The Man in Green Power Armour

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the entirety of the Halo series, including the ending of Halo 4. You have been warned.

So, the Halo 4 story has a lot of problems. The Chief still isn’t the deepest or most expressive character, the story doesn’t always do a great job of explaining itself, the plot-dump midway through from the Librarian feels a little inelegant and like a lot to take in at once, the Didact feels a little too Saturday morning cartoon villain for my tastes, and given that that Halo 1-3 was largely focused around stopping the Human-Covenant War, the almost immediate return of the Covenant in 4 feels like a bit of a cop-out. That being said, I think in many parts of the internet, there’s been a lack of focus on the strengths of Halo 4’s story, and how the events of Halo 4, if used correctly, really have the potential to positively shape the coming games.

The Stoic Hero

The Master Chief is powerful, recognisable, but not particularly emotive.

The obvious problem that has existed with the Master Chief as a character is the same one that has plagued many video game characters over the years, and indeed seems to be representative of a traditional problem with game narratives on the whole; It’s empowering to be the Chief, he comes across as a badass, he’s an iconic figure, but he goes through basically no character development, and has no real depth or personality beyond being a strong, silent killing machine. This often gives him a rather epic feel, but doesn’t make him particularly interesting to follow as a person.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t tell interesting stories about an emotionally devoid soldier, you can, but I think the best ways to do that involve exploring the origins and implications of the character being such a thing, and portraying it in at least a somewhat negative light, and that’s never been something the games have been particularly interested in. The Chief’s origins have remained rather untouched by the games, while the fact that the Chief is lacking humanity and solely purposed for war is something that the games have either shown an outright indifference to, or shown in a positive light as they build up the Chief’s “badass” image.

Outside of problems with the character of the Chief himself, the circumstances he finds himself in always seem to turn out a little too perfect for him. We’ve seen things slightly shaken up before, with him temporarily losing Cortana at the end of Halo 2, or ending up drifting through space at the end of Halo 3, but neither of these seemed like things that bothered him all that much. A character has to go through both triumph and turmoil to make their journey meaningful, and it seems that the Chief has gotten far more of one of these than the other. In fact, when the Chief doesn’t care about much in the world but getting his missions done, it’s hard for the writers to really create any situation in which it feels like he’s experiencing something negative.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Halo, and I feel a strong attachment to the Chief, but let’s be realistic, he’s not the best video game character ever. Halo 4 however, starts to show at least a glimmer of change, and a slight promise of some of the deep-rooted problems with the Chief being solved. A large part of this can be seen in the opening of the game, a scene in which a UNSC official starts to interrogate Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartans, on the program which created the Chief and the Spartans like him.

Green and Blue

It's no longer as simple as the Spartans just being the heroes.

History is often remembered as being a lot simpler and a lot more black-and-white than was actually the reality, and this is certainly shown to be the case with the Spartan program. While the Spartans are remembered as heroes and the tools by which the Human-Covenant War was ended, their origins were actually far more questionable, with them having been originally developed as a means to try and quell a human civil war. Here, for the first time we see a kind of moral ambiguity that just hasn’t reared its head in the Halo games to date.

We also see a Halo story which starts to suggest that maybe the emotional detachment of the Chief and Spartans like him, from other human beings, is a bad thing, in fact the officer interrogating Halsey points out that it’s downright sociopathic. After putting these elements into play I wish the game as a whole touched on them a little more, but with the way it’s been set up, I’d be surprised if we didn’t come back to them in later instalments.

When we return to the Master Chief and Cortana, the two are more or less the same people we’ve always known, but at the start of Halo 4’s second mission we see them both start to change as we learn of Cortana’s rampancy, and her inevitable death. This is by no means the first time Cortana has been in peril; after her aforementioned loss to the Gravemind at the conclusion of the second game, the Chief set out to save Cortana, believing she could play a vital role in stopping the Human-Covenant War. There the Chief proved to be right and was successful in his mission, but Halo 4 does something clever by presenting almost the same situation, only turned on its head.

