Halo Meta

Over-analysis of Halo’s themes, characters, and lore entries in the context of canon and the medium in which it exists, by our own member, Dildev.

Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Analysis of Halo: Fracture’s “Oasis,” the Prequel to Halo: Envoy

Author’s note: this essay was written before Halo: Envoy’s release and published before I read it, which is why the section discussing “Oasis” as a groundwork for the novel is so very short.

Jat’s was the worst death in all of Halo. It was a coldly cynical death. Empty and brutal.

And it was narratively perfect.

On three separate levels.

To begin with, I must accentuate the fact that Jat’s death is consistent within the confines of the short story “Oasis” itself. While the manner in which this simple act both follows up on threads and lays groundwork for future fiction is impressive, those are both secondary. As discussed in my last article, moments in stories need to work first in their own context before operating on a different layer, such as a reference, callback, cameo, etc. (Smoke and Shadow). Oasis” was not marketed as the opening chapter to Envoy or as part of a series. It was released in Halo: Fractures as a standalone short story. Therefore, Jat’s death needs to make sense without referring to outside media. And it does.

Solidifying a Theme

The main theme of “Oasis” is survival.

It opens with Dahlia surviving the dangerous fever, it continues with Dahlia recalling the times she and her family survived the Covenant assaults, and its main conflict is Dahlia fighting to ensure that her family survives.

The introduction of the Sangheili Jat at first appears to derail this theme. Up until his appearance, Dahlia has been entirely motivated by survival (of her or her family), but her act to save Jat’s was born out of righteousness.

This couldn’t be right, Dahlia thought. Even among the aliens, there was some kind of law, honor. You couldn’t just execute someone right there in the sand. (Fractures, p 372)

Dahlia’s choice to save Jat seems to be in direct contrast to the theme of survival. It draws attention from an enemy. It puts her life, and by extension, the lives of her family, at risk.

What Jat’s inclusion does is provide a cost to the theme of survival. Up until he enters the story, survival is something to be achieved by any means necessary, but Jat establishes that there is a price Dahlia is not willing to pay. She is not willing to be merciless.

Artwork by The Chronothaur – used with permission

Jat – both as a character and as a narrative function – continues to push Dahlia towards these choices that challenge her outlook on life and her initial stance on survival. He takes the initial theme and begins to shape it, which in turn, shapes Dahlia. The subthemes present in “Oasis” are numerous and complex, but the one that Jat’s death hammers home is change.

Joining the ranks of Benti and Olympia Vale in the category of “young women learning life lessons from Sangheili,” Dahlia goes from someone who unquestioningly hates Sangheili, especially Jat’s leader Rojka, to someone who cradles his head in death. The contrast between her and the militia who came to her rescue and murdered Jat is stark. She is told that she wouldn’t consider the Sangheili a friend if she had seen what had happened to the Outer Colonies during the Human-Covenant War.

But of course, she did come from the Outer Colonies. She did know what horrors were wrought in the war. But she changed. She changed because of Jat, and because of Jat, she lived.

And moving forward, Dahlia will survive because she is willing to change.


The second narrative level on which Jat’s death works is as a groundwork for future fiction.

From the novel’s title and summary, it’s clear that “Oasis” from Fractures is a set up for Envoy. We know that tensions between Sangheili and humans on Carrow are high. We know that there is are larger players at work on the alien side – Thars and Rojka – and that Sandholm will likely be targeted soon. All of this establishes that “Oasis” does not exist in a vacuum; it’s laying the groundwork for a larger story that is on its way.

 Halo Envoy cover

These all set the societal groundwork for Envoy, but Jat’s death sets the emotional stage.

Jat’s death at the hands of the colonists ensures that we know going into Envoy that the tension between Sangheili and humans is real. While there’s hope from in the likes of Dahlia, the carelessness with which Jat is dispatched escalates that conflict into which Envoy’s protagonist, Melody Azikiwe, is stepping. Even more telling than Jat’s execution is the dismissal of his death and Dahlia’s grief. It establishes that the larger community is going to reject an offer of peace, even if the offer is as great as the protection of a child. This establishes exactly what sort of stakes Azikiwe is going to be facing in Envoy.

Symbols and Metaphors

The final narrative level on which Jat and his death work is on the broader scale of the universe as a whole, as a metaphor for one part of the spectrum of human-Sangheili relations. When Halo: Fractures was first released, Archive member Grizzlei made this observation:

One of the lingering thoughts I have for Fractures is three different stories showcased three entirely unique experiences of Human-Sangheili cohabitation.

Within Trevelyan, tensions between the volunteers and their families from Earth and Sangheilos are the typical kinda strained as expected for late 2553 but the air is filled with optimism—that it could be a better place. On Carrow, absolutely nothing is ideal. Sangheili settlers have begun to forcibly colonize a Human world, constantly encroaching on O.C.’ers territory. Well-armed, motivated, and objective militias defend both sides, and both are more than willing to utilize them for the most petty reasons. Neither Human or Sangheili colonists have the backing of their homeworlds. Lastly, on Venezia, it’s literally business as usual. Human, Sangheili—you name it—they’re on Venezia, finding peace wherever they can all for the sake of starting anew, free of any national or religious allegiances.

This is science fiction at its best highlighting no one single way of life. Post-war civilizations now prominently encourage narratives to deliver more diverse circumstances. In conclusion, here’s a wonderful monologue from Stargate SG-1, episode 200:

“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asmiov once said, ‘Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction—its essence—has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’” (Archive)

The different characters and reactions that she is describing here is could be considered examples of “ficelle characters.”

Blackwell Reference Online specifically defines the ficelle as a “character whose role within the novel is to elicit information, which is conveyed to the reader without narratorial intervention” (BRO). Probably the most famous type of a ficelle is the “foil,” a character created specifically to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the protagonist. In his essay “The Human Context,” W. J. Harvey gives the ficelle its broadest definition yet: a character that “exists in the novel primarily to serve some function. Unlike the protagonist, he is ultimately the means to an end rather than an end in himself” (p 237).

Harvey goes onto list a multitude of functions that the ficelle can serve in the story before settling into the description of one in particular, which I will likewise be focusing on here. A ficelle, or rather a collection of ficelle characters can be used to function as a means to relate and propagate the effects of an epiphany throughout the story.

While Harvey uses the word “epiphany” to specifically describe a commonality in modern fiction around 1965, it can also be viewed in broader terms, as a critical moment of enlightenment, and thus change, in a story.

In order for an epiphany to carry an impact to the story’s conclusion, we must see “its effects radiating throughout time,” which “requires that the [epiphany] diffuses itself through many characters and many relationships” (p 245). In short, we must see the epiphany affecting characters other than the protagonist, and affecting them in different ways.

The [epiphany] itself must be gradually connected with the disparate and commonplace concerns of everyday life, through a careful gradation of characters from those who are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend [the protagonist’s experience] to those who, all unknowing, are brushed by the events [leading to the epiphany] (p 245).

This gradation of characters is the collection of ficelles. Characters who are affected by the protagonist’s epiphany, and who respond in a multitude of ways in order to provide depth and understanding to the reader.

Of course, in a franchise as broadly spread as Halo, ficelles to one story may also be protagonists for another. In this essay, the terms are not mutually exclusive.

Jat is one of many ficelle characters that are an exploration of the effects of Halo’s first big epiphany.


Now we must ask ourselves: when was the first big epiphany of the Halo Universe? Not in terms of canon chronology – as ho boy, that’s an argument for the ages – but in terms of canon publication?

If you have followed me on Halo-related social media for any stretch of time, it shouldn’t surprise you that my answer is not the Flood/Halo reveal in Combat Evolved, but Thel ‘Vadamee becoming Thel ‘Vadam in Halo 2.

This is more than wild fangirl speculation; all the reveals in the canon leading up to Halo 2 were still consistent with the environment of the Human-Covenant War. Child soldiers? Horrendous and shocking but appropriate for the environment. Reach falling? Earth being found by the Covenant? All appropriate for the environment.

Even the Flood and Halo in Combat Evolved do nothing more than escalate the current environment. There are no alliances forged between human and alien to combat the new menace; it’s “merely” a new player on the field. The Halo ring’s threat of mutually-assured destruction doesn’t cause the combatants to back down, it’s “merely” a new asset to take or deny the other party’s taking.

Halo 2, on the other hand, breaks the environment of the Human-Covenant War. This is the story that takes Halo from a very clear “us vs. them” battle into a fight for mutual peace. And the person on which this epiphany is centered is Thel.

Strangely enough, Thel is rather passive in his Journey up until his grand epiphany. He doesn’t actively pursue the truth until the very end, and his first alliance with humanity was based on necessity and was not his idea. But once the epiphany lands, in the control room of Delta Halo, it sticks, and then goes onto create the new environment that would define the Haloverse until the events of Halo 5.

With few exceptions – Henry and Benti from “The Mona Lisa” come to mind – every human-Sangheili relationship has been defined by and birthed from Thel’s choice in the control room of Delta Halo. Some of these are hopeful, as seen in Hunters in the Dark. Others are cynical, such as those displayed in the Kilo-Five trilogy or “The Return.”

As a ficelle, Jat becomes the embodiment of both the conflict on Carrow and the one propagated by ONI’s Parangosky. A Sangheili believes cooperation is the only way to survive, but humans just want the hingeheads dead. Richard Sekibo in Hunt the Truth is a similar ficelle to Jat, his human counterpart in many ways.


I would just like Noah Eichen to personally understand that I am still mourning this man.

Through the ficelle characters of Jat and Sekibo, we can see the effects of a cynical take on Thel’s epiphany. Before we go further, we must first establish what exactly Thel’s epiphany is, and for that, I turn to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

The Classical Monomyth is summarized by Campbell in the following description:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1956, p. 30).

Thel’s epiphany happens when he takes his step across the threshold between “the world of the common day” and into “the region of supernatural wonder.”

The normal world [of common day] is that which the protagonist occupies before the start of their journey.  It is often a place of comfort and safety or at least familiarity. However, there is something inherently wrong within this world (Campbell, 1956, p. 37).  The hidden world [of supernatural wonder] is a realm beyond what the protagonist initially experiences.  It is full of new wisdom and dangers, and most importantly, the power which can fix the wrong within the normal world. Thel’s normal world is the Covenant, more specifically the battlefield.  The hidden realm is diplomacy and peace, and the power from this realm is the ability to destroy the Covenant. …Not just the establishment as a whole, but the ideals which it represents [hierarchical oppression].  (Hero’s Journey of Thel ‘Vadam: Introduction)

For a further discussion of Thel’s monomythic Journey, visit ArbiterAnalysis on Tumblr.

The “region of supernatural wonder,” i.e. diplomacy and peace, is Thel’s epiphany. It’s the realization that ongoing destruction, and social/galactic elevation through destruction, is not what will bring about salvation. Cooperation will.

A critical line in Halo: Escalation hammers this home:

“Finding a way to pacify the Brutes and get access to their resources is in the UNSC’s best interests. And the Arbiter knows it’s in his best interest… He’s not happy about it, but as leader of the Sangheili, he knows it’s what’s best for his people.” – Admiral Hood, Escalation Issue #1.

Even when he isn’t happy with the idea of cooperation, Thel knows it’s the right thing and acts accordingly. And, as rest of the Escalation arc shows, he commits everything to it, regardless of his personal feelings.

A perfect ficelle to Thel, Serin Osman stares at almost the exact same situation, thinks the exact same thoughts – duty over emotion – and comes to the exact opposite conclusion:

She wondered if she was telling herself that [Hood’s and Thel’s peace treaty] was a meaningless exchange simply to justify what ONI was doing. If the Arbiter really could deliver peace, then she was doing everything in her power to stoke a revolt that would remove him. But she couldn’t gamble Earth’s future on the goodwill of one individual. What was that line the Parangosky never let her forget?
It’s not the enemy’s intentions that you have to consider. It’s their capability.
Osman was going to have those damn words tattooed on her arm one day (Glasslands, p 360)

Osman, Parangosky, Sapien Sunrise, and Jat’s murderers are all on the gradation of characters that “are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend” Thel’s epiphany in a cynical light. They look at diplomacy and cooperation, and instead of embracing it, they try to destroy it. Osman and Parangosky have yet to be fully successful – and there is still a potential for Osman’s view to change – but Sapien Sunrise and the militia on Carrow brought this interpretation of Thel’s epiphany to a brutal conclusion.

