Halo 5: Why Cortana Should Be the Crux of the Story

Cortana’s questions about the nature of AI were key to Halo 4. What might this say about Halo 5’s story?

This article does NOT contain any spoilers for Halo 5: Guardians.

Cortana’s death was one of the most talked-about events in Halo 4. After endless fan speculation, we’ll finally be able to see whether the Master Chief finds her again in Halo 5. Cortana’s role in Halo 4 was an odd mix: although she was critical to the plot, she was also sidelined, her rampancy undercutting some of her chances for victory while also contributing to the final battle. Looking back at Halo 4, we can see how her connection to many parts of the Halo universe could tell us more about what’s next for her.

In Halo 4, Cortana takes the reins for about the first half of the game. She discovers the name of the shield world Requiem and sciences her way back from the shield world to the UNSC Infinity. She protests, loudly, when Captain Del Rio wants the Infinity to leave the planet, but almost immediately declares that protestation to be a symptom of her rampancy. Her outburst might be a true expression of her opinions, but that was not the way she had intended to convey it. She behaves erratically and fiercely, sounding tired and fatalistic. From the beginning, Chief has more hope than she does that her rampancy can be reversed. After they leave the Infinity, Chief is back in the driver’s seat, chasing the Didact through slipspace to Earth. Cortana’s flip-flopping agency in the last half of the game comes to a dramatic conclusion when she restrains the Didact long enough for Chief to kill him.

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In perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire series, Cortana says one last farewell to her longtime companion. Back on Earth, through a quick tease of Chief’s face, we see the scars left behind by Cortana’s death. This is the game’s emotional center, and rightfully so. 

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Cortana is one of the most important female characters in Halo, and it was troubling for me to see her spend most of Halo 4 wounded. In making an attempt at adding a human element to the game, by showing that Chief is fighting not just to defeat the Didact but to find a way to cheat Cortana’s death-by-rampancy, the game unfortunately fell into one of the oldest video game tropes of them all: saving the princess.

On the other hand, Cortana’s experience in Halo 4 does reveal her character by showing her deepest fears, exactly what the promotional material said the game would do for Chief. Cortana doubts her own fitness to serve and is fearful of being replaced by another AI. She continues to dwell on her relationship with Dr. Halsey. Cortana even explores the limits of her own power, overriding Captain Del Rio’s plans before realizing that her bursts of anger are due to her rampancy, which she can’t control.

Rampancy is a dangerous plot device if it is used to replace Cortana’s personality with madness, but it also effectively shows her vulnerability. Her death, though, takes that vulnerability to the extreme. Her madness is the thing that saves her, allowing her to hold the Didact down long enough for Chief to hit him with a grenade and knock him off the energy bridge on which their final confrontation takes place.

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While Master Chief is the Reclaimer destined to save or destroy the universe, according to the Librarian’s design, Cortana was also created using the Librarian’s geas. Both are key to the fight against the Forerunners, who unsurprisingly proved to be the big villains of the series. Galaxy-destroying superweapons should have probably tipped us off, right?

The through-line between Cortana and Chief is the question of whether emotion and calculation, man or machine, are more key to winning the war. Cortana tells Chief, “Promise you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine,” when he remains stoic in the face of both her rampancy and Del Rio’s orders. He takes that to heart, mulling it over after her death. Halo 4 doesn’t answer that question, although it has used its two central characters to at least try to explore it.

When considering Cortana’s arc going forward, it seems important to remember that Halo 4 was 343 Industries’ first offering and the beginning of a new era for the franchise. The question of whether Chief and Cortana are, either of them, human or machine wasn’t answered at all. It seems obvious that, instead of only scratching the surface of the question, 343 is instead setting this up to be the center of Halo 5‘s story

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In order to do that, though, both halves of the question have to be in play. Cortana has to live.

Some fans have speculated that the nature of Cortana’s death might also be the answer to bringing her back. Part of her was destroyed by the Didact’s weapons, and afterward, she appeared in a physical form that blurred the line between digital and human for both her and Master Chief. Was she Composed at the end, using Forerunner technology to become a different kind of creature? The Librarian states that the idea of the Composer was originally “to bridge the organic and digital realms. It would have made us immortal,” she said, but the people uploaded in that way “fragmented” and became abominations. Maybe Cortana figured out how to make that work. Or maybe she’s the abomination.

Cortana’s knowledge of the Librarian’s geas could affect her fate going forward. After all, she was the one who figured out how to travel around Requiem and what the Forerunners had named the shield world. Ideally, if Cortana returns in Halo 5, she will be the same knowledgable Cortana we saw in the beginning of Halo 4, able to hold her own because of her own nature, not because of her rampancy. There’s something to be said for using weakness as strength, and I’d love to see Cortana’s fears and her conflicted relationship with her own creation further explored. But there’s something to be said for strength too, and the Master Chief isn’t the only one who has that in abundance.

Megan Crouse is a staff writer.