Once again, Cortana is in danger, and once again, against the judgement of someone in some ways superior to himself (Cortana herself), the Chief refuses to accept defeat and insists on saving her, but the situation surrounding him is entirely different. This isn’t presented as an act of good faith and judgement on the Chief’s part, but instead appears somewhat futile. He starts bumping up against the hard rules of the Halo universe, and when Cortana is telling you you’re wrong about something, then there’s not a whole lot of chance you’re right.

The Chief’s Loss

In losing one character, 343 may be able to transform another.

At the conclusion of Halo 4, the Chief doesn’t end up with anything close to his previous idealised victories. He manages to stop the Didact, but for the first time in a Halo game, the Chief’s success comes at a significant cost to him. This time there’s bad with the good, and the Chief isn't just proven wrong about being able to save the person he worked so hard to help, but in the end it’s not even up to him whether she’s saved or not. He is disempowered, and far from coming out of the struggle with everything intact, he’s left in just about the worse position possible, as he’s lost the only other person he’s ever really had any strong connection with.

Not only does this give us a moment to see the Chief briefly display the kind of emotion that we never usually see from him, but more importantly post-Cortana’s death something she said still weighs heavily on his mind; that he may be more of a machine than a man. This is the same point that was touched on in the opening when the officer discussed the sociopathic tendencies of the Spartans, and throughout the game, as the rampant computer program Cortana ironically appeared more emotive than the human she was tied to, the Chief.

It’s all really going to depend how 343 play this over the next game or two, but if done right, this worry in Chief’s head could be the catalyst for a journey in which he and the characters around him explore his lack of emotion as a negative aspect of his character, and if handled especially well could lead to the transformation of the Chief into someone more human. The legendary ending seems to mirror this idea, as the last moment we see of the game involves us literally being shown a small part of the human Chief under the armour for the first time.

Duder, It’s Over

In all honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that 343 can make all the changes necessary to turn the Chief into a compelling character, and I understand that the worries of many people that the death of Cortana may lead to less emotive characters in the series and not more, but if they can pull this off correctly, the events of Halo 4 might be just what the series needed. Either way, as critical as I can get, I still believe the Halo canon is interesting, and I still have great fun with the games. Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping that 343 will do right with the upcoming instalments.

16 Comments
17 Comments
Posted by Gamer_152

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the entirety of the Halo series, including the ending of Halo 4. You have been warned.

So, the Halo 4 story has a lot of problems. The Chief still isn’t the deepest or most expressive character, the story doesn’t always do a great job of explaining itself, the plot-dump midway through from the Librarian feels a little inelegant and like a lot to take in at once, the Didact feels a little too Saturday morning cartoon villain for my tastes, and given that that Halo 1-3 was largely focused around stopping the Human-Covenant War, the almost immediate return of the Covenant in 4 feels like a bit of a cop-out. That being said, I think in many parts of the internet, there’s been a lack of focus on the strengths of Halo 4’s story, and how the events of Halo 4, if used correctly, really have the potential to positively shape the coming games.

The Stoic Hero

The Master Chief is powerful, recognisable, but not particularly emotive.

The obvious problem that has existed with the Master Chief as a character is the same one that has plagued many video game characters over the years, and indeed seems to be representative of a traditional problem with game narratives on the whole; It’s empowering to be the Chief, he comes across as a badass, he’s an iconic figure, but he goes through basically no character development, and has no real depth or personality beyond being a strong, silent killing machine. This often gives him a rather epic feel, but doesn’t make him particularly interesting to follow as a person.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t tell interesting stories about an emotionally devoid soldier, you can, but I think the best ways to do that involve exploring the origins and implications of the character being such a thing, and portraying it in at least a somewhat negative light, and that’s never been something the games have been particularly interested in. The Chief’s origins have remained rather untouched by the games, while the fact that the Chief is lacking humanity and solely purposed for war is something that the games have either shown an outright indifference to, or shown in a positive light as they build up the Chief’s “badass” image.

