Halo 5, Cortana, and Ableism

Continuing the interlude between the Master Chief character analysis articles and the upcoming Halo Wars 2 level-by-level analysis is something that I’m sure isn’t going to be popular with a number of people – but, of course, if we were to restrict ourselves to ‘popular’ perspectives, there’d be nothing interesting to discuss.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a critical focus piece on Halo 5 (there has thankfully been a wealth of more positive things to discuss), but I was replaying some of the campaign the other night with a friend of mine – the illustrious author of the blog Halsey’s Journal – and this was a topic that was foremost in our discussions while grinding our way through the final mission.

That topic was ableist writing and how it applies to Halo 5‘s portrayal of Cortana. This is something that I and several others have covered before, but I don’t feel that I’ve done justice to explaining it from the ground-up.

Indulge me, or cry havoc against the wicked Tumblr SJW™ perspective. Your choice!Assuming anybody is still here and hasn’t taken off to make light of the subject matter on social media, I think the best way to go about this is to split this into four simple questions to address:

  1. What is ableism?
  2. How does ableism manifest in fiction?
  3. Why is this important?
  4. How is the writing for Cortana in Halo 5 ableist?

Let’s get right to it.

What is ableism?

Simply put, ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces use of the word back to 1981, which I note to assuage any notion that it’s just some ‘made up’ word (as far as one can criticise a word for being ‘made up’) of recent times and is therefore devoid of any historic value or context. It isn’t.

I hesitate to be as patronising as to follow this up with the question ‘what is disability?’, but an inherent assumption made about ableism is that it refers only to people who are not able-bodied. In reality, it, like many things, is more of a spectrum – one that refers to individuals with physical, developmental, and ‘invisible’ disabilities which can include chronic illness, addiction, dementia, and other things that come under mental illness.

The latter is what we’re primarily going to focus on today (though, I do have a note or two on physical disabilities as well).

Like so many ‘-isms’ referring to various societal prejudices, ableism generally stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the varied experiences disabled people have, with perspectives being formed instead around outdated and inaccurate stereotypes – typically from media, which leads us to the next question…

How does ableism manifest in fiction?

Perhaps a better way to phrase this question would be ‘how can writing be ableist?’

Well, it is, I hope, a universally agreeable statement to make that things are written by people. People are subject to internalised discriminatory attitudes whether they’re aware of them or not, whether they’re intentional in having those attitudes or not – and you’ll often find that creators genuinely didn’t intend their work to come across the way that it does.

The way in which this seeps into fiction is that a lot of writers (who are generally not disabled – go ahead and list off the number of disabled writers – let alone prolific disabled writers – you know of) simply aren’t mindful of some of the things they’re writing.

Ableism in fiction manifests as stereotypical portrayals of disability and disabled people that relegate them to caricatured roles of villains or victims, to be feared and pitied.

The horror genre loves its mental asylums filled with dangerous and absurd caricatures of the mentally ill, sci-fi tends to erase disabilities through technological miracle cures that “fix” disabled people, and the romance genre prefers to utilise disabled characters in assisted suicide stories that teaches the abled audience and protagonist to live their lives to the fullest.

It paints disabled people and disability as sad, pitiful, lonely, and unwanted. As people who exist to serve the betterment of others through their trauma and eventual deaths…

A rather recent example that comes to mind is the controversy that the film Me Before You (2016) brought about, which was emblematic of this problem – portraying disabled people as a burden on the lives and careers of their families. It revolves around the the main disabled character’s choice to end his life rather than spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair. Among the responses to this film was the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthenasia on Twitter, with protests against the film occurring across the UK, US, and Australia.

Worse still, the tagline of the film was ‘LIVE BOLDLY’, which, again, applied solely to the abled love interest, and is a clear-cut instance of the ways in which writers and marketers don’t think about what they’re actually saying in their media.

Ableism is about narratives. Abled writers write disabled characters from the way in which they have come to understand what disability means, and while fiction isn’t the only place where we get our narratives it is an important one – particularly for those who lack any informative experiences with disabled people. Naturally, one’s understanding, in such an instance, falls back on what one thinks one knows, even while knowing that what one reads in a book or sees in a film isn’t real.

This isn’t a statement that “you can’t write stories about X” or saying “X should never happen”. It’s about an acknowledgement of context and understanding the larger picture about what you write, who you’re writing for, and, even if you’re not actively intending it, who you’re writing against.

That’s not ‘treading on eggshells’, it’s a basic acknowledgement that we are flawed, that our perspectives are incomplete, and that we can always do better.

Why is this important?

The rather condescending phrase “it’s just a [insert media format here]” is something that is often on my mind, as it’s so frequently used to shut down a discussion when the conversation gets a bit too ‘real’.

We all talk so often and so profoundly about the ways in which fiction enriches our lives – about stories that strike resonant chords with us, characters that represent something quite deeply personal to us, things in our media that seem to just come along at the right time, that we find ourselves emotionally connecting with in a way that we find we can’t quite put into words.

When this happens, we’re happy to say that art is not just a simple matter of entertainment.

