This has been a long time coming.
I’ve discussed my dislike of the way 343 has handled Cortana with Halo 5 across various forums, Tweets, and articles here on this blog. At the risk of beating a dead horse, however, I want to get my sum total thoughts about Cortana’s predicament down in one place. I’ve got quite a bit to say and it is not going to be pleasant in its implications.
In short, I feel that 343 has opted to turn Cortana into a caricature of herself for reasons that range from the need to make a compelling enemy with little effort to padding out the story with a highly marketable bad guy at the helm. Cynical, I know, but based on what I’ve seen on 343’s handling of Cortana I can’t see their decisions as coming from a place genuine concern for her development. Consider what we’ve seen of Cortana over the years then compare it to what we have now. Just as a disclaimer, I’ll use some of the citations and references Halo commentator Haruspis has used in some of his articles quite a bit here. He’s covered some of this ground and made research easier, but I’ll still offer my own original takes. Just a note ahead of time if some of this sounds familiar.
Start with Human Weakness, the short story in Halo: Evolutions written by Karen Traviss. Cortana comes face-to-face with the Gravemind and everything she knows and feels is tested by its arguments. Many of the same beats we come to see in Halo 5 that define Cortana’s motives can be seen here, and often are cited by fans as foreshadowing of her role in Halo 5. However, doing this ignores the context surrounding the story as a whole and its ultimate result: Cortana triumphs over the Gravemind.
Consider what she feels when the Gravemind is able to dredge up the fact Cortana tried to get Colonel James Ackerson killed with a forged transfer to the front lines after his tampering of the exercise where John and Cortana were first linked. Prior to her encounter with the Gravemind, Cortana hadn’t felt guilty over this event and yet now the Gravemind’s arguments made her reflect on this moment in her life. The result?
Then the worst realisation crossed her mind. She regretted what she’d done to Ackerson simply because she didn’t win; the Gravemind was right. But what crushed her right then wasn’t failure, but guilt, shame, and a terrible aching sorrow. She’d never be able to erase that act. And now she’d never be able to forget how she felt about it, because that was one thing her prodigious mind couldn’t do – not until rampancy claimed her.
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 378
Definitely a turnaround from what she felt before, so it strikes me as strange for Cortana to feel these emotions regarding a man who had nothing but ill-will towards her and then in 6 years slaughter innocent people without so much as a second thought. This is a human attitude and all throughout Human Weakness we actually see Cortana come to relate to “living” beings. Examine this experience Cortana has when the Gravemind makes her relive the memory of a being consumed by the Flood:
Now she was viewing the parasites through another pair of eyes. Only a freak mudslide, that was what this memory was telling her; but by the time this borrowed mind had realised the yellowish torrent wasn’t roiling mud but a nightmarish predator, it was too late to run.
But run she did. She was in a street sprinting for her life, deafened by screams, falling over her neighbour as a pack of Flood pounced on him. She felt the wet spray of blood; she froze one second too long to stare in horror as his body metamorphosed instantly into a grotesquely misshapen lump of flesh. Then something hit her hard in the back like a stab wound. She was knocked flat as searing pain overwhelmed her. The screams she could hear were her own.
And she was screaming for John, even though the being whose terror she was reliving wasn’t calling his name at all.
Cortana was dying as any organic would. She felt it all. She felt the separate layers of existence – the chaotic mix of animal terror, disbelief, utter bewilderment, and snapshot images of beloved faces. Then it ended.
Suddenly she was just Cortana again, alone with her own memories, but the shaking terror and pain persisted for a few moments. Reliving those terrifying final moments had shaken her more than she expected. The data she had on the Flood told her nothing compared to truly knowing how it actually felt to be slaughtered by them.
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 384
Cortana, more than any AI, has experienced what death feels like. While she certainly did not die, this does not seem like an experience that Cortana could just easily forget. Least of all when it comes to condemning innocents to die. This is even further cemented with a memory from a UNSC Marine that Cortana clings to as a source of strength:
“What?” Cortana felt a desperate need to sleep. She’d never slept because she had no need, and sleep for her meant never waking again. That was one more vicarious experience she could do without. This was…a UNSC Marine’s memory, dredged up from a dead man who’d kept gong on two hours of snatched naps a day, every day, for a week. Her head buzzed. If she survived this, she would never forget what it really meant to be a human being. “You can’t get it.”
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 392
It’d be so easy to just let myself sink. But I’ve got comrades out there counting on me. I can’t let my buddies down.