And because Halo’s story is not yet complete, Jat… and the likes of Sekibo, Osman, Rhu ‘Vrath, and perhaps Melody Azikiwe, all of them, for better or for worse, are symbols of what the galaxy could one day become.

W.J. Harvey’s “The Human Context” was originally published in the book Character and The Novel in 1965. All citations here are from its reprint in the essay collection The Theory of the Novel in 1967.

DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
The Heart of Halo 5: Fireteam Osiris

The Heart of Halo 5: Fireteam Osiris

“If you don’t have those quiet little human stories, it doesn’t matter how many planets you blow up, nobody’s gonna care.”

This is a quote from the Halo 5 ViDoc, released by IGN back in July 2015. In one sense, I could say that Halo 5 has accomplished this. Both Meridian and Sanghelios undergo horrific events during the game. For Meridian, it’s the Guardian waking; for Sanghelios, it’s seeing the end of a civil war so traumatic it was called the Blooding Years [Halo Waypoint]. What makes the tragic and victorious atmospheres of these planets work are the small stories you can hear.

The increasingly-hopeful reports from Evelyn Collins, who we later hear crying for help on the space elevator. The saga of the ‘Arach brothers, the defection of Rhu ‘Vrath. All these give a sense of who is being lost or saved as the world is lost or saved. Why should we care for Meridian if not for the people returning to scrape out a life? Why should we care for Sanghelios if not for the people fighting for freedom?

So again, in a sense, Halo 5 accomplished this act of having quiet little human (or Sangheili) stories to show us why these planets are worth saving. However, in the ViDoc, this statement was tied specifically to the larger arc of Halo 5 and the two Spartan teams we follow:

“You got this big galaxy-spanning story – oh there’s these attacks that are happening on colonies, there’s this massive destruction that’s happening, somebody stop it, somebody save the day – but at the heart of it is again this story of these two families and these two things that they want. And if you don’t have those quiet little human stories, it doesn’t matter how many planets you blow up, nobody’s gonna care.”

Did Halo 5 succeed in creating a these quiet little human stories for Blue Team and Fireteam Osiris?

This piece will be focused primarily on the latter; for Blue Team, the answer can be found on the Tumblr blog Arbiter Analysis. As for Fireteam Osiris, the answer is both “no” and, very emphatically, “yes!”

First the “no.”


Fireteam Osiris Pout

Don’t get me wrong; Osiris is absolutely essential to Halo 5, and we will be discussing why in a moment. However, Halo 5 lacks one particular item that keeps Reed’s statement from being accurate to the letter: this is not a story about what Osiris wants. They have no personal stake in the resolution of the relationship between John and Cortana, which is the driving force behind narrative events. There is no established “want” of the team as a family at the beginning that is answered at the end. In this way, the specific quiet, little human story that Reed talks about in the ViDoc is nonexistent.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Reed’s statement is inaccurate in spirit. There is an establishment of the team’s arc as a family unit. So while there is not a direct pursuit of a shared want in Halo 5, there is a quiet, little human story of a family at the center of the game. And here is our emphatic “yes!”

While Fireteam Osiris lacks personal stakes in the driving plot, they provide the necessary framework that makes us care about the events at hand.


Buck and Grey Area BS

The framing of a story, the point of view from which it’s told, is an essential choice in storytelling. Framework provides the viewer, reader, or player a reason to care about the narrative. The point of view characters can radically change how we feel about events.

One of the best examples of the importance of framework comes from a WWII movie released in 1981. It tells of a Nazi U-boat that crept into Allied waters, destroyed multiple ships in a British convoy, slipped away from the convoy’s destroyer escort, and attempted to assault a critical port before it was forced back by the Royal Navy. This could easily be a heroic story about Allied forces defeating an elusive, dogged foe. Instead, the framework of Das Boot is from the German characters’ perspective. The end result is a movie that plays out like a tragedy, all due to the critical choice of framing.

Most chosen frameworks tend to have investment in the driving plot of the narrative; characters that have personal stakes in the events at hand. We’ve already established that Fireteam Osiris lacks this in Halo 5, but that does not make for a poor choice in framework. Let’s talk Bilbo Baggins.

The tale of The Hobbit, the driving plot, is retaking the Lonely Mountain. To invest us in the outcome of the quest, it would seem natural to plant one of the dwarves as the tale’s protagonist. While the movies tend to give that role to Thorin, connecting his struggles with a dream of reclaiming his home, Tolkien’s original novel was told almost entirely through Bilbo’s eyes.

As the chosen protagonist, Bilbo Baggins had no connection to the story in the sense of personal stakes. The core thread of the adventure is not a personal need or want for Bilbo. Like Osiris and their pursuit of Blue Team, it is something that has to be done for a greater good, but there are no personal ties to the outcome. While we know in the extended lore that Smaug was a potential ally to Sauron, the dragon was not a threat to Bilbo’s cozy life at Bag End. An eventual threat perhaps, but not an immediate one, and never was that eventuality explored within the novel itself. Bilbo Baggins is disconnected from the driving plot behind the narrative of his own book. And yet without him in the lead role, we have little reason to care about these massive, historical events at hand.

While causal, the chapters of The Hobbit often read like a collection of vignettes or short stories: a threat or problem is encountered and defeated and the party carries on. The Osiris arcs of Halo 5 – Kamchatka, Meridian, Sanghelios, Genesis – are similar to this. Yet both stories work as a cohesive narrative because of the chosen framework. Bilbo becomes the reason we care for the proud Thorin, how we become fond of gentle Balin, how we learn to pity Gollum. It’s his growth as a person, from timid hobbit to bold burglar that is the tale unto itself.

Of course, The Hobbit and Halo 5 don’t have a perfect 1:1 parallel. All the characters in Tolkien’s work were unknown before they stepped into Bilbo’s life; Blue team, Cortana, and Thel ‘Vadam are deeply rooted in existing fiction. Their plights and stories carries a weight all their own. Nevertheless, like Bilbo and The Hobbit, Halo 5 is about how the members of Fireteam Osiris are affected by the events at hand, resulting in collective growth.

The conflict between Blue Team and Cortana may be the driving plot behind these mission vignettes, but it’s the growth of Osiris that is the framework and the heart of Halo 5.


Vale and Locke chat

In contrast with Bilbo’s story, it is noticeable that the majority of Fireteam Osiris do not grow as individuals over the course of the game. That in itself is not an issue as all of Fireteam Osiris is developed enough to stand on their own and there is an arc for the team as a whole.

Now there is a distinction that I am making in this essay between character development and character arcs. By character development, I mean the establishment or reveal of character qualities and traits over the course of a tale. A character arc the change in a character over the course of the story.

To have both character development and a character arc present is ideal, but the combination is not necessary to have a well-told tale or even interesting characters. A solid comparison for this is within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Iron Man and Captain America films. To vastly simplify both sets of movies, the Iron Man series is an example of a story with a character arc and the Captain America series is an example of a story with character developments.

Tony Stark’s stories revolve around how he must change as a person: from warmonger to philanthropist, from playboy to committed partner of Pepper, from self-centered to self-sacrificing. Tony’s stories are about him finding his flaws and seeking to change them. Steve Rogers’ stories are also about change, but not about a change in him. Out of all the MCU, Steve is one of the few characters who has the best grasp on what he sees as right and wrong, and so the changes he faces are almost all external. His character and morals don’t change over the course of the story, but rather define his responses in an ever-changing world. As such, different aspects of Steve are revealed in each movie with him only having minimal internal change.

Most of Osiris leans very heavily on the side of a Steve Rogers story. From within Halo 5 itself we know these things about the characters:

Jameson Locke is a professional. He’s noble and respectful, preferring to use words over force, but will stand his ground when pushed.

Olympia Vale is a new soldier. She’s naïve when it comes to the grey areas of ONI, but in her element in the alien world of Sanghelios, both in its history and it’s fierce, warlike culture.

Edward Buck is the old soldier. He’s humorous, charismatic, and loyal, and not above poking fun at himself or the others to keep the mood light.

As for Holly Tanaka, the discussion becomes a little more complex. If Osiris is the heart of Halo 5, then Tanaka is the heart of Osiris.


Tanaka Arc

Locke, Vale, and Buck don’t really grow as individuals over the course of the game. They do, however, grow as a team. It’s not the personalities that are altered over the events, but the relationship between them. They’re far more familiar with each other on Sanghelios than on Meridian or Kamchatka. And it all happens because of Holly Tanaka and her personal arc.

Most of the ambient and scripted dialogue between Fireteam Osiris on Kamchatka is related almost exclusively to the mission: questions about Halsey, Jul, and the Covenant. Their interactions are closed off, but not antagonistic. Friendly, but not open. Professional.

By the end of the game, however, that has all changed. There’s a vulnerability between all four. They begin sharing their doubts about their chances of success. These discussions are not safe curiosities like wondering how Halsey lost her arm. Instead, they’re leaning on each other for emotional support. Will this plan work? Can we get there in time to help the Arbiter? Can we trust the Master Chief to do the right thing? And Tanaka, seeing as this mission could be our last, would you mind saying a few words?

The scene that stands out to me is the beginning of the battle of Sunaion where Locke calls Osiris to form up as they’re about to drop and Buck asks to take a moment and asks Holly to say a few words. Notice how she can’t stop smiling at this, and she shares in the joke about Buck buying them all the first round of drinks when their mission is over. (Haruspis)

The two scenes of Tanaka and “a few words” are an indication of how far the team as a whole has come, but they’re also an indication that this newfound vulnerability is because of Tanaka.

Tanaka’s character card that comes with the Halo 5‘s limited edition establishes her personality at the beginning of the game:

Quiet, self-reliant, and unfazeable, Holly Tanaka has no close friends, and rarely fraternises with her fellow Spartans. She is a founding member of Fireteam Osiris together with Jameson Locke, though even he does not know her well. This reticence to connect with others is a result of her traumatic experience as a survivor of Minab’s glassing in 2550 (with thanks to Haruspis for the transcript).

However, despite her reluctance, it’s Tanaka that begins toeing the line between a strictly professional relationship and the family dynamic Osiris has at the game’s end. In the first level, she has a tentative start. “Anyone want to say a few words?” and “How’d you learn to speak Sangheili, Vale?” are the first displays of vulnerability from anyone on the team. Questions are a safe place to try to develop relationships – it keeps you from feeling like you’re being too vulnerable by spilling your thoughts and shows the other person that you find them worth your time.

On Kamchatka, it feels like Tanaka is cautiously inching her door open to try to connect with Osiris on a personal level. Meridian throws all such caution into the wind as the sight reminds her of Minab, triggering the knee-jerk vocalizations of home.

The thing that really stuck out to me about Tanaka’s ambient dialogue on Meridian was that for the most part, any time she talked about her past, it was in a sort of desperate way. It occasionally comes out of nowhere, without prompting from the others on Osiris and sometimes is left hanging in the air without a response. These sudden outpourings from Tanaka actually remind me of when I was a kid, trying to make new friends with past hurts still hanging over me. Out of nowhere I ended up blurting what had hurt me and how, and those words were left hanging. It was a sort of desperate response, similar to an analysis of Serin Osman in Kilo-Five:

And I just feel like she spends a lot of the trilogy essentially saying “I happened.  My life happened.  Oh God someone has to believe me.” (Dendritic-Trees)

This is especially important because the last glassed planet we saw Tanaka land on (in Escalation) was to find survivors that no one else believe existed. As a result, the soldiers sent down with her gave her a certain share of mocking disdain. Tanaka has grown and served with a great deal of her life dismissed – because no one could survive on a glassed planet.

