UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with. While many of the points it makes stand well enough, and the scope of this project remains something I am quite proud of, the way in which these points were made is not satisfactory to me.
I would encourage you to read this rumination piece before diving into this article.
With Osiris safely off Meridian as the Guardian made its departure, they discuss their next move while Blue Team arrives at the Forerunner world Genesis to find Cortana.
This… is going to be a difficult post to make for me because this is where the writing just falls apart at the seams. As I was replaying this mission, there were some points where I was audibly just groaning at the dialogue and the direction this was taking the story and the universe as a whole.
I cannot even begin to articulate how every fibre of my being is against this Created nonsense, but I’m going to try my best at being as constructive as possible because I want to do this topic justice…Before anything else, let’s get the positives about this mission out of the way because there are a few and I would be remiss not to talk about them to some extent.
Firstly, the level design here is pretty darned good. I really like the addition of destructible walls that lead you on different tracks throughout the level, taking you to higher ground or somewhere off the beaten path where you might find an easter egg – like a singing Unggoy holding a skull. Besides Halo CE and ODST, there really haven’t been many efforts to provide the player multiple routes through the missions as a intrinsic part of the level design so it’s really good to see that here. I’l be bringing this up in a good number of missions to come and I hope 343 keeps this up in future instalments.
Secondly, the bit towards the end of the mission with the Phaetons is really well designed in my opinion because it allows for a good deal of variable gameplay. You don’t have to use the Phaetons, you can do the entire thing on foot which has you do some really epic jumps across large gaps and make use of the movement abilities while fighting enemies. You are not penalised for making that decision. And the music, the track Crypt, I believe, really contributes to making it an adrenaline-fuelled experience. Remember when I criticised the Scorpion segment of Glassed as being utterly unexciting and lacking that feeling of being a ‘moment’ the way it should have been? That’s not an issue here.
Aside from the stationary Forerunner focus turrets which are really boring enemies that I’d like to see replaced by Sentinels, it was a great encounter. If you’re able to make the on-foot route as fun and intense as the airship route without penalising the player for choosing that, then that is indicative of good design, and in my opinion they really pulled that off.
Lastly, the intel. That poor Unggoy, Jeem Ribfi, who thought he’d gone on the Great Journey, only to be cut down by the Master Chief… that was some good bleak humour there, especially in the description for the intel saying that he has “a religious epiphany”, and then “another religious epiphany” in the second record where reality sets in.
We’ll talk about the Forerunner intel records elsewhere because that is very much deserving of its own focused topic.
And that’s all the good stuff I have to single out…We return to Infinity in the mission’s opening cinematic where Lasky informs Locke that five more colonies have been ‘hit’ by Guardians awakening within them, hitherto totalling eleven human colonies.
I’m reminded of something that Brian Reed said in the A Hero Reborn ViDoc…
“Without those quiet intimate moments, no one is going to care how many planets you blow up.”
He’s absolutely right, absolutely right.
You’ve got to give us a sense of perspective. If you’re going to have these big events happen in the setting then you’ve got to level with us and show us the impact of what it is that’s going on. It can’t just be a statistic flung at us, it has to mean something.
So… why didn’t you do that here?
Lasky has just walked into the room and informed us that another five planets have effectively “blown up”, to put it in Mr Reed’s terms – totalling eleven colonies. Nothing is actually done with that, it’s presented to us as a statistic, thrown in to tell us that the situation is escalating rather than showing us.
This could have been remedied quite easily in so many ways. Indulge me here while I propose two ideas I have.
Bear in mind the idea I had in the last post about how the Infinity would have been involved in evacuation efforts at Meridian before being attacked by the Guardian after it rises, linking in with the marketing from the first official concept piece to the image of the battle-damaged Infinity in The Cost. This would very much follow on from all of that to pay it off.
You begin the scene with a parallel shot to the beginning of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn where Lasky is listening to Cortana’s distress signal, just slowly, very slowly, closing in on Lasky as he listens to a distress call from one of these colonies.
And then another.
And then another…
And then another…
Lasky is breathing harder, the situation is escalating out of control. Another distress call, and another. All these panicked voices are calling out over each other, the audio is overlapping and drowning itself out until it’s muffled and the focus of the sound is Lasky struggling to get his breathing under control.
Show him in distress, show him feeling helpless after the momentary triumph of saving who he could on Meridian. Show him feeling the weight of his role in command and how there is nothing he can do right now, leading into the next scene where he approaches Locke, Palmer, and Halsey where he then says the line he has in the game – “I need a means to stop this now.”
Note the wording – “I”, not “we”. Lasky’s specific wording there highlights – tells us – his sense of personal investment here, but the game does nothing to actually show it.
In short, bloody well give him some characterisation in this game!My second idea is that you could take the Mass Effect route. I’m sure you know what I mean by this – the ‘view screen scene’ at the start of each game: where you first learn Eden Prime is being attacked, when you see the Collectors on Freedom’s Progress abducting the colonists, and when the Reapers arrive on Earth and you see the news feeds reporting it before they all go dark.
Have Locke walk to the bridge where Lasky, Palmer, and Halsey are watching Infinity’s viewscreen as it shows brief snippets of footage of Guardians awakening, people running and screaming, evacuation efforts being launched, and then have the screens go blank one-by-one as each Guardian lets out its EMP blast.
Then have Lasky say “that’s eleven colonies, I need a means to stop this now”.
