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Master Chief in Halo 2 Anniversary Edition Image: Bungie/343 Industries

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Master Chief’s laconic nature makes him the perfect video game action hero

Master Chief is quiet, but never too quiet

Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Master Chief is a man of few words, more likely to do something cool than talk about it. A recent replay of the Halo series reminded me that the Chief is often used as a badass line delivery system or comedic relief — with a dry, quick wit. In Halo Infinite, he’s more talkative — and just as dry. But most players remember him as a largely silent hero — or as Halo franchise development director, Frank O’Connor, calls him: “laconic.”

We spoke to O’ Connor and creative director Joseph Staten about the series’ iconic quiet man.

Master Chief was born in an odd era for video games, where protagonists were either silent like Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman or loud-mouths like the titular Duke Nukem. Master Chief, AKA John-117, can speak, but he usually chooses not to. It’s an interesting mix that originally leaves him in limbo between hero and player avatar.

“It’s a really easy decision to go one way or the other and say, ‘He’s going to be a completely silent protagonist,’ or ‘He’s going to crack wise,’ sort of Duke Nukem style,” said O’Connor. “[Bungie] wanted him to have a personality. And they wanted him to have a function that would work in, you know, cinematics, so that they made him laconic. So he speaks briefly.”

Staten said that he believed Master Chief’s actions to be more powerful than his words. A big, powerful guy like Chief doesn’t need to speak when he can just do. That’s how Master Chief normally operates in the Halo games: through action. And not just when the player is in control. Even in cutscenes, John tends to speak less and do more, whereas his AI companion Cortana (and, in Halo Infinite, his new AI friend The Weapon) does most of the talking for the duo.

One of Staten’s favorite Halo scenes — and one he called out specifically in our interview — involves no dialogue from Master Chief at all. In the original Halo, Cortana and Master Chief teleport back onto the Truth and Reconciliation ship after it’s been taken over by the Flood. Once they arrive, the camera flips to reveal that the pair came in upside down. Master Chief crashes to the ground. While Cortana, intrigued by her own error, explains how she got the math wrong, Chief just bangs his helmet with his hand and moves on.

But my favorite cutscene involves a chattier Chief, and comes at the start of Halo 2, at the end of the Cairo Station mission. After deactivating a Covenant bomb, set to blow up the human base, Master Chief drags the explosive into a nearby airlock, opens it, and rides the device Dr. Strangelove-style into space. Chief floats the bomb into the hub of a Covenant ship where he then reactivates it, destroying the enemy cruiser.

It’s one of the coolest video game cutscenes I’ve ever seen — made even better with 343’s remaster — but John only has five lines in it. First he asks Cortana how much time was left on the bomb; then he asks Lord Hood for permission to leave the station. When Lord Hood asks why Chief would want to leave, John delivers one of the most iconic video game action hero lines of the early 2000s: “To give the Covenant back their bomb.”

Just looking at how infrequently John talks in the first Halo, this Chief scene makes him seem downright talkative — although each line is succinct. Compared to the characters around him, he’s still the strong, silent type. He speaks as a response or when he has an idea that can only be expressed in words rather than actions. That’s because Bungie didn’t want to take players out of the moment.

“Well, there were a lot of factors [contributing to Chief’s quiet nature], but I think the most important one, ultimately, was our commitment to making sure that the connection between you as a player and this character was as strong as possible,” said Staten. “And we wrote more lines for Master Chief than showed up in Halo: Combat Evolved. But through an editorial process, we continued to strip those away. Because it just felt like the more he says, the more chances there are that we’ll get it wrong for you, whoever you are.”

Both Staten’s favorite cutscene and mine serve unique purposes, and it’s what makes Bungie’s execution of a mostly silent protagonist so smart. Master Chief knocking his head straight is a normal reaction — it’s a universal move, no matter who is in the suit. On the other hand, the bomb scene characterizes Chief as a proficient, confident solider. When Cortana asks him what he’ll do if he misses, he simply says, “I won’t.” And he doesn’t. When I take control of the Chief again, and he goes silent, his confidence transfers to me. I get lost in Chief’s identity as both a character and my avatar.

a dark-haired bearded man and Master Chief look to the right in Halo Infinite Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios

Playing a character like Nathan Drake makes me feel like I’m experiencing incredible events through an incredible character’s perspective. Whereas quiet, player-created avatars make me feel like I’m experiencing the events myself. Having Chief hide behind a mask and talk sparingly offers the best of both worlds, letting me lean into a character’s accomplishments and then forget he exists.

If I don’t always know what he’s thinking, and never know what he looks like, I can imagine my own reality.

“Folks who like Master Chief, every single one of them has a fairly different version of who that Master Chief is,” said O’Connor. “And the good thing is, there isn’t enough of him speaking, or showing his face in the game, to pull you out of that fiction. If you’re, you know, a middle-aged black guy, or a teenage girl with red hair, there’s no visual reminder that you’re not in that universe anytime, even though every now and then you’re going to say something dry and witty in the face of great danger.”

John-117 has never been the deepest character, at least in the games — but he’s not supposed to be. The Cortanas and Sgt. Johnsons around him are the characters who are supposed to draw our attention and carry the story’s weight. Instead, Master Chief serves a much more important function: showing me how cool I can be in his shoes and then getting out of my way.