Halo 4, Level-by-Level Analysis – Composer

And so, we reach the beginning of the final act of Halo 4’s story. This is where the characters hit their lowest point, where all seems lost for our protagonists and their goals. At the end of the previous mission, just as it seemed like they were about to succeed, John and Cortana failed to stop the Ur-Didact from departing Requiem as Cortana’s rampancy took a turn for the worst. He escaped and has emerged from slipspace, John and Cortana in close pursuit on the back of a Covenant Lich, in the shadow of a familiar sight – a Halo ring, Installation 03.composer2First, a quick recap. The Composer, the device being sought by the Ur-Didact to ‘imprison’ humanity, was taken here by the Librarian 100,000 years ago when he was imprisoned in Requiem. The UNSC Infinity’s mission, prior to the events at Requiem, was to locate the other Halo installations to set up research bases to study them for decommission and this is how they discovered the Composer. A science team was assimilated by the Composer when they were tampering with it, as Del Rio tells John at the end of Infinity, and the only sensor data that remained was a set of coordinates which Infinity followed and led them to Requiem. So the story has sort of come full-circle here, we have a solid picture of how this all ties together.

John wonders why the Covenant aren’t heading towards Installation 03, to which Cortana responds:

“Because the Composer’s not on the ring.”

Instead, we see a human research base, Ivanoff Station, come into view. The Covenant and the Ur-Didact are bearing down on it and John receives his directive.

“What are you waiting for? That station’s not going to save itself…”

composer3In a nutshell, this mission is all about the human element of the story. The character of Doctor Sandra Tillson really exemplifies this, her interactions with John are, to me, some of the most interesting in the game because they really show just how far John’s character arc has developed. Tillson is first introduced to us when John contacts Ivanoff Station inside the Lich.

“This is UNSC Master Chief to base. Do you read?”

“Yes! I hear you! This is Sandy Tillson of Ivanoff Station, we’re under attack!”

“They’re after a Forerunner artefact you took from the Halo ring.”

“How you you know about that?”

“Doctor! I need you to protect that artefact until we arrive. Send whatever–“

At this point, John is cut off because Cortana interrupts with perhaps her most violent episode of rampancy yet.composer4

“Do you know what that condescending bitch said to me after our first game of chess?”


“Even I don’t call him by name anymore…”

“Correct your approach.”

“Yes, well he also said he works better alone! I can see why you chose him, Catherine.”



“Pull up! Now!”

The Lich crashes into Ivanoff Station, almost killing John in the process. This is a hugely important development for the relationship between John and Cortana because despite the fact that he knows she’s getting worse, having allowed the Ur-Didact to escape Requiem and now almost killing him, he still holds to the belief that he can save her. He constantly attempts to reassure Cortana over the course of this mission, promising not to tell Halsey how bad she got if they get back to her.

“Chief, if we pull this off and actually get back to Halsey? Don’t tell her how bad I got. Please?”

“I won’t say anything.”

“Thank you.”

One might look at this in a number of ways, it obviously exemplifies the innate trust that John has for his AI companion, but on a more telling level it’s quite clear that he needs her. At this point, he’s able to rationalise her condition as part of his objective, substituting the fact that his reasons for not giving up on her are much more personal in nature. It might seem ‘unhealthy’, dangerous even (as she’s almost killed him by accident), but the virtues of trust and loyalty run deep within John for the people he cares about and he refuses to give up on them. It’s what makes the relationship between John and Cortana so very poignant, I think.

“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.” ~ Josh Holmes, Halo 4: Postmortem

This is really important to keep in mind, as the premise here is that Cortana’s condition is transforming her into somebody she’s not. We see this perfectly corroborate with what she says to John when he awakens from the Lich crashing into the station.

“I’m sorry, I just… can’t stop them. It’s like a thousand of me arguing all at once!”

