The Arbiter
Arbiter crop
An Arbiter, as he appears in Halo Wars.
Game series Halo
First game Halo 2 (2004)
Voiced by Keith David (Halo 2 and Halo 3)
David Sobolov (Halo Wars)

The Arbiter is a fictional ceremonial, religious and political rank bestowed upon alien Covenant Elites in the Halo science fiction universe. In the video game Halo 2, the rank is given to a disgraced commander as a way to atone for his failures. Although the 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 life in the galaxy to extinction, the Arbiter allies with the Covenant's enemies—humanity—and stops the ringworld Halo from being activated. The Arbiter is a playable character in Halo 2 and its 2007 sequel Halo 3; a different Arbiter appears in the real-time strategy game Halo Wars, which takes place 20 years before the events of the main trilogy.

The appearance of the 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 about reinforcing a perceived United States versus Islam allegory in the game's plot. Award-winning actor Keith David lends his voice to the character in Halo 2 and 3, while David Sobolov voices the Arbiter of Halo Wars.

The Arbiter has appeared in three 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 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 the Arbiter's missions as "crap bits" in Halo 2. Conversely, IGN lamented the loss of the Arbiter's story in Halo 3 and missed the added dimension the character provided to the story.

Character design

The Arbiter in the Halo trilogy is voiced by Keith David, a New York voice actor. David noted that he enjoys voicing complicated characters who have a past. To make an impact with voice acting, he says, is difficult—as "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 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 synonym for Mohammed).[5] Since this incident was not long after the September 11, 2001 attacks, sensitivity to the name remained high, and the character's name was changed to the "Arbiter".[5]

In an interview with MTV, Bungie's content manager, Frank O'Connor, noted 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]


Halo 2

See also: Halo 2

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".[7] The Arbiter acts as the "Blade of the Prophets", undertaking highly dangerous missions to preserve the Covenant. According to one High Prophet in Halo 2, every Arbiter created has been killed in their completion of these tasks.[8]

The Arbiter in the Halo trilogy 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.[9] In Halo: First Strike, the 2003 novel by Eric Nylund, it is revealed the Commander is also the one who loses the Covenant ship Ascendant Justice to the Master Chief, which in turn leads to the annihilation of a Covenant attack force. The High Prophet of Truth decides to bring the Commander to trial.[10]

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.[11] He is stripped of his rank and branded. Though his public execution is soon to follow, he is spared by the High Prophets;[12] realizing he is no heretic, the Hierarchs give the disgraced Commander a chance to lead troops once again by becoming the Arbiter.[13]

The Arbiter's first mission is to silence a renegade Elite who learns that the Covenant religious belief of the Great Journey would in fact spell their doom. 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.[14] 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 convinces the Arbiter that the Great Journey spells doom for his race, and sends him to stop Tartarus from activating the ring.[15] In the process of stopping the Brute, the Arbiter and his Elites forge an alliance with the humans Miranda Keyes and Avery Johnson, and the Arbiter slays Tartarus, 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.[16]

Halo 3

See also: Halo 3

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 to the Arbiter, as in Halo 2.[17] For much of Halo 3, the Arbiter assists human forces in their fight against hostile Covenant forces. 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 in is damaged; 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.[18]

Halo Wars

See also: Halo Wars

Taking place 20 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved,[19] Ensemble Studio's Halo Wars features a different Arbiter from the character seen in the trilogy.[20] 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.[21]

Cultural impact


Following the release of Halo 2, Joyride Studios released an Arbiter action figure. This particular model was reviewed as a "great translation of the source material into plastic".[22] The figure's dimensions were in proportion with other figures released by the studio, and the level of detail in the armor and weapons was described positively, but reviewers found fault with the neck articulation and design.[22] Other aspects mentioned were its compatibility with the Master Chief's action figure and its durability.[22] Several models of the Arbiter are featured in the Halo ActionClix collectible game, produced as promotional material prior to the release of Halo 3. 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.[23] A large-scale, non-articulated Arbiter figure is also being produced by McFarlane as part of the "Legendary Collection".[24]

Critical reception

The reception of the Arbiter as a playable character in Halo 2 was mixed; former Bungie content manager Frank O'Conner described the Arbiter as the most controversial character Bungie had ever created.[25] 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.[26] Several publications enjoyed the added dimension added to the Covenant by having the Arbiter as a playable character.[27]

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;[28] 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.[29] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31]

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".[32] 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.[33] 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 said 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?"[34][35] 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.[36] In a list of the top alien characters in video games, MSNBC placed the Arbiter at the number two ranking.[37]

In other media

Main article: Arbiter (Machinima)

The Arbiter appears as one of the two recurring action figures in a popular Machinima known as Arby 'n The Chief, acting as the intelligent friend of Master Chief, and sometimes has to babysit Master Chief, who talks like a swearing 8-year-old with misspelled grammar.


