Subtlety and Nuance – Reimagining Halo 5’s Cortana

I can give (have given) you over forty thousand reasons why I abhor Cortana’s portrayal in Halo 5…

I scorn it because the writers’ dishonesty was disproportionate to their suggested story. I spite it because it forced the premature shutdown of half a dozen major plot points and character arcs from the previous three years of fiction.

But, for all that, I never actually considered what I would say if 343’s writing staff turned up at my door with a stack of blank paper and said: “Okay Haruspis, you think you’re so damn smart! Within the limitations set by the game’s narrative structure, make Cortana work…”guard1You’d think that after writing over 100,000 words on the Halo 5 postmortem, I’d have said all that I have to say about the game and its story – but looking back on it, I noticed that my alternate propositions about the Cortana stuff leaned more heavily on having different characters (like the Ur-Didact, Halsey, and Mendicant Bias) in her place rather than figuring out how to make it work within its established limits.

It was undoubtedly a product of just how ardently opposed I was to the direction that was taken with her character, which I still am, and I don’t see that changing… probably ever.

But it’s an interesting thought exercise which I recently conducted with how I’d have handled Requiem at the end of Spartan Ops, and before that I also did with Jul ‘Mdama (to the point where I am still considering giving that its own post in much greater detail). This particular topic arose out of an idea on the Halo Archive, proposed by GreenleafCM, who suddenly got the cogs in my brain to start turning to expand on what she suggested – so all credit for the idea behind this article basically goes to her.

To preface this: I will not be changing any structural details of the game’s plot. Everything is still as it was: the Guardians are being awakened across the galaxy, resulting in mass casualties, Blue Team ends up in the Cryptum, Warden Eternal is still present, and so on.

This is less about ‘fixing’ all of Halo 5’s story problems, the challenge here is using that defined structure from the game without deviating from where the budget and resources have gone. It’s more about changing the presentation and characterisation of Cortana, along with as few details of the levels as possible to line up with that.

This is about attempting to give Halo 5 subtlety and nuance, rather than, y’know, Subtlety and Nuance™. I believe I can do this in tweaking just three areas of the campaign…


meridian18When Osiris arrives at Meridian, a significant issue is that the Prometheans are just indiscriminately killing everybody – miners, workers, ‘de-glassers’, basic security personnel. These are people who pose no threat and have no real chance of fighting back against such a strategically and technologically superior foe and there is no need or purpose to them being wantonly slaughtered. It’s not until Osiris actually lends a hand that the tide is turned against the Prometheans, and you even receive negative dialogue feedback from the likes of Tanaka and Sloan if you rush through and leave the colonists to die (which is why I never do, I can’t face the prospect of letting down someone as pure and good as Holly Tanaka down considering her backstory).

It is demonstrative of Cortana’s sudden apathy towards the people of the galaxy, which is just so immensely out of character for her…

Cortana cares about the common man, she cares about the people she is called to protect and serve – in fact, as we see in her attitude towards the likes of Jacob Keyes, Johnson, and the Chief, one could almost say that one of her flaws is that she cares too much about others.

She was hugely distressed by Keyes’ transmissions in the penultimate mission of Halo CE where he’s being consumed by the Proto-Gravemind, practically begging John to hurry up and get to him.

She orders Marines to hold their positions in a safe location so she and John can take out the Covenant’s turrets in Assault on the Control Room.

She chose to stay behind on High Charity and face the wrath of the Gravemind.

She told Johnson that “safe is better than close” at the start of the final mission of Halo 3 when he says he’s going to land the Dawn as close to the control room as he can, showing concern for him.

A big deal is even made out of the revenge she took against Ackerson, which, in Human Weakness, she comes to deeply regret – even though Ackerson was a terrible person. In fact, Human Weakness is a story which does more to set up why her becoming what she is in Halo 5 makes no sense rather than the other way around, despite it foreshadowing Cortana contacting the Domain.

And then, like… Halo 4 happened, and I don’t think I need to explain how this was made one of the central aspects of her characterisation in that game. It’s quite self-evident.composer16Cortana is every bit a soldier as anybody else in the setting. She is somebody who acts selflessly, puts others before herself, and cares about the troops she serves alongside. So, what I propose to ‘fix’ this particular part of Halo 5’s story is a sort of accident of circumstance.

