Master Chief (Halo)

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Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy John-117
Halo character
Master Chief as he appears in Halo 5
The Master Chief as he appears in Halo 5 (2015)
First game Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Created by Bungie
Voiced by
Motion capture Bruce Thomas (Halo 4)
Portrayed by Daniel Cudmore (Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn)[2]

MCPON John-117, or "Master Chief", is a fictional character and the protagonist of the Halo fictional universe created by Bungie. Master Chief is a playable character in the series of science fiction first-person shooter video games: Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4, and Halo 5: Guardians. Outside video games, the character appears in novels— Halo: The Fall of Reach, Halo: The Flood, Halo: First Strike, and Halo: Uprising —and has cameos in other Halo media, including Halo: Reach, Halo: Ghosts of Onyx, The Halo Graphic Novel, Halo Legends and Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.

The character is a towering and faceless biochemically and cybernetically-enhanced supersoldier, raised and trained from an early age to be a weapon; he is almost never seen without his green-colored armor and helmet. He is commonly referred to by his naval rank, rather than his given birth-name or serial-designation. The character is voiced by Steve Downes, a Chicago disc jockey, in the video games in which he appears. Downes based his personification of the Chief on an initial character sketch which called for a Clint Eastwood-type character of few words.

The Master Chief is a video game icon, a relative newcomer among more established franchise characters, such as Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft. The character has received a mostly positive reception. While some have described the Chief's silent and faceless nature as a weakness of the character, other publications have suggested these attributes better allows players to assume his role.

Character design

File:Masterchief sheik.png
Shi Kai Wang's preliminary sketch of the Master Chief in Halo: Combat Evolved

The task of developing Master Chief for the character's first appearance in Halo: Combat Evolved fell on Rob McLees and the project's art director, Marcus Lehto. Eventually, Shi Kai Wang was hired for conceptual art.[3] One of Wang's sketches was accepted and became the basis for the Master Chief; however, after Wang's version was converted to a 3-D model, it was decided the character looked too slender, "almost effeminate".[3] The Master Chief was subsequently bulked up to the version currently found in the games.[3] Similarly, the Chief's armor went through various changes, such as the addition of an antenna, which was removed later in development, and a green tint.[4]

In an interview on creating believable video game characters, Bungie's Joseph Staten noted that, "Master Chief is really what kicked off the creativity," he said, "in terms of how people react to him. He's a space Marine in really cool green armor."[5] The character's perspective changed as the game itself changed from a real-time strategy game to a first-person shooter, but the Chief was always intended to be a soldier in the last part of a long and bitter war. For much of the game's development, the character had no name.[6] The developers spent time considering what rank and branch of the armed forces the Chief would belong to—naval ranks grabbed them as "different" from ones the developers had heard of before. "Master Chief" was intended to be a placeholder while a real name was finalized, but the moniker stuck.[7]

Downes, who voices the Master Chief, is a disc jockey and voice actor who had never played video games before Halo.[8] Downes only previous experience with video game voice work was a small part for Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator. During production of Halo, Martin O'Donnell, Bungie's music director, recommended Downes for the part of the Chief based on his experience working on Septerra.[9] Downes never interviewed for the part, describing his acceptance as "a phone call".[1] For years Downes never appeared at Bungie or Microsoft events and believed that the Master Chief is left masked because "[the character's identity] is really in the eye of the player".[8]



Downes said that his voicing for Master Chief was based entirely on Bungie's written character description provided, which specified a character similar to Clint Eastwood and of few words. In a podcast interview, the actor noted that, during the recording, he was given a fair amount of creative leeway to develop the Chief's personality.[8] In the games, Master Chief never speaks during player-controlled gameplay, making him an almost silent protagonist. Even during cut scenes, the character generally speaks sparingly. Bungie Studios' Frank O'Connor has described the Chief as "so quiet and so invisible, literally, that the player gets to pretend they're the Chief. The player gets to inhabit those shoes [and] apply their own personality."[10] Bungie concept artist Eddie Smith described Master Chief as "pretty much the consummate professional. He does his job, walks off, doesn't even get the girl, he's that cool he doesn't need her."[11] Although the Master Chief is usually depicted as calm, quiet, and wryly cynical, some reviewers stated that Eric Nylund's portrayal of the character in Halo: The Fall of Reach deviates significantly from the treatment found in the games and other media.[12][13] Alternatively, William C. Dietz's portrayal of the Chief in Halo: The Flood was occasionally blasted by fans as too radical a departure from Nylund's template.[14]