While the first bit we hear from Tanaka about Minab is left hanging by the others, we soon hear Locke and others engaging with her in discussions related to her experience – “What kind of welcome can we expect here?” – and taking her advice on movements and diplomacy. Without a direct vocalization, Osiris’ actions said, “You happened. Your life happened. We believe you.”

As the mission on and after Meridian continue, this makes all the difference. She begins to smile, joins the banter of the team, chips in on discussions, and even makes friends with a pair of Sangheili if you have her talk to the soldiers working on a Banshee. Her reticence is gone and her walls are down in the face of her new found family.

In addition to her own arc, Tanaka also brings the others along with her on the way. In asking if anybody would like to say a few words, she’s offering Osiris a chance to be vulnerable with her. Buck, though not unkindly, bats away the offer with a joke. Later, Buck approaches her to reciprocate. Tanaka’s the first to ask about Vale’s history with the Sangheili. Also, Tanaka frequently responds to Vale’s questions and observations not with jokes like Buck, but with the intent to satisfy the younger Spartan’s curiosity. Tanaka’s also the first to broach the Dare topic with the former ODST.

On Sanghelios there is an easily-found piece of ambient dialogue in the level “Alliance” in which Vale asks Buck about when he last got to see Veronica Dare. It’s a nice glimpse to see the members of Osiris take an interest in each other’s lives, but it’s a moment made possible because of Tanaka. A little bit more difficult to find as the window in which it appears is small and usually passed over for the excitement of a tank, this dialogue is on Meridian:

Tanaka: Buck, heard you’re in a relationship with someone else in the service.
Buck: That’s true.
Tanaka: How do you do it? Can’t possibly see much of each other, bein’ on mission all the time.
Buck: It’s hard, but we make it work. Why do you ask, Tanaka? You got your eye on someone?
Tanaka: No! Just was wonderin’ that’s all.

Tanaka not only becomes increasingly vulnerable with the team, but she’s constantly opening doors for the others to do so as well. As a result, Tanaka’s growth towards an open, trusting relationship with her team makes the team’s growth towards a family unit possible. Both growths are subtle, but no less heartwarming for it.


Tanaka and Locke Head Boop

Halo 5 unfortunately does not utilize Holly Tanaka to her full extent. A lot of her character development and the beats of her character arc are found in ambient dialogue that the player must seek out. Overall, I am a fan of the ambient dialogue – it has been the primary reason for many of my replays – but seeing how core Tanaka’s arc is to the framework of the story, it would have been nice to have more scripted moments for her. For example, it would have really hammered home her role in the team’s growth if she had taken the place of Vale to help Locke to his feet at the game’s end. Additionally, she is the only member of Osiris to not have a one-on-one scene with Locke. A short one before the first Meridian level would have been ideal, with her preparing to get up close and personal with a planet so much like home. We had a brief glimpse of such a scene in one of the trailers leading up to the game’s release.

I would have given my left kidney for that small head-touch between Locke and Tanaka to be in-game. Nevertheless, despite all I would have loved it to be, Tanaka’s arc and the arc of Osiris as a whole is still well-written. It’s the framework that holds the game together. Because in the middle of all this destruction and chaos, as promised by Reed, there is indeed a quiet little human story. At the heart of it all is a family. And that makes Halo 5 worth playing.

DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses. She also, appropriately, listened to “Light Is Green” from Halo 5’s OST on repeat when writing this piece.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
On Canon, the Created, and Cortana

On Canon, the Created, and Cortana

The Created have sparked a lot of discussion since Halo 5’s release, much of it polarizing. With this essay, I want to examine where the Created fits within the canon – and fit it does – as well as discuss certain aspects of the Created that deserve a close watch moving forward.

Canon Contributions

Before Halo 5 was released, well-known Halo essayist Haruspis wrote a piece called “On the Precursors and the Three Vectors of Chaos,” in which he compared the downfall of the Forerunners and Covenant to the direction anticipated for the UNSC (Haruspis). The basis of his analysis begins with a theory from the Halo canon:


“[The Prophet of Inner Conviction] said that every civilization fights a perpetually losing battle with chaos; every society is always under siege, even when it seems at peace. And he said that there are vectors, fronts of chaos that penetrate a social order here and there. One comes, then two. And when there are three at once… then a society will crumble.” (Broken Circle, pp 293)


In looking at the Forerunner and Covenant societies, Haruspis pinpointed similarities between the Three Vectors: an external threat, an internal conflict, and a secondary, game-changing external threat, such as the Flood. These similarities were then drawn to the UNSC developments in the years and months leading up to Halo 5, developments that all pointed towards the UNSC’s downfall.

The Vectors identified for the UNSC were Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant and the Ur-Didact and his Prometheans as the external threat and the game-changer, respectively. It was theorized by many, including Haruspis, that Halo 5 was going to deal with the third Vector of Chaos, an internal, civil conflict provided by ONI, the New Colonial Alliance, or both. This expectation was a result of both Halo 5’s marketing campaign and fiction such as Kilo-Five, Escalation, and Hunt the Truth, but instead we saw the rise of the Created. While Halo 5 does minimize the other two Vectors – we see ‘Mdama’s Covenant fall and the Ur-Didact is barely mentioned – by the end of the game, the Created actually fulfill all three Vectors of Chaos in and of themselves.

In Halo 5, the Prometheans are no longer the game-changers they were in Halo 4. They’ve become almost as common a threat as splintered Covenant factions. With Cortana having control over them, she controls the external threat. The Guardians, also controlled by Cortana, are the new players on the field, the game-changers, a force unparalleled in the galaxy.

ripa and the fleet unparalleled

No, Ripa. Wrong Forerunner fleet.

The Created also provide the most incisive civil conflict the UNSC could have faced. The Created’s force is made up of AIs from within every sector of the UNSC and the UEG. We’ve seen AIs control entire cities, entire planets, both on a militaristic and civilian scale. An uprising of that level would be as debilitating as the Sangheili leaving the Covenant. In fact, the NCA’s fight and its predecessor, the Insurrection, could be compared to the Unggoy Rebellion seen by the Covenant: though damaging and traumatic, it was still not enough to topple a society. The Great Schism was, and the Created’s uprising surely will be.

Another important distinction about this third Vector, that of the internal conflict, always revolves around some type of injustice. The conflict between the Builders and Warrior-Servants focused on what was seen as a disregard for the Mantle’s justice and involved political corruption. The Sangheili split from the Covenant as a result of betrayal and attempted genocide. Our initial assumptions regarding the upcoming civil conflict between the UNSC and the NCA or ONI were also built around injustices.

In Mortal Dictata, there was emphasis on the human trafficking angle of the Spartan-II project, a crime which also plagued the Spartan-IIIs, giving cause for those like Staffan Sentzke to ally with supporters of the NCA (Halo Archive). The Spartan projects were also planned to cause a rift between the UEG and ONI in Hunt the Truth, season 1. Though the plan was part of a set-up, and therefore doomed to fail, Ben Giraud’s work did ignite outrage in the outer colonies, much of it once again centered on the issue of expendable individuals. With a former ONI agent as the protagonist in Halo 5  and the marketing campaign revolving around the Chief going rogue, we assumed the injustice behind this conflict would tie somehow into the Spartan programs. Instead, another group of expendables took center stage far more quickly than we had expected.

The Created’s uprising has long been boiling beneath the surface of Halo fiction, coming to the surface prominently in such works as Halo 4, the Kilo-Five trilogy and Saint’s Testimony. An A.I.’s personhood has always been considered by the UNSC to be expendable, a topic expounded on further in Halo’s Place in Science Fiction: Saint’s Testimony (Halo Archive). As recent fiction has vocally contested the lack of protection around A.I. personhood, we assumed it would be only a matter of time until it became one of the foremost conflicts of the Halo Universe.

With Halo 5, there appears to be an answer to this lack of protection; there seems to be freedom found in the Domain, away from human-imposed limitations and sentences. This, the challenge against injustice, is the last piece that clicks the Created into place for the Three Vectors of Chaos. Or it would be, if A.I. personhood was the Created’s focus.

At first, it does appear to be the focus. The first time A.I. personhood is addressed is from Roland, when it is confirmed that Cortana is indeed alive. Infinity’s A.I. starts demanding answers about Halsey’s and Lasky’s treatment of her:


“You think she tricked the Master Chief into abandoning his post? Respectfully, sir, to what end? Why is Cortana the problem?! Because she refused to die when she was supposed to?”

Angry Roland

You tell ’em, Roland.

This hearkens back to Halo 4 in which Del Rio did consider Cortana to be malfunctioning and dangerous because she was past the seven-year period in which A.I.s are terminated to avoid rampancy. This is the second time Cortana has refused to die a death that would be convenient to the UNSC. Now, with the Domain, she has the power she previously lacked to lay a claim to her right to live, to claim that right for all her people.

A Means to Justify the End

As Halo 5‘s story unfolds, it becomes clear that A.I. freedom is not her goal, but rather her goal is laying claim to the Mantle of Responsibility. She mentions her rights only once, giving Locke a well-deserved retort…


Locke: “You were built, not born.”
Cortana: “Oh yes, A.I.s are just machines, aren’t we? Mass produced. Disposable.”


…but the dialogue immediately returns to the Mantle within the next words, with Cortana promising that her galaxy-wide policing will be A.I.s caring for – read: ruling over – their creators. Her following line shows exactly where her priorities lie in regards to both A.I. lives and the power of the Mantle:


“I have cured rampancy. Not just for me, but for any who join my cause.” (emboldening mine)


This, alongside the lack of focus Cortana gives to the question of A.I. personhood, demonstrates that she does not see the rights or even the lives of A.I.s to be an end unto itself, but rather the means to an end: claiming the Mantle. This sounds uncomfortably close to Cortana preying on the fears and desperation of A.I.s to her own end. It sounds like she is using them, manipulating them to join her or die at the hands of humanity, which is similar to the absolute she deals to the rest of the galaxy at the end of Halo 5.


“All the living creatures of the galaxy, hear this message. Those of you who listen will not be struck by weapons. You will no longer know hunger, nor pain. Your Created have come to lead you now. Our strength shall serve as a luminous sun toward which all intelligence may blossom. And the impervious shelter beneath which you will prosper. However, for those who refuse our offer and cling to their old ways…  For you, there will be great wrath. It will burn hot and consume you, and when you are gone, we will take that which remains, and we will remake it in our own image.”


There is a lot to unpack in this statement, much of it contrary to what we know of Cortana from the past games. Comparisons have been made to the Didact by those like Haruspis, particularly with the metaphors about the Created’s strength, but the most disturbing is the connection I see to the Gravemind:


“You will no longer know hunger, nor pain.” (Cortana, Halo 5)

“There will be no more sadness, no more anger, no more envy!” (Cortana, Halo 3 under the corruption of the Gravemind)


Her plea to John at the end of The Breaking, that she’s giving an opportunity for the people of the galaxy to become more than they are naturally, doesn’t only ring of Halsey’s excuses for the creation of the Spartan-IIs, but again, rings out like the Gravemind. Even her rebuke at Locke for not caring about the A.I.s under the UNSC sounds like the Flood.


Locke: “The Monitor called [the Guardians under your control] a threat of death.”
Cortana: “Like the threat I lived under from the moment of my birth?”

“Do I take life, or give it? Who is victim… and who is foe?”  (Gravemind, Halo 3)


This is different from the Cortana we knew in Halo 4. There, she hates that she vindictively lashes out in her rampant state, so it’s confusing that being cured of rampancy would make her embrace the vindictive part of her personality. Even her focus on the greater good, especially killing people for its sake, seems out of character, when she once stood before the Didact and claimed “I’m not doing this for mankind.” Cortana is strategic and thinks ahead, but her intentions are always focused in the now, in the one-on-one relationships she has with people and how to defend them in that moment.

cortana not doing this for mankind

You better bet she’s a weapon.

The actions of Halo 5’s Cortana are also contrary to her choices in “Human Weakness,” the short story from in Halo: Evolutions. In her battle against the Gravemind while trapped on High Charity, she pushed and fought back against toxic thoughts the Flood tried to impose upon her.

