Thanks to Microsoft's E3 press conference, I'm officially excited to play Halo 5. It wasn't the gameplay that did it, though four-player Halo-style combat with characters that aren't just carbon copies of each other is definitely intriguing. No, it was the fact that, for the first time in years, Master Chief isn't the star. While the famous Spartan will undoubtedly play a major part in Halo 5, he will be sharing the spotlight with a host of other playable characters, and it's the best thing I've heard about the series in a long time.
Master Chief is an icon, becoming the Xbox's first mascot after a single, genre-defining title. His green and gold-plated armor is instantly recognizable by even casual video game fans, and at six-feet-seven-inches, his stature towers above practically every other character in the series. He's been Earth's savior time and again, preventing a coalition of aliens known as the Covenant from taking over our planet, keeping the Flood from eradicating all life from the galaxy, and making sure that the titular Halos don't do the same. He's also dreadfully, unbelievably boring.
There's no doubt that Master Chief belongs in the upper echelons of the action-hero pantheon. He's stoic, he's calm, and he's pure machismo, whether he's stealthily smacking aliens in the back of the head with a shotgun or going in full-force with akimbo SMGs. But he's a cipher; a genetically-engineered supersoldier specifically designed to follow orders, kick Covenant ass and project as little emotion as possible while doing it. He's also an extension of the player, a way for the person behind the controller to project their power fantasies onto the game itself. Master Chief never fails. Master Chief will always finish the fight. Master Chief will look unstoppable doing it, and you will never, ever see his face. For a series that takes pride in its stories (especially in a genre that isn't exactly known for quality narrative), Master Chief is a surprisingly flat lead.
But in Halo 5, Master Chief seems to be as important to the story as the soldiers who are searching for him, and that excites me. ODST is my favorite Halo game - blasphemy, I know, but it's the truth. I love stories about the rank and file, about the people who form the cogs of the ongoing war more than the ones who exist outside of it and affect change in grand, sweeping gestures. I love the somber, almost film noir tone of ODST. Wandering the war-torn streets of New Mombasa at night to reunite with your squad - while an ever-present alien threat looms around every corner - makes you feel vulnerable like no other game in the series has.
Juxtaposed between those moments of solitude are missions where you actually get to know every single member of your squad. These characters bicker with each other and try to curb their fears with sarcasm. They help each other out when they're in trouble, and take time to grieve over loss of their comrades. To me, ODST is far more interesting than the numbered Halo games because it tells a more personal and intimate story than Master Chief's galaxy-hopping adventures. Despite the grand scale of the Covenant invasion, the story of this small band of soldiers is far more relatable.
This shift away from a Master Chief-centric storyline will affect the emotional resonance of Halo 5's narrative because of its focus on relatively average soldiers. The Halo series was greatly inspired by the film Aliens, but that movie works precisely because you get to know a small band of flawed misfits before they start getting picked off en masse. They're cocky at first, showing off their biceps, playing Sailor's Poker, and having a grand old time. Then they realize their weapons are ineffective, they start dying, and the reality of how truly screwed they all are sets in. If you replace all of those space marines with one Master Chief who systematically destroys the alien hive without showing an ounce of fear, all the drama gets sucked out because there's no-one to relate to.
By moving Master Chief to the sidelines, a whole wealth of narrative options open up. Again, look at Aliens. There's a greater threat to humanity if the xenomorphs end up making their way onto the ship and back to Earth, but the immediate worry isn't about that - it's about survival. Halo 5 can still be all about saving the galaxy from an apocalyptic threat, but finding Master Chief can be its main focus. That way, you still get the grandiose story, but it's now laser-focused and far more personal. Saving the life of one (very important) person has a far greater chance to directly connect with you emotionally than saving the lives of untold billions because you've gotten to know Master Chief over the course of four whole games. The quest for his survival is tangible, but it only works when he's not the only character we're meant to relate to. 343 has said that Master Chief is still the main protagonist of Halo 5, but then again, Metal Gear Solid 2 is still about Solid Snake - we just get to see his story through the eyes of rookie operative Raiden.
Allowing Master Chief to slowly fade into the background (or at least allowing you to play as different characters who get equal screen time) adds uncertainty to the mix. I don't know how 343 Industries is going to handle these additional characters, but considering the studio's pedigree and the inclusion of Buck from ODST (played by perpetual charm machine Nathan Fillion), I'm hopeful that they will add some much needed tension and humanity to the story. Master Chief may be infallible, but your average soldier isn't, and by focusing on regular folks (comparatively speaking), 343 can finally add something that has been sorely lacking from the Halo series for years: stakes - well, stakes that aren't only of the abstract ‘the whole galaxy hangs in the balance’ variety, anyway.
The mainline Halo games tend to gloss over the fact that humanity had a really rough go of the whole Human-Covenant war, and without Master Chief, would likely have lost. There's drama in that struggle, in the staggering defeats humanity faced before finally eking out victory, and there are a galaxy's worth of interesting stories to be told within that framework. While we've gotten a few already, it would be doing Halo a great disservice to only focus on the tale of one lone, emotionless Spartan. The fact that Halo 5 wants to tell something a little bit different gives me hope for a more human and relatable story, and it will be all the richer for it.