In the first of these ‘reimagining’ posts, I discussed how I would have written Cortana in Halo 5 while working within the constraints and limitations of Halo 5’s established narrative structure and disrupting as few campaign resources as possible.
While I presented a case to be made for how I think her role in the story could have been improved, I am still adamant that bringing Cortana back (at least this soon, in this way) is not at all the direction that I would have taken.
No, I have a different view on which two characters I’d have put in Cortana and the Warden’s place, which is what I’ll be discussing in this third reimagining piece. This is how I would have told Halo 5’s story with the Ur-Didact and Mendicant Bias in the antagonist role.Right off the bat, I can see eyebrows being raised at the notion of Mendicant Bias being in an antagonistic role considering his overall purpose being that of atonement for its betrayal of the Forerunners, so this is the part I’ve got to justify the most. Indulge me here, let’s do a bit of a re-run of the role Mendicant Bias has played in the events of the Halo universe following the firing of the rings…
We begin with the final stage of the Conservation Measure, where the surviving Forerunners spend centuries taking the species they saved back to their worlds and reseeding the galaxy with life. Humanity was the first species they took home, and, as we learn in the Fractures story Promises To Keep, the San’Shyuum were the last.
During this time, a fragment of Mendicant Bias escaped from the tomb that the IsoDidact locked it away in and made its way onto a Keyship – the very Keyship bound to Janjur Qom to reseed the San’Shyuum.
Mendicant was sentenced and locked away on the Ark installation. This would not be permanent however, as sometime after the activation of Halo, a shard of the AI managed to escape into a Forerunner dreadnought, attempting to make amends for the crimes against its makers by aiding humanity. The ancilla’s efforts were cut short when the dreadnought crashed onto Janjur Qom, the nascent homeworld of the San’Shyuum. [Mendicant Bias, Waypoint Universe article]
In the recently released Halo: Mythos, we learn that Mendicant’s plan was to assert control over the Keyship once it had finished its work on Janjur Qom and then take it to Earth in order to guide humanity to the Lesser Ark and discover the responsibility the Librarian intended for them to inherit.
However, it seems that Mendicant (the second most advanced AI in the setting) lacked an understanding of exactly where the brake pedal was on the Keyship because it ended up crashing the Keyship onto Janjur Qom and creating a crater on the planet’s surface that could be seen from orbit – the Great Apothtea.
From there, the rest of the Halo universe’s history just sort of happened…So great had been the passage of time that the San’Shyuum had forgotten their loaded past with the Forerunners, so when they found the crashed Keyship and the many Forerunner artefacts that littered their world it was with god-fearing reverence that they regarded their former enemies.
Eventually, the War of Wills began as the Reformist faction of San’Shyuum demanded access to the Keyship, provoking the wrath of the Stoics who believed that Forerunner technology must be revered – that to actually use it was an act of blasphemy. The result, as we know, had the Reformists succeed in launching the Keyship and leaving their homeworld behind as they sailed out among the stars…
…until they encountered the Sangheili, that is, and the War of Beginnings was fought for the same reasons the Reformists fought the Stoics. Both Sangheili and San’Shyuum were driven to the point of annihilation.
A ceasefire was eventually reached between the two species, realising what the inevitable end of their fruitless war would bring, as the Writ of Union was signed. The Covenant was formed, along with the promise – the misinterpretation, the lie – of their Great Journey and the Halo rings as a gateway to divine trascendence.
In the thousands of years that passed, countless species were laid low by the Covenant’s might and either cast aside or inducted into their ranks. A planetary civil conflict, two galactic wars, and countless other battles with other species across the galaxy had come about as a result of Mendicant crashing the Keyship on Janjur Qom.
“The Ship is and has always been the key. It once stood on our secret world, just as majestic and mysterious as it is now, an enigma that drove our civilisation to greatness – the seed of all our discoveries.