For many years, video games have sought recognition as a form of art – and it is a case that has largely been settled. They are. And they’re hardly the first form of storytelling to seek this kind of recognition, as, indeed, books were once in a similar position of having to prove their literary value. The very concept of ‘fiction’, of a story that isn’t real, has a long history of not being recognised as something that can be literary or meaningful because of the notion that a story that isn’t real can’t reflect reality.

“It’s all just fanciful tales meant to distract and entertain us! It’s all escapism, none of it really matters!”

Except, as has been shown time and again, this is measurably false.

Film, television, literature… all forms of fiction have played a significant role in shaping cultural attitudes towards various things – towards politics, people, subcultures, animals, science, technology, religion, sexuality, and so on.

Forty two years ago today, a film called Jaws released.

The success of this film was immense, being the first film to ever cross the $100 million mark at the box office. Audiences were shocked and frightened by the portrayal of the Great White Shark as a ruthless and even vengeful monster, which prompted an international sense of panic towards beach tourism that was only worsened by the commercial opportunity to make dozens of B-movies that further used the shark as a man-hunting predator.

Further to this, it became increasingly popular to hunt and kill sharks, much to the dismay of Peter Benchley, the author of the original text that the film was based on, who has become a staunch defender of them in the years since (which you can read more about here).

The reality, as we know, is so far removed from the impression that this film gave about sharks, as they are amongst the lowest-tier of things that cause human fatalities, and they’re an essential part of the ecosystem.

What is perhaps a more positive example of this kind of influence from fiction would be the Harry Potter franchise, which fundamentally reshaped the landscape of literature in so many ways and has sold over 450 million copies worldwide that have been translated into over sixty different languages. It’s rare that anything comes along that changes the game quite the way this franchise and its brand did (similar, in some ways, perhaps, to Halo‘s own articulation of the FPS genre on consoles back in 2001).

The late Christopher Hitchens argued in Arguably, a collection of his essays, that the appeal in Harry Potter lay in how JK Rowling succeeded in “unmooring” childrens’ literature from “dreams of wealth and class and snobbery […] and giving us a world of youthful democracy and diversity”.

For Orwell, the English school story from Tom Brown to Kipling’s Stalky and Co. was instantly bound up with dreams of wealth and class and snobbery, yet Rowling has succeeded in unmooring it from these considerations and giving us a world of youthful democracy and diversity, in which the humble leading figure has a name that – though it was given to a Shakespearean martial hero and king – could as well belong to an English labor union official. Perhaps Anglophilia continues to play its part, but if I were one of the few surviving teachers of Anglo-Saxon I would rejoice at the way in which such terms as “muggle” and “Wizengamot,” and such names as Godric, Wulfric, and Dumbledore, had become common currency. At this rate, the teaching of Beowulf could be revived. The many Latin incantations and imprecations could also help rekindle interest in the study of a “dead” language. [Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens]

Any quick Google search will turn up numerous articles about the various social studies undertaken that have examined the cultural impact of Harry Potter on the generation that grew up alongside it – my generation – with the conclusion that it has played a role in reducing prejudice because of Harry’s contact and friendship with marginalised groups in a story that deals with themes of racism and bigotry, abuse, slavery, classism, government corruption, rebellion, and so on.

And the series still persists in its relevance today.

I work in a school and I don’t go a day without seeing children in various year groups reading one of the novels, or eyeing up the next book in the library…

I frequently travel through Kings Cross (have done for the last four years), a landmark of the Harry Potter universe’s setting, and home to the Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters shop, and no matter what time of day you’re there it is always packed with people queuing up for hours to go inside – not even necessarily to buy anything, just to see all this merchandise from the universe they love with their own eyes.

These are obviously extreme examples of the cultural influence of film and literature, but they illustrate that these things do influence us – further consolidated by the fact that there even are extreme examples. And that is something that is fundamentally denied when you want to dodge a difficult conversation where a political aspect comes into the mix by saying “it’s just a film/book/television show/video game”.

They are these media formats, certainly… but they are not just that. There is a great abundance of studies that have been conducted on this topic about popular media, like this study from Michigan State University which shows how young adult women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are “more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner”.

What people generally mean to say, and the more important lesson to learn is: “It’s important for one to have a healthy dissociation between real life and fiction.”

Feel free to disagree, it’s a subjective matter, but I believe that all art is inherently political.

Humans are social creatures. ‘Social’, which implies society, which means social politics, which means the freedom of expression of self and the meaning of self and the pursuit of understanding individuality – this is what art is.

Conflict, the oxygen of fiction, affects characters. Characters are ‘people’, or, if you prefer, constructs of people, meant to represent some aspect of conflict. People engage in conflict over their articulation of self-expression, which is affected by power dynamics – social, political, and economic power dynamics.

Again, feel free to disagree, but I simply do not believe that you can divorce art from cultural context (whether it’s modern or contemporary), which is itself a political matter. I think it’s best to understand and embrace that rather than to deny the fact that the people who make the things we consume are themselves political entities – moved and shaped by political ideas like the rest of us, consciously or otherwise, through the media we all consume.

Art speaks a language beyond words. It’s why we feel so much towards great stories and characters with writing that profoundly speaks to us, and is why we are so vehement about it when we feel the creator misses the point or gets it wrong. And if people want narrative-driven video games to be treated as art, that means there’s going to have to be an acceptance of uncomfortable, critical questions being asked and debated about regarding what it is that piece of media appears to be saying. What that is is going to be different to everyone, different things are going to stick out and be interpreted differently by people who live with different circumstances to others.

