Anyone familiar with the Halo universe will be familiar with Cortana. To some, she’s the little blue chick who lives in the green guy’s suit; to others she is the AI who keeps the Master Chief on track, helping him reach his goals and ultimately making sure that he makes it out of his missions alive. Cortana is one of the most loved characters in the Halo franchise. She is instantly recognizable.
When she died, the whole world wept.
The Spartan Program was the initiative of Dr. Catherine Halsey; she searched through the genealogies of the citizens in UNSC (United Nations Space Command) air space, and selected over 100 candidates for military conscription. The UNSC were losing the civil war, and stooped to incredible levels to win; the problem here was that these conscripts were young children – Master Chief was only 6 at the time – and the Program was obviously top-secret. As a result, Halsey had to tie up all loose ends which would point back the UNSC and what she was about to do. She cloned these children, producing replacements which would die off quickly in ways which looked entirely natural. Of the child conscripts, Spartan-117 stood out; not only was he a great leader, but he had something which could not be measured: he was the luckiest Spartan, and Halsey took an almost immediate liking to him.
Once Spartan-117 (or John as Dr. Halsey called him) reached the age of 14, he was subject to a host of military augmentations which would improve his speed, strength, and just about every other ability under the sun. All of the Spartans in the Spartan-II Program underwent these augmentations, despite the incredibly high expected mortality rates. Those who died – and there were many – were tragic losses, but vital to putting down the insurrection.
The UNSC had no idea that they were about to be attacked by an alien army of religious zealots known only as the Covenant.
The Spartans who survived the augmentations became immensely powerful – John-117 grew to 6″10′ without armor, at a surprising 130kg. Despite their massive size, Spartans were light on their feet, and ran covert-ops for a short while before the iconic green Mjolnir armor was invented. And despite their size, they were only spotted when they opened fire.
The Mjolnir armor adds 10cm and 400kg to the Spartans, and is effectively a mech which only a Spartan could pilot – the armor moves with such force that it destroys the mere human pilots who test them before the Spartans. Each set of Mjolnir armor improves upon the reflexes and abilities of the Spartans, but it’s the inclusion of an AI port which links directly with the Spartan’s brain, drastically improving the Spartans’ combat abilities. Each step thus far was intended to improve upon the Spartan soldier – but nothing improved John-117 as much as having an AI in his head.
AI’s in the Halo universe are the product of digitizing a human genius’ brain; unfortunately, the digitization process requires the human to be dead first. Dr. Halsey, despite all medical ethics and laws governing her behavior as a scientist, decided that she could not bear to let her Spartans go into battle ill-equipped; being the most intelligent person she knew, she decided to clone her own brain and digitize it so that one of her Spartans may take her into battle. This Smart AI would be able to learn, adapt, and expand beyond its basic parameters, and would be an incredible hacking tool. As with all Smart AI’s, this one would have her own personality, based on the donor’s brain. It would choose its own form, and its own name. In this case, it would choose its own Spartan, too.
This AI chose her form as a little purple / blue lady with code running over her body. She named herself Cortana. She chose John-117.
The problem with creating Smart AI’s is that they scare humans. They’re a bit too Skynet for most people to stomach, so they have a set lifespan of only seven years, after which they descend into rampancy. Rampancy is a terminal state where the AI basically thinks itself to death, developing delusions of godlike power, with obvious contempt for the mentally inferior humans which made them. Normally, rampant AI’s would either self-terminate prior to the rampancy taking control, or would be terminated by their superior (human) officers.
Your goal as Master Chief in Halo 4 is to rescue Cortana from herself; as Cortana was created from living tissue, there is a chance that Dr. Halsey could cure her.
Cortana is John’s only friend. They start out a little bumpy, sure – as an artificial construct, Cortana has no physical form and takes immense pleasure at being in John’s brain and body. She wins John over soon enough due to her usefulness as a hacking tool and military augmentation. As she lives inside John’s head, she is the only person who talks down to the Chief besides Dr. Halsey, and is the only person who talks to him like he is a human, as oppose to a god-like machine.
The Spartans are military technology. They are designed, owned, and deployed by the military to do their bidding without question, without hesitation, and without fail. They are the ultimate killing machines, enhanced by the Mjolnir armor and Smart AI’s which augment their every ability. Spartan-117 is the most efficient killing machine of them all, and is the hulking behemoth whom you play as throughout the Halo franchise.
He is, however, about as well-characterized and interesting as a sack of potatoes. This is intentional. The only real characterization we get throughout the games and books is that Dr. Halsey and Cortana call him by name instead of rank – they call him John. John doesn’t speak much, and never voices his opinions. Forced into a leadership role at an incredibly young age, he was always above his fellow Spartans, so he could never speak to anyone on the same level.
This is where the obvious Cortana-Spartan-117 dichotomy comes into play, and is the burning question which we are asked repeatedly throughout Halo 4 while we desperately struggle, tooth, nail and claw, to make it back to Dr Halsey on time: of the two, which one is the human, which one is the machine? Physically, it is obvious; mentally though, John leaves a lot to be desired.
We know throughout the game that Dr. Halsey is in military custody. She is a civilian scientist who has broken pretty much every law the UNSC can penalize her for, and when the truth about the origins of the Spartan Program come to light, she becomes the patsy. We know as players that there is never a chance to cure Cortana, but we still cling onto that shred of hope. John – not Spartan 117, but John – promises Cortana that he will save her. In Halo 4, for the first time in the series, he disobeys a direct order from a superior officer to turn over Cortana for destruction. Instead, John plugs his rampant AI back into his brain in a desperate bid to save her. John, for once, is a person, and we see him humanized. The cost here is that the price of John becoming human is Cortana is being exposed as the machine she is.
We know that she is going to die; we know we cannot save her.
Before the final battle in Halo 4, Cortana makes peace with the fact that she is not going to see Dr. Halsey again. The Didact, a powerful Forerunner whom the Covenant revere as a god is about to obliterate humanity, and she is the only thing that can stop him. During the battle, she fragments herself, uploading her various rampant personalities into the ship’s system to take it shields offline long enough that John can destroy it. This act of self-sacrifice is what allows the Chief to kill the Didact, and for all his skill, he couldn’t have done it without her. Cortana’s last act as John’s only friend is to shield him from the explosion as he destroys the ship.
She uses the very last of her energy to manifest as a solid hologram, and bids a final farewell to the Chief. She touches the Chief for the first time, saying she had waited for so long to do that. John pleads with her, begging her to come with him. She steps back apologetically, disappearing into a wall of light; John’s world shatters, tears streaming down our face.
At this point Cortana has been with the Chief for over 8 years. More than half of this time was spent without the Chief being awake, with the Chief being in stasis for a few years, and Cortana having been abducted by the Covenant in Halo 2. Despite this, Cortana is more than just a friend – she knows John as intimately as both a mother and a wife knows their son and partner. As John, we have lost our only friend. As the player, we have lost the person who walked us through the first 4 Halo games; the person who made us laugh when she cracked a joke; who made us sad when she was hurt or in pain; who made us livid when she was put in danger by Guilty Spark 343 or the Covenant.
John is left as Spartan-117 once more – a shell of a man, an empty vessel. We don’t yet know how Halo 5 will play out without Cortana, but we know that we will mourn her yet, and for better or for worse, Halo 5 won’t be the same without her.
Service Number – CTN 0452-9
You will be missed.