Perhaps one of the most lively debates among Halo fans at this point in time outside of multiplayer concerns is that over how to classify the actions of former protagonist and now antagonist Cortana. Halo 5: Guardians had Cortana return to the franchise after her supposed death in Halo 4 to herald a new faction spearheaded by AIs called the Created. She was successful in activating the Forerunner Guardians, massive constructs capable of policing solar systems and enforcing the will of whoever controls them. Further, she has claimed that she intends to bring peace and prosperity to a galaxy marred by war and hostilities between the galaxy’s many inhabitants. However, the activation of the Guardians has resulted in the deaths of many people, both human and alien, across the galaxy. Ordinarily, this would be an event in the story where fans would draw lines and debate whether or not what Cortana did or plans to do is good, evil, or somewhere in between. However, the comments by Franchise Director Frank O’Connor and Lead Writer for Halo 5 Brian Reed have made this particular debate…messy.
According to O’Connor in an interview with TIME Magazine:
“But my hopes for the future of the universe are that we can tell a realistic story. I saw a complaint online, somebody had been reading spoilers, they hadn’t played the game, and they said ‘Why is this character evil?’ And my question back to them is, ‘What makes you say they’re evil?’ Certainly a lot of our younger players are going to struggle with that subtlety, that nuance, because they’re expecting Darth Vader.”
From a pre-release perspective, this is not too controversial. Spoilers may not reveal the full context of the story and details can be lost that might make fans jump to conclusions. What exactly the “young fans” statement means remains a mystery since I’m unaware how Mr. O’Connor could tell how old someone making a criticism of Halo 5 is by forum posts, but I don’t want to dwell much on this statement. My main problem with it is that it appears to suggest that one cannot label Cortana as evil. This is further talked about in The Sprint – Season 3 Ep. 5 “Ship It” where from the start of Halo 5’s development or shortly before it that Cortana’s role in Halo 5 was known. You have both Reed and O’Connor here saying she has a plan we disagree with and that she isn’t evil. Reed, possibly jokingly, suggests she might be right while O’Connor brings up the idea that individuals and societies all have that desire to work out their problems themselves.
I think this is all well and good, but it has the implication of anybody who thinks Cortana’s actions are evil has an invalid opinion to bring to the discussion. This is strange since figures who have done terrible things for civilizational stability like the Prophets of the Covenant or the Ur-Didact got this same benefit of the doubt. Reed, the lead writer remind you, even went so far as to say that Dr. Halsey herself is a monster for her actions in the Spartan-II Program. But Cortana is off-limits for similar opinions? If these were just normal fans then this wouldn’t be an issue. Everybody would have a side, we’d debate, and then see how the story progresses. Yet these are the words of the people crafting the story, this is how they approach the character, and if they can be dismissive of people who think Cortana is evil and feel she isn’t, it makes me wonder if they even consider this a valid criticism of their work? I cannot say most fans don’t like how Cortana is in Halo 5, but it certainly isn’t universally praised, yet are people who view Cortana becoming evil taken seriously by the folks at 343 Industries?
This is all stuff I’ve said before on Halo Waypoint, Halo Archive, reddit, and elsewhere so I apologize if you’d have preferred not to slog through it again. The point of this post is to show that I feel labeling Cortana as evil is a valid criticism and point of debate. Ultimately, I’d like to think I might offer a perspective on this the people at 343 Industries might not have considered or if they have to then show them that it is not just “young fans struggling with subtlety and nuance” who have issues with Cortana in Halo 5. I am a student of history, a recent college graduate, someone in the early days of student teaching. All I ask is a fair shake and to be heard, not even agreed with, but at least heard.
From The Beginning
One of the problems that send some warning signs to me about Cortana’s behavior is what we can only currently interpret with Halo 4’s ending. Cortana saves Chief from the HAVOK nuke Chief activates in the Mantle’s Approach but reveals she only held back enough (of herself? Her power?) to get him off the ship. She does not act as if she found a way to survive. Chief doesn’t see her survive and neither do we as the audience. However, Halo 5 shows she does survive and ends up in the Domain. Consider this, would this not mean that she knew she was alive and yet she never tells anybody, including Chief, that she is alive? Cortana keeps Chief and everybody in the galaxy who knows of her thinking she was dead rather than showing she did not die. Maybe that is not evil, but it is certainly something that makes me skeptical. What person who genuinely has affection for and concern for somebody leaves that person thinking they are dead for a year, maybe a little under that?
