Arbiter (Halo)

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Halo character
An alien warrior in a hunched position. Its feet end with two prominent claws, while its mouth is split into four parts lined with teeth. The alien is covered in shiny metal plates that overlap. In his hand he carries a glowing dual-tipped blade.a
Arbiter Ripa 'Moramee, as he appears in Halo Wars
First appearanceHalo 2 (2004)
(Thel 'Vadamee/Thel 'Vadam)
Voiced by

In the Halo science fiction universe, the Arbiter is a ceremonial, religious, and political rank bestowed upon alien Covenant Elites. In the 2004 video game Halo 2, the rank is given to a disgraced commander as a way to atone for his failures. Although Arbiter is intended to die serving the Covenant leadership, the High Prophets, he survives his missions and the Prophets' subsequent betrayal of his kind. When he learns that the Prophets' plans would doom all sentient life in the galaxy to extinction, Arbiter's allies with the Covenant's enemies—humanity—and stops the ringworld Halo from being activated. Arbiter is a playable character in Halo 2 and its 2007 sequel Halo 3; a different Arbiter appears in the 2009 real-time strategy game Halo Wars, which takes place 20 years before the events of the main trilogy.

The appearance of Arbiter in Halo 2 and the change in perspective from the main human protagonist Master Chief to a former enemy was a plot twist Halo developer Bungie kept highly secret. The character's name was changed from "Dervish" after concerns that the name reinforced a perceived United States-versus-Islam allegory in the game's plot. Actor Keith David lends his voice to the character in Halo 2, 3, and 5, while David Sobolov voices Arbiter of Halo Wars.

Arbiter has appeared in four series of action figures and other collectibles and marketing in addition to appearances in the games. Bungie intended the sudden point of view switch to a member of the Covenant as a plot twist that no one would have seen coming, but the character in particular and the humanization of the Covenant in general was not evenly received by critics and fans. Computer and Video Games derided Arbiter's missions as "crap bits" in Halo 2. Conversely, IGN lamented the loss of Arbiter's story in Halo 3 and missed the added dimension the character provided to the story.

Character design[edit]

Keith David voiced Thel 'Vadamee, the Arbiter of Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 5: Guardians

The Arbiter in the video games Halo 2 (2004) and Halo 3 (2007) is voiced by American actor Keith David. David noted that he enjoys voicing complicated characters who have a past. To make an impact with voice acting, he says, is difficult—"it's either good acting or it's bad acting".[1] David is not a frequent video game player, but stated that he has become more known for his work as the Arbiter than for his film and other voice roles.[2]

The Arbiter changed very little during development, as the overall appearance of the alien Covenant Elites had been designed and developed for the previous game, 2001's Halo: Combat Evolved. The only substantial difference between the Arbiter and other Elites is ceremonial armor seen in early concept sketches and which appeared in the final design.[3] During Halo 2's early developmental stages the character's name was "Dervish",[4] a name from the Sufi sect of Islam. Out of context, Microsoft Game Studios' "geocultural review" consultants found nothing wrong with the name. However, as Tom Edwards, a consultant who worked with Microsoft during the review noted, "within the game's context this Islamic-related name of 'Dervish' set up a potentially problematic allegory related to Halo 2's plot—the [United States]-like forces (Master Chief/Sarge) versus Islam (the religious Covenant, which already had a 'Prophet of Truth' which is one title for Muhammad).[5] Since this incident was not long after the September 11 attacks, sensitivity to the name remained high, and the character's name was changed to the "Arbiter".[5]

In an interview with MTV, Halo developer Bungie's former content manager Frank O'Connor said that the inclusion of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2 was supposed to be a "secret on the scale of a Shyamalan plot twist" and explains that Bungie was able to keep the public uninformed about this until the game's release, to the point that O'Connor never even considered including it on the weekly development updates posted at Bungie's webpage.[6] O'Connor also stated that Bungie "had some other things that were secrets within secrets" and claimed that there was material related to the Arbiter that was kept secret during the development of Halo 3 because "There is an aspect of the Arbiter's character that is still secret to this day and will remain so for a good reason."[6] Story director Joseph Staten said that the purpose of introducing the Arbiter was "to offer another, compelling point of view on a war where telling friend from foe wasn't always clear-cut. We knew we had a trilogy on our hands, so we were looking past the shock of playing as the enemy [to the events of Halo 3]".[7]

Major appearances[edit]

Halo 2[edit]