Outside of problems with the character of the Chief himself, the circumstances he finds himself in always seem to turn out a little too perfect for him. We’ve seen things slightly shaken up before, with him temporarily losing Cortana at the end of Halo 2, or ending up drifting through space at the end of Halo 3, but neither of these seemed like things that bothered him all that much. A character has to go through both triumph and turmoil to make their journey meaningful, and it seems that the Chief has gotten far more of one of these than the other. In fact, when the Chief doesn’t care about much in the world but getting his missions done, it’s hard for the writers to really create any situation in which it feels like he’s experiencing something negative.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Halo, and I feel a strong attachment to the Chief, but let’s be realistic, he’s not the best video game character ever. Halo 4 however, starts to show at least a glimmer of change, and a slight promise of some of the deep-rooted problems with the Chief being solved. A large part of this can be seen in the opening of the game, a scene in which a UNSC official starts to interrogate Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartans, on the program which created the Chief and the Spartans like him.

Green and Blue

It's no longer as simple as the Spartans just being the heroes.

History is often remembered as being a lot simpler and a lot more black-and-white than was actually the reality, and this is certainly shown to be the case with the Spartan program. While the Spartans are remembered as heroes and the tools by which the Human-Covenant War was ended, their origins were actually far more questionable, with them having been originally developed as a means to try and quell a human civil war. Here, for the first time we see a kind of moral ambiguity that just hasn’t reared its head in the Halo games to date.

We also see a Halo story which starts to suggest that maybe the emotional detachment of the Chief and Spartans like him, from other human beings, is a bad thing, in fact the officer interrogating Halsey points out that it’s downright sociopathic. After putting these elements into play I wish the game as a whole touched on them a little more, but with the way it’s been set up, I’d be surprised if we didn’t come back to them in later instalments.

When we return to the Master Chief and Cortana, the two are more or less the same people we’ve always known, but at the start of Halo 4’s second mission we see them both start to change as we learn of Cortana’s rampancy, and her inevitable death. This is by no means the first time Cortana has been in peril; after her aforementioned loss to the Gravemind at the conclusion of the second game, the Chief set out to save Cortana, believing she could play a vital role in stopping the Human-Covenant War. There the Chief proved to be right and was successful in his mission, but Halo 4 does something clever by presenting almost the same situation, only turned on its head.

Once again, Cortana is in danger, and once again, against the judgement of someone in some ways superior to himself (Cortana herself), the Chief refuses to accept defeat and insists on saving her, but the situation surrounding him is entirely different. This isn’t presented as an act of good faith and judgement on the Chief’s part, but instead appears somewhat futile. He starts bumping up against the hard rules of the Halo universe, and when Cortana is telling you you’re wrong about something, then there’s not a whole lot of chance you’re right.

The Chief’s Loss

In losing one character, 343 may be able to transform another.

At the conclusion of Halo 4, the Chief doesn’t end up with anything close to his previous idealised victories. He manages to stop the Didact, but for the first time in a Halo game, the Chief’s success comes at a significant cost to him. This time there’s bad with the good, and the Chief isn't just proven wrong about being able to save the person he worked so hard to help, but in the end it’s not even up to him whether she’s saved or not. He is disempowered, and far from coming out of the struggle with everything intact, he’s left in just about the worse position possible, as he’s lost the only other person he’s ever really had any strong connection with.

Not only does this give us a moment to see the Chief briefly display the kind of emotion that we never usually see from him, but more importantly post-Cortana’s death something she said still weighs heavily on his mind; that he may be more of a machine than a man. This is the same point that was touched on in the opening when the officer discussed the sociopathic tendencies of the Spartans, and throughout the game, as the rampant computer program Cortana ironically appeared more emotive than the human she was tied to, the Chief.

It’s all really going to depend how 343 play this over the next game or two, but if done right, this worry in Chief’s head could be the catalyst for a journey in which he and the characters around him explore his lack of emotion as a negative aspect of his character, and if handled especially well could lead to the transformation of the Chief into someone more human. The legendary ending seems to mirror this idea, as the last moment we see of the game involves us literally being shown a small part of the human Chief under the armour for the first time.

