On Canon, the Created, and Cortana

The Created have sparked a lot of discussion since Halo 5’s release, much of it polarizing. With this essay, I want to examine where the Created fits within the canon – and fit it does – as well as discuss certain aspects of the Created that deserve a close watch moving forward.

Canon Contributions

Before Halo 5 was released, well-known Halo essayist Haruspis wrote a piece called “On the Precursors and the Three Vectors of Chaos,” in which he compared the downfall of the Forerunners and Covenant to the direction anticipated for the UNSC (Haruspis). The basis of his analysis begins with a theory from the Halo canon:

 

“[The Prophet of Inner Conviction] said that every civilization fights a perpetually losing battle with chaos; every society is always under siege, even when it seems at peace. And he said that there are vectors, fronts of chaos that penetrate a social order here and there. One comes, then two. And when there are three at once… then a society will crumble.” (Broken Circle, pp 293)

 

In looking at the Forerunner and Covenant societies, Haruspis pinpointed similarities between the Three Vectors: an external threat, an internal conflict, and a secondary, game-changing external threat, such as the Flood. These similarities were then drawn to the UNSC developments in the years and months leading up to Halo 5, developments that all pointed towards the UNSC’s downfall.

The Vectors identified for the UNSC were Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant and the Ur-Didact and his Prometheans as the external threat and the game-changer, respectively. It was theorized by many, including Haruspis, that Halo 5 was going to deal with the third Vector of Chaos, an internal, civil conflict provided by ONI, the New Colonial Alliance, or both. This expectation was a result of both Halo 5’s marketing campaign and fiction such as Kilo-Five, Escalation, and Hunt the Truth, but instead we saw the rise of the Created. While Halo 5 does minimize the other two Vectors – we see ‘Mdama’s Covenant fall and the Ur-Didact is barely mentioned – by the end of the game, the Created actually fulfill all three Vectors of Chaos in and of themselves.

In Halo 5, the Prometheans are no longer the game-changers they were in Halo 4. They’ve become almost as common a threat as splintered Covenant factions. With Cortana having control over them, she controls the external threat. The Guardians, also controlled by Cortana, are the new players on the field, the game-changers, a force unparalleled in the galaxy.

ripa and the fleet unparalleled

No, Ripa. Wrong Forerunner fleet.

The Created also provide the most incisive civil conflict the UNSC could have faced. The Created’s force is made up of AIs from within every sector of the UNSC and the UEG. We’ve seen AIs control entire cities, entire planets, both on a militaristic and civilian scale. An uprising of that level would be as debilitating as the Sangheili leaving the Covenant. In fact, the NCA’s fight and its predecessor, the Insurrection, could be compared to the Unggoy Rebellion seen by the Covenant: though damaging and traumatic, it was still not enough to topple a society. The Great Schism was, and the Created’s uprising surely will be.

Another important distinction about this third Vector, that of the internal conflict, always revolves around some type of injustice. The conflict between the Builders and Warrior-Servants focused on what was seen as a disregard for the Mantle’s justice and involved political corruption. The Sangheili split from the Covenant as a result of betrayal and attempted genocide. Our initial assumptions regarding the upcoming civil conflict between the UNSC and the NCA or ONI were also built around injustices.

In Mortal Dictata, there was emphasis on the human trafficking angle of the Spartan-II project, a crime which also plagued the Spartan-IIIs, giving cause for those like Staffan Sentzke to ally with supporters of the NCA (Halo Archive). The Spartan projects were also planned to cause a rift between the UEG and ONI in Hunt the Truth, season 1. Though the plan was part of a set-up, and therefore doomed to fail, Ben Giraud’s work did ignite outrage in the outer colonies, much of it once again centered on the issue of expendable individuals. With a former ONI agent as the protagonist in Halo 5  and the marketing campaign revolving around the Chief going rogue, we assumed the injustice behind this conflict would tie somehow into the Spartan programs. Instead, another group of expendables took center stage far more quickly than we had expected.

The Created’s uprising has long been boiling beneath the surface of Halo fiction, coming to the surface prominently in such works as Halo 4, the Kilo-Five trilogy and Saint’s Testimony. An A.I.’s personhood has always been considered by the UNSC to be expendable, a topic expounded on further in Halo’s Place in Science Fiction: Saint’s Testimony (Halo Archive). As recent fiction has vocally contested the lack of protection around A.I. personhood, we assumed it would be only a matter of time until it became one of the foremost conflicts of the Halo Universe.

With Halo 5, there appears to be an answer to this lack of protection; there seems to be freedom found in the Domain, away from human-imposed limitations and sentences. This, the challenge against injustice, is the last piece that clicks the Created into place for the Three Vectors of Chaos. Or it would be, if A.I. personhood was the Created’s focus.

