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.

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