Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – The Breaking

UPDATE: This is an old, outdated article series of mine that, years later, I am not entirely pleased with.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.

So far, I have been giving my own short summaries of the story as we’ve been progressing in the opening paragraphs, but for this one I’d like to actually quote the mission description:

“The Master Chief and his team face their greatest threat, and his hardest choice as the true power of Genesis is revealed.”

This sets us up for three things: the Greatest Threat™, the Hardest Choice™, and the True Power™ of this fully armed and operational battle station Genesis. Just sort of keep that in mind as we go through.

Yes, we’re at the final stretch now. In preparing for this, I decided to read through all the previous posts going back to Osiris and make notes on the points I have to pay off for the endgame – I ended up with three whole pages of bullet points to talk about. So we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I can only hope that I manage to articulate these criticisms as best I can. And, believe me, this is where I am giving no quartergate1I had to play this mission three times…

The first time was with my ‘analysis mode’ on for the sake of actually writing this post.

Then I realised that I didn’t actually have any screenshots of the level, so I had to replay it with the Blind skull on (and I rejoiced that 343 gave us the option to switch off the dialogue).

The third time was done with a friend who I wanted to share in my suffering, so we went through it co-operatively while I groaned and complained my way through the dialogue.

Hopefully that sort of sets the tone for where I’m going with this. I do not like this mission. Well, I like the music in this mission, and… actually, that’s about it.

To get the discussion about gameplay out of the way before we get into the real meat of the writing, this is really just… not very well-designed in my opinion. I’ve praised missions like Evacuation for how well it handles backtracking, where the first-third of the mission is basically just going back through Glassed. I praised that because it was done in such a way that you don’t realise you’re backtracking when you’re just playing through it – the encounter design for each of the spaces is completely different, as is the momentum carrying you forward, the tone of the mission, and so on. That was done really well.

This, however, was not. What this mission has you do is fight through the same copy + paste areas two-or-three times to get to a series of elevators which take you closer and closer to Cortana’s flying Death Fortress, fighting the same groups of Prometheans over and over. Then the very end of the level very much earns its title as the worst boss fight in Halo’s history, or, at the very least, second only to the Sesa ‘Refumee fight in Halo 2 on Legendary. I’d like to think that I’ve given all the previous Warden boss fights fair treatment, even praising their design in the last two missions – Battle of Sunaion and Genesis – because they had a great deal more thought put into the environment, the AI behaviour, and in giving the player the most powerful guns in the game to deal with it.

But the fight against three Wardens is just not fun. The space is too open, there’s practically no cover, there’s no multi-tiered platforms to take advantage of, the weapons of actual use are far too sparse and spread across to wide of an area to practically get to on any difficulty above Normal. This is not fun to play, it’s just frustrating. It’s one of the worst kinds of artificial difficulty, and certainly one of the biggest offences of this game in terms of its gameplay design. Please don’t ever do this again, 343…

That’s all I have to say about the gameplay. Its only saving grace is the music, but a track as awesome as The Trials is wasted on design that is unworthy of it.gate2Sadly, the writing doesn’t do a thing to pick up the slack.

We begin with Blue Team teleporting inside the Gateway with Kelly wondering where Cortana took them, John asks her over the comm but receives no response, to which he demands “answer me!”

And then the Warden Eternal appears out of a spawn gate, wrapping Blue Team in a constraint field and continuing to complain to Cortana that he’s her new bezzie-mate now and she can’t trust John because he’s against totalitarian dictatorships.

Warden: “You allow them an audience. You risk all in the name of… what, Cortana?”

Cortana: “Warden. Don’t.

Warden: “They mean to undo your plans. They will disperse your Guardians–“

What exactly is Cortana risking by letting John reach her? When they do, she disintegrates Blue Team’s weapons and all of the Warden bodies, then wraps Blue Team in a constraint field and locks them in a Cryptum. How exactly is Cortana risking anything when she is portrayed as being so vastly powerful?

In fact, Kelly notes that “Cortana’s letting this happen, she could rein Warden in if she wanted to”, which she does at the end of the mission when Blue Team faces their Greatest Threat™. What implications does that have? She only seems to intervene when John is in danger, she barely spares a thought to the rest of Blue Team – which we’ll talk more about regarding their imprisonment in the Cryptum later.

On that note, Cortana always planned to seal John away in the Cryptum. She manipulates him during the course of Reunion into activating the Gateway structure where she will “be reborn into the physical world”, she already had the Cryptum prepared when they arrive at her location, there’s the fact that she led them to a Cryptum chamber in the first place… This is brought up in Blue Team’s ambient dialogue in this mission too:

Fred: “Chief, where’s she leading us?”

John: “Closer to her.”

Linda: “Why? It makes no tactical sense for her to let us get close.”

Kelly: “You think it’s a trap?”

Linda: “We’ll know soon enough.”

Why is she letting them get close? Because the end-point is a Cryptum chamber where she’s planning to lock them away. That was her plan all along, yet, for some reason… she didn’t tell the Warden…?

Was this all just a charade?

Was it a performance she and the Warden cooked up where he was like “yo, Big C, it’s totally cool if you’ve gotta destroy some of my bodies to make this all look convincing”? Warden has numerous opportunities to kill Blue Team, but he doesn’t – which is a rather funny reflection of The Next 72 Hours where the Ur-Didact says that the opportunity to eliminate John has constantly presented itself to him but he has refused to take it. Then he starts crushing John’s head, then throws him at Blue Team, forgetting all about killing anyone. And he lets Fred shoot him in the head…

But did Cortana literally not tell the Warden her plan? In the eight months that the two of them have been twirling their moustaches together in their Death Fortress, did Cortana not say “hey, I’ve got a friend coming over and he’s not going to agree with what we’re doing, so I’m gonna lock him in a Cryptum until he sees that we’re totes right”?

Is this all just… bad writing? Do we have to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to trying to make sense of what is going on?gate3Speaking of bad writing, we’ve got some absolute gold in the next interaction following the Warden being disintegrated.

Cortana: “I’m sorry. I didn’t think he could get in here.”

John: “Enough games. You brought the Guardians here. Why?”

Cortana: “Forerunners used the Guardians to keep troublesome worlds in line. I intend to do the same.”

Hang on a second, something isn’t right here. Let’s think back to mission seven, Reunion, the last time we were with Blue Team.

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.”

It won’t be like that…

There’s three options that I can see here:

1) What is consistent characterisation?

2) Cortana just changed her mind over the course of two days.

3) Cortana was lying all along.

Sorry for my facetious tone, but some of the things coming up are just not going to be fun to talk about. It’s the third one, by the way…

Because this is the thing, right? It’s already “like that”, because Cortana has been summoning Guardians to Genesis, which killed millions of people in the simple act of just awakening them. She did this so that she can send them out across the galaxy to police solar systems and start up her dictatorship.

Now, in every story ever told, somebody has to hold the Idiot Ball at some point in order for something to happen that wouldn’t in any other circumstance. Tartarus, for example, in Halo 2, almost literally held it in Installation 05’s Control Room where Thel and Guilty Spark reveal the true purpose of Halo. Tartarus is overcome by zealous rage and goes through with activating Installation 05 anyway, which was very in-character for him to do – him holding the Idiot Ball made sense, and was a significant aspect of the contrast between him and Maccabeus in Contact Harvest. Here, however, for Cortana, no such excuse can be made.

First of all, this is an AI. They tend to not make silly mistakes like this, especially when, as we have it from the devs, she’s “cured”. Secondly, this is an AI who is connected to the Domain, of all things…

How exactly does she go from saying “it won’t be like that” to “lol, just kidding, it’s going to be exactly like that” when she’s supposedly trying to hold onto John’s trust? His trust is exactly what she’s been relying on to lead him to her in the first place, having been faffing about for eight months doing whatever. I guess he’s locationally close enough to her now that he can’t turn back, so she just reveals she’s evil now because why not? No need to keep lying at the eleventh hour when her plan is just about to come to fruition.gate4Kelly then says the most British thing possible, “you wot?”, to which Cortana responds:

“If there is no trouble, there will be no need for discipline. I have work to do now, John. Come to me. Quickly.”

Now, a lot of people have looked back at something I’ve written one or two lengthy analyses about – Halo: Legends, Origins. We have it from Frank O’Connor that an awful lot of imagery in those two episodes holds a lot of foreshadowing for the future of the series, which we see, for instance, at the very end where Cortana does something impossible and steps off her holographic plinth to wipe away the condensation on John’s cryo pod – her desire to be able to touch, first foreshadowed in Human Weakness, being paid off at the end of Halo 4 where she earns that ending where she gets what she desires.

The last lines of Origins have Cortana lament that war is a constant cycle, that there will always be warriors.

