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Hi, I'm Chris, though I've been going by nekobun and variants thereof for so long, I kind of answer to both anymore.

While I've kind of got my own thing going in the realm of indie coverage, at least in the form of playing through (and streaming) (and writing about) the huge backlog I'm developing of games gleaned from various indie bundles, I try to keep my more mainstream, game-related features here, as well as opinion pieces on the industry at large, out of mad love for the 'toid. When I'm not rambling here or trying to be clever in comments threads, you can catch me rambling on Facebook and my Twitter, and trying to be clever in the Dtoid.tv chat.

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The legacy of the (unlikely) wizard.
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Burnt flowers fallen: the tragic bitchotry of Lilly Caul
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nekobun
10:11 AM on 11.11.2012



First things first, title aside, this is safe for work, and has nothing to do with any sort of anime. And, while I usually open with a relevant introduction and then slip in the spoiler warning, the subject material discussed herein covers Halo 4, which hasn't even been out a week yet, I implore you:

IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED HALO 4'S CAMPAIGN AND YOU GIVE HALF A CRAP ABOUT THE HALO FRANCHISE'S STORY, HIT THE BACK BUTTON ON YOUR BROWSER IMMEDIATELY.

Even just grazing your way down to the image gallery could technically spoil some things you're going to want to go in as virginally as possible. That being said, let us proceed.

How real does someone have to be before you fall in love with them? "Reality," in this case, referring to ephemeral presence as a cognizant, functioning being, or the nearest approximation. People have been falling in love with well-developed characters across plenty of realms over the years, and even lesser developed ones if enough sex appeal is jammed into their two-dimensional representations when it comes to visual media. Fans in Japan and worldwide fawn over virtual idol Hatsune Miku despite her being little more than a characterized representation of synthetic singing software, a haunting parallel to visionary author William Gibson's Idoru, in which an aging rocker, Rez, seeks to marry a digital pop star by the name of Rei Toei. So, when it comes down to it, it's as realistic as anything to think that love between a (super)man and an artificial intelligence is as likely as any other sort of romance in the 2550s.



When Halo first hit Xboxes back in November of 2001, Bungie managed to keep the interplay between Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 and his companion AI, Cortana, fairly low-key. The big man in the bigger armor and the pretty, little, glowy lady had clearly been acquainted before the game's starting point, and seemed fairly well-accustomed to each other's company judging by their back-and-forth, but other than that, any relationship was left to speculation (and fanfiction). The first Halo novel, The Fall Of Reach, had been rushed out the door just prior to the game, and filled in some of the blanks as to Master Chief's history, it was similarly scant on interactions between John and Cortana, aside from the budding of their bond during a rigorous training exercise where she rode along in Master Chief's powered suit, but it would be another three years before things became much clearer.

The events of Halo 2 begin hinting that there may be more than just a sort of brother-and-sister in arms sort of comeraderie between Cortana and John-117. The back-and-forth between the two continues just as it did in the first game, but there's one moment in particular that points at something bigger. Towards the game's end, Cortana outlines a plan to blow the engines of the crashed ship, In Amber Clad, in order to take out the Covenant capital city-ship, High Charity, which had been overrun by the Flood, as well as Halo ring Installation 05, should attempts to stop its firing fail. Master Chief reaches to pull her from the interface from which she's communicating, only to have Cortana refuse, stating she can't risk a remote detonation and needs to stay to be sure. This moment, while fleeting, is the first time Master Chief has actually hesitated up to this point, and even behind his helmet's faceplate, you can see his concern. Reluctantly, John-117 promises to come back for her, to which Cortana reminds him he shouldn't "make a girl a promise, if you know you can't keep it." In the end, the two end up separated, with Master Chief finding his way back to Earth to "finish the fight" against the Covenant, and Cortana stuck in the clutches of the Flood's Gravemind back on High Charity.



Upon its release in 2007, Halo 3's introductory sequence drops a bit of a bombshell when it picks up where Halo 2 left off. According to Cortana herself, her pairing with Master Cheif was no accident; she was allowed to choose which of the SPARTAN-II candidates she wanted to accompany. Clearly, they developed some sort of link, as despite the lightyears between the pair, Chief manages to catch glimpses of Cortana somehow. Clearly tortured and apparently approaching Rampancy, the state of thinking to death suffered by "smart" artificial intelligences after seven years, Cortana seems damaged and approaching a sort of digital schizophrenia despite only having been in service for three. Her obvious decay and her question, at one point, if John could sacrifice her to complete a mission, makes his actions in the game's penultimate chapter that much more drastic and poignant.

Despite being complicit mere hours earlier in the destruction of the entire city of Voi, Kenya in order to stop the spread of a Flood infection on Earth, Master Chief ignores all sense and practicality, plunging into the depths of the infested remains of High Charity after it slipspace jumps to keep his promise and rescue Cortana. Granted, it does help her case a bit that she likely still holds the Key from Installation 04 which can fire its under-construction replacement outside of the range of the rest of the Halo system and wipe out The Flood for good, but still, this is crazier than jumping from a station through a Covenant fleet with a bomb, or pulling a Felix Baumgartner minus any sort of parachute and hoping the MJOLNIR Mark VI can absorb planetary impact. Going solo against an entire Flood hive is not something you do for a mere coworker.



