Master Chief: The Single Most Boring Protagonist in History

He's considered an iconic main character in the world of video games, but...WHY?


I bought the original Xbox for Halo (as most people did) and I've played every franchise entry since.

I haven't been as impressed with recent installments but they're still worthy shooters that are, at the bare minimum, mildly entertaining. At best, they offer memorable gaming moments that I wouldn't trade for anything.

At the same time, I think we all have to admit that the protagonist, Master Chief, has got to be one of the most boring main characters in the history of video games. Sure, we had some one-dimensional, faceless protagonists back in the day - back when gaming was basically one-dimensional to begin with - but these days, we expect more.

Aren't we supposed to care about the lead character?

I'm pretty sure we are. And yet, dating back to the original Halo, I've never cared a fig about what happens to this guy. If we're really reaching, we could say he's the strong, silent type; the kind of hero that gets things done, regardless of any emotion or internal conflict he faces. Okay, I can go with that. The problem is that the writers have never really given Master Chief a chance to shine.

None of the plots spend much time on the main character, if any. This is why it always felt like I was guiding a disembodied gun around the screen. Protagonists have to stand out in some way. They have to be likable or villainous, or they have to be sympathetic. Good protagonists make us want to turn the page, or in this case, advance to the next area. We want to see what happens to that person; we don't just want to see what he or she does.

I wouldn't care if Master Chief dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow. What's that say?

Zero personality = 'yawn'

He doesn't have to fit a certain stereotype but he does have to be something other than a robot. Look at the main characters of today. They typically have well-developed personalities, even if the writing isn't always top-notch. You may not like Nathan Drake's persona but at least he has one. In one of my favorite Xbox games, Alan Wake, we felt for the main character because we wanted to know what was happening to him. Is he just crazy or is the world really imploding all around him?

With the main character in Halo, we don't really care about much. That's the fault of the writers, and this lacking is most visible in Master Chief's nonexistent personality. Again, maybe "strong and silent" can be considered a personality but if so, it's probably the most boring one you can imagine. I mean, he talks every now and then but has he ever expressed an emotion? If he has, I must've missed it.

Put him in an RPG and I lose interest in an hour

Good thing Master Chief is in a shooter, a genre that doesn't typically boast the most compelling stories and character development. Had he been part of a much more robust and intricate script, he would've made for the most ho-hum character in all of entertainment, let alone video games. I'm not saying the Halo protagonist needed to be as well-defined as some of the characters we've seen in story-driven role-playing games, but you get my point.

The problem here is that we can't really connect with the character. To some, that may not matter. And hey, I've played all the Halos, right? So obviously, it didn't matter much to me. But just think how much more appealing these games would've been had Bungie taken the time to give Master Chief even the slightest hint of a personality...

It's a missed opportunity, plain and simple. You can only survive on the "enigma" label for so long, you know. After a while, you start to realize that he isn't an enigma at all. He's a drone.

Originally Published Apr. 21st 2014
Disqus Comments
GameSkinny Comments
  • Jacob_3561
    I really have to disagree with you. I don't know how old you are but I assume you know how traditional shooters worked in the early 2000s. Developers at the time thought it would entice gamers if the protagonists were faceless and silent so gamers could feel as if they are them instead of its own character. Master Chief is a prime example (Master Chief only spits out cheezy one liners, never contributes real dialogue). You also fail to take in the books on the halo universe. If you've ever read them, you'd know that Master Chief as well as fellow Spartans are far from boring. Bungie has always had a weird design choice when it came to it's games where they never focus on the main character and more on whats happening in the world around them(Halo Reach is an example and most likely Destiny will be too). 343i has taken a drastic step with halo 4 to make Master Chief more human. It becomes real noticeable when Cortana dies.
  • jonathan.heng.10
    No one care about the book.
  • jonathan.heng.10
    Also boo Cortana and Master Chief
  • John_8987
    Read Halo: The Fall of Reach and Halo: The Flood, and you'll think differently.
  • Delta Squad Reaper
    To those little kiddies attacking fathoms, do you have any experience in this field? Do you not know what opinions are? Look at IGN, they constantly get shit for being xbox humpers. You claim that this site is in its entirety an xbox hating, troll infested sandbox. Yet I am pretty sure you have been here for less than two days and haven't even begun your adventure. Just calm down and stop being a keyboard warrior. Thank you!
  • Corbow6
    I have immersed myself pretty heavily within the Halo universe recently, and I've come to this conclusion, the story isn't about Master Chief. Hear me out because obviously being your Avatar, John is pretty important, but truly the main protagonist is Cortana. She's the one that originally picks John out of all the other Spartan candidates, and she is the one that essentially sets in motion all the events that play out throughout the series. Why do you think that all the Spartans are intertwined with their own AI? I do believe the Spartans serve simply as vessels for the AI programs that guide their decision.
  • Cortalia
    If Cortana is the main character I'd like to agree but can't because mainly due to the point that they killed her off in Halo 4 (insert a line of swears that would make the National lampoons family Christmas blush here).

