Where are the good Halo characters?
Halo is a big video game franchise. It’s probably the biggest Western video game franchise. Call of Duty may sell more titles, but Halo is bigger as an overall brand. There are numerous games on several platforms, both a core series and multiple spin-offs, in addition to several animated films, live action internet/TV shows and many comics and novels. Then there are the toys and the costumes.
The games are known for their adept mixture of infantry and vehicle based combat. The FPS mechanics play more like a dance than twitchy nerve shooters. The soundtrack(s) are iconic to many. Then there’s the lore. An ancient race wiped out by its own hubris in dealing with a sentient virus, a collective of religious aliens taking advantage of left over technology and a borderline authoritarian human civilisation desperately trying to survive against all of this. Every species has a detailed history and back story. The visual design of the different worlds and their architectures is truly unique with mythology behind each of them.
So why are the characters so shit?
Obviously the Halo characters aren’t terrible. They’re memorable at least. Everyone knows who Master Chief is. Everyone knows who Cortana is. Fewer, but still many people know who the Arbiter and 343 Guilty Spark are. But is that not more down to the visual design of the characters? All have their own very identifiable profiles and colours. Their motivations and goals are easy to follow. Master Chief was abducted by Special Forces scientists to be the ultimate soldier; he has been raised to believe purely in duty. Cortana has been designed to protect others and seek out knowledge so she’s naturally curious and also duty bound. The Arbiter is being pulled between a desire to regain his honour and a search for the real truth, and so on.
The most obvious problem with the characters is that they’re all dry as hell. Cortana occasionally quips, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone that’s given even a chuckle over them. The Arbiter and Master Chief certainly aren’t funny. Sergeant Johnson is obviously intended as a broad comedic character, but that’s also all he is. His jokes are broad enough for everyone to understand, but not specific enough to be funny. It also doesn’t help that he lacks a character beyond this simple surface based archetype. I am aware that the non-games media reveals more of the characters’ motivations and personas, but they’re still fairly dry even then. Also any piece of individual media should stand on its own two feet. It shouldn’t be a Star Wars Expanded Universe or Batman v Superman type situation.
The more knowledgeable among you may be now thinking back to how Master Chief’s lack of character was intentional. Bungie wanted him to be an empty shell for the player to inhabit. This is common of many video game protagonists from that era. The reason this is much rarer these days is that characterisation is done more adeptly in modern games with studios hiring professional writers. This suggests that the blank canvass approach was more of an excuse for unimaginative writing than a practical conceit. Novels and films (and so on) do not utilise this approach to make their protagonists more open to their audiences, they have to make their protagonists clear as day for people to grasp what is happening and why those happenings are significant to the protagonist. Obviously video games are different and the player inhabits the character more directly, but if video games are about living a different life (even a power fantasy) surely the motivations and objectives of that life should be clear? For a truly immersive experience you can’t just take on the body of a person, but their personality too.
This all brings me to Halo 4. In this title Master Chief is given more characterisation. He is shown to genuinely love Cortana, he is clearly scared that she may die (from ‘rampancy’) and he takes more rash actions to try and prevent this. This is all contrary to his by-the-book nature and the rational part of him that knows to save her from her fate is impossible. This is often achieved by having Master Chief speak during gameplay rather than just cut scenes as was done previously. Admittedly much of this is undercut by Cortana being reduced to a weepy and crazy woman, rather than the practically minded, quippy and assertive Cortana seen in previous games. Arguably it creates a sense of dissonance when both characters are not acting recognisably.
It is possible that Halo 4 would have had more of an emotional impact if Master Chief had a previously established personality. Hell, you could even make a personality out of his lack of personality. He was kidnapped as a child due to his genius and physical strength. There are nuances to be explored there. He could be angry at those who kidnapped him, but still serve them as he has the self-awareness to know he is now a necessary evil. Many narratives have been built around the idea of soldiers making themselves figuratively cold and machinelike for a purpose, with Master Chief it is also literal. You could create further sense of personality from contrasting personalities. The Star Trek franchise has many bone-dry characters but created reams of great stories simply by creating contrast and conflicts.
Arbiter is someone who should outwardly be a lot more passionate. His people were tricked into committing atrocities. Where’s his anger over his people’s slavery and his guilt over his own actions? Halo 3 has only one moment where Master Chief and Arbiter clash before they make up. Why do the games not contrast their conflicts with their similarities? They’re both mortal enemies and also slaves of their respective governments. The Arbiter was also the commander of the fleet that killed Master Chief’s childhood friends and family, why does this not come up at all? Master Chief is the one that robbed The Arbiter of his status, why does this not come up more? You could spread this deepening to other characters. What if Sergeant Johnson’s bluster and excessive use of wit is to cover up deep seated trauma and fears for his men? At this point in the war a veteran has lost almost everyone he knows. What if people were genuinely creeped out by how powerful Cortana is and how she continues to grow in power without self-awareness?
I am not suggesting that the Halo series becomes more ‘cinematic’. However if you look at how far the characterisation of Master Chief came just in Halo 4 alone (his rash streak is continued to an extreme in Halo 5: Guardians) you can see the potential that comes from just in-game dialogue. If you actually care to go to YouTube and find the videos uploaders have stitched together from the series’ cutscenes, you’ll see that each of the games already has two or more movies length worth of cut scene material already. Obviously this is no longer a problem for Bungie, but for 343 Industries. Whilst they made progress with Master Chief in Halo 4, every other character in that game and Halo 5 is as dry as ever. It’s time for the characters of this lush universe to do more than exist in our heads, but to live in our hearts.
Another point I didn’t find space for: it is odd given the level of detail given to Halo’s architecture that more detail isn’t put into making this world look lived in. There are times that the characters travel to areas that aren’t military vessels or ancient ruins and yet everything is still very sterile. Just once I’d like to see a messy sofa somewhere. Just little signs of a life beyond the desperate fight against whatever threats it is this time. What lives are the people in Halo actually fighting to protect?