Presented in Halo 2, the rank of "Arbiter" is bestowed upon a Covenant Elite by the Covenant leadership—the High Prophets—during a time of "extraordinary crisis".[8] The Arbiter acts as the "Will of the Prophets", undertaking highly dangerous missions to preserve the Covenant. It is expected that these soldiers will die in the course of their duties.[9] Although it was originally a rank of great honor, it later became a rank assigned to disgraced or shamed Elites that nevertheless possessed great martial skill, both as a means to have them serve the Covenant, and as a convenient means of disposal after their assigned suicidal missions.[10]

The Arbiter in the Halo saga Thel 'Vadamee,[11] was previously a Supreme Commander in the Covenant fleet, having commanded the ships that follow the human vessel Pillar of Autumn to the ringworld Halo during the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. A Prophet orders the Autumn not to be destroyed outright, lest the ring be damaged; this hesitance allows the humans to land on the ring, coordinate a resistance, and ultimately destroy the ring to stop the spread of the parasitic Flood.[12] In the aftermath of the incident (depicted in Halo: First Strike), the commander also loses a Covenant ship to UNSC forces, resulting in the annihilation of a Covenant invasion force heading for Earth.[13] As Halo 2 begins, the Covenant High Council brands the Commander a heretic for letting the ringworld—which the Covenant consider a sacred relic—be destroyed.[14] He is stripped of his rank and branded. Though his public execution is soon to follow, he is spared by the High Prophets;[15] the Hierarchs give the disgraced Commander a chance to lead troops once again by becoming the Arbiter.[16]

The Arbiter's first mission is to silence a renegade Elite who has been preaching that the Prophets have lied to the Covenant.[17] The Arbiter is then sent to retrieve the "Sacred Icon" from the library on the newly discovered Delta Halo, in order to activate the ring and bring about the Great Journey,[18] the Covenant's concept of salvation. Though he retrieves the Icon, the Arbiter is betrayed by the Chieftain of the Brutes, Tartarus; Tartarus reveals that the Prophets have given him and his race carte blanche to massacre the Elites and replace them in the Covenant caste system. Though the Arbiter is believed dead, he is rescued—along with his nemesis, the human soldier Master Chief—by the parasitic Flood intelligence Gravemind. Gravemind reveals that the Great Journey actually spells doom for all sentient life, and sends him to stop Tartarus from activating the ring.[19] In the process of stopping the Brute, the Arbiter and his Elites forge an alliance with the humans Miranda Keyes and Avery Johnson,[11] and the Arbiter slays Tartarus with help from Johnson, halting the firing of the ring. The unexpected shutdown of Halo triggers a standby sequence, which the Arbiter learns has made all the Halo installations ready to fire remotely from a place known as the Ark.[20]

Halo 3[edit]

While the Arbiter remains a playable character in Halo 3 during cooperative gameplay (the second player in a game lobby controls him), the game's story never switches to the point of view of the Arbiter, as in Halo 2.[21] For much of Halo 3, the Arbiter assists human forces in their fight against hostile Covenant forces alongside John-117. After the Flood arrive on Earth, the Arbiter persuades Rtas 'Vadum not to glass the entire planet to quell the infestation. Along with a group of humans and Elites, the Arbiter follows the Prophet of Truth's forces through a slipspace portal to the Ark, where he kills the Prophet. The Master Chief decides to activate the Halo under construction at the Ark to destroy the local Flood while sparing the galaxy at large; the Arbiter helps to retrieve the artificial intelligence Cortana so that the installation can be fired. During the escape, the ship he and the Master Chief are on split in two; while the Master Chief is presumed lost, the Arbiter crashes safely to Earth. After attending a ceremony honoring the dead, the Arbiter and the rest of the Elites leave for their homeworld.[11][22]

Halo Wars[edit]