She treats the rampant aspects of her personality as wholly different people, much like somebody with a severe case of dementia might deteriorate into somebody their closest family members can’t recognise. That’s the ultimate tragedy of Cortana’s condition, and we sympathise with Cortana throughout the story for undergoing this horrific process, but also with John because he sticks with her right to the end and refuses to ever give up on helping her. This takes us back to Halo 2 and 3 where John tells Cortana that when he makes a promise, he keeps it – of course, he does keep his promise in Halo 3 as he manages to rescue her from the Gravemind in High Charity. Despite all the red herrings dropped by the narrative, making it seem like there’s hope for Cortana’s survival, in Halo 4, ultimately we see that this is one promise John cannot keep.composer6As I mentioned earlier, a major focus of this level is the human element of the story which is carried explicitly by the character of Doctor Tillson. I did think it was quite odd at first when I played this game that such a minor character was given such a heavy focus, but it’s clear to me after some thought that she is another means through which the role of the protagonist is deconstructed, the ‘action’ of modern FPS titles is subverted, and a symbol of exactly what it is that humanity has to lose should the Didact’s plan succeed.

First of all, this mission is structured with a series of clear physical objectives which involves clearing out hordes of Covenant to ensure the safety of Ivanoff Station’s crew and to prevent the Composer from being reached. Tillson fulfils a very Cortana-esque role in this level, providing John with objectives and directions, physical things which John can achieve because it’s the sort of thing that he’s been trained for. Tillson seems quite astonished at times by John’s accomplishments against increasingly difficult odds, as more and more Covenant warriors pour into the station. This is the establishment of the connection between player and protagonist, it’s standard for the player to be the one who drives the story in its linear direction by accomplishing goals, and it builds up the ‘hero’ figure of John as well.

343 subverts this by the end of the mission by making us ask ourselves – what if that just isn’t enough? What happens when John fails? This is something we never really ask ourselves as players because it’s easy to forget that we are experiencing a narrative outside of our own control here, we are merely the vessel through which the protagonist gets from point A to B. It comes as a massive shock then, for both the player and the protagonist, when Tillson and the rest of Ivanoff Station are horrifically killed at the end of the mission with John powerless to do anything about it.composer7Secondly, the exchange between Tillson and John about a third of the way into the level has some really interesting dialogue in it. Of particular note is the role-reversal between John and Cortana, the latter having withdrawn to a more objective, even cold, and less empathetic figure while John is made to empathise with Doctor Tillson when she’s having trouble understanding what’s going on and learning that they’re going to have to destroy years of research, years of her life, to stop the Didact from getting the Composer.

John: “Can you give Cortana access to the station’s supply manifest?”

Tillson: “What for?”

John: “If we can’t move the Composer, we have to make sure that the Didact can’t either…”

Tillson: “Oh, wait… We have years of work invested here!”

Cortana: “Inventory lists seven excavation-grade HAVOK mines. Just one of those would turn this base into a piñata.”

John: “I’m sorry, Doctor… Keep routing your people to the evac centres. Once we take care of the Composer, you won’t have much time.”

What’s so striking to me here is that a triple-A FPS title is actually looking at the implications of blowing things up, something which is seldom seen in modern titles of this genre. Off the top of my head, I can’t actually think of the last time I saw this dilemma brought up in a game – it has always been ‘blow this up and accomplish your objective’, and while that is the objective here, the trope itself is being subverted into an almost critical look at the genre’s detachment from the effects that this sort of thing has. Tillson and her fellow scientists at Ivanoff have invested years of their life into researching valuable information recovered from artefacts discovered on Installation 03, just before you go into the room where John and Tillson talk about this there is a room which has a number of audio logs from the scientists and even Doctor Halsey about the discoveries they’ve made. It’s clear that these things are a big deal, they’ve even recovered the Activation Index which is housed in a glass cylinder with it being speculated that it has secondary and tertiary purposes which are being explored.

Then, John comes along and says that they are probably going to have to blow it all up. Tillson calls John out on this, but grows to accept the necessity of what they have to do and proposes to actively help them.

“What are the sacrifices that you have to make in order to preserve something as precious as humanity? […] We want the player to be able to ask themselves what it is to be a hero. Is the sacrifice worth it.” ~ Kiki Wolfkill, Making Halo 4: A Hero Awakens

As if the intention here couldn’t be clearer, this is what we’re having to weigh in our heads during this scene. Stopping the Didact could mean destroying a significant part of the lives of other people, it’s something that seems easy to rationalise away as being a small part of this much larger conflict, but when you stop and think for a moment you begin to get a picture of how the lives of all these strangers are affected by John and his role as ‘the hero’. Is it worth it? For the preservation of humanity, it certainly is necessary so yes, but what sacrifices have to be made here to ensure humanity’s continued survival?

