What exactly is a name?
A form of specificity and identity, of course. It’s what others recognise you by, and it undoubtedly carries connotations associated with your personality and what to expect of you. There is a clear distinction, however, between a name and a title. At what point does the former become the latter?
The assumption and upholding of responsibility. Let’s look at the importance of identity in one of the most pivotal characters in Halo…
Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan -117
One of the principal rites of passage for every SPARTAN-II (and SPARTAN-III) upon their induction was the loss of their family name, and the ‘gift’ of a new name: SPARTAN-XXX. Whilst ‘XXX’ resembles a numerical tag for individual identification, the adoption of the title ‘SPARTAN’ was an adoption of responsibility by every candidate, right from their very indoctrination as children. John, like his peers, was given a title; a name which was both a badge and a burden. Even in the Halo 2: Anniversary prologue cinematic, Agent Jameson Locke states that he is “not so much hunting aSpartan, but the Spartan”. This is undoubtedly a testament to the fact that John, in the eyes of many, embodies all the characteristics and upholds the duties expected of a Spartan; the definitive specimen. He defines the title of ‘Spartan’ as much as it defines him. But the expectations John must live up to are even more numerous.
Officially, Master Chief Petty Officer is a rank within the UNSC Navy. A rank does demand responsibilities from its bearer – but undoubtedly nothing close to the responsibilities expected of the Master Chief. The fact that he is identified as such is a clear indication of how a name (or in this case, a rank) was transformed through his actions into an honorific – a mantle in its own right. To humanity, the Master Chief is a name which symbolises hope when all seems lost, for his actions during the closing months of the Human-Covenant war were undoubtedly key to humanity’s survival at a time when humans were on the brink of defeat, and total extinction seemed inevitable.
Josh Holmes (of 343 Industries) once described Master Chief as being like Atlas, with the weight of the world upon his shoulders. It’s not difficult to see why this analogy is so fitting. John’s title, more of an identity than his first name ever will be, carries such an immense amount of responsibility that it’s easy to understand why a man in his position could eventually begin to fragment – as we see in Halo 4’s epilogue/The Next 72 Hours. The most devastating event in SPARTAN-117’s life – the death of Cortana – is likely to have affected him so deeply because of their responsibility to each other. She was his guardian, as he was hers. John clearly blames himself for failing to adequately protect her from an enemy he couldn’t defeat (rampancy). Perhaps most heartbreaking is Cortana’s farewell (“Welcome home, John“), in which she says her affectionate final goodbye to a boy, an individual, rather than to a rank or a title.
With this failure to uphold responsibility as her guardian, the Master Chief is losing his sense of identity; as a man stripped of any chance of a normal life, John’s desertion in Halo 5 is clearly a crisis of determining Who or What he is. Without the responsibilities of a clear enemy to fight or an AI companion to protect, John resorts to his indoctrinated soldier instincts; neutralize threats, Win. And that’s precisely what the end of TN72H demonstrates.
On the subject of failure of responsibility, there is one other character that must obviously be addressed…
The Arbiter, Thel ‘Vadam
After his inability to prevent the destruction of Installation 04, Thel was stripped of his former title Supreme Commander and a new, dishonourable title was bestowed upon him: the Arbiter.
Long before the Sangheili ever began to voyage through the depths of space, Arbiter was a title which demanded unparalleled respect, bestowed upon a great warrior to rule over all clans. Even after the Writ of Union and formation of the Covenant, the San ‘Shyuum ensured that Arbiters would lead the entire Covenant military. The combat and leadership prowess of Arbiters was expected to be so great that one would hold such power and responsibility with ease. This tradition continued until circa 2100 A.D, the time in which Fal ‘Chavamee held the position of Arbiter. It would be his questioning and rejection of the core Covenant religion which spurred the San ‘Shyuum leaders to shatter millennia of tradition; the title of Arbiter was transformed into one of utter shame, of dishonour – a title of failed responsibility.
Arbiters became martyrs to be looked down upon, forced to die in the name of the Covenant beliefs to reclaim their coveted honour.