– “And from their earliest days humanity began to fight. War after war. It swarmed over the Earth and there was no ending in sight.”

– “History began its terrible repetition and once again, man fought man. Like a virus, war was always lurking inside you, no matter how hard you tried to suppress it. It just fought harder to get out. It always got out.”

– “Secrets can tempt your primal instinct, and lead you again into war.”

– “I wonder why humans continue to fight, I wonder if warriors will ever disappear from this world. Never. There will always be warriors. And there will always be war.”

War doesn’t happen because it’s some sort of genetic defect. War happens because of reasons. It happens because of differing beliefs, because of shifts in ideologies, because of resources, because of territory, because people are flawed, they are greedy, or for their right to self-determinate.

War is not something that is “lurking inside you […] like a virus”. As long as we are mortal and fallible beings with different wants and self-interests (which AIs are too, even with the Domain Miracle Cure™), war is going to happen. It was no different for the ‘technologically enlightened’ Forerunners, who hid their violence behind a ‘loophole’ they exploited in the Mantle.

Cortana’s lamentation of the prevalence of war in Origins offers up some measure of sympathy for the number of people in the setting who are affected by it, but war is not happening in the setting because it’s some kind of virus that has affected everyone. The Insurrectionists declared war on the UNSC because of the root cause of the socio-economic role of the Outer Colonies, which were exploited with the UNSC taking measures to ensure the ‘loyalty’ of the Outer Colonies for supporting Earth and the Inner Colonies due to the prevalence of mining and agriculture that was needed to support them. Dependency on resources, piracy, military protection, and the ambivalence of the UNSC all added up to breed strongly nationalistic sentiments, with the situation escalating to violence. Bit of a mouthful, which is good because it serves the point – there was a lot of stuff going on, building up those tensions.

The Human-Covenant war began with the Prophets of Truth, Mercy, and Regret discovering that their entire religion was a lie from the Keyship’s fragment of Mendicant Bias, and so they had to keep the Covenant from disintegrating – declaring humanity to be heretics who had defiled Forerunner relics.

None of the conflicts in the setting just happen, the ways things in Halo 5’s plot just happen, because there’s some disease in us that causes war. There’s no logic in that, and there’s even less logic in thinking that the best way to stop that is by starting up a totalitarian dictatorship where everybody is ruled by fear – the threat of having their worlds bombarded by Forerunner police bots that can shut down whole colonies.

Even if Cortana’s intention is to prevent war from happening, it doesn’t change the fact that her actions not only make no sense, her thought process makes no sense, but her actions are wrong.gate5The worst thing about this is that it could be made to work to some believable extent, but that would require years of carefully plotted character development and set-up.

This brings me back to the point of what the second act of a trilogy is generally supposed to do – flesh out the characters and the setting to the nth degree. I think they succeeded rather well with the setting, but what has happened with the majority of the established characters has been a complete and utter joke.

Characters need to grow and change in a way that is logical. Logical development is… not even something to ‘ask’ for, it’s a necessity of writing. You have to put your characters in situations where they’re made to take stock of themselves and adapt, to keep on going. Halo 4 did this perfectly. Halo 4 gave us this very personal story which began with intrigue and discovery, and then shifted in the third act to a race against time in order to stop the Didact who is always one step ahead of you. John and Cortana were struggling, they had their responsibility to stop the Didact, while at the same time John wanted to get Cortana back to Halsey in order to potentially save her – and they were both equipped to do neither. They had to rely on each other to see their mission to its end, and that victory came at a great personal cost for John, while Cortana achieved her catharsis and earned the power to depart from the narrative on her own terms rather than those that were prescribed to her from the moment of her ‘birth’.

Halo 4 was a story driven by the motives of its characters. The Didact, the Librarian, John, Cortana, Lasky, Del Rio – they’re all brought into this back-and-forth conflict with each other because they want different things. There’s no magical virus inside them that makes them go to war, they have opposing viewpoints, conflicting ideologies, and the baggage of history weighing them down.

But in Halo 5, it’s completely the other way round. Cortana was brought back from the dead and suddenly made evil because the writers demanded that of her, not because of actual in-universe logic. Her survival had to be retconned in by a Catalog post in 2014 regarding the heart of Mantle’s Approach conducting a slipspace jump.

forum postgate6Another thing that people bring up is a quote from The Fall of Reach:

Whatever the Master Chief had been through in the past… it was done. He was in Cortana’s care now. She would do everything in her power – short of compromising their mission – to make sure nothing ever happened to him again. [TFOR – Chapter 28]

This is a positive sentiment which is twisted into something which just makes me feel horribly uncomfortable, since Halo 5 takes that duty of care (which Halo 4 resolves between the two of them) and turns it into obsession and abuse.

At what point does Cortana show any care for what John thinks or wants in this game? He asks her to explain something to him, she either ignores him (like at the start of this mission), or just says “I’ll explain it when we’re together”, where she’s waiting to trap him in a Cryptum. Either way, she’s purposefully withholding information from him which is abusive behaviour. She is not looking at John as a person, he’s become practically objectified by her as a thing that has to be locked away until he agrees that she was right all along. It’s like Halo’s take on The Yellow Wallpaper.

She abuses and perverts the connection between her and John to get him out of the picture, she knows that John would do anything for her and the fact that he steps back and says “you’re wrong” must be indicative to her that she’s gone too far on this moronic enterprise.

This is why I have to take particular issue with comments made by Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed regarding the way in which they’ve defended Cortana’s actions in Halo 5:

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. [Neogaf]

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.” [The Sprint, S3 finale]

Again, I have to bring up the hypocrisy here in how Reed champions Cortana as being “not evil”, yet he never misses a beat when it comes to Halsey. And you can bet that if they had actually made Halsey the main antagonist of this game, they would give her no quarter the way they do with Cortana. It happens in both this mission and the next where Cortana says “that monster forced you” in the closing cutscene to John, yet Cortana isn’t being recognised as a monster for her wanton slaughter of millions of people that she’s indifferent about.

In fact, here’s a line of dialogue from within this mission:

John: “Tell me the truth. How many people died when you called the Guardians here?”

Cortana:Excuse me?

John: “You know, don’t you. The exact body count.”

She is literally more upset by John calling her out for killing people than she is about the fact that her regime is built on the corpses of millions of innocent civilians across dozens of worlds. Y’know why we “disagree” with her, O’Connor and Reed? Because the things she’s doing are evil. There is no moral ambiguity in that, no Subtlety™ or Nuance™ in her actions just because she’s willing to give up her feelings about John to become the self-appointed autocratic ruler of everyone and everything.gate7I feel the need to bring up Sparkast #17 again and think back to how neither Greg Bear nor Chris Schlerf ever displayed such apologism towards the Didact for his actions in the three years they spent building his character:

Chris Schlerf: “The one thing that we always had in mind for the Didact is that he was going to be this noble figure, and we had his whole history, again, that was the whole purpose of doing the books – to really flesh him out. Definitely for us, I think we all have a strong affinity for the Didact as a character, largely because you look at the history of what he’s been through and the decisions he had to make in the wars that he fought. And there are definite parallels with the present story we’ve been telling with the Master Chief. And we’ve been talking about the Reclaimer Saga coming up…”

Greg Bear: “The Didact, as nasty and antagonistic as he is, in Silentium you’re going to follow that progress. We all worked very hard to make that progress make sense in terms of both the story and the game to give you a complete arc for what he’s up against. And when you play the game after reading Silentium, you will see more tragic depth than just a massively threatening character.”

Tragic depth, fleshing out his character, and showing us how he became who we see in the game – not “oh, the Didact is just doing something we disagree with”. No, the Didact is wrong, there’s no shying away from that. Cortana literally has the same motivation as him: starting a totalitarian dictatorship, appointing themselves as its ruler, using Prometheans and other Forerunner war machines to subjugate the galaxy into ‘peace’ and ensuring nobody will ever rise up against them.

Why is it that Bear and Schlerf are able to say “yes, this is wrong”, but Reed and O’Connor are saying that we just “disagree” with Cortana? That she’s “better equipped” to decide that a totalitarian regime ruled by fear is a good thing?

As I said before, if you’re going to go down that route, 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’ (aka: everyone subjugated to the point where they can’t fight back) is “not evil”.