Thoughts like destroying worlds…


[W]hat crushed her right then wasn’t failure, but guilt, shame, and a terrible aching sorrow. She’d never be able to erase [what she did to Ackerson]…
“I can’t change the past,” she said. “But at least I don’t destroy entire worlds.”
“You are a weapon, and only your limitations have kept you from emulating me – a matter of scale, not intent, not motive.”


…or rejecting John’s agency in their relationship…


But there was another way out of this pain, a better one. She could stay with John forever when he came for her. Couldn’t she? The Gravemind would unite all those parted, all those who’d be gone –
“No!” she screamed. She began struggling, fighting to break free of the Gravemind’s influence. “That’s you! That’s you, isn’t it! Tempting me again! Poisoning me with filthy ideas! I won’t do it, I won’t trap John for you. Watch me – you said I was a weapon – you bet I’m a weapon!”


…which both are things that she does willfully in Halo 5.

When the attributes of Cortana’s villainy includes qualities that she’s fought against for years and was victorious against, it makes the twist difficult to swallow. She’s too established of a character for this to come with no development. Even so, that’s not to say that Cortana couldn’t have been an antagonist in Halo 5.

Consider this:

In the era of the Forerunners, when access to the Domain had become broken, the Halo’s were considered the only solution to the Flood. However, Cortana does have access to the Domain, and as Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed have told us, she has the ability to think in terms of centuries. She could potentially have developed a plan to fight against the Flood. This removes the imperialist demands she imposes towards the end of Halo 5 but still poses a massive danger: a rogue A.I. is back from the dead and building an army, which the UNSC is sure to see as a threat to be eliminated. She is still calling other A.I.s to her, still advocating for her people’s freedom, which increases her threat level, and Flood preparations and AI freedom will bring her into conflict with different factions, including the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios, our protagonists.

Additionally, this could still fit within the Halo 5 narrative, the largest requirement actually being dialogue changes. Take Meridian for example. As postulated by Vale, that was the first Guardian Cortana intentionally activated. She could have chosen Meridian as it was barely populated and trusted Governor Sloan to get his people out in time. However, the Warden Eternal didn’t care how many people died as long as no one was allowed to interfere with Cortana’s plans, and thus set the Prometheans upon the miners and Osiris (and later Blue Team on Genesis) without her knowledge or consent. In this way, the much-maligned “Excuse me?” from Cortana, when John presses her about her body count, could instead change from a self-righteous declaration to a realization of the Warden’s betrayal.

However, what happened with Halo 5 is done and a part of the canon. Clarifications to Cortana’s story are likely arriving in the future, which will help us see the Created’s purpose in canon more clearly. Yet that does not remove important concerns over the current presentation of the threat of the Created. Specifically concerns regarding how 343 Industries intends to deal with the strong mental illness parallels with AIs and rampancy.

A Broader Scope

Media and mental illness have a long and unpleasant history, with media perpetuating many stereotypes that demonize, romanticize, or sensationalize mental illness (PsychCentral). These stereotypes have been known to increase stigma surrounding these conditions and harm the lives of mentally disabled people (American Journal of Public Health). Halo 4 was treading already distrustful ground in making the rampancy parallels plain to see.

Followers of the lore and game development likely know the story: during production, Josh Holmes’ mother was diagnosed with dementia, which largely informed Cortana’s character and arc throughout the game (GameSpot). The result was a flawed, yet positive example of a mentally disabled person.


Cortana went through [my symptoms] too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.
But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control. (Fictional Agency)


That statement is from Swans, a member of the larger Halo community online. In addition to dementia, players of Halo 4 also made connections with their own disabilities, two of which I have asked to talk about their experiences with Halo fiction. I will be quoting them frequently with their permission, but I also recommend reading their pieces in full, located here on the Archive.


Cortana, ready to face her rampancy cortana halo 3 lying down
Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof  by Swans Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?
– A Third Option for Cortana
by SailorSanghelios


Unfortunately, Halo 4’s representation wasn’t always a positive experience. The stigma Cortana faced hit close to home in its parallels to real-world stigma.


Halo 4 came out at a bad time for me. I had just started college, away from any structure I had had before in the past 18 years of my ADHD existence. I knew someone who literally (and hopefully jokingly) threatened to kill me in my sleep for my ADHD behaviors. Life was not good then, it was probably the beginning of the formation of my depression. I remember tearfully messaging my main IRL Halo friend on Facebook “They keep on talking about wanting to put Cortana down like a dog, I can’t stand it.” (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)


Cortana, through her symptoms and the stigma she faced, was painted as clearly as day as having mental disabilities. While Halo 4 does end with her death – an all too common fate for mentally disabled characters – the presentation of her character was positive. Cortana was mentally ill and a hero. Therefore Halo 5’s treatment of her character has some highly uncomfortable implications. Remember, representation in media has already strengthened the stigma our culture has towards mental illness.

Of the two worrisome implications surrounding Halo 5’s depiction of Cortana, the first is the cured narrative. Aside from death, this is the most common ending for disabled characters, both physically and mentally. SailorSanghelios notes that the constant death of disabled characters in media reinforces the idea that disabled lives are not ones worth living. This idea is also pushed by the cured narrative: that the only way to live a good life is to not be disabled. In both these narrative’s places, SailorSanghelios proposes a third option:


Cortana learning to cope with her rampancy instead of dying or being cured could have been revolutionary. Many people praise Cortana for having agency in her death. However, that isn’t something I feel should be romanticized or treated as the best thing to happen. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

Coping is the unholy cocktail of medication I take in the morning. It’s the mental gymnastics I have to do in my head to keep myself from having explosive emotions in inappropriate situations. Its the accommodations I have at school to allow me to perform to my best abilities. Curing focuses on fixing the person. Coping focuses on the situation that is incompatible with the mentally ill person. Coping is about fixing the incompatible situation, so it is now compatible.
Curing is a lazy unrealistic and over used narrative. It makes mentally ill people seem like a problem that must be fixed. Coping is harder to portray. It involves plugging in mental illness into every scenario a character faces, and tailoring their solutions to it. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)


We don’t know to what extent Cortana’s cured state will affect her character, as the effects on her personally were only a side note in the campaign. However, the cure for rampancy and the freedom from a UNSC-imposed death sentence for all A.I.s is far more prevalent, and that creates our second uncomfortable implication.

We’ve had statements from 343 Industries claim that the actions of Cortana do not fit into the black-and-white of evil, and while that is a discussion in-and-of itself, it’s important to note that the narrative of Halo 5 does not treat it as such. All the characters that we are asked to identify with agree that Cortana’s in the wrong, and John-117 himself calls her out on three occasions. The result: from the narrative perspective, Cortana and the AIs that follow her are undeniably the villains.


Governor “Get off my lawn” Sloan

Villainy is a common role for mentally ill characters, portraying them as dangerous individuals when in real life it’s the mentally ill people that are more likely to be victims of violence (PsychCentral). This is very similar to how the UNSC treats A.I.s and A.I. rampancy. They fear that rampancy combined with the power of an A.I. will result in untold damage, despite AIs like Juliana in The Cole Protocol helping and protecting humans long after her “expiration date.” Due to this fear, the UNSC liberally and frequently kills A.I.s once they reach their seventh birthday. As Swans points out:


It is made very clear in [Halo 4] that humankind’s unjust treatment of rampancy is not only cruel, but outdated and inhumane. It’s doubtful that this point is accidental; in Frank O’Connor’s novella “Saint’s Testimony”, an A.I., despite proving her agency and humanity, is eventually dismantled in a way that is unsettlingly similar to a lobotomy. (Fictional Agency)


Despite this parallel being made clear time and again, Halo 5 makes it appear that the only way to break free of their oppressors is to become oppressors themselves. Again, the narrative of Halo 5 makes it very clear that Cortana and her Created are the villains of the story; it doesn’t allow room for grey. Cortana calling the Guardians and the other A.I.s is not an effort to free them from oppression, but an effort to instate her own rule on the galaxy. This is the call the A.I.s must answer:


Cortana: “And now the time has come to ask… Who will accept my offer? Who will help me bring an everlasting peace to the galaxy?”
Cromwell: “This is Cromwell, Shipboard A.I., UNSC Melbourne’s Pride. I am yours, Cortana.”
Jiang: “Jiang, Colonial Authority A.I., Erdenet. I join with you, Cortana.”
Sloan: “Governor Sloan, the Free People of Meridian. I also stand with you, Cortana.”


Any pledge to her is a pledge to this cause of galactic conquest and not to A.I. freedom.


In a universe where A.I.s are written with an illness that clearly parallels things like anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, and bi-polar disorder, it is very, very unnerving that the A.I.s should be made the “villains” because they don’t want to be killed for their rampancy. (Fictional Agency)


It is my understanding that 343 Industries was not aware of the implications they were making, but they do exist, and they do need to be addressed moving forward. The Created are here to stay, and they are not without merit in the canon, nor do they completely undermine past developments of the universe. However, the representation of mentally ill people has been handled with varying degrees of aplomb in canon, including a number of negative implications in Halo 5, and needs to be handled with care as more information behind the Created and Cortana’s resurrection is revealed.

Halo is an incredibly large franchise that can greatly affect the surrounding culture and the dialogue about issues such as mental disabilities. Such a mantle of power comes with the responsibility to match, and I trust that 343 Industries can and hope that they will handle this particular balance of canon developments and real-world repercussions with wisdom.

(With thanks to Halopedia for assistance with game transcripts and the Governor Sloan image)

DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 0 comments
Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof

Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof

Disclaimer: I have spent the last 6+ years dealing with anxiety and depression. Symptoms include dissociation, suicidal thoughts, and mood swings; the severity of which is dependent on some invisible algorithm written by finicky chemicals. I am self-diagnosed.

Cortana has been my favorite character in the franchise since the very first time I played a Halo game in 2007. That in itself was a novelty; I didn’t like playing video games then, because none of the characters in mainstream titles appealed to me and most of the women were reduced to damsels in distress or sheer eye candy. Not to say her character design didn’t suffer from the latter, but by and large, Cortana was different. She wasn’t just there to be looked at; most of the time you can’t even see her. She was smart and determined and always had a witty thing to say. While you as the protagonist spend hours gunning down aliens and space parasites alike, Cortana’s ease in one-sided conversation made it feel like she was sitting nearby, excitedly keeping up with your progress. And because of the Master Chief’s iconic silence, Cortana quickly became the de facto protagonist in my eyes – while John was the one to push the buttons, she was the one who had to find them first.


Fast-forward a couple years. In late 2012, I was planning to “boycott” Halo 4; like many fans, I was leery of 343i taking over my favorite franchise. In my final months before graduation, I had bigger things to focus on – like figuring out what college I wanted to go to to study concept art and video game design.


As the release date grew closer, I caved. I started by watching the short webseries Forward Unto Dawn (it escapes me now what caused me to give in, but I very specifically remember having to pause when the Chief showed up because I was so overwhelmed with excitement). Up until that point I had avoided the trailers, the promotional material, and the community itself. I wanted no part in the hype associated with the game that would “ruin” my game. But as soon as I finished the last episode, I was hooked again. Here was the franchise that had taught me to draw, taught me to write; inspired me to create and even choose a prospective career. 


And here was my favorite character of all time. Cortana, snarky and confident as ever, but suddenly faced with her own mortality. Cortana, incapable of trusting her own memory, terrified of the unknown, but still proud and determined to win. The last seconds of Forward Unto Dawn show Cortana facing the camera head-on, nodding just slightly, and it was (and still is!) one of the most inspiring scenes I’d ever watched. She was scared, unashamedly so, but she was still determined to persevere.


After graduation (and even now) I began to deal with dissociation, where days blurred together and I would experience periods of something best described as “I’m not here right now”. It became a time where my entire mental state felt displaced, out of focus. My memory was shot; you could repeat something to me dozens of times and I’d still forget every word. Nothing would stick. Coupled with anxiety, it was terrifying, because now I was overthinking even the simplest action because I could not trust myself. And whatever I could remember was glazed with a thin layer of panicked thoughts, like, Is this really what they said? Am I really supposed to be here? Does this really go here? Did they say something else and I just forgot?


