Master Chief: Man or Machine?

*Editors Note: The following article contains SPOILERS for the video game Halo 4. If you have not finished Halo 4 and do not wish to know about key events (including the ending), go and finish Halo 4, and then come back to this article.

What makes us human? It is a question which many science fiction stories deal with in the hope of shedding some light – and another interpretation – on the moral dilemma. One such game that decided to incorporate this theme into its narrative was Halo 4. Throughout the single player campaign, two entities – the Master Chief, a super powered soldier known as a SPARTAN, and Cortana, his failing A.I. companion – are in a struggle to save the Earth, while at the same time trying to address the implications of the end of Cortana’s lifespan. It is this ordeal which is addressed throughout the game’s eight levels and epilogue that, in my eyes, makes Halo 4‘s single player campaign the best of all the Halo games. An analysis of the Halo series’ protagonist can shed some light on his motivations, and possibly his future as a character.

Master Chief does not know whether he should be a human or a machine. During Halo 4‘s prologue sequence, John (Master Chief) is going through the SPARTAN training process and Doctor Catherine Halsey is heard in the voice-over saying, “Children’s minds are more easily accepting of indoctrination.” Flash forward to the end of the game, after Lasky consoles Chief about the ‘death’ of Cortana, John comments, “Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity. Whatever the cost.” In rebuttal, Lasky tells Master Chief, “You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.” This brief interlude summarises Halo 4‘s protagonist in a nut shell. He has been brought up to be ruthless. Everything he does has to be for humanity, selfishness is not an option. He has had this ingrained in him for his whole life – much like the Spartans from 800BC.

Yet, when Cortana is showing signs of rampancy, Master Chief wants to save her. Cortana pressures him to continue his fight against the Didact, although Chief just wants to get back to Earth and see Halsey for a cure. These moments which contrast to Master Chief’s usual actions are paramount in shedding some light on his thought process. While Chief knows he should not be caring about Cortana, he does; his human emotions cannot be held back.

Dr. Halsey – Creator of the SPARTAN-II program

George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984 summarises Chief’s plight in one sentence: “If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.” Dealing with the impending loss of a lifelong companion is not comparable to attempting to survive in a communist society. However, the quote does symbolise Master Chief’s inner battle. The Chief’s human side – the side he has been taught to contain – cannot be prevented from showing itself. Even though it has long laid dormant, it still exists. The Master Chief, by showing compassion towards Cortana, attempts to beat a system he accepts, but never really wanted – being a SPARTAN.

Master Chief’s personal struggle in Halo 4 makes him a better character. While he is still the alien-killing death machine from the previous Halo games, drawing out the rarely seen emotional side of the SPARTAN adds depth. His story was previously just a means for great gameplay, yet in Halo 4 I felt a connection to Chief. I wanted him to overcome the new obstacles he was facing. I saw him as two minds trapped inside one suit of armour. I saw the soldier, the machine, pushing himself to the limits to save humanity from impending destruction; I also saw the man desperately wanting to forget about his duty as a machine to save a friend. I saw two ideologies which could not exist at the same time. I saw myself wanting Master Chief to make the right choice. Is he SPARTAN 117, or is he John?

This theme should play a large part in the next Master Chief themed Halo campaign. The only trailer released for the next Halo game, shown at Microsoft’s 2013 E3 showcase, depicts a Master Chief in mourning. In the last shots of the trailer, several close-ups reveal the Chief clutching Cortana’s empty data chip which has been turned into either a necklace or dog tag. The manner in which John-117 mourns Cortana’s ‘death’ could be dealt with in the next title. Will John be filled with anger for the Prometheans, assuming they return, or will he be unable to break free from his “indoctrination” and remain the hardened, collected solider he has always been? The way in which 343 Industries decides to tell Master Chief’s story could definitely define part of his personality.

Additionally, an assumption can be made that the Master Chief will be given a new Artificial Intelligence to replace Cortana. I make this guess because a SPARTAN’s A.I. is paramount to their operation. Cortana was responsible for activating the shields, HUD (including radar and objective markers), and radio, just to name a few things, on the Chief’s armour. Without them, gamers would play a weaker, blind SPARTAN. Sure, this would be possible, but would it be fun? I am not so sure it would be.

A companion for John is required for pacing issues as well. Let us suggest that John chooses not to receive another A.I. Would there be any dialogue during the campaign missions? Most of the dialogue outside of cut scenes was between the Master Chief and Cortana. With no companion, would the Chief remain mute for a large duration of the campaign? I do not think this is a wise decision for an eight to ten hour game, especially after Halo 4 saw Master Chief’s words expressing his persona more than his actions.

With a new A.I. perhaps more evidence of whether Master Chief is a man or machine will be revealed. If he continues his role as a SPARTAN whose sole goal is to protect humanity, it is most likely he will be welcoming of a new A.I. for it is a requirement if he is to perform at the peak of his ability. On the other hand, if his human emotions can no longer be kept at bay, we could see a John who despises a new A.I. for trying to fill the shoes (perhaps holographic void is a better term?) of Cortana.

This brings us to Cortana herself. Throughout Halo 4‘s campaign, Cortana acts more human than Chief. When she realises hope is fading for her, she tells Master Chief, “Before this is all over promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” This statement suggests Cortana herself does not know whether Master Chief identifies as a human. In fact, just after that she comments, “Take a girl for a ride.” Cortana views, or wants to view herself as a human being (a female is usually only associated with a living being). Furthermore, when Cortana makes her appearance inside the protective veil she has around the Chief, she touches him for the first time. “I’ve waited so long to do that,” Cortana states. Throughout her time as an A.I. Cortana has wanted to feel human emotions. It is almost as if Cortana and John play reversed roles. Cortana wants to be a human, and the Master Chief a machine, but neither can escape their roots. The relationship between Master Chief and Cortana, unlike the other Halo games, takes centre stage in Halo 4, and it succeeds.

To conclude, allow me to leave you with one scene that I would like to interpret in a certain way. During the end cinematic of the final mission, Cortana tells the Master Chief she won’t be going back with him. Cortana refers to the Master Chief as “John” and there is an exchange in which Cortana tells him, “We were supposed to take care of each other. And we did.” It takes a few seconds for the Master Chief to comprehend the situation. He does not realise that Cortana’s A.I. lifespan is over.

“C’mon Chief. Take a girl for a ride”

Once Cortana disappears for the final time, a cut to John shows debris falling down behind him. This signifies John’s world falling down. In other words, the cliché represents the effects of Cortana’s ‘death’ on John. From this scene, if you choose to accept it, we can suggest that John is in fact more a man than he thinks he is. This is what loss does to humans, it takes something we consider secure, and destroys it. That’s what happened to John. Under the armour, he is more man than machine.