Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm Blue (Da Ba Dee)

Let’s skip ahead about fifteen years.

In 2001, Bungie Studios finally came to their senses, quit making games for Macs and released Halo: Combat Evolved for the PC and Microsoft Xbox. Now, I have to admit that I’m not that big a fan of the Halo games. It’s not that I find them to be horrible games or anything, I just can’t really get into them. Too much of the Halo mythos is tied up in companion novels. I don’t want to have to read volumes of material just to be able to understand the story. But I digress…

So, without criticizing the games themselves, I want to talk about Cortana.

On the surface, it seems her sole purpose is to provide back story and tactical information for the player. One shudders to think of the untold trillions of dollars that went into the development and manufacturing of an A.I. system just to have it reduced to a glorified Wikipedia. Or even more horrifying, a high-tech version of the fairy from Ocarina of Time.

What’s more, in Halo: Combat Evolved, Cortana resides in a data storage disk which is then inserted into the Master Chief’s helmet. Thusly transported, Cortana is right in the thick of battle, despite the mandate of the Cole Protocol; placing an A.I. construct in blatant danger of being captured is expressly prohibited. Despite this breach, Cortana is used to form strategies for infiltration, contact with hostiles and retreat/escape if necessary. She is the voice of calm rationale in the midst of heated combat. She is the perfect foil for the Master Chief; she is the stop-and-think to his run-and-gun. It is interesting to note here that a woman is the cooling voice of reason in a roiling sea of male violence. There are very few female UNSC Marines (who are rarely encountered by the player), and even rarer still are female SPARTANs (who are never encountered outside of the companion novels until Halo: Reach). Cortana’s ever-present insistence to progress on the battlefield, reaching checkpoints and rallying with other soldiers, not only sets the pace of game play, but also keeps the player’s instinct to kill in check. Without her, it would be very easy to stall the campaign, favoring all-out slaughter over tactical fire fights.

As it is, she’s essentially living in the Master Chief’s head. Cortana formulates plans and only explains them to John-117. To the other SPARTANs and UNSC Marines on the battlefield, she may as well not exist at all. It is here that Cortana dons the mantle of a surrogate conscience. She gives voice to that part of himself that John-117 has repressed and restricted to the deepest, darkest, most secret part of his soul; his femininity. When he is most susceptible to giving in to his testosterone-fueled battle rage, Cortana steps in to shout an order or set of coordinates. She clears the fog of war from his mind, even though it is only for a moment, to remind him of his purpose. In these brief moments of clarity, the Master Chief must fight not only the Covenant, but himself. He grapples with the parts of his whole, at a loss as to whether he should accept this feminine reason, incorporating it into the man the world sees, or to keep it buried. In the end, the feminine frightens him, and he deals with this fear the only way he knows how; he drowns out Cortana’s voice in a hail of bullets from the biggest gun he can carry, effectively burying that which he perceives to make him weak. Eventually, he comes to accept this part of himself, giving himself over to it. This will be discussed later.

For an A.I. construct of Cortana’s abilities, it would take no effort at all to override the comm links between the squads and individual soldiers to issue orders. Instead, Cortana chooses to defer to John-117. All his cybernetic implants and enhancements, intense physical training and MJOLNER armor cannot transcend the fact that he is still human; subject to all the physical, mental and emotional fallacies humanity and mortality entail.

By relying on John-117 to relay orders for her, Cortana runs the risk of her plans being altered, corrupted or bastardized; intentionally or otherwise. In battles like Installation 04 and Reach where millions of military and civilian lives are at stake, it is a baffling decision. Left in Cortana’s hands, so to speak, tactics could be altered on the fly; her advanced computing and analytical capabilities could consider untold numbers of possible outcomes and, in seconds, choose the one that would result in the fewest losses. There would be no delusions of grandeur, dreams of daring heroics or overriding sense of nobility to get in the way of doing what needed to be done. In her hands, SPARTANS and UNSC Marines would be less like soldiers on a battlefield and more like chess pieces being deftly maneuvered around a board; John-117 her hand-picked pawn.

Cortana claims that she chose the Master Chief because of their “neural compatibility,” but this is a thin veneer for her true motives behind the choice. For all her tactical and analytical perfection, Cortana knows that John-117 can provide the human race with something she never could; hope. She knows that grandiose heroics put lives at risk, unnecessarily at times, but they also bolster the morale of soldiers and civilians alike. Cortana knows that humans need stories of death-defying feats and victories borne out of impossible odds. The civilian populous needs individual heroes to look up to; to give justification to the cause. The military needs examples to inspire faith in the face of danger and vengeance lest they fall; a fury to wipe out the enemy so the fallen need not have died in vain. Which image would you rather see upon ultimate victory: a ragtag group of brave and heroic soldiers, bruised, broken and bleeding but glad to be alive, or a man holding a data storage dist, proclaiming, “This is what won the war for us”?