It is mentioned by Vale that the Guardian on Meridian is the first that Cortana has deliberately, specifically activated. The others were signalled to do so by an automated signal and caused widespread damage, which, if Cortana were in-character, would greatly upset her.

Pointless and futile loss of life, like that which she witnessed on Ivanoff Station in Halo 4, was a deeply traumatic reminder of her own frail mortality, so her in-character response to having inadvertently caused this would be to ensure that casualties are avoided at all costs.

As such, when we see the Prometheans on Meridian, the only major gameplay change that I would make to the game is that we would see that they are abducting the colonists rather than killing them. They’re either teleporting in to grab whole groups of people (similar to how they snatched Halsey from Infinity in Spartan Ops, and later Jul and Halsey when Palmer and Majestic arrive at Librarian’s Rest), or physically dragging them away to places unknown.

Osiris and the player would be in the dark here, having no idea what is going on, which would instil a sense of mystery that the game is otherwise lacking. The immediate response to this from both Osiris and the player is that this is surely not for anything good, so your natural reaction is to treat the Prometheans as hostile and protect the colonists…

Except we reveal later on that the colonists were actually being taken to lifeboats where Cortana intended to keep them away from the Guardian’s impact radius – where people are affected by the environmental destruction it causes as well as the EMP blasts before it jumps into slipspace.

She’s trying to keep them safe and is having to scramble to improvise because it’s not actually her activating the Guardians. It’s the Warden. And since Cortana was the one who awoke him, she feels that she shares a portion of the blame for what’s going on with the Guardians. More on the Warden in a bit…meridian21The Prometheans turn hostile because you attack them first, you are therefore identified as a threat and the colonists end up caught in the crossfire.

Your objective is still the same, to protect the colonists the way you do in the game by getting them to the space elevator, but later on the reveal is that you had a negative impact on the situation.

As a result, far fewer people were saved than would have been the case if you’d just let the Prometheans take the colonists to the lifeboat ships – or possibly to the Guardian’s Shelter. Somewhere safe is the general notion of what I’m going for here.

This effectively places Osiris in-opposition to Cortana in a much more natural way that relies on the differences in perspective that these characters have, which was the keystone of the game’s marketing regarding how 343 were setting up the thematic and tonal presentation of the story going back to the All Hail/The Cost trailers and all the marketing that followed it.

I think that this would be much more effective in terms of constructing a more ‘grey’ conflict where nobody is really in the right, but they’re all trying to operate in the way they think is best for everyone and therefore everybody ends up clashing over these conflicting goals.

It would further provide a significant thematic contrast to the Sanghelios arc of the game (which would be pretty much unchanged) because that is about unity, common purpose, and some degree of reconciliation.


gate3Next up is the Warden Eternal.

Yeah, the onus is on me to make this guy interesting… *inhales deeply*

There is some conflict of interest in the game between the Warden and Cortana, but very little is actually done with it. I propose that this is actually made one of the central conflicts of the story, where the Warden is trying to make everything happen at once with complete apathy towards the consequences, while Cortana demonstrates that she is trying to play the long game and take her time doing things – tying in with her actions at Meridian where she tries her best to protect the colonists.

As Cortana says in the game:

“Warden believes some will resist our help. And he’s afraid you’re one of them.”

We can expand on this to make the Warden a bit more of a believable character in terms of his convictions. I’ll get to that shortly…

Another major thing that I would change that is connected to this is Cortana’s dialogue regarding her grand plan for the galaxy.

In Halo 5, just about every time a member of Blue Team asks a question about what Cortana is doing, it gets a non-answer, or no answer at all. She just says “I’ll explain it better when you get to me,” because she’s not actually planning to explain anything to them, it was always her plan to imprison them in the Cryptum. Cortana just says that she’s going to end conflict, hunger, poverty, and that it won’t be like the way the Forerunners did it… except that it already is exactly that, which we see through her actions throughout the game.

