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'Halo' TV show is a chance to add complexity to the video game's main character

Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in the new streaming series <em>Halo</em>.
Adrienn Szabo
Adrienn Szabo/Paramount+
Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief in the new streaming series Halo.

Updated March 25, 2022 at 12:49 PM ET

Spoiler alert: major details from the series premiere of Halo appear in this article.

Halo, the science fiction shoot-'em-up video game series that made Microsoft's Xbox game platform a thing, is the latest video game series to get a Hollywood adaptation. Like the games, the Paramount+ show tells a story of interstellar war between humans and aliens.

In some ways, the video games were tailor-made for the small screen. Back in 2001, when the first version was released, cinematic storytelling in games was just starting to take off. And with its fast-paced action and a tough-talking, no nonsense hero, it had all the ingredients for a big screen blockbuster.

The protagonist of the games is Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 — known to most as simply Master Chief. He's a supersoldier who wears military green armor, and belongs to an elite force of space marines known as the Spartans. In the 26th century, where Halo takes place, the Spartans are Earth's greatest weapon against the Covenant Empire, a cult-like alien civilization bent on wiping out the human race. When players control Master Chief, mowing down Covenant forces, they get to be the hero of an epic sci-fi adventure.

"In taking it to a different medium — film or television — we're asking all of our fans to let us tell you this story," says Kiki Wolfkill, one of the executive producers of the Halo series. "This is a story that you're not going to participate in as a character, but you're going to participate in as a viewer."

In addition to executive producing Halo for Paramount+, Wolfkill has also been a developer for the Halo games. She explains that translating the world of the games to TV means delving deeper into Master Chief as a character, to understand the man under the helmet — John, played by Pablo Schreiber on the show.

"We don't explore a lot of John...outside of the armor or helmet in the games. And these Spartans, and John in particular, have seen more horror than any human can possibly imagine," Wolfkill says. "They have to keep going and they have to keep fighting. And what kind of toll does that take? It's something that we...crack the door on a little in the games, but this is where the series gives us an opportunity to see that in a different way."

The show further opens the door to John-117's humanity by populating the cast with characters that flesh out his world, Wolfkill explains. The series begins on Madrigal, a planet that the government of Earth has colonized for its natural resources. When it's brutally attacked by the Covenant, Master Chief and his squad of Spartan warriors, strike back.

The only Madrigal local who survives the attack is a teenage girl named Kwan Ha, played by Yerin Ha. She witnesses her father, Jin, killed in the battle. Master Chief brings Kwan back with him to his home planet of Reach. But Kwan doesn't trust Master Chief – because for years, her father and many of the people she knew on Madrigal had been fighting a war of independence against the United Nations Space Command – the military that enforces Earth's rule over her colonies.

"With Kwan, I think you see her go from grief and the trauma of what happened to 'the thing I can do is carry my father's fight forward and fight for the people of Madrigal to get out from under the yoke of UNSC,'" says Wolfkill.

Is the right thing to sacrifice a single person for the good of a hundred or a thousand? That's sort of the complexity of what he has to deal with.

We soon learn that Kwan's anger at UNSC and Master Chief has deep roots. In one gripping scene in the first episode, Kwan informs Master Chief that he killed her mother, who was labeled a "threat" for attending a meeting of colonists who discussed the unfair treatment of the UNSC.

Master Chief explains that he takes his orders from above because, in his words, "What I can see on the ground may not reflect the entirety of the situation... Sometimes others know things I do not."

Kwan challenges him, asking, "It ever occur to you that it might work the other way around?"

Wolfkill adds that, no matter the medium, a sense of honor and duty is core to the Master Chief as a character. Depicting how he figures out what that means will clearly be a big part of humanizing him on the show.

"Is the right thing to save a single person who's right there?" Wolfkill asks. "Is the right thing to sacrifice a single person for the good of a hundred or a thousand? That's sort of the complexity of what he has to deal with."

And since Paramount+ renewed Halo for a second season over a month before its premiere, the show should have plenty of time to explore those layers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.