Initially, the very existence of the SPARTAN project and thus John's existence, was categorised as classified information. Many within the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), who were aware of this information, were strongly opinionated against the project, as the SPARTAN unit's proven versatility elevated them into direct competition with role-dedicated, established units. Since John emerged as the most exemplary Spartan from among the unit, he became the natural target of their sentiments. Antonio Silva, an officer from one such unit (ODSTs), exemplifies this attitude,[15] and considers the Master Chief the freak product of an experiment that should never be repeated. Although the Chief resents Silva's dishonor to his fallen comrades' memory, he is also loyal to the chain of command, and remains quiet.[16] Following the partial declassification of the SPARTAN project, John's heroic achievements caused the overall sentiment to lean in his favor. Despite these explorations of the character's personality, O'Connor said in an interview that revealing the face of the Chief is not as important as revealing the events going on around the character.[10]

The Master Chief has a close relationship with the artificial intelligence construct Cortana, whom he meets just prior to the fall of the human colony Reach before the events of Combat Evolved. Cortana was created as a game design requirement to guide the character as Master Chief throughout the game world, but she became an important aspect of revealing the Chief's humanity. "Over time, Cortana became a fully realized character—a friend and companion to the Chief, not to mention the only person to poke revealing holes in his tough-guy exterior," Staten recalled. The game designers also crafted the player experience of the first game to focus on abandonment and loneliness in many levels, as it reinforced the plot point that many of the Chief's friends were killed before the game began.[6]

Outward appearance

Steve Downes, voice actor who portrays Master Chief at Otakuthon in Montreal, Quebec.

In the video games, the Master Chief is rarely seen without his armor. In-game cutscenes tease the character's face, but never reveal it; for example, at the end of Halo: Combat Evolved, the Chief removes his helmet, but camera movement hides his head. Bungie says this helps the gamer fully assume his character.[17] At the end of Halo 4, Master Chief's eyes are briefly shown when he removes his armor and helmet. One physical description of the adult Master Chief comes from the novels. During a briefing scene in Halo: The Flood, the Chief is described as tall with short hair, serious eyes, and strong features. His skin is "too white", a consequence of spending most of his time in his armor.[16] The Master Chief stands about seven feet (2.13 m) tall and weighs 1,000 pounds (450 kg) in armor;[18] without it, he stands six feet, seven inches (2 m) tall and weighs 287 pounds (130 kg).[19][20]


Halo: The Fall of Reach

The Master Chief's backstory is never explained in the games. A prequel of Halo: Combat Evolved, the 2001 novel The Fall of Reach, reveals much of the character's history and was released as a companion to the game. Master Chief, originally named John, was born in 2511 and first lived with his family on the human colony planet Eridanus II. Large for his six years of age, and approximately a foot above his school peers, he is described as a typical boy with brown hair, freckles and a gap between his two front teeth.[19] In 2517, John and dozens of children his age are covertly taken from their homes and replaced with clones to hide the kidnapping. The original children are brought to the planet Reach, one of the UNSC's bastions, to begin intense physical and psychological training to become "Spartan-II" supersoldiers.[19] They are assigned new identification numbers instead of last names; John becomes known as John-117. Approximately eight years later, John and the other children are biologically and cybernetically augmented and enhanced. These procedures have substantial risks;[19] only John and thirty-two other Spartans survive.[19]

After the Spartans' first successful operation, John-117 is briefed on the threat posed by the Covenant, a theocratic alliance of alien races, and witnesses the utter devastation wrought by a single ship.[19] In 2552, the Chief and Spartans return to Reach, where the UNSC High Command has developed a last-ditch plan to capture a Covenant High Prophet, who they hope could be used in order to barter a truce.[19] The Master Chief's armor is upgraded, and he first encounters the artificial intelligence (AI) Cortana during a training mission.[19] The Covenant arrive and invade, despite the best efforts of the Spartans and other UNSC forces. Aboard the spaceship Pillar of Autumn, Cortana plots a random course of escape.[21] Seemingly the last Spartan alive, the Master Chief enters cryonic sleep along with the Pillar of Autumn's crew.

