Of Machines and Men

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.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/