    So what of the upcoming Halo 5, the clip I've seen clearly shows Master Chief holding an empty AI card... so are they going to somehow re-invent that game to actually have Master Chief shift into the protagonist role? Have a New AI fill Cortana's shoes, or somehow bring her back? ... we'll have to wait to find out.

    Then again, seeming as you spend the vast majority of Halo 3 chasing after Cortana... I still really can't see her being labelled as the games main protagonist.
  • Cortalia
    I will agree that the master chief as told in the games... is kind of a dull protagonist, you really need to get into the novels to really understand him. however its also part of his character design, although he's the ideal soldier its because he is at his core "broken". But they games again really don't delve too far into it.

    In fact Cortana drew in more attention, at least she had humorous quips throughout their adventures, and usually if Master Chief did say something, its because she provoked it out of him.

    My favorite Halo so far is Reach, followed by ODST, since in those games you really get a feel for the groups dynamic and each spartan or ODST member has his or her own unique personality. I'll play though the Reach campaign before halo 4 any day.
  • Mikhail_8393
    The way I see it, Master Chief is a Spartan, trained as a soldier since he was a child, trained so that emotion is cast aside when it comes to his duties. In other game genres, it might not work, but in an FPS it does. The problem is the continuation of it all. You can't really build a franchise of games on the one character, even if it's an FPS (in this day and age, as pointed out by folks and the example of the Half Life franchise), Granted there are other entries in the franchise without MC as the protagonist, like Reach, the main story still revolves around his fight for humanity, which is the kind of story that usually utilizes some sort of 'hot-blooded' very human protagonists who are passionate about their cause, rather than a soldier just doing his duty.
  • Mo_4192
    In half life, gordon freeman never talks, this is where that level of immersion comes into play. It is meant for YOU to be gordon freeman. Arguably, he isn't an interesting character, but they achieve total immersion at the expense of that. The problem is, Master chief does talk, and he does enforce a certain persona that a player may not agree with. In many ways, it could have been better if he didn't talk at all, in which case the immersion factor makes up for the lack of personality. In the case of half life, and even Ken levines Bio/system shocks, the player is almost a puppet, but it is philosophically done. Philosophical in the sense that the fact that you are a puppet serves as part of the story, not to just have a game.They may be uninteresting characters because there are no details regarding who they are, as you are meant to be the protagonist. Using cutscenes however, halo breaks this immersion, and you are a puppet merely for the sake of gameplay- to shoot enemies which pop up on a screen. Master chief is a boring protagonist, and he isn't interesting. The immersion argument cannot stand because of him still technically having a personality and voice, also due to the use of cutscenes. Whereas some protagonists can have rarely any details (half life), they can still be great protagonists by reflecting the player. Halo fails to do this, and master chief is a flat character.
    Last edited 2 years ago
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    "In half life, gordon freeman never talks, this is where that level of immersion comes into play."

    I seriously doubt anyone ever experienced any kind of immersion because of Freeman. It was the game, not him. He was completely faceless; what's there to be "immersed" in?

    But you're right about MC being a flat character. They could've taken Levine's approach with the Bioshock series, as you say, because then at least we'd have some concepts and philosophy behind that character. That actually would be a great idea for Halo 5.
  • Mo_4192
    If he wasn't faceless, the player would inevitably find it hard to be immersed into the character, wouldn't you agree? In a third person game it's hard to think of yourself AS the character. I'm not saying a third person game can't still be enjoyable or well made, but that now the player is just enjoying playing as a character rather then literally being in his shoes.

    Furthermore, I never said freeman, as his qualities, provided the immersion. Rather that, the way freeman was played, and how it was developed provided the immersion. In other words, the fact that he was a scientist did not make people immersed into his life- instead, it was the fact that he didn't speak, and you never left his eyes, that provded that immersion. If he spoke, the player isn't speaking, that breaks the immersion. But if the player moves and sees as he does, that provides immersion. The fact that he was faceless was what to be immersed in.

    I feel many times its difficult to do both immersion, and detail. Either you have plenty of detail and depth like in The Last of Us' characters but concede the fact that you're watching a story unfold, or you have a blank slate and let the players imagine the character (who would be the player themself) while never leaving first person, in which case you are creating the story rather then watching it.