Our world – our true world – had been unkind to us, or I suppose, we to it. The ship liberated us from the toxins and ash of our own endeavours, sanctifying our path. From it, we learned of the Forerunner legacy, the ubiquitous scatterings of their wake. So many worlds contain their leavings and their structures, but only ours was blessed with a Ship, a teacher.
It taught us all how to unlock the secrets of space and time, to build ships of our own that sail the stars to spread the word. But it also seemed to ever nudge us in a direction, to build weapons of war – energy that could burn or sear flesh, vaporise bone. Technology that oft ekes conflagration from vacuum.” [Halo: Evolutions, Wages of Sin]
Mendicant Bias was making the most of a bad situation and teaching the San’Shyuum how to create plasma-based weapons in order to combat the Flood, knowing that they will return in the future.
Except those weapons of war were not used against the Flood. They were used to ensure the dominance of the Covenant, to burn away those who were deemed blasphemous and heretical… and eventually they turned their gaze to humanity.
This was the turning point. After millennia of being bound to the Keyship, watching war after war break out in the name of defending the reverence of the Forerunners’ alleged divinity, the ones it had been looking for – the humans – were at last within reach. Mendicant attempted to launch the Keyship, an act which would have critically damaged or destroyed High Charity, and declared to the three San’Shyuum present in the Keyship’s chamber that the humans were the true inheritors of the Forerunner legacy and that the entire Covenant religion had been founded upon a lie.
Mendicant’s plan was foiled by the Lekgolo present in the Keyship’s systems who disconnected it, and those three San’Shyuum who were present in the room just happened to be those who went on to become the Prophets of Truth, Mercy, and Regret, ordering the total extermination of humanity.
The Contender’s efforts to make things right had, once again, brought about another bloody war which lasted almost three decades and drove humanity to near-extinction.
But Mendicant was not yet ready to call it a day on its journey to redemption.At the very end of the Human-Covenant war, on the extragalactic shores of the Lesser Ark – the very place Mendicant had been attempting to bring humanity all these years – the shard from the Keyship was able to rejoin its other half.
Believing this to be the end of its life as the Master Chief, Cortana, Thel ‘Vadam, and Avery Johnson fought their way to the control room of Installation 04B, Mendicant was able to directly talk to John-117 and deliver a final message of hope.
You don’t know the contortions I had to go through to follow you here, Reclaimer. I know what you’re here for. What position do I take? Will I follow one betrayal with another?
You’re going to say I’m making a habit of turning on my masters.
But the one that destroyed me long ago, in the upper atmosphere of a world far distant from here, was an implement far cruder than I. My weakness was capacity – unintentional though it was! – to choose the Flood. A mistake my makers would not soon forgive.
But I want something far different from you, Reclaimer.
And so here at the end of my life, I do once again betray a former master. The path ahead is fraught with peril. But I will do all I can to keep it stable – keep you safe. I’m not so foolish to think this will absolve me of my sins. One life hardly balances billions.
But I would have my masters know that I have changed.
And you shall be my example. [Halo 3, Terminal 7]
A far larger game was being played here than we yet knew, as Mendicant intended to use John to fulfil the Librarian’s plan – something which had been hinted at all the way back in the IRIS ARG for Halo 3, which I’ve discussed here.
Mendicant Bias redirected the Ark’s portal to Requiem, something which has never been outright stated but has been made beyond obvious. As of the description provided by Mythos, at this point it’s something that’s just outright undeniable:
“When the Ark’s portal collapsed, the aft section of Forward Unto Dawn was mysteriously redirected by an outside force to a point inside the distant Epoloch system […] The Master Chief had unwittingly been brought here to release humanity’s greatest enemy.” [Halo: Mythos, page 168]
The Librarian had pinned all of her hopes on the Ur-Didact. When she and Endurance-of-Will imprisoned the Didact within the Cryptum on Requiem, she intended for his mind to be cleansed of the Gravemind’s malediction through a long sojourn in the Domain so he would awaken to become humanity’s champion and teacher on their path to inheriting the Mantle.
