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11:00 PM on 12.22.2013  

"Welcome home, John": Halo 4 and Humanity...

[size=4][b][color=#3399ff]Analyzing Video Game Narratives: Halo 4

I love the Halo franchise.  Since the wee age of 11, I have devoted countless hours to the franchise, I would argue, that is the biggest sci-fi saga of our generation.  However, devoted zealotry for the franchise aside, most of the stories in the video game entries of the Halo universe have stunk.

Halo: Combat Evolved remains engrossing not as a narrative piece, but as an introduction to the mysteries of a rich universe Bungie has crafted.  Halo 2 and 3 were all about wrapping up the loose ends of the macro conflict between the Human-Covenant war, but, in the end, while you may have felt for the characters and the situations, the original “Halo trilogy” was no GattacaODST and Reach came along and Bungie began its steps towards writing a better story, but it was still nothing to write home about.
When 343 Industries announced they were taking over the reigns of Bungie, I had reservations. How would the franchise fare with a new creative team behind it, rather than the old, trusty guard?  As it turns out, better than I could have hoped for.

As most great sequels and iterations in franchises, Halo 4 works with the motifs of the series, but manages to do so in a fresh way that doesn’t feel like it’s coasting on the successes of previous games.  Before the player even picks up a gun, they’re treated to a cutscene all about the creation of the Spartan programs as Dr. Halsey and an unidentified Naval officer debate over the ethics over the soldiers.  While Halsey claims that her work saved humanity, the officer quickly points out the fact the soldiers weren’t conscripted, but rather abducted children forced into becoming tools of war, and, as the officer claims, have effectively lost their humanity.  And that’s the entirety of Master Chief’s story in Halo 4 – humanity and the price paid to keep it.

Rather than representing the last line of defense for humanity, John (Master Chief) is an antiquated soldier, as the military has developed a new line of advanced, military-conscripted Spartans.  One of the last remaining Spartan-IIs, John’s years of military indoctrination, warfare, and loss, has led him to be an anti-social warrior with few friends and even fewer emotional outlets.

This leads to a character with as much importance to the story as our military man of few words – his A.I. companion, Cortana.  Since her introduction in Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana has been just as much of a constant of the series as the Master Chief.  Cortana has always provided the emotional levity needed in the Halo stories.  Besides providing military strategy and technological know-how, she has been John’s friend, opening him up to joking around and expressing himself outside of the military chain-of-command, even more so than the Chief’s relations to other soldiers.  If not the only source, she is John’s strongest connection to being human, ironic given she is nowhere near being one physiologically.

As hinted at in previous games, Cortana is finally going rampant.  In the Halo-verse, A.I.s mentally deteriorate to the point of insanity after seven years, and she has lasted for eight.  Desperate to find a way back home to save her, the Master Chief unwittingly unleashes The Didact, an ancient alien bent on subjugating humanity to deal with the universe’s most terrifying creatures – the Flood. The Didact, like Kahn in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, is an enemy from the past seeking revenge and retribution for the war ancient space-faring mankind had inflicted on his people to escape the encroaching Flood.  To save the galaxy from the threat, he plans on fighting the Flood, by converting his once-enemies, with whom he holds a strange type of begrudging respect, into cannon fodder.

The Chief and Cortana meet back up with UNSC soldiers to help deal with the situation, while during the events of the story, Cortana begins to lose her grip on reality. Frequently endangering herself and the Chief, she begins developing crippling guilt over her jeopardizing the mission.  Eventually, the story reveals that The Didact intends to utilize an ancient weapon called “The Composer” to convert human beings into monstrosities that can successfully fight the Flood. 