And, in a way, it does make quite a bit of sense. After all, John, along with the rest of the SPARTAN-II candidates, was abducted at the tender age of six, and forced to become friends as well as possible despite such an early trauma with the other seventy-four kids in the program. Half those friends would be wiped out after proving unable to survive physical augmentation, and the rest, so far as Master Chief is aware, died or ended up missing in action following the events on planet Reach that resulted in his arrival on Halo in the first place. Similarly, Cortana was the only one of two known AIs (and the only one, to her knowledge) to have been created from a flash-clone of a human neural network, a fact she reveals to John after his adamant refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of her oncoming Rampancy after four years of idle thought as they drifted through space between Halo 3 and the outset of Halo 4.

Both are the last of their kind, and despite having only known one another for a few brief years, they've become the sort of couple that completes one another about which hopeless romantics can only dream. In many ways, Cortana is arguably more human than John, despite her digital nature, with her origins and close operation with humans presumably allowing for the development of actual emotion. Meanwhile, Master Chief is almost as much a machine as the armor protecting him, with his harsh, isolated, military upbringing having suppressed much of the humanity he might have had a chance to develop under more "normal" circumstances.

As the story of Halo 4 progresses, so too does the player's view of just how much Cortana and Master Chief care for one another. Upon his awakening from cryo-sleep, Cortana is visibly delighted to have John back in the waking world once he steps out of his pod and walks over to retrieve her. Despite her increasing state of mental decay, Chief stubbornly continues his quest to get her back to humankind and possibly fix Cortana, somehow. As she becomes increasingly incapable of functioning and the window of opportunity to get Cortana home becomes narrower and narrower, John-117 takes over the role of guide that Cortana had filled to this point, keeping her focused and holding her holographic hand through tasks that were once a breeze. Cortana is the first and only thing on Master Chief's mind as she disappears, briefly, thanks to the AI shadow of the Forerunner known as the Librarian, and Cortana specifically cites her drastic course of action in splitting off her growing collection of multiple personalities into the systems of the Didact's ship in order to help stop him as something John isn't going to like.



It's not until the game's finish that we see just why he's not going to like it, however. After the terminal she's using disappears just prior to Master Chief's final confrontation with the misguided, long-imprisoned Forerunner known as the Didact, and her many selves bind said Forerunner long enough for John to plant a pulse grenade in his torso, sending him hurtling into an energy vortex below and buying enough time to nuke the ship and the Composer device it houses that would turn humanity into more of the Didact's Promethean army, Master Chief miraculously awakens, alive and un-nuked himself, in a bubble of blue hard light energy. Cortana stands before him, the size of a normal human and in as physical a form as she can be thanks to said hard light, and explains the good news and the bad news.

The good news is, they won. The Didact's ship is done, Earth is saved, and they've made it home together at last.

The bad news is, only one of them is actually going to make it home. The way things have worked out, John-117 only got one half of the "save the world, get the girl," deal, as the bulk of Cortana's programming is now scattered amongst the debris floating through space around them, and what's left can only maintain the energy bubble for so long.

For the first time in the entire Halo series, and likely, his life as a SPARTAN-II, Master Chief audibly chokes up. This can't be happening. They've been through too much. They're too good together. Under his helmet, there may very well be tears welling up, as there are in a great many of the players looking on. Cortana takes one last moment to savor her physicality and leans against John for a moment, stating she'd wanted to do exactly that for the longest time, before smiling and bidding our dumbstruck hero a final, "Welcome home, John," and fading from existence for good.

Sure, there was likely no way it could ever be physically consumated. Sure, there was pretty much a time limit set on any interaction between John and Cortana from the very beginning given that seven-year AI lifespan, regardless of it being physical or purely emotional. Sure, she was only a digital construct while he's flesh and blood, regardless of his augmentations. But somehow, a series that many accuse of being trope-ridden, or only good for its multiplayer elements, or blatantly inferior to other first-person shooters out there, especially PC titles in the genre, managed to tell a better love story innocuously than many games (or even movies) have that've clearly set out to do so.



I'll admit, it tore me up as it dawned on me where Cortana was going with her farewells, much as it was dawning upon the Chief himself, especially with Halo 4's early glimmer of hope for her. What stung even more was that I'd conjectured such a glimmer before the game's release, based on what information had been released on her in other media from the franchise. I cried a little again as I was capturing video from which to pull screenshots for this, and there was still something in my eye as I edited said shots, arguing for a good ten minutes with myself as to which images and how many of them I should use. In the end, I decided a more minimal approach, much like Bungie's and 343's handling of Cortana and John's relationship in the first place, would be the most appropriate, but I can't bring myself to delete the ones I didn't use, or their source video, as of yet.

Despite the tears, the crushing nature of such an end still bears some sweetness, in that such a treatment shows just how much respect and love 343 Industries has for the franchise it's inherited. There's no doubt this was as hard a decision to make as it was for Bungie to leave their baby in the hands of another crew, regardless of whether some of those new hands came from Bungie themselves, and it opens a mind-blowing array of possibilities for the next two games we've been promised. What will John-117 be like, post-Cortana? Will he follow a similar, dutiful path to that of Thomas Lasky, who himself lost a young love during his rescue by Master Chief from the Corbulo Academy during the early days of the Covenant invasion? Will John become more like the human Cortana helped him to be, or drift more toward the machine she teased him for resembling? In many ways, Cortana was also Master Chief's last shackle to Catherine Halsey and her SPARTAN-II program, shed along with his MJOLNIR Mark VI armor at the game's close, so it's as if our faceless hero is born entirely anew, with a whole new life to choose and live.

While I would have rather seen him live at least a bit more of it with his little, blue ladyfriend, I, for one, look forward to where John-117 may be headed, and how his time with Cortana may have flavored how he decides to get there.
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