Duder, It’s Over

In all honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that 343 can make all the changes necessary to turn the Chief into a compelling character, and I understand that the worries of many people that the death of Cortana may lead to less emotive characters in the series and not more, but if they can pull this off correctly, the events of Halo 4 might be just what the series needed. Either way, as critical as I can get, I still believe the Halo canon is interesting, and I still have great fun with the games. Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping that 343 will do right with the upcoming instalments.

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Posted by big_jon

I like.

Posted by Colourful_Hippie

I have a bad feeling in the back of my mind that 343 is going to pull some serious fictional bullshit to try and bring Cortana back to life in the next couple of games, but I hope I'm wrong. I do agree with everything that you said and there's a huge potential for Chief's character development to go in some exciting new directions. All I know though is that no matter what they do with the fiction for the rest of the trilogy, I'm done with more Halo if I fucking have to fight more Covenant. I was already close to not tolerating their comeback in 4 and the extra new enemies didn't spice up the gameplay enough for my tastes. It was solid but fuck fighting more Covenant, that shit is just lazy.

Posted by laserbolts

Nice write up. Man that legendary ending had me freaking out. I was praying they didn't show his face and it came so close. It's going to be very weird not having Cortana giving you objectives from here on out. I can't remember but in Halo 4 did they ever eliminate any chance of the covenent appearing in the next game? I hope they finally ditch them and make a bunch of new stuff for Halo 5.

Posted by TheSouthernDandy

Nice blog. I really hope 343 follows through with making the Chief more of a character. They definitely took some great steps forward and they have two games to follow through on. I think they have the talent to make it work it's just a matter of how they implement it. Cortana being gone is pretty crazy I understand people who think she should stay gone but I kinda want her to come back as long as it makes sense the way they do it. She was the most fleshed emotional character of anybody in the game, some of the things they were doing with her facial expressions were amazing. Definite hats off to MacKenzie Mason and Jen Taylor they did an amazing job.

I kinda also don't wanna fight the Covies anymore but at the same time, I had way more fun fighting them then the Promethians. I liked the design of the new characters but fighting them just felt like a grind. I'd be fine if they weren't in the next one.

Edited by big_jon

Having taken the time to read the whole thing I do whole heartedly agree, Halo 4's story was interesting because of Chief and Cortana, and seeing Chief at the end of Halo 4 in the situation I though was quite powerful. He has never had a reaction like that to something and when you think that he has now literally lost every single person he ever cared about, aside from Halsey, or so he thinks, it really is quite sad. Dude has led a hard life, he almost seemed like he could unbuckle for the first time ever.

And to people asking for no Covenant in Halo onward, it is not going to happen, they are part of Halo, and its core. I for one am happy about that, Elites are still the most fun enemy in an FPS to fight in my eyes, Halo would not be Halo with out them.

How dull would Halo 4 have been if all we fought was Prometheans? The answer in most peoples eyes that I know would be pretty dull.

Posted by mrfluke

@Gamer_152: you should probably play spartan ops, now that they are halfway through the season, it really seems like the conflict side of the story is more on that mode

Posted by big_jon

@mrfluke said:

@Gamer_152: you should probably play spartan ops, now that they are halfway through the season, it really seems like the conflict side of the story is more on that mode

I am enjoying that aspect of the story, I was pretty happy to see Jul 'Mdama show up, and be represented as he was in the books. They even went through the detail of giving him light coloured skin because his origins location on Sangheilios.

Posted by mrfluke

@big_jon: yep, for better or worse, they are heavily drawing on the books for this game,

i just wish for the sake of people that havent read the books that they catered to them a bit, like have sarah when she meets chief in the campaign mention something about the storm covenant,

or have some sort of conversation between lasky and chief/cortana when they are back with the UNSC that explains the whole covenant situation and name drop Jul Mdama as the reason that a group of the covenant went rogue

Edited by big_jon

@mrfluke said:

@big_jon: yep, for better or worse, they are heavily drawing on the books for this game,

i just wish for the sake of people that havent read the books that they catered to them a bit, like have sarah when she meets chief in the campaign mention something about the storm covenant,

or have some sort of conversation between lasky and chief/cortana when they are back with the UNSC that explains the whole covenant situation and name drop Jul Mdama as the reason that a group of the covenant went rogue

Yeah I suppose, but Chief basicly says that those Covenant seem more fanatical than the previous ones, and it seems like your average Joe would not care about the details enough for it to matter to the that much.

