Halo 4 – Crafting a Masterpiece of Character

“Cortana. It’s not over. Not yet.”

Despite having done seven consecutive weeks of content, I find I still have the drive to put out more before 2018 is out!

Earlier this year, I followed up my character studies of the Master Chief in the original trilogy with an in-depth examination of Halo 4 (which, incidentally, was my 117th article).

You might think of this as a ‘companion piece’ to that character study, looking at how the mechanics of the Master Chief’s character arc in Halo 4 works – how his internal growth is reflected in his external journey with Cortana, with reference to similar stories told in Children of Men (2006) and Logan (2017).

Despite the passage of more than six years, Halo 4 continues to be a wellspring of unfathomable depth that I don’t think will ever run dry.Over the course of the summer-just-gone, my grandmother – in the final stage of her life – was moved to a hospice. For the month she was there before she passed, I would travel back-and-forth, to-and-from London, every other day to visit.

That was… well, not a particularly pleasant time, as I’m sure you can imagine.

When I got home in the evenings, I thought a good way to keep my mind distracted was to put on a film I hadn’t seen before.

ArrivalThe Shape of WaterStar Trek: Beyond, and The World’s End were among the titles I managed to finally catch up with. It did a very good job of being distracting!

But the first film I watched was Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.

“When infertility threatens mankind with extinction and the last child born has perished, a disillusioned bureaucrat becomes the unlikely champion in the fight for the survival of Earth’s population; he must face down his own demons and protect the planet’s last remaining hope from danger.”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, put it on your to-watch list.

In fact, go and watch it now! Right now! (Don’t feel the need to dry the tears from your eyes when you come back.)

After watching (and emotionally processing) this film, I stumbled upon an analysis of it done by Lessons From The Screenplay.

This analysis compares the film to 2017’s Logan. It examines the similarities in the protagonists’ journeys with regards to how each film is structurally built, so that the end is set up from the beginning, and how Logan and Theo ultimately find redemption.

(Note that the rest of this article will assume you have watched this, or are at least familiar with these stories.)

As I was watching this, there was one resounding thought in the back of my mind that I just couldn’t shake.

“This reminds me a lot of Halo 4…”

Naturally, I had to do my own spin on it – with credit, of course, given to Lessons From The Screenplay (hitherto abbreviated to ‘LFTS’) for providing the basis of this analysis.


On the surface, one would think that there’s a great deal of difference between a dystopian thriller from 2006 about society’s collapse, a comic book superhero film about mutants, and – between them – a sci-fi shooter about a man in a green suit and his AI companion…

Looking beyond that surface-level, though, at the writing and the way they structure their protagonists’ character arcs, they share a great many similarities.

Each is an odyssey – an emotional one as well as a physical one. The heroes are pressured into a dangerous journey that really examines the nature of what makes them a ‘hero,’ leading to a powerful conclusion.

But that’s a surface-level description. How do you create a compelling and impactful character arc?

What binds these stories together is that they are really about the protagonist’s journey leading to some kind of self-discovery.

In Children of Men and Logan, it’s about how Theo and Logan find some kind of redemption (for themselves and in the world they come to fight for).

In Halo 4 (which differs in that it is both a sequel to a trilogy before it, while setting up a new ongoing story – it’s not standalone), it is about the Master Chief finding and dealing with his sense of humanity – about what it means to be who and what he is.

LFTS references Notes on Directing, by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich, in which it is written:

“Realise that the end is in the beginning.

In all the best material, the outcome is inevitable and inherent in the opening moment and in every moment in between.” [Notes on Directing, Hauser and Reich, page 5 (Kindle edition)]

This is said with regards to the first act of a story – how it should echo throughout the text and inform the narrative’s conclusion.

We need to understand how the Normal World (what the protagonist is used to and comfortable with) prevents the change that the protagonist needs, and how it is then torn down.

The transformation that the protagonist undergoes at the end is established and ignited in the beginning.


To properly set up a character’s arc, you have to know what it is you’re building up to.

Where does their journey take them? How do they get there? Who else is involved with them? What trials do they face along the way?

Why do they change?

