About a month ago, we speculated that Halo 5’s Fireteam Osiris, which features a new cast of class 4 Spartans, could possibly end up taking the reigns from series hero Master Chief. The responses were mostly along the lines of such a thing being impossible, inconceivable, that 343 would be that ballsy and just kill off an icon in a medium that treats death the same way comic books do.
While not entirely to the same scale, franchises switching longtime heroes with new blood isn’t exactly a new concept for games. Series like Infamous and Resistance have murdered their original protagonists, respectively Cole McGrath and Nathan Hale for newcomers Delsin Rowe and James Capelli. Fighting games actively change up their rosters with each new title for new blood; this year’s Mortal Kombat X primarily focused on new characters Jacqui Briggs, Cassie Cage, Takeda, and Kung Jin. Bioware’s Dragon Age franchise has you play as a completely new person with each entry, and their Mass Effect franchise is getting a brand new cast of characters all over with Andromeda. The Fable series, another long running Xbox franchise, actively switches Heroes with each entry, and the Gears of War franchise is returning next year with new characters.
The big argument against Osiris is that Chief’s the face of Halo as a series, so therefore they have to keep him around or the series will die, and he’s the face of the Xbox brand in general. Both of those are fair points, but not entirely correct. Both arguments can be countered with the Chief not being or having much of a character to begin with. It is in no way related to the man behind the helmet, god no. The storytelling in the previous games never really fleshed him out get fans to the point where they’re like “oh man, I really want to buy the new game to learn more about the Chief and how he’s coping with Cortana being gone!”
More likely, it’s the armor itself that is the Xbox brand. It’s as iconic as Mario’s hat, or Cloud’s sword. Much like how Iron Man’s armor defines him in the movies, the MJOLNIR armor defines the Spartans and the Xbox, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Spartans in the series mythology are built up to be these messianic figures; despite having a high mortality rate, they’re still the best at killing aliens. Without them, humanity would’ve been fucked a long time ago. Hence why Marines express sighs of relief when a Spartan shows up, hell, hence the Covenant being more scared of them than the puny humans and calling Spartans “Demons”. When other pieces of Halo fiction come out, they don’t try to plaster Master Chief’s face or symbol on the cover, they have other supersoliders that look distinct enough from the Chief to tell them apart. Or to put it another way, a comic book about one of Batman’s sidekicks would have a way to convey to people that this person is connected to Batman (see Robin: Son of Batman); 343 and Microsoft trust that people know Halo based on the imagery of the Spartans or the Elites alone and use that in their marketing. As long as someone sees a guy with a split jaw holding a glowing sword or someone in power armor, they’ll think of the series.
Despite a novel entirely dedicated to showing his journey from child soldier to genetically engineered badass, the Master Chief is the least interesting part of the fiction. Part of this is because of how he’s written; in trying to create a blank slate for people to project onto, there’s not a lot for other writers to really work with. He spends most of his time not saying anything, and when he does, it’s done in a fairly flat tone that can sometimes be hard to hear because he’s soft spoken. There’s no way to understand exactly what he’s feeling at any given moment since the games never allow him to take off his helmet, and trying to get what he feels from his body language is almost like trying to learn music while blindfolded.
Why do you think other materials in the universe make it a point to have the characters’ helmets depolarize or be taken off? It’s to help people identify with whoever they’re playing or reading through their personality, and the Chief has about as much personality as a brick. This is why the expanded fiction tend to focus on non-Chief characters, because there’s usually some character material for writers to use besides “oh they’re just really good at killing people”. Those lethal killing machines are still around, yeah, but their personalities shine through during downtime from war or when they’re interacting with other characters.