Halo: Combat Evolved

Master Chief first appears in the games as the protagonist of Halo: Combat Evolved and the 2003 novelization, Halo: The Flood. During the opening cinematic of Halo: Combat Evolved, the Chief is awakened from cryonic sleep. Upon exiting slipspace, the Pillar of Autumn is attacked by the Covenant and crash lands on Halo, a ring-shaped megastructure. Master Chief escapes the ship via an escape pod. Upon landing on Halo, his first task is to find other survivors. While fighting the Covenant, Master Chief and Cortana learn that Halo was created by an ancient race, the Forerunners, as a last line of defense against an alien parasite called the Flood.[22] The Covenant accidentally release the Flood, which begins to spread across the ring.[23] At the request of the installation's resident AI 343 Guilty Spark, Master Chief retrieves the Index, a device used to activate Halo's defenses and eliminate the Flood. However, Guilty Spark neglects to inform the Master Chief that Halo would accomplish this by destroying all sentient life in a vast radius, essentially starving the Flood to death.[22] Cortana intervenes to prevent the activation of Halo. She and the Master Chief destroy it[24] by detonating the Pillar of Autumn's fusion reactor core. The Master Chief and Cortana escape in a Longsword spacecraft, believing they are the only survivors.[16][25]

First Strike and Halo 2

Halo: First Strike, the 2003 novel by Eric Nylund, follows the Master Chief after the events of Halo: Combat Evolved and bridges the events of Halo and Halo 2. Floating in Halo's debris field, Cortana and the Chief discover that there are in fact other human survivors.[15] The Master Chief and these soldiers capture the Covenant flagship Ascendant Justice, and return to Reach to save any UNSC survivors on the planet. At Reach, the Master Chief discovers that the Covenant had not destroyed the planet's biosphere in the usual manner, and that a few other Spartans survive. The Chief retrieves Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey, the creative genius behind the SPARTAN-II Project, and his fellow soldiers. The Spartans then attack a massive Covenant command station, the Unyielding Hierophant, thus delaying a Covenant assault on Earth.[15]

The Master Chief returns as one of two playable characters in Halo 2, the 2004 sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Returning to Earth with heavily damaged armor, the Master Chief receives an upgrade. Aboard Cairo Station in space, he attends a brief awards ceremony, which is interrupted by a Covenant invasion. Master Chief is commanded to protect the station.[26] The Covenant is repelled, and the Master Chief joins the ship In Amber Clad to fight the Covenant on Earth's surface, in New Mombasa. As the Covenant departs via slipspace, the In Amber Clad follows them to Installation 05, another Halo. The Master Chief lands on this Halo and subsequently assassinates the Covenant High Prophet of Regret. Emerging from a structure, the Master Chief is attacked by orbiting Covenant forces, but is rescued by the Gravemind, an intelligence of Flood origin. The Gravemind sends him to High Charity to search for Delta Halo's Index.[27] Subsequently, the Master Chief boards a Forerunner ship bound for Earth, intending to "finish the fight".