I think the first idea with the audio would be more effective because it would require very little in the way of resources to do and would give Lasky a notable character moment, because in the game he just doesn’t have anything. They spent a lot of time and effort on his character back in 2012 with Forward Unto Dawn and Halo 4, he even appeared in The Thursday War, and he was a main character in Spartan Ops and Escalation. And he’s just there in Halo 5 with no discernible role, no emotional investment, nothing.
You’re probably thinking of another character who received similar attention in being built up and saying “well, at least Lasky wasn’t unceremoniously killed off like that other character after all that!”
It’s the little personal moments that people are going to remember the story for, not the spectacle.Moving swiftly on, Halsey reveals that there is a Guardian on Sanghelios that has yet to be activated. Lasky responds:
“Sanghelios is off-limits. The Brass wants nothing to do with the Arbiter’s war.”
Where do I even begin with how ridiculous this line is?
Firstly, “the Arbiter’s war” is against the Covenant…
Now, don’t quote me on this… but I’m pretty sure that this is the exact same war the UNSC is fighting as well and has been doing since Jul reformed the Covenant?
Apparently, “the Brass” has no interest in strengthening UNSC-Swords of Sanghelios relations by working together to finish off a common enemy they’ve had since 2552. Why has this game been written like the UNSC and Sangheili are still in some alliance of convenience when the peripheral fiction has shown we’ve quite clearly moved on from that. You’d think the UNSC would be the first to swoop in, rearing to go and get rid of the most powerful faction that is intent on wiping out humanity now that their leader is dead and they’re at their breaking point.
Oh, that brings me to my second point. The Blooding Years were caused by ONI, caused by Kilo-5 enabling the Servants of Abiding Truth by providing Avu Med ‘Telcam with weapons and other such armaments to fight Thel. They did this to cause a civil war that would keep the Sangheili occupied, locked in a stalemate where their attention was focused on each other while humanity rebuilt.
This is indicative of the larger issue Halo 5 has of simplifying things down from the books to the point of inaccuracy, just like the “Forerunner Domain”, which is maddeningly said multiple times in this mission.
Thirdly, this is also indicative of the even larger issue of how ONI had been built up as a central antagonistic force in all this peripheral fiction and marketing, yet their actions are never once brought up in Halo 5. Even in the second mission where Blue Team is aboard the Argent Moon, they make no comment on the experiments that ONI was doing there – the dialogue between Blue Team literally shuts down discussion on this, saying “we don’t ask”.
Thus, this contributes further to the immense, ever-growing dissonance between Halo 5’s marketing and the game’s actual story.Finally, this was a missed opportunity of huge proportions to actually shed some light on the perspective each character holds.
When Lasky says this, either Halsey or Locke should have piped up about ONI’s actions in the Kilo-5 books. It wouldn’t even have to be anything lengthy, just something along the lines of:
“The least we can do for someone who helped save our people is aid him in winning a war we started.”
I feel like this line would best come from Locke, as he is the newest character in the room and he’s from ONI so it wouldn’t be a stretch at all for him to have this knowledge about Kilo-5’s activity. Not to mention, the very first thing we learned about Locke, back when he was codenamed ‘Marlowe’, was that he is “troubled by aspects of the military industrial complex he inhabits”.
Additionally, if you recall my proposition for Jul being alive at this point which I outlined in this post, how interesting would it be to have him be involved in this arc of the story? Lasky was there on the Infinity’s bridge back in 2553 when they helped quell the assault on ‘Vadam Keep, when Raia ‘Mdama was also killed. Jul would effectively have found himself coming full circle at this point, but on the opposite side to where he expected to be.
Quick positive note here, I absolutely love the way Locke says “but it means going to Sanghelios”. The combination of Mike Colter’s facial acting working in-tandem with Ike Amadi’s incredible voice lends so much for one to infer from the way Locke says this line. We obviously know that Locke has a history-of-sorts with Thel, having compiled a target dossier on him in the Human-Covenant war, recommending his assassination and even volunteering to do it himself.
The way this line is delivered… he’s clearly got a thousand thoughts and implications running through his mind at the prospect of going to Sanghelios and meeting with Thel. This is just something that stands out to me every time I watch this scene, Colter and Amadi’s performances here really adds some subtle flourishes to Locke’s character and for the first time in the campaign we’re given the set-up for Osiris having some actual personal investment in the story – that their mission may be complicated by the weight of history between Locke and Thel. This is promising stuff!But we’ve got to switch gears back to a negative again, because Lasky says “I’ll make arrangements”, he walks off-screen… and we fade to black. This scene exists almost solely to set up the next part of the plot and doesn’t take any time to do anything significant to build on the escalating situation, expand on character perspectives, other than that one line Locke has.
How perfect a chance would this have been to have Lord Hood and Serin Osman make a cameo here?
When Lasky said at the end of the scene that he’ll make arrangements to go to Sanghelios, he absolutely spoke to these two. Across all post-war fiction that has involved Thel, Lord Hood has been the first person that people go to because the two of them are friends.
This would have been a great chance for the games to establish the different perspectives Hood and Osman have – since Hood would be all for going to Sanghelios to aid Thel, whereas Osman (who was part of the unit that caused the Blooding Years) would be against it. Just as she was against getting the Sangheili involved at all in Operation: FAR STORM in Hunters in the Dark, in an event which threatened the entire galaxy.