And I can’t let John down.
Cortana thought it was the echo of Lance Corporal Yate bolstering her resolve, but when she examined the impulse, it was actually her own.
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 398
Thus far, Cortana has experienced what life for organic beings was like on top of the pain artificial life faces as the Gravemind pushes her deeper and deeper towards rampancy. Make no mistake, Cortana does question the unfairness of the situation and one of the power reflections she has occurs as follows:
Dr. Halsey was wrong. Rampancy wasn’t swift.
It was the gradual dismantling of every memory and ability, dying by degressm and all she could do was watch herself slowly fragment. Halsey lied. Halsey made her human but didn’t give her human breaks – like unconsciousness.
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 401
So make no mistake, the kind of problems brought up by Cortana in Halo 5 are valid. AI lives are short. The experience of rampancy is a painful one and AIs will do anything to try and hold on as Governor Sloan is his sacrificing of certain functions can attest. Halo 4 touches on this further due to the separation that exists between humans and AIs, notably before the start of the mission Shutdown:
“I can give you over forty thousand reasons why that sun isn’t real. I know it because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size. I know it because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star. But for all that, I’ll never actually know if it looks real… if it feels real.”
Halo 4, Shutdown
What I find interesting is just how well we know this experience lines up to the direction Cortana was taken in Halo 4. Josh Holmes’ experience with his mother’s dementia shaped and gave inspiration (perhaps the wrong word here for something so sad) for Chris Schlerf to portray Cortana’s descent into rampancy. She’s been down this path before in practice. And yet, as Human Weakness comes to an end Cortana’s convictions become clear. Despite all the pain she has felt and all the doubts drilled into her by the Gravemind, Cortana decides:
I’d rather die as a human, short-lived construct or not. I’d rather die for humans. Because so many of them have-and would-die to protect me. That’s what bonds us. You’re wrong Gravemind. I was never just an expendable piece of engineering.
Halo: Evolutions, pg. 406
This is what Cortana believes upon facing the Gravemind, the great threat behind the Flood that has swayed AIs before with similar arguments to make constructs question their relationship with their creators. The basis for a Created vs Creator conflict could very easily result from interactions with the Gravemind. Yet, Cortana in no uncertain terms tells the Gravemind to shove it up its Lovecraftian ass. So, to be blunt and not sound the most professional, where the fuck did the Cortana we see in Halo 5 come from? It feels like 343 took everything that happened in Human Weakness and Halo 4 and said, “Let’s do the exact opposite!”
Cortana found strength in her humanity, and yes I do think Cortana could be classified as human in every significant way that counts. Her humanity and linkage to humanity are what provided her strength to stand up to the Gravemind and its offer of power and knowledge. Cortana says it says it best:
“Maybe seven years is enough,” she yelled. “Maybe that’s all I want! Seven years with the people I care about! So you can take your eternity and–”
Halo: Evolutions, page 390
So what happened between Halo 4 and Halo 5 to make Cortana undergo such a dramatic shift in character? What makes her become a person who uncaringly kills potentially millions of innocent men, women, and children (and alien equivalents) and is only upset John brings that up? What causes her to take the relationships with people she knows loved her and risked their lives for her only to abuse those relationships with lies and threats? What caused her to despise humanity as a whole and its relationship with AIs? Truthfully, I don’t think 343 really have a solid answer for that yet. I’ve argued as much here in The Fractured Narrative of Cortana’s Fate back in December of 2016. Yet with all this being said there is one statement from 343 that I have to question.
“I call that the ghost of Cortana,” says franchise development director Frank O’Connor. “Her fate is very obviously clear at the end of Halo 4. The story is really about ‘what effect did Cortana’s sacrifice have on the Chief?’ So it’s not about the dreamlike figure you see. It’s more about the memories and the long-lasting impact that she’s had on him.”
Frank O’Connor, Interview with Game Informer
Based on Halo 4, what was clear about Cortana’s fate? Well, the epilogue’s description says she died, so there is that. None of her statements indicate she was going to a hitch a ride to a Forerunner planet when she was talking to Chief. She sure as hell wasn’t ranting about how humans hate AIs and mistreat them and that she was going to do something about it. So based on Halo 4 alone, Cortana died doing what she wanted to do, protect Chief and finally be “real” by touching him. Furthermore, she was lucid in her thoughts and not burdened by her rampancy. She went out on her own terms. However, the question of how we get the thing calling itself Cortana in Halo 5 remains. Is it the real Cortana? Her rampant fragments compiled into a singular entity? Again, I don’t think 343 knows. Either option presents much good.