When she comes back we see that she comes to Chief in a vision where she is obscured in shadow and urges him to go to Meridian because the Reclamation is about to begin. As I’ve pointed out on Halo Waypoint:
I don’t know about you, but this seems like it has the makings of a trap. Cortana has to know the kind of trauma the Chief was going through and even how the flimsiest of leads will have him go where she wants. He went back to the Flood-infested High Charity on the flimsy notion she could still be saved and was still functioning after all. There is an element of manipulation here that I think makes itself apparent later on. Also, she didn’t say anything to Chief or anybody for nearly a year. She let Chief think she was dead.
When both Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris make it to Meridian, we find the colony under siege by Prometheans. These Prometheans are attacking the miners and other colonists of Meridian for seemingly no reason. I’ve heard that this was to slow Osiris down long enough for Blue Team to get to where Cortana wants them to go, but would she still not be allowing the deaths of innocent people caught in the crossfire and the destruction of property? Perhaps this was the Warden Eternal’s doing or perhaps Cortana didn’t have complete control, but either proposition is unclear just by what the narrative gives us. All I know is that Cortana can activate Guardians across the galaxy, can communicate with people, and can disable what the Warden Eternal can do as evident later in the game. The whole Meridian part of Halo 5 seems to show Cortana was not concerned with mitigating any damage or minimizing the casualties. Prometheans attack civilians hiding and fleeing, the Guardian lays waste to colonial infrastructure, and Sloan launches some half-assed effort to get people away with no real help from Cortana.
On Genesis, we see her scheme unfold and, at first, it seems fine. I’ve got some transcripts of the dialogue that I’d like to go over that I’ve gone over before elsewhere. This first one occurs when she explains how her rampancy is cured:
Cortana (COM): “The cure for rampancy I’ve found means AIs can be immortal. That kind of lifespan allows for long-term planning just like the Forerunners were capable of. AIs can assume the Forerunners’ Mantle of Responsibility. And once there is peace, we can focus on poverty, hunger, illness… But Warden believes some will resist our help. And he’s afraid you’re one of them.”
Fred: “Sounds great. I don’t get why anyone’s expecting resistance.”
John: “The Didact made it clear the Mantle of Responsibility was an imperial peace. Step out of line, and suffer.”
Cortana (COM): “It won’t be like that, John. I’ll explain it better once we’re together.”
Notice how she doesn’t really specify how her plan is any different than what the Ur-Didact said. As the game progresses we see her try to butter up the Spartans and play on their good side (which Chief makes note of later). Compare what she says here with this later statement:
Cortana (COM): “I’m sorry. I didn’t think he could get in here.”
John: “Enough games. You brought the Guardians here. Why?”
Cortana (COM): “Forerunners used the Guardians to keep troublesome worlds in line. I intend to do the same.”
Kelly: “You what?”
Cortana (COM): “If there is no trouble, there will be no need for discipline. I have work to do now, John. Come to me. Quickly.”
Does this mean she just lied to Chief earlier when she said her rule wouldn’t be “Step out of line, and suffer” only to then say that she would keep troublesome worlds (again no specification of what that means) in line with discipline? She has brought Blue Team so far in Genesis that she can seemingly start telling the truth to them. Moving on, remember how I said she buttered up the Spartans? This is where Chief’s rebuttal comes in:
Cortana (COM): “Well done, John. Warden would never admit it, but you’ve made an impression on him.”
Cortana (COM): “It’s so good to see you again, John. So good to see all of you. Back together, as a family…”
John: “Psychological tactics. Saying my name. Playing nice.”
Cortana (COM): “What would you have me do?”
John: “Tell me the truth. How many people died when you called the Guardians here?”
Cortana (COM): (shocked) “Excuse me?”
John: “You know, don’t you. The exact body count.”
She has up to this point been psychologically manipulating Blue Team, or trying to anyway, to win their trust. When Chief shows he doesn’t buy it and asks her how many people she has killed she seems more offended Chief would ask that rather than show any hint of remorse over what she did. She doesn’t even try to excuse herself and later just acts like she and Chief have a disagreement. The deaths of millions and iron-fisted rule over the galaxy is just a disagreement? Moreover, she never does get around to explaining how her interpretation of the Mantle will be different than the Forerunner interpretation. Cortana then tops it off by locking up Chief and Blue Team in a Cryptum for 10,000 years (or that’s the plan) against their will. The scary part about that is Chief arguably is the only one who can contact the Domain while the rest of Blue Team can’t. The Ur-Didact didn’t do so hot isolated from everything but his own thoughts for 100,000 years, how well will Fred, Linda, and Kelly do? Or what is stopping Cortana from tampering with the Cryptum to kill off Blue Team and just have Chief to herself? Some might ask why she’d kill them when she seems to care about them, but her relationship to the other Spartan-IIs is tenuous at best and Kelly suggests that Cortana could have stopped the Prometheans from attacking them before being captured. Why wouldn’t she stop them? I know people who suggest that she was trying to thin out the team so she could have Chief for himself. Your mileage may vary with that idea, but it is interesting to consider.