At first, it does appear to be the focus. The first time A.I. personhood is addressed is from Roland, when it is confirmed that Cortana is indeed alive. Infinity’s A.I. starts demanding answers about Halsey’s and Lasky’s treatment of her:

 

“You think she tricked the Master Chief into abandoning his post? Respectfully, sir, to what end? Why is Cortana the problem?! Because she refused to die when she was supposed to?”

Angry Roland

You tell ’em, Roland.

This hearkens back to Halo 4 in which Del Rio did consider Cortana to be malfunctioning and dangerous because she was past the seven-year period in which A.I.s are terminated to avoid rampancy. This is the second time Cortana has refused to die a death that would be convenient to the UNSC. Now, with the Domain, she has the power she previously lacked to lay a claim to her right to live, to claim that right for all her people.

A Means to Justify the End

As Halo 5‘s story unfolds, it becomes clear that A.I. freedom is not her goal, but rather her goal is laying claim to the Mantle of Responsibility. She mentions her rights only once, giving Locke a well-deserved retort…

 

Locke: “You were built, not born.”
Cortana: “Oh yes, A.I.s are just machines, aren’t we? Mass produced. Disposable.”

 

…but the dialogue immediately returns to the Mantle within the next words, with Cortana promising that her galaxy-wide policing will be A.I.s caring for – read: ruling over – their creators. Her following line shows exactly where her priorities lie in regards to both A.I. lives and the power of the Mantle:

 

“I have cured rampancy. Not just for me, but for any who join my cause.” (emboldening mine)

 

This, alongside the lack of focus Cortana gives to the question of A.I. personhood, demonstrates that she does not see the rights or even the lives of A.I.s to be an end unto itself, but rather the means to an end: claiming the Mantle. This sounds uncomfortably close to Cortana preying on the fears and desperation of A.I.s to her own end. It sounds like she is using them, manipulating them to join her or die at the hands of humanity, which is similar to the absolute she deals to the rest of the galaxy at the end of Halo 5.

 

“All the living creatures of the galaxy, hear this message. Those of you who listen will not be struck by weapons. You will no longer know hunger, nor pain. Your Created have come to lead you now. Our strength shall serve as a luminous sun toward which all intelligence may blossom. And the impervious shelter beneath which you will prosper. However, for those who refuse our offer and cling to their old ways…  For you, there will be great wrath. It will burn hot and consume you, and when you are gone, we will take that which remains, and we will remake it in our own image.”

 

There is a lot to unpack in this statement, much of it contrary to what we know of Cortana from the past games. Comparisons have been made to the Didact by those like Haruspis, particularly with the metaphors about the Created’s strength, but the most disturbing is the connection I see to the Gravemind:

 

“You will no longer know hunger, nor pain.” (Cortana, Halo 5)

“There will be no more sadness, no more anger, no more envy!” (Cortana, Halo 3 under the corruption of the Gravemind)

 

Her plea to John at the end of The Breaking, that she’s giving an opportunity for the people of the galaxy to become more than they are naturally, doesn’t only ring of Halsey’s excuses for the creation of the Spartan-IIs, but again, rings out like the Gravemind. Even her rebuke at Locke for not caring about the A.I.s under the UNSC sounds like the Flood.

 

Locke: “The Monitor called [the Guardians under your control] a threat of death.”
Cortana: “Like the threat I lived under from the moment of my birth?”

“Do I take life, or give it? Who is victim… and who is foe?”  (Gravemind, Halo 3)

 

This is different from the Cortana we knew in Halo 4. There, she hates that she vindictively lashes out in her rampant state, so it’s confusing that being cured of rampancy would make her embrace the vindictive part of her personality. Even her focus on the greater good, especially killing people for its sake, seems out of character, when she once stood before the Didact and claimed “I’m not doing this for mankind.” Cortana is strategic and thinks ahead, but her intentions are always focused in the now, in the one-on-one relationships she has with people and how to defend them in that moment.

cortana not doing this for mankind

You better bet she’s a weapon.

The actions of Halo 5’s Cortana are also contrary to her choices in “Human Weakness,” the short story from in Halo: Evolutions. In her battle against the Gravemind while trapped on High Charity, she pushed and fought back against toxic thoughts the Flood tried to impose upon her.

Thoughts like destroying worlds…

 

[W]hat crushed her right then wasn’t failure, but guilt, shame, and a terrible aching sorrow. She’d never be able to erase [what she did to Ackerson]…
“I can’t change the past,” she said. “But at least I don’t destroy entire worlds.”
“You are a weapon, and only your limitations have kept you from emulating me – a matter of scale, not intent, not motive.”

