Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cortana



Plot spoilers for Halo 4 below.

It's rare that a story ever actually surprises me. I've spent so much time researching the art of plot and story in mythology-inspired stories (which normally covers both fantasy and science fiction) that I can generally predict where something's going.

The creators of Halo 4 joked before the game's release that if you don't at least get a little choked up at the ending, you don't have a soul. Now, I effectively have a heart of titanium. I can count on two fingers the number of times I've ever gotten choked up at a movie or game, and I've never cried at one. But something else happened during the finale of Halo 4.

Master Chief, in past games, was a blank slate, rarely speaking in cutscenes and never speaking during gameplay. But as readers of the Halo novels know, John-117 is quite a deep character. One of the things that makes him absolutely perfect as the primary protagonist of the Halo series is the fact that his personality is specifically attuned to the mindset of a gamer.

People joke about gamers being loud, obnoxious, impulse-driven shallow thrill-seekers, but it's not as true as you might think. Particularly in story-based games (like the Halo campaigns), the gamer's basic mindset is, "Complete my objectives. Finish the fight. Win." That is literally, almost word-for-word, the perfect way to describe John. He is, of course, a Spartan-II, indoctrinated from childhood to be a perfect soldier. However, even as a young child, before his kidnapping and indoctrination, John was intensely focused on straightforward objective-based thinking. "Winning"—especially at childhood games like King of the Hill—was very important to him. However, there's another aspect of John's psyche that's equally important: his intense attachment to friends, be they his fellow Spartan-IIs, Sergeant Johnson, or Cortana. John's "objective" that he so forcefully fights for isn't just to follow his orders, but to accomplish his mission and save every single life that he possibly can along the way. In some cases (the level "Cortana" in Halo 3; arguably much of Halo 4), protecting his friends is his primary goal, even above his actual mission to save humanity.

This nicely parallels gamers, who also develop emotional attachments with secondary game characters. Every Halo gamer loves Cortana, thus every single one of them can feel the same concern for her that John feels in Halo 4. When John reassures Cortana that she'll be alright and repeatedly asserts that they will find a cure for her rampancy, he's acting as the voice of the audience.

Watching the ending cutscenes of Halo 4 was one of the rare times where I felt like I was there; that the main character was speaking my thoughts. As Cortana explains that she's not going to survive, I/John reacted exactly the same way.

"What?!"
"No. That's not... We go together."
"I am NOT leaving you here."
"It was my job to take care of you..."
"Cortana, please... wait."

I didn't shed a tear at Halo 4's ending, but I imagine that John didn't either. He felt a certain level of sadness, I'm sure, but given how little he's normally able or willing to express his emotions, he probably remained stiff and reserved behind his helmet.

When I finished the campaign, I immediately thought, "Well, now I have to wait three years for Halo 5 to come out so I can find out how Cortana survived." But then I realized that I was indulging in wishful thinking; finding ways to rationalize that Cortana wasn't really dead. One of Cortana's lines from the penultimate level, "Composer," where Cortana is on death's door, is particularly striking:

"They'll pair you with another AI... Maybe even another Cortana model if Halsey lets them. It won't be me. You know that, right?"

Part of me is very, very worried that this might be the case. In the novel Halo: Cryptum, there's a minor subplot where the main character, Bornstellar, is separated from his AI. That AI is replaced by another, who does what she can to reconstruct the prior mental relationship to the former AI—but it's not the same. The idea that another copy—a clone—of Cortana could be brought in in Halo 5 is a very real possibility. And knowing the Halo universe and its limitations, that replacement AI will not at all be the same Cortana.

There is hope, however. In Cryptum, the original AI does make her way back to Bornstellar. Perhaps the same thing will happen with the original Cortana: she'll show up alive and well, having somehow survived via some wonky Forerunner deus ex machina. I'm still betting that'll happen. But the simple fact is that I don't know. I can't say for sure one way or the other because 343 honestly crafted a story that's not clich├ęd enough to be entirely predictable in that regard. And that scares me. Not because I think it won't still make for a good story if Cortana is dead and a new Cortana needs to develop a new relationship with the Chief. That's a pretty decent plot, with tons of potential for deep character development. The reason it scares me is that, just like John, I desperately do not want Cortana to be dead.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Musings on Halo 4

This post will make no sense to anyone who isn't a hardcore Halo fan and/or hasn't played Halo 4. So, basically, all of my readers except Shaun. Hey, Shaun.

I figured I'd write all the random thoughts I have about the story of Halo 4, how it pertains to the greater Halo universe, etc.


*AHEM*


The Librarian claims that she placed gei in humanity's DNA, guiding their evolution toward specific results. It occurs to me that a huge portion of that gei must have inevitably ended up in the brain of Catherine Halsey, since all of her contributions to the UNSC have been almost-direct copies of Forerunner technology.

The Librarian lists "combat skill" as a geas, but it's not certain if she meant humanity's in general or specifically John's. If it is indeed John specifically (which is possible, given that she is capable of creating gei that lie dormant until hundreds or thousands of generations later), then this may explain why John seems to be a singularly capable, borderline-superheroic character. Furthermore, that may be why Halsey picked John in the first place: she inadvertently picked up on his being different due to the geas.

Cortana is said to be another product of human gei, which makes sense considering that she appears as a blue woman, exactly like the Forerunner ancillas did. However, Cortana is stated by the Didact to be "an evolved ancilla," so she may even be something beyond a normal ancilla. Perhaps this is because she was copied from a cloned human brain?