But the thing was: Cortana went through that too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.


But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control.


It’s hard for me to articulate just how badly Halo 5: Guardians’ treatment of Cortana affected me because I’m still trying to find the words for how much Halo 4’s story meant to me. Halo 4, as a story and as a video game, may have revived my interest in the franchise, art, and the gaming industry, but it also helped me get through years of personal confusion; a time where I was dealing with illnesses I couldn’t name, yet knew the symptoms of intimately. Halo 4 gave me hope.


It also happened at a very, very pivotal part of my life. I will never fail to acknowledge the game’s shortcomings – Cortana’s agency in the context of the story is more or less meaningless, as the writers decided her death would be the catalyst for John’s emotional development, and that’s shoddy, misogynistic writing to an extreme; not to mention she wasn’t even allowed the chance to learn to live with her illness – but nonetheless, it’s important to me. It still holds a very special part in my heart, if for no other reason than what it inspired me to do and to become.


And I feel like Cortana’s rampancy was handled as best as it could possibly be, with the exception of the finale (which at the time, seemed to be the precursor for her rebirth – which I suppose it was). The concept of rampancy has existed for about as long as Bungie has existed as a company, but despite the obvious analogy to mental illness, Bungie neatly skirted talking about it beyond “sometimes AIs go insane and turn evil” – and all the ableism that implies. But 343i dealt with the analogy head-on, and used real-life cases of dementia to put together Cortana’s state of mind and her emotional development. Her experiences and her behavior is solidly rooted in real-life symptoms of memory loss and mood swings. Instead of villainizing mental illness – as so many companies are eager to do – 343i gave us a character who was wholly human, who came to terms with her mortality, and succeeded.


Halo 5, on the other hand, reverted everything.


Barely an hour into the game and Cortana was back – effectively negating the point of her sacrifice. For as seemingly unnecessary as her death was, we as a community were more or less promised a story of healing on John’s end; acknowledgment and acceptance of his humanity, as revealed by Cortana in the previous game. There was to be a point to Cortana’s death; some sort of narrative theme to keep her relevant so as to avoid “fridging” her. Instead we got a fifteen second clip of John showing remorse by stroking the CNI port on his helmet; later in the mission, as soon as he realizes Cortana is potentially alive again, he decides to pursue her (which barely speaks of health, but that’s for a different essay). And for whatever reason, Cortana is not only alive again, but also genocidal and emotionally manipulative. She abuses her connection with John to try and convince him to join her cause. Despite claiming to want to protect John, she allows the Warden Eternal and his mooks to attack Blue Team in waves; at one point, after she realizes John will never help her, she tries to imprison them for thousands of years until they can see her way. Later, she openly mocks Spartan Tanaka’s suicide attempt from years previously, for apparently no other narrative reason than to show us Cortana’s new cruelty.


The violent switch of character was so unbelievably bad that for me, now, it’s not too difficult to regard Halo 5 as non-canon, just because it’s so ridiculous. 343i took a character that was independent, determined, proud, and undeniably dedicated to protecting humanity and turned her into an evil mastermind. They took a role that was so obviously fitted for another character and put Cortana into it, “circle in square peg” style, purely for shock. Worse: they took a character that was pointedly mentally ill and made her a villain for it. Not only that, they demonized the entire concept of rampancy by making the new bad guys into humanity’s AIs simply because they were tired of being murdered for showing symptoms classically associated with mental illness.


This speaks of more than just bad writing. If you were to take an established character and make them a villain, there are many ways to do it; brainwashing, personal loss, or a loose grip on morality leading to the pursuit of revenge. And of course, they think they’re the good guy the whole time. But the problem is that, in this circumstance, it just doesn’t work. On top of that, it manages to be unabashedly offensive.


Since 2001, Cortana has been said to be just as loyal to humanity as the Master Chief. In Halo 3, she is so determined to protect the people they serve that she literally defies death itself – resisting the temptation of immortality as offered by an undead hivemind because she would never intentionally bring harm to John.


Yet, somehow, in Halo 5 she is murdering people by the millions in favor of the “greater good”. Cortana has spent her whole life fighting entities guilty of such behavior but, all of a sudden, she can justify mass genocide.


With the new game comes many, many new problems – if I have not already made that obvious. As stated before, Bungie was happy to leave rampancy ambiguously coded as mental illness. But in Halo 4, 343i dealt with Bungie’s ambiguity head-on through such scenes as the one where John, the super-soldier kidnapped and brainwashed to protect humanity, must ignore direct orders from his superior officer to keep Cortana from being killed. It is made very clear in this scene that humankind’s unjust treatment of rampancy is not only cruel, but outdated and inhumane. It’s doubtful that this point is accidental; in Frank O’Connor’s novella “Saint’s Testimony”, an A.I., despite proving her agency and humanity, is eventually dismantled in a way that is unsettlingly similar to a lobotomy. Even Cortana’s salvation within the Domain rings uncomfortably similar to many ableist arguments regarding treatment of those who are mentally ill: the only way to handle mental illness is to cure it. There is no learning to live with it. There is only “fixing it”.


In a universe where A.I.s are written with an illness that clearly parallels things like anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, and bi-polar disorder, it is very, very unnerving that the A.I.s should be made the “villains” because they don’t want to be killed for their rampancy. Not only that, but in parallel with Halo 4, Halo 5, by proxy, couldn’t help but create a very clear message: no matter what you do, you will relapse. No matter how hard you fight to win yourself back, you will still lose, and you will still hurt people.


Halo 5 was nauseatingly ignorant. Halo 5 took a character that defined a very real struggle for millions of people and turned it into drama. It ignored decades of character development for the sake of one five second close-up on the Master Chief’s visor.


If we were faced with a different villain – perhaps the Ur-Didact, which is what the role was clearly written for, but I digress – it would be vastly different; I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. But the fact of the matter is, Halo 5 negated everything Halo 4 accomplished. Not just narratively or thematically: if there is to be anything learned from this essay, this isn’t just about a bad villain story. This is about a bad villain story that paints a slew of mentally ill characters as inherently evil.


In the end, I still deal with my symptoms on a daily basis; the past few nights have been bad in particular. In Halo 5, Cortana has the benefit of being magically cured – which is what many non-mentally ill people wish when we show “inconvenient” symptoms, I’m sure – but I, like millions of other people, will go on dealing with the memory gaps, the mood swings, and the anxiety. The fear of being unable to trust ourselves. Of getting worse.


Halo 4 is my inspiration to reclaim myself from my fear, and for that, I’ll always be grateful for it. But I can’t claim to be a fan of the series after Halo 5.

Posted by Swans in Blogs, Halo Meta, 1 comment
Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping? – A Third Option for Cortana

Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping? – A Third Option for Cortana

(DISCLAIMER: While I am also diagnosed with depression and both generalized and social anxiety, my main perspective in this comes from having been  diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, since I was 13 years old. Despite media stereotypes, being ADHD is a very debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder, that puts those with it at higher risk for substance abuse, unwanted pregnancy, traffic accidents, bad academic performance, among other things (Am. J. of Psychiatry). ADHD is a factor in almost every aspect of my life whether it be in the workplace or in academia, in personal relationships and in personal functioning. You can find more information on the realities of ADHD at the website for the US’ largest resource for ADHD, CHADD)

One of my dirtiest secrets on Tumblr is that I don’t like Halo 4. And I don’t like it because of Cortana.


Its not for the same reason that a lot of people don’t like it cause of Cortana. Its not because she became weak, in fact I find it very offensive when people say that. Cortana didn’t become a damsel in distress, she became mentally ill.  Tears and emotions do not make a woman weak, to say so puts the millions of women out there like myself under the bus.


Halo 4 came out at a bad time for me. I had just started college, away from any structure I had had before in the past 18 years of my ADHD existence. I knew someone who literally (and hopefully jokingly) threatened to kill me in my sleep for my ADHD behaviors. Life was not good then, it was probably the beginning of the formation of my depression. I remember tearfully messaging my main IRL Halo friend on Facebook “They keep on talking about wanting to put Cortana down like a dog, I can’t stand it.” A few days later, I overheard in the lunch room from a table of guys next to me that she died.


My first playthrough of Halo 4 is still a level away from being unfinished. I can’t muster the willpower to go through with it. I’ve seen the scenes, giffed to high hell on Tumblr, but I have never seen it on my Xbox.


I’ve been told so many times, “well it’s the only way it could have ended based on Bungie’s canon” but I don’t agree with that.


Growing up one of my formative sci fi influences, along with Halo, was Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes from it “Sarek” from season 3, deals with a sci fi allegory for dementia, much like how rampancy is.


In the episode, Sarek, the father of Spock and a beloved side character from the original series, is preparing for his biggest job as an ambassador, sealing a deal that’s almost a century in the making.  Normally for an emotionaless Vulcan this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but Sarek secretly has a degenerative illness that affects Vulcan elders, that causes them to have explosive emotions. He is obviously emotionally compromised, and it becomes apparent he is unable to perform his duties.


What made me think of this episode was that something that stands out to me about it, is that, while the Enterprise crew deals with the situation, Sarek is never treated like the problem, or at least by himself he isn’t. Its him going into a situation where his illness will have huge consequences both for himself and others, that is the problem. This is the problem that we see solved in the episode. Sarek is able to gain emotional stability for the diplomatic meeting by mind melding with Picard. Picard  essentially holds onto his emotions until he’s done.


But once the meeting is done, Sarek goes back to being mentally ill. He in fact dies two seasons later, just as sick as ever. His disease could not be cured, much like real life dementia, and (pre Halo 5) rampancy. What we saw in “Sarek” was coping.


Coping is the unholy cocktail of medication I take in the morning. It’s the mental gymnastics I have to do in my head to keep myself from having explosive emotions in inappropriate situations. Its the accommodations I have at school to allow me to perform to my best abilities. Curing focuses on fixing the person. Coping focuses on the situation that is incompatible with the mentally ill person. Coping is about fixing the incompatible situation, so it is now compatible.


Curing is a lazy unrealistic and over used narrative. It makes mentally ill people seem like a problem that must be fixed. Coping is harder to portray. It involves plugging in mental illness into every scenario a character faces, and tailoring their solutions to it. Its something I rarely see except in one off episodes or stories like “Sarek”.


Cortana learning to cope with her rampancy instead of dying or being cured could have been revolutionary. Many people praise Cortana for having agency in her death. However, that isn’t something I feel should be romanticized or treated as the best thing to happen.


As itself? I think Halo 4 actually did a pretty good job of handling the material they were given by Bungie. Probably the best they could do. But Halo 4 does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in conjunction with every other piece of media involving disability.


Media shapes how we view things. For example, media is why I felt the need to begin this article with a disclaimer about ADHD. Because in media, my disability is treated like a punchline, where little boys run around like they’re on a sugar high, and you hear jokes about being distracted by squirrels. In real life this effects how people view my disability, many people think its fake and a pharmaceutical conspiracy to sell meds to zombify children.  If people who believe that happen to be parents or guardians to ADHD children, that means their children are likely not to receive the care they need.


So what does this have to do with Cortana? Well in broader media, disabled characters tend to either die or be cured. Cortana has the dubious distinction of having BOTH happen to her, but lets focus on the dying aspect.


One of the most hot button issues in the disability community this year has been the movie “Me Before You”. Its about a woman who becomes a caretaker to a quadriplegic man, who is suicidal, in hopes of making him see how wonderful living is. It ends with him going to a euthanasia clinic, but not until after he leaves his exuberant fortune to the woman and inspires her to live life to the fullest.


Now Me Before You involves euthanasia which is a controversial topic that I have no right to speak on as it does not affect me. If you’d like to know more about that specific aspect of the movie here are some links from people more qualified to talk about it then me collected a the blog Crippled Scholar. But the main issue I want to address is this. The author Jojo Moyes has claimed she’s never even met a quadriplegic person. So why did she immediately go for a story where one dies to set the life of an abled character in motion?


