That Dragon, Cancer

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That Dragon, Cancer
is dealing with the heaviest of material, the death of a child, and the game does not feel equipped to carry it. An autobiographical game, by couple Amy and Ryan Green, That Dragon, Cancer is the story of their infant son who was diagnosed with cancer and, eventually succumbs to his illness, and how they cope with that reality.

When I first heard of the game, I let out an audible “Oof.” Cancer sucks. I went in with an open mind. The death of anyone from cancer is tragic and couple it with the death of an infant son and it’s all the worse. I expected to feel bad when I left the game. I did not expect to leave the game feeling disappointed.

Disappointment is a tricky word when talking about something like this. It implies that there was expectation – it implies that there was something worth going into this game for – an almost excitement at the possibilities. When talking about material like this, having expectations or anything of the sort can put one out to be a monster craving a tragedy, but I was excited because it looked promising. It looked like it would take a mature look at life and death.

I’m going to be straight about this: I did not like this game. I didn’t not like it because of its subject matter. This isn’t a case of “Well, it made me feel sad, so it wasn’t fun.” I was disappointed because the subject matter is close to the Green family and I was looking for this tragedy to be explored with a deft hand or a raging fist or something more than what was actually put on display.

That Dragon Cancer
The Faceless Joel Green

The art style is completely minimalist in nature. The art creates a layer of separation. A faceless child is not a child I’m looking to know, but that’s what’s in this game. It’s a distracting feature. It doesn’t seem to bring any meaning to the game or bring any element besides being the throw away art style of the game. The father, Ryan Green has his beard and glasses, and the mother, Amy Green, has her eyebrows and hair, but Joel, their son, lacks any identifying marks. It creates this layer between the player and the drama unfolding.

 

It’s totally understandable that they wouldn’t want to model their son’s face for this, but nothing looks well made. The art style instead of elevating any sensations actually puts a barrier up between the player and the game. The fantastical elements feel more like shadow plays than something to be believed. It works to cohere the magical realism and the realistic bits but at the cost of making the entire game suffer and harder to connect with.

The small interactions between the player and Joel feel more intrusive than actually revelatory, and this is the part that feels strange to mention in a game like this, but so important to highlight. A lot of progressing involved turning around and then turning back to allow the “objective” to load in. There were moments where that wasn’t clear. There was moments were it felt like I was waiting for the game to move on. The gameplay feels sluggish, when it doesn’t feel like it’s bugging out and breaking.

These interactions feel cumbersome and they intrude upon some larger moments of the game.There were moments where I had questioned if the game was making me wait, as some sort of statement towards waiting for results or waiting for the inevitable, or if I needed to restart because the actual game was broken. When given control, everything feels so floaty and “game-y”, which is to say there’s too much feedback, too much control to the player, while simultaneously, frustrating to control, using a click to move style of movement. It felt like the “game” sections were added to adhere to some strict guideline of “game-hood,” but there’s no goals to them but connection, and again, the art style gets in the way. The “games” instead of bring the player closer actually act to push them further away.

These small little hitches and frustrations continue to snowball and get in the way of the narrative, but pushing that aside, it never dug deep enough. The writing touches on questions of faith and grace and religion, but instead of plunging into them, instead it feels like it plays on the surface, while simultaneously never being subtle. It never rises to try and answer any questions, but instead just…comes to a conclusion of the son ultimately dying.

The game is split into 14 tragic little vignette of magical realism and fantastical ideas. Few seem connected enough and instead it feels like a smorgasbord of suffering. It makes it hard to make a connection. There’s special emphasis on Ryan, it seems. A lot of moments center around his suffering. His narrative arc follows the story of acceptance of their son’s death. Amy’s on the other hand, felt far more interesting. She was the one waiting out for a miracle. She was waiting for something to save the day. Her story felt caged away though and never touched upon.