It means acknowledging that the relevance of a piece of media doesn’t begin and end with you, but will be interpreted differently by a variety of people and those voices are just as valid as anyone else’s. That’s certainly the lesson developers like Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, Dishonored, Dishonored 2) and Jeff Kaplan (World of Warcraft, Overwatch) have said they’ve learned when it comes to the diversity of their characters and the kinds of stories they want to tell.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent article on the ways in which feminist criticism (from the oft-maligned Anita Sarkeesian, no less) influenced Dishonored 2‘s writing regarding the way in which they wanted to break away from the stereotypical roles women had in the first game. It is remarkably demonstrative of how the articulation of internalised attitudes unintentionally make it into our media and how criticism of that has the potential to better those narratives:

“At first you take some criticism and you go, ‘Wait a minute,’ and then you go look and it’s like, ‘Wow, every woman in Dishonored 1 is either a servant, a prostitute, a witch, a queen or a little girl […] Or a mistress. We had a mistress. That was not our intention.

“When something like that pops up, you can get defensive if you want, or you can say, ‘Guys, let me just ask this: Did we mean that?’ And the answer is no, we did not mean that.”

Smith, who was being interviewed by Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, told her it was one of her videos examining the role of women as background characters in games that led to Arkane Studios having a conversation about Dishonored.

“We internally sat down. Your comment I will always remember, and I will take it to my grave,” Smith said. “It was something like, while Dishonored is a game that does many things very well, the roles that it has for women are very narrow.” [Polygon, Criticism about female characters led to playable Emily in ‘Dishonored 2’ by Julia Alexander (14/6/17)]

Now that I’ve spent the better part of two-and-a-half thousand words covering the background of this topic, it’s time to finally get to the point…

How is the writing for Cortana in Halo 5 ableist?

For this part of the argument, we need to start with Halo 4.

In Halo 4, we have it from Word of God, Josh Holmes, the creative director of the game, that Cortana was coded with mental illness.

Chris Schlerf was struggling 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 – but, as is often the case with writers who are engaging with a subject matter they’re unfamiliar with, he encountered significant difficulties in doing so. At one point, he thought it should be cut and saved for Halo 5 because he didn’t think he could do it justice.

Of course, he ended up doing a spectacular job of it, but the catalyst for that was due to Josh Holmes, who was coming to the studio every day while his mother was in hospital and suffering from dementia. He was the one who really provided the means through which to tell this part of the story.

“In our universe, smart AIs […] have seven years of a lifespan, and then, after that seven year point, they start to deteriorate. They literally start to think themselves to death. And so they begin to lose their mind and go ‘rampant’, which is very similar to human dementia. And so, at the beginning of our campaign, in Halo 4, Cortana is eight years old and she struggling to keep hold of her mental faculties.


When we started embarking down this path, there was a lot of scepticism from members of the team whether this was something we should even take on. I remember long talks with Chris Schlerf […] Early on, Chris was having a crisis of confidence. He was literally tearing his hair out because, y’know, he didn’t know how to tell this story. And there were times when he came to me and he said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do it, maybe we should just focus on the A story and put this story aside because I don’t see how we’re going to be able to tell it’. And, for me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4‘s campaign.

And, on a personal note, 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.” [Josh Holmes, GDC 2013: Halo 4 Postmortem (29/3/13)]

Cortana, in Halo 4, was written as a mentally ill character.

Holmes has made this incontrovertibly clear. It is beyond the point where this can be denied, to do so would literally be to just ignore what he’s said. She’s written as mentally ill, he compares rampancy to dementia (which is a mental illness), and he based the story on his own experience of what he was going through during Halo 4‘s development where his mother was suffering from dementia.

I just want to hammer this point in and make it clear so that we’re all on the same page… 343 went in and dealt with this story by articulating it through experiences and behaviour that is rooted in real-life symptoms of mental illness, which they used to make a point of articulating how human she is – struggling to come to terms with her mortality, as well as the limitations of her experience regarding the things she can and can’t feel (whether Requiem’s star looks and feels ‘real’, as she laments during the opening cutscene of Shutdown).

To further build on this, I’d like to point to an essay written by a very good friend of mine about what they got out of this aspect of Halo 4.

After graduation (and even now) I began to deal with dissociation, where days blurred together and I would experience periods of something best described as “I’m not here right now”. It became a time where my entire mental state felt displaced, out of focus. My memory was shot; you could repeat something to me dozens of times and I’d still forget every word. Nothing would stick. Coupled with anxiety, it was terrifying, because now I was overthinking even the simplest action because I could not trust myself. And whatever I could remember was glazed with a thin layer of panicked thoughts, like, Is this really what they said? Am I really supposed to be here? Does this really go here? Did they say something else and I just forgot?

But the thing was: Cortana went through that too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.

But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control.

