In Halo: CE the player is introduced to the Master Chief, the series primary protagonist.  Within the game Master Chief is presented as a singular figure, a faceless, nameless and seemingly emotionless being with physical abilities far beyond those of the regular human NPCs.  The limited amount of backstory that comes with the game explains that Master Chief is the last surviving member of a group of biochemically augmented super-soldiers called Spartans who were created and trained to fight the implacable Covenant, a group of technologically and numerically superior alien races who were on a religious crusade to destroy the human race.

This origin story bears a striking resemblance to the legend of the Golem of Prague.  The legend relates that the golem was created in 16th century Prague by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic mobs, here corresponding with the religiously motivated Covenant.  The golem was a giant man made out of clay who was superhumanly strong and tireless, like the Master Chief.  The Golem also could not speak and while Master Chief can, he is also famously taciturn.  Eventually though, the golem was destroyed, according to one version of the legend, to prevent him working on the Sabbath, or in another, because he fell in love with the Rabbi’s daughter, but either way he falls apart and is stored in a box in the Temple so that he can defend the Jews of Prague when the need next arises.  This last element corresponds quite well to the end of Halo 3 where Master Chief, stranded in uninhabited space after the destruction of the Arc and the defeat of the Covenant, enters cryogenic stasis to await rescue, literally climbing into a coffin-like box.  Being a playable character, Master Chief is also controlled by the player.  In that context he becomes the player’s virtual golem.

Within the Halo’verse, at least at the beginning of the story, the Spartans and the details of their lives are not well known.  They were, in fact, originally intended to be a totally classified project.  When they are finally revealed to the general public, it is almost exclusively in the form of propaganda released by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).  ONI’s propaganda press releases have not yet been discussed in depth in any of the Halo media, but based on what has been shown, it creates a picture of the Spartans and Master Chief as silent, perfect soldiers whose sole purpose and interest is in defending humanity from the Covenant.  Which corresponds closely with both the Golem legend and how Master Chief is characterized in the first three Halo games.

However, while the video games are where most viewers first encounter the universe of Halo, it exists across a wide range of media, including novels, comics, and animated and live action film.  The novels which are associated with the first three Halo games, The Fall of Reach, The Flood, First Strike and Ghosts of Onyx almost immediately contradict this portrayal.  Master Chief is immediately shown to be a fully developed person with the same range of feelings as anyone else and although he is not much more talkative in the novels than he is in the games, since the majority of the novels take place from his point of view its made clear that this is not due to any kind of paucity of language or ideas, but for the very ordinary reason that he is both naturally quiet and quite shy and spends a lot of time around people he doesn’t know very well.  Furthermore, the Spartans were trained and intended to operate in groups, and so being the only Spartan on Halo is an unusual and stressful situation for him.  Its also emphasized much more heavily in the novels that Master Chief is actually not alone at all, but is operating in a two person team with the AI Cortana.  The equitable nature of Master Chief and Cortana’s partnership is much less apparent in the first three games when they are taken alone, which emphasizes his isolation.

The only really significant trait Master Chief does share with the Golem is his pervasive lack of narrative agency.  Lack of agency is a particularly topical character trait since Master Chief is not only the lead protagonist, but the primary playable character, his every action controlled by the player and this again, overlaps with the idea of the Golem, who was controlled by the Rabbi who created him.  However, even as his characterization is fleshed out, he continues to be seen as an isolated, inhuman figure by other characters throughout the novels, where he is routinely described as like, “part machine,” “a robot,” “otherworldly and terrifying” and “a greek war god”.   Most of the incidental characters Master Chief encounters view him similarly to real life Halo players, as a barely-human Golem figure who exists to save them from monsters.

This creates an interesting metatextual situation wherein the players of the Halo games are essentially, receiving propagandized versions of a story, the more realistic version of which is hidden (in the novels) and then discovering the true story, but that story is, in turn, a story is about a character who is portrayed both as he is, and through propaganda.  There is an overlap between the medium and the message within the Halo canon.  The nature of this propaganda also relates directly back to the story being told.  The program which created the Spartans was originally supposed to remain highly classified, but were eventually revealed in their propaganda form to boost morale during the Covenant war.  The player receives that propaganda through the game, so they learn about the legend of the Spartans and the Master Chief, before learning the details of their story.

After the war, when the secrets of the Spartan program start to come out, the propaganda/reality divide surrounding the Spartans begins to break down.  In the Kilo-5 trilogy, a set of novels set immediately after the conclusion of the Earth-Covenant War, explores this idea in some depth though the relationship between two ODSTs, Vaz and Mal and a Spartan-II, Naomi-010.  Over the course of three novels, Vaz and Mal go from viewing Naomi as an unapproachable figure of dubious humanity, to a beloved and frequently vulnerable friend.  Mal’s first impression of Naomi was that she was “the tallest, scariest woman [he] had ever seen… She’s a bloody Valkyrie.  She really is.” As outsiders to the Spartan-II program, Vaz and Mal have been exposed to the propaganda about Spartans even though they have never met real Spartans.  Vaz, initially assumes that “Spartans [believe] too much of their own PR, because everyone knew they were winning the war singlehanded.  It was official.” Although he expresses distaste at the propaganda because it erases the contributions of his own branch, the ODSTs, and the rest of the military, indicating that he knows that it is at least partly false he “expected Spartans to be like the heroic PR image presented to the media, fearless and god-like,” he also compares Naomi specifically to another group of mythological creatures, “female demons who looked like ice princesses [and] dined on the gibbets of unwary children.”  But he almost immediately discovers instead that “Naomi was just odd… awkward.”  The two descriptions occur within the same conversation in the text.  Naomi’s association with Valkyries, which, like the Golem are non-human mythological figures associated with violence persists throughout the trilogy, but at the same time she is increasingly humanized and portrayed as emotionally complex and even vulnerable.

This change in the semi-public image of the Spartans, is reflected in the structure of the games.  In Halo 4, which takes place after the war there is a marked change in the way Master Chief is represented.  He has more dialogue, he talks during game-play and his characterization, especially his relationship with Cortana, whose role as an active character is also emphasized.  Once again, the state of the fictional Halo’verse is reflected by the game-player interactions.  When the propaganda-fueled myths about Spartans break down within the fictional world, the real world player is also forced to confront the emotional realities of their former virtual golem.


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