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.

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