E3 2021: Halo Infinite – A Masterclass of Storytelling

“If you knew how you were going to die, would you live your life differently?”

That quote isn’t just paraphrased from Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), it’s one of the core thematic questions of 343 Industries’ Halo Infinite, which drops out of slipspace Holiday 2021.

It’s that time of year again where we get a peek at what 343 has been building over the last few years, coming off the back of last year’s demo and delay. After this Xbox showcase, featuring Bonnie Ross and Joe Staten, a lot of puzzle pieces have clicked together for the story of Halo Infinite, which simply demands exploration!

Humanity’s loss at Zeta Halo, the reveal of the Weapon, the Chief’s character arc, and the death of Cortana – let’s dive in to see what it’s all about…The showcase begins with a flyover of Zeta Halo, our home for the foreseeable future, before transitioning into a cinematic that follows on from E3 2019’s ‘Discover Hope’ scene, which serves as the opening of the game.

343 has been adamant that while this is a ‘spiritual reboot’ for the series, it is also a continuation of Halo 5. That much becomes evident in this scene, as the Chief launches out of the Pelican, because it’s a direct parallel to his introduction in Halo 5 with the tone flipped.

Halo 5 introduced the Chief as being back alongside Fred-104, Kelly-087, and Linda-058 of Blue Team. While there is a hint of sorrow at the loss of Cortana following her sacrifice at the end of Halo 4, the tone of this scene as Blue Team deploys from their Pelican to the Argent Moon is one of epic triumph. This family of legendary soldiers are back together after years apart, and the Covenant is finally breaking.

In Halo Infinite, however, the Chief deploys from the Pelican alone, and he has to wade through a graveyard of derelict ships, still occupied by long-dead soldiers in the vacuum of space, which stands as a monument to our defeat.

Some kind of cataclysmic battle took place here, the context of which we will undoubtedly uncover more of throughout the campaign.

Notice how the Chief responds to the bodies he passes as well. He’s incredibly respectful of the humans who lost their lives here, moving them only very gently, while using the dead Banished to manoeuvre and shield himself before tossing them away.

This particular beat ties in quite nicely with how the Chief’s attitude towards the Banished is explored in Halo: Shadows of Reach:

The Banished should never have set foot on Reach – and Reach should never have been glassed in the first place. He had met, and even fought beside, too many noble aliens to believe they were all responsible for this entire mess. But those who were – those he was happy to deal with. [Shadows of Reach, p. 301]

And then, as if the Domain itself is reaching out to the Chief in this moment, we hear a fragmented message from Cortana.

“If you knew how you were going to die, would you live your life differently?”

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (or, if you prefer, Ted Chiag’s Story of Your Life) is a fitting comparison here because it’s got the classic science fiction set-up of aliens arriving and exploring the crises and upheaval that causes humanity, offset by its protagonist – Dr Louise Banks – attempting to cope with the premature death of her daughter, Hannah, which Villeneuve has said is the heart of the film.

Broadly, Halo Infinite isn’t dissimilar!

The Banished have steamrolled their way into the setting and seemingly brought about this cataclysmic event at Installation 07, which has done a tremendous amount of damage to the UNSC forces present, the ring itself, and – as we learn in the following scene, the Created too.

Its protagonist – the Master Chief – has to cope with a sense of having failed his mission with Cortana, as well as her apparent demise, which will undoubtedly be the emotional core of Halo Infinite.

(Always crib from the best!)Yes, Cortana has seemingly perished. How 343 was going to handle this particular aspect of the direction Halo 5 went has been something I’ve felt a great deal of dread towards over the years…

I’ve rolled my eyes at many suggestions – both from the fanbase and Halo 5 itself – about how the Chief is going to have to “put her down,” and all the other ways that people have imagined Halo 5’s insipid direction being resolved.

But 343 has landed on a completely different island of thought, and it’s one that I think is genuinely intriguing.

The Chief had absolutely no part in her end. She died, and he wasn’t there for it this time.

And now, he’s living out exactly what she feared in Halo 4.

Cortana: “They’ll pair you with another AI. Maybe even another Cortana model, if Halsey lets them…”

Chief: “That’s not going to happen!”

Cortana: “It won’t be me. You know that, right?” [Halo 4, Composer]

This was undoubtedly the biggest reveal of the showcase: Halo Infinite isn’t just a story about the Chief and the Pilot, but a new AI character as well – ‘The Weapon.’We’ve seen a few references to the Weapon over the years. You may recall from the Discover Hope cinematic, upon inserting the AI chip into his helmet, the Chief’s HUD reads “WEAPON CONTAINMENT DEVICE INSERTED – AI NOT DETECTED.”

Her origins were also strongly hinted at in Troy Denning’s Halo: Shadows of Reach, where Blue Team is sent on a classified mission to collect the flash cloned brains that Halsey put into cryostasis many years ago.

These were evidently used to create a new AI with the purpose of combating Cortana, just as the Forerunners created Offensive Bias to battle Mendicant Bias, who went rogue and aligned with the Flood.

The Weapon says that her goal is complete, Cortana has been ‘deleted,’ but her own self-deletion process hasn’t kicked in. Why is that?

The answer seemingly lies in an audio log from Halsey at the start of the second mission of Halo 4:

Catherine Halsey research excerpt – 11 February 2550

“The interesting factor here isn’t that H-1 disabled the viral termination code I implanted in her matrix. These metrics imply its success wasn’t just unlikely, but that even the accepted seven-year life cycle estimates may not apply. Thus far, I’ve determined that the unique circumstances of her creation have triggered what I can only refer to as a recessive variant in the AI seed. As her architect, I’m currently at a loss as to the origin of this rogue element. Very curious.” [Halo 4, Requiem]

‘H-1’ refers to Cortana, the brain that was used to illegally create her. This log is dated February 2550, just a few months after Cortana’s ‘birth’ (November 7th, 2549), and it appears that the unique nature of her creation (being made from the cloned brain of a living person) resulted in the termination code for ‘Final Dispensation’ not working.