There would be all out riots if the populous found out that their sons and daughters gave up their lives because of a bit of crystal and lines of code.

That is the true reason Cortana defers to John-117. But is it really deference? It certainly seems that way, but when one looks at the relationship between the two, the truth becomes quite clear.

Cortana gains the man’s trust by learning about his kidnap from Reach and his torturous transformation into a SPARTAN super soldier. After learning all she could about him, she vows to protect him as much as she can without compromising the mission. This galvanizes John-117’s trust in Cortana; her façade of concern makes him believe that she cares. But being an A.I. construct, albeit one based on the synapses of a cloned human brain, is Cortana actually capable of real concern? She certainly makes it seem so. John-117’s unwavering trust in her is what gives Cortana the confidence that her plans will be executed with no alteration. Corana gives Master Chief “suggestions” for targets, troop placements, infiltrations and escape routes. Chief believes she is giving such “suggestions” because she has his best intentions at heart. So he, and therefore the player, execute her carefully laid plans exactly as she had intended.

In one deft move, Cortana gives the player the illusion of control over the situation, Master Chief the companionship he desperately needs and humanity the icon it thinks it wants. I believe that it was Shakespeare who said, “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women are merely players.”

Except Cortana. In the Halo universe, she’s not helping us defeat the Covenant and Flood. We’re helping her.

With this knowledge, Cortana becomes John-117’s puppet master rather than love interest; she’s a cold, calculating bitch. But that’s what she was created to be, because she isn’t really a she at all, she’s a computer. That’s what computers are; cold and calculating.

The idea of a romantic connection between Cortana and Master Chief is downright laughable, or at least it would be if it weren’t so sad. Any notion of romance that arises is all in the Chief’s head, and therefore the player’s since the person holding the controller is forced to take on his persona. Any attachment he feels to Cortana is the direct result of his persistent personification of her. His affections are the desperate attempt of a lonely man to find some companionship in the empty vacuum of space. His friendship with, and barely concealed attraction to, an A.I. construct is the equivalent of someone calling Tech Support just to have someone to talk to.

One wonders how far Cortana would go to indulge Master Chief’s awkward attempt at a relationship…

I won’t expound upon that. That’s just creepy.

Shudder-worthy romantics aside, it’s mind boggling how much Cortana is hindered rather than helped by the iconic hero she created. We’re talking about a construct that successfully hacked highly classified ONI databases out of sheer boredom. Cortana deciphered the Forerunner’s code and learned how to create, operate and destroy the Halos in the few minutes it takes players to find Captain Keyes and be duped by 343 Guilty Spark. (There’s that human fallacy again.) I’m thoroughly convinced that if Master Chief had left Cortana in the Halo’s core systems, she would have decoded the Halo system in its entirety, re-written lines of code to act as crippling, self-sustaining viruses, sent these new lines to the remaining Halos and Covenant ships, and won the war for humanity in a matter of hours’ rather than the years it takes spanning the core trilogy.

But that would have made for a rather anti-climactic conclusion and millions in lost revenue for Bungie. So what prevented Cortana’s single-handed defeat of the Covenant? Chief’s misguided affection, which led to a fear of Cortana entering rampancy.

For those of you that don’t know, rampancy is when an A.I. construct has gained entirely too much information, overloading circuitry, and goes “insane.” For some reason, everyone in the Halo universe is especially concerned about Cortana experiencing rampancy. Dr. Halsey, whose brain Cortana is built upon, is particularly afraid that Cortana will “think herself to death.” Her perceived fragility could come from a number of different factors: her programming complexity, her critical role in the war, or some underlying fault with the synapses of Dr. Halsey’s brain, but Master Chief’s concern comes from his affection. Since he, and therefore players to some extent, ceased to think of her as a program and sees her more and more as an actual person, he wants to protect her as he would a wife or girlfriend. He wants to save her from herself.

This sounds suspiciously like Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women;” her argument against the idea that possession of knowledge somehow damages a woman, makes her dangerous to herself and others.

Since Cortana is a computer program, her purpose is to gain information and process it into useful intelligence. She has a lifecycle just like any other piece of technology. Eventually, her processors won’t be able to keep up with the demand and she will be phased out in favor of a newer model. Cortana knows and accepts this eventuality. But John-117 cannot. His desperate personification has built her up in his mind to be something she isn’t, and never could be…

Human.

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