Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Master Chief After Reach

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.

Master Chief is the hero of the universe, the ultimate bad-ass, capable of wiping out an entire armada of Covenant all on his own. He has already achieved legendary status by the time he comes out of cryo in the first Halo game. Regularly UNSC soldiers are awed and inspired by his very presence, and Covenant grunts fear him as a “demon.” Master Chief is so painfully awesome that he literally rides a broken chunk of spaceship through Earth’s atmosphere and lives to fight again. Bungie seems to deify Master Chief throughout the first three Halo titles. Yet Halo: Reach, along with ODST, manages to place Master Chief into a historical context that humanizes him while minimizing his role in the salvation of the galaxy.

Anyone with the faintest knowledge of Halo lore knows the fate of Reach (if not and you are spoiler sensitive, skip the next sentence). No Spartan soldier escapes Reach alive but Master Chief. The sacrifices made by the cast of Reach all contribute to, and are mostly necessary, for Master Chief’s later success. Similarly, the Chief is reliant on the success of the crew from Halo: ODST. If Vergil, the AI infused Huragok, had not been safely escorted by Sergeant Buck back to the UNSC, Seargeant Major Johnson would not have as much information to give to Master Chief regarding the Covenant’s plans for New Mombassa and information stored on their BattleNet.
Sergeant Buck also owes his survival to Noble Six and the Spartan soldiers of Reach, who escort him safely to his crew. Master Chief’s success is due indirectly to the work of his fellow Spartans. This is more directly the case concerning Noble Six’s mission to deliver Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn in Reach, the in which Master Chief is frozen in stasis. During a cut scene, Dr. Halsey emphasizes to Noble Six that Cortana chose her for the mission. This line inentionally mirrors Cortana’s statement to Master Chief in Halo 3: “They let me pick. Did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted.” In one way then, Cortana has actually picked two Spartans to carry the fate of mankind. Master Chief might not be so special after all.

The salvation of the galaxy absolutely relied upon Master Chief and Cortana working together. Once again, if it were not for Noble Six in Reach, Master Chief could never have defeated the Covenant and the Flood. Master Chief’s success depended on everyone who has sacrificed for him before the events of Halo 3. Arguably this has always been made clear in the earliest Halo titles - Master Chief is fighting a war after all. Yet it lacked the personal appeal. Halo: Reach forced me to reassess my perceptions of Master Chief. I now see him as one historically bound part, albeit a crucial part, of a far more expansive war. His success is not a validation of his godly abilities, but the completion of a moral duty he owed his fellow Spartans, making their deaths meaningful.
In many ways, Halo: reach retroactively makes Master Chief a more interesting and compelling character. I cannot help imagining what sort of camaraderie he may have had with Noble Six and other Spartan soldiers on Reach. With Reach, Bungie finishes off a piece of world building that perhaps should have been there from the beginning. It is a well executed adjustment of the franchise and hints at the narrative potential Bungie may draw upon when crafting their next series.


  1. Largely my take on it as well. The boot up sequence of Halo 1 is a lot more meaningful post-Reach. It tries to dump so much back-story in off-hand remarks and overtones and implications that I think for many people it failed to resonate. It ultimately is something of a failed "in media res" and it is interesting that the rushed prologue is more interesting and overall better as an expanded title.

    I am wondering if new players will have a much better view of the Halo story playing the series in chronological order (including possibly ODST before 3, and mayhaps Halo Wars split between several of the games). I think players that did that may better appreciate the storyline.

  2. To me Reach was pretty disappointing narratively.

    They had the chance at making a real good dramatic thing out of this, laden with pathos and foreboding but essentially Bungie went the way of turning it into paper thin cliches doubling as characters doing some stuff and then getting killed without even trying making me care about them.

    The retconned Cortana origin didn't help that either. Okay, given that was (probably, maybe have to replay HCE to confirm) "extended universe" stuff that might just be the Nerd Rage talking.

    Me I don't really need Reach in my Haloverse. I had fun playing it since the gameplay is good and solid (too little Sabre action and jetpacking though) but other than that it just offered too little.

    Halo always was so noteworthy to me as it managed to boil down some very neat hard scifi concepts into bits and pieces that could be used in a very broadly sellable popculture item without loosing (much) depth.
    Most of those concepts just no longer appear in Reach, or worse even, get flushed out and replaced with something else.

  3. Well, to add a completely nerd-ridden comment, I think that the novels really add a lot in fleshing out MC's character as well. "Master"ful pieces of literature they're not, but they do add a definite layer to the Halo universe that I think the games just can't convey. Having not played Reach, I really hope that they preserve some of the novel's carefully constructed universe elements, and not attempt to splice in some explainable Spartan characters (a la Force Unleashed...Starkiller? Really?)

    Part of what makes Master Chief so awesome is that he is THE Spartan; part of his persona and pysche is that of the leader and symbol. He's not Mr. Friendly because I think in a lot of ways he understands his meta-level impact on humanity as a whole and he knows that his actions have galaxy-wide implications.

  4. @ WorldMaker

    Spot on with your assessment of Halo 1's opening. Also,I was thinking the same thing re: playing in chronological order. I have a friend who has not played the series at all, so I think I'll suggest he plays Reach first and see what he thinks.


    I'm sorry you didn't like the story at all. I actually thought it was one of their best. Simplistic perhaps, but a well told tragedy. I guess strangely, I care about the characters because they represented more than what we were given narratively. I know their fate, and I know what they could have become (Master Chief), so maybe I put more into them than Bungie gave them initially. That being said, I think Bungie was aware we would do just that.

    @ Will

    I should read the novels at some point. I'm interested to see what Bungie would have included in the universe if they could have. Of all the expanded universe works connected to games (it seems every game has a comic book these days), I think Halo is probably one of the richest to draw from. When you get around to playing Reach, do let me know your thoughts.

  5. @Sebastian I don't think Cortana's involvement in Reach is a retcon. It conflicted with a couple of ideas I had about Cortana, but when I tried to source those ideas they turned out to be from fan speculation at best.

    @Will From what I've heard Reach fits well within the structure and timeline of Fall of Reach. Not having read it myself, I can only repeat the overheard Bon mot that the things that do conflict between the two accounts shouldn't be anything that will ruin the experience.

    @Jorge I agree that even if Halo's books aren't "true canon", they are still interesting for their direct interaction with the series bible. I do think I might read them at some point. I've been enjoying the Mass Effect novels for what they are. They've been interesting both from the involvement of the games' lead writer and the complications of dealing with a wildly branching universe. At I few points in the most recent Mass Effect novel I figured it would have been best as some sort of CYOA coded to Readers' Commander Shepard's actions. I assume that Halo's books are betterment the more linear plot universe, and the fact that Bungie's games have been great fun, but often poor storytelling devices. I say that as someone who often has the task of explaining FPS plots.

    Like I said, I'd love to hear if the chronological trip through Halo succeeds. You'll have to post if you talk your friend into the experiment.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. As someone who finished reading "The Fall of Reach" for the third time right after finishing the game, the ending of the game does make some major adjustments from the book.

    It irked me on my first playthrough, but the more I think about it. . . it works better in the game than what actually happened in the book.

    I'll leave it that vague so as to avoid spoilers.

  8. Awesome blog, do you have any more concept art?