“I’ll… make sure the nukes are primed so you can detonate them remotely. Maybe next time you rescue us… you can give us more time to pack?”

“Next time.”

composer8Lastly, the composition (heh heh) of this scene and the way it’s framed exemplify Tillson as the focus here, not John. While we see subtleties in his characterisation as he lends a more sympathetic hand to the Doctor, there is an immediate contrast drawn between them as she is clad in a white lab coat which appears almost luminescent from the lighting of the scene, while John stands almost silhouetted in the background, washed over in shadows.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition to earlier in the game, but seems wholly appropriate as Tillson has her feelings and emotions compromised, while John struggles to empathise with her situation. Whereas John has been previously silhouetted to draw a contrast between him and the bridge crew of the Infinity, here it appears to demonstrate how he’s struggling with his sense of humanity with regard to finding the middleground between his objective and Doctor Tillson.composer10Another aspect of this mission is the ever-evolving nature of the relationship between John and the Ur-Didact. While he is never physically present, we hear his voice and see his vessel scanning Ivanoff Station for the Composer. Every line from the Ur-Didact therefore carries a great deal of significance, and we see his view of John reach a turning point in this mission following the previous one.

“You impress me, Human. Your singular valour will be preserved and studied, once your Composition is complete.”

It’s clear that the Ur-Didact was not able to account for John’s tenacity, even when faced with such overwhelming odds. While he mocked John as a fool at first in Shutdown, he gradually began to take note of the fact that John kept succeeding and fighting on. At last, he finally recognises John as a direct threat which absolutely fascinates him to the point where he’s intending to preserve and study John’s personality upon composing him. It’s a minor aspect of this mission, but quite a big advancement for the Didact’s character and his view of the Master Chief, where he previously saw him as a tool for his release, he now realises that John is a clear and present threat to his plan.

Perhaps most interesting though, is that the Ur-Didact doesn’t know about Cortana. It’s not until Midnight that he realises that this is the reason John has come so far and refused to back down, this is what has kept him going the whole time. During one of her rampant episodes in this mission, she admits this herself.

“My intervention is the prerequisite for success! WHY SHOULD WE SAVE THEM?”

composer11The mission ends on a particularly climactic note, as the Ur-Didact manages to retrieve the Composer from the station while John continues to repel hordes of Covenant with a Mantis. Cortana suffers another severe attack from rampancy and John manages to calm her down, getting her to focus on the mission and finding Doctor Tillson so they can get the nuke.

“Cortana, see if you can raise Tillson. Get me a status on the rest of the station.”

“I can’t believe he did that…”

“Cortana, I need that info! Look… don’t think about the Didact, don’t think about the Composer. Only focus on finding me Tillson.”

“Tillson, Sandra K. Female. 51 years of age. Doctor of Archaeology. Pegasi Institute– Got her! Biosignature stable on 350-level, B-deck.”

“Thank you, Cortana.”

In this exchange, we get a rare occurrence of John starting to lose his composure. His tone becomes desperate as he almost seems to be begging Cortana to recover from this deviation so he can get the information he needs, exemplifying the fact that he needs her. Without Cortana, John is a stoic shell who would be rendered helpless the moment he comes up against a locked door. His dialogue radiates relief when Cortana manages to beat back her rampancy once more and locate Tillson, thanking her because he knows how difficult it’s becoming for her to hold it together.

There’s no victory won here, however. The Ur-Didact has the Composer and begins charging it up as John and Cortana reunite with Tillson and a number of other archaeologists. Cortana attempts to activate the station’s defence systems, but they refuse to respond – both John and Cortana are rendered totally helpless and are forced to watch as Ivanoff Station is blasted by the Composer.composer13 composer14This was an unexpected scene of utter horror. I absolutely did not expect to see the gory details of the Composer to be shown – the close-up of Tillson’s face as her skin begins to burn away, exposing her skull which is disintegrated into dust in particular stands out as one of the most memorable scenes in the game for its sheer shock value. The brutality of the Composer is fully shown here, and it’s what’s going to happen to everybody on Earth if John and Cortana don’t stop the Didact.

The other shocking element here is that you spend the whole mission attempting to evacuate Ivanoff Station as the Ur-Didact closes in, and John is met with failure after failure as the stakes hit their highest point yet. This mission is critical in the story because, as I said earlier, it focuses primarily on the ‘human’ element of the characters and the threat that the Didact poses.

