Tempting videogame heroes out of their shells
He’s adored by millions, his franchise out-grosses Hollywood blockbusters, he’s worked with David Fincher and Peter Jackson, and he shifts twice as many units as Lady Gaga. It’s fair to say that Halo’s Master Chief is a heavyweight in popular culture.
Even if you’re not a gamer, you might have noticed him on your TV screens or in cardboard cut-out form in local supermarkets, record shops, toy stores or videogame stockists. Halo is a first-person sci-fi action game in which you play Master Chief, a space marine engaged in a series of interplanetary wars.
Master Chief is sold as the star of the Halo franchise, despite the fact that we don’t see his face and rarely hear his voice. But he’s not just a corporate representative shoved into the limelight. Fans love him, too. But what makes him special? And what qualities do game stars have that, say, movie stars do not?
Modern games are frequently compared to blockbuster films, but despite the fact that games are defined by their technology, their heroes are decidedly old-school.
Master Chief, just like Max Payne, Ezio in Assassin’s Creed and Agent 47 in Hitman, are men of action, not words. Even Lara Croft in Tomb Raider doesn’t say much beyond pithy one-liners. If they have cinematic or literary equivalents, they would be the Man with No Name played by Clint Eastwood, Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, or the nameless wheelman in Drive played by Ryan Gosling.
This is an evolution from the 2D game heroes who are still familiar to audiences, such as Sonic the Hedgehog or Mario. These animated characters are viewed from the side the whole time, so cute design was paramount.
In the new era, many of the best-known videogame heroes are seen from behind during game-play, or in the case of first-person games such as the Halo franchise, not at all.
Because first-person games are seen entirely from the player’s perspective, the hero is defined by his actions: his heroism, bravery and resilience are, essentially, his personality.
Sometimes (although not always) they appear in animated non-playable scenes that shows glimpses of his personality. Over countless hours in this hero’s company, an affinity is developed between the player and him – even if insights into his personality can be tantalisingly brief.
They don’t all have to be taciturn action stars, of course, but the action-game genre hems in developers and writers somewhat. When these characters do become vulnerable Everymen, it’s in rare melodramatic games, such as Heavy Rain. When they’re loveable rogues (such as Nathan Drake in the Indiana Jones-style Uncharted series) it’s hard to reconcile their warm personality with their violent actions.
Millions of gamers (including this writer) have been champing at the bit to play Halo 4, released yesterday, and Master Chief is a brand name just like any other. But to argue that he’s the games’ main selling point would be like saying that Mark Hamill was packing audiences in for Star Wars.
The Halo games are sumptuous to look at, gratifyingly serious in tone, and, most importantly, thrilling to play. Some Halo fans value the complex sci-fi story as much as the game-play, just as some people like Star Wars for its old-school hero’s journey or for its philosophy and space politics.
Master Chief is appealing as part of the Halo universe, but probably not as a draw by himself.
Maybe gamers like his no-nonsense attitude, maybe they love his bravery.
Or just maybe, like bounty hunter Boba Fett in Star Wars, he could be a fan favourite simply because he looks cool.