I think it is great that they are leaning on the books but the reality is that just because I have read the books did not mean I was not lost in Halo 4's story the first time I played through it. The extended fiction does not make that games story that much easier to understand in truth, the issue was pacing and there was too much rushing through Cinematics for anything to be properly fleshed out. That is not an over reliance on the extended fiction, that is poor story exposition.

343 should in my opinion always put the people who love the franchise first, however that should not hinder the casual fan in terms of story, but this assumption that the books lay out Halo 4's story are false. I knew who the Didact and Librarian were, I how ever did not know their role in Halo 4 post launch aside from the fact that one was bad, and one was good., and that was an assumption, it was not laid out by the books.

Posted by mrfluke

@big_jon: but see ,2 things, 1st, lots of what ive been reading about peoples reactions to the single player were that they were disappointed and that it didnt give enough context. had a couple friends wanted to actually get into the halo story with this one, but they said it was too confusing.

2nd, i didnt even got a hold of chief saying something seems more fanatical with the covenant, and one of the big criticisms ive seen from critics was "why are we fighting the covenant again"

i think it is great that they are drawing on the books, but i do wish that they had spell it out more for other people, not just keep it all for the diehards that read the books like us.

but i think you nail the problem on the head though, that its poor story exposition. more than over reliance on the extended fiction.

and i think the poor story exposition leads me to what in my opinion is another problem with the story, at the end of this game, you are left with i think, a very thin idea of what to expect for the next game, like the personal conflict would be that the chief is pissed and he wants revenge on didact (which that dude most definitely survived, i refuse to believe that hes a one game character) but other than that its kinda up in the air for what to expect., the master builder could have more influence, the precursors could be a factor, the flood could be another factor. the whole "grey" origins of the spartans could come back into the fold.

im glad spartan ops name drops Jul Mdama and talks a bit on the covenant side of things, but i hope at the end of this season we get an idea of where things is going

Edited by big_jon

@mrfluke: Yeah, I agree. I hope that the next game has a more balanced and well told story, I also hope that they try some more interesting things with mission design. The Combat was solid as always, weapons were better than they have ever been, finally a usable AR, however what was lacking in my opinion was fun unique combat experiences not on rails "Epic" shit.

Where is our assaulting of a snowy Covenant base at night in a large open map. with Covenant patrols and the options to go around the enemy, go stealth, or go in guns blazing? Where are our escape sequence's that actually feel like you are running from something and your Warthog being the only thing keeping you alive. Not like the end of the past games I mean like Forward Unto dawn where you feel like you are running from a threat. More weather too, rain, snow, lightning. More open ended gameplay, let the sandbox do its thing, just give us unique ways to approach it, and immersive environments to do it in.

I mean I have ideas about what could be incredible missions in Halo 5, yet I fear the 343 will not do anything interesting enough with Halo 5's mission design to make it truly fun again. Halo 4 has some great missions, but really, I wanted more expanded combat scenarios, and environments, something where I really feel like I am doing things the way I want to do them. I hope Halo 5 has some ODST sprinkled in is, and some more varied environments. Also an AI that is seemingly more cunning on both allied and enemy sides, to keep me engaged.

Where the hell is this is in Halo 4?

Sorry for the rant, I have just been thinking about this a lot.

Edited by xMEGADETHxSLY

Read or listen to the fall of reach, there he is pretty much brainwashed to always complete his mission.