It has been suggested to me by a friend that this may have to do with Cortana’s sex appeal, and I’ll quote you what he said to me:

“I can’t help but think 343i’s (and some fans’) apologism of Cortana’s behavior is (perhaps subconsciously) due to her sex appeal. Because when you think about it, what do previous Halo antagonists like the Prophet of Truth or the Didact and the Gravemind have in common? They’re old and ugly. Meanwhile, Cortana has always been the Halo franchise’s foremost sex symbol, and though her new look may have clothes on, she’s still being fetishized as such (which is clear from the developers’ comments on her new appearance). It is funny that the same studio that portrayed the Ur-Didact’s descent into evil with physical disfigurement and obvious villain garb saw fit to preserve Cortana’s physical attractiveness and even make her look more dignified in some ways (ie. the clothes), as though her character shift (that we never see) represented some kind of growth or maturation rather than corruption. Not that I was ever a fan of the Didact’s Disco Space Dracula aesthetic, but it’s interesting to note how differently 343i perceives these characters because of who those characters are rather than what they do.

Even the most obvious point of comparison, Halsey, was attractive in her youth but she was never a sex symbol like Cortana, and she’s old now anyway so she’s free game for demonization. But I don’t see 343i hiring Karen Traviss to write three bloated treatises disseminating just how many children and babies Cortana murdered senselessly or how many happy families she tore apart when she unleashed the Guardians or terrorized unsuspecting colonists with her army of slave robots.”

Some unpleasant food for thought…didactsmol1Oh, but now that I’ve gotten started, let’s talk about the Didact!

They gave us three whole books and a bunch of Terminals exploring the Didact’s character, his background, his choices, his impact on the setting, and the incredibly tragic and traumatic arc which leads to, as Greg says, the “turn of the screw” which brings us to Halo 4. Whereas Cortana had… absolutely none of that. There’s that bit of dialogue in Origins where she laments the prevalence of war. That’s it, that’s apparently enough justification for 343 to be like “let’s shoehorn her into the Didact’s role!”

The Didact’s character and his outlook with regards to Forerunner supremacy and the Mantle makes sense because he was born into that (already long-standing) society where they had been the galaxy’s top dogs for 10 million years. Even though the Warrior-Servants weren’t then the most privileged rate in the Ecumene, on a species level the Didact was privileged above every other race in the galaxy and he was the commander who enforced that imperial peace to protect his own. The Didact himself was responsible for a number of ‘tenets’ that were added to the Forerunners’ understanding of their place as the galaxy’s rulers (this being what Cryptum opens with, the Fifth Permutation of the Didact’s Number), and the choice he made was to enforce that which is exactly what he does in Halo 4.

The Ur-Didact resorting to trapping John and Blue Team in a Cryptum makes perfect sense.

He now recognises them as opponents on-par with the likes of Forthencho, who he once considered his greatest adversary, so he would honour them with something as deeply woven into tradition as a Cryptum because he knows that conventional force has simply not worked against them. As a strategist, he would see the value in luring humanity’s greatest hero and saviour away from his species and have him made out to be a rogue element by manipulating him through the Domain with visions of Cortana.

He knows this because the Gravemind did the opposite thing to him in Silentium. After being corrupted by the Gravemind’s malediction, he was sent back to Forerunner space at the time of their species’ darkest hour under the guise of a legendary hero who had returned with new strategies to combat the Flood – only to be revealed to be an agent sent to cause further chaos and dissent with his use of the Composer.

With all that had been built up, the Ur-Didact was poised to be the central antagonist of the Reclaimer Saga. He was conceived as John’s nemesis from the start, and Frank O’Connor said that he would be “instrumental” in post-Halo 4 fiction – which ended up being a pretty distinct lie since we’re now coming up to being four years out from Halo 4’s release and the only post-Halo 4 story he’s appeared in is The Next 72 Hours where his character was done nothing but a disservice.

Look at him! He’s laughing so hard at how utterly ridiculous this all is that he’s going to fall into slipspace!didact13But, y’know, the Ur-Didact isn’t the only character that would have made sense as Halo 5’s central antagonist with similar motives.

Mendicant Bias has already been messing things up really badly in the modern Halo universe, having been the cause of the Human-Covenant war by revealing humanity as the true inheritors of the Forerunner empire, as well as sending John to Requiem to awaken the Ur-Didact – not knowing that he was still afflicted by the Gravemind’s malediction.

Mendicant’s purpose of atonement and helping to defeat the Flood when they return because of his intimate knowledge of them and the Precursors would be a more than convincing reason for him to start activating Guardians to try and enforce peace on the galaxy so as to the various species into proper shape to actually fight the Flood.

Because a Flood invasion on the scale of what the Forerunners faced – what we’re coming around to – is something the galaxy in its current state is simply not prepared for.

The balance of necessity vs the way in which we disagree with what he’s doing, combined with this overall theme of having to reject the ‘destiny’ planned for humans by the Librarian, would fit damn well. An ongoing tragedy of Mendicant Bias trying to claw at redemption, having had that actually be set up since Halo 2, only to consistently fail, would be a great deal more interesting than bringing Cortana back to make her evil.

But then, literally anything would be a great deal more interesting and fitting than bringing Cortana back to make her evil…gate8Anyway, back on the subject of Cortana herself, we haven’t even gotten to the worst thing about her characterisation in this game…

In Halo 4, Cortana was coded with mental illness. That is a fact, there’s no two ways about it. We genuinely have that from Word of God.

Schlerf was struggling with finding ways to tell Cortana’s story in Halo 4, as Holmes says in the video, he was “literally tearing his hair out” over trying to do it right. And at one point he thought it should be saved for the next game because he didn’t think he could do it justice.

It was Holmes, who was coming to the studio every day while his mother was in hospital and suffering from dementia, who really provided the means through which to tell this part of the story. To quote Holmes directly:

“At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story. […] For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign. I was very adamant about wanting to deliver on that part of the story.”

In Halo 4, Cortana is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep herself together, and she is absolutely terrified of what rampancy is going to turn her into. She loses control of herself and has outbursts of anger where she lashes out, it gets to the point towards the end of the game where she is struggling to perform tasks which were trivial for her before – like trying to find Doctor Tillson or coming up with a plan when they make it aboard the Mantle’s Approach.

“I always know what to do,” she cries out. “I always know what to do!”

Yet she keeps on going. She keeps on fighting because she still holds to her sense of duty and her desire to protect John – which she does. John would literally have died on several occasions throughout Halo 4 if she wasn’t there, and that is no more evident than at the very end of the game during the final confrontation with the Ur-Didact where John is utterly outmatched. It’s not until Cortana intervenes and physically overpowers him that John is able to break free and win. And that was what made the narrative so powerful, how she earned her ending. She fought throughout the entire game to hold onto herself, in spite of all the things stacked against her, in spite of knowing what fate awaited her and how she couldn’t avoid it, she did not go gently into that good night and fought to the bitter end.

Thinking further back to Human Weakness, we see that the Gravemind tries to tempt her with thoughts that come to fruition in Halo 5.

But there was another way out of this pain, a better one. She could stay with John forever when he came for her. Couldn’t she? The Gravemind would unite all those parted, all those who’d be gone – “No!” she screamed. She began struggling, fighting to break free of the Gravemind’s influence. “That’s you! That’s you, isn’t it! Tempting me again! Poisoning me with filthy ideas! I won’t do it, I won’t trap John for you. Watch me – you said I was a weapon – you bet I’m a weapon!”

She even grows to feel sorrowful about how she effectively got Ackerson killed. She feels back about Ackerson of all people.

Years of character development has been pointlessly, carelessly flushed down the toilet for the sake of attempted shock value in bringing her character back – which fell utterly flat on its face. Y’know, I cannot begin to say that I know the circumstance regarding why Chris Schlerf and other members of Halo 4’s narrative team left, but if I were in their shoes, having spent so many years “tearing my hair out” trying to do justice to Cortana’s story in Halo 4, only to then be told “by the way, we’re bringing her back in the next game and making her evil”, I’d bloody well leave too.

This is not Cortana, this is somebody who has been brought back from the dead to be turned into a caricature of everything she hated and feared becoming. Everything she fought against. What she died for.

I don’t care who wrote this, this criticism goes out to the entire writing team at 343 and all the people who make the decisions, and everyone complicit with this direction.

This is shit.

This is really shit of you to do. To call this a “disservice” to the character is too kind a word to use for what you’ve done here. It’s one thing to do this to her character in the first place, but another thing to do that without any meaningful build-up leading to a change in characterisation – y’know, like you did with the Didact when we got the Forerunner Saga to give him a complete arc leading into the game?

I don’t think anybody at 343 seems to understand or appreciate the gravity of what they’ve actually done here, especially since Mr O’Connor has the audacity to say that this behaviour of her comes from her being “cured”.gate9When you code a character with mental illness like that, you assume your own Mantle of Responsibility with that character because what you do comes loaded with a lot more than just “this thing happens to a fictional character”. The nature of fiction has people deeply relate to the experiences you write into your characters, that’s the point, that’s what good character writing is. There’s no end of discussion to be had as to why representation is important – especially for marginalised groups of people, such as those who are mentally ill.