Librarian also left behind a personality imprint of herself which held the Janus Key, a galactic cartographer which held the real-time location of every piece of Forerunner technology in the galaxy. She intended for the Didact to inherit it when he was awakened in order to help technologically propel humanity, as the Mantle of Responsibility, according to Forerunner belief, is to be held by the most advanced species.
Once again, Mendicant Bias’ plan failed.Instead of emerging healed and whole, the Ur-Didact had been condemned to 100,000 years of stewing in his Gravemind-induced madness and trauma. The Domain had been wiped of its rich knowledge and ancestral wisdom by the firing of the Halos, leaving the Didact locked in endless silence.
When John awakened the Didact, he emerged with a renewed passion for vengeance and set out to obtain the means to accomplish his goal of ensuring that only the Forerunners would hold the Mantle. Using the Composer, he would forge his immortal army of Prometheans and lay low all suspect species – not killing them, as that would violate the Mantle, but imprisoning them into eternal servitude to ensure the Mantle is upheld by the only species the Didact sees fit to hold it.
As a result, seven million people on Earth ended up being Composed and John suffered an immense personal loss as Cortana sacrificed herself to stop the Didact.
Failure compounds upon failure…
There’s no ‘short’ way to recap the influence that Mendicant Bias has had on the setting and the major players within it because this all comes as the consequence of its actions. It is through Mendicant’s influence – direct and indirect – that we find the root of many of Halo’s greatest conflicts.
And this is the crux of my perspective on how you can put Mendicant into the antagonist role in Halo 5 and have it be far more fitting than it is to have Cortana.
The goal to bring an end to all conflict in the setting makes far more sense coming from Mendicant than it does from Cortana, and I think it tells a far more tragic tale.In light of all that it has done over the course of 100,000 years, through all of these failed attempts to prepare the species of the galaxy for the Flood’s return, with the landscape of the setting reaching a crisis point defined by civil conflict, Mendicant decides that enough is enough.
Millennia of preparation time for the Flood has been squandered. Time is running out and there’s no way to play the long game any more, to adhere to the Librarian’s plan – the final straw being the Didact awakening as foe rather than friend to humanity.
The Janus Key has been lost.
The Absolute Record, the key to propelling humanity, has vanished.
All these disparate factions are fighting each other to the bitter end, and there’s only one way to go about bringing a premature end to that in the short-term:
Activating the Guardians.
Imposing the Mantle.
Forming a coalition of the most powerful minds in the galaxy – the Created.
Mendicant knows that the Mantle is a broken system, one which was exploited to no end by the Forerunners to ensure their supremacy, and it knows that it will be exploited again. But after all that it has experienced in the setting, Mendicant deems that this is the only possible means to get the galaxy in a fit state to combat the Flood.
As I’ve argued extensively here (and in other posts), the Ur-Didact just makes sense as the antagonist of this story – certainly, that’s the role he was conceived for back in 343’s earlier years when they were bigging him up as John’s nemesis throughout the Reclaimer Saga.
As I said in the linked post above:
Tying the Didact to the Mantle is important because he was born into that (already long-standing) society where they had been the galaxy’s top dogs for 10 million years. Even though the Warrior-Servants weren’t then the most privileged rate in the Ecumene, on a species level the Didact was privileged above every other race in the galaxy and he was the commander who enforced that imperial peace to protect his own. The Didact himself was responsible for a number of ‘tenets’ that were added to the Forerunners’ understanding of their place as the galaxy’s rulers (this being what Cryptum opens with, the Fifth Permutation of the Didact’s Number), and the choice he made was to enforce that which is exactly what he does in Halo 4.
