NOTE: The following article contains spoilers. Proceed with caution if you haven't completed the campaign yet.
If you’ve blasted through the Halo 4 campaign by now you’ll have experienced the fascinating and hard-to-explain relationship that is Master Chief and the interdependence he shares with AI friend, Cortana. The game explores the nature of the relationship in a deeper, more intricate way than other games in the series have, although the actual nature of their relationship and, most importantly, the morality of the hardline Master Chief, is still cause for much debate among Halo diehards. I, for one, am having trouble deciding on whether their obvious love for one another is platonic or romantic.
"In some ways they're friends, in some ways she's almost like a mother, in others they're skirting that line of lovers, and so all these different elements come into the relationship, making it complex and interesting to explore."
Those are the words of Halo 4 creative director, Josh Holmes, as he attempts to dissect Master Chief’s and Cortana’s relationship. He’s certainly right in saying that the relationship is “complex” in execution: the characters’ reliance on and trust for one another is compromised a number of times throughout the campaign, but neither ever even come close to breaking up the bond.
Most interestingly, I found, was how Master Chief reacted to Cortana’s self-diagnosed rampancy, which is essentially the AI equivalent of Alzheimer's. Rather than respond to Cortana’s obvious malfunctions right in the heat of battle, he rarely even questions the rampancy progression, instead constantly reassuring her and offering a solution to heal her.
“Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep,” Cortana says in response.
That sort of interaction and reaction demonstrates a strange relationship bounded by the complexities of an intergalactic battle. Cortana loves Master Chief, and in Halo 4 we realise that, maybe, just maybe, there’s a human beneath that super-human strength and Spartan suit.
There’s subtle but frequent commentary on the robot-ness of Master Chief, a man that has shared ten long years in battle with an AI. Cortana, dying slowly, is quite clearly not quite up to the task, and yet Master Chief constantly sides by her. A number of times throughout the campaign Cortana’s functionality is questioned, and Master Chief shares absolutely no concern whatsoever. Cortana is all he has, and there’s absolutely no way he’s going to give up on her.
So what exactly is the nature of the relationship from Master Chief’s perspective? I’m not sure that a Spartan can ever truly fall in love, which presents a rather depressing and morally challenging dilemma for the narrative. Spartan’s are trained from an early age, are rushed through puberty, and probably don’t really know what it’s like to love someone: for him, Cortana is a friend that’s helping him on the battlefield, but if an AI can trust someone as emphatically as Cortana does Master Chief, then surely a human soldier can develop emotions of love and affection. It certainly appears that Master Chief loves Cortana as much as a Spartan could ever love someone. Halo books in the past have addressed the lack of libido in Spartans, although those books are canon and shouldn’t be directly compared to the games.
An interesting question is if Cortana is forming her treatment and affection toward Master Chief around her own assessment of future events. If she’s capable of drawing information from her memory for whatever reason, then perhaps she acknowledges that Master Chief as mankind’s last hope, and therefore treats him as the savior he appears to her to be.
The relationship between Master Chief and Cortana was complex after Halo 3, but its complexity goes to new heights in Halo 4. While I certainly see remnants of a brother/sister affection for one another, trust appears to be the definitive bond: Master Chief needs Cortana, and Cortana needs Master Chief. It’s a relationship that is neither exclusively platonic or romantic: it’s a combination of the two, because they’re both combatant realists, whose commitment to the cause and one another happens to be mankind’s last hope.
By Gaetano Prestia
How do you view the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana throughout the Halo series?