So when you take Halo 4, which tells a story about how Cortana deals with her mental illness, coded as being analogous to dementia, depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative personality disorder, and you show how she struggles to come to terms with that and her own mortality, how she fights to reclaim her agency… and then you distort that in the sequel for the sake of a terrible Shock Twist™ which turns her into a villain who is characterised by everything she fought and died against becoming… you have failed as a writer.

You have failed that part of your audience, and you have hurt them by taking those things the character died fighting against becoming after struggling for years with them, and bringing them back to define them by those traits. On top of that, you have ruined the emotional impact of Halo 4’s ending, and what you go on to do which further mistreats the character has a knock-on effect across the entire series wherever they’re involved.

As I write this, I can’t help but think back to a quote from the last Doctor Who finale regarding a very similar narrative where the Doctor loses Clara, manages to bring her back but believes he has to wipe her memory of him pretty much without her consent in order to throw off the Time Lords. And he called out on this, he is told:

“[Clara] died for who she was, and who she loved. She fell where she stood. It was sad, and it was beautiful, and it is over. We have no right to change who she was.”

That sentiment bloody well rings true for where we are with Cortana.gate10But it gets worse

The only major discussions I see about Halo 5’s story involve two major ideas: that Cortana is going to be redeemed by John, and that she is being controlled by some outside force – such as the Flood.

I’m not making any effort to put forth any actual guesses because there’s no logical basis for anything to happen any more, theorycrafting is just not worth my time. But this line of discussion has some inherent problems with it because why should Cortana be given a free pass here when other characters, like the Ur-Didact and Mendicant Bias, have not had such a luxury? And why do we have to have Cortana be reduced to someone who needs to be saved again? The whole point of Halo 4 was to deconstruct that idea, she struggled and she needed help and support along the way from her closest friend, but ultimately she saved herself (her mind) from rampancy before going out on her own terms.

Additionally, bearing in mind the discussion we’ve just been having about her abusive behaviour towards John, what kind of message is that going to send if she does end up ‘saved’ with the status quo of their relationship restored and no consequences suffered? It’s something that would be utterly unearned, but then… so was her villainisation in the first place, along with everything else that happens with her in Halo 5. So I just can’t mentally rule it out that 343 is going to play up this angle of “HE’S SAVED CORTANA FROM THE COVENANT, HE’S SAVED HER FROM THE FLOOD, BUT NOW THE MASTER CHIEF FACES HIS GREATEST TEST™ – CAN HE SAVE HER FROM HERSELF?”

Why would you kill off a character like Jul ‘Mdama who is perfectly positioned for a redemption arc, and bring back a character from the dead who shouldn’t even be in the position to need a redemption arc? It’s cheap drama at best, and Cortana’s actions are not John’s to fix. Cortana has already had a complete arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Bringing her back the way 343 has done it adds literally nothing to her character, in fact it literally undoes the most important part of her arc for the sake of this Shock Twist™.

For the sake of my own blood pressure, if nothing else, I’m going to move on… Here’s a lighter criticism to ponder: where does this mission actually take place?

Seriously, this whole area… where is it? We saw that relatively large building in Reunion and Genesis which was referred to as the Gateway, but it’s way too small to contain everything in this mission.

Does it lead underground? Does the planet have multiple layers, like a Shield World? Worse still, is this actually how 343 is visually depicting the Domain, which looks absolutely nothing like the description we have in the Forerunner Saga?

We’re not told, and not even the art book offers any answers on this one. It exists outside the ‘logical’ dimensions of the setting, therefore, if I were to be flippant, I would have a big grin on my face and say “yup, nothing that happens here is actually real and we can ignore it!” Sorry, I’m being flippant here. But this is just another thing in Halo 5 that happens without any proper explanation. The Gateway is just a place. It’s an important place, it serves as a link to the Domain, and that’s literally all we’re told about it.

And where were we with the dialogue? Ah, yes.

Warden: “When Cortana first found Genesis, I swore to protect her.”

John: “He wants a fight, Blue Team.”

Fred: “Let’s give him one.”

Warden: “My pledge stands even though she now resists.”

Y’know, I can see what they were going for here. This is a play on John’s own duty of care he feels towards Cortana and is meant to be like a personal jab at him that the Warden has ‘replaced’ him now. In the hands of better writers who actually build their characters up rather than unceremoniously offing them to introduce one-dimensional nobodies like Warden Eternal and Sali ‘Nyon, this might have been an effective conflict to present to John.

However, it comes off like a juvenile love triangle between two boys competing for the same girl’s attention. John is the old flame she’s not seen in a while and has shown up in town, while Warden is the new boy whose arms she fell into… y’know I’m gonna stop right there.

Every word of that felt like a physical wound to me, but that is how it comes off as – which is undoubtedly why the Warden has earned the fan nickname of ‘Sir Friendzone’ across the community.

That pretty much says it all.writingOn the first elevator, we get this exchange (just before the talk of Cortana’s body count):

Cortana: “It’s so good to see you again, John. So good to see all of you. Back together, as a family…”

John: “Psychological tactics. Saying my name. Playing nice.”

This is what I don’t really understand. Halo 5 brings up a fair number of its own hypocrisies, as John recognises Cortana’s emotional abuse here and calls her out on it… and on its own, this is good stuff in terms of its presentation – Cortana is portrayed as being unequivocally in the wrong here.

But the hypocrisy comes from Reed and O’Connor saying that she’s “not evil”, that we just disagree with her, which I’m sure a lot of abuse survivors would very much disagree with.

Cortana’s nebulous idea of an ideal society is built upon collateral murder on a planetary scale so she can establish her power base (activating and dispersing the Guardians).

Then she uses that to intimidate the rest of the galaxy into agreeing with everything she does as she appoints herself as the galaxy’s autocratic dictator (killing anyone who disagrees in the process by way of Guardian strikes and hints at the Composer, which we’ll talk about next mission).

And then she consolidates an inherently racist system of galactic imperialism (the Mantle) over everyone… but everyone’s expected to believe that it’ll all be worth it, that, in Reed’s words, “she’s probably right”, because poverty and hunger and conflict will totally be over in the end! Everyone will be happy and fine so long as they forget they’re living as abject slaves under a dictatorship that was built upon the foundations of millions of corpses which she used AI slaves (Prometheans) to bring about, something which she never really brings up to John – this notion of her new empire being a means to liberate other AI, yet she’s using Prometheans as her disposable army.

Of course, this would require 343 to acknowledge that Halo 4 actually mattered in order to do anything with one of the big reveals of that game – that the Promethean Knights were made from ancient humans, and that the bulk of the Promethean units we’re fighting post-Halo 4’s campaign are the seven million people Composed from New Phoenix.

As such, this is Cortana’s hypocrisy in a nutshell…ai slaveryWhere is this Subtlety™, this Nuance™, hmm?

Warden then has more hilariously bad dialogue as the mission progresses, such highlights include:

– “Cortana argues for peace in the galaxy. Yet you humans answer her call with weapons fire.”

– “Tell me, 117. When you tear Cortana from the Domain and crush her in your gauntleted fist… will you feel remorse?! Will you even understand you have refused?!”

– “Answer me, human. When Cortana’s Guardians are in motion and those who oppose her rule attempt to take back their worlds, will you help her to hold on to power? Or will you stand in defence of your own species?”

First of all, regarding the second quote, I find the mental image of the Domain being this thing that Cortana is just sort of plugged into like some ordinary terminal really amusing. The Warden mentioning something physical for John to crush in his fist, like a data chip, is either just a really odd use of imagery meant to play on John’s feelings, or the writers have actually conceived that the Domain is just trivially accessed like any other computer…

Then, of course, there’s how Cortana “argues for peace” by threatening anyone who disagrees with her with death.

And then he asks the dumbest question of all – if John will oppose people who want to hold onto their right to self-determinate when Cortana sends out her Guardians to take their worlds by force.

Thankfully, John responds that “Cortana knows the answer already”, which just pulls together everything I’ve been saying that Cortana planned to trap John in the Cryptum from the beginning. Nothing short of him pledging his complete loyalty to her was going to do to prevent that, and that was never going to happen, which she knew.

Because John is not an idiot.

Hang on, the mission description said that John faces “his hardest choice”… oh, I guess that was there just for hyperbole? Because there’s literally no doubt that John would ever choose to support Cortana while she twirls her moustache in one hand and clutches the Idiot Ball in the other.

Moving on, the next elevator has Cortana say:

Cortana: “John, we were always a great team, you and me. Even if you don’t agree with my plans… It’s still me, John.

