The Arbiter from Halo and Raiden from Metal Gear Solid are strange bedfellows. One is a blonde-haired doofus who has done all the VR simulations he can, and the other is an 8-foot alien with four kissable lips, voiced by Keith David. So why are we even talking about them together? Because they’re both key players in two of the most shocking protagonist swaps in gaming history.
But for all they have in common, the Arbiter stands out as the anti-Raiden, showing players there are more cool figures in the Halo universe than just Master Chief. Whereas Raiden’s story is one of a hero growing into his own confidence and capability, the Arbiter is already a capable character.
After the first Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima launched lengthy trailers for Metal Gear Solid 2, all featuring Solid Snake, the series’ badass spy protagonist. But actual gameplay came with an early twist. Only a few hours into the game, Solid Snake “dies” and players take over as Raiden. The actual storyline is very complex, as Solid Snake isn’t actually dead, and Raiden is unknowingly working for the bad guys. It’s a great story, made better by Raiden’s personal connection to the main antagonist — the “twist” wouldn’t be as effective if Snake was the player character. But swapping in Raiden for Snake is still a topic of controversy.
Bungie took this brilliant idea from Kojima, to swap the player character unexpectedly as a storytelling device, and adapted it to fit their own needs. Halo: Combat Evolved launched two days after Metal Gear Solid 2, but Halo 2 came three years later in 2004. Halo 2 opens with a long cutscene juxtaposing the UNSC and Covenant perspectives. Master Chief is getting rewarded for his efforts in Halo, and the Elite who would become The Arbiter is being stripped, branded, and jailed for his failure to protect the “sacred ring.”
Here’s the twist: A few missions into the game, players take a first look through the eyes of the Arbiter. For the rest of Halo 2, players periodically swap between Master Chief and the Arbiter, promising unique locations and perspectives throughout the entire campaign. Making you play as the “villain” gives the Covenant much more dimension. The role of Arbiter is sacred to the Covenant, but it’s also a death sentence. They’re tools of the Prophets sent on holy suicide missions. That context makes it even more badass when you, as the Arbiter, survive the ridiculous mission you’re sent on. This culminates in the moment the Arbiter rebels again the Covenant by leading a civil war effort.
Though Metal Gear Solid 2 and Halo 2 use the same trick, they aim for wildly different goals. Raiden makes you miss playing as Solid Snake — Snake’s proximity, disguised as “Iroquois Pliskin,” helps enforce that feeling. Snake is essentially an ’80s action hero, complete with gravely voice and sex appeal. He’s also wildly competent and cool — like Master Chief with a personality and libido. Raiden is a complete newby, and he spends the entire game whiney and confused. The way Kojima makes you work with “Pliskin” (who is very clearly Snake in disguise) really forces you to reconcile how much cooler Snake is than Raiden. It manifests the disappointment poignantly, and it’s great.
While playing as the Arbiter may initially suggest that same disappointment, the game quickly brushes past it. The first mission as the Arbiter in Halo 2 is to track a Heretic Leader and assassinate him. That’s already pretty cool. But in the second mission in the two-part arc, the Arbiter evacuates the other Covenant from their sky facility and then cuts the cables keeping it afloat with his energy sword. This causes the station to start plummeting toward the surface, reducing the gravity, and luring the Heretic Leader out of hiding. The Arbiter is an Elite that doesn’t care if he lives or dies, and he does some absolutely wild shit to prove that — making for fun, intense gameplay.
By the end of Halo 2, the Arbiter is an established character with a compelling story that rivals Halo’s main arc. Master Chief may be one of the coolest video game protagonists, but he wasn’t much of a character in the first game (though this also arguably aided players in latching onto him as an avatar). Bungie does a better job characterizing Chief in the sequel, but he’s almost overshadowed by the characterization of the Arbiter. And that’s an impressive feat.
Though Raiden didn’t steal the show in quite the same way, his role gets expanded in later Metal Gear games — unlike the Arbiter, who mostly takes a back seat in the Halo franchise. (Although the Arbiter’s story could ostensibly continue in Halo Infinite.) Raiden became a ridiculous cyber-ninja in Metal Gear Solid 4, and eventually got his own stylish action game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. The Arbiter took a supporting role in Halo 3, serving as a co-op character, and didn’t emerge again until Halo 5 where he led his people against the remainder of the Covenant.
No matter how they end up, both characters serve a different perspective to the player than they got in the first games. But while Metal Gear Solid 2’s story is certainly more in-depth, and the character swap is more iconic, the Arbiter gets to show players that the mindless aliens they spent all of Halo: Combat Evolved killing have their own culture, and that some are just as capable as Master Chief himself.
I’m not here to argue whether Metal Gear Solid 2 or Halo 2 deserves a higher place in the video game hall of fame. But the Arbiter gives Master Chief a run for his money as “badass video game protagonist,” and he does it in only six missions.
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