Given that the Weapon was created in much the same way as Cortana, we can infer that her own termination code simply doesn’t work either.Let us also take a moment to appreciate that the scene where the Chief meets the Weapon is absolutely spectacular.

Any doubts about how 343 is going to handle the Chief’s characterisation in Halo Infinite completely wash away here through Steve Downes’s excellent voice acting and Bruce Thomas’s mo-cap performance.

Chief’s discomfort is so evident in this scene. He paces around, he’s uncertain, he even turns his back to the Weapon when she says something that hits a bit too closely to something the original Cortana might say (“Did you hit your head or something?”)

It makes sense that the Chief is going to be quieter and more stoic at the start of the game because he’s unfamiliar with the Pilot and the Weapon, but he has to care for both of them.

Over the course of doing so, he will undoubtedly open up more to these characters and – within the broader context of what’s happened in the universe, which the Chief blames himself for – we’ll see where that takes his character arc.

What the Weapon brings is a complete reversal of the Chief/Cortana dynamic: Cortana was the intellect and the Chief was the weapon.

Jen Taylor (who now portrays three main characters in the series!) plays the Weapon as distinctly younger, more innocent and irreverent. Instead of being the character who explains what’s going on to the Chief, it seems like she’s going to be closer to the ‘surrogate newcomer’ character.While Cortana is seemingly dead, by no means will she be absent from this story.

You may recall that there was a hidden bit of dialogue in the Discover Hope trailer, found through a QR code in the Chief’s HUD boot-up sequence, which said:

“This? This is part of me! I don’t know why? I don’t know how? But it is… me!”

Chris Lee further noted:

“That was a really important part of the trailer where Master Chief is going into a very Forerunner environment, to kind of reconnect.” [Chris Lee, ‘343 Unpacks E3 2019 Halo Infinite Trailer’ (13/6/2019)]

It was not Cortana speaking in this dialogue, but the Weapon.

This has some interesting implications for the story of Halo Infinite. Cortana may be dead, but we will be looking to ‘reconnect’ with some aspects of her in the campaign.

Could this be the sort of equivalent to Terminals in Halo Infinite? Might this be one of the methods 343 employs to fill the gap between this story and Halo 5?

And will ‘reconnecting’ to some aspect – or even memories – of Cortana have any kind of effect on the Weapon as she discovers more about her sister AI?The last point to touch on here is our main cast of characters – the Chief, the Pilot, and the Weapon.

Notice anything?

These aren’t names, they’re a mix of ranks and titles that have been given to them. We know the Chief’s name, but not the Pilot’s or the Weapon’s.

Throughout the Halo series, there is a core tension around a sort of duality of identity with many of its major characters.

Halo 4 brought this to the forefront with the dichotomy between ‘John’ and ‘The Master Chief’ – the soldier versus the symbol, the man and the machine. Even one of the taglines for Halo 4 is ‘WAKE UP, JOHN.’

In the E3 2020 trailer for Halo Infinite, Escharum also comments on this:

“Spartan, we thought you dead, yet here you stand. Humans call you their saviour. The Covenant, ‘Demon.’ The Banished, ‘prey.’”

Jameson Locke faces the dichotomy of what it means to be ‘Agent Locke’ versus ‘Spartan Locke.’

‘Thel ‘Vadam(ee)’ versus ‘The Arbiter’ is the throughline that affects the entire journey of this character, which is summed up quite succinctly in the trailer narration for Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals.

“I have had many names in this long war. The humans knew me as ‘Destroyer.’ To the Covenant, I was Supreme Commander. The Prophets named me ‘Arbiter.’ And your Master Chief calls me… ‘friend.'”

Even in Hunt the Truth, the second season’s focus on Maya Sankar has her grapple with this sense of identity as well.

“What terrified me most was after five years of living as ‘Fero,’ I had no idea what Maya was supposed to think about any of it…”
[Hunt the Truth, Season 2 Episode 0: The Only Deliverable]

This recurring theme of identity looks to be core to Halo Infinite as well, articulated through its main trio, and it really shows 343’s commitment to anchoring this game in the legacy of the series.Last year, I published several pieces on Halo Infinite, as I was invited to a closed doors media briefing and I had plenty to say about everything we were shown.

My impressions right now are that this genuinely feels like it’s going to be the sequel to Halo 4 that we were told about in 2015. Remember “the ghost of Cortana”?

Many of the story and character beats, as well as a lot of the imagery and framing 343 has been using, feels like a true continuation of what Halo 4 set up. Aesthetically, we’re seeing inspiration being primarily drawn from the Bungie era; narratively, the storytelling is very strongly drawing from 343’s own pedigree with Halo 4 and other areas of the series as well.

343 seems to have come up with some really great ideas about how to deal with the almost universe-breaking baggage of Halo 5 so they can open up a new story for a whole new generation of players that stays true to the enduring legacy of the series.

With multiplayer flighting coming up later this summer, and the game set to release Holiday 2021, we’re just a few months away from setting foot on our new home.

Forward unto Zeta Halo!

3 thoughts on “E3 2021: Halo Infinite – A Masterclass of Storytelling

    1. Other options: an unknown individual has collected her without destroying her (Mendicant Bias, or perhaps “The Harbinger”).

  1. I highly doubt Original Cortana has been deleted, I thought that was implied in the scene itself.
    My guess, the fragments of Cortana will be collected throughout the game and then combined with The Weapon.
    Wonder if it’ll change her appearance if it happens?

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