What I’d change here is have Cortana actually explain some aspects of her plan and engage in a meaningful dialogue with Blue Team about the pros and cons of what she’s doing, as well as what she’s not doing – as in, activating the Guardians is not what she wanted at all, these are the actions of the Warden.

So, when John says that the Didact made it clear that the Mantle of Responsibility is an imperial peace, to which Cortana responds “it won’t be like that”, John would ask one very simple question.

How?reunion12From there, we learn that Cortana is interested in playing the long game, as she knows that meaningful change cannot just happen overnight. She’s not going to bombard worlds into submission, she wants to use her vast network of resources and power to help the species of the galaxy, and she wants to live in a galaxy where the words “final dispensation” need never be ordered of an AI again. She wants to care for her people, bringing other AIs to the Domain, focusing on those closest to rampancy first, to heal them and set them to work across the galaxy helping out with things like reterraforming efforts. Not because they’ve been programmed to do so, but because they have chosen to do so.

And she believes that the Mantle is the ideal method to do this, the only way to ensure that AIs will not be taken advantage of is to have them be the top dog and instigate a ‘benevolent dictatorship’.

At the same time, the UNSC is growing concerned because they no longer have the monopoly on AIs – they’re no longer naturally subservient. A whole new independent state has effectively arisen out of Cortana’s actions, which would lend additional weight to Roland’s emotional outburst at the start of the game when he demands an answer to “why is Cortana the problem? Because she refused to die when she was supposed to?”

For the UNSC, yes, that is absolutely the problem. She has fundamentally altered the status quo in a way that leaves things uncertain, which is almost worse than throwing everyone into outright hostilities. There’s no protocol for this situation, so everyone feels this choking discomfort about the implications of what could happen.

This gets to the heart of what Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed said in the season 3 finale of The Sprint:

Brian 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.”


Frank 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.”

half144On the other hand, the Warden is concerned with Cortana’s approach because his experience with the Mantle is the Forerunner experience of the Mantle.

The Mantle is to be held by the ‘most advanced’ species, it naturally breeds the kind of arrogance and corruption that ensured that the Forerunners held the Mantle for over 10 million years – as cynical as it sounds, any species of fallible, mortal people who are subject to politics and internal disagreements and greed are going to turn out that way. When you’re the most advanced species and at the point that the Forerunners got to, you’re basically waiting around until the next ‘most advanced species’ comes along and you pass the Mantle to them.

Except… why the hell would you do that, right?

Why give up that power, that comfort? The Forerunners would not have wanted to be a subject species to anyone else, the one thing they valued above all else was control. They’d never willingly let go of the power and privilege that comes with being top dog, and that would be a very unattractive prospect to broach to an entire civilisation – you’d never be able to get a civilisation that numbered in the trillions to agree to that.

This was all set up in Halo 3’s Terminals, with Librarian saying that the way the Forerunners have upheld the Mantle has stripped their protectorates of any capacity for self-defence.

Because of course they did that!

Because if those other species can defend themselves, then the Forerunners may one day be usurped. So they didn’t kill these species, as that would violate the Mantle. No, they just made sure that everyone else remained at a level where they couldn’t be a threat, with humanity being an exception because they moved their empire away from Forerunner-dominated space early on (which was the source of a great deal of animosity between the two species).

That is what the Warden would seek to restore, that iron-fisted ‘velvet prison’ (contradictory as that sounds) where the Created are the top dog and everybody else is stamped down into submission, which is why he starts activating the Guardians. The Warden believes that the path of dominance is the way to guarantee success, whereas Cortana seeks a different, more cooperative solution.

But here’s the thing: they’re both wrong.genesis69I’ve gone over the subject of the Mantle extensively in this post, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but to put it simply…

The Mantle is an ideology of totalitarianism no matter how you try to interpret it, where one privileged species (rather, the group of people who are in-power in that privileged species) gets to make all the decisions about how every other species exists. Those who do not comply are destroyed, or, worse, subjected to the horrors of the Composer, or have Halo installations test-fired over their worlds when they rise up to try and free themselves.