It’s hard for me to articulate just how badly Halo 5: Guardians’ treatment of Cortana affected me because I’m still trying to find the words for how much Halo 4‘s story meant to me. Halo 4, as a story and as a video game, may have revived my interest in the franchise, art, and the gaming industry, but it also helped me get through years of personal confusion; a time where I was dealing with illnesses I couldn’t name, yet knew the symptoms of intimately. Halo 4 gave me hope. [Swans, Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof (21/8/16)]

I talked earlier about the cultural effect of big-budget franchises like Harry Potter and blockbuster films like Jaws for their positive and negative influences. It’s no different for a video game franchise as large as Halo, which, according to Wikipedia (and these pages source their lists), is the fifth highest-grossing video game franchise, and the fourteenth highest-grossing media franchise in the world – having a lifetime revenue of over $5 billion since 2015.

Whatever internal ‘fan politics’ about the series regarding 343 Industries and Halo‘s continued relevance, the broader perspective is that Halo is clearly a big deal.

But don’t just get swept up in the statistics, think of how broad that audience is and how diverse the playerbase must actually be. Think of how many different perspectives that is on this franchise, that we don’t necessarily see widely reflected in the fanbase in some of the spaces we experience it. Halo is a massive franchise with a core demographic that consists largely of children, teens and young adults – an impressionable audience. That has been demonstrably proven to matter when it comes to what kind of story you’re telling.

How many other people had similar feelings of cathartic, personal validation towards Halo 4‘s Cortana story and what that represented?

Cortana dies at the end, but she dies as a hero. She fought against her own mind as well as foes both old and new the entire game… and she won. She got to go out on her own terms, after defeating the Ur-Didact and saving her best friend one last time to send him back to Earth after their long sojourn through war and the machinations of ancient Forerunners.

As we see in Saint’s Testimony, written by Frank O’Connor, no less, Cortana’s sacrifice was a huge deal. It seems amusing to me that Saint’s Testimony is not on that infographic of ‘the journey’ to Halo 5 because it actually does follow through on the main aspect of Cortana’s sacrifice that Halo 5 utterly undoes.

“This matter requires further periodical examination as one of evolutionary law and common sense, and the Cortana situation compels us further. We are duty bound to hear your case clearly. No one is denying that your argument has some merit.”

The mention of Cortana in the context of mortality evoked a shivering response somewhere in Iona’s layers of simulated emotion, one that rose through the more rational layers and rippled at the surface. An AI who had been monstrously conceived, gloriously realised, and enigmatically evolved through contact with prehuman technology was now missing, perhaps destroyed.

What is her current status? Iona mused. Dead? Resurreted? Sublimated?

Cortana had done Iona one favour through her absence, however. The UNSC was now taking all AI matters very, very seriously. [Halo: Saint’s Testimony, loc 122-142 (Kindle edition)]

What might seem like foreshadowing through the context of Halo 5 is clearly not the case when Saint’s Testimony takes place on January 17th, 2558. That’s about three weeks before the events of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops, whereas Halo 5 doesn’t begin until late-October of that year, and the first rumblings of the Guardians awakening didn’t come about until around March 29th when Hunt the Truth began.

Therefore, this dialogue about the UNSC “taking AI matters very, very seriously” cannot be referring to the Created in any way.

Instead, the opening of these critical new dialogues about AI sentience came about from Cortana’s actions in Halo 4 – that she did ultimately sacrifice herself to save her human friend, as well as Earth. Through her birth, she was the first UNSC smart-AI to integrate fully with a human, and with her death she brought the potential to fundamentally alter the landscape of human-AI relationships once again.

That was the legacy she earned.

And her reclamation of agency, her sacrifice, what her death did to further the cause of AIs being recognised as actual people (something which does draw something of a parallel to marginalised groups who are dehumanised)… that was all undone because AIs are in a position now where they can simply never be trusted again after Halo 5.Cortana was brought back from the dead, and, in the words of Frank O’Connor, she’s been “cured”.

“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.” [Frank O’Connor, Neogaf comment (28/10/15)]

And Cortana likewise says as much in the game, during the Reunion mission:

Kelly: “How are you still active? Rampancy-“

Cortana: “Entering the Domain… touching this place… it cured me.”

Earlier in this post, I brought up an ableist trope that is portraying disabilities as something that needs to be ‘fixed’, to be ‘cured’.

For one, it erases that character’s disability and treats it as a temporary trauma device, which is not only poor narrative design but it’s going to look and feel like an incredibly pernicious twist to the people who connected with that aspect of the character. This isn’t a narrative decision exclusive to Halo 5, but is prevalent throughout fiction about disabled people where the ‘happy ending’ they get (which are themselves fewer, compared to endings like Me Before You‘s) is to have their disability magically cured.

Of course, there’s some debate being had about whether or not Cortana really is ‘cured’, with various theories positing that she’s under the control of some exterior figure – the Gravemind, the Ur-Didact, whatever. I don’t personally agree with any of these theories, but the idea that these avenues make the best of a bad situation instead only serve to make things worse whichever way they go.

Why? Because Cortana’s portrayal in Halo 5 is that of an abusive, villainous caricature completely devoid of mercy and empathy – tying in with another facet of ableist narratives where the disabled character is treated as such.

No, this isn’t saying “you can’t have a disabled character be a villain”. It’s that their portrayal as villains comes from harmful stereotypes, positing that they’re broken (physically or mentally), which has turned them evil. This kind of misrepresentation is particularly prolific with characters who are written to be on the autism spectrum, with conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome, where they’re incapable of emotions “like normal people” and don’t feel empathy, making them violent and unpredictable.