“We had to create a situation that was going to knock him out of his comfort zone. The Master Chief has settled into this comfort zone of being ‘the hero.’ It’s interesting, early on how we discussed about the Hero’s Journey. How do you have a Hero’s Journey when he’s already a hero?

[…] The journey is the important part, the growth is the important part, and so really where does he still need to go as a human? That became the key not just the story of Halo 4, but the entire trilogy.

[…] Everything had to be predicated by what the characters’ needs were and what direction the characters needed to go in.” [Chris Schlerf, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens]

At the end of Halo 4, the Master Chief and Cortana have risked everything to fight the Didact, who poses a threat to the future of humanity. Both are willing to sacrifice themselves to achieve that, culminating in Cortana actually doing that to win the day and save her best friend.

In doing so, the Chief is unable to fulfil his promise to Cortana (and, reading more broadly across the series, Johnson too).

Like many things in Halo 4, it’s out of the Chief’s hands. Cortana makes her own choice, and he is left standing in silent contemplation of his own sense of humanity.

These are the ‘morals’ of the story, each manifesting as a ‘Truth’ the protagonist must learn on their journey.

For this lesson to be dramatic, the protagonist needs to begin their journey as far away from this Truth as possible.

Thus, the first act establishes ‘The Lie Your Character Believes.’

“The Lie Your Character Believes is the foundation for this character arc. This is what’s wrong in his world.

[…] In order for your character to evolve in a positive way, he must start out with something lacking in his life, some reason that makes change necessary. He is incomplete in some way, but not because he is lacking something external. Rather, your character is incomplete on the inside, thanks to the Lie He Believes.” [Creating Character Arcs, K. M. Weiland, loc. 205 (Kindle edition)]

At the start of Halo 4, we get several glimpses into the Master Chief’s ‘Lie.’

He believes that he is separate from humanity, which is conveyed throughout the story as a thematic contrast between man and machine – articulated through his relationship to Cortana, his AI companion, who is the most human character in the story.

The Prologue (which I also ‘recently’ analysed) expresses this through the visuals and dialogue, but it is perhaps most directly evident through the latter, in this particular part of the Interrogator’s exchange with Catherine Halsey:

Halsey: “My work saved the human race.”

Interrogator: “Do you think the Spartans’ lack of basic humanity helped?”

Halsey: “What are you after? The others before you were Naval Intelligence but you… you’re something else.”

Interrogator: “Records show Spartans routinely exhibited mildly sociopathic tendencies, difficulty with socialisation. Furthermore…”

Halsey:The records show efficient behavior operating in hazardous situations. I supplied the tools to maintain that efficiency.”

Interrogator: “Do you believe the Master Chief succeeded because he was, at his core, broken?”

Note that Halsey shifts the subject away from giving an answer to that final question, as it is what the narrative seeks to address and allow the player to answer it in their own way based on the Chief’s journey.

We see this theme broaden further with the introduction of the Prometheans, who are something of a ‘cracked mirror’ of the idea of Spartans.

It is revealed later that the Prometheans are made through a ‘similar’ (in a thematic, conceptual sense) process of trapping somebody within a suit of armour.

This echoes the very first image of the Prologue, which depicts the six-year-old John-117 within a pod shaped like a MJOLNIR helmet.

This makes the Prometheans more than just enemies you fight, more than a second act revelation, but a thematic foil for the Chief. They are the image of ‘the ultimate soldier,’ turned machine, and to deconstruct that level of symbolism is an essay in itself!The Chief finds the words to express his Lie to Thomas Lasky during the conversation in the Epilogue.

“Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity… whatever the cost.”

He attempts to rationalise Cortana’s sacrifice as another casualty of war in order to avoid dealing with its emotional consequences.

If that is the Chief’s Lie (that he fights for humanity but is separate from them), then it is Thomas Lasky who puts into words the Truth he must understand and accept.

“You say that like ‘soldiers’ and ‘humanity’ are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people.”

This is where we have to look a bit beyond Halo 4 alone because of the fact that it was, at the time of its creation, the first of a planned trilogy.