When a heated argument with Captain Del Rio of the Infinity comes into focus, Cortana loses her cool and yells that she cannot allow The Didact to escape.  Before being disposed of for her obvious state of rampancy, the Chief saves her, in the face of opposition from Del Rio, and begins a plan to stop The Didact.  One scene later, after coming hair’s breath away from being destroyed, Cortana expresses her melancholy over how she has always been a real personality, but never a real person.  And here is where she begins to understand the inevitable.  While preparing for the assault, she asks John to figure out which one of them is the machine with a twinge of bitterness as he squanders what humanity he has as a weapon.

One of the biggest turns in the plot revolves around The Didact actually acquiring, and firing, the Composer on a research station where all of the humans on it, except the Chief, are immediately killed and converted.  In their last horrible moments of living, Cortana witnessed the violent end of all the scientists’ lives.  Serving on the battlefield, she isn’t a stranger to death, but it is a different case now that she is confronting her own mortality.  After Chief attempts to refocus the conversation on going after The Didact, Cortana ignores him, talking about how they’ll pair him with another A.I. after she’s gone.  Seeing death so clearly has destroyed any fabrications about getting back to Dr. Halsey and fixing her condition.

She is going to ‘die,’ and there’s no hope to save her, but, as usual, the Chief refuses to abandon her.  The only idea she wants to get through to John is that even if he’s paired with another Cortana model, it won’t be her; even with the same model, it won't be the same one that shared those experiences with him.  Above everything else, she wants John to be prepared for her death and to remember her after she’s gone.  Chief even falters trying to console her as the very real possibility of losing her begins creeping into his mind.  John ends the conversation by saying that the fight for her survival isn’t over yet, to which she dejectedly repeats, “Not yet.”

We finally see a flaw in the most perfect soldier in the universe – his denial.  So dedicated is the Chief to accomplishing his goals and saving who he intends to save that failing never crosses his mind.  In this sense, he is almost childishly naïve of the reality of the situation, which has benefited him in the past, but, at long last, is hindering him in a situation he never thought he would face.  This scene is near destructive given the Chief's denial of the situation and Cortana's pain that he won't see reason.

Near the end of the story, the duo plan on detonating a nuke on The Didact’s ship to keep him from converting the entirety of humanity on Earth into Prometheans, the terrifying foot-soldiers of the Forerunner.  The Chief activates the weapon inside the vessel knowing full well that he will not be able to escape.  At the last moment, Cortana saves him, shielding him inside a barrier. Cortana tells Chief that she is far beyond saving now, with the Chief adamantly refusing to accept reality, pleading for some other option.  After a sad goodbye, she disappears leaving Chief to be saved from space by the UNSC.

At the end, Captain Lasky attempts to console John over the loss of Cortana with the Spartan replying that a soldiers job is to protect humanity, no matter the cost.  This brings him dangerously close to becoming the two-dimensional caricature many have criticized the character of being. Lasky reminds him that soldiers aren’t just machines, but people to, and they're no less human.  The Captain leaves him to grieve with John recalling to himself the conversation he had earlier with Cortana about which one of them was “the machine.”

Halo 4[/b] is about humanity.  Not on a grandiose sense of species awareness, but of what it means to be alive as a human being. Her ‘sickness’ and death allowed Cortana to finally feel what it was to be alive, to be afraid of the inevitability of dying.  More importantly, her rampancy made her appreciate what life had to offer, including John.  For John, it’s a much more complicated issue for the usually uncomplicated soldier.  By the end, he doesn’t become a man with a burning desire to leave the military, have children, and live life to the fullest – nor would it have been appropriate for this arc.  He doesn’t even answer whether or not he’s a machine of a man.  He just begins to question what he is, even if he might not ever have the answer.

The final cutscene in where John is being stripped of his armor perfectly symbolizes what 343 had done to the Chief.  Removing the legendary status, the advanced armor, and the weapons, underneath it all, John is a battle-weary hollow shell of a man unsure of whether he is even human anymore.  It’s a far more destructive ending than an exploding Halo ring or a gunfight with an enemy – it’s the deconstruction of the quiet soldier we never thought of examining in the first place.

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