Cortana, Dead or Alive?

I hardly think that I need to remind any of you about the emotionally soul-shattering ending of Halo 4 to preface this topic… but I’m going to preface this topic by reminding you of the emotionally soul-shattering ending of Halo 4 anyway.

No, wait! Come back!midnight22Even a year and a half on, Cortana’s fate at the end of Halo 4 is a hot topic that has people firmly divided into two camps – those who want her to live, and those who want her to stay gone. I might also add that the scene has not lost any of its emotional potency either, it just gets more and more emotional whenever I see it and reflect on the amazing 13 year long journey I’ve been on with this character across numerous games, novels, comics and more.

When it comes to the discussion on whether she should be ‘brought back’ as I were, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I can see the merit of both paths of the story and I think I’d be okay with whatever story is told. That said, I do find myself somewhat leaning more towards her surviving because she is not only one of my favourite Halo characters, but one of my favourite characters in fiction as a whole and while her story was most definitely brought to an emotionally satisfying conclusion at the end of Halo 4, I just hate to see her go…

So that’s ostensibly what I’ll be talking about today, the arguments for Cortana having a continued role in the Reclaimer Saga. I want to focus on the arguments for because you’ve probably heard just about every argument against it, many of which are perfectly valid reasons which I won’t deny, but there’s not been a particular emphasis on the reasons for why she should survive and what stories could come of it.dawn4To kick off, we should probably establish the way in which she would survive for the purpose of credibility – this isn’t just saying “oh, she’s still alive”, there has to be a means through which she could live first (otherwise I wouldn’t be making this post).

Look at the scene where she takes on the Ur-Didact while John is helplessly being held over the slipspace portal under the Composer. Specifically, take a look at this bit.

The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that she’s occupied the Ur-Didact’s armour. One of her ‘copies’ circles around the Ur-Didact’s head while the other copies bind him to the hardlight bridge, once his arms and legs are restrained another copy forces him to bend down and the final one enters his helmet. It looks like a very specific sequence which you can certainly make something of, establishing the basis for her potential survival.

As for what kind of story this would result in, I am personally gunning for the Ur-Didact to find himself caught up in a redemption arc. He’s not just an insane Forerunner hellbent on humanity’s destruction, he was once a noble figure, a wise general, and a teacher. Librarian charged him with the duty of helping humanity ascend to their rightful place in the galaxy as the inheritors of the Mantle, and I personally would love to see him eventually fulfil this role. How would this be achieved, you ask? Well, think of the character dynamics between the Ur-Didact and Cortana because they really do have rather a lot in common – both are instruments of war, both have been subjected to the Gravemind’s malediction, both have experienced an induced kind of insanity. Cortana could be the means through which the Ur-Didact’s mind is ‘healed’, her role has always been that of a nurturer, the anchor for John’s humanity, so she could do the same for the Didact and I think that would be an incredibly compelling character story (which is what 343 excels at).prologue12It’s worth noting that Cortana is not a character who has to be bound to John in this narrative. While the pairing of our favourite supersoldier and sassy AI makes for a truly wonderful dynamic, that part of their journey has come to an end (at least, for now). That’s really what the conversation between John and Cortana feels like to me at the end of Halo 4 – not a death note, but a farewell. The prospect of Cortana going off and doing her own thing, having her own story, intrigues and excites me just as much as the next step of John’s journey does. While these characters may seem inseparable, Kenneth Scott made clear in the A Hero Awakens ViDoc, Chief and Cortana are not the same person.

“Chief and Cortana aren’t the same person, but she has always been the reflection of his humanity.”

By splitting the pair apart, John must now embark on a journey to discover his own sense of humanity – something we saw the beginnings of during Halo 4’s campaign to the point where, at the end, he was literally being deconstructed as his armour was stripped off of him to reveal the man beneath the suit and what he’s become. From here, his lowest point, a large part of John’s arc will likely be about reconstruction which should be really interesting to see.

However, that doesn’t mean that Cortana has to be dead for this narrative to play out in an emotionally fulfilling way. Indeed, there’s no precedent for her having to meet with John again, she can just as easily be off elsewhere doing something totally different and have their paths never intersect again. There’s a huge variety of ways which this story could potentially be told and still result in an satisfying narrative with a great emotional pay-off.req6A concern I have seen regarding the notion of Cortana living on is that it would effectively cheapen the arcs of the characters in Halo 4, some going as far as to say that it would outright invalidate them. I don’t actually agree with this, having John believe that one thing happened while making the reality quite different without his knowledge means that her farewell was still a catalyst for his transformation as a character. All that development is still going to be there, and if they were to meet again in a later instalment of the Reclaimer Saga after undergoing separate arcs then they would meet as two very different people to who they were when they were last together.

