Tin Foil Halo: Why Master Chief will Die in Halo Infinite

 

INTRODUCTION

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for lives; not men - for flags.
— The Next War, 1917

RELATED MEDIA

The following article makes reference to and could potentially contain minor spoilers for Halo 3, Halo: Reach, Halo 4, Halo 5: Guardians, and Halo Infinite.

 
 

TL;DR

(Podcast Evolved and Blogging Evolved use Halopedia as our primary source of information)

Halo Infinite will conclude the Reclaimer Saga and complete the story of the Master Chief, ending with him giving his life to save humanity and the galaxy. His character arc unfolded and concluded through the original Halo trilogy of games, and while he barely managed to survive at the end of Halo 3, John will not be as lucky this time around. A new character arc is going to emerge with Halo Infinite, one where he actually does die at the end, concluding the story of Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 as the loyal soldier and savior of humanity, sacrificing himself in order to stop the threat of Cortana and the Created.

THE THEORY

I have posited this theory a few times in the past year or two on social media or one of our community forums on Facebook or Discord, and every time I do I am met with skepticism and incredulity. The arguments against tend to revolve around either people’s love for the Master Chief, or more commonly, their belief that Microsoft and 343 would not be willing to kill off the main character of Halo, especially when he is still the only commonly-recognized character of the series and Halo’s popularity has waned in recent years. The latter is a legitimate argument, and an issue that 343 has to address if they want to truly more Halo beyond being primarily driven by a single character, but it is something they have tried to do already with Jameson Locke, and while that failed, they will definitely be trying much harder with Infinite. Killing off John isn’t just something I think 343 can get away with doing if they play their cards right though, it is something they must do if they want Halo to survive long-term. While this sounds counter-intuitive, I am going to argue why the death of the Master Chief is required for the revival of the Halo franchise back to its former glory days.

A DOSE OF REALITY

I will come right out and say that there is no arguing that in most ways 2019 Halo lives in the shadow of it at peak 2007 Halo. While many may know that I generally argue on the side of 343 and the changes they have made to the game, I won’t for a second try to assert that Halo is anywhere near as popular as it once was, and while the reasons are very complex, part of that is due to the handling of the story since 343 took over. Halo 4 really hit hard with the story of sacrifice, which was mostly successful, but other issues of the game such as gameplay and design limitations due to the 360 hardware hampered an otherwise excellent return of the Master Chief. This led to a game that received great reviews, but couldn’t compete as well against the competition that had grown enormously since the release of Halo 3, and even Halo: Reach. While Halo 4 still sold well and brought with it a campaign that many consider excellent, it didn’t hit the same mark Halo 3 did, partly due to its own issues, and partly due to stronger competition.

Halo 5 meanwhile, managed to fix most of the issues Halo 4 had, only to create all new ones that Halo 4 had managed to avoid, such as a clean, coherent plot and a well-defined story arc. Not only that, but the way Cortana was brought back from the dead, almost immediately negating the entire story arc from Halo 4, really left a sour taste with Halo fans, both the hardcore lore nerds like myself, and the casual Halo gamer. I am not going to argue the choice to bring Cortana back here since I am one of the few who thinks bringing her back was ultimately the right thing to do, but regardless of which side you stand on, I think nearly everyone can agree that the way her return was handled was not well-done. Either way, the deed is done, and the canon must now absorb that decision and move on.

IN DEFENSE OF EARTH AND HER COLONIES

Master Chief and Cortana sacrifice everything to destroy the Ark and the Flood.

So with the state Halo is in now, with a story that most people didn’t enjoy nearly as much as Halo: CE through Halo 3 and a fan-base that has shrunk considerably since the “glory days”, how can 343 afford to get rid of the Master Chief, the most well-liked and popular character in Halo by a light-year? It’s because of his story arc and what he represents to the Halo universe. The entire Halo universe is based around the idea of perseverance and sacrifice, a concept that has been explored many times in the Halo media and all the games, but most notably in Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4. Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 also approached the topic, but the principle vehicle used, the Master Chief, always managed to survive, and without much difficulty, at least not for him.

