“Chief, Chief can you hear me?” We read you loud and clear Cortana, or at least we did… Cortana’s death in Halo 4 marked the end of one of the greatest character developments and relationships in any video game I have ever played. Cortana was the artificial intelligence unit, designed by Doctor Catharine Halsey (head of the Spartan II project from the Halo series). Cortana was created using cloned organic matter of the doctor’s own brain, which allowed her to “learn” more than what her peer AI constructs would ever be able to. However the potential for infinite knowledge comes with a terrifying conclusion, that is, she is doomed to fall to rampancy and ultimately die. But you’re the Chief… you can save her… you can do anything, right?
In the Halo games, the players meet Cortana before they even meet the character they will be playing for many games to come (Master Chief). She’s seen as intelligent, witty, quirky, funny, and dare I say, sexy. The first mission Chief is given is to protect Cortana, which ends up as being a much more lengthy and challenging process as the games continue. Throughout all of the Halos, she gives Master Chief orders, tells jokes about their experiences, explains the most complicated meanings behind the journeys, and is truly the only real connection that the player makes with any characters in the series. She is always there for you to help you through anything, with her guiding voice. She becomes an important character to you, and grows ever closer to Chief over time. Through the Halo series, Cortana and the player develop such an incredible connection! So much so, that the player feels personally responsible for what happens to her… much like the Chief.
I remember when I realized I really had feelings for Cortana, right at the end of Halo 2. Chief is forced to leave Cortana on High Charity (a Covenant homeworld completely engulfed by The Flood), and then completes the next several missions without her as he escapes the planet. I truly didn’t want to leave her there. Those missions were so scary, lonely, and quiet… that’s when I realized that Chief’s character is alone most of the time during the games, and Cortana was the only “person” he had to interact with. The Chief departs promising her that he will come back for her, and she says “don’t make a girl a promise, if you know you can’t keep it.” At that moment I was so determined to save her, I made it my life goal to save her, even if the game designers made it so that you couldn’t save her in Halo 3. I didn’t care! She’s Cortana! I’d do anything to get her back!
It is then, at the start of Halo 3 that the player starts to learn more about Cortana, and starts to see her slow decent into rampancy. In the Halo games before this, my goal was pretty much aligned with Master Chief’s goal to save humanity… but throughout Halo 3, the personal goal of saving Cortana became so much more important. But the game continues on as humanity’s fate is still in Chief’s hands, and knowing that every step he takes towards saving humanity, is one more step away from saving Cortana. Then at the end of Halo 3, very troubling feeling takes root in your gut… Cortana and Chief end up stranded in space on half of Forward Unto Dawn’s wreck, which didn’t make it through a wormhole in time. She says “I’ll drop a beacon, but it’ll be a while before anyone finds us… years even” as she puts Chief into cryo-sleep. And you start to think, will she even be there when I wake up?
Halo 4 was probably the most emotion-wracking, heartstring-pulling experience I’ve ever had in a game. The entire time Cortana is losing the battle to rampancy, and there is nothing you can do. Chief is stuck on a Forerunner homeworld, fighting the most difficult fight he had ever had to face. The Didact (Forerunner leader), with his purest hatred of humanity, attempts to destroy humankind with an incredible machine built for exactly that purpose. Chief and Cortana have no choice but to see the mission through, kill the Didact, and save humanity again. And this time, it is made clear to the player that if Chief could bring Cortana back to Dr. Halsey in time, that she could be saved. By the end, Cortana has completely degraded, and Chief is left with the only option of activating a nuclear warhead on the Didact’s weapon-ship manually… and by that time, I, the player, felt so angry at the Didact, and so defeated that I could not save Cortana… I activated that nuke gladly, truly not knowing what to expect. The smoke cleared, and Chief is standing in protective shield Cortana made for him, as he is not killed by the warhead. The player about as perplexed as Chief is at this point, when he asks “how do we get out of here?” Cortana simply responds with “I’m not going with you this time… I only held enough back to get you off of the ship.” She is clearly so heartbroken as she shows her final expressions of love to the Chief, and fades away. It was literally, unbelievable… It hit me really hard… thinking that I wouldn’t hear her voice ever again. Who will be there to guide me, to make me laugh, and to give me hope?
So what happens now? In every Halo game previous, your goal as the Master Chief was to save humanity from whatever held threat upon it, and “you did it… just like you always do.” That goal and that storyline ran parallel to the story of Cortana’s relationship to the Master Chief. You, as the player, was able to watch as Cortana fell in love with Chief, and tried to make him human. There is a scene in Halo 4 that perfectly illustrates this point. Master Chief is field-cleaning his weapons, after watching literally every human being aboard a space station die, and Cortana says to him: “I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real. I know it because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size. I know because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star. But for all that, I’ll never actually know if it looks real… if it feels real… before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” You were so much more than a machine to us Cortana…
Throughout the games Cortana laughs at characters antics, she get angry and yells, she becomes sad and feels grief for deaths, and she cries during her last goodbye. Master Chief was a battle hardened veteran, who saw the destruction of worlds, and the deaths of billions. He is a man of few words, and even fewer emotions. Cortana became everything Chief could not, and Chief did everything that Cortana was not able to. They were two parts, of one whole, that seamlessly brought the Halo games together. Their story, for some, was more incentive to play the games than finding out what happens to humanity. Their stark contrasts, and their shared love for each other make their story absolutely unforgettable, and makes you feel for the characters in ways unmatched in other games.
“Did you miss me?” – we’ll miss you Cortana