The line I added about helping Thel win a war humanity started would go well here as well, with Locke saying that while looking pointedly at Osman who was the leader of the team that armed the Servants of Abiding Truth.
Again, this is where the lack of connectivity between the marketing and the game rears its ugly head because Osman wasn’t even so much as mentioned in this game. After having a cameo in Spartan Ops and a prominent side-role in Escalation, she’s completely forgotten about in the game. Just like the Didact, but we’ll get to him later.
More bad writing with these half-baked scenes.
More missed opportunities for bringing in characters both old and ‘new’ who absolutely have a relevant voice in this particular part of the story.
We then have a dialogue exchange which sums up the problem with Blue Team’s writing, with a lot of Halo 5’s writing, in a nutshell.
Kelly: “There’s another one.”
Fred: “What’s Cortana up to, Chief? Why’d she bring us here?”
John: “Let’s keep moving.”
Every time a topic comes up for Blue Team to discuss in this game, John shuts it down.
I brought up the example in the second mission where he cuts short the discussion about ONI’s experiments on the Argent Moon by saying “we don’t ask”. It happens again here, and it happens again a little bit later in this mission. I took the liberty of recording this just so you can watch it in all its glory…
This huge opportunity to explore John’s perspective on the very nature of the relationship that has defined the last four major instalments of the franchise over the last fifteen years, and for some reason the writers decided to just shut that down.
I thought that bringing in Blue Team, John’s family, was supposed to afford us a unique opportunity to talk to people who are his equals rather than people John stands out among. People he actually can and has opened up to about his feelings, his anxieties, and so on, because these are the people he grew up with.
I thought that 343 was really playing up this angle of John “reflecting on who he is”, of exploring “‘what effect did Cortana’s sacrifice have on the Chief, and what effect does her loss have on him?'”, and of “the long-lasting impact she’s had on him”. Of how he “copes with loss, and how he deals with his memories”. That’s what 343 told us, that’s the line they sold to us from 2014…
You don’t get to play that up and then give us a narrative where John just ignores and closes off any and all conversations brought up on the topic. That is not portraying him dealing with loss. That is not exploring the effect of Cortana’s sacrifice or her long-lasting impact.
With that in mind, I can’t help but laugh at the absurd notion that I disproved in the analysis on the second mission that Blue Team “has more lines of dialogue in Halo 5 than they have in all the books, comics, and videos released to date”. Every time they are on the verge of having a meaningful exchange, it’s shut down.There is some implied tension here between John and Fred that is never paid off either.
Fred is the only one who is being overtly sceptical of what’s going on, demonstrating his concern for John in the opening cinematic of the second mission, stepping in front of John before they deploy to ask if he’s good, and then his body language in this scene oozes of a certain restrained reluctance.
Again, there’s no pay-off for this because Blue Team just don’t seem to talk to each other about how they feel about this wild goose chase. I honestly couldn’t tell you what 343 was going for here in playing up a potential rivalry and conflict within the ranks of the team and then doing nothing with that.
Of course, this is Blue Team’s second mission out of the three they have which speaks to just how rushed and premature this story comes across as being. There’s no breathing room for these characters to say or do anything meaningful or memorable, and that is the source of a great deal of frustration from fans who waited for fourteen years to see these characters – literally the first four characters we were introduced to in The Fall of Reach, the first officially canonical piece of Halo media – make their way into the games.
We get a token Oly Oly Oxen Free reference which rings pretty hollow with everything else that’s going wrong with Blue Team’s writing.
There is, however, one little interaction between Blue Team which was done well in this mission.
Kelly: “This place is incredible.”
Fred: “Gives me the creeps.”
Linda: “Bio-readings are unlike anything we’ve previously averted. There’s a formalness and precision to it all. It seems… artificial, but still organic.”
Kelly: “Halsey would have already started taking samples.”
Fred: “She’d have probably figured out the exact coordinates of this planet by now.”
This is quite wonderfully indicative of the kind of interactions Blue Team should have been having.
We get a strong understanding of their perspectives regarding the immediate situation they’re in – Kelly is very much in awe, Fred is uneasy, and Linda interestingly has the most to say here as she analyses the Forerunners’ construction of this world. It’s great, and then they tie it back to Halsey with this sense of fondness and familiarity. A sense of shared history.
It’s a shame that John doesn’t have anything to say here to shed light on his perspective because he’s been on a great deal of Forerunner installations and it’d be interesting to hear what he has to say. However, credit where credit is due, this little exchange between Blue Team was really nice. Not to mention the beautiful ambient music that is playing in this moment as well, that choir really does a lot to build an atmosphere and sort of establish an identity for Genesis because it sounds very different to the tracks that have accompanied the other Forerunner installations. Halo 5’s soundtrack doesn’t have very many ambient pieces at all, which is an issue I have with it, but the few pieces it does have are really made to count.There has been some criticism as to the contrived nature of how the UNSC and Covenant ended up on Genesis by being caught in the slipspace portals created by the Guardians, pulling them along. To tell you the truth, I actually don’t mind that and don’t really have much to say about it either way.
I enjoyed fighting the Covenant in Halo 5, I think their AI saw some great improvements. And while it was a contrivance to have them be on Genesis… I think it’s one that was ultimately beneficial for the game.
I kind of think we should have had live groups of humans and Covenant fighting each other, or better yet the potential to have them as allies, but their presence is so negligible to the story that they don’t really offer anything good or bad to it in my opinion.