That plan has since changed in various ways, but parts of the outline for its narrative progression do remain.

In losing Cortana, no longer being in a position where she can be a ‘crutch’ for his humanity, what it is that the Chief has been missing is revealed: genuine human connection.

We see this in the original trilogy, with the likes of Jacob and Miranda Keyes, Lord Hood, Johnson, and Thel.

It builds on the lack of substantial development between them: Chief follows Keyes’ orders; Johnson makes some quips with (mostly to) him; there is a silent build of mutual trust with Thel, but little beyond that…

We see this in Halo 4 through Lasky, who has something of an established history with the Chief from the events of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.

But, in reality, Lasky is just one out of many over the last three decades that the Chief has saved.

These people have their own unique relationship with him, but they’re not so close as to be able to really describe them as family.

That lies with Blue Team (and, as we see with some of the long-term set-up, Halsey – but that’s another can of Lekgolo!)

Bringing Fred, Kelly, and Linda into the games was something 343 had planned for early on – releasing them from Onyx in Halo: Glasslands to open the door for future stories with them.

“I think [Blue Team is] a vital part of the universe. I think it’s something we all would love to understand better in different ways.

[…] We thought about – early on, in concept – here, whether it was something we wanted to pull in now or pull in later.” [Kiki Wolfkill, PAX Prime 2012 – Halo 4 Reborn panel (27:30)]

In fact, the concluding piece of concept art in Awakening: The Art of Halo 4 is this…The Lie that our protagonist believes about themselves has to be something we can empathise with. We need to understand a) why they believe it, and b) why they find difficulty in breaking free from it.

Going back to the first act, the Lie needs to be reinforced by the protagonist’s Normal World.

“The Normal World dramatises the Lie the Character Believes. It empowers the character in that Lie, giving him no reason to look beyond it.” [LFTS’s ‘Logan vs. Children of Men – The End is in the Beginning’ (3:52), paraphrasing Weiland]

For the Chief, his Normal World is conflict.

Conflict is what he was, as a Spartan-II, ‘designed’ for.

He receives orders to fight an enemy and blow stuff up, which is pretty much a succinct summary of what we do throughout the original trilogy.

He does not question orders; he does not act on his own interests; he does not have agency.

This is something that makes things simple, both for himself and the UNSC that wields him.

There is only the mission, the objective, the action, getting out – then doing it all over again somewhere else.

This is explored more in the books (note that I haven’t mentioned the books at all thus far, nor will I be – this is pointedly focused solely on what Halo 4 shows us), but it’s the reality of what we’ve experienced throughout the original trilogy.On a meta level, we are complicit in reinforcing this Normal World every time we pick up the controller and cut down hordes of enemies as the Master Chief.

The satisfying gameplay loop designed by the developers serves the additional purpose of empowering the Lie He Believes.

Narratively, this is reflected in much of the first act of Halo 4 having you fight the Covenant.

The first two missions – Dawn and Requiem – are notably the ones that most resemble the formula of the original trilogy, before things begin to expand into unfamiliar territory (as the Prometheans take the stage).

You start off on a ship in space; the Covenant invade and you have to escape, leading you to crash land on an ancient Forerunner world.

It’s become such a rote formula that even the characters are aware of it, with Cortana almost immediately directing you to find the installation’s Cartographer – just as she said in Halo 2 that blowing up In Amber Clad to destroy High Charity was “Not a very original plan,” but it’ll work.

This is what the Chief’s Normal World looks like.

Once that is established, something must then happen to enable the protagonist’s journey to change them…


Throughout the first act of Halo 4, we see the Normal World gradually dismantled.

It begins when the Chief learns about Cortana’s rampancy, which leads to him assuming the ‘role’ of caretaker. Already, he has become more than just a conduit for the action.

This is something we hadn’t hitherto seen in the games before, which he shows clear uncertainty towards because he has to react to things emotionally as they get deeper into the katabasis.

The introduction of the Prometheans further breaks the Normal World.

The vignette at the start of Forerunner (the third mission) shows a Knight taking the Chief by surprise and knocking him down. Indeed, this was something of a motif in the advertising for Halo 4 – the live action Scanned trailer being a good example.