    Master chief cannot do both.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    I guess it depends on your definition of "immersion."

    It sounds like you're defining immersion as a faceless blank slate like we have in some RPGs, where you can envision the character however you see fit. But I see immersion as being part of a story, and if the main character is faceless and doesn't even have a personality, it's like controlling a cardboard cut-out through a narrative.

    I agree about there being a difference between immersion and a detailed persona, but I don't necessarily agree that just because a game is in first-person, it's on our imagination to paint the character. There's a reason we have writers and designers and I think they should do their jobs, you know?
    Last edited 2 years ago
  • Mo_4192
    I understand your point on the writers and designers. The case for half life however is that it isn't a cardboard cut out. I believe immersion is what you see it as. to be part of the story. In a game like half life, you play as gordon freeman, but gordon freeman does not impose any reactions, emotions, or opinions to the events of the game- it is your role as the player to fill that. Some people may play the game thinking its just a game of shooting, whereas others may spot the story that unfolds around the player, and see something deeper. A player may be forced to complete objectives in a game, but would you not feel the immersion is broken if the character may feel something that you dont. For example, a game where the character does something you dont agree with, or maybe saves the villain at the end out of mercy when you maybe didn't believe that. When characters emit these feelings and emotions, it is imposed on the players, at which point the players immersion is broken as it now becomes like a movie- watching things unfold, rather then making your own feelings. Half life forces you to complete objectives too, but gordon doesnt emit any of those feelings or independent thoughts, you are left to make them. Maybe you are upset that you had to go through a particular area and do something cause you didnt want to, well those feelings can be attributed to gordon too, since technically he isn't feeling any different then you.

    Wouldn't you say that in this case, the writers and designers should (and do) focus on the characters around the character rather then the one the player controls. Making those characters interesting, and able to sympathize to can make a compelling story where the character feels something for those characters, and hopefully upon extension, how those relationships affect them.
    Last edited 2 years ago
  • Mo_4192
    Also, immersion doesn't make a good or bad game.
    I loved The Last of Us, I actually enjoyed halo too, but i can still say they didn't completely offer the most immersion. However, everything can offer immersion, in a sense, like movies do. You can feel immersed in a powerful movie and be moved by what it shows. This is the immersion that The Last of Us offered, and it was fine. However, video games can arguably offer more immersion by being interactive (again, immersion isnt the scale of if a movie or a game is good or bad, that's a totally different thing). I'm simply arguing, I feel immersion is a great tool to make good characters. And Halo wasn't particularly immersive (in relative terms), and at the same time, master chief wasn't particularly detailed or sympathized for, so he was a poor protagonist.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    "Wouldn't you say that in this case, the writers and designers should (and do) focus on the characters around the character rather then the one the player controls. Making those characters interesting, and able to sympathize to can make a compelling story where the character feels something for those characters, and hopefully upon extension, how those relationships affect them."

    I see no reason why this can't be done for the protagonist as well. The difference between us is you seem to be envisioning YOURSELF in the role of the main character in such games. I don't do that because it doesn't make any sense to me. I expect to be playing as a character someone else created, and I expect that character to be developed.

    Like I said, immersion is incredibly subjective.
  • dlatoure
    What do you think about Gordon Freeman? I actually like the minimal level of personality he has in the Half-Life franchise for reasons that I could probably write my own essay but, in general, I feel like the theme of choice (or lack thereof) in that franchise is underlined by the fact that you assume more of the personality of Gordon Freeman and your choices in the game may or may not be already predetermined. Also, the cutscenes are a lot different in that game, I just remembered, haha.

    I can see why you would be bored by Master Chief. As opposed to Freeman, he is built as a character that is separate from the player but he is given nothing to really stand by himself. I completely agree. I guess, in the end, I'm just not as bored...though I don't know why specifically.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Well, Gordon was also faceless and unlike Master Chief, he never even speaks. But he also originated in a time when gaming protagonists weren't exactly multi-dimensional. Let's put it this way: If Valve released Half-Life 3 and Freeman is the same as he always was, I'd say that's a huge mistake. In this day and age, it's just not acceptable.