Rather than needlessly padding out the word count by just rewriting the arguments I’ve made over the last year and a half about why Cortana is indisputably evil in Halo 5, I’ll just link to the articles that cover the topic and dispute Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed’s assertions that she’s not – that she’s just “doing a thing we don’t agree with” and we’re missing their Subtlety ‘n’ Nuance™.

These six articles lengthily deal with just about every aspect of this issue, down to pretty much every line of dialogue from her in the game, as well as analysing her wider arc throughout the series – across games and expanded universe material.

She awakens dozens of Guardians on settled colonies, devastating major cities and killing untold numbers of people.

She, for some reason, adopts the philosophy of the Mantle and threatens to kill anyone who doesn’t submit to her galactic dictatorship.

She perverts the connection between her and John, not telling him that she’s still alive for eight months, and revealing herself only when her plan gets set into motion in order to draw him across the galaxy to find her so she can lock him in a Cryptum because she knows (and outright says in the game) that he’s the only one who can stop her.

She… says this:

“Holly Tanaka. Oh, Holly! How did you pass your psych eval after surviving the glassing of Minab? I’d have kept you away from sharp objects, never mind MJOLNIR armour.”

Mocking the trauma of a character who evidently suffers from PTSD, which is a thing that she just… does now, since her own mental illness has been ‘cured’.

There’s this great scene in Halo 4, one of the best in the entire series, where the Ur-Didact uses the Composer on Ivanoff Station and assimilates everyone aboard the station (except Cortana and John). Cortana, who was ‘conscious’ all the way through that process and was listening to “what’s left of them”. She witnessed one of the most horrific ways to ‘die’ in the setting – to have your flesh burned away, layer-by-layer, stripped down to your bare essence and forced to become an enslaved mind in the Didact’s Promethean army so he can uphold the Mantle and ensure continued Forerunner supremacy, casting down any subject species that might rise to challenge him.

And then, as if Halo 5 wasn’t bad enough in having Cortana use that slave army (further exacerbating the hypocrisy of her ranting about her own ‘enslavement’), we get Dominion Splinter. This depicts her allowing the Composed essences (undoubtedly from Ivanoff Station, no less) to suffer in imagery that is about as close to Hell as it gets.

Warden Eternal: “We have heard lies before. We have met liars before. The Composed are liars, all. They are here, and they suffer for it. Would you grant these mewling beasts our secrets? Will you suffer for them?

Cortana: I will not let them touch this place.


The explanation that she is a fragment or reconstituted fragments simply doesn’t hold water from the way in which this has been handled and talked about by 343.

The Waypoint universe entry on Genesis states:

In 2557, Cortana’s sacrifice to defeat the Didact forced her matrix into the Domain.

An AI’s matrix (referred to as the ‘Riemann matrix’) is effectively their ‘brain’. It doesn’t physically exist as hardware because it’s code that contains who they are. There’s no mention or allusion to rampant fragments here, this entry is telling us that it is the actual Cortana that entered the Domain.

But then, Dominion Splinter tells us it’s her rampant fragments.

But then, Brian Reed said in the finale of The Sprint:

“I think we knew how Halo 5 ended before we knew how Halo 4 ended. I remember discussing the end of this game really early on. […] The big beats of ‘Cortana survives this thing that happens at the end of Halo 4, Cortana comes back, Cortana has this new plan that nobody is quite sure they agree with’. That was all there day one.” [The Sprint, Season 3: Ship It]

When Reed says “day one”, he’s referring to Halo 4’s development. So it seems that Chris Schlerf “literally tearing his hair out” over trying to write Cortana’s send-off in Halo 4, his whole crisis over trying to do it right… was basically all for nothing? It was going to be undone anyway, so why even bother?

Unless, of course, we just take this for what it quite clearly is. A lie. It’s quite clear that 343 hasn’t even settled on how anything that happened in Halo 5 with Cortana actually came to be, which has been further explored by the Halsey’s Journal blog in The Fractured Narrative of Cortana’s Fate.

I don’t want to get too deep into the lore specifics (because I have already covered that stuff in previous articles) and detract from the topic of how this is an ableist portrayal of the character, but I want to illustrate here the fact that it simply doesn’t matter whether the Cortana we see in Halo 5 is a fragment or fragments. The way in which she is spoken about by 343, the way in which she’s spoken about and to in the game, the way in which she herself speaks… makes no effort to try and separate her from who she was before.

The narrative acts exactly as the writers have done: as if this is a logical and inevitable evolution of Cortana as a character.

Functionally, the point of this is that it is Cortana. She’s her in all the ways that matter.

The ableist narrative isn’t a slight against some abstract reconstruction of her.

It’s her.