After his defeat at the end of Halo 4, the Didact seeks out Mendicant Bias – the “bastard child” that he and the Master Builder created. Keep that in mind, it has thematic relevance I’ll talk about later…
The original plan that the Didact had for his star-hopping Shield World strategy was to hook Mendicant Bias up to the Domain so that it would have complete strategic control over the defence systems, managing resources, maintaining supply lines, and so on.
With the Domain slowly regenerating in the setting and the Didact knowing that he needs to expand his influence, he seeks to fulfil his original plan – which would be why he’s absent from the campaign for Requiem following Halo 4, leaving Jul ‘Mdama in his place to fight that battle for him.
He goes to the Lesser Ark and releases Mendicant Bias from its tomb, enslaving him, just as Cortana enslaved the Warden Eternal.
We can keep the general sort of concept of the Warden Eternal here to stay true to the limitations of Halo 5: as in, instead of the Warden Eternal inhabiting many combat platforms that are aboard Guardians, it’s Mendicant Bias who inhabits them.
The darker twist to this would be that Mendicant doesn’t actually want to fight Blue Team or Osiris, which would be reflected in combat dialogue, but the Didact has forced it to.The Didact wanting to trap Blue Team (John especially) in a Cryptum is an idea that makes sense, as I said in the linked article:
He now recognises them as opponents on-par with the likes of Forthencho, who he once considered his greatest adversary, so he would honour them with something as deeply woven into tradition as a Cryptum because he knows that conventional force has simply not worked against them. As a strategist, he would see the value in luring humanity’s greatest hero and saviour away from his species and have him made out to be a rogue element by manipulating him through the Domain with visions of Cortana.
He knows this because the Gravemind did the opposite thing to him in Silentium. After being corrupted by the Gravemind’s malediction, he was sent back to Forerunner space at the time of their species’ darkest hour under the guise of a legendary hero who had returned with new strategies to combat the Flood – only to be revealed to be an agent sent to cause further chaos and dissent with his use of the Composer.
This is where Mendicant Bias is playing the longer game. Mendicant’s goal aligns with the Didact’s here: to imprison Blue Team in a Cryptum to get them out of the way of the shift they’re bringing about in the setting…
…but Mendicant intends to awaken Blue Team in the future to cast down the Didact once their arrangement is complete – once the Flood has been stopped.
The alliance with the Ur-Didact and enforcing the rule of the Mantle is intended to be a temporary measure that Mendicant is employing to quickly bring an end to the current conflicts and get the galaxy into fighting shape for the Flood. Once that is over, Mendicant knows that the Mantle needs to be tossed aside and a new system needs to be established that isn’t inherently racist and imperialistic as the one that sealed the doom of the Forerunners.
Rather than just straight up having yet another tired AI rebellion story, it would be presented as that at the start but, again, it’s part of a larger game that Mendicant Bias would be playing.
In the short-term, Mendicant is making it look like AIs are turning against humans just as Forerunner ancillas turned against their creators to devastate the Ecumene – this wouldn’t necessarily be done through outright displays of hostility or aggression, it’d be more like AIs are going AWOL and the UNSC is at a loss to where they’re going. It weakens humanity enough so that control can feasibly be asserted over them to be integrated into the galactic army that will fight the Flood.
The long-term plan that Mendicant has in mind by bringing these AIs to the Domain where they will effectively become immortal is, on the one hand, to ensure that they have a vast network of power and artificial minds through which to combat the Flood, but also so that there is something of an ‘army’ ready to rise up against the Didact and cast him down when this is all done. In this, it’s more of a parallel to what Mendicant planned to do in Primordium with the human essences.
Ultimately, the Created would be more like a small seed sown in Halo 5 branching into a larger story rather than the focus of any actual conflict because I think it’s important to preserve one of Halo’s more unique narrative attributes where it’s more about human-AI symbiosis and the desire to more intimately understand each other rather than fighting each other.