To give an example of this from another one of my favourite fictional universes, I need look no further than the likes of Doctor Who. In The Day of the Doctor, the fiftieth anniversary special that aired last November, it was revealed that the Doctor did not actually butcher the Time Lords with the Moment but instead called upon all of his thirteen incarnations to freeze Gallifrey in a parallel pocket universe and therefore preserve his people from destruction while making it look like the Daleks and Time Lords had wiped each other out. Because of how fractured his timeline became as a result of the crossing of his personal time streams, his ninth incarnation up to his latest did not remember that he saved Gallifrey, and instead believed that he had killed his people. He still had to live with that guilt, that pain, believing that he had killed billions of children to end the Time War.

This made him sad, lonely and deeply ashamed of himself, but it also made him grow to become humble and taught him that the peaceful solution is always preferable to the alternative of burning. None of the depth of the Doctor’s character arc is cheapened or undone by this happier ending, personally I feel that this greatly enhanced it as it managed to create a clean slate for the Doctor to begin anew after such a cathartic revelation. I would say the exact same applies to John’s arc with regards to believing that Cortana is dead, only to have her not be.midnight10If he were to meet with Cortana again in the future, when John’s path with the Ur-Didact inevitably converges again, they would be meeting as two completely different people compared to who they used to be. Both will have grown, both will have changed, which means that it wouldn’t just fall back on the same dynamic that they have had in all the other games.

The lore nerd within me is also squealing over the potential for a scene where John and Mendicant Bias meet the Ur-Didact and Cortana. The Didact created Mendicant Bias after all, and he too defected to the Flood and later sought atonement for his betrayal. Having Cortana and Mendicant Bias be the foil through which the Ur-Didact realises that he can reject the madness thrust upon him and become the noble teacher once again would be an excellent way to tie up his arc. To further fit this in with the story, Cortana actually spoke with the Librarian in Halo 4’s campaign and we’re never told exactly what was said between them. Librarian tells John that Cortana is a part of this “thousand lifetimes of planning” she instigated for the destiny of humanity. I think it would be interesting if Librarian charged Cortana with helping the Ur-Didact, showing him that he can teach humanity how to be better and how to not succumb to the failings of the Forerunners.cfTo conclude, there’s plenty of potential for Cortana to have survived and even more potential for a beautifully compelling story to be made of it.

Like I said, I won’t deny that there are very valid arguments made for the case that Cortana should stay dead and I’d be interested to see how that would play out, but I also think that it’s a bit close-minded to just look at this story and expect one thing to come out of it. Despite the fact that the Reclaimer Saga encompasses about seven years of fiction (going all the way back to IRIS in 2007), we’ve only just scratched the surface of the story waiting to be told and a part of me can’t help but think that it’d really lose something if this journey is to be undergone without our wonderfully sassy AI companion.

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7 thoughts on “Cortana, Dead or Alive?

  1. Woah, Very nice article. I do hope she comes back. I like your reference to Doctor Who, I was thinking the same thing just before I read that! You are a good writer as well, with good arguments.

    I think i’ll check out the Halo Archive too…

    1. Thanks very much! Glad you enjoyed the article, and it’s nice to see a fellow Whovian around. 😛

      Definitely check out the Archive, really good community!

  2. You didn’t touch on one theory that is floating around. Some, myself included believe the means of Cortana’s survival will be through most likely Halsey’s solving of how to de-compose those, well, composed. I believe the same process could be applied to a human AI who is essentially composed as well. Also, wouldn’t that just be a great way to “clean” Halsey’s slate of her “war crimes?” (Yes, I know what she did was SUPER immoral, but I still love that Mendel/Mengele)

    1. I didn’t touch on it because I really don’t put much stock in it, to be honest.

      Cortana (and smart AIs in general) was not created through a process analogous or remotely similar to Composition. Attempting to “de-Compose” her wouldn’t do anything because that’s not how the Composer works – it extracts the minds of those it is used on and stores them in the genetic code of an organic being, or puts them in a mechanical body (as the Ur-Didact did with the Knights).

      I don’t think that saving Cortana would be a means of absolving Halsey of war crimes either. What exactly does Cortana mean to anybody outside of John? She’s just an AI to anybody else who knows her, hardly the basis for making up for what Halsey did.

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