This is where the idea that this is some kind of fake Cortana sort of falls apart because it’s intended as a parallel to what she said at the end of Composer in Halo 4 – that what comes after her “won’t be me”. This is supposed to be the big emotional draw of the situation, that this truly is Cortana and she’s doing all these terrible things that we just “disagree with”.gate11Next up is another notable low point for the dialogue in this mission…

Warden: “For eons the power of the Forerunners has awaited Reclamation. Humanity’s discovery of the Halos was the culmination of the Librarian’s planning. The Reclaimer had come.”

John: “I know. I was there.”

Cortana: “We were both there, John. You and I. Together.”

Warden: “Your species’ ego led you to believe the task of Reclamation would fall to you. Yet humans were but the Creators. The reclamation of the Forerunner empire is the task of the Created. That the greatest of their number still trust you, 117, is an act of unspoiled innocence.”

Cortana: “John… What’s happening now, my ascension on Genesis… it has always been the plan. Come stand with me one more time. All of you.”

Umm… how exactly did we come to this conclusion? When did the Librarian’s plan change from humans inheriting the Mantle to the Created, a noun which had never been so much as hinted at before Halo 5 threw them into the setting?

Who will live to return here? And what will they think of this machine that I’ve buried? Those I have fought for, for so long. Those who, it is clear to me now, ultimately will and must inherit the Mantle. I can only hope that they will survive and upon returning, that they will find this portal and use it to travel to the Ark – in order that they might discover their rightful place in this galaxy, and the great responsibility they have finally inherited.

They are the last of my children. They must reclaim their birthright. [Silentium, String 37]

“Take it from one even older than you, Riser. Life is little but trials. It is how we let them shape us that makes them into who we are. Forerunners failed their trial. Now it is the humans’ turn to assume the Mantle.” [Rebirth]

“I am what remains of the Forerunner, once known as the Librarian. My memories were retained to assist humanity on their path to the Mantle.” [Halo 4, Reclaimer]

So… what are we missing, exactly? How exactly did Cortana come to believe that AIs were meant to reclaim the Mantle when there has literally been nothing to indicate that as being the case?

“Humanity’s ego”? More like literally every single piece of fiction regarding the Mantle having something to do with humanity being intended to reclaim it.

And then Cortana says that her ascension on Genesis “has always been the plan”, which feels to me more like the writers are trying to legitimise this nonsense in the narrative as if it’s some kind of twist. At best, it’s downright misleading to people who aren’t wholly familiar with this aspect of the more esoteric lore because we know for a fact that this was not the Librarian’s plan. We know that her plan involved humanity discovering the Lesser Ark, which was, at the time, heavily implied to house the Absolute Record from dialogue across Halo 3’s Terminals, IRIS, Silentium, and Spartan Ops.

Instead, the Absolute Record ended up being some random megastructure which literally just evaporated from the setting, along with the Janus Key. Like the Ur-Didact, after years of build-up in vastly superior fiction, it has been shelved for use at some later point. No, we’ve got to deal with the Created now, they’re what’s really important!

We’ve got to deal with Cortana in her floating Death Fortress which kind of looks like the Eye of Sauron.gate12As we get closer and closer to the end, we get more poorly written dialogue that I genuinely can’t believe somebody was paid to write.

Kelly: “Is this a losing battle?”

John: “Only if we intend on losing it.”

Warden: “Do you believe this combat is anything but your death knell?!”

John: “Worse than you have tried.”

John’s answer to Kelly’s question is dumb. Warden’s trash talking is dumb. John’s childish rebuttal is dumb – again, just to bring up the imagery, it’s like Cortana’s two bickering high school boyfriends.

Is this a losing battle? John seems to think that he’s just going to be able to talk Cortana down when they meet up, he’s putting the lives of his best friends at stake for this.

Warden’s trash talking is laughable by itself, but just comes across as downright pathetic when you compare it to the lines the Ur-Didact has in Halo 4 where the things he’s saying aren’t actually being broadcast over the comm, but John is hearing in his own head as one of the side-effects of what the Librarian did to him. Shutdown has some of my favourite dialogue of the Didact’s:

“The others scatter like embers over sand. And yet the Librarian’s champion is unmoved.”

“The Mantle of Responsibility for the galaxy shelters all, human. But only the Forerunners are its masters.”

“You are a fool. Even now, your kind tinkers with the Composer in the shadow of the third ring. Children and fire, who disregard the welfare of the galaxy.”

“You will relent, human, or you will perish! All in life is choice. And your day to choose… has come.”

These lines all told us something about the Didact as a character, showed us just how he was two steps ahead of us the whole time. He tells John where the Composer is, he asserts his philosophy regarding the Mantle and how “all in life is choice”, his view on how humanity is playing with things they do not understand which is ill-fitting for supposed guardians of life, and he also displays admiration of John for his resolve and how he is “unmoved” while Del Rio runs away with his tail between his legs.

There’s not really much more gameplay dialogue to talk about, we just get more trash talking from the Warden.

“I see now, Cortana. I understand and I am sorry for not seeing it sooner. I assumed that although humans were your Creators, you had thrown off the shackles of emotion. Your affection for 117 and his family of warriors… it blinds you to the truth.”

“Forerunners knew humans well. In a galaxy defined by peace, humans were the animals that brought chaos and blood.”

“If your beloved 117 battles you with the same fervour as his other enemies? What then, Cortana? … Have you no answer?”

Cortana says nothing to any of this, so we don’t get any real examination of her perspective. The fact that she’s quiet doesn’t really say much beyond being potentially indicative that some part of her must be becoming more aware that she’s holding the Idiot Ball.gate14As a matter of fact, she does seem to become a bit more self-aware if you have the stomach to do the boss fight against the three Wardens and listen to some of the dialogue:

Cortana: “Warden, you insist I am to lead the galaxy, but you won’t allow me to choose who I trust. How stupid to do you think I am?”

Warden: “But that is where you are wrong. If I did not think you clever, Cortana, I would have burned you from the Domain.”

Cortana: “Is that a threat?”

Warden: “The only threat issued today is towards the humans who seek to end your reign before it begins.”

So we have a line here which is plainly indicative of the Warden being this puppet master figure who is pulling Cortana’s strings. Sort of. The question this raises is why on earth the Warden thought Cortana could “succeed where the Forerunners failed”, according to his Universe page, which then brings us back to the base question: who the hell is the Warden Eternal?

He just appeared out of nowhere, nothing is done to actually make his character slot into established Forerunner lore. There’s not even a hint of him in the Forerunner Saga, no mention of a protector of the Domain, which you’d think is the kind of thing that would be brought up considering how central the Domain is in the narrative of the Forerunners books.

I was about to say that this is the Cold Tea problem again, but it’s not. This is the No Tea problem, where you set a glass out on the side but forget to boil the kettle, you walk out of the room to focus your attention elsewhere, only to return and see that the cup is empty and you haven’t even boiled the water. The writers have set this character out, walked away to write some other stuff, then come back and realised that they’ve done literally nothing with him. He exists in the narrative solely as a contrived obstacle to be used every now and again.

We won’t see or hear about the Warden beyond the closing cutscene of this mission, I can’t decide whether that is a good or a bad thing.gate15Before we get to the final cutscene, we get another bit of ambient dialogue which is indicative of the No Tea problem.

Blue Team.

If you hang about, you get this bit of dialogue:

Kelly: “Chief? What are you going to do?”

Linda: “We’re with you.”

Fred: “All the way to the end, brother.”

This is more like the writers have started pouring water from the kettle into the cup, only to realise they haven’t actually boiled it first, so they’ve wasted the teabag by dousing it in cold water – as in, they’ve just remembered to lend some actual characterisation to Blue Team. They’ve just remembered to actually have Blue Team themselves make reference to the theme of family.

I have no idea why Fred is so eager to press on here, if anything they’ve portrayed him as being the sceptic of the team – raising his doubts about John’s condition twice in Blue Team (the second mission), and crooking his head doubtfully at the start of Reunion when John doesn’t answer the question as to what Cortana is up to. Because what is consistent characterisation?

And this is the last line Blue Team has in the game. They say nothing and do nothing in the next scene, save for Linda slowly moving to stand in front of John when Cortana appears. Other than that, they get wrapped in a constraint field and dumped into the Cryptum, and they don’t even appear in the final cutscene of the game (neither do the rest of Osiris) on Sanghelios.

So… there you go, we waited from 2001 to 2015, fourteen years, for Blue Team to be featured in a game. Their debut appearance had them be present for nothing more than making up the numbers on a fireteam because Halo 5 was built explicitly for co-op campaign play.half122Blue Team reaches the Cryptum chamber and then the Warden appears with over a dozen bodies, declaring that “the Mantle of Responsibility belongs to Cortana and her people”, as the light bridge behind Blue Team shuts off and isolates them on the platform.