In Halo 3, the idea of sacrifice was beaten over our heads, not just in the story, but also in the marketing campaign, namely the Believe campaign (more on this later). Halo 3 was sold as the Master Chief’s final story, somehow concluding with that saving of mankind, at the expense of the Master Chief’s life. While the finale didn’t outright kill John, it still managed to drive home the idea of his sacrifice, showing him adrift in deep space, alone (aside from Cortana), and out of touch with the rest of humanity. The UNSC went so far as to hold a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Human-Covenant War, including John in that memorial. While John didn’t explicitly die at the end of Halo 3, the weight of his sacrifice was still felt just as strongly, while still leaving the Halo IP open for future storytelling. Whether this was the original ending of the story the writers had intended or it was influenced by Microsoft’s desire to make future Halo games I don’t know, but the ending worked, and it worked really well.

If Halo 3 gently dangled the idea of sacrifice in front of the player, Halo: Reach beat the player with a Fist of Rukt-sized sacrifice-laden mallet. From about the midpoint of the campaign forward, Halo: Reach continually kills a member of Noble Team, showing their sacrifice of their own lives for an effort they know is ultimately futile, yet they do it anyway to preserve the possibility of a miracle and to help keep others alive for as long as possible. This isn’t a Master Chief story, but it is a Spartan story, and one that really drives home the idea that Spartans will give anything and everything to protect humanity.

John is willing to give his life to save Earth, but Cortana manages to save him, at the expense of her own life.

Halo 4 brought Master Chief back into the UNSC fold, but the idea of sacrifice didn’t end. Throughout the campaign, John did whatever he could to try and save Cortana and humanity, and he even went so far as to detonate a nuclear warhead in his hands, definitely willing to give his life to stop the Didact and save Earth, only to be saved at the last possible moment by Cortana. Cortana, who had already caused herself irreparable damage to herself by splitting her already damaged and fragmented personality throughout Mantle’s Approach, ultimately was the one who sacrificed her own life for the survival of humanity and, more importantly, John. This is one of the most memorable parts of the entire series, and definitely brings up a lot of emotion for even the most hard-heated gamer.

CARRY ON WAYWARD SON

Then there is Halo 5: Guardians. I don’t know what to say about the story for Halo 5 other than it was disappointing. On many levels, Halo 5 is the best of the entire Halo series, with much better feel, better vehicle handling, mostly great level design, and the first Halo in 60 fps, which seems like a minor change to many, but really enhances gameplay and the feel of the entire game. Where Halo 5 dropped the ball, and dropped it right on its own foot, was the story. There are definitely bits and pieces of the story that worked, but the overall narrative was messy, confusing to new and old Halo players alike, and failed to deliver on a core tenant of the Halo universe, the concept of sacrifice. It isn’t just that none of the characters died in the game. It is that there was no point where it felt like someone might die or even contemplate the idea of giving their life for the sake of the greater good. The story has no weight. To top it off, Cortana was brought back into the story, negating the weight of Halo 4’s ending as well. Despite what most of the community thinks though, there was absolutely a way Cortana could have been brought back into the story and make it work. The idea of her as a severely damaged AI, one that the gamer and John care for deeply, mentally broken beyond recovery, threatening John, humanity, and the galaxy, has a lot of merit.

LIKE OLD YELLER, BUT SADDER

The analogy I imagine is the Walking Dead or really any zombie series. Imagine a world where your family is under threat from a zombie hoard, about to be overtaken, and you throw yourself at the hoard in order to trade your life for theirs. You survive, but just barely, and not without a lot of luck. That’s a tough decision and very emotional. That’s Halo 3. Now imagine the same scenario, but at the last moment your spouse, your significant other, or your child steps in front of you, giving their life before you even know what happened, saving you, but forcing you to watch them succumb to the zombie hoard. To watch them die in front of your eyes. That hurts. That’s Halo 4.

