Cortana is gone. We knew the inevitable was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier. In an inversion of the usual, imagined relationship between a man and his machine, it was Cortana who offered the emotional vulnerability, the weakness, and ultimately the sacrifice. At the core of Halo 4 is an inversion of the role that sees technology as a guiding agent rather than an object of fear – Cortana is very much the symbolic mother, taking on the mind and rough form of Doctor Halsey, the mind behind the Spartan’s creation, and in the end, in order for Chief to “grow up,” the dependance on the mother must end. Cortana’s end feels very much like the death of a parent – for four games, she has been guiding our actions, protecting us and teaching us what we needed to know to survive. The Chief might be a hyper-competent cyborg, but he displays all of the initiative of a child; he follows orders, fulfills his duty. In Halo 4, we see the first instance of him refusing a command – the impetus, of course, is a threat to Cortana.
The Chief is very much Cortana’s favorite child, and this is no more clear than in Halo 4. The power differential in their relationship shifts throughout the game; we are awoken, told that our mother needs us, and as her faculties diminish, our role in reigning her in becomes more and more pressing – the trust that we once held in mother is no longer available. This loss of control allows parts of Cortana to slip through that we have never seen, but it’s always, always focused on the Chief. I think of one mother-hen moment, when she slips and shouts, “You mean nothing to them! Look, they replaced you!”, speaking of the hundreds of other Spartans running about. They are Spartans, yes, but they are not Cortana’s Spartan. As Cortana faces her own obsolescence, she cannot bear to face her own child’s mortality, his utter lack of individuality given the march of the human race toward a soldier’s ideal.
But that’s technology; it’s how machines work in our society. They become outdated and discarded – things useful one year are useless in ten. Neither Cortana, a full machine intelligence, nor the Chief, a cyborg, are immune to time’s effects. The only thing that makes the Chief unique from the Spartans that we play aboard the Infinity is his narrative value and historical importance. In fact, given that our multiplayer avatars have additional modifications and options available to them, they actually operate better than the Chief when we play them.
From the beginning, Halsey claims that the Spartans are humanity’s destiny. Super-soldiers are the pinnacle of what humanity can become. It’s a very specific vision of man/machine fusion, but in the face of the Flood, it’s understandable. The Flood is a parasite, and represents the creeping death and weakness inherent in all biological life, such that prioritizing a machine-like existence makes a great deal of sense This is challenged by the man interrogating Halsey – he asks whether she thinks the Chief was successful because he is a sociopath, an inherently “broken” man that is less human than most of the species.
This likely sends the player’s mind scurrying off into many directions at once. The first Halo trilogy always depicted the Chief as a war hero. But he is also a man bathed in blood; literally thousands have died at his hands, and he has witnessed the death of thousands of allies, and at any given time he is more likely to emit a tough-guy quip than anything resembling sorrow or reflection. When is the last time your Chief ever took a moment to survey the bodies of the fallen? The Chief that we know is mechanical, vicious, remorseless – rendered a Demon by the Covenant and as an untouchable hero to his own people. The only relationship that matters to the Chief is with Cortana, and only with her death do we see him grieve.
The Chief is given a “savior” status by the narrative; in Halo 4, we discover that he is the product of ancient machinations set in place by a Forerunner, the Librarian – he is literally an answer to prophecy. Like a certain rabbi to the nation of Israel, the Chief fills the role of an “ideal” man, an image of what humanity is heading toward. The humanity that is made in the Chief’s image is powerful, but also imperialistic. It is an unattractive future, perhaps best summed up by the video that plays when a player boots up multiplayer for the first time. We are given a rhetoric of weakness turned to strength; this is the time when humanity will spread out into the galaxy. It’s a humanity that shoots first, that will stamp out opposition and protect itself by whatever means is necessary. It’s a humanity obsessed with protecting itself from, rather than engaging with, the rest of the universe. We are even granted an image of how this road ends – humanity was sent back to the Stone Age by their attitudes the first time around, when the Didact nearly converted the entire human race to a mechanical slave-army that’s immune to the Parasite, and thus protected from the “greatest threat.” His view shifted after his imprisonment, of course; it becomes clear to him that humanity is the greatest threat to varied, healthy life in the universe. It is telling that the game does not seek to rebuke the argument, but merely flings us at him.
In multiplayer, we play new Spartans, the fresh members of humanity’s best. Here, we see the mechanical win out over the human time and time again. Multiplayer might demand broad creativity, but individual skirmishes favor the player that can land five solid headshots in a row. Players that can perform that feat with machine regularity win – those that can’t, lose. In Spartan Ops, the most common voice is that of Jennifer Hale’s Commander Sarah Palmer, a Spartan who eschews “eggheads” and understanding for putting a bullet into “hingeheads,” all to “make the galaxy a better place.” She’s racist, rough-edged, and ignorant. She even disregards and discredits human Marines. “It’s amazing, that Spartans can do in 24 minutes what Marines can’t do in 24 hours,” she boasts; later, one of her Spartans notes, surprised, that “the Marines are holding their own for once.” The common man is already obsolete aboard the Infinity; their lives are cheap. Meanwhile, we are all drunk on the power of being a super-powered cyborg, engaging in endless war games to hone our skills for – what, exactly? I want to think that this is on purpose – that the player is not supposed to identify with Palmer and her Spartans. Humanity as villain was fact in the ancient history of this universe, and it looks like they tread that path once again.
The future embodied by these Spartans isn’t set in stone, though, and there are a few things that give me hope for Halo 5. The Chief is at a crossroads. For the first time in the series, he must bear the protagonist role without the help of a matronly guide – he must make decisions for himself. In that sense, Halo 4 is the beginning of Chief’s coming-of-age story. He now finds himself adrift. Our last scene with the Chief shows us that things are going to change soon. While clearly grieving, he hollowly echoes that sacrifices, and in this instance Cortana’s death, are what’s required of a soldier’s duty; it’s a pathetic line, and Lasky calls him on it. “Soldiers are just people, Chief,” he says. Indeed. In Halo 5, I think we’re going to see a Chief that has grown up a bit – a Chief that might even take a stand against what humanity is becoming.