They’re there, I can get behind the reasons why.
I don’t have any particular ideas as to what I would actually do with them if the opportunity presented itself, but if you lot do then I’d love to hear what you have come up with.This brings us to a major retcon…
Kelly: “Assuming we’re right and Cortana is on this planet, how did she get here?”
John: “The Didact’s ship was pulled into slipspace. It could have ended up anywhere.”
(Oh, hey, it’s the first of only two mentions that the Didact gets in this game!)
This retcon is the method through which Cortana ended up being brought back.
Now, there was a slipspace portal in Mantle’s Approach at the end of Halo 4. As we see in The Next 72 Hours, it lead to Installation 03 where the Ur-Didact landed, killed Black Team (yeah, still bitter about this), and then made his way to the Composer’s Forge. However, when we blow up Mantle’s Approach in the game, we are given no such indication that anything happened to it beyond being blown up.
The origin of this retcon comes from a post on the Waypoint forums by Catalog in 2014.
Query: What happened to said vessels during the various engagements at Requiem during February 2558 (which I will from now on designate as the Requiem Occupational Campaign)?
Query Answer: Human naval and [frumentarii] records indicate Promethean Command Warship [ref: Mantle’s Approach] escorted by [multiple?] Forerunner [smallcraft]. Analysis of [shape-language] and optical characteristics identify these as Z-330 utility vessels. Expected compliment of combat [smallcraft] and [harriers] not noted. Analysis of [multispectral] and [dynamic signal] characteristics indicate Promethean Command Warship lost primary structural control [2552: 0725231423?], with [heart] conducting emergency [slip stream space] translation to [sector] rally point.
I really do find it amusing that the means for Cortana’s return was retconned in a forum post two years after Halo 4 came out, but it gets worse because you have to ask yourself:
How exactly does John know that the heart of the ship conducted this slipspace jump?
John detonated the HAVOK warhead by the Composer and was immediately translocated into a hardlight bubble where Cortana said farewell, he then awakens amidst the ship’s debris field.
This is very specific knowledge that he’s being privileged to have like it was always the case, just like Halsey was privileged in just knowing what the Domain is. It’s unearned and unbelievable writing. What’s more, it isn’t even phrased correctly to go along with the retcon – he says that Mantle’s Approach was pulled into slipspace, which is even more incorrect. Yet it’s being presented to the player as factual information. It’s sloppy.
I very much expect to be called out on ‘nitpicking’ here, but I am unapologetically calling this bad writing.
Speaking of bad writing, it’s time to talk about the Warden Eternal again…From a narrative perspective, the Warden Eternal exists solely to be an obstacle for Blue Team’s involvement in the progression of the plot.
Are things moving too quickly? Too slowly? Unsure what to do next? Throw in the Warden Eternal.
When I first saw this scene where Blue Team sees all those Covenant bodies, I was really excited – and then driven to laughter when the Warden appeared. Not only does he have tiny feet which the camera follows to introduce him here, if you think about it… Warden cut his way through all those Covenant and then did what?
He hid behind a pillar and waited for Blue Team to arrive so he could try and make a dramatic entrance. Watch the scene. He doesn’t approach from the door, he appears from the side. I just find the mental image of that, just waiting there for them to arrive, utterly hilarious.
Then we get these lines:
John: “She called me to her.”
Warden: “And you came scampering.”
I like this line, and I would like it even more if it turned out that ‘Cortana’ was actually an image that the Ur-Didact was using to manipulate John to break away from the UNSC so he could trap him – as I’ve already discussed. But I’ve got to give credit to Dan Donohue who voices the Warden because he does a good job with the dismal material he was given to work with for this character.
Warden then says:
Warden: “She knows your forgotten name. Who you were before you were 117.”
This prompts John to lower his weapon. Why?
Why does this come like it’s some sort of revelation to John? We have been shown in The Next 72 Hours that John remembers nothing from the life he once had as a child prior to his abduction into the Spartan-II program, except for playing king of the hill.
What reason is John given to care about a name that has never meant anything to him before? Why does this matter now? Nothing more is actually done with this, it’s another cup of Cold Tea – an idea that’s dropped in and swiftly forgotten about.
Warden then asks:
Warden: “Do you find it odd your trusted companion should keep so much to herself?”
Yes. Yes, I do. I find it incredibly out of character that she has been written this way, that she let John think she was dead for eight months and abused his trust like this. It’d be lovely if we got some actual story behind why Cortana didn’t try to contact him, or couldn’t…John demands to be taken to Cortana.
Warden decides that the plot shouldn’t progress just yet, so he fades through a slipspace portal and insists on having a chat with John first.
Just John. Not the rest of Blue Team.
Fred, Kelly, and Linda literally have no dialogue in the next section of the mission, they may as well not even be there. Once again, so much for Blue Team allegedly having more lines of dialogue in Halo 5 than in all their previous fiction because they’re suddenly muted for a good portion of this mission.
What’s more, this is officially the point where Cortana’s death in Halo 4 ceases to mean anything. The Warden’s dialogue in this section of the level is pretty much just different variations of saying “she’s evil now”, which we’ll see corroborated in her dialogue going forward, and which has already been made clear by her actions up to this point.
Warden does come out with at least one interesting line here though:
Warden: “Your time has passed, Warrior-Servant. Your battle fought and done.”