Now let’s continue to pull that plot thread. It a day later. Your family (minus one) is safe and recovering from the physical and emotional trauma the prior day’s events have caused. While still trying to come to terms with your loss, a new zombie hoard approaches you, larger and stronger than before. You push the thoughts of your loved one to the back of your mind and resolve to end this threat the only way that has proven effective, with violence. Just as you are about to deal with this new enemy, you realize that the hoard is being controlled by a new leader. The person at the head of the pack is your wife. Or your husband. Or your parent. Or your child. It may still look like them, and maybe even acts or sounds slightly similar, but you know they are gone. Yet here they are again, threatening your life, threatening your family’s life, all while bringing back those raw emotions of losing a loved one you have yet to deal with.

You realize with horror that the only solution to this problem is to face the threat head on. To fight one of your own, a perverted facsimile of your former loved one. You are forced to see them ravaged by this disease, never at peace. You are forced to look into their eyes, knowing they aren’t really in there, but hoping, forever hoping, that somehow they will wake up and all of this will just go away. But it doesn’t go away. Maybe it is your spouse who is now infected and fighting you. And while you are fighting valiantly, the virus that plagues them, that threatens you, is just so strong. You nearly manage to put them down, but they get away from your grasp. Your wife or your husband break free from your grasp and lunge for your child. Your own wife, your own husband, is threatening your child. Their child! There is no other options left, there is no time. You throw yourself at them, at the hoard, using your own body as a decoy while the rest of your family gets away.

As your loved one, or at least the virus within their body, pounces on you and begins to consume you, to infect you, you notice a hand grenade attached to the belt of one of the zombies in the hoard. You manage to reach for it, pulling the pin as you do, and stare into the eyes of what is now just a shell of a body that once housed the love of your life. Tears well up in your eyes, from the pain, yes, but mostly out of a mix of intense sadness and confusing elation. Sad to see someone you love dead inside like this, sad to know you will never see the rest of your family again, but also happy to know that you and your love are about to be at peace, free of the virus, and save the rest of your family from this threat. The moment ends as quickly as it began as the detonator within the grenade begins its explosive chain reaction and turns you, your love, and the rest of the zombie hoard into so many little pieces.

WERE IT SO EASY

Cortana returns, but not as she once was.

So with that heart-wrenching scene in mind, you cannot say that the return of Cortana is Halo 5 was inherently wrong. I will agree that how she was brought back lacked all emotion and weight, and if the intent is to turn Cortana into what I described above, that part of the story has not been broached yet. I hope that this is the future of the Master Chief-Cortana story arc, either because that was the intent all along or because 343 realized the errors in Halo 5’s story. To be honest, whatever the real answer is, we will never really know, and fans will never believe that a great story in Halo Infinite was always the planned one after the lackluster Halo 5 campaign. But that doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the path the Halo universe is on right now still points to the central theme of sacrifice, and there is a clear path to what could definitely be the best Halo campaign and Halo trilogy to have ever been created.

We have touched on the idea of sacrifice and how it is a central tenant to the Halo universe, as well as a way to continue that theme following the ending of Halo 5. But the real question is would 343 dare kill off their most iconic character, or would Microsoft even let them kill the face of Xbox. The answer, of course, is yes, there is no better option, and to explain why, I will discuss the alternative, keeping John alive.

There are two options for the end of this next story arc in Halo: John saves the galaxy and lives to fight another day, eventually retiring, or John saves the galaxy by sacrificing his life in the process. I suppose you could argue there are other options, like someone else saves the galaxy and John does nothing, or John fails and the galaxy falls under Cortana’s rule completely, but these aren’t really feasible. The former is just silly and boring, while the latter would actually end the Halo universe going forward, something even I don’t think 343 and Microsoft would be willing to do. I already talked about how John giving his life for the sake of the galaxy would work from an emotional standpoint, so how would John surviving the encounter work from an emotional and story arc perspective? Frankly, not well.

