Before we begin, this is your first and only warning – Halo 5 campaign spoilers begin from the video below and will continue throughout this piece. Comments will also likely contain spoilers. Continue at your own risk!
Also to bear in mind – this editorial comprises of my thoughts and interpretations of the events that take place in Halo ‘s campaign, therefore it should not all be considered factual.
“Why is Cortana the problem? Because she refused to die before she was supposed to?”
UNSC AI Roland’s final line in the “Glassed” cutscene may seem like a simple opinion, but think about it – are the events of Halo 5 all really Cortana’s fault? Maybe you’re quite happy to answer that with a resolute “yes”, but take a seat, hear what I have to say, and then ask yourself – why is Cortana the problem?
As a refresher – Halo 5 dispenses a whole load of revelations about what is “meant” for humanity, Cortana and other “Created” (AI’s) and the Mantle of Responsibility. Throughout the Halo saga we’ve explored decades of the story in the shoes of Humanity, believing our species to be the Forerunners’ so-called “Reclaimers”. However, this appears not to be the case. Cast your mind back to Halo 4, Cortana is snatched away by something in Requiem’s systems and Master Chief encounters the Librarian, who equips him with the knowledge and abilities to survive his conflict with the Didact and succeed in his mission.
“Reclaimer, when I indexed mankind for repopulation, I hid seeds from the Didact. Seeds which would lead to an eventuality. Your physical evolution. Your combat skin. Even your ancilla, Cortana. You are the culmination of a thousand lifetimes of planning.”
-The Librarian to John-117
What was very much glossed over, however, is what the Librarian spoke to Cortana about, because in all that action on Requiem, nobody actually asked her what she was told, nor did she tell. Almost sounds suspicious…
Do we know for certain what they discussed? No. Can we make a pretty safe guess? Absolutely.
In the aftermath of Halo 4, whilst the UNSC believed her terminated, Cortana entered the Forerunner information network known as the Domain. Upon making the connection with this mysterious network her Rampancy was cured and, with the help and “guidance” of Warden Eternal, Cortana set off on her new path – inheritor of the Mantle of Responsibility. For those unaware, the Mantle is effectively a statement of authority (hence the name) held by a race, granting them self-asserted authority over all other races, to maintain peace, harmony and order.
There is a catch, however – this is, as John puts it in the game, an imperial peace, one that the holders of the Mantle are required to enforce however necessary. When the Forerunners held the Mantle, they enforced it with the titular Guardians, an army of enormous constructs capable of producing devastating shockwaves and pulses, with one Guardian believed to be able to police an entire solar system.
With Cortana now immortal, for all intents and purposes, she would hypothetically be able to plan long-term peace and harmony, solving poverty, illness and the such in a galaxy free from conflict – all with an entourage of other AIs or “Created” that she would also make immortal. Knowing this, she came to believe it was the Librarian’s plan that it was not the Humans to inherit the Mantle but the Created, with Humans acting as a vessel – doing the physical work to get the Created into a position where they can take power and doing the initial, well… creating. Whether or not that actually is the case is not 100% certain, as we still don’t know for fact what the Librarian said to Cortana, but either way it seems to have become an actuality.
So, is it the Librarian’s fault? Maybe it is, maybe she spoke with Cortana and explained the whole plan to her, instructing her to remain silent about it in case humanity has other plans. However, there was a lot of changing elements at play and perhaps she really did intend for Humans to inherit the Mantle after all. That leaves the blame to fall on Cortana, right?
Maybe not. As Cortana speaks about her plans in Halo 5, it’s clear she is fully of the belief that everything she is doing is for the greater good. A galaxy without war, peace in our time, sounds good doesn’t it? Put yourself in her shoes, if you could end all conflict at the cost of the lives of all who would commit violence, what would you do? Sure, a lot of us may want to turn around and denounce this kind of subjugation-based peace, but think about it – those who are peaceful will not intentionally be harmed whilst the rest of the galaxy is cleansed of those who choose to make war. Hypothetically, only the evil would be harmed and we’d live in peace under the care of the Created. Doesn’t sound so bad now, right? Cortana is, really, working towards a greater good for all species, one without war, illness, suffering or poverty.
Morally, then, maybe it’s unfair to blame Cortana for any suffering that occurs in pursuit of this “greater good”, she’s only doing what she thinks is right, and she can’t help how we constructed her. Think of it this way – if person X puts a gun in the hands of person Y and grabs their hands to make them shoot person Z, is Y responsible? Directly, yes, but morally no, that is all down to X. It’s the same with Cortana who takes the place of Y in this example.
So who could be X, who set her in motion? Dr Catherine Elizabeth Halsey. After all, she’s already well established as the evil “monster” who created child soldiers and experimented on them, why not pin another crime on her? She created Cortana illegally, flash cloning her brain and building her using that clone. Then, she paired this super-advanced AI with an experimental supersoldier whose psychological condition can only be speculated upon, and allowed for both to engage in extremely challenging operations. Bear in mind though, she did all this safe in the knowledge that UNSC regulation would be followed, that Cortana would be terminated once she had reached the end of her operational lifespan, approximately 7 years from creation. Once the UNSC had become aware that Cortana was still in operation and had become rampant, they should have retired her, regardless of circumstance.
Granted, Del Rio attempted to enforce this regulation, however neither he nor anybody else aboard the Infinity did everything possible in their power to complete the task. Del Rio gave direct orders to Commander Lasky, which John interrupted. John then ignored Del Rio’s orders and Palmer pretty much just ignored commands to arrest Chief. Whilst it’s up for debate as to whether anyone would have actually been able to arrest Master Chief in that scenario, it’s clear that nobody really tried to retire Cortana at the appropriate hour, some out of inability, some out of insubordination. Del Rio may not have been able to arrest Chief himself but he had the authority to discipline those who ignored orders and command others to follow protocol instead. Regardless of whether or not he could have succeeded, he would have at least been exempt from the blame that ultimately falls upon him and many others.
Where do we go from here? Well, really, we don’t. We’ve covered pretty much every base as far as who to blame for Cortana’s Reclamation is concerned. The fact is, it could be a whole manner of people. Whether it be the Librarian for sowing the seeds of this eventuality, intentionally or unintentionally, or Cortana for going ahead despite the necessary evils in her plan for the greater good, or one of many humans involved in her creation or poor management.
In a nutshell, perhaps the comments made by Roland were right, or at least somewhat closer to the truth which is certainly not black-and-white. Many, including myself, likely dismissed his protests as biased, one AI defending another, and maybe they were – but there is an awful lot more to the forces at work than just the simple assumption that Cortana is an evil dictator. All we know is that the events which follow this fallout will be close to many characters’ hearts, and maybe one or two of those hearts will be broken as things unfold.
Now, I ask again, why is Cortana the problem?
What do you think will happen following the events of Halo 5? Is there really anyone definitively at fault?
Have your say in the comments!