What is Cortana, the artificial intelligence that accompanies Master Chief through the Halo series? Is she a person or merely a thing? She speaks with the warmth and wit of a woman, and indeed her personality is based on the cloned brain of her creator, Dr Catherine Elizabeth Halsey. But she is also an AI construct, a hologram with no physical form or being, and with a life expectancy of just seven years. It’s a question the series returns to over its course, pondering whether the close relationship that Master Chief – and, by inextricable association, the player – develops with a computer program is authentic and reciprocated, or illusory and one-way; whether Cortana is your companion because of duty or because of love.
Mother, teacher, goddess, nurse, damsel, comedienne, alarm clock: Cortana has many roles, some of which she occupies simultaneously. She predates the series, having been introduced to players by Bungie during the first game’s production via a series of cryptic promotional emails. As such, there is a sense that she has always been there – before Master Chief, before us, ready to guide, instruct, direct and scold.
She is there at the beginning, when Master Chief is awoken from his first cryonic sleep and the pair escape the burning spaceship Pillar Of Autumn. She is there at the end of Halo 4, saving Master Chief’s life at the cost of her own. The words she whispers into his ear during Halo 3 ring true: “I am your shield; I am your sword. I know you, your past, your future.”
But initially her presence is driven by a practical necessity. Modern military shooting games typically feed instructions to the player on where to be and what to do via support team members through an earpiece. Cortana is the futuristic equivalent, an onboard supporting officer able to relay the designer’s instructions and objectives to the player using the game’s voice. This creates a natural sense of companionship that is further heightened by Cortana’s dialogue, which flits between chatty, witty and panicky. In this way, she can guide the player through space and time, a mostly reliable narrator who offers exposition and explanation, while bringing a persistent lively voice into a soundscape that’s otherwise committed to destruction.
Her position as instructor invites you to place your trust in her, but what encourages the first shoots of honest intimacy is the sense that Cortana is in it with you; she may hold vital data about the giant ring-like structures that threaten life, but she is sentient, not omniscient. She makes decisions based on the discoveries you make together. And more importantly, the risks she asks you to take are equally shouldered between you both.
Still, is this not the role of any computer program designed to aid and support, protect and serve humans? Bungie blurs the lines between duty and choice by revealing that Cortana wasn’t assigned Master Chief but instead selected him herself. “They let me pick,” she says. “Did I ever tell you that? Choose whichever Spartan I wanted. You know me. I did my research. Watched as you became the soldier we needed you to be. Like the others, you were strong and swift and brave. A natural leader. But you had something they didn’t. Something no one saw but me.” In a series often criticised for its convoluted backstory and slippery plots, Cortana provides a grounding of intimacy and tenderness.
Having established such a close connection between Master Chief and Cortana in the first and second games, it was perhaps inevitable that Bungie would split the pair up to provide a personal focus for your struggle to save the world. Indeed, Halo may be a series about saving the galaxy – from the Covenant, from the Flood, and from every other would-be space invader – but it’s curiously devoid of people to save.
There are the marines who accompany Master Chief on the odd mission, identikit grunts that you sometimes grow attached to. Lose one of these uniformed men or women and you’ll lose a helping assault rifle, not to mention welcome chatter. Nevertheless their deaths are inconsequential, unnoted by Halo’s story or systems. And the great mass of humanity for whom you must finish the fight is left to the imagination.
So Cortana becomes the one you must save, rescuing her from a crashed ship in Halo 3 and then, more urgently, from the Rampancy degeneration that’s threatening to take her life in the fourth game. Here, her mental deterioration – articulated wonderfully by Jen Taylor – offers the driving force behind a story that is bulky but otherwise weightless. In a universe that casts you as a human weapon trying to save an absent people, Cortana provides an answer to the question at the heart of all fiction: why?
In Halo 4’s closing moments, Master Chief, in the grip of honest grief, apologises to Cortana, revealing the truth that it was her that he wanted to save over the world: “It was my job to take care of you.” Cortana replies, in a hoarse whisper: “We were supposed to take care of each other. And we did.” In this moment it becomes clear that Halo is a love story without romance. Using the last of her strength, Cortana projects a hard light version of herself into the scene, allowing genuine contact with Master Chief for the first time in order to say goodbye. And so the thing finally becomes a person.