John and the Infinity are faced with the threat of Cortana and the Created, and, like in the original Halo trilogy, fight for their respective lives to save themselves and rescue humanity from the clutches of oppression. After a long battle spanning three acts focused around introduction, exposition, and resolution respectively, John faces Cortana, once his ally and friend and now his sworn enemy. John somehow manages to defeat her and the Created, getting out of harms way in the nick of time, surviving the battle and reasserting himself as the ultimate hero.

John-117 during the  Battle of Installation 07 , sometime during the conflict with the Created.

John-117 during the Battle of Installation 07, sometime during the conflict with the Created.

From here the plot could go a couple ways. John could simply return home the victorious hero, cheered by all of humanity, and continue to fight another day or perhaps retire. While many who love John would prefer this option, it is a boring ending from a story perspective. John’s story would either end here, failing to sacrifice much of anything to win the day, or continue into eternity, also failing to sacrifice anything, and greatly reducing the emotional weight of the ending and all of John’s actions.

The other option is that John survives, but just barely, such as he did at the end of Halo 3. Forgetting for a second about the other Halo stories, this ending works fine. There is still sacrifice, and while John doesn’t die, those left still mourn him as if he did, since he is missing in action. The only problem with this ending is we can’t just forget the other Halo stories. The fact that John already went though this exact situation in Halo 3 takes away most of the meaning behind the story, and much of the feeling is lost. It isn’t a satisfying or fitting end for John, and it would turn a potentially spectacular story into simply an okay one.

THE MAN WHO GAVE HUMANITY A FUTURE…

At this point I think people will still argue that while everything I say may be correct, 343 and Microsoft would still rather go the “okay story” option and keep John alive, rather than kill him off and end any hope of using him in future stories. This would be true, were it not for the fact that the Halo IP is on shaky ground right now. Halo is known for its bombastic yet touching stories, but Halo 4 and to a much greater extent Halo 5 weakened the IP to the point where a simply “okay story” will continue the march down the path to obscurity. A big part of Halo is that people care for John and feel like he, and as an extension, they, will give their lives to save the galaxy. If they pump out a story that removes the sacrifice, they will also remove the feeling and heart that makes Halo unique. If Halo fully transitions into a completely generic “good guy saves the world” story where you never feel like there is any real consequence, people will just stop caring entirely. Halo will continue to fade from popularity until the unthinkable happens and 343 stops making Halo games.

That being said, there is one huge problem I have yet to address in regards to killing off the Master Chief. As I mentioned, there is no real way that Microsoft and 343 would just end the entire Halo IP after John dies, so the only way for them to continue is to introduce a new character that fans love and care for just as much. So far, their attempts with Sarah Palmer and Jameson Locke have failed spectacularly. Honestly, I think either could have superseded Chief as the iconic Halo character had they been introduced properly. Palmer, with her sometimes brash and irresponsible behavior, came off to the audience as a pompous ass, and though I think her character improved as the universe continued to grow, first impressions are everything.

Locke is in a similar boat. While this time around he was introduced as much more even-headed and quiet character, his character fell flat in his initial introduction in Nightfall, and didn’t do much better in Halo 5. To be fair, I think at least a part of Locke’s mediocre reception is due to the stories of Nightfall and Halo 5 being less than stellar, but again, first impressions can make or break a relationship, and our relationship with Locke started on very rocky ground.

If 343 wants to introduce a new character that will one day replace the Master Chief, they will have to start with building a great story. Fans will be much more willing to accept a new character when the story is really drawing them into the universe. Second, they have to find a character that is substantially similar to John in his core traits, namely stoic determination and unquestioning sacrifice. Palmer and Locke didn’t fit into these very well, and a character like Buck, while well-done, doesn’t either. Unfortunately 343 can’t fall back on John passing the reigns onto his daughter or son like they did in Gears since he doesn’t have one, so somehow they will have to make a character that the fans accept, take into their hearts, and are willing to follow as strongly as they do the Master Chief. This is going to prove to be the hardest part of everything I have said so far. I know it can be done, but we will have to wait ans see whether 343 is able to pull it off.