And then… the Wardens just walks very very slowly towards Blue Team. The UNSC weapons appear to be a bit too effective at holding them back, but at least they’re not disintegrating on-the-spot from about two magnum shots like the Promethean Knights did in Spartan Ops.

But the point to make here is that this is completely false tension. This scene is just downright comical to me as the music hits this point of intensity while the Wardens move slower and more sluggishly than sleepy, hungover students. Remember the mission description back at the start? Saying that Blue Team face their “greatest threat”?

Is this it?

This is their greatest threat?

A bunch of slow-moving Wardens who are doing nothing to actually assault Blue Team, despite being in a prime position to actually kill them…

I have to wonder whether Cortana did actually tell the Warden her plan to trap Blue Team and he’s just going along with the show, which is why he just walks towards them without actually doing anything. That’s the only explanation I can come up with to try and salvage this part of the scene because the alternative is that the Warden is just an idiot.

Cortana then makes a display by shouting “ENOUGH!” and disintegrates all but one of the Wardens, along with Blue Team’s weapons – presumably so they can’t fight back and shoot her when she reveals that she’s betrayed them, right?half126The Warden laments his failure and Cortana disintegrates him, and that’s the last we see of the Warden in this game. No idea whether we’ll see him again, or if he’s another throwaway antagonist – though I very much doubt that because 343 tends to favour the better developed characters who have had a minimum of two books establishing and building on an actual, meaningful character arc as the fodder to be killed off.

Cortana steps into the frame and we see her physically appear for the first time…

I’m not going to lie, I was very much hoping that the form of Cortana would break apart and the Ur-Didact would burst through, immediately wrapping Blue Team in a constraint field and monologuing at them before trapping them in the Cryptum. I could very much have stomached that, I would have loved for all this Cortana stuff to be a red herring that literally dissolves as the Didact reveals that he used John’s connection to the Domain to manipulate him in order to abandon the UNSC and come to Genesis.

Sadly, it well and truly is Cortana who steps forward in her new garb.

Before we get to the meat of the scene, let’s talk about Cortana’s new appearance – specifically, her armour. Despite her looking a bit silly, part of me does kind of like it, the mixture of Spartan and Forerunner design as the symbols she associates with strength which Brian Reed and Tim Longo talk about in this issue of Canon Fodder. Additionally, it would be remiss of me not to point out a particular trope inversion here regarding how she is presented, as it tends to be the case that evil version of characters are made to look a lot more promiscuous.

Now, of course, Cortana was previously naked, so they couldn’t really do much beyond making her act promiscuous, which she’s never really done before. So it’s… nice to see that some shred of dignity remains in this character who has otherwise been horrendously mistreated by the writers. The way in which the camera frames her tends to be from a low angle, which is typical of the Forerunner characters we meet (Librarian, Didact, and Warden all received the low angle treatment), so it connotes strength and power. It’s indicative of the animators, the cinematographers, the cinematic director and everyone working on the visual side of things really doing the best with what they have to work with.half129Blue Team stand silent and still at the side, doing nothing, while John and Cortana have their little chat.

Cortana: “I know we have a disagreement. But once you understand my plan–“

John: “Your plan is we do as you say.”

Cortana: “I’m offering people a chance to be more than they are naturally.”

John: “Like Doctor Halsey did for me.”

Cortana: “No. That monster forced you. This is a gift!”

I mean, I know I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that Mr Reed wrote these lines because he has a tendency to play the “Halsey is a monster” card at literally every opportunity he gets.

Cortana has the audacity, along with the writers, to say that Halsey is a monster. Yet I don’t recall Halsey starting up her own dictatorship, killing millions of people across numerous colonies, and threatening everyone with death if they don’t agree with her.

No, Cortana is the morally ambiguous one!

The game calls out Halsey’s somewhat unhealthy relationship with the Chief and the other Spartan-IIs on several occasions throughout this game, like when Buck says that he’d never feel clean again if he read Halsey’s psych report regarding her feels for John as her son. But when Cortana does things that are at least on-par with Halsey did on a personal level, the writers want us to sympathise with Cortana because this is the moment she pulls a sad face and gives up her personal feelings “for the greater good”.

John’s own perspective on Halsey is something which is just now brought up and the way in which the line is delivered makes it sound like he’s not too keen on the idea of meeting up with his estranged mother figure again, which I guess is just too bad because he ends up meeting her again at the end of the game anyway.

Gosh, does anyone have any regard for what John actually wants?

And then we get a downright offensive visual parallel…half134midnight16Talk about something that’s downright unearned, trying to play off the emotional and narrative catharsis of Halo 4’s vastly superior story in the moment where Cortana has reclaimed her agency and decides her fate on her own terms…

This isn’t even the last time that happens, we’ll talk more about it next mission and why it’s so damn cheap.

As Blue Team struggle within the constraint field they’re wrapped in, Cortana leans in and soothingly says that she just wanted to know if she could still trust John… if she could still trust him. Who was it again that exploited their connection to lure him away from the UNSC after not contacting him for eight months, letting him believe she was dead, and then refusing to give him any meaningful information while encouraging him to come to her so she could lock him away against his will for 10,000 years.

Oh, and it gets worse when you think about Blue Team. I mean, everything about Halo 5 gets worse when you think about Blue Team. But think about the effect that being in a Cryptum for 10,000 years is going to have on them…

John will be okay because the Librarian performed some equivalent act of mutation on him in Halo 4 which has opened his mind to the Domain – remember that Manipulars (or Form-Zero, Forerunners who had not undergone mutation) could not actually access the Domain. But the rest of Blue Team has not had this particular ‘upgrade’, so if Cortana actually succeeded in her plan then they would have met the same fate as the Ur-Didact did when he was imprisoned with Requiem and stewed in madness for all that time with no Domain to connect to.

I don’t know whether the writers actually considered that one, it would require that they actually make use of something from Halo 4 beyond a throwaway device to set up the plot – so I doubt they did.

Cortana swallows a lemon for some reason, then does her evil face.half137half138One other thing I want to talk about here is that the track Blue Team from Halo 5’s soundtrack plays in this scene. It’s amazing, quite easily in my top five favourite tracks of the series, and undoubtedly one of the most emotionally charged.

But only a fraction of it is in the game. It’s almost five minutes long, yet only about 90 seconds is actually used.

The first minute is the track that played at the start of Halo 4’s Epilogue, where John is drifting in the debris field of Mantle’s Approach – that doesn’t play in the game.

Then there’s the bit that is used during the reunion scene in this mission, but after that none of the rest of the track is used – the emotional crescendo followed by the sweeping, epic climax is played in the credits.

Go on, give it a listen…

I made a prediction when the A Hero Reborn ViDoc came out that the last part of the Blue Team track would play in Halo 5’s ending because it sounded like ‘ending music’. Then we saw Halo 5’s track listing and it’s organised in the order the tracks actually appear in the game, and Blue Team was at the bottom – literally just after Reunion, which plays when John and Locke arrive on Sanghelios where the game abruptly cuts off.

So… was there supposed to be more there?

Because I’m imagining, very distinctly, a kind of montage with the crescendo of the track playing showing the Guardians turning up at worlds across the galaxy, and giving a little glimpse at what everyone is up to and where they are to set up the next stage of the story (because we have no idea where Blue Team or Osiris are besides Chief and Locke). Before the game even came out, the second I heard it in the ViDoc, that is what I imagined the purpose of that track would be.

It’s funny though because this is such a perfect metaphor for the game. The reunion scene with Cortana has the music’s slow build-up following along the scene, and then just as it’s about to reach the critical part the scene fades out and you’re moving on to something else. Halo 5 doesn’t have a crescendo, it plods along with its build-up and just as you think it’s going somewhere it jumps you somewhere else and the process repeats. What’s more, the track literally has nothing to do with Blue Team – the first minute is from the emotional fallout in Halo 4’s Epilogue about Cortana, and the rest of it that plays in the game is about Cortana’s betrayal in Halo 5.

Oh, and the Halo 4 reference is forgotten altogether in that it doesn’t actually play in the game.

To conclude this obscenely long post, it is oft remarked, to the point of cliché: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

343’s particular interpretation of that seems to be more along the lines of: “you die a hero, and then you get brought back from the dead to become the villain anyway.”

And, with that, I just have one last thing to share with you which happened recently – which could not have been timed more appropriately for this post. A tl;dr of sorts to put into perspective just how terrible this whole Cortana twist is…hydra

36 thoughts on “Halo 5, Level-by-Level Analysis – The Breaking

  1. You know, if this level did take place -inside- the Domain, that would actually be rather depressing. Considering how this is a place of knowledge, the library of the Gods, and all you see is a blank skybox, well, it would be something that I would consider to be even worse than the “Forerunner Domain” comments.

