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The Strange Case Of Halo 5’s Villain

by Matt Miller on Oct 29, 2015 at 07:10 AM

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Halo 5: Guardians introduces a new villain, and positions that character as an even more potent threat  for the inevitable Halo 6. Andrew Reiner and I sat down to discuss the implications of the surprising plot direction, which has effects that reach beyond even the game world of Halo, and affect Microsoft’s real-world computing experience.

Miller: We should start off by once again stating that this conversation is going to be as spoilery as you can get, so if you’re still playing through Halo 5’s campaign, and haven’t already been scared off, leave now! Okay, we’re probably good, don’t you think, Reiner?

Reiner: If someone is just skimming this article, like most people do on the Internet now, I think we should give them a colored warning too. SPOILERS AHEAD! Now we’re good.

Miller: Perfect. So, one of the things I purposefully didn’t talk about in my review of Halo 5 was anything related to the game’s new villain. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about it. I just didn’t want to ruin anything for folks. I’m interested in your experience, Reiner. There is that dawning realization of where they are going with the story, and that occurs slowly over the course of each chapter. Were you happy with where they went with Cortana?

Reiner: On the one hand, I like the twist. I don’t think anyone anticipated something like this would happen, especially given how Halo 4 wrapped up. I like surprises, and this one certainly kept me wondering if they would eventually go back on it. They didn’t – they doubled down on it. On the other hand, I think turning Cortana into the villain steals away the emotional impact of Halo 4’s conclusion. Those humanizing moments between John (Master Chief) and Cortana don’t really resonate now.

Miller: Yeah, I am similarly torn. There is this fantastic character moment in Halo 4, in which a dying Cortana relates to John what it will be like if there's another Cortana: “It won’t be me. You know that, right?” She wants John to know that she really is dying, and anything that comes later will be something different. I’m confident that 343 Industries knew that they were taking the story in this direction at that point, and that conversation is pretty fundamental. It basically says to both John and the player that the character we meet in Halo 5 is a different entity – that it isn’t Cortana any more. 

With that said, this new character is still named Cortana. She still interacts with John as if they are close companions. She clearly has affection for him, and wants to keep him safe. But, I have to say, the shift to making her a villain who would potentially murder trillions of people is pretty screwed up. It’s like having a novel about a man dealing with the death of his wife, and then having the sequel book be about a zombie version of that wife coming back to kill everyone. 

Reiner: Interesting take. Maybe 343 is playing around with an idea similar to DC Comics’ Firestorm character, who has the mind of two people. Or a more common example would be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They don’t tip their hand at all in this game. It ends without really ending. Where do you think they go from here with Cortana?

Miller: Well, Halo 5 certainly sets up an underdog story for Halo 6. We end with all our heroes (Master Chief, Locke, Arbiter, Sarah Palmer, and the other Spartans) together on Sanghelios, and they’re effectively alone, with a large percentage of humanity’s infrastructure and military might in the hands of nearly omnipotent AIs. I hope Cortana and her AI buddies start manufacturing new enemies to fight, for one. I also want to see the terrible results of her tyranny; as in, an Alderaan-esque planetary destruction kind of thing. Play around with the idea that even tyranny with good intentions is still tyranny. 

From a character perspective, I have to imagine that they’re going to explore some of the themes you suggest, like Cortana having competing personas in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How about you? What are some of the moments or character interactions you’d like to see play out in Halo 6?

Reiner: Well, I’ll list the ones I worry about. I worry about Cortana taking on a full-on human/cyborg form. If Halo 6 ends with her hugging Master Chief and there being an implication that they could be a thing, I’m throwing the controller at the screen.

Miller: You don’t want an AI/Spartan love scene?!

Reiner: Could they legally do that? I don’t know if man and cyborg love is allowed in video games.

Miller: Halo 6: Rated Adult for cyborg lovemaking.

Reiner: The one thing I fear is that 343 doesn’t have many options with Cortana. They didn’t just make her a threat. She controls all technology in the universe now, correct? All Forerunner tech. And she has human and Covenant AI on her side, right?

Miller: Hmm, I’m not sure about Covenant. But certainly, she has the might of both Forerunner and human tech, even if clearly some of the human AIs don’t join her, as we see with Roland aboard the Infinity.

Reiner: I think your idea of Cortana going nuclear and destroying planets has to play out. I don’t see any way around it at this point. If that’s the case, that moment where they try to humanize her again – which we know is coming – will be mighty interesting.

Miller: Ultimately, I get why they went this way. It turns the franchise in a surprising direction, and gives Master Chief and the other heroes a truly titanic threat to deal with. But it’s still hard for me to shake the sense that it really turns away from a lot of the things that the series previously established. As a character, Cortana’s bond with Master Chief has always been about how they’re both consummate heroes, willing to sacrifice themselves to do the right thing for both humanity as a whole and even to save individual people. And Cortana is presented as being so smart and empathetic, it’s hard to stomach her as this character willing to wipe people out in the name of some nebulous future peace. It’s also weird, because the broader fiction (the novels, comics, etc.) has always established humanity, and specifically Master Chief, as the target for being the “Reclaimer.” Humanity is meant to inherit the Mantle of Responsibility to protect the galaxy, and 343 seems to be turning that around to make Cortana twist that into this really malicious thing. 

I guess I can’t fault them for trying to do something interesting, but some aspects of the story just feel kind of off for me, as a result.

Reiner: The best part of this plot twist: The voice inside all Windows 10 devices, which Microsoft thought was this great, pure entity, is now the evilest thing in the universe. If someone’s computer crashes, we know why.

Miller: I know, right? I was thinking about this subject a lot as soon as I began to realize where they were going with the story. Even if at some point in a later game, Cortana is redeemed, for the foreseeable future, she is the equivalent of Skynet in the Halo story. Thus, the real world analog of Cortana, inside your phone or computer, is this insidious presence – a seemingly friendly companion who inevitably is going to begin to dictate what’s good for you, and take over your life.

Reiner: I suspect they will replace Cortana’s voice with Banjo or Kazooie in an upcoming patch.

Miller: I love the potential marketing angles of an evil Cortana phone companion: “Making your decisions for you, because you’re not evolved enough to do it.”

Reiner: I wonder if 343 informed Microsoft about this at all. About using Cortana’s voice: You might want to hold off for a few years.

Miller: Totally. It seems like something that Microsoft would have wanted to head off at the pass. For people in the know, it really carries some weird implications in the real world. If 343 Industries did it on purpose as a sort of stab at Microsoft for stealing their Cortana character, that would be pretty subversive.

Reiner: If that is the case, well played, 343.

Miller: I guess we’ll see how it all shakes out. Suffice to say, I think whether you like Halo 5’s ending or not, it certainly fosters some unusual discussions.


What do all of you think of Halo 5's big twist? Do you like where they're taking the Cortana character? Share your thoughts in the comments below.