A moment of levity from the conclusion
A moment of levity from the conclusion

It feels like it’s fumbling with itself. It introduces symbols and metaphors and seems to either reveal them too early for them to pay off, or never returns to them. The beginning of the game involves feeding ducks, but never does anything with it. It feels out of place. The landscape, if one pays attention, has the striving motif of the game, which is budding black branches, symbolizing cancer. Instead of letting that bloom, within the first three chapters, it’s obvious what they mean and instead settle into the background and lose their power for being revealed so early.

The mini games feel so out of place. There’s a point early in the game, wherein Ryan dreams of his son, soaring through space on balloons, and being bombarded by those black branches. It quickly becomes obvious there’s no end but to succumb. The problem is, the process is so long and there’s no content to revel in or any interactions to do besides dodge, that it actually becomes a game of running into them to end the section earlier, as grim as that might be when you extrapolate that metaphor.

The game’s imprecise nature is highlighted through a small little faux-cart racing segment. That Dragon, Cancer attempts to use this segment as a way to highlight the ways in which cancer can seem like a loop around a track. Each lap, you’re collecting medication, and it’s costs are shown at the end. The problem is, the game never goes into the Green’s fiscal lives. It’s the only section of the game that hints at a sort of financial struggle, if there even was one. The controls are imprecise and feels clunky and strange. There’s no objective, but the insinuation of just to collect stuff. It becomes clear though that there’s no choices, or again, any interaction, it simply goes around.

One of the final chapters, taking place in a church, went on for so long that I had to look up a video to see if there was something I was missing – if there was some puzzle I had perhaps missed. Instead, I had to just wait. But that was one of my problems throughout the game. I wasn’t sure what was intended, and what was a glitch? Was I clicking an objective too much? Or was I not turning around at the right time? Was I waiting too long or not waiting for something?

That Dragon, Cancer never focuses. The second half of the game takes on an extended metaphor of a sea of misery, but besides that, everything seems very disconnected – that sea is left fairly quickly, and constantly interrupted.  Everything seems to come together to distract the player instead of giving any enlightenment.

The Depths of the Unknown: The Eldritch Teller

The Depths of the Unknown is an attempt to reveal and talk about games that are not talked about: games that are only a few bucks, last only a few minutes, and exist to stand by themselves and the purpose of this segment is to shine light on those experiences and pull something out of them.


The name
The Eldritch Teller stuck out to me. It’s a good name. It’s invocative of something grander than oneself, but it inspired quite a bit of apprehension in me because I’ve just grown tired of the “unknowable cosmic horror” tropes. I’ve grown tired of the unknowable because it feels like a waste of time to really concern oneself with what one can not know. Maybe that’s the point. Thankfully, The Eldritch Teller never seems to concern itself with that either.

Yes, I am a cool adult. It's very nice of you to notice.
This is the sort of humor The Eldritch Teller deals in and I love it.

The Eldritch Teller, by Arielle Grimes (@slimekat on Twitter), is a game with really one option and that’s what the player does when they hear their phone ring. The Eldritch Teller, of title fame, is a robed, antlered, faceless entity, that simply acts as narrator. The game looks as if it’s running on a faulty CRT run through a fish-eye lens. Pixelated geometry spirals and a space-scape acts as the letter box. The distortion makes some of the text hard to read, but the actual art in the game is well made. Silhouettes are vague enough that it doesn’t bring any strict definition to the “You” of the story, leaving the story open to anyone participating. There’s no attachment – The Eldritch Teller knows what it’s audience is. The game plays like a ghost story being told to you, about you. The Eldritch Teller has no time to really consider what you do. It knows what you’d do. The story being told is a vague enough story that it feels like “your” story and doesn’t suffer from being so vague.

The screen flashes to convey small story beats and focus from high detailed figures to explosive bits of pixelated lines portraying, well, the unknowable. The art is pixel art, but it’s not overly stylized pixel art – it’s a means to create indistinction. Nothing is very clear, as something set in a cosmic horror setting should be.