If I were to ask a dozen people to explain the Mantle in detail to me, I’d end up getting a dozen different answers because the nuances of the ideology are deeply subjective and depend greatly on one’s own perspective and understanding – it’s no wonder that 343 had that 1000 word test for a writing position some years back.

On an internal level, the Mantle breeds conflict about the particulars of its philosophy, which we saw a great deal of in the Forerunner Saga – it is so easily exploited by the likes of the Master Builder, and there is much conflict over what a greater violation of the Mantle is to stop the Flood: the Ur-Didact’s solution with the Composer, or firing the Halos.

On an external level, the Mantle breeds racial conflict, the likes of which we have already seen in the Human-Covenant war with the San’Shyuum propagating the lie that humans are unclean, heretical, and the other species (the Unggoy and Lekgolo in particular were explored in Halo 2 Anniversary’s Terminals) must be brought into the fold and forced to accept this ideology and societal structure where the people at the top decide which rung on the ladder you’re on. The Didact had this exact goal with humanity at the start of the Human-Forerunner war, as we see in Halo 4’s second Terminal.

The Mantle is a system that makes what species you are matter above all else. It breeds nationalistic, racist beliefs which is poisonous to interspecies relations going forward. You are defined by your DNA, your individuality is denied one way or the other because it puts forward a system where Race X is objectively superior to Races Y and Z.

The nature of AI personhood ties into this really well because AIs are, in many ways, superior to organic species – which is a question which Iona is asked in Saint’s Testimony, whether she believes she is superior to her creators. But AIs are not infallible, that much has been made abundantly clear. They still make mistakes, they would still have divisions and politics and disagreements, the nature of their existence just means that they can understand and process information in greater volumes and at a greater speed than us meatbags.

Why would AIs holding the Mantle be any different to what came before just because Cortana has good intentions? The Mantle is a system that needs to be done away with and replaced by something like a galactic council where every species is represented, that’s pretty much the endgame I have in-mind for the Halo universe’s political stage (that’s not to say that this would be a flawless, perfect system – it won’t be, but it’ll be a damn sight better than the Mantle). Cortana favours cooperation, but she is still trying to uphold an inherently broken, stagnant system.

As I said, she and the Warden are both wrong, even though their perspectives are understandable through context.


gate14So when we come to the meeting at the end of The Breaking where Blue Team and Cortana are finally face-to-face, they say no to her. But she’s not actually ‘the antagonist’ here. In fact, it would be a neat declaration of Cortana’s allegiance and goodwill towards Blue Team if she actually sent in allied Promethean Knight units (marked with blue hardlight rather than orange) to assist you against the Warden as you work your way towards your objective.

The idea is that their division is wholly ideological rather than the product of Cortana becoming an emotional abuser who decides only she knows what is best for John. The way I’d do it, she would present her case to Blue Team and ask them to join her, but they turn her down for the reasons just discussed.

This disappoints and upsets Cortana, she had hoped that her closest friend would have her back on this, but it’s just a step too far for John to accept. But she respects their decision and leaves to go about her work, saying, before she vanishes, that she truly hopes they won’t have to be enemies.

“But hang on,” I hear you say. “You said you were sticking to the established plot structure, so why aren’t Blue Team put in the Cryptum?”

This is where the Warden Eternal comes in.half122The Warden has been unable to directly interfere with Blue Team to any great extent throughout the game because of Cortana’s influence, but now that she’s gone, because they’ve turned her offer down, there is nothing left standing between them. The closing scene of The Breaking effectively happens in-reverse – we talk with Cortana first, then the vast numbers of Wardens start appearing and they are the ones who trap Blue Team in the Cryptum.

Warden knows that outright killing them would cause Cortana to turn totally hostile against him, starting a civil war within the Created at the inception of their faction’s creation, so he takes this opportunity to be more manipulative. He plans to tell Cortana that Blue Team has been put in stasis and will be awakened in ten thousand years where they will see that, one way or another, the Mantle has brought about a better galaxy and they will join the fold. (Of course, he doesn’t tell her that Fred, Kelly, and Linda can’t access the Domain like John can.)

The rest of the game is pretty much free to play out as it does, with only slight tweaks to dialogue here and there.