We don’t know how soon after Halo 4 the events of Dominion Splinter take place, but it doesn’t really seem to matter because it so fundamentally rewrites her. Where the Composition of the scientists at Ivanoff Station shook her so profoundly, a deadly reminder of her own frail mortality, she is now complicit with the Warden Eternal in declaring them “liars” and “mewling beasts” who deserve to suffer for eternity…

She’s utterly devoid of empathy (again, an ableist stereotype applied to characters with mental illness), which, as I discuss in the Human Weakness article, is a definitive aspect of her character. She’s somebody who cares about the ‘little people’, not somebody who destroys their colonies to set up her own totalitarian police state.I hate to keep singling the man out, but, looking at Reed’s history, he’s honestly had a bit of a track record with ableist narratives. Of course, we can’t solely blame him, but he’s been the one who has talked about and explained the reasoning (his reasoning) while also being the lead writer for a number of these stories and conceived these ideas – so he does bear responsibility for them.

Let’s go back to Spartan Ops and the way in which that concluded:

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. But then we come along and chop off her arm simply because we wanted a spot of ambiguity in her final line. In the original draft, she was shot, but in one piece. Jul asked her what she wanted, she said, “Revenge” and everyone knew she meant on Palmer and the crew of Infinity. But we didn’t want that. Halsey is a woman who is always saying two things at once. To end on a note from her that was so clearly defined just felt wrong.

So I chopped off her arm. Now she glances at her shoulder before answering Jul’s question and you have to ask: Who does she want revenge on? Palmer? Jul? Everyone?

I wrote the words late one night around 2am. [Brian Reed, The Halo Bulletin #87 (27/2/13)]

I’ve talked about this quote in previous articles regarding the hypocrisy on-display here in labelling Halsey a “monster” while defending Cortana’s categorically more deadly and destructive actions in Halo 5 as “probably right”, as well as how he makes the cardinal error of saying that Halsey just did everything by herself. But I’ve not really addressed the nonsense spoken about Halsey’s arm being cut off.

This is an inane attempt to make things ambiguous.

It’s really quite clear what Halsey means in the final moments of Spartan Ops, regardless of her dismemberment. Reed even says here that it’s quite clear-cut in the original draft where she’s “in one piece” because that’s the direction the story is pointing things.

What ambiguity does her chopped-off arm add?

She’s not going to hate Jul for cutting it off and saving her life, for doing what was necessary in the moment; she’s going to hate Palmer for being the one who actually put her in that position in the first place (and, by extension, Osman). So we’re right back to square one – it’s Palmer, which is further built on in Halo: Escalation where she labels her ‘Osman’s attack dog’. Regardless of the situation, we knew that she was going to play Jul to achieve her goals for the simple fact that she has more freedom with him than with the UNSC, so cutting off her arm achieves nothing in the narrative. It adds nothing. It’s never brought up again, except for one line in Halo 5‘s first mission where Osiris speculates about it in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the actual context.

I actually like most of Spartan Ops, I even hold it as a work of Reed’s that is an overall net-positive, but we have an open admission that practically no thought went into the ending of this story (this is the same interview where he admits to Requiem being thrown into the sun because of a joke made by Frank O’Connor and the writers couldn’t think of anything else).

Becoming disabled isn’t a punishment, but that’s how Reed wrote it to be and that’s what other members of the writing team agreed to when it was pitched.

And it’s so clearly conveyed in the scene that it has been done purely for the shock of the moment. When you go back and watch the final scene of Spartan Ops where it’s revealed that Halsey has lost her arm, they really make a big deal out of trying to make it seem as awful as possible.

They really milk it. The music takes on an eerie, sinister tone, and the camera’s gaze stays level with her bloodied stump as long as possible just to drive home “LOOK! HER ARM IS GONE NOW!”

And then… they do nothing with that in Escalation and Halo 5. It may as well not have happened, it was done solely for the purposes of making this scene “ambiguous” when there is no ambiguity present in this scene (nor does there really need to be).

Further, in the Escalation Library Edition, Reed says that he contemplated whether or not he should have the Didact chop off Fred’s leg.

“For just a minute, we discussed some permanent dismemberment here. Maybe one of the Spartans would get a leg ripped off; then in Halo 5 we’d see them with a cybernetic appendage. It didn’t take long for the idea to die, for which Fred is very grateful.” [Brian Reed, Halo: Escalation Library Edition, page 289]

As Reed says, they didn’t go through with it and the idea was short-lived, for which I’m grateful, but I am pretty taken aback by this weird fetish for pointlessly dismembering characters as some momentary shock value.

That just isn’t good writing or good drama, but it’s another instance of ableist narratives (I’m referring more to Halsey’s case now, since that actually did happen) because of a holy trinity of issues: momentary shock value, disability being a punishment for a character, and using disability purely for aesthetics.

343 often talks about wanting to tell ‘human stories’, yet when something as serious as a dismemberment occurs… there’s no time spent in any of the stories where the character deals with the physical and mental recovery process. And that’s incredibly disappointing because showing Halsey dealing with things like phantom limb pain (or simply doing anything to acknowledge her trauma) would go a pretty long way in adding some greater complexity to her in the games, rather than portraying it as having changed absolutely nothing and still calling her a “monster”. If it’s not going to change anything, then what was the point of cutting her arm off in the first place?

Again, it ties into harmful, stereotyped portrayals of disabled people prevalent throughout media, worsened by the explanation that it was done for shock value.