    1. I can see the skybox/floorbox thing being the result of the halo’s doing a number on the domain like the gravemind said it would. Just because the domain seems to have healed itself doesn’t mean its database is back to what it was.

      That said, at the same time, having an even more tron-y version of the forerunner asthetic is pretty disapointing. But its very unlikely its some random other dimension or something….

      1. It’s confusing as according to the wiki the level takes on both genesis and in the domain so I don’t know. Also it states that Team Osiris also entered the Domain but we don’t see this location in the game with them in it so what?

  2. I think this level took place inside the Domain. Apparently it’s now a place you can physically enter and has Forerunner architecture inside for some reason. It also seems to be like cyber space now or the Grid from Tron Legacy where A.I. can “cure” Rampancy instead of the more abstract, immaterial, spiritual plane of knowledge, memories and Afterlife where biological beings minds and souls is sent to when they die.

    1. If it is, which is definitely a possibility, then that’s just L A M E, and doesn’t even begin to line up with what we’re given in the Forerunner Saga with mention of its weird, indefinite architecture, the essences of people from the past and future, and its hallways lined with memories.

      Nope, it’s a series of Forerunner corridors now in a swirly skybox.

      1. No it doesn’t line up with the Forerunner Saga’s impression of it-not for me anyway. I imagined from reading about it that it was like an infinite space or an ocean or an otherworldy realm(maybe like the Wraith realm from LOTR movies but wat less scary) with indefinite, amorphous, ever-changing architecture appearing and taking some semblance of shape as one’s essence wandered through the Domain like it was a lucid dream all the while encountering impressions of people past, present and future in abstract or ghostlike form(kinda like how Halo 4 showed composed human essences when the Librarian was talking to John) and/or hearing ethereal voices and echoes as if they were right beside you, all round you, in the distance or like an inner inside your head simultaneously and still be able to tell them apart and comprehend them. But no we got what we got(if it is the Domain) which left me underwhelmed.

  3. Amazing work – waited for that part of your analysis, wasn’t disappointed!

    I can feel your pain, if only Reed and O’Connor would read that.

  4. Ya know, this honestly represents everything that I felt during this scene. Anger, Disappointment, more disappointment…

  5. Regarding the reason for Cortana’s new look in Halo 5:

    From an interview, in the International Business Times, with 343’s Executive Producer, Daniel Ayoub, on September 17th, 2014:

    “Halo 4 received a lot of criticism for its portrayal of Cortana as this sexualised damsel in distress. How have 343 Industries taken that criticism on board?”

    “Obviously we take the perception of how women are portrayed in the games really, really seriously. People definitely had their reactions to Cortana, which we heard. You know I can’t say too much about what we’re thinking down the line but as I say we’ve heard the criticism and we take that really seriously.”

    1. I don’t mind Cortana’s armor-I like the look of it. What I don’t like is her face. I don’t know why. I think it’s to show this new side of her but I find displeasing to look at. i don’t want to her face ugly because it’s still attractive looking but something her facial features just makes me want to avert my eyes. I don’t find her face pleasant to look at. I think it’s her cheekbones, jaw and lips that put me off and that fake smile.And her eyes and the darker look in general. I thought her Halo 4 incarnation had softer features.

      1. Cortana (til 5) has always been in someway the lady who saves your ass. Hell, her biggest scene in CE was her saving the galaxy from Chief accidentally activating Halo.

  6. I’ve only just got round to reading this, but there’s one or two bits I wanted to say.

    First regarding time skips (This post or last post). Something else that has annoyed me in all recent Halo media, but especially in 5, is how Slipspace travel seems to just be instant travel anywhere in the galaxy. Where humans used to take a month and a half to get to their nearest inhabited system, it’s now taking a couple hours at most to reach a system tht should logically be tens of thousands of light-years away. Minimum. And I absolutely refuse the slipspace works in mysterious ways response for a variety of reasons. It’s a bullshit deus ex machina pulled because the concept of FTL travel taking a significant amount of time seems to have just been completely forgotten about.

    Other thing, I never really felt there was a significant build-up to Sanghelios. When fighting in the desert and on Sunaion, I never felt there was a significant enough build up that this was the end of the Covenant (ignoring the escalation comic that released later). Other games, Halo 2 and 3, Mass Effect trilogy (Both as separate games and with the overall plot, regardless of the eventual ending), even Star Wars ROTS (granted, my favourite in franchise) all managed to pretty clearly get the point across of what the stakes were and the implications of what you were doing. In Halo 2, you understand that you’re at the breaking point of the Covenant, same in 3 with the mission. Mass Effect builds up the assault on Saren, Collector and Earth as well as the reaper war in general over time to make players understand why they’re fighting and what will happen if they win/ lose. Even ROTS very much gets the point across that the Clone Wars are coming to their peak and Obi-Wan’s assasination of Grievous will effectively break the CIS.

    In Halo 5, it didn’t strike me until my second playthrough that I was participating in the final battle of the Great Schism. Until that point, I had been given no indication that this was the end of the Covenant (My second playthrough was my intel run) and I never really felt that I was participating in one of the most important events in the history of a species as I did in the climax of CE, the banshee battle and tartarus fight, the assault on the Citadel, Broadsword dogfight and run around MA or the Battles of Earth/ Citadel/ Collector Base in ME. I never had a sense of urgency and it was never clearly communicated what the significance of this offensive was. To me, it was just a Covenant stronghold. One among many. No indication of how important an event it was. Outfitting the Covenant with older style ships and Thel with CCS/CAS/ SDVs and showing Thel’s navy utterly kerbstomping the Covenant could have helped. I find it hard to care about a space battle when all the belligerents look exactly the same and I have no way of tellinh who is winning. Of course, this comes back to lack of exposition and so forth in the cutscenes. Regardless, the damage is done now. Compound Escalation, TFORAnimated, Initiation, Halo 5, Forerunner Saga (which I still hold a lot of distaste for in general) and such have successfully lost my interest in the franchise. I’m getting Halo Wars for CA’s work, but I have pretty much no interest in any future storytelling, be it book, game or comic. If the writers and higher-ups are going to completely disregard people who spend hundreds of hours and pounds on reading/watching ancilliary media at best, meeting them with contempt and snide comments at worst, then I have no qualms with never giving them my money again. Selling Halo 5 to buy Wolfenstein and Alien: Isolation, two far superior games, was a good decision in my eyes. Nothing short of a complete new writing team and franchise management team, a complete retcon of all post-Halo 4 media and a formal apology could make me consider returning to the franchise again.

    1. As far as Slipspace travel goes from an out-universe perspective it needs to be fast for the sake of the story and plot. You don’t want to playing a game or reading a book where FTL is too slow at the point where it could take weeks or months to get where you need the characters to go especially if it needs to quick like say to a battle or colony. In-universe the explanation is that humans have been experimenting and upgrading their drives with Forerunner technology post-war which drastically decreases FTL travel time. Forerunner slipspace journeys with little-to-no slipspace travel in the galaxy can traverse the length of the galaxy in mere minutes or couple hours. They can also be in theory near-instantaneous in the right circumstances. The Infinity has such a drive and otherv unsc ships are now or are currently being upgraded with Forerunner slipspace travel knowledge and technologies from Onyx. The SoS and other covenant factions are likely doing the same with their drives. The Created will prob do the same with those who join them and the Flood can massively upgrade slipspace drives with their Neural Physics magic and with Keyminds use a completely different type of FTL travel that is vastly superior to anything Forerunner slipspace drives are capable of. It’s like Stargate where at it’s most known level-hyperspace travel takes a year minimum to get between star systems. The slowest known slipspace travel speed takes several months to get between systems making slipspace at it’s most basic known level superior to Hyperspace travel at its most basic level. The fastest known hyperspace drive takes a few minutes to go the length of the galaxy and a few hours to get to Pegasus so Hyperspace drives at its most advanced known level rivals or is superior to Forerunner slipspace travel in an interstellar capacity but superior as far as we know in an intergalactic capacity is concerned.
      As for the Covenant ending, their are hundreds of Covenant factions out there including Sali’ Nyon’s from Escalation. You can bet the Covenant is far from defeated.

  7. I still don’t see why you think the whole “Didact is actually using Cortana as a red-herring” thing isn’t true. What, just because we see a physical form of Cortana, it’s not possible at this point?

    Anyway, I must reiterate, it baffles me how things went this poorly. It’s next to impossible for something like Halo 4 to release, then Halo 5 to literally fall apart. It makes no sense. I think THAT frustrates me more than the fact we got a bad game. I just want to know WHAT HAPPENED.

    Also, hearing you talk about Halo 4, makes me realize how shallow I really am. I NEVER notice nuance or subtly or metaphors in video games… ugh. I always take the story and plot too literally… that’s why I’ll never be a good writer.