I had mentioned earlier that I had a slight bit of fear – not a psychological or primal fear, but a fear of disdain. Between friends, I’ve referred to the cosmic horror tropes as “Cthulhu shit.” There’s two camps: those that have been trying to separate the roots from the mythos and concentrate on the kind of horror that is found in those stories, a pure fascination and healthy fear of the unknowable that has no time nor regard for you, and those that find delight in the lore of the Cthulhu mythos – a paradox in itself. The idea of a mythos behind something defined as unknowable is silly, or maybe it’s expected. It’s putting structure around something one can not know and adding your flairs to it. The second worst thing HP Lovecraft did, after being a terrible racist, was describe Cthulhu and inspire an unknowable amount of merchandise to spawn after his death.

I am so ready.
The combination of casual tones and a simple color pallet is really striking.

The Eldritch Teller falls squarely in the first, personally, more interesting camp. It’s the camp that is more interested in what it means to interact with the unknowable. It’s friendly, it can come in contact with you, but it feels less like looking over the edge of a cliff and more like being talked down to by a teacher.

The narrator’s tone is frank and casual, toying with the player’s expectation of, well, an Eldritch Teller. It’s a character that toys with the player’s expectations of itself. My favorite line in the piece is “You’re a cool adult who definitely deserves respect.” It’s that tone that I enjoyed. It’s not a narrator that’s going to blow anyone away, but I appreciated that. It brought levity to the parts that would be dull and got out of the way when action began.

The balance of the tones creates an interesting effect. The humor leaves the player just open enough to let the turn take you. When it switches to a bit of cosmic horror it’s a slow shift, easing you into it. The harder turn is a return to normalcy and that’s where the narrative is at it’s most interesting to me – The Eldritch Teller is a tragedy. It’s a comedy that trades not in the unknown, but uses the unknown to set up it’s ultimate joke and the punchline is depression. The story being told is about waiting for a phone call. The Eldritch Teller tells you that you await this call, but you’ve always wanted to adventure, just as most kids have. Regardless of which of the three storylines you choose (to casually get the phone, spring forward for the phone, or to sit paralyzed in anxiety), you’re ultimately ending the call to adventure. The adventure is the moment of “abduction,” of being taken away, but in the end, the phone call needs to be answered and the job needs to be taken. That’s the state of the world once you leave it. The extravagance of adventure is brief, fleeting, and wouldn’t accept you, no matter how much you crave it. There is really only one path where there is a true interaction between “you” and the cosmic horrors. The great irony is they’re quite polite. They’re not lording over you the fact that they’re of some higher headspace.

It’s a short little experience, it’s about 5 to 10 minutes. It’s not going to revitalize a joy for cosmic horror, but it feels like a good response to the exhaustion in those ideas. It treats it as window dressing, as opposed to the window itself. It’s the kind of way I want this setting and set of tropes to be explored. The initial idea behind the settings is a shallow well that can only sustain a few stories, or at least that’s my opinion. That’s because stories seem to want to constantly question the unknown, as opposed to interacting with the unknown. It’s limiting, narratively, when your only interactions you can have with the void are to go mad. What I liked about The Eldritch Teller is it felt like I had fallen into the void’s living room and it picked me up and asked how I was doing, sent me on my way, without any significant conversation. The Eldritch Teller is not going to change your life. It’s not going to unlock some big dark secret of the universe or lead you to an epiphany, but it’s entertaining – even if it’s whole purpose is to just let you know just how insignificant you are.

If you’d like to play this for yourself, you can go here. Pay a few bucks and you can experience all of the choices in the story. If you play for free, you’re restricted to whatever choice you pick – there’s no reloading the game and starting over to see the rest.

Accepting When to Quit a Game

So today I quit playing a game. A single player game no less. I just gave up. Not because the game was too difficult to be conquered (though for honesty’s sake I had just died for the fourth time) and not because the potential for the game wasn’t good. I quit because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the game in pursuit of something the game wasn’t delivering enough of.

Let me back up and explain.

The game in question was No More Heroes, an old (2007) game for the Wii that I borrowed from a friend because I had heard amazing things about it. To be specific, the amazing things were in this article here about the ending of the game (needless to say, spoiler alert.) And I wanted to see that ending in context. I wanted to play the game that could not only insert such a dark, truthful moment into a video game where such things aren’t generally done, but also in such a clever and powerful way (for clarity without spoilers, the information is revealed in a fast forward which breaks the 4th wall and references previous moments within the game).