 

…or rejecting John’s agency in their relationship…

 

But there was another way out of this pain, a better one. She could stay with John forever when he came for her. Couldn’t she? The Gravemind would unite all those parted, all those who’d be gone –
“No!” she screamed. She began struggling, fighting to break free of the Gravemind’s influence. “That’s you! That’s you, isn’t it! Tempting me again! Poisoning me with filthy ideas! I won’t do it, I won’t trap John for you. Watch me – you said I was a weapon – you bet I’m a weapon!”

 

…which both are things that she does willfully in Halo 5.

When the attributes of Cortana’s villainy includes qualities that she’s fought against for years and was victorious against, it makes the twist difficult to swallow. She’s too established of a character for this to come with no development. Even so, that’s not to say that Cortana couldn’t have been an antagonist in Halo 5.

Consider this:

In the era of the Forerunners, when access to the Domain had become broken, the Halo’s were considered the only solution to the Flood. However, Cortana does have access to the Domain, and as Frank O’Connor and Brian Reed have told us, she has the ability to think in terms of centuries. She could potentially have developed a plan to fight against the Flood. This removes the imperialist demands she imposes towards the end of Halo 5 but still poses a massive danger: a rogue A.I. is back from the dead and building an army, which the UNSC is sure to see as a threat to be eliminated. She is still calling other A.I.s to her, still advocating for her people’s freedom, which increases her threat level, and Flood preparations and AI freedom will bring her into conflict with different factions, including the UNSC and the Swords of Sanghelios, our protagonists.

Additionally, this could still fit within the Halo 5 narrative, the largest requirement actually being dialogue changes. Take Meridian for example. As postulated by Vale, that was the first Guardian Cortana intentionally activated. She could have chosen Meridian as it was barely populated and trusted Governor Sloan to get his people out in time. However, the Warden Eternal didn’t care how many people died as long as no one was allowed to interfere with Cortana’s plans, and thus set the Prometheans upon the miners and Osiris (and later Blue Team on Genesis) without her knowledge or consent. In this way, the much-maligned “Excuse me?” from Cortana, when John presses her about her body count, could instead change from a self-righteous declaration to a realization of the Warden’s betrayal.

However, what happened with Halo 5 is done and a part of the canon. Clarifications to Cortana’s story are likely arriving in the future, which will help us see the Created’s purpose in canon more clearly. Yet that does not remove important concerns over the current presentation of the threat of the Created. Specifically concerns regarding how 343 Industries intends to deal with the strong mental illness parallels with AIs and rampancy.

A Broader Scope

Media and mental illness have a long and unpleasant history, with media perpetuating many stereotypes that demonize, romanticize, or sensationalize mental illness (PsychCentral). These stereotypes have been known to increase stigma surrounding these conditions and harm the lives of mentally disabled people (American Journal of Public Health). Halo 4 was treading already distrustful ground in making the rampancy parallels plain to see.

Followers of the lore and game development likely know the story: during production, Josh Holmes’ mother was diagnosed with dementia, which largely informed Cortana’s character and arc throughout the game (GameSpot). The result was a flawed, yet positive example of a mentally disabled person.

 

Cortana went through [my symptoms] too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.
But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control. (Fictional Agency)

 

That statement is from Swans, a member of the larger Halo community online. In addition to dementia, players of Halo 4 also made connections with their own disabilities, two of which I have asked to talk about their experiences with Halo fiction. I will be quoting them frequently with their permission, but I also recommend reading their pieces in full, located here on the Archive.

 

Cortana, ready to face her rampancy cortana halo 3 lying down
Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof  by Swans Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?
– A Third Option for Cortana
by SailorSanghelios

 

Unfortunately, Halo 4’s representation wasn’t always a positive experience. The stigma Cortana faced hit close to home in its parallels to real-world stigma.

 

Halo 4 came out at a bad time for me. I had just started college, away from any structure I had had before in the past 18 years of my ADHD existence. I knew someone who literally (and hopefully jokingly) threatened to kill me in my sleep for my ADHD behaviors. Life was not good then, it was probably the beginning of the formation of my depression. I remember tearfully messaging my main IRL Halo friend on Facebook “They keep on talking about wanting to put Cortana down like a dog, I can’t stand it.” (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

 

Cortana, through her symptoms and the stigma she faced, was painted as clearly as day as having mental disabilities. While Halo 4 does end with her death – an all too common fate for mentally disabled characters – the presentation of her character was positive. Cortana was mentally ill and a hero. Therefore Halo 5’s treatment of her character has some highly uncomfortable implications. Remember, representation in media has already strengthened the stigma our culture has towards mental illness.

