Chief, who is revived from his cryo-tube at the start of the first game in the series, Halo: Combat Evolved.
Throughout the game, Master Chief is also accompanied by a female artificial intelligence implanted in his neural pathways in his battle armour. This AI, named Cortana, was added to the game to serve as a guide for the early parts of the game, but further development of the guide allowed Master Chief to show more of his humanity underneath that heavy suit of his. Cortana was originally envisioned to have a British accent, but Bungie felt it was too cliche, but shoutouts the original idea by having Cortana use the occasional British colloquialism. As the series evolves (no pun intended), so too did Master Chief and Cortana’s relationship, being that Chief had a hard time building relationships (due to his blunt attitude and the fact that many of his friends will end up dead on the battlefield) and Cortana is the only entity that can poke through Chief’s ‘tough guy’ exterior (again, no pun intended).
We mentioned earlier that Master Chief truly shocked the gaming world with his introduction in 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, so let’s tackle why that was the case. Halo was released to critical acclaim and humongous sales. Within 6 months, it had already broken 1 million sales, crushing the pace of any best-selling game sold from the previous generation of console. The game was praised by virtually every gaming reviewer of the time, earning many game of the year awards from IGN, Edge and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Due to its release alongside the Xbox gaming console, many credit the game for the console’s early success, which saw the birth of the “system flagship title” according to CNET. It also spawned such terms as “the next Halo” or “the Halo killer” for future FPS titles. As for Master Chief himself, he was now seen as the face of the Xbox and for a new generation of gamers (Empire). He’s been described as “iconic” (Sydney Morning Herald) “a new kind of celebrity” and a symbol for the increased legitimacy for gaming as an artform (TIME). He has his own wax sculpture at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas and, of course, has appeared in many, MANY lists for ‘best gaming characters’. Here’s just some of what we’re talking about: UGO, GameDaily, Empire, GamesRadar, GamesRadar again, and Complex. However, this wave of praise isn’t without it’s critics. Some have viewed Chief as overrated, claiming that he is all style and no substance. Some of these outlets include IGN and Cheat Code Central who aren’t big fans of the supersoldier. Yet despite this, it is rather obvious just how much of an impact Master Chief made when he hit our consoles back at the start of the millennium and with the Halo series showing no sign of stopping, we look forward to seeing what he has in store for us next!
That’s it for this week’s edition of Protagonist Profiles. Join us next week where we go WAY back to maybe the FIRST gaming protagonist of all time!?