The Master Chief is one of the most visible symbols of the Halo series and the video game universe. Originally designed by Marcus Lehto, Rob McLees, and Shi Kai Wang, the character is a towering and faceless cybernetically enhanced supersoldier; he is never seen without his green-colored armor or helmet. Steve Downes built his personification of the Chief off a character description which called for a Clint Eastwood-type character of few words.
The Master Chief has been called an icon, a relative newcomer among more established franchise characters, such as Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Lara Croft. While a widely known figure, the Master Chief has received mixed reception. Reviewers such as Kotaku have pointed to the Chief's silent and faceless nature as a weakness to the character, while other publications have stated that this attribute allows players to better assume the role of the Master Chief.
The task of developing the Master Chief for the character's first appearance in Halo: Combat Evolved fell on Rob McLees and the project's Art Director, Marcus Lehto. Eventually, Shi Kai Wang was hired for conceptual art. One of Wang's sketches was accepted and became the basis for the Master Chief; however, after Wang's version was converted to a 3-D model, it was decided the character looked too slender, "almost effeminate". The Master Chief was subsequently bulked up to the version currently found in the games. Similarly, the Chief's armor went through various changes, such as the addition of an antenna, which was removed later in development, and a green tint.
In an interview on creating believable video game characters, Bungie's Joseph Staten noted that, "Master Chief is really what kicked off the creativity," he said, "in terms of how people react to him. He's a space Marine in really cool green armor.
Steve Downes, who voices the Master Chief, is a disc jockey and voice actor who had never played video games before Halo. Downes only previous experience with video game voice work was a small part for Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator. During production of Halo Martin O'Donnell, Bungie's music director, recommended Downes for the part of the Chief based on his experience working on Septerra. Downes never interviewed for the part, describing his acceptance as "a phone call". Downes has never appeared at Bungie or Microsoft events, and believes that the Master Chief is left masked because "[the character's identity] is really in the eye of the player".
Entirely encased in heavy armor and standing seven feet tall, the Chief inspires awe and terror in friends and foes alike. Despite his cold exterior, Master Chief cares about his fellow soldiers, especially the Spartan-IIs with whom he has trained. At one point, the Master Chief risks injury in a massive explosion to save a fellow Spartan, and withholds some combat information on the threat of the Flood, an alien parasite, after realizing that the full disclosure of the combat data would mean the death of Sergeant Avery Johnson.
During his training, the Master Chief is taught by Chief Petty Officer Franklin Mendez to sacrifice lives only when necessary and to understand the difference between "wasting lives and spending lives." While in the Chi Ceti system, one of the Master Chief's fellow Spartans and best friend, Samuel-034, suffers an irreparable breach in his armor. Sam stays behind to detonate explosives, while the Master Chief and Kelly evacuate the ship. Although the Chief would have preferred to die with his friend, he tells himself that he needs to "live and fight another day". In Halo: First Strike, Dr. Catherine Halsey tries to teach him to save every single life possible.
Despite the Master Chief's excellent combat record, many in the United Nations Space Command (UNSC), the military unit to which he belongs, distrust him. Antonio Silva, an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, exemplifies this attitude, and considers the Master Chief the freak product of an experiment that should never be repeated. Although the Chief resents Silva's dishonor to his fallen comrades' memory, he is also loyal to the chain of command, and remains quiet. Despite these explorations of the character's personality, O'Connor said in an interview that revealing the face of the Chief is not as important as revealing the events going on around the character.
After the Spartans' first successful operation which involved capturing a rogue UNSC officer, John-117 is briefed on the threat posed by the Covenant, a theocratic alliance of alien races, and witnesses the utter devastation wrought by a single ship. The Spartans are first sent to the Damascus Materials Testing Facility on the planet Chi Ceti 4 to retrieve the MJOLNIR Mark IV armor. In the process, they board a Covenant vessel and plant a bomb; John is forced to leave one of his fellow Spartans, his best friend, to die.
In 2552, the Covenant invades the human world of Sigma Octanus and occupies one of its cities, Cote D'Azure. Following a failed Marine assault, John-117 and three teams of Spartans are sent to destroy the Covenant force with a nuclear warhead. After detonating the weapon, the Spartans return to Reach, where the UNSC High Command has developed a last-ditch plan to capture a Covenant High Prophet, who they hope could be used in order to barter a truce. The Master Chief's armor is upgraded, and he first encounters the artificial intelligence (AI) Cortana during a training mission. A massive Covenant armada of 314 ships arrives and begins to destroy the planet, despite the best efforts of the Spartans and other UNSC forces. Aboard the spaceship Pillar of Autumn, Cortana plots a random course of escape. Seemingly the last Spartan alive, the Master Chief enters cryonic sleep along with the Pillar of Autumns crew.