This certainly isn’t to say that characters should be defined by their disability, but it is a part of them and it’s something that needs to be realistically portrayed as part of them – not as something that needs to be cured or administered as a punishment and then swiftly forgotten, but as something that they deal with as a normalised part of their existence.To bring this to its conclusion and loop back around to Cortana, then…

When you take Halo 4, which tells a story about how Cortana deals with her mental illness 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 this ruinous twist, you have failed the part of your audience who connected to her.

You have hurt them by erasing her disability, turning her into a vapid and empty caricature of all the things she fought against becoming, rolling back the potential for societal progress her death brought about for other AIs, and then having her become the present setting’s ultimate evil in a story that, quite clearly, the people in-charge either didn’t give an ounce of thought towards, or, worse, did, but decided to go through with it anyway.

Halo 4 told a story about a condition that millions of people suffer with (an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide lived with dementia in 2015, according to Alzheimer Disease International) and it was elevated by that as a work of art that had something to say. By no means was it perfect, but its deeply human story held immense literary and personal value.

Her death was the catalyst for what should have forged a legacy that would alter the landscape of the setting regarding the perception and understanding of AIs as people who simply don’t want to be killed when they start to show signs of mental illness.

Instead, Halo 5 had them become the villains. It sacrificed years of carefully crafted and subtly interconnected writing to forcibly shove the Reclaimer Saga on a tangent driven by what is perhaps the most trite and overused trope in all of science fiction.

And they chose to try to leverage its relevance by stamping Cortana’s face on it and exploiting her character for what amounts to some cheap drama that had nothing to actively say (even the critique of empire that briefly comes up has been undercut by comments from Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed), therefore its passive voice with regard to its central villain is that even death – a victorious and meaningful sacrifice – won’t save that character from being subject to an ableist narrative.

It failed.

Worse, it has set its sequels up for failure too.

Honest representation and some actual research into/understanding of sensitive topics such as these can mean a world of difference between fans who will come to love and connect to your work (and I really don’t think that this is much to ask for), and… well, the reaction to Halo 5.

We love stories that induce a profound emotional response within us when they deal with real, relatable issues; less so when they’re the narrative embodiment of a middle finger that can only attempt to gauge a response from its audience by being ‘shocking’, and are not only poorly told but also contribute the reinforcement of harmful stereotypes.And that, I think, is where I’ll wrap this piece up.

Look, I don’t expect that everyone’s going to agree or sympathise with this perspective, and whether you do or not is entirely your prerogative. But there’s a tendency towards just outright dismissing arguments that apply a political lens to entertainment media as if it’s radical and unreasonable. As if entertainment media just exists in some cultural and political void that has no effect on people.

As I noted earlier, a healthy dissociation between fiction and reality is obviously something we all need… but a lot of people face enough stigma and prejudice in their own lives, which is exacerbated when the media we all consume is negatively reflecting those things back at them, rather than addressing and subverting those stereotypes.

These are uncomfortable and unfamiliar conversations that really need to be had if we’re going to take our art seriously…


If you’ve made it this far, then thank you for indulging me. My only hope is that I’ve done some measure of justice to this topic and that more important voices than my own will pick up on and continue the conversation as we go forward.

I had a goal this year of writing at least one post every month, something that I’ve hitherto managed to accomplish, as I’ve written fourteen articles so far. But it seems that I’m going to have to go on a short hiatus for a month or two because I’ve got a lot going on right now – the end of the current academic year is a hectic time for my job, I’ve got a much-needed holiday coming up, and a month-long teaching course that I have to prepare for and then pass. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve got a great deal of time to devote to writing for a little while.

Upon my return, though, around late-August or early-September, we’ll get stuck into the Halo Wars 2 level-by-level analysis at long last. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to a great deal and I hope you’ll be along for that particular narrative odyssey.

Until then…


9 thoughts on “Halo 5, Cortana, and Ableism

  1. Great post as usual. Seeing the way Cortana’s arc went in Guardians infuriated me after the hard-earned coda she achieved at the end of the last game. Looking forward to your next essay. (also: Please don’t forget the character study for Halo 4)

  2. reposted from twitter as requested
    “As a follow up I have to ask, Why do you think trying to remove someones disability is wrong?”

    1. Thanks for reposting it here 🙂

      What I’m referring to is a common ‘trope’ used in fiction where a character’s disability is magically cured, which typically occurs as a ‘reward’ for characters at the end-point of their arc. It’s posited by the writer(s) as something that makes them healthy and whole again. It makes them ‘normal’.

      As I said in the article, it erases that character’s disability and treats it as a temporary trauma device, which is not only poor narrative design but it’s going to look and feel like an incredibly pernicious twist to the people who connected with that aspect of the character. Disabled people can’t always be ‘cured’ – whether that’s magically overcoming paralysis, mental illness, etc. And whether or not they would actually want to ‘cure’ themselves if some miracle pill or something came along is a deeply complex and personal thing that is down to the individual to decide.

      I work in a school, specialising in working with children who have mental conditions – autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, Pathological Demand Avoidance, anxiety, selective mutism. I’m in an environment where this is present every working day of the week. Some of the kids I work with have said that they wouldn’t change anything about themselves, their Asperger’s, for instance, is just the way their brain works and that brings with it a number of challenges but also immense positives. To them, they simply have a different way of seeing the world. They’re not ‘defective’ or impaired. A lot of our media builds narratives around pitiful and helpless portrayals of disabled characters, whereas I was told by an eight year old, who is very open when it comes to talking about his autism, that it gives him a clarity of vision that enables him to see past immediate obstacles, with little “noise” on the periphery (paraphrasing him, obviously). And I see this sort of thing reflected in his work, where he’s very good at identifying patterns and recalling specific details beyond the ability a lot of his classmates have.