In truth, altering the ancient title of Arbiter like this was in fact a method of repression. The San ‘Shyuum held absolute power in the Covenant, with the Sangheili (an entire warrior race) serving at their will. Powerful, well-known Sangheili individuals could not be permitted to openly question or cast doubts about the fragile beliefs of the Covenant – for fear that this ancient, multi-species union would fracture. Such a catastrophe would leave the San ‘Shyuum defenceless and alone in a potentially hostile galaxy. Thus, their redefining of the Arbiter was practically a necessity; a well-timed, strategic manipulation which ensured the continued safety of their species.
And so, at the time of Thel ‘Vadamee’s demotion, ‘Arbiter’ is both a degrading title of heresy and, in hindsight at least, a symbol of humiliating repression at the hands of the Prophet hierarchs. It is akin to John-117’s title of ‘Demon’; insulting, if only with a sliver of respect implied. Whilst this can be seen as a similarity between the two protagonists, it is simultaneously an element of contrast; Master Chief is almost universally acclaimed/revered by his race because of his astonishing upholding of responsibility (protection of humanity/actions on Alpha Halo), whilst the Arbiter is subject to widespread loathing from the Covenant, due to his inability to uphold a ‘religious mantle’ as it were (protection of a holy Forerunner artefact: Installation 04).
Halo 2 can therefore be interpreted as the story of two individuals with great expectations placed upon them because of their unique identities, both trying to live up to the responsibilities demanded of them. Except in the Arbiter’s case, he comes to the revelation that the responsibilities expected of not only himself but his entire race were based on deception.
Thel himself alludes to the Sangheili identity and its immense importance in Halo 2’s ‘Uncomfortable Silence’ cinematic.
“We have always been your protectors.”
Thel attempts to highlight the importance of this millenia-old role to the Prophet of Truth; Truth, however, dismisses the changing of the guard as an ‘exchange of hats’. What Truth fails to acknowledge however, is that this stripping of responsibility is by extension a stripping of identity.
The Sangheili as a collective were expected to fight and die for their San ‘Shyuum leaders, holding the mantle of defending the San ‘Shyuum, unaware that they had shed blood for thousands of years in the name of lies. In a matter of days, they found their very identity stolen from them by the San ‘Shyuum, who had placed this mantle in the Sangheili’s hands initially – and it is this which is truly the source of dishonour in the Great Schism.
Titles become your identity – and they are not reserved just for individuals, clearly.
The Forerunners are an excellent example of an identity crisis. At their peak they were the most technologically advanced race in the galaxy, having cast out any competition by crushing Precursors and Humans in great wars. Having assumed the Mantle of Responsibility from the Precursors and safeguarded it from any attempts by humanity to steal it, the Forerunners allowed their hubris to assure themselves that they were the ‘guardians of the galaxy’. Such a title requires the bearer to uphold the Mantle of Responsibility by co-existing with all life – not by arrogantly dominating over it, as the Forerunners would. One only needs to consider the Halo Array to see why the Forerunner approach to upholding the Mantle was ineffective. And by failing to efficiently carry out their responsibility, the Forerunners were stripped of that identity they tried to inherit: Guardians.
What does any of this mean in regards to the future of the Halo franchise, however? How can we expect identity and responsibility to be relevant going forward? The title of the next main Halo game should spell it out…
Halo 5: Guardians
In the ‘current-era’ Halo universe (c.2558), we can see history repeating itself, the same mistakes coming around again. Humanity is rising up in arrogance and defiance, just as the Primordial predicted. ONI’s careless meddling with galactic diplomacy and their aggressive foreign policy is solid proof of this. In order to truly reclaim the Mantle of Responsibility and inherit the title of ‘guardians of the galaxy’, an honourable identity, Humanity must take steps to ensure they carry out the associated responsibilities and act as guardians, not dominators – by fostering co-existance, not manipulation and deception as ONI would have it.
Thel ‘Vadam must restore the title of ‘Arbiter’, living up to the responsibilities it carried: to be a great leader of his people, far more than just the great warrior the Prophet hierarchs had him serve as throughout the Human-Covenant war. The Arbiter must carry a Mantle of Responsibility of his own to hold on to his title, his identity; he must unite and safeguard his whole race.
Meanwhile, our upcoming protagonists – Agent Jameson Locke and John-117 – have a tremendous journey of identity of their own to fulfil. They must decide either to be just soldiers, or to become Guardians – and to truly understand what the responsibilities of being the latter entail.