I wanted to experience that moment as it was meant to be.

And when I started the game, I loved it. After a quick tutorial I was hacking and slashing with ease, enjoying the relatively simple combat. Sure it was a bit repetitive, and yeah the level design was very closed, but this was a game that had story. This was a game that had clever cut scenes. And the game play was fun enough that a little repetition wasn’t going to distract me from that.

Then I fought the first boss. And it was hard. But not in the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t hard because I had to figure out a long string of moves with timings and combos. It wasn’t hard because it required me to think strategically or do complicated maneuvers. It was hard because the boss could only be hurt at certain arbitrary times. Not because he was blocking. Not because he was using a special move that only activates once every thirty seconds. Not because he was just too damn fast He just…couldn’t be hurt because he couldn’t be.

But I beat him. It took a hot minute and it was frustrating, but I beat him. This opened up the open world aspect of the game which, when you really look at things isn’t all that open world. Yes, the world is open, and you can drive around it, but you can’t interact with much. You can’t do much at all in it except go from set place to set place. But that wasn’t why I was playing this game. I was playing it for that ending. That awesome, unexpected, extremely well done ending. And I was going to get to it.

Which took me to the second boss. And his guns. And while the guns were frustrating, they weren’t the most frustrating part of the boss fight. No, that honor goes to the same frustrating part of the first boss. He couldn’t be hit except during certain times and all other times he was invincible because…reasons.

Again I beat him. It was close, but I did it. Back to the limited open world. Back to the grind for cash before entering the next narrow hallway stage into the next boss fight which…you guessed it. Boss couldn’t be hit except during certain times. Oh, but I left some parts out. See, video games get harder as they progress. What did this new boss have?

A ranged attack which was unblockable (which, 2007 wii controls meant I was getting stuck behind pillars and not dodging too many of those. Then there was a variation of that move at about 50% health where she would launch a barrage of them. Enough of them to kill you. Which I found out the hard way a couple times. And once you got her down to 25% she had another attack which if she hit you would instantly kill you.

I died. A lot. Strong words were spoken. At one point I had to turn the system off and walk away.

But! But. I was determined. I was going to get to that ending. I was going to see it in context. I was going to experience the anticipation and earn my way to victory. Research on the internet told me that she was the most difficult boss in the game (for some reason) and that there were no exploits, you just had to be calm, patient, and hack away at her until she died while not dying yourself. It was going to be hard but I could beat her.

And I did. After about ten more tries I did it. I beat her. I shouted victory. I did a little dance. Then returned back to the limited open world, back to grinding for money, so that I could go back to another limited level, cut through a new slew of similar but slightly different enemies, to get to another boss who once again couldn’t be hit except when the game decided and who had another pair of unblockable attacks which took away half your health and got him down to 1% health on my fourth try only to die when I got stuck on a piece of terrain I couldn’t see because of the camera..

That was it. That was the straw. Because I realized something fighting that boss.

I didn’t care about the game play. It was repetitive, uninspired, and other games did it better. I love a good hack and slash but this neither had enough enemies to make it interesting, nor was it refined enough to handle more than four enemies even if they had included more. I didn’t care about the boss fights, because I want a boss who can’t be hit because they won’t let me, not because the game won’t. The only thing I cared about was getting to the end to see the video I’d already seen in full context as opposed to just a clip on a website.

This 42 minute clip saved me another six-ten hours.

And I got what I wanted. I didn’t have to fight through uninspired gameplay to do it. I just had to go watch a youtube video and see the other cut scenes that led to the story I had wanted to see all along.

At the end of all of this, it may sound like I’m going to say No More Heroes is a bad game. But it’s not. I’ve played far worse. I’ve powered through a lot worse. People love this game and I’m not here to tell them not to enjoy it. But getting to be an older gamer, I realize now, if I want to play a game for a specific reason and the game is not enjoyable to me in other ways…it’s probably time to stop. Save myself the frustration, the anger, and the time. I got what I wanted, and I didn’t have to hack and slash to do it. I just needed YouTube.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in a game.