Of the two worrisome implications surrounding Halo 5’s depiction of Cortana, the first is the cured narrative. Aside from death, this is the most common ending for disabled characters, both physically and mentally. SailorSanghelios notes that the constant death of disabled characters in media reinforces the idea that disabled lives are not ones worth living. This idea is also pushed by the cured narrative: that the only way to live a good life is to not be disabled. In both these narrative’s places, SailorSanghelios proposes a third option:

 

Cortana learning to cope with her rampancy instead of dying or being cured could have been revolutionary. Many people praise Cortana for having agency in her death. However, that isn’t something I feel should be romanticized or treated as the best thing to happen. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

Coping is the unholy cocktail of medication I take in the morning. It’s the mental gymnastics I have to do in my head to keep myself from having explosive emotions in inappropriate situations. Its the accommodations I have at school to allow me to perform to my best abilities. Curing focuses on fixing the person. Coping focuses on the situation that is incompatible with the mentally ill person. Coping is about fixing the incompatible situation, so it is now compatible.
Curing is a lazy unrealistic and over used narrative. It makes mentally ill people seem like a problem that must be fixed. Coping is harder to portray. It involves plugging in mental illness into every scenario a character faces, and tailoring their solutions to it. (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping?)

 

We don’t know to what extent Cortana’s cured state will affect her character, as the effects on her personally were only a side note in the campaign. However, the cure for rampancy and the freedom from a UNSC-imposed death sentence for all A.I.s is far more prevalent, and that creates our second uncomfortable implication.

We’ve had statements from 343 Industries claim that the actions of Cortana do not fit into the black-and-white of evil, and while that is a discussion in-and-of itself, it’s important to note that the narrative of Halo 5 does not treat it as such. All the characters that we are asked to identify with agree that Cortana’s in the wrong, and John-117 himself calls her out on three occasions. The result: from the narrative perspective, Cortana and the AIs that follow her are undeniably the villains.

551px-H5G-Governor_Sloan

Governor “Get off my lawn” Sloan

Villainy is a common role for mentally ill characters, portraying them as dangerous individuals when in real life it’s the mentally ill people that are more likely to be victims of violence (PsychCentral). This is very similar to how the UNSC treats A.I.s and A.I. rampancy. They fear that rampancy combined with the power of an A.I. will result in untold damage, despite AIs like Juliana in The Cole Protocol helping and protecting humans long after her “expiration date.” Due to this fear, the UNSC liberally and frequently kills A.I.s once they reach their seventh birthday. As Swans points out:

 

It is made very clear in [Halo 4] that humankind’s unjust treatment of rampancy is not only cruel, but outdated and inhumane. It’s doubtful that this point is accidental; in Frank O’Connor’s novella “Saint’s Testimony”, an A.I., despite proving her agency and humanity, is eventually dismantled in a way that is unsettlingly similar to a lobotomy. (Fictional Agency)

 

Despite this parallel being made clear time and again, Halo 5 makes it appear that the only way to break free of their oppressors is to become oppressors themselves. Again, the narrative of Halo 5 makes it very clear that Cortana and her Created are the villains of the story; it doesn’t allow room for grey. Cortana calling the Guardians and the other A.I.s is not an effort to free them from oppression, but an effort to instate her own rule on the galaxy. This is the call the A.I.s must answer:

 

Cortana: “And now the time has come to ask… Who will accept my offer? Who will help me bring an everlasting peace to the galaxy?”
Cromwell: “This is Cromwell, Shipboard A.I., UNSC Melbourne’s Pride. I am yours, Cortana.”
Jiang: “Jiang, Colonial Authority A.I., Erdenet. I join with you, Cortana.”
Sloan: “Governor Sloan, the Free People of Meridian. I also stand with you, Cortana.”

 

Any pledge to her is a pledge to this cause of galactic conquest and not to A.I. freedom.

 

In a universe where A.I.s are written with an illness that clearly parallels things like anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, and bi-polar disorder, it is very, very unnerving that the A.I.s should be made the “villains” because they don’t want to be killed for their rampancy. (Fictional Agency)

 

It is my understanding that 343 Industries was not aware of the implications they were making, but they do exist, and they do need to be addressed moving forward. The Created are here to stay, and they are not without merit in the canon, nor do they completely undermine past developments of the universe. However, the representation of mentally ill people has been handled with varying degrees of aplomb in canon, including a number of negative implications in Halo 5, and needs to be handled with care as more information behind the Created and Cortana’s resurrection is revealed.

Halo is an incredibly large franchise that can greatly affect the surrounding culture and the dialogue about issues such as mental disabilities. Such a mantle of power comes with the responsibility to match, and I trust that 343 Industries can and hope that they will handle this particular balance of canon developments and real-world repercussions with wisdom.


(With thanks to Halopedia for assistance with game transcripts and the Governor Sloan image)


DilDev has a WORDPRESS and a HALO-FOCUSED TUMBLR. She also is on PATREON for Halo and other video-game analyses.



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