Master Grief

After a devastating breakup, Eric Smith does the only sensible thing: he buys a full set of armor inspired by Halo.


“Don’t make a girl a promise… if you know you can’t keep it.”
— Cortana, Halo II

Her ring wasn’t perfect. After being reshaped, the white gold band was smudged and uneven. The diamond, instead of a traditional, glittering transparent gem, was a canary yellow, her favorite color. She’d spoken at length about her dream engagement ring, how she wanted the diamond to be this specific, light shade of yellow. It looked blemished, yes, but that’s how she wanted it. And that’s how she was, really. Imperfect but still seemingly perfect.

Now, much like the Halo in Halo, it wasn’t the appearance of her ring that mattered. It was the promise that came with it. For the alien Covenant, the large Halo rings promised the Great Journey, a spiritual undertaking that would help them leave the physical world and become Divine. For me, it was a little simpler, yet felt just as serious. It was a promise that I wasn’t going anywhere.

Unfortunately, both in life and in the Halo videogames, neither of these promises were kept.

There are few sentences in the English language that can be as painful as the phrase “I’ve met someone else.” Here are a few of them:

  • “I’m seeing someone else.”
  • “I’m in love with someone else.”
  • “I’m nailing the hell out this tool I met in karate class and while we’ve been driving in my car, you and I have been listening to the terrible mix CD he made me and now you’ll never be able to hear Alkaline Trio without wanting to fucking kill yourself.”

Regardless of how it’s uttered, it is utterly devastating. Especially when that not-so-perfect ring is in your pocket the entire time you’re being told this, tucked away, like a glimmering plasma grenade.

As the months passed the velvet box collected dust in my closet. Supportive friends would ask about it, and I lied and lied:

  • “The ring? Ha! Pawned that thing.”
  • “What? That thing? Please. I chucked it in the Schuylkill River.”
  • “Her engagement ring? Long gone, guys. No, no it isn’t sitting in my sock drawer, where I look at it almost every day, plucking it out now and again, slowly re-cleansing my dress socks with my tears.”

Eventually, unable to sell the ring in-person to anyone, the canary yellow diamond found its way to eBay, sent away in a priority mail, insurance stamped box. Distancing myself from the process made it easier. The funds in my PayPal warmed my heart for the most part, but lurked there, reminding me of what I lost and where that money came from.

I had to get rid of it.

And not just some of it, but every last penny. On something I always wanted, but could never afford. Something that would make me feel a little less empty inside.

So I immediately spent the money on a suit of Master Chief armor.
This wasn’t as sudden or spontaneous as it sounds. The Halo armor was a long time coming. For years, I’d mused over the idea, driving my closest friends mad. One day when I have the money, I’d say, thinking about that canary yellow diamond. I have to be responsible right now.

It’s funny. A lot of my so-called “adult” friends have made major life-purchases with their hard earned real-world-job money: condos, houses, cars, engagement rings for non-cheating, non-soul-destroying girlfriends.

chief02Me? Well, outside of graduate school loans that I’m slowly paying back, my biggest life purchase is this suit of armor, forty pounds of fiberglass and steel, dark green, built by an artist outside Detroit. The helmet, with its glimmering golden visor and bright LED lights, was imported from a legendary Stormtrooper armor-builder in the Philippines. I need two people to help me put it on, it takes up way too much space in my living room, and is terribly uncomfortable and hot when I’m wearing it. At conventions and events, when I opt to show it off, I have to walk incredibly slow, as to avoid tipping over and possibly breaking something — either in the suit or a part of my body.

But I love the damn thing.

I’m aware of the irony in wearing a suit of armor that I purchased with the funds from my ex-girlfriend’s engagement ring. There are plenty of psychological diagnoses my friends have pointed out over the full year it took to build it, the few months that I’ve had it, whenever I wear it someplace or pose for pictures:

  • “A suit of armor? You’re protecting yourself.”
  • “At events people have no idea who you are. You’re hiding.”
  • “No one ever sees the Master Chief’s face. You’re trying to disappear. Sad.”

They are all wrong, although I’m sure a relationship counselor would agree with them (and also charge me the value of a second suit of Master Chief armor for the privilege). I’d wanted the suit for so long, and after such epic heartbreak, receiving each piece of armor—arriving in seven shipments, over the course of eight months—became an unintentionally cathartic process. As the shoulders, forearms, chest-piece, and helmet arrived slowly, one section at a time… well, with each part I got a small piece of myself back.

But what is it to be the Master Chief? Outside of the attention at conventions and the joyfully looks on my friends and coworkers faces when I show off pictures in the suit, why him? I mean, in his life story, he saved the human race. Me? I once adopted a chinchilla off Craigslist.

Here’s the thing.

Master Chief is a faceless man of few words. He’s easy to identify with, his character written nice and distant. The fate of mankind rests on his shoulders and he handles it with the cool demeanor of Clint Eastwood. He destroys ships the size of moons, flies through Earth’s atmosphere, defeats enormous, monstrous creatures, all with a careless grace. Like it’s not a big deal.

Most importantly, even though Master Chief is a legendary character, anyone could be him, even someone nursing a broken heart. Whether you’re a kid swearing at people on Xbox Live or a sad, grown man, he offers up the perfect escape into something extraordinary. He saved the human race, and consequently, saved me.

I feel like there is this misconception about people that are passionate about costumes, whether they are dressed as someone from a videogame, comic book, or anime, and I never quite understood it until I walked my first convention floor. Outsiders think costumers immerse themselves in another character to get away from who they really are — that they are geeks that could never quite cut it, and need to ditch reality for a few hours.

They’re wrong though. Within that shell, whether it’s made of cardboard, plastic, fabric, fiberglass, or steel, hidden away there is a figure worthy of attention. It’s the person who put all their heart and soul into a project, and now they’re wearing their work all over them.

I’ve seen other Master Chiefs. They wander Comic-Con and Wizard World, visit E3 and the Penny Arcade Expo, and their photos often pop up on Tumblr, expertly crafted, painted to look like they’ve actually been in those epic space battles. Did some of them go through the same thing as me? Maybe.

Because they always look the way I feel: battle hardened.

During the day, Eric Smith works at Quirk Books. At night, he can be found running Geekadelphia and teaching at Peirce College.