Catherine is a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find he has cheated on his girlfriend, though he doesn’t remember picking up the girl. The descriptions I had heard of the game seemed to point to it being a game where you had to navigate the careful thread of unraveling A. Where this girl came from and who she was while you B. Tried to save a relationship that you had accidentally compromised. The game has six possible endings based on the choices you make throughout the game and if that was all this would be an amazing game. But instead you get gameplay like this.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, I’ll fill you in. That is a puzzle game right there. But what the hell, you might be thinking. Didn’t I just describe the game above as a relationship navigator? Yes! It was! With a puzzle game in between because…it needed to be a game apparently. I really don’t know the reason because every trailer I saw for that game didn’t include that aspect of gameplay.

But that’s not even the best example I have of the plot trumps game play experience. The final example, and I think the best is a little game called Battleblock Theater.

Battleblock theater isn’t a bad game. In fact, if you like platformer collection games much like Super Meat Boy, or just platformers in general then it’s good. Repetitive, challenging, but good. But compared to the cutscenes…it’s just ok. The cutscenes, however, are amazing! In fact, I’m watching them right now just because they’re so funny.

But I never beat that game. Never will. With limited time and so many other games to play and other things to do, the game play just isn’t enough to keep me interested when I can just get the cutscenes by themselves.

So what am I trying to say here? At the end of the day I’m the type of gamer who wants a good story. And a good story used to be enough to keep me powering through game play I wasn’t enjoying just so I could get that story. But as I’ve grown and matured, I’ve come to accept that…sometimes I just don’t care. I don’t need to finish it. Same as how I don’t need to finish a book if I’m not enjoying it after fifteen pages, or don’t need to finish a movie if I’m bored after the same amount of time. There are other ways to get the information I need and the enjoyment I seek. And if it means being a quitter…well, as a former smoker sometimes you know quitting isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But if you’ve found yourself in the same situation, I’m here to tell you that you’re allowed to quit the games we borrow, sample, or *gasp* purchase. That it’s YOURS to do with as you please, and if you’re playing through something complaining the whole time “gods I hate this game,” it might be time that you just accepted…if I hate this so much why am I playing it? If the answer is anything except “because I want to play it,” then it’s time to quit. And if you’re hating the game and still playing it, then you’re probably playing something in the Souls franchise.

 

Recommendation: Souls Games

Bonfire

The Souls games have been a series since the dawn of Demon Souls in 2009. Since then Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and its expansions, and Bloodborne have been released (and we eagerly waiting for Dark Souls 3). All with similar gameplay styles, immeasurable amounts of lore, and kill-self levels of frustration. They have become enormously popular in the more recent years, due almost entirely to its die-hard fan base, which have been sustaining the life-blood of the games by promoting them through all social mediums. (Owed entirely to the fact that From Software does little-to-nothing in the area of advertising for themselves.) However, these games don’t have the best reputation as they are described as being “the most difficult games you will evar play!” But still you will find countless forums, websites, lets-plays, and other fandom all over the internet and YouTube dedicated to these games. Why is that? And why should you, or anyone for that matter play a Souls game? Allow me, if I may, to tell you why.

Let us first begin with the lore. In the Souls games, players are not introduced to lore in the traditional sense of being “fed” information. There’s usually just one little monologue at the beginning of each, where some NPC tells you to go complete “the impossible task.” In Dark Souls, it’s ringing the Two Bells of Awakening which are on the opposite ends of the world guarded by massive demons. In Bloodborne, it’s curing the beast-blood disease that pretty much wiped out the population. And that’s all the information you’re going to get. So you have very little information to go on, and are sent aimlessly wandering on a quest that you’re not entirely sure why you are a part of. But you know one thing is for sure: gotta kill stuff! So off you go, cutting down enemies, opening doors, and finding hidden treasures. Then you look at your loot, and realize each piece comes with a paragraph of descriptor-font. Then you realize that every item in the game has their own individual story, which ties in with the main story of the game. Telling you very general (and sometimes cryptic) things about the past, the present, and everything in between. This makes it so that you have to piece the storyline together yourself, make your own inferences about the story, and build the lore in your mind’s-eye. This is exactly how the director envisioned it, because as a boy, he liked reading European novels about knights and dragons, but couldn’t read English well. So he just read what he could, and pieced the story together from there. The Souls games have been constructed on this foundation, and are completely unique in this way.