By the end of Halo 5, we can see Cortana abandoned Chief to think she was dead, comes back and feeds him vague information, kills scores of innocent people, lies to him, and then tries to lock him up “for his own good” ie until he listens to her. At the very least this behavior is a far cry from good.
The best look we have at the post-Halo 5 story comes from Canon Fodder’s and descriptions for maps and vehicles. The one I want to focus on is the Created and their relationship with the Unggoy. According to Canon Fodder Issue 77 “Driving Force”:
The horizon is a roiling gyre of smoke and steam. Sizzling plasma arcs across the low clouds, illuminating a twisted nightmare of scorched wreckage strewn across the frozen ground. Seeking shelter, an Unggoy foreman flees from his post, amidst the cackling chatter of a hundred thousand Unggoy hard at work.
Yes, the factories of Balaho are active again!
Following their alliance with Cortana and the Created, the Unggoy were granted nearly limitless resources. Ships empty of life but loaded with advanced technology arrived. New agricultural support stations appeared in orbit, awaiting eager workers to feed the desperate masses below. Where chaos had once reigned, stability and a semblance of order have returned. And something more: a purpose.
With their pressing requirements – food, shelter, medicine – met, Balaho’s finest designers and crafters have worked day and night, tirelessly building their future. From their factories come clever mechanisms and curious cudgels, manufactured with knowledge the Unggoy secretly learned over centuries of oppression and cruelty. The destiny of the Unggoy is unfolding, and this time, THEY will be the elite! Well, maybe.
Cortana is arguably doing some good for the Unggoy. She is reviving their ability to produce for themselves, she is advancing their technological understanding, she is bringing stability to a group of beings long oppressed by the Covenant. This is a noble part of her goal as there are species like the Unggoy who do need aid yet nobody around to give it. Humanity is still split along the UEG and rebels, the Swords of Sanghelios struggle for dominance, the Covenant is splintered, the Jiralhanae are infighting and raiding, the San ‘Shyuum have vanished, the Kig-Yar continue to operate as pirates and merchants, and species like the Yanme’e are a wild card.
But what is the catch? We see the Unggoy have produced Goblin mechs for their own use, yet this seems to be a violation of Cortana’s plans for peace. Instead, she has given them the means to create new weapons of war and I feel Cortana will exploit the Unggoy as another asset of force for her own use. Sure, she has Prometheans, but even the Forerunners used “lesser species” to root out humans after the human-Forerunner war. This reveals a fatal flaw in anything Cortana says about her utopian vision and reveals an evil undercurrent. The Unggoy have power now and with Cortana vowing destruction to any who oppose her, is it wrong to suppose she won’t turn the Unggoy on anybody? The Kig-Yar seem like a likely target with their independent way of life as pirates and merchants possibly being a problem when trying to conform to the Created. Further, the Unggoy have grievances with the Kig-Yar from the old Covenant. Nothing Cortana has done seems to suggest she has created an environment of reconciliation. What does she do that questions racial animosity or nationalistic feelings?
To be serious for a second, this kind of environment strikes me as similar to that of the Rwandan Genocide in the 90s. European colonial powers had previously granted favors to the lighter-skinned, minority Tutsis while oppressing the darker-skinned, majority Hutus. Once the Hutus came to power, the country still had not healed from those tensions and eventually led to the deaths of over 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu sympathizers in the span of 100 days. Apologies if this too brief a summary, but the parallel screams to me as a student of history. Coming back to the Halo universe, where is Cortana’s plan to prevent this kind of atrocity? She doesn’t challenge this behavior and already threatened those who oppose her. If killing innocents didn’t phase her, would the Unggoy enforcing her will while getting in some retribution concern her? I don’t think so. Standing back to allow these terrible acts to occur is the epitome of evil to me. It is apathy at best and a twisted sense of justice at worst for Cortana.
In the end, I hope I presented a well-reasoned argument as to why I feel considering Cortana evil is a valid opinion. I admire 343 Industries for wanting to create a realistic story where everything is not clear-cut and black and white. However, at this point they only appear to SAY they want that while the characters and story do not match that goal. A lot of what I’ve said will be familiar to those who have read my posts on other sites before, but I wanted to compose them in a way that is final to me. If the structure of this post was rambling and all over the place then I apologize. This was my first major post on this blog and I know I have a lot to learn. I hope I argued my case effectively for you the fans and for 343, if anybody reads this, I hope you at least see this as more than the complaints of a “young fan.”
“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”