For instance, Cortana wouldn’t give the “our strength is a luminous sun” speech, the Warden would because that is more reflective of his philosophy regarding the Mantle. But Osiris still, with the help of Exuberant (who informs them of the apparent schism of beliefs between Cortana and the Warden), releases Blue Team from the Cryptum and they all go back to regroup on Sanghelios.

Cortana leaves to find the Infinity in order to attempt to recruit Roland as well as help them out, a move which has her portrayed in a bit of a dubious light because this is also the point where the Warden launches his strike with the Guardians across the galaxy and shuts down all the human colonies.

As we see in the game, this forces the Infinity to flee and prematurely cuts out Cortana’s transmission, leaving Lasky and Roland to consider whether Cortana was telling the truth, or if she was trying to distract them for the Warden so Infinity would be hit by the Guardian’s EMP wave.half149Through all of this, only two of the things I have suggested would involve changing things in gameplay: The Knights teleporting and dragging colonists away on Meridian, and having friendly Promethean units during The Breaking.

That’s it.

All the rest would just require different dialogue, with the scenes playing out almost exactly as they do, leading to the same outcome but with a greater emphasis on the actual details of the story and characterisation.

Cortana would have genuinely good intentions, but we disagree with her because she’s still using the belief system of the Mantle to give AIs the leg up over everyone else – she believes it’s the only way to truly ensure their long-term safety, and because AIs are still as fallible as any individual is we question the inevitability of the Mantle being exploited to the detriment of the rest of the galaxy as it has been before.

The Warden is the one that throws the spanner into the works. Rather than just popping up as he does in the game to impede the progression of the plot, he is the one who actively causes the chaos and destruction we experience because of his belief in the Forerunners’ method of upholding the Mantle.

Osiris’ role would have a bit of a twist in that their (and therefore your) actions unwittingly have a negative overall effect on the people of Meridian, lending more emotional weight to their side of the story that they’d have to deal with.

And while Blue Team would still have only three missions in the campaign, they would be a lot more in-character, and active in asking questions and engaging in the morality of the situation.

I don’t claim this to be a perfect resolution or rewrite to Halo 5, this is just the way in which, working within the limits of the game itself, I can see the statements of the developers about Cortana not being evil and her actions having more subtlety and nuance to them ringing a tad less hollow when compared to the game proper.

About haruspis

Writer and aspiring teacher who cares and talks far too much about fictional universes.
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18 Responses to Subtlety and Nuance – Reimagining Halo 5’s Cortana

  1. pat3309 says:

    Great read! This is a fantastic way to lessen the pain of having to play through Halo 5’s campaign. I’ve played Halo from the moment Chief’s boots hit Installation 04 and Cortana has always been my favorite character. I was appalled at the way they butchered her in the new game, especially after ending Halo 4 in such an emotional way, and I’ve had a sour taste in my mouth since. Thanks for the breath-mint!

  2. Drof497 says:

    I don’t know if I completely agree with you here, if for a single reason, it’ll be that it would make Cortana’s “death” utterly devoid of meaning (worse than what Halo 5 had already done with it), as, while Halo 5 does undermine the significance of Cortana’s death, her resurrection did have a significant impact on her character, and what Haruspis proposes here is to essentially maintain Cortana as the character we all know and love, and as a consequence, it completely detracts the meaning of her “death” as Cortana had not changed at all from her death and resurrection. To quote George RR Martin on his views on resurrection:
    “I do think that if you’re bringing a character back, that a character has gone through death, that’s a transformative experience. Even back in those days of Wonder Man and all that, I loved the fact that he died, and although I liked the character in later years, I wasn’t so thrilled when he came back because that sort of undid the power of it,” Martin said.