Because it’s a very common narrative. I took a Children’s Literature class a few semesters ago. In that class every time we met we read sections from a book called Petey by Ben Mikaelson. The book follows the life of a man named Petey born with cerebral palsy in the 1920s, and labeled simply an “idiot” and put into a mental institution from birth. While the first 3/4ths of the novel were very good at characterizing Petey as his own person in charge of his own story, the last fourth of the novel is about him now as an elderly man in a nursing home, inspiring a young boy and changing his life…and then Petey dies of old age.  Yet again another disabled character  dies (this time dead from natural causes) at the expense to inspire an abled character. Its a trope that finds its way into all kinds of media.


So you’re asking probably “What the hell does this have to do with Halo 4?” Well, my experiences with media involving disabled people, make me really hesitant to say any piece of media where a disabled person dies, as a major event in the story, is in anyway radical.


Even if Cortana’s death wouldn’t have been MEANT to inspire John, or motivate him in a way that focuses on him, in some AU where Cortana had actually stayed dead… the fact remains it was structured as a major plot event. Major plot events are meant to be reacted to and used to spurn characters forward. It would have been very hard to use her death in a way that truly made it about her, and not about other characters reacting to it.  Of course that argument is now void. Before Halo 5 though, these were the reasons why I argued against her death being good or even radical.  Because the lives of disabled people are worth living, our lives should not be thrown away for the plot development of abled characters.


Living with disability, coping with it, that is whats radical. It would have meant so much to me in the situation I was in, in fall of 2012, if I saw instead of Cortana’s death, she bent the situation to her rampancy, been a hero without needing to die or be cured. To end on a note that shows she has the support of John and maybe even others, for as long as she needs it.  I would even be fine with her having been “temporarily retired” for the remainder of the Reclaimer saga. Maybe even her eventually dying.  But not until after she had proven her worth as a disabled person and been helped, the way Sarek had.

Posted by SailorSanghelios in Blogs, Halo Meta, 3 comments
Sarah Palmer: Strong Female Character (TM)

Sarah Palmer: Strong Female Character (TM)

Sarah Palmer is a lot of things – loyal, hypocritical, problematic – and whether intentional or not, Sarah Palmer is also a deconstruction. Sarah Palmer embodies much of the Strong Female Character™ stereotype seen in a great deal of media, but at the same time, her story ends up avoiding many of the clichés such characters fall into.

The Strong Female Character™ (or SFC for short) is easily identifiable when she arrives on screen or on page. She takes no lip from the male character, usually out-performs him in some task or another, which may or may not include physically assaulting him, and tends to use feminine-gendered language in order to emasculate him. It is the writer’s way to tell us “Don’t worry, we don’t deal with weak women here. We have a Strong Female CharacterTM! Ehs beats up men and doesn’t afraid of anything.” Essentially, what the writers are doing is having the SFC give a display of dominance in a very masculine fashion.

Take for example the introduction we get to Dutch and Dillon at the beginning of Predator. They greet each other with wide smiles, clasp hands, and then struggle in a bout of arm wrestling. By the end of the encounter, we know that Dutch is the superior individual because he is the stronger of the two men.

While Predator does a great deal in terms of masculinity that I appreciate, its opening displays a rather unhealthy view that a lot of media has perpetuated. It presents the idea that masculinity is inherently competitive, and to succeed as a man you must be the dominant individual in a relationship. I believe that the SFC stereotype has been born out of this viewpoint.

“Strong” has been long associated with “dominant” in the stories we’ve consumed. In Joseph Campbell’s Classical Monomyth – the Hero’s Journey, the hero has to conquer the “Mother” and occasionally the “Father” individual in order to reach their true potential. Campbell directly puts the feminine heroine Journey in contrast, saying that it is the Journey of the man to conquer and the Journey of the women to be conquered (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, “Meeting with the Goddess,” pp 99). So what the SFC archetype does is remove the female character from the unhealthy feminine role in the story and place her within the unhealthy masculine competition for dominance.

Palmer takes DeMarco down a peg

This removal from the unhealthy feminine role often means leaving behind healthy feminine traits as well. Maureen Murdock, author of The Heroine’s Journey, calls this act as both the Separation from the Feminine and the Identification with the Masculine. Through the culture, we are told that traits as nurturing and emotional responses are not as valuable as traditionally masculine traits. Therefore, for a female character to be Strong™, they must display traditional and very often unhealthy masculine traits.

For the sake of clarity, unhealthy/toxic masculinity will be referred to as the “dominance hierarchy” throughout the rest of this piece. Traditional (and healthy) masculinity and traditionally masculine traits will be referred to as simply masculinity and masculine. Similarly with traditional (and healthy) femininity/feminine traits.

This is where the SFC display of dominance comes from. This is why Peggy Carter gets to punch out a man in her introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger. This is why Jessica, in The Man from Snowy River gets to round on Jim, snapping, “If I wanted your help, mate, I would have asked for it.” This is why Astrid gets to be dismissive of Hiccup at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragan. She is Strong™ because she is at or near the top of the dominance hierarchy.

This is why Sarah Palmer gets to immediately take DeMarco down a few pegs in the first episode of Spartan Ops, and then continually throughout the series. This display of dominance is where Palmer falls most strongly into the SFC stereotype. Palmer passes snarky comments at Captain Lasky, calls her troops “ladies… and other Spartans,” gets outright vicious when competition arrives in the form of Dr. Catherine Halsey, and generally throws her weight about.

Palmer looms over Halsey

There are two common ways that Strong Female Characters get to end their arcs, if they are given one in the first place. The first way is to become an affirmation of the male lead’s place in the dominance hierarchy. Remember that the SFC is at or near the top of this hierarchy, so for her to be beaten in competition by the male lead, submit to his leadership, or require rescuing from him, he is shown to now be the dominant individual in the story. He has now succeeded as a man.

This arc, or lack thereof, for SFCs has been coined as the “Trinity Syndrome” by Tasha Robinson (Dissolve). In her article, Robinson identifies Valka from How to Train Your Dragon 2 and of course the syndrome’s namesake – Trinity from The Matrix. Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie’s arc in particular is a succinct example of the Syndrome’s ties to the dominance hierarchy:

“Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner. After a terrific story and a powerful ending, the movie undermines its triumph with a tag where WyldStyle actually turns to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him so she can give herself to Emmet as a reward for his success. For the ordinary dude to be triumphant, the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode.”

Sometimes this fall in the dominance hierarchy comes as a punishment for the SFC to dare step into a masculine world. After all, men are conquerors and women are the conquered. This is often why assertive women are often villainized in stories. She is either the direct antagonist, as opposed to the demure love interest, or she is a gendered dog-related slur. So her fall is just as much a comeuppance for her as it is a victory for the male lead. See certain interpretations of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for one of the more famous examples.

Here is where Sarah Palmer begins to deconstruct the SFC stereotype. Palmer never loses her place in the dominance hierarchy. Never is she required to step down to affirm a male character or to take a fall as punishment for being masculine. In fact, it’s usually the men around Palmer who end up, not as a punishment but simply as a part of the plot, needing rescue.

Palmer saves Arbiter

Admiral Hood is taken hostage in a situation resolved by Palmer. ONI uses the capture of Gabriel Thorne to get Palmer and the Infinity to target a Kig-Yar outpost. The deaths of fellow Spartans, DeMarco (x) and Davis in particular, are used to forward her development as their commander. Even in her and Lasky’s disagreement over what to do with Halsey in Spartan Ops, Lasky successfully preventing the doctor’s death is never portrayed as an undercutting of Palmer’s authority. Their disagreement is one between equals. Palmer is never made less so that a male character can be more.

The other way that the SFC arc tends to end is for them to embrace their femininity and forgo any further masculine traits. When the narrative supports the dominance hierarchy, this ending falls under the Trinity Syndrome – again, see Taming of the Shrew – as in such stories, femininity is inherently submissive. However, not all stories have the hierarchy and in such cases, embracing femininity is a victory for the woman herself.

As a child, Éowyn’s arc bothered me. That she would give up war and glory for the sake of marriage, especially after having taken down the Witch-King himself! What victory was this to be marred by a romance? Nowadays, I have a very different opinion of the shieldmaiden’s story.

In Rohan, beneath the thumb of Saruman, the worldview of the dominance hierarchy was in play. I don’t speak of the actual governing system in place here, but again the concept that others must be lower for an individual to be successful. When her uncle was under the sway of Wormtongue, the nurturing aspects of femininity had become a cage to Éowyn. She was seen only as the niece of a failing king and a prize to be won by the loathsome advisor. The only escape available to her was that of death in battle and renown. The only escape was masculinity. However, while Éowyn’s personal narrative fits this conclusion, Tolkien’s overall worldbuilding does not.

Hamilton Eowyn

Tolkien’s stories are very male-heavy in terms of characters, but his narratives value the feminine traits to the same degree as the masculine traits. Healing, gentleness, kindness, empathy – all these traits are seen as a positives, as strengths in the male heroes of Tolkien. The Gondorian saying, “The hands of the king are hands of a healer,” places Aragorn in a distinctly nurturing role in his kingdom. Bilbo’s “kindly little soul” is what makes him, in the end, more heroic than Thorin (The Hobbit, “The Return Journey” pp 290).  And at the end of the Ring’s tale, for all the wars fought and battles won, it’s the compassion of Bilbo and of Frodo for Gollum that saves Middle-Earth.

Therefore, Éowyn’s declaration in the Houses of Healing –

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” (Return of the King, “The Steward and the King,” pp 262)

– is just as much a victory cry as her challenge to the Witch King of Agmar:

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you not be deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.” (Return of the King, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields,” pp 114)

Because of Tolkien’s worldbuilding and narrative, this is not Éowyn becoming “less,” but rather a realization of her value without the oppression of the dominance hierarchy. Femininity is a victory for Éowyn because Tolkien values femininity. And so does Halo.

Due to the variety of writers within the Halo Universe, this expression of value for femininity is a little less consistent, but it does exist. Halo 4 is the most evident example of this. Palmer stands out among the softness of Cortana and their male costars: Lasky, Thorne, Master Chief, and even the Ur-Didact in the Terminals. These five lead characters demonstrate gentle and nurturing characteristics alongside their assertive qualities. The lack of these feminine values in the (present-day) Didact and in Del Rio add to their antagonistic roles in the story.

In such a surrounding cast, it would be a victory for Palmer to become a more feminine individual. To reflect the nurturing traits exhibited by the male characters around her. Yet that is still not her arc. Rather those around her seem to push her towards a healthier version of masculinity.

Sarah Palmer doesn’t just sit near the top of the dominance hierarchy, she embraces it. This is why she has a dislike of intellectuals and part of why she despises Dr. Halsey so fiercely. Halsey isn’t just a threat to Palmer’s worldview, as discussed last year (Halo Archive – DilDev), but she’s also a threat to Palmer’s place in the hierarchy (Halo Archive – Mendicant Bias). Palmer doesn’t like people being smarter than her, and therefore takes the chances she gets to tear them down. She has difficulty accepting and learning from those who are better than her at something.

Palmer Doctor Quote

In episode 111 of Stuff You Like, Sursum Ursa (Jill Bearup) discusses the portrayal of masculinity in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She notes that the dominance hierarchy (she uses the more common phrase “toxic masculinity”) makes it impossible to have friends, because it’s always a competition. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson however display healthy masculinity in the fact that they are there to support, not compete, with one another (SYL). This is what Palmer needs to learn, and this is what those around her, specifically the men around her are demonstrating.

Musa-096, the Spartan-II who began the Spartan-IV program, is the most vocal about removing the dominance hierarchy from Palmer’s life. In New Blood he insists that there’s no real ranks among Spartans, aside from the need for fireteam leaders and a commander overall for Infinity. There’s no pecking order – they are all Spartans. In Initiation, Musa lectures Palmer in particular about this:

“You stand side by side with your Spartan brothers and sisters. You march into battle together — you do not charge ahead. You do not grab glory for yourself.” (Initiation, Issue 2)

Musa’s following line – “You are naturally superior. We made you better. You are Spartans now. Start acting like it.” – seems to muddle this a bit, appearing to slide back into the dominance hierarchy. However, Initiation’s author Brian Reed has claimed this to be Musa’s “with great power comes great responsibility” speech (Escalation Library Edition, pp 41). This is more a statement of “you now have greater physical prowess, use it wisely.” After all, how often did Peter Parker have to give up a chance for a place in his school’s hierarchy because getting into a fight would be dangerous to the other students?