The novels and comics have shown the Chief get overpowered plenty of times – in Halo: Uprising, for instance, he’s almost killed by a Brute Chieftain after gets hit by several fuel rods.

Typically though, the games have tended towards portraying him as something of an immovable object.

For Bungie, this was part of the power fantasy they wanted the player to experience by (inconsistently) stating that the Chief is a ‘vessel’ for the player.

We rarely saw any fighting in the cutscenes, that tended to be left to the gameplay, which is part of why we’ve built up this impression of him.

As I said earlier, we reinforce his Normal World because the gameplay empowers us in this sense.

But Halo 4 looked to subvert that.

A single (standard) Knight gets the drop on John and knocks him down. Suddenly, our unstoppable force of a hero doesn’t seem quite so unstoppable…

And the purpose of this is to build up to what happens at the end of this mission, the end of the first act, which is where we formally meet the antagonist – the Didact – who represents an enemy that the Master Chief cannot take on physically.

The Normal World thematically shatters when the Master Chief can be immobilised by a wave of the Didact’s hand, casually throwing him aside.

The Normal World also literally shatters as the Didact leaves the Chief to die as Requiem’s core falls apart.

This narrative double-entendre is repeated at the end, when Cortana says her final farewell to the Chief – Mantle’s Approach falling apart as his world both literally and metaphorically crumbles.The destruction of the Normal World, however, really begins with the Inciting Incident.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby states:

“The best inciting event is one that makes your hero think he has just overcome the crisis he has faced since the beginning of the story.

In fact, due to the inciting event, the hero has just gotten into the worst trouble of his life.” [John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, page 277-8 (Kindle edition)]

The Inciting Incident is typically comprised of three parts:

  1. sudden opportunity
  2. refusal
  3. reluctant agreement

At the start of Requiem (the second mission of Halo 4), the Chief and Cortana are tracking a mysterious signal that they soon discover to be a transmission from the UNSC Infinity.

This is the sudden opportunity. It appears that the Chief and Cortana are not alone on this planet; friendly forces are present, along with a ship that could get them back to Halsey to sort out Cortana’s rampancy.

The refusal comes not as an active choice, but as a consequence of pursuing this signal and trying to warn the Infinity away from Requiem – it is in danger of being pulled into the planet’s gravity well, like the Dawn.

This leads them to unintentionally releasing the Didact from his Cryptum.

He begins putting his millennia-long plans back into action which endangers humanity, and so the Chief and Cortana must remain on Requiem in order to try to contain this Forerunner threat.

“This is where the setup ends, and the story begins ‘for real.’ At this point, the character commits – usually because she has no choice – to a decision that will propel her out of the comfortable stagnation of the Normal World and the Lie She Believes.” [Creating Character Arcs, K. M. Weiland, loc. 568 (Kindle edition)]

The most important refusal comes in the second act, where Captain Del Rio plans to follow protocol and return to UNSC space. This would essentially fulfil the Chief’s starting goal in the first act, getting Cortana back to where she may be helped.

But the Chief’s duty, his and Cortana’s understanding of the threat posed by the Didact, keeps them at Requiem.

And so, the narrative eschews the reluctant agreement.

Halo 4 instead makes this an active choice on the Chief’s part, which puts him in-conflict with Del Rio.

Instead of simply following orders, as he has done, this is where the Chief’s newfound independence and agency sets him on a different path.

The Chief now has to face his Lie because, in choosing to stay at Requiem, he and Cortana are in a position of greater personal and emotional danger.

Cortana’s ailing condition is getting worse, their allies have left them behind, and the stakes are now higher than ever.

The first act makes the UNSC Infinity’s appearance look like the solution to the crisis that threatened the Chief’s Normal World.

Releasing the Didact and learning about his plans makes it clear that the Chief has just gotten into the worst trouble of his life.

The second act conflict shifts to the UNSC, where it is revealed that Del Rio is no Keyes.

He’s not the inspirational and charismatic leader we see as a common archetype in the original trilogy. Del Rio is a bureaucrat, putting protocol first – he is, in this sense, the 343 Guilty Spark of Halo 4.