Contender-class ancillas are made up of many artificial minds rather than just one, so Mendicant would be gathering these AIs across human space to ‘add’ to itself in order to subtly become more powerful over time when it comes to overthrowing the Didact.
There’s a parallel there to be made with the Flood assimilating minds as well because the ultimate point here is that Mendicant’s plan is one that may ensure victory against the Flood, but it’s not something we agree with. This is the intention that Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed have spoken about wanting to accomplish with Cortana:
Reed: “Repeatedly throughout, we were talking to each other about how Cortana is not evil. Cortana is doing a thing we don’t agree with, and she has the power to make it happen.”
O’Connor: “America does things that people don’t agree with, and Russia does things that people don’t agree with. You don’t have to go to the edge of space to find that different a perspective on things. And I think the difference is that… the fact that Cortana is going to lock Chief in a Cryptum for 10,000 years is a great way to look at how many ticks are on her watch face.”
Reed: “‘That’ll be how long it takes me to show you so I can convince you.'”
O’Connor: “Exactly. When he pops out of there, everything will be fine.”
Reed: “And, you know what? I think she’s probably right.”
O’Connor: “She might be right in a way, but the tension that people have always had and that cultures have always had is that it’s not up to you to enforce that vision on me. You have to give me the freedom to do it myself.” [The Sprint, Season 3 finale]
I’ve already discussed the many issues with what they’re articulating here in how it applies to Cortana, but this general philosophy just naturally fits with Mendicant Bias a whole lot better.Cortana’s resurrection and complete change in perspective comes so jarringly from absolutely nothing setting it up to be a natural and authentic development for her character. Oh, she lamented the prevalence of war that one time in Origins, apparently that’s enough to backtrack her entire character arc and turn her into a vile caricature of everything she fought (and died) against becoming. And I can tell you now that Dominion Splinter in Tales From Slipspace only compounds more onto how ridiculous this whole situation is, but that’s a discussion for another day…
With Mendicant Bias being in this role, it comes as the result of having lived for over 100,000 years and experienced (and caused) so many of the most terrible events in the Halo universe. Of trying time and time again to make things happen the way they were supposed to and failing.
There’s sympathy to be had there, there’s a degree to which we can understand Mendicant doing these things. But it doesn’t speak to the core values of the Halo story as one of strength being drawn from grudges and the baggage of history being put aside by virtue of truth and reconciliation.
Mendicant’s plan reduces the people of the galaxy to pawns to be used, maybe that arises out of what Mendicant deems to be necessary but it’s still something that we just cannot agree with.
I am reminded of Offensive Bias’ record of the final battle of the Maginot Sphere against Mendicant in Halo 3’s Terminals:
It is best that our crews perished now; because the battle that is about to ensue would have driven them mad.
I throw away all the rules of acceptable conduct during battle; near the ruptures I throw away all the accepted ideas of how the natural world is supposed to behave. I toss around [37,654 tonne] dreadnoughts like they were fighters; dimly aware of the former crews being crushed to liquescence. [Halo 3, Terminal 6]
This catches the balance between actions that arise out of necessity and long-term intentions for the good of the galaxy, but are executed in ways that are undoubtedly bad. The simple act of awakening the Guardians is still killing people, there could be some ambiguity there as to whether the Didact or Mendicant was more responsible for that.
And the end result of Mendicant’s plan is not a victory we are achieving on our own terms by coming together and fighting as one. It comes from an AI so consumed by the weight of its role in history and the need to atone that it ends up only making things worse through its interference.
As Frank O’Connor said, “it’s not up to you to enforce that vision on me. You have to give me the freedom to do it myself,” and that’s exactly what the Created storyline is failing to portray. There’s no real weight behind Cortana’s actions because the ‘greater good’ she’s trying to accomplish is thrown in as a flimsy justification for her actions. As we will see in Dominion Splinter when Tales From Slipspace releases later this month, the drive of her actions are entirely self-centred as she seeks to become something “joyous”.