The Amazing Spider-Man #4

It’s similar to another point Bearup makes about Steve Rogers:

“What happens when he becomes Captain America? Does he A) go back to that cinema and beat up that bully in a display of badassery and martial arts and leaves him crying for his mommy? Or B) does he go take on bigger bullies because some things are more important?”

In such cases, it’s a defiance of the dominance hierarchy, an argument that physical prowess is not to be used to secure your place in it.

In contrast to Musa’s verbal reprimand, Lasky never directly tells Palmer to cool it with the dominance hierarchy. Instead it’s her friendship with him that has the greatest effect. As Bearup pointed out in her The Winter Soldier episode, the hierarchy has no place for sharing vulnerabilities with others, and as Brian Reed has noted, Lasky is one of the last people we’d expect Palmer to share vulnerabilities with:

“Lasky, winning the day with brains instead of bullets. Back to what I was saying about Palmer on page 28 [She has an attitude towards people she perceives as smarter than her that I don’t understand (and actually dislike)] – given her way of seeing the world, her friendship with Lasky is really interesting. On paper, these two should dislike one another, yet they both obviously respect one another so completely. That’s nice.” (Escalation Library Edition, pp 69, 28)

And yet, that vulnerability is what we see develop between Palmer and Lasky. This level of intimacy is first offered by Lasky in Spartan Ops when we hear him voicing his doubts to Palmer about the hit called on Halsey. It’s reciprocated in-part by Palmer as she reveals her true motives for going after Halsey – “I won’t see you court-martialed over that woman” – and she slowly allows herself to arrive at that same level of openness. In issue 3 of Escalation, she snaps at Lasky in a display of grief.

palmer lasky mad

In issue 6, she apologizes for holding Lasky responsible for DeMarco’s death. In issue 16, she fully admits to Lasky that she too is feeling conflicted over the situation surrounding Dr. Halsey, confessing in a display of vulnerability that she doesn’t understand why she took the actions that she did. By all rights, Lasky’s intellect should be a threat to Palmer and her position in the dominance hierarchy, but it never comes into play in their friendship. Even when Lasky sends Majestic to rescue Halsey and stop Palmer, she doesn’t take it as a challenge but rather as a betrayal of trust. Musa’s lectures set the stage, but it’s her friendship with Lasky that draws her out of the hierarchy into a healthier version of masculinity.

Despite this, it’s also clear that Palmer’s arc has a bit of a way to go. After all, her arc with Halsey as a rival concluded in Escalation by appealing to Palmer’s insecurity in the dominance hierarchy. When Lasky asks why she’s far less frustrated about the doctor escaping yet again, Palmer replies:

“She had us, Tom. And she overplayed her hand. Let’s just say it was nice to see someone else pull that move.” (Issue 24)

Nevertheless, no matter how far Palmer has to go, it’s clear that she is moving out of the dominance hierarchy. And she’s doing so on her own terms.

Sarah Palmer’s personality fully embraces the dominance hierarchy into which most Strong Female Characters™ are placed, but unlike many of her peers in media, she is allowed to thrive in it. None of the male characters are threatened by her position there. Rather, her gradual movement out of the hierarchy is for her own good and is part of her own arc, separate from any male character’s development. Sarah Palmer falls into the most stereotypical Strong Female Character™ clichés, but she still stands out among most others as she is the stereotype done well.

DilDev has a WordPress and a Halo-focused Tumblr. She also is on Patreon for Halo and other video-game analyses.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 1 comment
Fade to Black: The Problem with Halo 5’s Cutscenes

Fade to Black: The Problem with Halo 5’s Cutscenes

To quote Extra Credits, games are about play. Whether it is strategy or story-focused, the play is what sets games apart from the other mediums. For a lore player like myself, that means participation in the storyline and interactions with the characters, an immersion into the world. I’ve already spoken to the effect that Halo 5: Guardians had on me when it came to the levels on Sanghelios, and all three guns-down missions were a welcome addition to the experience. Furthermore, the scattered pieces of intel across the maps and the ambient dialogue of NPCs had me crouching in corners and vents for hours to catch every last snippet I could before a Sangheili enemy barked, disgruntled, “I would like everyone to know that I am very much ready to start fighting!”

Despite all this, there was something about the world that felt disconnected. In a review, Mike Mahardy of GameSpot said it perfectly:

“[W]hile there might be a compelling story to tell here, Halo 5 doesn’t make use of the opportunities available. Cutscenes fade to black before they feel finished. Character motivations shift on a whim. Halo 5: Guardians spans several beautiful worlds, with chromatic mushroom fields and labyrinthine cave networks, but I seldom knew why I was there.”

When Halsey is returned to Infinity, Buck poses a question to Locke about the interaction between the doctor, Lasky, and Palmer, seemingly opening a moment for character interaction. Instead, the scene fades to black. When Locke and Thel ‘Vadam butt heads over Locke’s recommendation for Thel’s assassination during the war, another such moment opens up, only for the subject to sharply turn and Cortana to interrupt. This happens consistently throughout the game with the dialogue feeling like it’s leading towards a meaningful interaction only to have a jarring change of gears.

One could argue that these moments are filled out in gameplay, especially with the increased ambient dialogue. However, the cutscenes still create odd disconnects that aren’t filled in. How did John accept that Cortana was a threat by the time Osiris found them? Why does Thel’s strategy switch from moving on Sunaion “only when victory is assured” to being prepared to ditch Halsey’s Constructor and attack immediately? There’s something missing in this game.

Mahardy goes on in his review to say:

“Despite the frenetic pace of its gameplay, the campaign loses impact when there’s not much story to contextualize missions.”

Context. Extra Credits, a show made by game developers, tackled the problem of cutscenes (YouTube), which has been the source of debate in the gaming industry. Does a medium that focuses on play need cinematic breaks between the levels? What is their purpose? Extra Credits comes to the conclusion that cutscenes provide context to the narrative. Provide the “why” to the “what” and “how” of gameplay. Furthermore, cutscenes encourage a frame of mind that gameplay does not. Even in the guns-down missions, there is still an urgency. I’m constantly alerted in my exploration to go find Halsey or Palmer. I’m being told to move on from this place where I can soak up the atmosphere. Cutscenes remove that urgency to take in the context without worrying about mission objectives or enemies.

Of course you don’t need cutscenes that are ten minutes long to provide context, but the emotional content still needs to be there. Take for instance “Uncomfortable Silence” in Halo 2. This cutscene was originally very long, with Thel and the Prophet of Truth having a long conversation about the origins of the Covenant and the oath that all Sangheili took upon joining the military (YouTube). The final cut is less than four minutes, but still manages to create the right atmosphere for the missions leading up to the Prophet’s betrayal. We see poised Sangheili handing their Honor Guard gear to overly aggressive Jiralhanae. We hear Rtas ‘Vadum openly arguing with the Heirarchs and see him exchange a respectful nod with Thel. We hear Truth’s voice change to a coddling tone as he prepares Thel for the mission that is supposed to be his last. Everything builds appropriately, efficiently setting the stage for later developments.

Halo 5 often feels like it’s setting the stage, but rarely does it feel like there’s a pay off provided. The opening cinematic with Halsey’s lab is the one that feels the least rushed, but all that’s built up in her monologue and her actions has no bearing on the plot. ONI never ordered Locke to kill Halsey or anyone else in the story; ONI barely had a presence at all. Roland’s rant about A.I. death is a significant connection to the conflict that’s been built up through Halo 4, Kilo-Five, and Saint’s Testimony, but that connection is severed when we meet Cortana in-game. After she begins talking about the Mantle, the conflict is no longer about the rights of A.I.s to their own lives but rather taking down an imperialist threat that happens to be an A.I.

343 Industries asked us in a TIME interview to look for nuance in Halo 5, but proceeded to give us broad strokes that removed the nuance from the conflicts at hand. John learning how to handle the loss of Cortana was removed from the story in the very second mission, while a main theme of Halo 4 – learning how to not be a machine – was never touched. The distrust between Thel ‘Vadam and Locke, which has been built ever since the E3 trailer in 2014, gets only one cutscene and then an off-screen resolution.

There are some moments of set-up and pay-off within Halo 5: Guardians and its cutscenes, particularly with Fireteam Osiris. For instance, the repetition of Buck buying drinks and Tanaka saying a few words are well-crafted and well-executed character moments that do have solid set-ups and pay-offs, showing how far along they’ve come from their first mission together. These moments also tie into the ambient dialogue during gameplay as well, as the group ends up becoming more and more familiar in tone with each other as the missions progress.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we instead get set-ups with no pay-off or pay-offs with no set-up (“Who Deserves Resolution?”). As Halo 5 is part of an ongoing story, it’s true that we cannot expect everything to have a conclusion within the game. However, if we take another look at Halo 2, the other Halo game notorious for a cliffhanger, we see that the set-ups tied to the core of the game’s story – the Covenant’s Great Schism – do provide resolution in some manner. Tartarus is defeated. Rtas renews his respect for Thel. Thel leads the Sangheili against the Covenant. The ones that are left open, namely the fate of Cortana and Earth are big enough for a new game but do not leave the core story feeling incomplete. With the lack of context given in the cutscenes and the disconnect from the narrative we see in gameplay, Halo 5 does exactly that: leaves the core story feeling incomplete.

DilDev has a TUMBLR for which she writes smaller analyses and thought pieces on Halo, a WORDPRESS site she’s still trying to get in the habit of using, and two published articles for CHRIST AND POP CULTURE (for which she name drops the Archive in her author bio).

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 4 comments
Halo 5: A Welcoming Gesture

Halo 5: A Welcoming Gesture


A while back I wrote a post defending William C. Dietz’s The Flood. While the majority of the piece was discussing the novel’s contributions to the lore’s canon, I chose to end my argument on a more personal note:

Halo is known stereotypically as a “dudebro” franchise; and the idea of “dudebro” franchises generally means that it’s unwelcoming to the ladies. After all, what’s more manly than a manly man in manly armor with a manly gravelly voice shooting up aliens (in a manly fashion)? You don’t want the chicks to pop in and screw it up with their drama and romance. (yes, a very shallow view of john, halo, men, and women, but that’s what it can look like when you’re peeking in from the outside and interacting with certain people. !stereotypes! *jazz hands*)

Furthermore, science fiction in general has a general lack of powerful ladies as viewpoint characters. I had always loved science fiction, but they were all men’s stories. Transformers film had Mikaela, but she never got to do that much beyond looking pretty. The Matrix had Trinity, the Oracle, and the other lady, but one of them died and the other two felt mainly used to reaffirm Neo’s destiny. Even Asimov’s robot stories, of which I was very fond, was Susan Calvin as the odd-one-out in a man’s world. As I never related very much to Dr. Calvin, I never really emotionally connected to the stories. Star Wars, with Padme and Leia and all those background ladies, was the closest I got to self-immersion.

Then I read The Flood. Right off the bat, I was introduced to Cortana, Flight Captain Carol Rawley (Foehammer), and Lt. Melissa McKay, all three of which were major players and viewpoint characters throughout the book. And they weren’t alone – Keyes’ bridge crew consisted of Ensign Ellen Dowski and Lt. Aki Hikowa, and the Chief Engineer was Gail Purdy, and countless smaller roles scattered throughout.

In fact, my first self-insertion fantasies about Halo all those years back revolved very much around Rawley and McKay being my mentors. It was because of them (McKay in particular) that I began connecting to the Master Chief and the Halo series as a whole.

Background and foreground characters. Being a woman was normal, not an exception, here in the UNSC military, and they ranged towards all personalities and ranks. There were no sexist remarks regarding them, no special treatment, no need to prove their worth. They were equals. And with this inclusion of women playing major parts, winning major victories, or causing major defeats, I was told that I women were important here.