I have kind of skirted around the subject a bit, but I want to be completely clear, I do not think John is going to die at the end of the initial Halo Infinite campaign. 343 has come out and said that Infinite will be a spiritual reboot of Halo, which tells me that at least the initial campaign will take notes from Halo: Combat Evolved. I suspect that this will lead into another full trilogy, and John will not die until the end of that. I do expect Infinite to be more than just a single campaign though. Games as a service are continuing to grow in popularity, and Halo Infinite will more than likely be just the latest one. With Halo Infinite as the base game that the next several campaigns will be released on, the entire new trilogy will eventually get released on Infinite, though not for several more years I expect. Depending on what 343 decides to do, the final chapter of John-117 may not be released until 2026 or later, meaning there is a lot of time between now and then for new characters to get introduced and John’s story to unfold fully.

…WHO MADE MANKIND BELIEVE AGAIN

Way at the beginning of this article, I mentioned the Believe marketing campaign from Halo 3. For those that remember, it was one of the finest pieces of marketing ever created at the time, and really set a somber tone for the final chapter in the first Halo trilogy. While much of what was discussed, Chief’s grave-site, his apparent death prior to the in-universe time of 2610 is in canon-limbo, at the time it really made you feel like this was the final chapter for John and Cortana. When Halo 4 came out and brought both back into the universe only five years after the war in 2557, most of what was said in the believe campaign was written off as just marketing and not canon events. It was somewhat unfortunate, but it is just marketing after all.

But what if it is still canon? Yes, the Human-Covenant War still ended in 2552, but following the war there was not peace, and the conflict with the Created takes place only six years after the end of the war. We don’t know yet how long the fighting will last, but the belligerents will largely be the same, and from the perspective of someone in 2610, it is basically a continuous conflict with a small hiatus. The Museum of Humanity was built in remembrance of the conflicts humanity faced during this period of endless war, so why wouldn’t that include the fighting against the Covenant, the Didact, and the Created? It fits well, and adds a lot more meaning to what was said during the Believe campaign, namely that John is gone as of 2610. According to what is said, Master Chief sacrifices himself to save humanity, which is why he is being celebrated and remembered at the museum. His grave-site is empty, but no one knows where his body really is, if there is even one left. This was initially thought to be referring to the end of Halo 3, but we now know this isn’t true. I strongly suspect this is still canon, and it is referring to event yet experienced, ones that will be depicted soon in future Halo campaigns during the lifespan of Infinite.

Halo 3 Believe Campaign. Halo Infinite will make us all believe again.

SUMMARY

Halo is in a really tough spot right now. There is still a lot of hope following the poor reception of Halo 5 overall, but patience is waning. The setup in Halo 5 of the next story arc was weak, but shows a lot of promise and will hopefully soon get to the core of what makes Halo special: sacrifice. Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but I strongly suspect we will see sacrifice return as the primary focus in Halo Infinite’s campaign. With this as the central story pillar, John will lead the battle against Cortana and the Created, fighting his former ally and friend to defend the universe against her. This battle will ultimately end in the death of the Master Chief, though not before he manages to eliminate the threat to the galaxy.

343 has a long way to go before I think they can kill off John and keep Halo alive for much beyond the end of Halo Infinite’s lifespan, but this is the only feasible option for keeping the Halo universe alive beyond the next couple games. Building a new trilogy that will bring in both new fans and former fans is key, but as important is introducing a new character that can fill the boots John will leave behind. There is a lot that could go wrong between now and then, but I am confident that 343 can pull it off, and look forward to the next few years as Halo experiences a resurgence that I think most people believe is impossible. It is time to believe once again.

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