    That's my problem with MC, too. He's never really allowed to stand on his own outside what's happening around him. And I'm not saying he'd be a terrible character; I don't know what kind of character he'd be, in fact. We know so little about him and as such, we don't care enough.
  • outTheBox
    Takes courage to speak to the truth.
  • Handy_8995
    Omg are you guys saying this person can't have an opinion? It's like saying this:
    Person 1: I really can't stand Meg Griffin
    Person 2: You are such a Seth Macfarlane troll, go somewhere else kid.
  • splash _1433
    foot gone numb.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Successfully managed to get called a PlayStation 4 troll and a Sony hater, and the exact opposite (Xbox One troll and Microsoft hater) in the same week. Not a bad accomplishment. ;)

    Hmm...wonder which I am?

    Guess I can't be a PS4 fan and a Halo fan at the same time...well darn. Thought that was allowed.
    Last edited 2 years ago
  • Matt_9329
    It's pretty obvious which one you are from looking at your twitter, kid.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    You mean from a site that's PlayStation-oriented that I've worked for for seven years? Which isn't even mine, by the way?

    Not my personal Twitter, "kid." It's part of the job.
  • Delta Squad Reaper
    And it's pretty obvious that in the words of Sauramon, "You have no power here." It's okay to have an opinion, but don't come onto a site and spew venomous hate just because they wrote a differentiating opinion than yours. Learn and grow.."kid"
  • master chief_1438
    Your website, the single most fanboyish website agains xbox lol
  • AO1JMM
    What kind of shit opinion piece is this? I can say that same BS line about just every other FPS game and other genre game characters.

    This is nothing more than an attempt to get clicks for this crap website.

    Go back under your bridge troll!
  • Matt_9329
    Yep, just looked at your twitter. It's pretty obvious that you are troll. You and your poorly written articles with zero hits should be banned from N4G.
  • AO1JMM
    Make sure you down vote the website on the article on N4G.
  • Proto Foe
    Senior Intern
    Now, now, please don't take your frustration out on the rest of us. I <3 John-117.

    In all seriousness, I really do <3 John-117.

    Ok, being totally serious now... Fathoms' is expressing an opinion, it is not liked by many, just let it roll.
  • TiquorSJ
    Featured Contributor
    GameSkinny has a variety of opinions. Fathom's is but one of them.
  • Jeff_5558
    Is your site just used to troll xbox? It sure looks that way. Find a better hobby.
    Last edited 2 years ago
  • Sega_Fan_Kain
    I am Master Chief. The less he says the better, because he is my avatar int he brilliant world of Halo. It's the characters around Master Chief that make you want to "turn the page" on hi Halo's case play the next level. You know what the difference is between Halo and Uncharted? I never feel like I'm Nathan Drake. He's on screen jumping and shooting and saying cliche one-liners, but I don't feel like I'm the one doing it. With Halo I feel like I'm a super soldier legend. When I walk into a room all the marines gasp in awe. When the Master Chief runs and shoots and doesn't say anything I feel like It's me doing the running and gunning.

    That's the point. Games aren't supposed to be movies. You aren't supposed to play a game to watch a character do his thing. Games are supposed to be intimate. You're supposed connect with the playable avatar they way an actor connects with their part in a play.
  • Stephanie Tang
    Featured Columnist
    I think yours is the most interesting viewpoint of how we distinguish the immersion aspect in a game. A lot of games draw you in by creating wonderful, well-defined and lovable characters, but there is always the distinction that you are just playing them and learning their story. FPS drop you into a situation where you really can pretend you're the one doing all these things, but often at the expense of story - its just an arena to shoot other people and then check the leaderboards obsessively. Halo might just strike that balance between an empty soapbox to fit yourself into while still maintaining a good background story.

    ...It's like the non-shitty version of Twilight, now that I think about it in that respect. Oof.
  • Proto Foe
    Senior Intern
  • Proto Foe
    Senior Intern
    You sum it up nicely. Bungie made me feel exactly like I was the Chief. I felt his pain unpon leaving Cortana on High Clarity, I felt his rush of emotion when she laid her hand on my body armour. I wasn't meant to feel it, but because of the foundations laid down by Bungie and writers such as Eric Nuyland, and now 343i, I feel it more than ever.
  • Amazon Eliza Steel
    - Nailed it. It's even been said by Microsoft and Bungie that Chief was supposed to let the player become the character. It's one reason why we never see his face. Or for that matter, her? Hate to mention but with Samus being female, a gal with a speech device could as easily been our Spartan hero. But, obviously it's assumed Chief is male because of his voice and the fact every called Chief - HIM. There's also the weird relationship with him and Cortana going on...

    Part of the discussion that comes up with characters or character is feeling the connection factor.
  • eliobed.felix
    In a single paragraph, you managed to convince me more than Fathoms did in an entire post. His points might be more and might be stronger, but you sir, went straight for the heart rather than intelligence.

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