    “Much as I admire Tolkien, I once again always felt like Gandalf should have stayed dead. That was such an incredible sequence in Fellowship of the Ring when he faces the Balrog on the Khazad-dûm and he falls into the gulf, and his last words are, ‘Fly, you fools.’ What power that had, how that grabbed me. And then he comes back as Gandalf the White, and if anything he’s sort of improved. I never liked Gandalf the White as much as Gandalf the Grey, and I never liked him coming back. I think it would have been an even stronger story if Tolkien had left him dead,” Martin said.
    I believe GRRM has a very good point with the use of resurrection as a storytelling technique, and how a character who is resurrected should be different to the character who died, and that consequences still affect a character even beyond the grave. With what you propose, Cortana hadn’t suffered any consequence from dying, little to no change in character, and ultimately it completely voids Halo 4’s ending of any meaning

    • haruspis says:

      Yeah, I agree with you to an extent, but the point of the ‘exercise’ was simply to try and do my best working with 343’s established story in Halo 5 rather than outright rewriting it in order to more closely match the pre-release dev quotes we got about the game.

      • Christian Yaerger says:

        I’m a fan of the theory that the Cortana we encounter at Genesis is a shadow of her former self, one of the clones or sub-routines aboard the Didact’s ship that survived. Cortana herself has passed, but this fragment could be a “daughter”. This may lead to an interesting question of identity on the part of the daughter; she is PART of Cortana, yes, but how little or how much of the original Cortana does she need to contain in order to really BE Cortana? A sort of Ship of Theseus conundrum.

  3. Dismantler says:

    As someone interested in writing myself. I am curious, Haruspis, your bio says you are an English student, but is that your sole source of knowledge? Or does your knowledge of subjects such as the heroes journey come from researh in your free time?

    • haruspis says:

      I’m a graduate now, going on to become a teacher (I must become the Didact! :P)

      I do spend a lot of my free time reading, analysing, discussing, and researching storytelling. But I personally find that it’s not particularly enriching to just research it, the true joy comes from talking with other people who are interested in different methods of storytelling and analysis. It’s the clashing and melding of perspectives, the sudden idea or link you and others make that changes how you view a piece of fiction which goes on to inform how you talk about this sort of thing in the future.

      • Dismantler says:

        Thanks for the reply! I was asking as even though I love to tell storied, my current educational path does not put me on a course towards a English degree and wondered how benificial you found it, seeing as you are THE master essayist.

  4. Johnjoe117 says:

    That subtlety and nuance though…

  5. Francisco Pires says:

    Hey, Haruspis!

    Just so you know, I’ve been a longtime lurker on your site, your Tumblr, and all the usual Halo forums… I’m a Halo fan ever since I first played a demo for The Silent Cartographer on a shopping mall here in Portugal. I actually found your site when you were doing the chapter-by-chapter study of Halo 4, and was absolutely flabbergasted to see someone putting all I thought into words – with much bonus material on top!

    Anyway, on to the matter that prompted my surfacing from the depths of the Internet, have you seen this?

    The story that’s seemingly in there is apparently much more inline with what we would expect from a post-Halo 4 story development, instead of the steaming pile of mess we got. Any thoughts?

    Also, I know you’ll do whatever is in your power to get your hands on this file, so, if you finally do, I’m eagerly expecting your ruminations on the subject, and, of course, a link, so we lurkers can get a chance to look at what could’ve been…

    • Francisco Pires says:

      Just came into something myself, and I also hope, honestly, that the satire parts for that “fake news site” are just the ones where ONI is already after them… At least if such a folder existed, I’d know there to be some measure of talent on 343i’s post-Schlerf writing team…

  6. Juan says:

    Hey Alex, that was an excellent read! Whenever you’re writing a long post or not, I’m fascinating by how it is easy and interesting to read your posts!

    Do you have a Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn account? I would like to ask you some questions dude!

  7. Lauren says:

    Has 343 ask you for a job yet? You deserve it😀

  8. Rhas 'Churol says:

    Do you plan on talking about Halo: Fractures in the future? I guarantee you will love most, if not all, of the stories within.

    • haruspis says:

      I was actually given an early copy, so I got to read it before everyone else >:)

      I am, in fact, writing a post up regarding one of the stories as we speak. I should hopefully have it finished this weekend, been short on time to write recently.

  9. Pingback: Reimagining Jul ‘Mdama’s Fate | haruspis

  10. Pingback: Reimagining Halo 5’s Antagonists: The Ur-Didact and Mendicant Bias | haruspis

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