Posted by mrfluke

@big_jon: no worries, ive been thinking alot of this game as well, as it kinda has me worried for where they will be going next and that 343's cockiness could ultimately be the downfall of this franchise. as ultimately i feel this game largely gets the pass cause of the gunplay and the graphics. which its the best its been.

but i agree though the game lacked memorable event levels and i feel a bit of that is due to the way the music was used in this game. as it wasnt directed into the levels nowhere as good as the other games, like theres good music in this game, but i feel it didnt kick it at the right points not one bit. like i feel other than the design of the levels in past games, what really made those levels stand out, was that the right track kicked in at the right time. and you're all like FUCKING YEA when your fighting covenant

like they should have cued this track when you first wake up, or when you first meet the Prometheans but instead its used in a throwaway section of the game

they should have cued this track when your making the final push to deactivate the composer in the last level but instead you barely hear it when its being used. and you hear this track instead which imo doesnt fit for the final push in the last level, that track to me fits more when your on the elephant and ur jumping out of it with the jetpack and such.

to your next point, i feel that feeling of running from a threat and whatnot i dont think youill get from the covenant anymore, i think itill be with a new race of enemies, but as you read the books, i think for halo 5 youill certainly get another race or 2 of enemies added into the gameplay sandbox because as it is, the Prometheans were kinda ehh, i think they didnt use their abilities enough and just stood around more and shoot at you,

honestly i felt the crawlers changed up my tactics the most ( new races of enemies ill wager itill be actual forerunners, probably led by either the master builder or didact, or possibly the precursors will be the other race, i would have said flood, but it seems the internet hates the flood, so i bet they will do their best to not have those guys as enemies (which i loved those enemies as those were as enemies should be, a real threat) or heck, i bet if they really wanted to, they could drum up a way to have the didacts war sphinxes in the next games )

so if they play their cards right i think halo 5 could be kickass or like how me and you are worried, if they play it too safe again, halo 5 could be the one where they lose a lot of fans. i hope they evolve the mission design and make missions like what youve described (they also have a great macguffin with master chief getting some sort of forerunner power/insight from the librarian that if they wanted to, can do some cool flashback levels where you play as the didact during their war) , also judging from this games reception, i think 343 needs to pay attention to far cry 3s structure, and how it approaches its "freedom of choice, empowering fps gameplay" and integrate SOME of those ideas into halo 5

i think its still to early to doom over 343 with halo. cause at the end of the day. this was their first game, and they overhyped the hell out of it. and for the game thats supposed to be the start of a trilogy, it was kinda disappointing in that front.

Edited by big_jon

@mrfluke: I agree with so much of this, I thought that the music was great, the timing on some of it was meh but the largest issue was the volume! It was so quiet! I mean really, it ducked under the most dramatic points, I went back and played the first mission and at the end cranked up "Belly of the Beast" so you could actually feel it, it was 10x more amazing!

Oh and the running from the Covenant thing, I was also thinking about that, it is a shame that the Covenant do inspire as much fear as they once did, that is part of the reason I loved Forward Unto dawn, But I was thinking the chase sequence could be brought on by rescuing Halsey or another important character (Though Halsey would be perfect) from a Covenant camp, at night, in a Warthog, she is reeding, there is a great sense of urgency to get the hell out of there. Then boom, Hunter in the middle of the road, smashes its shield down on the hog, making it flip end over end! Boom! I literally have a mission planned out in my head that I want them to do.

And yeah, dude that flash back thing could be sick! If not over used at least. Oh and I was thinking it could be pretty awesome if Chief finds out they are holding Halsey captive and goes all Rambo to get her back, I thought one of the most awesome scenes in Halo 4 was this one, seeing Chief disobey orders, and protecting Cortana sent chills down my spine. Seeing him think for himself and knowing his bacily unlimited power was pretty great.

Posted by ZombiePie

I just realized that you spelled "armor" incorrectly in your blog title. 

Moderator
Posted by ChillyUK7

I enjoyed the story for the most part but I did feel they barely touched on exploring the Chiefs character, there were moments but it can be hard to get invested in what he's going through as his reaction to everything is 'let's keep going, we'll win' etc, it's admirable and in the case of saving Cortana it's sad to see him essentially being in denial but when thing's go wrong, and they do during the game he never shows even a glimer of frustration or anger, if at one point he let it rip, even for a moment players would feel for him and how he comes back from the brink would show more character than simply being level headed all the time.