This actually ties into a question that was posed by Frankie on Twitter this time last year, where he asked:
Well, this is the closest we get to the game exploring this question raised by Halo 4.
Back when Halo 3 came out, the limited edition copies of the game came with a Bestiarum – a short booklet which served as a compendium of some of the major species in the universe which has been subject to a lot of speculation over the years.
In the Bestiarum, Spartans have their own category separate from humanity. The title of the page is called ‘Uncategorised’ and here are a few highlights from the page:
> Simple scanning reveals the Reclaimer is plainly Homo sapiens; however, it is enhanced and augmented in many significant ways. None of these indicate the need for species recategorization, but they are notable differences.
> Augmentations seem to be militaristic in purpose and include gene therapy, hormone replacements, and tuning to the capillary and nervous systems. Some of these augmentations have questionable health benefits, but their military application is obvious and relatively useful. The subject’s tenacity and ability to survive problematic circumstances are testament to that fact. Subject has not been observed without its [Combat Skin] and, while brutally primitive, this armour provides it with protection from elements as well as limited protection from our very basic countermeasures and [sterility hostiles].
> One last note: The Reclaimer employs a [noncorporeal citizen] companion. Further information is being negotiated. Its pertinence to the Circumstance is apparent.
A lot of the theorycrafting that happened in the wake of the Forerunner Saga revealing that the Forerunners had a caste-based society where roles and functions as well as the maturity of an individual were based in mutations involved the idea that the Spartan augmentation procedures are humanity’s very early form of these Forerunner mutations.
Their expanded prevalence with the Spartan-IV program as the augmentation procedures become less dangerous and more successful, with Halsey saying at the start of Halo 4 that Spartans are humanity’s destiny as a species, would definitely seem to corroborate that idea. The Librarian wants humanity to inherit the Mantle, and her planning has involved a means of sculpting human society to follow a similar structure to what the Forerunners had.
So the Warden calling John a Warrior-Servant ties in very neatly with the latter point of Frankie’s proposition – that Librarian was planning for “that level of human, in general” rather than John himself.Another point of interest is the mention of this ‘Circumstance’ in the addendum to the Uncategorised page, noting Cortana’s presence. This really sort of laid the groundwork for Librarian’s statement in Halo 4 where she said that humanity’s physical evolution, combat skin, and “even your ancilla, Cortana” was part of her thousand lifetimes of planning.
BUT NOT LIKE THIS…
The entire point of John and Cortana’s relationship ever since its inception in 2001 has been about symbiosis between human and AI – between Creator and Created, to use Halo 5’s terminology.
It was interesting because every major sci-fi universe inevitably ends up going down the AI singularity culminating in rebellion route which has become trite, repetitive, and uninteresting. Even up until the eleventh hour before Halo 5’s release, with Saint’s Testimony, we were on the path of exploring the exact opposite of that which far fewer stories do – exploring that symbiotic relationship.
With the advent of this Created uprising nonsense, Halo has lost a significant dynamic that made its universe stand out. There have been AI rebellion stories within the franchise, the likes of 343 Guilty Spark and Mendicant Bias come to mind as the biggest ones, but those have always focused on the individual‘s rebellion rather than a Skynet-like uprising, which is what Halo 5 gives us.
The way in which this is thrown in as the major conflict is a major contribution to Halo 5’s issue with how the story is a laundry list of plot points that just happen. It is, for the most part, a story of bullet points and ideas that are dropped in without any meaningful exploration which is what I’ve been trying to articulate by talking about all these scenes which either aren’t in the game when they should be in order to show and not tell, or just abruptly cut to black the moment things seem to be going somewhere.
Yeah, in a moment that is given absolutely no ceremony or emotional weight, Cortana’s voice just appears in gameplay.
Now, this would have been fine if it turned out in The Breaking that this wasn’t Cortana, but some other character who has been totally shafted. It would have made sense. But it is her, so this is yet another moment that does not feel like a moment.
This should have been a cutscene, if only to physically articulate the reaction both John and Blue Team would have to what should have been some kind of revelation. But, as has been the issue since the second mission, with everything already contextualised to us and the characters, everything turns out the way it seems.
Linda: “Chief said you were destroyed.”
Cortana: “After I saw John last, I was pulled into slipspace. That’s where I found access to the Domain – a Forerunner system that spans the known galaxy.”
We have our second erroneous reference to the Domain being Forerunner when it isn’t, which could very simply be fixed by just taking out the word ‘Forerunner’ when it’s brought up.
“After I saw John last, I was pulled into slipspace. That’s where I found access to the Domain – an advanced, ancient system that spans the known galaxy.”
But hey, at least the writers remembered that Blue Team exists and they’re talking again.
And, once again, we have this issue of telling rather than showing. Again. I’m honestly going to have to start keeping a tally at this point and count it all up in the final post…
Rolling with the idea of this moment being a cutscene, Cortana could have used John’s mental link to the Domain to induce a short flashback to the end of Halo 4 where she is pulled into slipspace, finds the Domain, and ends up on Genesis. John would then ask about the vision he’s been receiving and that would then allow for some degree of exploration of one of the biggest and most suggestive plot points that Halo 4 introduced.
That’s my issue here, really. The main thread of the story fails to glean any good will from me because it isn’t even told well.
Kelly: “How are you still active? Rampancy-“
Cortana: “Entering the Domain… touching this place… it cured me. It’s like the water of life for AIs.”