Due to this looming threat and the leader of his allies being uncooperative, the Normal World is destroyed and the Chief is set on a path where he must confront his Lie.


Cue the penultimate mission, Composer, which marks a definitive turning point, as the third act triggers a great change – often a reversal – in the protagonist.

Despite the positive strides the Chief has made in claiming agency and independence, he has yet to properly address his Lie.

He still believes that there is that separation between himself and ‘humanity.’

Enter Doctor Sandra Tillson…

Tillson is a xenoarchaeologist who has been working on Ivanoff Station, conducting research on artefacts recovered from Installation 03 – including the Composer, the device the Didact is after.

After fighting their way to her lab, the Chief speaks with her. We see him very gently empathise with Doctor Tillson, particularly when Cortana (who is more withdrawn) states that they’re going to have to destroy years of research – years of Tillson’s life, and the lives of her fellows – to stop the Didact getting the Composer.

Here, Halo 4 offers a striking and unexpected critique of its genre by considering the human cost of blowing up Ivanoff Station – not in lives, but in what those lives were dedicated to.

Tillson and her fellow xenoarchaeologists have invested years of their lives into researching valuable information recovered from artefacts discovered on Installation 03.

The Activation Index, a War Sphinx’s eye, the Eld, the Composer itself – these, and who knows what else, are the fruits of their labour.

And then you come in and say it’s all going to be blown up. This base, their home, has to be destroyed.

We know, of course, that doesn’t go to plan because the Chief… fails.

The Didact wins.

He retrieves the Composer, fires it on Ivanoff Station, then heads to Earth.

The Chief lies unconscious in the ashes of the people he failed to save and Cortana can only helplessly watch.

From there, we get what is quite undoubtedly the most mature and emotionally literate scene in the entire series.

“Cortana. It’s not over. Not yet.”

I’ll just let that part of the scene speak for itself.

Words cannot quite articulate what is captured in those few words, nor how many times I have told them to myself over the last six years…


You know how the rest goes…

Like Children of Men and LoganHalo 4 is a great text to study because the Master Chief’s internal struggle and growth as a character is expressed by his external journey.

Where Theo and Logan sacrifice themselves to fulfil their arcs at the end of their films, the Chief does not get to find that same peace – and that’s not for lack of trying.

After the Didact falls into the slipspace abyss, the Chief crawls on his hands and knees towards the HAVOK nuke. Taking a last look at Earth, he slams his hand down on the detonator.

He’s fully prepared for this to be the end for him.

But Cortana saves him, using the last of her power to say one last goodbye before sending him “home.”

With his Normal World gone and the Lie He Believes giving way to Truth, the Chief must go on living to face the consequences of what is only the first step in his great journey.

As I’ve said many times, the tagline of Halo 4 – “WAKE UP, JOHN” – is something of a double-entendre.

It refers not only to the literal reawakening of the Chief following Halo 3, but also to the awakening of this aspect of the character.

Cortana’s first line is “Wake up, Chief.”

Her last is “Welcome home, John.”

The end is in the beginning.

5 thoughts on “Halo 4 – Crafting a Masterpiece of Character

  1. Great read thank you for that. It definitely adds more appreciation to Halo 4 for me, and the connections between the game and films was amazing. Children of Men is definitely getting a rewatch this week. Quick question for you: how do you feel about John’s emotional connection with Blue Team in Halo 5? Missing or underdeveloped?

    1. Thanks very much! Happy to have contributed to your appreciation of the game! 🙂

      Underdeveloped, for sure. There are hints of it there in the dialogue and little motions the characters make, but it’s one of the areas I think suffered the most – particularly with regards to the expectations that were set for us pre-release, that John being reunited with his family was a big deal and it would be a huge opportunity to further explore dimensions of the character we’ve not seen in the games.

      Something I’d love is if Halo Infinite took a similar approach to Halo: Reach, pairing you up with one or two of the other characters in certain missions. I think that could be a good way to get a strong sense of Fred, Kelly, and Linda as individuals and their relationship with John.

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