That's another thing. The Composer was supposed to merge the biological with the technological, effectively transplanting a sentient mind into a technological body. Is this not technically what Cortana is? A biological mind transferred and "composed" into digital form?

Given the innumerable ways that the Spartans mirror the Forerunners, the Spartan-II program, I think, was likely Halsey's way of inadvertently fulfilling her geas. That geas being to create a group of immensely powerful humans for the purpose of acting as primary Reclaimers, capable of stopping threats on the level of the Halo array, the Composer, and the resurgent Prometheans.


This is the first time in a Halo game that Master Chief has been treated with actual respect as a character. He's assertive, takes initiative, and is a focal point of the story rather than just someone walking through it. This is exemplified by the fact that he actually speaks during gameplay, something that works really well.

Del Rio is kind of randomly a jerk, but he represents an important idea. Both John and Cortana are caught in a struggle where neither is sure if they are simple tools to be used by the UNSC in service of humanity or if they are truly human themselves. Del Rio vocally represents the cold, pragmatic side of that struggle, while Lasky gives voice to the opposing view. In the end, Cortana and John take a stand for their humanity by standing up for each other. John refuses to let Cortana be destroyed like simple malfunctioning UNSC property, disobeying an order for likely the first time in his life. Cortana later fights against the Didact, saving John and firmly asserting that she's "not doing it for humanity." It's ironic that by denying the things that supposedly define them as servants of humanity, they actually become more human themselves.

At the end, when John and Lasky have their talk about soldiers being "just people," not machines, John almost seems a bit surprised (from what little can be conveyed through the helmet). Not counting anything before age 6, that's probably the first time he's actually thought of himself as human in his entire life. The fact that he takes off his armor for the first time in three months (technically almost five years, but 4.5 years of that were in cryo) is a huge deal, symbolically. I wonder if he'll have the chance to meet his fellow Spartan-IIs that have survived? Or Halsey? How will once again meeting his "family" further his development as a person?


I wonder what the Spartan-IIs and IIIs think about the IVs, who weren't at all picked or trained the same. Heck, IVs are basically just upgraded marines, not at all like the previous Spartans, who were arguably not even human in the same manner.


I may write more later. Or not. But probably yes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Halo 4: The Great Journey

Today, I spent several hours of my morning in search of a copy of Halo 4. Specifically, the Limited Edition, not the Standard edition.

Standard:
Limited:

The LE has a bunch of extra stuff and comes in a nice metal case. For a hardcore fan like myself, the Standard edition just isn't an option.

For various reasons, I wasn't able to pre-order the LE before suddenly, about a month before release, every retailer announced that the LE was completely unavailable for pre-order due to a lack of supply. But there isn't any way that literally every copy of the LE was accounted for; that's not how the retail system works with games. Someone had to have a copy of the LE available on launch day, I just wasn't going to be able to pre-order it. Therefore, my only option was to drive around to various stores and try to find an unreserved copy.

This was the route I ended up taking in order to find an LE copy.


I knew ahead of time to avoid Gamestops; they would be the only store that actually would be completely sold out of LEs, and even if they weren't, every other gamer in the area would be heading there looking for the same thing, so it wasn't worth the risk. Better to head to larger stores with less of an emphasis on pre-orders, like Wal-Mart and Target.

Point A: Home
At 7:30 AM, I left the house (Point A) and headed toward Point B, a Wal-Mart. I had one class at school that I needed to get to at 9:30, so it was best to head in that direction.

Point B: Wal-Mart
I found plenty of standard editions, but no LEs.

Point C: Target
Target was the only other store selling electronics that was open at 8 AM, so I headed there. They only had two copies of the game left unreserved, both of them Standards. Someone there told me they were expecting some LEs either later in the day or the next day. I wasn't about to wait around in the hopes that one might show up at some point; I needed to move on.

Point D: TCC
I had to pause my search and go to school for a little over an hour.

Point E: Best Buy
Now that it was after 10 AM and all stores were open, I backtracked to the same general area as the Target that I'd been to earlier and checked Best Buy. I figured they might have more stock than preorders. As it turned out, they didn't. Boatloads of standards, no LEs.

Point F: Toys R Us
It occurred to me that Toys R Us us a store that always gets massive shipments of games, but is mostly separate from the "gaming culture" that focuses on pre-orders. Unfortunately, I didn't consider that they're also not part of the culture that buys special editions of games either. I found dozens of standard-editions, no LEs.

Point G: Best Buy
My second Best Buy trip was no more productive than my first.

Point H: Target
There were literally no copies of Halo 4 at all. I overheard a conversation between an employee and another customer; in the employee's words, "if you didn't get a pre-order, you can't get it."

Point I: Wal-Mart
I'd skipped past this Wal-Mart in my journey previously, mostly because I actually forgot it existed. It's been surrounded and blocked by so much highway construction for so long that I somewhat mentally wrote it off as an actual store. But as I worked my way back towards another group of stores Northwest of my then-location, I remembered that Wal-Mart and decided to quickly check it. As I scanned the lower shelf behind the glass, what did I find?


OH YES. VICTORY IS MINE. NO FORERUNNER ARTIFACT ESCAPES THIS RECLAIMER.
(*ahem*)

After securing my prize, I got lunch, went by Haslet City Hall to vote (Gary Johnson, if you're wondering), and spent the entire afternoon playing Halo 4.

I can't explain just how happy I am with the game. It actually lives up to the hype and even goes beyond it. More on that later.