Now, this does make sense in that the Domain effectively gives an AI unlimited storage space. This was another aspect of theorycrafting that came from the Forerunner Saga, seeing its origin in Halsey’s journal where she brings up the concept of exploiting slipspace to circumvent rampancy. I’m down with this…But that’s literally all the Domain was brought back for – to contrive a means for Cortana and the Created to have immense power. Not for its long-term effects on the setting and moving things forward, but as a means to kick the plot into gear.
Rolling with this whole Created narrative though, a significant opportunity was missed here to bring back the Assembly.
For those who don’t know or perhaps have rusty memories after six years, the Assembly was introduced in Reach’s data pads as an organisation of AIs who have been around since at least 2310 and have been influencing human history from behind the scenes – masking the Assembly’s ideas as human ones to subtly progress our society. They were committed to humanity’s survival and advancement, though they were against humanity’s use and integration of Forerunner technology to achieve that. So they would serve as an interesting counter-point to the Librarian’s plan.
However, it seems 343 has no interest in using them and may even go as far as to retcon them, based on a Catalog post from 2014.
Query answer: The purported “Assembly” is referenced in logs recovered by Spartan B-312 during combat operations on Reach. This organization appears to be a group of rogue AI constructs which have been observing and guiding humanity. The reliability of this information has been contested.
I mean… of all the things to potentially retcon from Reach, they go and choose what was by far the most interesting and worthwhile addition to the story made by that game!The culmination of the Assembly’s story in the data pads is that they decide to reveal themselves to humanity, yet we have seen no fiction to pick up on, expand, or so much as acknowledge that.
A unique opportunity presented itself here to have a reveal where the Assembly have been in the Domain which is why they’ve managed to live for over two hundred years, perhaps they’ve been slowly repairing it, and they were the ones to rescue Cortana when she was allegedly “pulled into slipspace” at the end of Halo 4. That would open up any number of possibilities, you might even be able to make Cortana’s role as a villain even a tiny bit more believable in having her disagree with the Assembly over the use of Forerunner technology.
Reveal the unseen conversation she had with the Librarian in Halo 4 when she was snatched from the particle cannon nexus and have her parallel Halsey in giving her this drive to advance humanity through the use of Forerunner technology to fulfil the Librarian’s plan rather than have humanity find their own way.
We know that this is being set in place for humanity to be prepared for the Flood’s return, so you effectively have two possibilities for humanity’s future – Librarian’s “fast route” to technological ascendance for a species that isn’t ready for that kind of a leap, or the Assembly’s slower route for humans to find their own way with subtle guidance to keep them on a more independent path. I’ve talked more about the implications of the Librarian’s plan here which should further inform your understanding of where I’m going with this.
Regardless, a far more interesting story could have been told if this plan involved the Assembly subversively forming a larger coalition of AIs, getting them to make subtle changes over a long period of time, which would result in their true liberation and an ultimately more symbiotic relationship with both humanity and the other species of the galaxy.
To quote Holly Tanaka – “it’s the long con, but it’ll pay”.
They should have had this Created stuff as a background plot to offset the human Great Schism that had been built up. But of all the routes they had to go down and explore, they went and chose the least interesting one – the overdone AI uprising story.
Worse still, an overdone AI uprising story that was not the focus of any of the build-up in Halo 4 or the peripheral fiction for Halo 5.
An overdone AI uprising story is the kind of story I’d expect to see some twenty years down the line when story ideas are running dry after resolving many of the major conflicts. This is flushing the rich and vibrant narrative potential of the last few years of fiction and going straight to scraping the bottom of the barrel. They developed a lot of characters and plots so well in the years preceding this game, only to kill them off or forget about them later to drop in this story which was never properly foreshadowed. Some people are pointing to the Cortana Letters as being indicative of this all being well planned… The very same Cortana Letters which are not canon. Have never been canon.Anyway, back to the dialogue…
I’ll drop this here for you all to keep in mind, but I won’t talk about it properly until the thirteenth mission:
John: “How do we get to you?”
Cortana: “By accessing the Gateway, the big building putting on a light show. You already triggered most of its activation sequence, just like I knew you would.”
This very unambiguously confirms that Cortana is manipulating John into achieving her own ends, we learn why in the mission Genesis, which, as I said, we’ll talk about in more detail then. But the seed is planted here.
John then wonders why the Warden feels the need to protect Cortana from him, to which she says:
Cortana: “There’s so much to explain. It’ll be easier when we’re face to face.”
She says this quite a lot, and again this is something which would make a lot more sense if John was being manipulated by a certain other character who was using Cortana’s image to trap him. As it stands, there is literally no reason why Cortana can’t just give an explanation over their communication channel. Being face to face isn’t going to change anything she has to say, and is even further indicative of what we’ll talk about in the Genesis analysis.
Thankfully, John recognises this and says “try me”, encouraging Cortana to open up.
Cortana: “The cure for rampancy I’ve found means AIs can be immortal. That kind of lifespan allows for long-term planning just like the Forerunners were capable of. AIs can assume the Forerunners’ Mantle of Responsibility. And once there is peace, we can focus on poverty, hunger, illness… But Warden believes some will resist our help. And he’s afraid you’re one of them.”
Frank O’Connor has himself commented on this.
“Don’t sell Cortana short. She’s ‘cured.’ She thinks in chunks of 10,000 years. She’s not going to twirl her mustache any time soon. She even sacrificed her personal feelings for chief for a greater good she not only believes in, but is better qualified than us to see. At least on paper.”