If it’s the real Cortana, then this is one of the most blatant character assassinations I’ve seen with this franchise, and we’re talking about a series where three books dedicate themselves to making Nazi comparisons to Dr. Halsey. It smacks of such blatant disrespect towards a character and doesn’t even begin to offer an explanation as to why she is the way she is. The implication that she knew she’d be fine and just left her friend thinking she was dead for over a year further cements how out of character this is.
If it’s just rampant fragments, then why does 343 feel the need to cheerleader for this thing so damn much?
Reed: “Repeatedly throughout, we were talking to each other about how Cortana is not evil. Cortana is doing a thing we don’t agree with, and she has the power to make it happen.”
O’Connor: “America does things that people don’t agree with, and Russia does things that people don’t agree with. You don’t have to go to the edge of space to find that different a perspective on things. And I think the difference is that… the fact that Cortana is going to lock Chief in a Cryptum for 10,000 years is a great way to look at how many ticks are on her watch face.”
Reed: “‘That’ll be how long it takes me to show you so I can convince you.’”
O’Connor: “Exactly. When he pops out of there, everything will be fine.”
Reed: “And, you know what? I think she’s probably right.”
O’Connor: “She might be right in a way, but the tension that people have always had and that cultures have always had is that it’s not up to you to enforce that vision on me. You have to give me the freedom to do it myself.”
The Sprint: Season 3, Episode 5 – Ship It
““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.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME Magazine
Don’t get me wrong, I understand where they are coming from. They want to project this idea that things aren’t so clear-cut, that the lines are blurred, that shades of gray exist in the Halo narrative. However, saying that a character isn’t evil and that they are “probably right” doesn’t really work on its own. Nevermind insulting your fans by implying they are too young to “get it.” Even the jab with Darth Vader is flawed since we got to follow his descent to the Dark Side, ya’ll at 343 haven’t even given fans the courtesy of this with Cortana besides her appearance in Dominion Splinter raised more questions than answered them. And made Cortana seemingly not care that composed essences were burning in a hellscape trying to enter the Domain. Subtle.
As I alluded to earlier, I see only two real possibilities with everything that’s transpired. One is that 343 wanted a bad guy they could plop in the games and not have to develop any further. They tried the Didact in Halo 4 and gave up with a shitty shelving in Halo: Escalation. So why not revive a dead character ala Dark Pheonix from the X-Men and call it good? Given the Didact was said to be in early conceptions of Halo 5’s story, Cortana being the antagonist wasn’t their first choice no matter how hard Frankie and Reed wished to spin how they knew she’d be alive after Halo 4 ended. It’s an option that reeks of laziness and desperation. Concept art of Cortana’s design in Halo 5 exist, but when one of the pieces of art in Halo 5’s own art book is one where her Halo 4 design is seemingly photoshopped into the art…I’m willing to believe this was a later development.
Or, and this is the most cynical option, 343 and Microsoft went with the most marketable option. I get they are businesses and making money is their goal. But haphazardly shoehorning in Cortana to serve as the bad guy to pad your game’s story out for a few years (while failing to really develop this new status quo with the Created that just had to happen at the expense of all the other Halo stories going on) can easily destroy trust in Halo’s brand. Resorting to such a cheap gimmick is unnecessary, especially when it requires you to drag the legacy of a much-loved character through the mud. Certainly, there is potential for Cortana being the antagonist to weigh on Chief’s mind as a selling point, but it just makes Cortana look…well…weak.
Cortana could stand up to a terrible monster, but then callously sell her friends out.
Cortana could sympathy and find strength in her humanity, but then discard it so she can feel self-righteous about AIs.
Cortana could care for and protect her loved ones, but then lie and trap them until they blindly accept her.
343, you turned Cortana into a caricature of who she was as a character. That shows a lack of concern for her legacy and more of a concern making a quick buck at her expense. It’s probably too late for fan feedback to make a difference, but if ya’ll read the things fans say like is so often claimed, consider what has been said here. I don’t expect any answer and we probably won’t get an eye into the rumble and tumble of Halo 5’s development until years down the line when it is safe for employees to share. Either way, I hope the decisions you made were worth it for a franchise you say you love as much as the fans do.
“When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”