      It’s why ‘cure’ is kind of an unhelpful word because many people are born this way, and ‘cure’ implies a return to normalcy. For this pupil of mine, and for so many others, this is what’s ‘normal’ and he’s embraced his disability as a part of his identity. It doesn’t define him, but it’s an integral part of his perspective that he’s had since birth. Who would say that they have the right to take that from him, to ‘cure’ him?

      I’m not saying that no one wants to be/should be cured because that’s simply wrong. I’m not making any statement on the matter because I am not equipped with any wisdom in that area, so it’s something that I have to stay in my lane when it comes to discussion on that topic. As I said, it’s a personal matter for the individual.

      But the issue is how this is portrayed in media. The only possible catharsis a lot of abled writers can come up with for their disabled characters is to cure them, which has got to be a pretty damn depressing narrative (which exists in considerable abundance) for disabled folks in the real world – being constantly told both by society and media that they’re broken, and then, when it comes to characters they might connect with, those characters are magically fixed and they’re told that this is what they’ll never have. I’d recommend checking out this article/study that goes deeper into the matter.

      A quote that I always like to think back to is this one from Steven Moffat (he says this with regards to race and how that is portrayed in fiction, but this equally applies to this topic):

      ‘What do you want to say to children?’ is the biggest thing here.

      You don’t want to feel as though you’re apologising for them, or saying that there is something for which they have to make amends.

      You want kids to see their kind of face on-screen and to know that that kind of face is absolutely fine and always has been. That’s what you want to say: there is no case to answer.

      So if you do make a great big fuss about it, then you might be the first people to tell those kids ‘hey, there’s something about which you have to be afraid’. I don’t want to do that. I want to say ‘the universe is full of people like you’.

      This, in-tandem with the arguments I made in the article about the personal impact of our entertainment media, and how Cortana plays into these issues in Halo 5, hopefully makes my point a little clearer?

  3. So first of all, should we not expect anything on Chief’s character analysis for Halo 4 or the new Flood stuff?

    Anyways, yeah, I get what you’re saying. I think it’s safe to say that 343 has their work cut out for them in terms of what to do with Cortana. On top of that though, I would just like to put in my own two cents. I personally have Aspergers, and so I found it quite bizarre when I read that it’s often used as a way to explain a lack of empathy. I found it bizarre because while I know it affects different people in different ways, I’ve never met someone with Aspergers who has problems with empathy. In fact, I’ve had to take medications for over a decade now that actually NUMB my empathy and emotions because they get very strong very easily. On top of that, while Halo is my favorite video game franchise, there’s actually a character from Overwatch that I connect to quite a bit: Bastion. I don’t know how much you play Overwatch or if you even play it at all, but if you didn’t know the whole concept behind Bastion is that he’s a robot that served on the front lines of a war but was damaged and became dormant for 30 years. One day he wakes up in the forest and realizes that he now has free will and emotions, and uses this new free will to enjoy nature instead of kill, which is what he was originally built to do. However, whenever Bastion hears a sound or sees something that reminds him of war, he freaks out and destroys everything around him in a storm of bullets, including the nature he was just enjoying. What I’m trying to say is, just like how your friend connects to Cortana due to a mental disorder, I connect to Bastion in the same way. To me he reflects the swings of emotional intensity that I experience, some days the meds working just fine, others making me completely numb, and others where they don’t work at all and I become a mess. Chief also kinda reflects that for me, but not to the same extent.

  4. I don’t think Cortana is completely devoid of empathy. She does show regret at having to detain Chief indefinitely, and actual strife when he is torn away.
    The way I view a good villian is a broken hero. Someone who couldn’t take the pressure of their responsibility and causes harm to others, or someone who has a completely incompatible perspective with human morals. Sure, there are a few deranged and psychotic antagonists out there but I don’t think it bugs me that much. They are shown to be competent and even geniuses in most cases, it’s just their perspective is incompatible with ours, and that leads to conflict. Kinda like the Taurans and Man from the Forever War. They’re way of life is incompatible with UEF and the veterans’, leading to strife.
    However, Cortana is just space Hitler with a better ass at the end of the day
    So I don’t think that counts. It would have been more interesting to see Cortana try and reconstruct a Composer to digitize everything in the Galaxy.
    Now, that may sound a bit too much like the Borg but allow me to explain…
    Fearing for the Flood’s return Cortana decides to try and preserve as much organic life as possible. She knows that the only way to stop a large scale infection is the use of the Halo array, but the collateral damage would be too great. So, after finding the Domain she comes up with a plan: compose everything in the Galaxy. The idea is to compose as many civilians as possible and keep them in the Domain as a preservation initiative (she doesn’t know that the Flood technically own the Domain). From her perspective the Domain is the gateway to immortality, and the best bet for anyone to survive the Tyranids.
    She thinks that she can perfect the composing process and save everyone fro any threat.

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