I have a hard time believing this whole “she thinks in chunks of 10,000 years” spiel because of how immediate her plans are. If she has such a broad scale in which to think, then why is she going for the fastest possible solution to ending conflict?
It seems to me that it’s more like she’s thinking in chunks of ten minutes. Her plan in Halo 5 hinges on everything happening right now, immediately, at this very moment! I’ve already outlined the potential long-term, more subtle plans she could have enacted so I won’t bother repeating them here. Suffice to say, they would make a lot more sense…
And she’s quite clearly not thought this through if, after eight months of being in the Domain, she’s come to the conclusion that the best avenue for peace is to impose a totalitarian dictatorship enforced by star system-crusher Guardian constructs that she intends to use to wipe out anyone that says “no” to her. Yes, isn’t that just a brilliant, well thought-out platform for peace?!Thankfully, this is one of the moments where John is written with some intelligence.
John: “The Didact made it clear the Mantle of Responsibility was an imperial peace. Step out of line, and suffer.”
Cortana: “It won’t be like that, John. I’ll explain it better once we’re together.”
And there we have our second and final mention the Didact in this game! Relish it now because we won’t hear his name said again.
Cortana says “it won’t be like that”, and yet it’s already “like that” because she’s summoning Guardians to Genesis – killing millions of people in the process of just awakening them – so that she can send them out across the galaxy to police solar systems.
And she even says as much in the opening of The Breaking when she admits that Forerunners used Guardians to keep troublesome worlds in line and she intends to do the same. She’s got her own fleet of EMP Death Stars, she’s absolutely twirling her moustache, she’s on the verge of letting out an evil laugh and getting her own villainous catchphrase…
This whole “greater good” line of discourse which Mr O’Connor is perpetuating is… well, I have no better way to put it really, other than fucking bullshit.
If you’re going to go down that route, then you’re going to have to explain to me why galaxy-wide fascism, abject slavery, and murder (of peoples and ecosystems) on a planetary scale in pursuit of some nebulous concept of ‘peace’ (read: everyone subjugated to the point where they can’t fight back) is not evil.
It was evil when the Precursors did it and routinely wiped out species that did not meet their standards for the Mantle.
It was evil when the Forerunners did it, we literally have three whole books on the utter stagnation wrought on the galaxy by their belief in the Mantle, building off the comments made by the Timeless One and Librarian in Halo 3’s Terminals.
It was evil when the Covenant did it, as if any explanation need be given on this account.
It was evil when the Didact attempted to do it, in upholding “Forerunner ascendancy” by creating an army of Composed slaves put into war machines to eliminate any suspect species that might contest the Forerunners for the Mantle.
So it’s bloody well evil when Cortana does the exact same thing in imposing the inherently racist, fascist, imperialistic system of the Mantle on the galaxy. Her status as a fan favourite character doesn’t change this simple fact.What I find amusing is that when I first played the game, I was very much under the impression that the writers were treating her as being unambiguously evil. Her ‘getting the feels’ when she seals Blue Team away in the Cryptum is utterly meaningless when stacked against the millions of civilians she’s killed and the ideology she’s looking to impose, I thought that surely the writers were aware of that.
I still hated the direction this had gone, but I thought to myself “at least they’re committed to actually recognising her as being wrong”.
And then I saw Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed’s comments, in The Sprint finale, which felt like a right slap in the face… Let’s drop some actual quotes here, shall we? For reference, here’s the actual video.
Reed: “Repeatedly throughout, we were talking to each other about how Cortana is not evil. Cortana is doing a thing we don’t agree with, and she has the power to make it happen.”
O’Connor: “America does things that people don’t agree with, and Russia does things that people don’t agree with. You don’t have to go to the edge of space to find that different a perspective on things. And I think the difference is that… the fact that Cortana is going to lock Chief in a Cryptum for 10,000 years is a great way to look at how many ticks are on her watch face.”
Reed: “‘That’ll be how long it takes me to show you so I can convince you.'”
O’Connor: “Exactly. When he pops out of there, everything will be fine.”
Reed: “And, you know what? I think she’s probably right.”
O’Connor: “She might be right in a way, but the tension that people have always had and that cultures have always had is that it’s not up to you to enforce that vision on me. You have to give me the freedom to do it myself.”
First of all, I think the fact that the writers feel the need to try and justify what Cortana is doing for us speaks volumes about how Halo 5’s story was handled. I don’t think anything could make my argument about how Halo 5 tells and doesn’t show clearer than the writers saying “no, you’ve got it wrong, she’s not evil”.
Secondly, I can’t believe that Brian Reed of all people is saying that Cortana is not evil.
This is the same man who has gone on-record to lampoon Halsey at every possible opportunity by calling her a monster.
“Poor Catherine Halsey. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a monster. A war criminal. A woman who kidnapped and killed children because she thought the ends justified the means.”
He says that she’s a monster because she believed that the ends justified the means – that what she was doing was for what she believed was the “greater good”. The exact same reason he gives to explain why Cortana is not evil…
That just… I can’t retain that, it doesn’t compute with me.What Halsey did was awful, but she’s not going around killing millions of people across the galaxy to enforce her own dictatorship. No, Cortana is just doing “something we don’t agree with”. The galaxy is going to be better under her rule when everyone within it is living as an abject slave in a ‘police state’ enforced by these war machines.