After beating back the Covenant invasion and witnessing some absolutely brutal attacks on the helpless inhabitants of Ivanoff Station, including a Jackal leaping onto a scientist and shredding him apart like a feral dog, Cortana’s condition slides into a constant state of decline. At the very start of the mission, she almost gets John killed by smashing the Lich into the side of the station because she loses control. Her rampancy comes back to haunt her at the end of this mission as the station’s defence turrets do not respond to her attempts to activate them and fire on the Didact’s vessel, resulting in hundreds of people being composed.composer15John collapses in front of Cortana and for a moment it seems as if he’s died. Fortunately, the geas within John that was earlier awakened by the Librarian provides him with immunity to the Composer’s sublimation beam. As a result, he is rendered unconscious and Cortana is left on her own listening to the lingering screams of distress coming from what is left of the scientists.

“Are you okay? I monitored the data pulse. I could hear them… what was left of them…”

“We need to move!”

“These people are gone!”

“And more will follow if the Didact reaches Earth…”

This serves as a chilling reminder to Cortana of how frightening death is and what she has to face. Her arc so far has been her coming to accept the inevitability of her fate, that she’s going to die and there’s nothing she can do about it, but in this moment it all becomes frighteningly real to her.composer16In this period of denouement, John is forced to openly confront his own feelings and emotions with regards to Cortana’s rampancy. She can’t hold it back any more, the Composition of everyone aboard Ivanoff Station pushed her over the edge and forces both of them to face the reality of the situation.

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

“That’s not going to happen!”

“It won’t be me… you know that, right?”

Like a recurring motif, John responds to this feeling of discomfort by checking his Assault Rifle and turning his back to Cortana. He literally cannot face the prospect of going on without her, all the while she is insisting that she knows how this story ends for them both.

John simply can’t respond to this, he refuses to let go of Cortana and does his best to keep her going because he needs her. She is his guardian and his guide, she’s the one who keeps him in-check, but now she’s started to lose it their roles are reversed – he has to be the one who helps her through her deteriorating condition and support her mental state.composer17 composer18 composer19One of my favourite parts of this scene, I have to say, is how there’s absolutely no music to accompany the situation – not even a sad melody playing in the background. The only thing we hear outside of the dialogue between John and Cortana is the silence of the now empty station. All we see are the piles of ashes that remain, which very much reminded me of Cortana’s statement at the end of Halo CE that all that they’ve left behind was “dust and echoes”, following the destruction of Installation 04. The Composer has taken everything else out of the scene, except for the setting, John and Cortana. Here they are again in a similar situation to the end of the first Halo where it’s just the two of them alone in the aftermath of a colossal event, surrounded by the remains of the people they failed to save.

Through this scene, I was very much reminded of Cortana’s request to John in the previous mission where she asked him to figure out which one of them is truly the machine. John’s demeanour here is highly indicative of the notion that he’s the machine, as he remains stoic and detached from the horror he’s just witnessed while Cortana is driven to a state of panic at what has happened. Her reaction is deeply and openly human, while John shows all the detachment and cold isolation of a machine – another case of role-reversal from earlier where John was the empathetic figure while Cortana was cold and withdrawn as they told Tillson that they may need to blow up Ivanoff Station.composer20Cortana regains her composure and spins up a Broadsword fighter in the station’s hangar for them to use to pursue the Didact, affirming that “whatever the Librarian did to you obviously worked”. She resumes her role as John’s guiding figure – the logic and reason.

John turns to her, his posture conveying assurance, denial and determination, and tells her that it’s not over.

Not yet.


About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
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2 Responses to Halo 4, Level-by-Level Analysis – Composer

  1. Franitz says:

    I have to admit to having been both surprised and terrified of that scene with the composer. At that point, after a 3 hours session, I was with Chief and Cortana on that station.

    • haruspis says:

      It was so unexpected because it just beautifully subverted that expectation you have – good guys win, bad guys lose. There’s… actually surprisingly little of that in Halo 4, it’s a very downbeat story for the most part to really drive home the visceral nature of being ‘the hero’. What it is that you lose, what you have to sacrifice, and the insurmountable odds you’re up again.

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