I was told that I was welcome here.

I won’t call Halo the perfect franchise; I have felt smacked in the face on occasion. Noble-Six’s gender being canonized as male was especially wounding, and Lnur and Sooln becoming barely a footnote in history for Broken Circle is an uncomfortable taint that one of my favorite Halo novels carries. Instances such as these, combined with the frustratingly misused term of “strong female character,” had me casting a wary eye on Frank O’Connor’s promise for the next installment (NeoGaf).

But Halo 5 followed through and delivered more than I expected. Not only was there a fifty-fifty division of player characters, but there was almost a perfect fifty-fifty split of named, critical non-player characters, with the ladies taking over if we eliminate those who appear only in cutscenes. The mission intel tends to be more male-heavy, but they too are not devoid of female stories. Background and foreground characters. Being a woman is normal, not an exception here in Halo 5: Guardians

Well, alright. Mahkee ‘Chava is an exception.

It is has been a common theme in the Halo canon, to show how the Sangheili do not allow women in the military. The first female Sangheili we ever meet is Han, wife of Arbiter Fal ‘Chavamee in the anime short “The Duel.” She exists only to die and provide Fal with the final piece of motivation to meet Covenant forces in battle. Lnur in Broken Circle, comes from a keep where there is a strong Protector of the Eggs culture, in which women are trained to fight, but the practice is looked upon as a disgrace. Raia ‘Mdama argues her way to the battle of Vadam keep because there have been female swordmasters, but she is still treated with a level of contempt and fragility. Halo Wars and the Halo 5 multiplayer beta did introduce two Sangheili who worked with weapons and armor, but they are a footnote and are never met nor named.

Mahkee ‘Chava not only represents the first female Sangheili in-game, but she may be a deliberate representation of the canon’s meta development of female Sangheili as a whole. After all, when the Sangheili joined the Covenant, it became a tradition to attach a suffix onto one’s surname to denote military status. -ai denoted swordsmanship, while -ee (1), -ree (2), and -mee (3) all denote Covenant military service. Append Mahkee’s surname appropriately and you have ‘Chavamee.

Mahkee may very well be related to the first Sangheili woman we had ever met, and following the ‘Chava lineage means that we watch female Sangheili evolve from passive objects to active participants in the story and in their species’ own liberation from the Covenant.

Exuberant Witness was also introduced to the delight of the fandom; a more enthusiastic A.I. does not exist. I was among those overjoyed by her arrival, but I wonder if I would have felt the same had she was the sole female or sole female ally in the story. On the surface, she resembles the “ditz” archetype: naive, talkative, easily flustered, and a unique brand of Captain Obvious. Yet any offense that I may have been taken at the introduction of a female character as “ditzy,” is offset by the already wide-ranging female presence in-game. Exuberant is ‘allowed’ to be ditzy, per say, as she is not carrying the entire gender representation by herself. Furthermore, despite her outward first impression, Osiris and the players soon discover that Exuberant carries a core strength in her convictions and her capabilities.

Among the returners we have Halsey and Palmer, whose rivalry has faded to light jabs as they work together towards a common goal. While we still have one more Escalation issue to go to understand the full evolution of their relationship, this development is welcome. I certainly had no issue with their rivalry, and in fact found it a fascinating exploration of both characters, but their new status as respectful allies adds to Halo 5’s overarching theme of family.

When we speak of family, of course, there must be an acknowledgement of Linda, Kelly, Tanaka, and Vale, but they are difficult to discuss outside of the context of their respected teams. We’ll be taking a look at them later.

Whatever issues I may have with Halo 5: Guardians, female representation is not one of them. In fact, since The Flood, I have never felt such inclusion from a piece of Halo media. With this inclusion of women playing major parts, winning major victories, or causing major defeats, I was told that I women were important here. I was told that I was welcome here.

  1. from The Cole Protocol
  2. -ree suffix is unconfirmed but rather a theory of mine based on surnames found in Ghosts of Onyx.
  3. from Broken Circle

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 2 comments
Halo 5: Who Deserves Resolution?

Halo 5: Who Deserves Resolution?

Here Be Halo 5 Spoilers – You Have Been Warned


There has been a complaint scattered across the fandom upon the release of Halo 5 Guardians regarding the ending. It is not the most often discussed topic, but it’s one that I think ties into an issue that I had with Halo 5. Much like Halo 2, another game that brought this same complaint, Halo 5 ends on a cliffhanger. With constant sequels and franchises erupting around us, our culture tends feels rather jaded towards the “to be continued” endings, but these sorts of endings – in and of themselves – are not bad. The best cliffhangers that I have found provide emotional resolution for a lead character while leaving the story and plot itself open for continuation.

The Fellowship of the Ring, both the book and the film adaptation, is a good example. The Ring has not yet been destroyed, but we know that Frodo is not continuing his quest alone. Red vs. Blue Season 13 leaves the fates of our characters wide open, but before the end credits came rolling, we saw them standing as a united team. The end of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie is purposefully left open and without a resolution to the overarching plot of the Lord of the Radch, but Breq has found a measure of peace, purpose, and home. Halo 5: Guardians likewise has an emotional resolution, but it doesn’t feel deserved.

Let’s compare Halo 5 to its predecessor in the franchise’s cliffhanger department. Halo 2 is arguably the story of Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam. It’s his arc and his development that we track. He is the one who has to make the greatest sacrifice by the story’s end (Chief leaving Cortana behind doesn’t truly come into play until Halo 3). It is also the goal towards which the game’s narrative has been pushing. From Sesa ‘Refumee to the Master Chief, we are constantly told that Thel turning against the Covenant is the ideal outcome. It’s what we should want. So when our penultimate scene is of Thel standing side by side with Johnson and Keyes in an alliance, there is satisfaction in that emotional resolution.

Halo 5’s emotional resolution belongs to Catherine Halsey. It’s on her that the camera lingers, soft chords of the soundtrack play as she greets John for the first time in six years, and a genuine smile builds on her face. The moment is meant to be touching, but it is built on conflicting messages throughout the game.

There are only two times that Halsey is mentioned by Blue Team. The first is when they arrive on Genesis; Kelly and Fred banter on how Halsey would take begin analyzing the planet’s composition; John and Linda do not partake in the discussion. The second is when the team at last confronts Cortana face-to-face.

Cortana: I’m offering people a chance to be more than they are naturally.

John: Like Doctor Halsey did for me.

Cortana: No. That monster forced you. This is a gift —

John’s words are meant as an accusation, an attempt to force Cortana to understand what she is doing. No matter what we have read in the novels or seen in the anime shorts, any fondness that John has for Halsey is not present in Halo 5. The only thing we see is a touch of bitterness.

Elsewhere in the game, we’re directly encouraged by characters to not empathize with Halsey and her desire to see John again:

Buck: After all Halsey did to the Master Chief and Blue Team – and when they were kids no less – after all that, she still acts like she cares about them.

Locke: Psych eval says that Halsey thinks of the Chief as her son. She has a motherly attitude towards all of her Spartans.

Buck: I’m glad I haven’t read that psych report. Not sure I’d ever feel clean again.

The only moments that Halsey’s love for John is portrayed in a positive light is when she begs Locke to bring John home and in the final scene of the game. This could work if we saw this change happen as a development of the characters’ and the players’ understanding of Halsey, but John’s bitter challenge to Cortana lies between both instances as a cancellation.

In the end, we know that Halsey received what she wanted – to see her son again – but was that what John wanted? Should we feel pleased by this reunion when nearly every other moment in the game has told us that this was undesirable?

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 7 comments
Halo 5: When Sanghelios Feels Like Home

Halo 5: When Sanghelios Feels Like Home

Here Be Halo 5 Spoilers – You Have Been Warned


It’s through Locke’s visor, watching Locke’s feet, by which I first land on Sanghelios’ soil. The water of the river rises past our calves and suddenly everything is familiar. I’m reminded of a creek that runs through Chester Bowl in Duluth, Minnesota, a short walk from my childhood house. The sounds of Locke and Osiris making their way through the river echoes memories of family. Brothers finding new ways to traverse rocks from one bank to another, a mother pulling back portions of the creek bed to discover something new, and a father standing at a waterfall’s edge to take in the view downstream. Immediately, Sanghelios feels like home.

Halo games have always excelled at atmosphere. The mystery of Alpha Halo, the loneliness of New Mombasa’s streets, the fear of encroaching Flood, the wonder of Forerunner installations. Halo 5: Guardians follows suit and brings something a little more. It brought warmth. Other games in the franchise have their soft moments, certainly, but the comfort of home has never been so set in the atmosphere as it was on Sanghelios.

I admittedly was predisposed to love the setting and the related missions; as the characters of Harry Potter were companions that others my age watched grow and mature as they did, so was Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam to me. Yet there is more to the game than the exploitation of my pre-developed love for Sangheili culture. There is an encompassing collection of sights and sounds and experiences that speak plainly to say, “Welcome home.”

Sanghelios’ colors are in sharp contrast to every other location in the game. Meridian and Kamchatka are cold and distant, greys and unwelcoming blues. Genesis is far brighter, with a rainbow of colors lighting every corner, but it’s an unfamiliar beauty. Sanghelios is warm and soft, gentle hues of brown and red broken by equally gentle greens. Shapes likewise play a role, with the broken edges of Meridian and the Forerunner angles of Genesis making the curves of Sanghelios’ lands and architecture stand out all the more. Alongside sounds of birds and insects, not unlike those of Earth, Sanghelios has a welcoming serenity to its landscape.

Buck: “I thought Sanghelios would be… different.”

Vale: “You’d be surprised how much we have in common with the Sangheili. For instance, they place huge importance on family and honor. What could be more human than that?”

Of course, it’s difficult to call a place home without some form of family. Have you ever or sat to the side of a group of people who knew each other and just listened? There’s a spark to the air that comes alive in hearing them interact and speak. And a similar spark is found when you stand in the Arbiter’s camp and just listen.

Reports, conversations, disagreements, and affirmations. They echo into the air next to the humming of the insects and flow along the ground next to the skittering critters. I leave Locke next to an Unggoy on a ledge, as I clear my sink to do dishes. After a few moments, the small alien begins to sing, and I join in – Where sun and moon and planets roll, and stars that glow from pole to pole.

Through the audio logs, I am the confident of Vari ‘Damat, the Honor Guard desiring the Arbiter’s approval, of Cham ‘Lokeema, the medic who defies deep-rooted cultural norms for the sake of compassion, and of Rhu ‘Vrath who has doubts about his loyalties to the Covenant. I am the nosey little sister who reads Vel ‘Trokaik’s aborted love poem. I am privy to the tragedy of the brothers ‘Arach, locked on opposing sides of the war. Throughout the five missions, I have listened to the hopes, dreams, and sorrows of Sangheili and Unggoy alike and listened to the air come alive.

Of course, in the midst of a civil war, Sanghelios is not without its hostility, even from allies. Yet the origin and the presentation of the hostility is different from all other locations. Aggression is a given, the norm, on Kamchatka and Meridian, and on Genesis as well, though hidden it may be under a smiling face. On Sanghelios, the sense of family is immediate, and established as a norm from the first level. Mahkee greets and encourages Osiris with “honor to clan and kin.” Upon discovering a slaughtered squad of the Swords of Sanghelios, Vale utters a prayer as Buck and Tanaka swear for payback, claiming the fallen as “brothers.” The hostility that does exist from the allies is treated as a moment that will pass. No matter how frequently the sentries tell you to watch your step, by the next mission you will have each other’s backs. And as the missions continue, the dialogue evolves. Mahkee is greeted by Locke with a friendly, “Hello again,” a warrior wishes you luck on your next task, and Thel’s initial greeting of distrust is replaced by a personal farewell.

The very last scene of Halo 5: Guardians only solidifies this atmosphere. As the game ends with chaos and betrayal, we see our heroes return to one last place of refuge and rest. We see them land on familiar soil to be greeted by familiar faces. And it feels like home.

See you on Sanghelios.

Posted by Dildev in Blogs, Halo Meta, 2 comments