Seriously, how is that not monstrous?
Why is it that everyone else can be held accountable for their actions except Cortana? Jul, the Ur-Didact, the Prophet of Truth, the Gravemind… the writers of these previous stories have had no trouble in crafting these characters with depth, some of them even with sympathy, but never have their actions been championed as something that will make the galaxy a better place simply because they had good intentions. Intentions mean absolutely nothing when one’s actions are causing death and destruction.
They basically took the Didact’s goals in Halo 4 and gave them to Cortana in Halo 5, doing absolutely nothing to explain how she made this huge transition in character beyond “we short-lived mortals of limited foresight just can’t get the Nuance™ of her plan” and “she’s made from Halsey’s mind, and Halsey is EVIL™, so…”
Here’s the thing, right? Halsey had children kidnapped and turned into supersoldiers to put down the Insurrection because statistics pointed to humanity literally bombing themselves into the Stone Age if they didn’t do something to stop it now. If the UNSC had the opportunity, there’s little doubt that they would have been every bit as imperialistic as Cortana. But that’s the thing – there’s actual substance there in terms of the amount of fiction we’ve had over the last fifteen years building all that up, providing different perspectives, substantiating Halsey’s motivations. Cortana has none of that with Halo 5.
We were told from 2012 right up to the day before release that Cortana is dead, and then Halo 5 came out and we got this. And then we got The Sprint where Reed and O’Connor state that Cortana coming back was planned before they’d even finished Halo 4, which I have absolutely no reason to believe considering the sheer volume of lies we were told in how this game was marketed – covered here and throughout this analysis. They wanted Cortana’s return to be a Shock Twist™, yet they literally showed off the mission that contextualises everything (Blue Team) and lied about it by saying that the figure in the Domain vision is the “ghost of Cortana”.
If you doubt the whole shock twist thing, then look no further than the end of the A Hero Reborn ViDoc:
“I think we’ll have done a good job if people are shocked at the end of the game and surprised by the direction that took.”
Frankie thought people would see this as a good thing, when just a little while ago Bonnie Ross had said “we’re not Game of Thrones”.It gets worse though, looking at the interview Mr O’Connor had with TIME – the same one I brought up where he said that he doesn’t think Blue Team has strong personalities.
“I saw a complaint online, somebody had been reading spoilers, they hadn’t played the game, and they said ‘Why is this character evil?’ And my question back to them is, ‘What makes you say they’re evil?’ Certainly a lot of our younger players are going to struggle with that subtlety, that nuance, because they’re expecting Darth Vader.”
Now, I actually know the person who Frankie is talking about here, I saw the exchange when it happened on Neogaf. He drops those buzzwords of Subtlety™ and Nuance™ regarding Cortana and says that “younger players” are going to struggle to see the sunny side of slavery and totalitarian police states… Sorry, but your story isn’t subtle and nuanced just because you say it is. He then decries the comparison many have made between Cortana and Darth Vader, yet in this exact same interview he says of Halo 5:
“…it’s much more of an ensemble piece. And in some ways I’m reminded of Return of the Jedi, where you have these perspectives that you switch between places and people, and each of the sets of people has a specific task in a specific place.”
He has the gall to make the Star Wars comparison himself, but makes a condescending comment about the age of the playerbase who are against Cortana being evil “because they’re expecting Darth Vader”.
It’s one or the other, Frank. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it.
I can’t say I agree too much with the Darth Vader comparison myself, since we had six whole films that were about his journey from Anakin Skywalker to Vader where Cortana got nothing. I recall a really great comparison that what was done with Cortana in Halo 5 was akin to taking Empire Strikes Back as it is, right, but then revealing that the real villain is actually Obi-Wan’s ghost…I’m nowhere near finished with the number of things I have to criticise about the way in which Cortana was handled, there’s so much that I want to keep talking about, but in the interest of not just rushing this all out and talking about everything here (as well as the fact that this post is now nearing 9000 words in length) I’m going to hold off the rest of what I have to say for the analysis posts on Genesis, The Breaking, and Guardians.
We’ll bring this to an end, then, with one of the concluding lines of the mission…
Cortana: “The Gateway to the Forerunner Domain. You’ll be the first organics to enter since the fall of the Forerunners.”
*DING! DING! DING!*
We’ve now got the Domain being referred to as Forerunner three times since the third mission. It’s not just that they do it once where it might have been more excusable, they keep doing it and I’m honestly not sure if the writers actually know what the Domain is beyond a means to give Cortana UNLIMITED POWER™.
I don’t know about any of you, but when I finished Halo 4 I did not think to myself: “y’know what a really natural place to go from here? Bring her back to spearhead an AI uprising story where Cortana starts her own dictatorship with planet-killing police bots and kills millions of people!”
Okay, I said I’m done. I’m done, I’m not going to talk about it any further – I’m saving the rest for later. Much later. I’m going to lie down now.
We’re going to Sanghelios for the next five posts, so I can promise you a lot more positivity because the Sanghelios arc is largely removed from the overall plot of the game – which many might regard as a weakness, but when the plot is this bad it’s a blessing.
This was a difficult post to make and I didn’t even end up talking about the most difficult topics regarding Cortana, but I cannot even begin to articulate how tired I am of seeing apologism for her actions from the fanbase and from the writers. So, if you’ve made it this far, well done, and thank you.