Halo 3

Back on Earth, the Master Chief helps to repel hostile Covenant forces from Mombasa, Kenya and Voi. With the Arbiter (a Covenant Elite who has sided with humanity) and fellow allies, the Chief leads the assault on a Forerunner artifact that the Covenant Prophet of Truth is attempting to activate. Soon after Truth escapes Earth through the slipspace portal opened by the artifact, the Flood lands on Earth.[28] After helping to control the infestation, the Master Chief follows Truth to the Ark, an immense constructed world more than 262,144 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy and well beyond the range of any Halo.[29][30] There, all the Halos can be remotely activated, thus killing all sentient life that could be infested by the Flood.[22] It is discovered that a new Halo is being constructed to replace the one that the Master Chief destroyed in Halo: Combat Evolved. The Flood follow the Chief to the Ark, bringing High Charity through the slipspace portal to escape the range of the six original Halos. The allied Elites and humans decide to activate the new Halo in order to kill the Flood outside the galaxy, and thus preserve life there. 343 Guilty Spark opposes the premature activation of the incomplete installation and attempts to stop it. Master Chief destroys him, activates the ring, and escapes with Cortana and the Arbiter on the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn. During the escape, the collapsing slipspace portal severs the Dawn in two, stranding Cortana and the Master Chief deep in space. While the Arbiter returns to Earth, Cortana activates a distress beacon, knowing that rescue could take years; the Master Chief enters cryonic sleep, telling Cortana, "Wake me, when you need me." If the player finishes the last level on Legendary difficulty, a cutscene shows the severed half of the ship floating near an unknown planet.[31]

Halo 4

Master Chief awakens from the cryo-pod he entered at the end of Halo 3 within the Forward Unto Dawn. The Covenant are invading the ship and Master Chief fights his way outside as the frigate crash lands on a Forerunner shield world. He survives the fall and awakens inside the shield world without serious injury. There, while fighting the shield world's defensive AI which Cortana identifies as "Prometheans", he encounters the Didact, an antagonistic Forerunner who plans on using a Forerunner artifact called The Composer to turn humanity into digital data. Master Chief manages to foil his plans by delivering a HAVOK nuclear warhead inside the Didact's ship and detonating it, while the increasingly rampant Cortana protects him with a hard light barrier before fading away leaving the Chief mourning her loss.

Other appearances

The Master Chief has appeared or has been referenced several times in non-canon media. He is mentioned several times in Rooster Teeth Productions' Halo-based machinima parody series Red vs. Blue. In the first episode of the series, Grif, talking to teammate Simmons, says, "I signed up to fight some aliens. Next thing I know, Master Chief blows up the whole Covenant Armada, and I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere, fighting a bunch of blue guys."[32] In the Halo Zune exclusive video titled "Turn On, Tune In, Zune Out", Doc has a segment on his radio broadcast called "You're not Master Chief, and that's okay".[33][34] Team Ninja approached Bungie Studios and asked to use the Master Chief in their 2006 video game Dead or Alive 4. Although the Chief could not be used due to storyline restrictions, Bungie's interest in the idea resulted in the development of Nicole (Spartan-458).[35]

Marketing for Halo 3 focused heavily on the character of the Master Chief, including "The Museum",[36] and appears in the subsequent video as part of a special advertisement series for Halo 3 entitled "Believe in a Hero".[37] The character appears outside Halo fandom and associated works; a medieval variation of the Master Chief's MJOLNIR armour appears in Fable II, as the suit of armour worn by a legendary hero named "Hal". Hal's Armour only appears as downloadable content.[38]

Peter David's graphic novel Helljumpers contains a cameo by the Master Chief "before he actually was [the Chief]."[39] The Master Chief appears as a main character in Marvel's limited series Halo: Uprising, which ties together the events of Halo 2 and Halo 3.[40] The Master Chief appears in four episodes of the 2010 anime collection Halo Legends: "The Package", "Origins", "Homecoming" and "Odd One Out".

Master Chief can be seen briefly at the end of the Halo: Reach campaign. When moving the right analog stick at the proper time during a cutscene, he can be seen in his cryo-tube, ready to be revived at the beginning of Combat Evolved.[41]

In 2008, Neill Blomkamp, director of the delayed Halo film, said the film would have depicted the character as "the most important supporting cast member" because of his faceless nature. Instead, "other characters around him [...] did most of the emotional heavy lifting", with their story exploring their perception of the Chief.[42]

Influences and analysis

IGN saw in the Master Chief elements of Jon 6725416, a character in Christopher Rowley's novel Starhammer.[43] Other reviewers have suggested that the name John-117 could be a Biblical reference.[12][43] Michael Nitsche of the Georgia Institute of Technology found similarity to Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of Valve Corporation's Half-Life series of FPS video games: "[Both characters] are the independent, individualistic, and often lonely heroes that gain admiration by constantly proving their superiority ... in technology-driven, hostile, often closed spaces".[44]