Taking place 20 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved,[23] Ensemble Studio's Halo Wars features a different Arbiter from the character seen in the trilogy.[24] Lead designer David Pottinger described Ensemble's Arbiter as a "mean guy. He's Darth Vader times ten." The characterization stemmed from a desire to make the Covenant more basically "evil" in order to provide a good guy-bad guy conflict.[25] Parts of the Arbiter's backstory before the game's events are explained in a tie-in graphic novel, Halo Wars: Genesis.[26] The Elite, Ripa 'Moramee, was given the rank after he fought and lost a campaign against his own clan.[10] The Arbiter acts as the primary enemy of the game, charged with the destruction of humanity by the Prophet of Regret. Under the Prophet's orders, the Arbiter kidnaps Professor Ellen Anders and takes her to a Forerunner shield world in uncharted space where he uses Anders to activate a massive fleet of Forerunner dreadnoughts with the plan to use the fleet to destroy humanity. The Arbiter engages in combat with protagonist Sergeant John Forge twice: once when the Arbiter kidnaps Anders and once when Forge attempts to use the Spirit of Fire's FTL reactor to destroy the shield world. Both times the Arbiter proves to be more than a match for Forge. The first time, the Arbiter spares Forge's life after Anders agrees to go with him quietly in exchange. The second time, Forge tricks the Arbiter before stabbing him in the neck with his combat knife "Lucy". Forge is then able to kill the Arbiter with his own energy sword.

Halo 5: Guardians[edit]

Thel 'Vadam, voiced by Keith David, narrates and appears in a trailer for Halo: The Master Chief Collection, first shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2014. The trailer acts as a prelude to Halo 5: Guardians,[27] in which Thel 'Vadam and his forces (Swords of Sangheilios) are locked in a bloody civil war with the remnants Jul 'Mdama's Covenant on his home planet of Sanghelios. In-game, needing the Arbiter's help, Fireteam Osiris travels to Sanghelios and rescues the Arbiter from a Covenant attack, later making plans for an assault on the final Covenant stronghold of Sunaion. The Arbiter is shown to be wary of Spartan Jameson Locke who once compiled a profile on him and suggested that Thel be assassinated due to the threat he posed, something Locke had volunteered to do. As seen in the trailer, while on the way to Sunaion, the Arbiter speaks with Locke who asks the Arbiter about whether the nickname "Demon" was an insult or a compliment. The Arbiter assures him that it was an insult, but with a certain standard of respect, which, after a chain of events, eventually lead the Arbiter to call the Master Chief an ally and even his friend. Before the Spartans leave the Lich, the Arbiter asks Locke what the Spartans nicknamed the Master Chief, given that he was neither ally nor foe to them. The scene ends with Locke dodging the question and restating his duty. After arriving in Sunaion, the Spartans and the Arbiter's forces fight together to defeat the Covenant once and for all before the Spartans depart on a Guardian to chase after the Master Chief. When the Spartans leave, the Arbiter gives Locke a greeting of respect that shocks Olympia Vale as she has never heard a Sangheili use it on a human. With the Spartans gone and the Covenant in disarray, the Arbiter and his followers finish off the last of their enemies and achieve a final victory. After Cortana begins the subjugation of the galaxy, Fireteam Osiris and Blue Team return to Sangheilios where the Arbiter and the Master Chief are reunited for the first time in years.

Other appearances[edit]

An Arbiter is available as a playable character in Killer Instinct: Season Three, voiced by Ray Chase. He uses several weapons from the Halo series in combat, and fights in the Arena of Judgment, a stage set in the midst of a battle on Sanghelios . According to franchise development director Frank O'Connor, this character is an "amalgam" of historical characters.[28]

Thel 'Vadam appears in several of the Halo novels starting with The Cole Protocol. In the novel, taking place around fifteen years before the games, he is the commander of a Covenant ship that comes into conflict with Captain Jacob Keyes and a group of Spartans over a colony of human survivors in an asteroid belt. Thel gets caught up in the political machinations between the Prophets of Regret and Truth and is left with doubts after what he witnesses, ending with Thel being forced to kill his best friend to protect the Prophets. His identity as the Arbiter is hinted at during the end of the novel when he comments that he is being given command of a ship within the Fleet of Particular Justice, the fleet that the Arbiter commanded before the events of Halo 2. Thel appears in several other novels taking place after Halo 3 where he strives for peace with humanity while dealing with dissent within his own species and the other Covenant remnants. Thel briefly appears at the beginning of Halo: Bad Blood which takes place where Halo 5: Guardians left off. He is mentioned to spend the night catching up with the Master Chief and before the humans depart the next morning to link up with the Infinity, he expresses confidence that together they will beat the Guardians as they once did the Covenant. Its also revealed that Cortana sent a Guardian back to Sangheilios and like Earth, the planet is being subjugated.