The Master Chief returns as one of two playable characters in Halo 2, the 2004 sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Returning to Earth with heavily damaged armor, the Master Chief receives an upgrade. Aboard Cairo Station in space, he attends a brief awards ceremony, which is interrupted by a Covenant invasion. Master Chief is commanded to protect the station. The Covenant is repelled, and the Master Chief joins the ship In Amber Clad to fight the Covenant on Earth's surface, in New Mombasa. As the Covenant departs via slipspace, the In Amber Clad follows them to Installation 05, another Halo. The Master Chief lands on this Halo and subsequently assassinates the Covenant High Prophet of Regret. Emerging from a structure, the Master Chief is attacked by orbiting Covenant forces, but is rescued by the Gravemind, an intelligence of Flood origin. The Gravemind sends him to High Charity to search for Delta Halo's Index. Subsequently, the Master Chief boards a Forerunner ship bound for Earth, intending to "finish the fight".
Back on Earth, the Master Chief helps to repel hostile Covenant forces from Mombasa, Kenya and Voi. With the Arbiter (a Covenant Elite who has sided with humanity) and fellow allies, the Chief leads the assault on a Forerunner artifact that the Covenant Prophet of Truth is attempting to activate. Soon after Truth escapes Earth through the slipspace portal opened by the artifact, the Flood lands on Earth. After helping to control the infestation, the Master Chief follows Truth to the Ark, an immense constructed world more than 262,144 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy and well beyond the range of any Halo. There, all the Halos can be remotely activated, thus killing all sentient life that could be infested by the Flood. It is discovered that a new Halo is being constructed to replace the one that the Master Chief destroyed in Halo: Combat Evolved. The Flood follow the Chief to the Ark, bringing High Charity through the slipspace portal to escape the range of the six original Halos. The allied Elites and humans decide to activate the new Halo in order to kill the Flood outside the galaxy, and thus preserve life there. 343 Guilty Spark opposes the premature activation of the incomplete installation and attempts to stop it. The Master Chief destroys him, activates the ring, and escapes with Cortana and the Arbiter on the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn. During the escape, the collapsing slipspace portal severs the Dawn in two, stranding Cortana and the Master Chief deep in space. While the Arbiter returns to Earth, Cortana activates a distress beacon, knowing that rescue could take years; the Master Chief enters cryonic sleep, telling Cortana, "Wake me when you need me.
The Master Chief is mentioned several times in Rooster Teeth Productions' Halo-based machinima parody series Red vs. Blue. In the first episode of the series, Grif, talking to teammate , says: "I signed up to fight some aliens. Next thing I know, Master Chief blows up the whole Covenant Armada, and I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere, fighting . In the Halo Zune exclusive video titled "Turn On, Tune In, Zune Out", Doc has a segment on his radio broadcast called "You're not Master Chief, and that's okay".
The Master Chief is referenced as a hero by a then-retired soldier in the live-action short, "The Museum", and appears in the subsequent video as part of a special advertisement series for Halo 3 entitled "Believe in a Hero".
The character appears outside Halo fandom and associated works. Master Chief appears in a cameo as "Minstrel Chief" in Fable II as downloadable content; the character is also featured in a MADtv segment.
BusinessWeek listed the Master Chief among several video game characters who have been branded beyond their respective video games, "helping them transcend the very medium in the process". The Master Chief has been used in marketing on a variety of products, from 7-Eleven Slurpees to T-shirts, Xbox 360 controllers, and Mountain Dew. In Australia, around September 2007, Hoyts Cinemas popcorn buckets were branded with high-detail images of Halo 3 and the Master Chief along with a prize advertising offer. Several action figures of the character have been created to market of the Halo series; the most recent were manufactured by McFarlane. These actions have been called necessary to the game franchise; Ed Ventura, director of Xbox's worldwide marketing, said, "We want to be in the hearts and minds of our fans as much as we can.
Roger Travis, associate professor of classics at the University of Connecticut, compared the Master Chief to the epic hero Aeneas, in that both superhuman characters save a civilization by defeating strong enemies in a martial setting. The audience is intended to become immersed and to identify with the protagonist similarly in both stories. Matthew Stover compared Halo to the Iliad, saying that both stories share the meta-theme that "war is the crucible of character". As military science fiction, Halo further raises the issue of being human. Stover argued that, since players are to imagine themselves as the Master Chief, the character is correctly presented as a cyborg, neither a flawless machine nor fully human. Players would be unable to empathize with the former, and the latter would be too specifically developed.
Reaction to the Master Chief as a character is generally mixed. Some reviewers see the character's silent nature as a strength; others have said that this quality leaves him insufficiently developed and believable. Neil Blomkamp, director of the stalled Halo film, said the movie would have depicted the character as "the most important supporting cast member" because of his faceless nature. Instead, "other characters around him [...] did most of the emotional heavy lifting", with their story exploring their perception of the Chief.