Roger Travis, associate professor of classics at the University of Connecticut, compared the Master Chief to the epic hero Aeneas, in that both superhuman characters save a civilization by defeating strong enemies in a martial setting. The audience is intended to identify with the protagonist similarly in both stories.[45] Matthew Stover compared Halo to the Iliad, saying that both stories share the meta-theme that "war is the crucible of character". As military science fiction, Halo further raises the issue of being human.[46] Stover argued that, since players are to imagine themselves as the Master Chief, the character is correctly presented as a cyborg, neither a flawless machine nor fully human. Players would be unable to empathize with the former, and the latter would be too specifically developed.[46] This immersion has facilitated the use of the Halo series' multiplayer mode for live digital puppetry, as in Chris Burke's machinima talk show This Spartan Life.[47]

Cultural impact


A cosplayer portraying Master Chief at the Atlanta Dragon Con parade in 2011.

BusinessWeek listed the Master Chief among several video game characters who have been branded beyond their respective video games, "helping them transcend the very medium in the process".[48] The Master Chief has been used in marketing on a variety of products, from 7-Eleven Slurpees to T-shirts, Xbox 360 controllers, and Mountain Dew.[49][50]

Several action figures of the character have been created to market of the Halo series; the most recent were manufactured by McFarlane.[51] One2One collectibles produced 1:2 scale busts of the Master Chief.[52] These actions have been called necessary to the game franchise; Ed Ventura, director of Xbox's worldwide marketing, said, "We want to be in the hearts and minds of our fans as much as we can."[53]


In an article in Time, Lev Grossman stated that the Master Chief represents a "new kind of celebrity for a new and profoundly weird millennium" and is a symbol of the increasing legitimacy of video games as an art form.[17] Asher Moses of The Sydney Morning Herald simply described the Chief as "iconic".[54] Electronic Gaming Monthly and Empire wrote that the Master Chief had become the de facto symbol for the Xbox and for a new generation of gamers to boot.[55][56] The recognition of the Master Chief has spread to mainstream culture; Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas has developed a wax sculpture of the Chief. At the ceremony, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy said that "the Master Chief is as much of a hero today as characters like Spider-Man, Frodo, and Luke Skywalker were for previous generations."[57] Downes only realized his character was such a huge hit after children lined up around the block for his autograph about a year after the game shipped.[1]

Reaction to the Master Chief as a character is mixed. Some reviewers see the character's silent nature as a strength;[12] others have said that this quality leaves him insufficiently developed and not believable.[58][59] UGO ranked the Master Chief at number eight on its 2007 list of top heroes of all time", ahead of fellow video game characters Samus Aran, Link, and Gordon Freeman.[60] In 2009, GameDaily listed the "strong and silent type" among top 25 video game archetypes, using Master Chief as an example.[61] Master Chief was also ranked number eight in Empire's list of the greatest video game characters.[62] In 2009, GamesRadar included him among the 25 best new characters of the decade.[63] UGO listed Master Chief's "trademark" helmet in its 2011 list of the coolest helmets and headgear in video games.[64] In 2012, GamesRadar ranked him as the eight "most memorable, influential, and badass" protagonist in games, commenting: "Chief isn't the strongest or most crafty hero, and he isn't particularly charismatic or intelligent or playful. But when civilization is on the line and all other options have been exhausted, Chief is the guy who's going to get you through."[65] In 2013, Complex ranked him as the second greatest soldier in video games.[66]

Conversely, in listing the top ten choices for most overrated video game characters, IGN placed the Master Chief first, suggesting that the real appeal of the games was not their protagonists but the multiplayer mode.[67] In another listing of the top ten video game characters that needed to die, IGN suggested that the dramatic death of the character could be one of the most powerful events in gaming.[68] Cheat Code Central featured him in the 2011 list of top ten most overrated video game characters for being "rather bland."[69]


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