Cultural impact[edit]


Following the release of Halo 2, Joyride Studios released an Arbiter action figure. This particular model was reviewed by Armchair Empire's Aaron Simmer as a "great translation of the source material into plastic".[29] Simmer described the figure's dimensions were in proportion with other figures released by the studio, and praised the level of detail in the armor and weapons, but found fault with the neck articulation and design.[29] Other aspects mentioned were its compatibility with the Master Chief's action figure and its durability.[29] Several models of the Arbiter are featured in the Halo ActionClix collectible game, produced as promotional material prior to the release of Halo 3.[30] McFarlane Toys was given the task of developing a Halo 3 line of action figures, and a sculpt of the Arbiter was released in the second series of figures after the game's release in July 2008.[31] A large-scale, non-articulated Arbiter figure was produced by McFarlane as part of the "Legendary Collection".[32]

Critical reception[edit]

The reception of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2 was mixed; O'Connor described the Arbiter as the most controversial character Bungie had ever created.[33] The character was described as a "brilliant stroke of a game design" because it provided an unexpected story line but also offered the player new options by allowing stealth gameplay.[34] Several publications enjoyed the added dimension to the Covenant by having the Arbiter as a playable character.[7][35]

Alternatively, publications like GameSpot thought that while the Arbiter and Covenant side added "newfound complexity to the story", it distracted the player from Earth's fate;[36] a panel of Halo 2 reviewers argued that though the decision to humanize the Covenant by the introduction of the Arbiter was welcome, the execution in-game was lacking.[37] The missions where the player controls the Arbiter were described as "anything but easy" and occasionally "boring", due to the lack of human weapons to balance the gameplay.[37] A review performed by Computer and Video Games described the time that the player controls the character as "[those] crap bits when you play as an alien Arbiter" and listed this as one of Halo 2's flaws.[38] Reviewer Jarno Kokko said that while he did not personally dislike playing as the character, the idea of "people disliking the concept of playing on the other side in a game that is supposed to be the 'Master Chief blows up some alien scum' show" was a plausible complaint.[39] Among some fans, the character was reviled.[7]

The reception of the Arbiter's elimination as a main playable character in Halo 3 was similarly mixed. Hilary Goldstein of IGN decided the change took away the "intriguing side-story of the Arbiter and his Elites", in the process reducing the character's role to that of "a dude with a weird mandible and a cool sword".[40] Likewise, Steve West of stated that the one important event in the game for the Arbiter would be lost on anyone for whom Halo 3 was their first game in the series.[41] IGN's reviewer took issue with the poor artificial intelligence (AI) of allies in the game, and singled out the Arbiter in particular; "The Arbiter makes me question why the Elites were ever feared in the original Halo," Hilary Goldstein said. Describing the AI of the character, Goldstein felt players could "enjoy watching your supposed equal getting shot in the face repeatedly and generally making himself utterly useless. What is the point of sticking you with an AI compatriot if all he's good at is respawning?"[42][43] The New York Times' Charles Herold found that in comparison to Halo 2, where the character played a central role, the Arbiter in Halo 3 was "extraneous".[44] On the opposite end of the spectrum were reviewers like G4tv, who argued that the Arbiter was more likeable, not to mention more useful, as an AI sidekick instead of the main player.[45] In a list of the top alien characters in video games, MSNBC placed the Arbiter at the number two ranking.[46]

Halo Wars's cinematics and voice acting were widely lauded,[47][48][49][50][50] although one reviewer wrote that the characters were stereotypical and unlikeable.[51] Dakota Grabowski of PlanetXbox360 considered the Arbiter the most confusing character in the game's story.[52] Conversely, GamePro listed the Arbiter as one of the five best things about the game, saying that while it was a different character than the Arbiter seen in Halo 2 and Halo 3, he was "like an alien Jack Bauer amped up on drugs".[53]

Despite the resistance to the character, Bungie staff defended the character's introduction. "I'd much rather experiment and do something surprising, and not have everybody appreciate it, than just turn the crank and do another alien war movie with a space marine," said Halo 2 design lead Jaime Griesemer. Community lead Brian Jarrard attributed some of the fan backlash to a discord between the game's marketing and the actual gameplay. "I think, even more so than playing as the Arbiter, the thing that people were disappointed with and angry about is that they were promised this experience, through the marketing, of being really backs against the wall, Earth's under siege, we're going to do all we can to save our home planet... In reality, the game only had two missions that actually did that." Referring to Halo 2's cliffhanger ending, Griesemer said, "I think if we'd been able to finish that last couple of missions and get you properly back on Earth, a lot of the reaction would have been placated."[7]


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