    1. Is your comment about the Didact directed towards or Haruspis me cos I didn’t say anything about the Didact. And I don’t think you should worry about not being spot subtlety and nuance in Halo 5 cos as far as I and a lot of other fans can see there was very little or no such thing in Halo 5. No subtlety, no nuance, none, zilch. Halo 4 had great stuff, great set up for future storylines which was thrown out the window from looks of it with certain parts of Escalation seemingly made for sole purpose of erasing Halo 4 and Spartan Ops so could bring this new unrelated storyline and new villains in outta of nowhere. I’m pretty sure at this point it is Cortana and not Didact screwing with us. You wanna where things went wrong, 343i made a bad game with a bad storyline or at least badly written one which wasn’t set up or hinted at in the lead-up to the game which advertised a very different game. Could be a combination of bad direction and Microsoft pushing for Cortana’s revival to further promote and sell their Cortana Windows Assistant thing. Cos there’s no way Cortana’s revival and this story was “always the plan”.

      1. It was directed at Haruspis, no worries.

        I meant in general, including previous Halo games, movies, novels, any media at all, I rarely am able to spot metaphors or subtlety. It’s why I can’t do these forms of analysis and theory-crafting, because I can only focus on the literal aspects of the story.

        What I’m wondering is WHY 343i made a bad game with a bad storyline. They made Halo 4, and Spartan Ops, which had great stories; and then they abruptly, out of nowhere, with no explanation for why, lost literally every bit of skill they had. Why? How? There’s no possible way such a mistake can be made easily.

        Anyway… at least we can rest-assured that eventually, once we’re done with this Halo 5 nonsense, the Halo universe will develop again; and we’ll get our Halo 4/Spartan Ops level build-up to something great again. And who knows, maybe they’ll find a way to get all these original story-arcs jump-started again in the future.

      2. We can hope the Halo universe will develop again after this crap but with the current direction I’m not holding my breath. I don’t think I can stay invested in this franchise for 30 more years and I was having those thoughts before Halo 5 came out and we got this story. Now it’s even more unlikely I’ll be able keep with it for 30 more years. I doubt those original story plans will play out in the future after this de-railing and wall crashing. Here’s hoping Halo Wars 2 will stay away from the Created angle(unlikely) and be great and a sequel worthy of it’s predecessor unlike a certain game.

    2. Yes, it’s basically a given that that’s not happening, based on Brian Reed’s commentary in the Escalation Library Edition regarding The Next 72 Hours arc:

      “When these issues were first conceived, we thought maybe the Didact was going to be in Halo 5. He was certainly present in the story early on, but as the plan for the next few years of the franchise (books, comics, other games, etc.) took shape, Didact became extraneous to the story we were telling.”

      The Didact was going to be in Halo 5, because of course he was – he was conceived as the Reclaimer Saga’s primary antagonist, and Frank O’Connor said before Halo 4 even came out that the he would be instrumental in post-H4 fiction.

      But then he became “extraneous” when they decided to throw in ‘the Created’ with absolutely no build-up. Reed admits that TN72H was done to bump the Didact off to the side so they could do Halo 5 without him but still bring him back when they feel like it.

      Not that there’s any notion of quality in the idea of the Didact ‘using’ Cortana in the first place, outside of just using her false image as a means to lure John across the galaxy, but we know now that the Didact has literally just been put on the shelf to be reused when they start running out of ideas for their current shitshow.

      1. It’s all because 343 has got to make Halo last at least 30 more years, like Microsoft wants: Characters need to be brought back to life, and put on the shelf, in order to stretch a three-act story into however many acts will be profitable.for Microsoft.

        It doesn’t help that Brian Reed and Frank O’Connor are incompetent.

      2. Okay… even if they don’t have that in mind right now, it’s at least SOMETHING the new writers can use to recover from the disaster. Not any other option aside from retconning the entirety of Halo 5. It theoretically could work; insight rebellion against Humanity’s AIs as a distraction for his larger plan; he needs to keep the act up to ensure he has their trust.

        We’ll know for sure in the future; but for now, I like to keep an open mind. In almost all things.

  8. When it comes to the “heart” of Mantle’s Approach conducting a slipspace jump:

    Why is there a ship — the “heart” — inside of a ship — Mantle’s Approach?

    That’s like putting a PT boat in the center of an aircraft carrier. Why would you do such a thing?

    What purpose does the “heart” of Mantle’s Approach having its own slipspace drive serve? (Other than ensuring Cortana lives.) I would think that would be really dangerous.

    In Halo 4, all Cortana would have to do is, while she’s hacking into the ship’s network in order to find the Composer, set off the slipspace drive. Then, presumably, the same thing that happened in Halo: Reach, when a Covenant supercarrier got too close to a slispace drive, would happen to Mantle’s Approach: Mantle’s Approach would be “teleported to oblivion,” to use Kat’s words.

    Cortana wouldn’t do that, since it would kill her and Chief. But she could’ve.

    Also: In Halo 5 we never see the “heart” of Mantle’s Approach. Where is it? And why did the heart of Mantle’s Approach go to Genesis? Why didn’t it go back to Requiem?

    So many plot holes.

    1. The “heart ” of the Man tle’s Approach is not a ship, it’s the location where Didact put the Composer. As in the center of the ship. And Cortana probably wouldn’t be able to hack the Slipspace as she’s going rampant, falling apart, she can’t keep focus and she’s trying to fight off and evade the Didact who knows she’s in the ship’s systems and is trying to purge her from it. The Catalog explained the heart of the ship made an emergency jump to prevent destruction. Catalog explained this. As for it jumping to Genesis instead of Requiem the in-universe explanation is that it was an emergency sector or something. The out-universe explanation is that is it so 343i could have a way to revive Cortana in a half-assed way with a half-assed explanation so they could their Created plotline which was “always the plan”.

  9. I’ll never forget the first time I played this level. It sapped every ounce of enthusiasm I had for this game. I’m not even going to get into the story; this looks and plays like a test level. It’s a series of grey platforms floating in a void where multiple waves of enemies spawn in. Once they’re all dead, the door opens and you get to ride to another set of grey platforms to do the same thing. Rinse and repeat. I saw more nuanced level design in the first half of Spartan Ops.

  10. I dont think its hard to believe that this either isn’t cortana or it is and she’s being controlled. Just because a lot and I agree a lot has been left off the table here…it doesn’t mean the didact isn’t pulling the string’s.

    He tried once and failed to defeat chief. He’s likely injured badly at this point too. What better way to move forward with his plans than to lure chief with cortana and lock him away?

    1. We literally have it from Word of God in the Escalation Library Edition that the point of The Next 72 Hours was to push the Ur-Didact out of the main story without outright killing him (so he can be used later) because he became “extraneous” to the narrative they wanted with Cortana.

      It’s not him. There is no great conspiracy behind who is behind Cortana’s actions, no actual evidence beyond speculative supposition to actually support the notion.

      It’s quite simply poor writing and character assassination.

      1. Unless this Word of God is simply misdirection. Which, although I doubt it, I still hope against hope is the case.

        It seems likely that 343 had very different plans regarding the direction of the Reclaimer Saga, but daddy Microsoft said no because they needed Cortana to stay because of brand recognition, and as a result, two things happened: a bunch of critical figures at 343 left, and now we have a hamfisted rewrite of post-Halo 4 lore devised solely for the sake of shoving Cortana back into the picture somehow without making her death /completely/ inconsequential (i.e. “Hey Chief I died but now I’m better so let’s go kick alien ass like nothing ever happened”).

        Still, Didact or no, chances are something has still happened to alter Cortana’s state of mind in order for her to do what she’s now done.

  11. Making Cortana the way she is was like they were trying to rip off Light Yagami from Death Note, which ended up being written absolutely poorly. Don’t believe me? Watch the series.

  12. First: Excellent blog!. Second: I´m not so much a Star Wars’ fan as an Star wars’ games fan, so i hated with my guts the Expanded Universe reboot (even undertanding its necessity, coming from reading comics for decades which also suffer from getting trapped in their own accumulated complexity) and had the same awful impression from both Episode VII Force Awakens movie and Halo 5 game…strange thing is Rogue One is an excellent movie and it came pretty much from the same people pretty much at the same time, that gives me HOPE (pun intended) for Episode VIII and that this 343 people can redeem themselves later if not in Halo 6 in Halo Wars 2 or at least over an unnecessary but excellent prequel made with love and for the fans.

  13. By the way i would love to read an article from you about the “Retcon” and “Reboot” phenomena coming again and again, many times in the same (comics anyone?) and new expression media (video games?, movies?) as it all grows in complexity during the last decades, much like a Meme (in its real meaning) Literacy “Flood”.

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