Now let’s move onto game design and controls. As previously stated, the player is thrusted into a world they know nothing about, and are not truly giving a set direction. From most of the starting locations in the Souls games, you can choose where you want to go first. The player will certainly find that enemies in any of the directions do massive damage to the player, but some die easier than others. So choose the path of least resistance, and begin you journey. Now as a new player, it makes it an easy decision for you in terms of choosing your path. But an experienced player, may want to take a more difficult path first, because the rewards yielded will help them progress through the game more quickly. Nonetheless all of the enemies have a high potential to kill you, if you’re not on-guard for even a second. The skill required to kill just one “regular enemy” becomes exponentially increased when having to kill three of them simultaneously. So players have to really be on-point for the entirety of the play-through. The controls in the games usually allow the player to be very proactive in their attacks and dodging, while still being able to maintain a defense while assessing enemy attack patterns. The Souls games can feel a little slow, in terms of the character’s movements and abilities, but it was designed in this way to make the player’s decision mean that much more. This is because the game auto-saves at every interval, making each decision you make, a final decision.

Speaking of good and bad decision making, let’s discuss the “punishment-high” effect of the Souls games. I believe that it’s one of the most unique aspects of the games, which brings players back for more and more… just like the good little masochists they are. Everything in these games is designed to kill you… from the enemies, to the booby-traps in the environment, to your own miss-steps that send you plunging to your doom. It’s really frustrating. The level up systems in the Souls games are also to blame for player frustration. If you want to level up you need souls/blood/etc., which means killing stuff. So you go out to kill stuff, accumulate a whole bunch of level up juice, and then… die. Well now your level up juice is in a pile where you died, and you have to start from the beginning of the level again, with all of the enemies respawned in your path. If you reach them congrats! If you don’t, they are lost to the void for all eternity. That’s all included with the boss fights along the way. Some of the bosses seem completely unbeatable, and will literally wipe the floor with your corpse, desecrate it, and mock you. The fierce battle the player has to go through just to get to the boss is crazy enough, just to be met with a foe that crushes you mercilessly… but this is all part of the process. The game is difficult, and it makes it difficult for you to complete tasks, but there is no necessity to grind for experience. The secret is to test things out, find enemy weak points, be patient, and learn your foe – in the gaming world this is stated simply as: git gud (get good). There are suitable strategies for every situation, and it is your job to find them.

Now you may be asking, where does the “high” portion of the punishment come into play? Well… after facing all of the adversity, the impossible odds, the countless deaths, and the demining failures, you will ultimately overcome it. You will defeat the boss with sheer determination, and accomplish what was once thought impossible. In that moment of victory, you will feel a high unlike any other. Filled with joy, content, and achievement… and you know that it was all because of you. It was every little decision you made in that battle. It was all the hard work leading up to it. And when that high hits you, man I hope you’re sitting down for it, cause it’s a really big wave. I think that the desire to move forward in the game spawns from this, even after the player is punished relentlessly countless times.

In the end, the Souls games tell beautifully tragic stories, while creating a world around the player that just begs to be explored. All of the levels and areas are connected either physically or figuratively, and the creatures are as enigmatic as the world around them. The characters are sure to make an impact on you, and are undeniably unforgettable (for better or worse). The Souls games are full of wonders, frustration, and excitement, of which no other game I have ever played has been able to match. Why play a Souls game? Because it’s the greatest experience you can have playing a video game, if you appreciate the games for what they are, and especially for what they do to you.

Credit to 343 Studios

The Impact of Cortana

cortana

“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