With the double-act of the Ur-Didact and Mendicant, you have these two tragic, broken figures doing what they ardently believe is for the greater good of the galaxy to combat a threat that is so far beyond anything else, but is actually making things worse.Another thing I want to quickly bring over to this piece is the use of Forerunner rate politics in Halo 5, which I discussed in my analysis of Halo 5’s final mission.
As Exuberant reclaims (heh) her installation and thousands of Constructors swarm towards the Cryptum as Cortana prepares to leave, we get this dialogue:
Vale: “Exuberant. What–“
Exuberant: “Constructors! This is a Builder facility after all. I was installed by the Builders. I serve the Builders.”
This specific mention of the Builder rate is really quite odd to me because it comes loaded with rate politics in Forerunner society.
Y’know who the sworn opponents of the Builders were? The Warrior-Servants.
Y’know who the leader of the Warrior-Servants was?
Forerunner rate politics have literally nothing to do with the Created or what Cortana is doing (on a personal level with John and with the galaxy at-large), but if you had the Didact as the primary antagonist in Cortana’s place then it makes sense for that kind of context to be there. There’s a very interesting kind of irony in using Builder stuff to defeat a Warrior-Servant, particularly because we were made to feel a lot more sympathy towards the latter than we were the former in the landscape of the Forerunner era.
Just something I wanted to quickly mention because that fits with this story outline as well. On that note: Remember I said earlier to keep in mind the fact that Mendicant Bias is referred to as the “bastard child” of the Didact and the Master Builder.
Well, the purpose that ultimately serves is to tie in with Halo 5’s overall theme (and, indeed, one of the major themes of the Halo series) which is family.
I bring this up because you can effectively maintain all of Halo 5’s major story beats with this outline, it doesn’t require any huge changes outside of the exposition.
The Guardians still awaken across the galaxy, John is still lured to Meridian by a vision of Cortana, Osiris still goes after them, both teams still encounter an enemy with many thousands of bodies (this being the nature of Mendicant’s enslavement by the Didact), the plan is still to get Blue Team locked away in a Cryptum, human AIs still end up leaving humanity to go to the Domain, we still end with the antagonist turning to use of a Halo at the end, and so on…
The only ‘physical’ thing that really needs to change are the faces of the two people instigating this whole thing – the Didact and Mendicant, not Cortana and the Warden.Likewise, the end of the Covenant still comes about in order to disprove the idea that Mendicant’s plan is the only way to resolve conflict in the setting.
It is through individuals like Thel ‘Vadam, Locke and Osiris, John and Blue Team, that there is a tangible hope that things can get better before they inevitably get worse when the Flood rolls around in the future.
Now, it is definitely worth mentioning that, even with this outline, the story would still suffer from Halo 5’s other problems – like how it feels less like a full story and more like Halo 5, Part 1 with a narrative that just sort of stops. That’s just an inherent problem that comes with the scale of ambition the project began with which had to be scaled back to meet the realities of development – that’s not a slight at 343, more at Microsoft for prematurely forcing this game out when it would absolutely have benefited from another year of development (look at the game now, imagine if it had actually launched content complete like this… y’know, as games should).
Additionally, this story outline still pushes aside all the established civil conflicts that had been built up to be replaced by an all-encompassing threat, which is definitely a criticism I’d still make of the story even if it went the way I wanted it to.
But, at the very least, I feel that going this direction with the Ur-Didact and Mendicant Bias at the helm would gauge a little more interest by building on the established large-scale conflict and their ties to Halo’s long history than the comparatively cheap drama which stems from forcing Cortana into the villain role while some of the devs ardently defend her unquestionably evil actions (which have just become more evil over the course of this last year, to the point where she’s literally presiding over Hell in Dominion Splinter).
That’s about all I’ve got to say on this particular matter today. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to playing Gears of War 4 (which really pulled a Halo 4 in terms of just how strong its narrative is)!