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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Master Chief & Cortana Relationship

Master Chief and the Weapon in 343 Industries' Halo Infinite.

Image: 343 Industries

With Halo Infinite, 343 Industries and Microsoft want the sixth major entry in the long-running shooter franchise to feel like a soft reboot of the series, particularly in regards to the relationship between the Master Chief and his AI buddy Cortana. After her supposed death at the end of Halo 4, and Halo 5 setting her up as a digital dictator enlisting other AIs to rule over the cosmos were decisions reviled by fans, Infinite is in a weird spot. Does it want to skate by the events of Halo 5 and focus on a new adventure, or does it want to address its predecessor directly?

The answer is…sort of both, but in a bit of a weird way. And it’s mostly because of that central Halo relationship between Master Chief and Cortana.

Image for article titled Halo Infinite Can't Decide If It's a Breakup Game or a Dad Game

Revealed prior to the game’s release, a large part of Infinite’s story concerns Chief’s new AI buddy, the Weapon (voiced by longtime Halo vet Jen Taylor, who… well, voices Cortana). Created by the UNSC with the express intention of capturing and deleting Cortana for her past crimes in Halo 5, the Weapon’s just as witty as her predecessor, but coded as considerably younger and quippier. With her wide eyed gawking at Forerunner architecture and naïve nature, the dynamic between her and Chief feels like 343 taking a swing at making a Dad Game that AAA developers (particularly ones from Sony, about dudes reckoning with children and the dead women in their lives) love dipping into from time to time. The writing fully embraces this as the Weapon cracks jokes about Chief’s stoic one-liners, and makes up names for a new type of alien enemies encounted in Infinite called the Endless. Sometimes, this new youthful spin works, such as when she gives a pep talk to the frustrated Pilot in a way that the Master Chief just isn’t fully emotionally equipped to do. Other times, it’s a truly naked attempt at nostalgia for fans of the original Halo on 343’s part, even as the charisma between Steve Downes’ Chief and Taylor’s A.I. manage to make it legitimate enough that you may not mind the obvious bait.

How much of Halo Infinite’s narrative works in regards to these two will depend entirely on how you feel about Chief and Cortana’s relationship from the previous games. Reading their relationship as romantic in some fashion has never been terribly difficult, even if it’s just for a joke, and both this game and Halo 3 use cryptic visions to show how Chief is struggling to deal with his longtime partner no longer being around, and much of Halo 4‘s story also saw the Master Chief grapple with the possibility of losing Cortana forever. When walking through Forerunner structures in Infinite Chief will occasionally hear Cortana’s voice, making it clear she’ll forever be on his mind because of the years they spent together. The Weapon, acting as both a facsimile of this woman he cares for and a reminder of what he could lose again, disconcerts Chief. However, taciturn as he always is, he isn’t able to properly express those fears or concerns beyond a handful of words most of the time.

Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 5: Guardians.

Image: 343 Industries

Much as Infinite wants you to feel like you’re playing the original game again but on a new Xbox, it isn’t completely able to shake off Halo 5‘s narrative baggage. When the game directly addresses its predecessor, it can’t help but ping-pong between being about a guy learning to be a parent and a guy who can’t stop seeing his ex in his new partner. Since the Weapon is a complete copy of Cortana, but if the pair had never met before now, Chief is fully ready to trigger the failsafe that’ll delete her if he needs to. It goes even further when flashbacks in the game reveal that Cortana’s quest for A.I. revolution in the climax of Halo 5 saw her mechanical superweapons, the Guardians, destroy the homeworld of Infinite’s primary villain, the Banished leader Atriox. However, because his ex is no longer around, Chief has to take the hits that were originally meant for Cortana herself.

After the Weapon learns Chief is ready to activate her failsafe at any moment, she starts becoming passive aggressive. Valid as it is for her to snipe at Chief and snitch about the failsafe to the Pilot so he’ll take her side, the mission where this all happens really shows how young she’s intended to be. When she blows up at Chief and asks him to trust her after she’s done nothing but help, the moment doesn’t land as intended because it feels less like a natural point of conflict in the Chief and the Weapon’s relationship, and more like it’s only there because that’s just what game stories about single parents with kids eventually do . But if you have the relationship between Chief and Cortana in mind—as 343 invites you to have in making the Weapon such a direct copy of her—these hostile interactions read as weirder than the game may have intended. It’s a remixing of that symbiotic relationship from the past, yes, but the romantic undertones of that relationship are also still sort of there, despite Infinite doing its best to not go down that route again.

By Infinite’s conclusion, Chief and the Weapon (who’s decided to name herself, though we aren’t told what) have learned to trust each other, and the Chief himself is given some semblance of peace with his former partner. Players ultimately discover that Cortana actually seemingly perished for good during the events between Halo 5 and Infinite, discovering a message she leaves for the Chief that serves as both an apology for her past actions, and a passing of the torch in terms of their partnership to the Weapon—with the hope that the two will be self-aware enough to prevent the circumstances that doomed Cortana in Halo 5 from happening a second time. For as much as 343’s trilogy of games has had no trouble painting Chief and Cortana’s relationship as a tragic romance, whatever they will do with him and the Weapon now that that torch has been passed will have to find some focus, so it doesn’t feel like a strange re-tread of what came before.

Halo Infinite is out now on Xbox and PC.


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