  1. David, Keith. (2007). Mass Effect Voice Acting Interview (Flash). Bioware. Retrieved on 2007-11-07. Event occurs at 00:42. "The difference between [acting in video games as opposed to animation] is slight. Acting is acting—it's either good acting or it's bad acting." (in English).
  2. Reuters (2008-01-31). "For Some Actors, Video Games Are a Career Path", PC Magazine. 
  3. Trautmann, Eric (2004). The Art of Halo. New York: Del Ray Books. p. 74. ISBN 0-345-47586-0. 
  4. Staff (2007-01-11). "The A-Z of Halo 3". Computer and Video Games. Retrieved on 2007-11-07.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Kumar, Matthew (2008-04-09). "Q&A: Englobe's Edwards Talks Gaming's 'Geocultural Risks'". Gamasutra. Retrieved on 2008-04-01.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Totilo, Stephen (2006-07-24). "Despite Death Treats, 'Halo 3' Developer Keeps Secrets Close To The Chest". MTV. Retrieved on 2007-11-11.
  7. Truth: Quite so. Here rests the vanguard of the Great Journey. Every Arbiter, from first to last. Each one created and consumed in times of extraordinary crisis. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Arbiter. (2004)
  8. Prophet of Mercy: The tasks you must undertake as Arbiter are perilous, suicidal. You will die, as each Arbiter has before you. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Arbiter. (2004)
  9. Dietz, William (2003). Halo: The Flood. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 6. ISBN 0-345-45921-0. 
  10. Nylund, Eric (2003). Halo: First Strike. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 340. ISBN 0-345-46781-7. 
  11. Prophet of Regret: Noble Prophet of Truth, this has gone on long enough. Make an example of this bungler! The Council demands it! / Prophet of Truth: You are one of our most treasured instruments. Long have you led your fleet with honour and distinction, but your inability to safeguard Halo was a colossal failure. / Council Prophet: Nay, it was heresy! —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Heretic. (2004)
  12. Prophet of Truth: The Council decided to have you hanged by your entrails and your corpse paraded through the city. But ultimately the terms of your execution are up to me. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Arbiter. (2004)
  13. Arbiter: What use am I? I can no longer command ships or lead troops into battle. / Prophet of Truth: Not as you are. But become the Arbiter, and you shall be set loose against this heresy with our blessing. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Arbiter. (2004)
  14. Prophet of Mercy: With appropriate humility, we plied the Oracle with our questions, and it with clarity and grace has shown us the key. / Prophet of Truth: You will journey to the surface of the ring and retrieve this Sacred Icon. With it we shall fulfill our promise. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: Sacred Icon. (2004)
  15. Gravemind: This one's containment...and this one's Great Journey are the same. Your Prophets have promised you freedom from a doomed existence. But you will find no salvation on this ring. Those who built this place knew what they wrought. Do not mistake their intent, or all will perish as they did before. / Master Chief: This thing is right. Halo is a weapon. Your Prophets are making a big mistake. —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: Gravemind. (2004)
  16. 343 Guilty Spark: Fail-safe protocol. In the event of an unexpected shutdown, the entire system will move to standby status. All remaining platforms are now waiting for remote detonation. / Miranda Keyes: Remote detonation? From here? / 343 Guilty Spark: Don't be ridiculous! / Sergeant Johnson: Listen Tinkerbell, don't make me... / Miranda Keyes: Then where would someone go to activate the rings. / 343 Guilty Spark: Why the Ark of course! / Arbiter: And where, Oracle, is that? —Bungie Studios. Halo 2. (Microsoft). Xbox. Level/area: The Great Journey. (2004)
  17. Smith, Luke (2007-07-31). "The Tru7h About Co-Op in Halo 3". Retrieved on 2007-08-02.
  18. Rtas 'Vadum: Things look different, without the Prophets' lies clouding my vision. I would like to see our own world. To know that it is safe. / Arbiter: Fear not. For we have made it so. —Bungie Studios. Halo 3. (Microsoft). Xbox 360. Level/area: Halo. (2007)
  19. Weinberg, Jonathan (2009-02-27). "Halo Wars: The Times review", The Times. Retrieved on 6 March 2009. 
  20. Geddes, Ryan (2008-10-09). "TGS 2008: Halo Wars Campaign First Look". IGN. Retrieved on 2008-10-25.
  21. Microsoft (2009-03-03). "Universe Expanded: Halo Wars (Part 2)". Microsoft. Retrieved on 2009-05-22.—Main page.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Omni (2006-03-03). "Action Figure Reviews - Arbiter (Halo 2)". The Armchair Empire. Retrieved on 2007-12-03.
  23. Plunkett, Luke (2007-12-27). "The Next Halo 3 Figure Is Keith David". Kotaku. Archived from the original on 2007-12-30. Retrieved on 2008-08-01.
  24. TMP International (2008-04-25). "12-inch Master Chief and Legendary Collection in Stores Fall 2008". McFarlane Toys. Retrieved on 2008-07-27.
  25. SCI FI (2007-10-02). "Sci vs. Fi - Halo 3 Documentary". Major League Gaming. Retrieved on 2007-10-05.
  26. McLain, Alex (2007). "The Big One". Microsoft Corporation. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
  27. Davenport, Misha (2004-11-08). "Superior sequel has a surprise in store", Chicago Sun-Times, p. 47. 
  28. Kasavin, Greg (2004-11-07). "Halo 2 for Xbox Review". Gamespot. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Staff (2004). "Team Freemont: Halo 2 review". Team Freemont. Retrieved on 2007-09-05.
  30. Porter, Will (2007-06-06). "PC Reviews: Halo 2". Computer and Video Games. Retrieved on 2007-10-22.
  31. Kokko, Jarno (2007-06-18). "Review: Halo 2 for Windows Vista". Retrieved on 2007-11-08.
  32. Goldstein, Hillary (2007-09-23). "Halo 3 Review". IGN. Retrieved on 2007-10-20.
  33. West, Steve (2007-09-27). "Halo 3 Campaign Review". Retrieved on 2007-10-10.
  34. Goldstein, Hilary (2007-09-23). "Halo 3 Review (page 2)". IGN. Retrieved on 2009-05-23.
  35. Boesky, Keith (2008-10-24). "Opinion: Are Critics Gamers? I Think Not". Gamasutra. Retrieved on 2009-05-24.
  36. Robinson, Scott (2007-09-25). "G4 - Reviews - Halo 3". G4tv. Retrieved on 2007-11-12.
  37. Smith, Ken (2008-08-05). "Top 5 best aliens in video games". MSNBC. Retrieved on 2008-08-07.

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