Mastering the Chief: The Evolution of Halo’s Iconic Hero

The past, present, and future of one of the most famous faces in gaming.

If you only ever played the first Halo game, Halo: Combat Evolved, you’d be forgiven for thinking the franchise has a rather one-note protagonist. From the outset, Master Chief appears as just another typical military commando, but if you dig deeper you’ll discover a whole host of weird facts and lore about him, both in-universe and in the cultural sphere. It’s through that depth that Master Chief has become a beloved industry figurehead and a constantly evolving character, one that 343 Industries tells me is still very much a work in progress.

A lot changed during the development of the original Halo. The first public footage for the game, which at that point had gone through a wide variety of titles such as The Santa Machine, Solipsis, The Crystal Palace, Hard Vacuum and more before finally setting on Halo (though the ‘Combat Evolved’ subtitle came later), appeared at a Macworld Conference in 1999. While it prominently displayed the Master Chief, it didn’t give much information. He was clad in green armor, and he was clearly respected by his peers (at one point, Chief runs past a set of Marines that nod at him and seem to regard him as a superior), but beyond that there was nothing else to go on. Master Chief’s characteristics and name came later in the game’s creation,  making the Master Chief into something more than what was initially planned.

A year and a half later, Microsoft bought Bungie and took the game away from Apple. Bungie started to work in-house with Microsoft, developing the game specifically for them rather than the Mac build they’d been working on. It’s been reported in several news stories from the time that Steve Jobs himself was so furious that Microsoft had dared to poach such a huge title, that he called then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to complain.

“[Jobs] was mad at Ballmer and phoned him up and was angry because we’d just bought the premier Mac game developer and made them an Xbox developer.” said Ed Fries, former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, in a 2010 interview with Develop.

Over the next year and a half, Bungie worked on Halo: Combat Evolved closely with Microsoft, designing it specifically for Microsoft’s new console while changing very little about Master Chief. He was a stoic, unapologetic badass, with a very thin level of character. There were no deep emotions, no secret motives, no real relationships to speak of. Of course, there was one key difference by the time Halo: Combat Evolved released: it was no longer a third-person game. Now, it was a first-person shooter called Halo: Combat Evolved. 

In a recent interview on IGN’s Unfiltered podcast, Marcus Lehto, creator of Master Chief, said, “When I first moved out and joined Bungie and started working there onsite, it was just Jason [Jones, co-founder of Bungie] and myself working on the very origins of [the project …] the strategy game that was skinned with a sci-fi theme. Even at that time, there was a character that we called ‘The Super Soldier,’ and that Super Soldier was the very root of what became the Master Chief.” 

The seed that was Master Chief was planted right at the beginning, with his character and his mannerisms coming later. Halo was the result of a series of evolutions, a combination of what the industry had learned about first-person shooters up until that point, mixed with the new ideas that Bungie had. Gone was the era of Doom and of Wolfenstein, and in its stead appeared an era of rechargeable shields, science fiction backdrops and the advent of the future of gaming. Master Chief is much more of a symbol of hope for those around him than he is his own character, yet as a character he offers insight into the military establishment and the futility of eternal warfare.

Throughout the series, Master Chief would develop a rather close bond with his A.I. companion Cortana, and this has gone on to inform the character throughout the entire Halo series. The two treat each other as equals — confidants even — which isn’t something Chief does often. We start to see deeper meaning to Chief, and proof he isn’t a robotic soldier without a heart, to the point that their relationship is the focus of 343’s first outing into the Halo universe with Halo 4.  

Fans became invested in the pair’s relationship not only due to how they interact, but because they bring out new qualities and traits in one another. It’s something that’s been teased even more with Halo Infinite’s marketing campaign revolving around Chief’s search for Cortana. All of this information is retroactively added to Halo and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole host of different Halo novels that are all considered canon to the mainline series, several of which add character traits and layers to the Chief that we’ve simply never seen in the game. Did you know that the Forerunners love hats?

An Infinitely Evolving Protagonist

343 Industries took over the reins of the Halo franchise in 2009 after Bungie decided to move onto new projects, and with 2012’s Halo 4 it started its legacy. Yet as we head into Halo Infinite, 343 is looking to the past for inspiration.

“I see Master Chief as an unstoppable force of hope,” Associate Creative Director Paul Crocker tells Fanbyte. “We’ve used the term internally of ‘Super Soldier Base Assault’ when developing Halo Infinite, which is our way of creating environments that only the Master Chief could deal with and all of that really sums up being Chief to me. He works as well as a silent hero as he does a chatty one. He’s all things to all people; people see different things in him.” 

To Crocker and the rest of the team at 343 Industries, Master Chief means a lot of things, not all of them agreed upon by the community at large. Over the years, we’ve seen changes in Chief’s personality and how he’s characterized, and 343 Industries recognizes that they must find creative ways to rein in older fans. As fans became disillusioned with the new direction of the series, Halo Infinite was meant to bring back the Master Chief they grew up with. “We made a decision that we wanted to dial back some of the way Chief had been in Halo 4 and Halo 5 … to be more like the Chief of Halo 1 through 3,” Crocker says. “You, the player, inhabit that armor. So my personal belief is we didn’t want to tell people how to feel, because you may just want to feel like a badass — you may want to feel like a hero that is bringing hope to the universe. You may just be diving in for a few minutes of playing the game.”

When discussing personal interpretations of Master Chief, it’s impossible to not mention how, in the 20-year long history of the Halo franchise, players have never seen the face of John-117. (Sure, there’s a bonus cutscene in the ending of Halo 4 — provided you beat the game on Legendary difficulty — that shows a close-up of a pair of sunken eyes, but you don’t really see him.).Crocker is acutely aware of this, and of how it would be impossible to please everyone by showing them what’s under that helmet. He notes that when people think of Halo, and when people think of that legendary Spartan armor, they connect to it on a deeply nostalgic level — something that 343 Industries has tried to replicate with Halo Infinite.

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“One of our goals with Halo Infinite has always been to rekindle the emotional connection that players have had with Halo over the last 20 years,” Crocker explains. “What that means is that there’s a bit of everything here, but at the core, it’s the Halo you remember from Combat Evolved. That applies not only to Chief, but to the gameplay and experience as well.”

Infinite begins with a “very slow burn,” Crocker explains, because 343 Industries wanted to build a world so hopeless that the Master Chief’s presence would “really matter.” 

“The moment where we saw the first pre-vis of the Space Walk sequence we showed over the summer, in which you move through space and collect weapons really clicked for me and felt like a distillation of Chief,” he says.

There’s no story like that of Master Chief, especially in modern gaming. It’s common for a character to be given extra depth post debut, with examples including Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil coming to mind, yet this is a success story for the ages. From Bungie to 343, every Halo game adds new depth to the character. Master Chief is a unique time capsule —a representation of a pivotal creative period in gaming — and yet his evolution is far from over.