Love's a game: Master Chief and Cortana

I recently played Halo 4 with two people who had never played any Halo games before. I summarized the series as best I could, but I ran into a speed bump when they asked me to clarify the nature of Master Chief and Cortana's relationship.

After I stuttered some insufficient explanations, one of them asked, "Is it a Tinkerbell fetish?"

I laughed. Then I realized that wasn't far from the truth.

Cortana's redesign for Halo 4 involves more exaggerated hips and breasts, as well as more sparkles. Her new measurements give her a certain Tinkerbell-ish charm (the Disney version, at least).

Her breast size shouldn't matter, ideally. As Claire Hosking wrote in her essay "Playthings," regarding Cortana, "The implication that larger boobs are a liability to well-presented, deep characters makes me nervous because, well, how many stacked women get to have complex stories in popular media?"

An increase in hip and breast size could be written off as just a growth spurt for your typical humanoid character, but Cortana is an AI. She's been designed to look the way she looks, and the way she looks keeps getting updated, ever so slightly, to fit more and more into standard beauty conventions. She appears as a naked woman in body paint, albeit a holographic, non-corporeal one. Oh, and her personality has been imported from the female doctor who created the Spartan project, also known as the closest thing to a mother figure that Master Chief and the rest of his fellow super soldiers have.

Lorraine McLeees talks about the experience of creating Cortana's original character design in this old 2003 interview from Bungie's website:

            "It seems that videogames studios are mainly made up of a bunch of guys, and the women in their games are perhaps portrayed in the way they themselves see women. Here, the same 3-D artist who wanted to not portray women as sex objects to be ogled and drooled over, coincidentally, modeled Konoko and Cortana. Never mind that Cortana was basically a naked hologram! For her action figure, it was important that she didn't look too young, as she did in the game, so she became a little buxom. I'd requested her to not be as buxom, but somehow, the sculptor just didn't want to make that change. We ran out of time, and there we go. [shrugs]" (Source.)

The sexualization of Cortana in the Halo fan community should come as no surprise (in spite of the creepy fact that she's as much a mother figure to Master Chief as she is a love/lust interest). It seems naïve to assume that Cortana's creators didn't see the onslaught of fan-art coming. Yet, in-game, Cortana is as sexually unavailable to the Chief as Tinkerbell is to Peter Pan, if not more so. At least Tinkerbell is, y'know, corporeal.

The complexity of the pair's relationship, and the extent to which that relationship has been imagined and supplemented by the fan community, seems to come to a head in this piece on Gameranx: "Three Things Master Chief and Cortana could teach you about marriage."

Although the values that this essay claims the fictional couple teaches us (trust, loyalty, and working through each others' flaws) seem reasonable enough, I do not see Cortana and Master Chief as a good model for marriage overall, mostly due to Cortana's design. I don't mean her appearance; although, I do think the fact that she's naked (physically and emotionally), while Master Chief is constantly armored and blocked off, do not present an adequate picture of how a long-term relationship ought to look. I'm more referring to the fact that Cortana has been created, programmed, designed to be a guide for Master Chief.

Cortana tells us at the beginning of Halo 3 that "they let [her] pick" and that she chose Master Chief out of all the Spartans because she liked him best; this line seems intended to reassure the player that Cortana really does care about the Chief. She wasn't just assigned to her task at random. She's an AI, but she still has the personality of a specific human, and one might say that the sci-fi community has collectively gotten over the question of whether robots will be able to love in the future (see also: the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica and, more recently, EDI in Mass Effect 3). So why do I keep feeling like Cortana's love for Master Chief has been manufactured?

Halo 4 does what it can to wring my heartstrings and convince me that Cortana and the Chief's love is real (spoilers to follow in this paragraph, by the way). Cortana begins the game by telling Master Chief that her body is becoming obsolete and that she will soon die; true to her word, she does die at the end of the game. But before she dies, she manages to gain corporeal form for a short time, and she grows into a more proportional real human size. She reaches out to touch Master Chief's chest plate, saying she had "always wanted" to be able to touch him. She's still not touching him, really. She's touching his armor. That's as far as that goes.

Cortana can never really reach Master Chief. Perhaps it's because his armor always stays on, and his voice always stays unemotional and staid, or the fact that his best friend and maybe-girlfriend is a computer who only think he's cool because she's also kind of his Mom? Somehow, Master Chief comes across as a confused child in this scene, to me. Like Peter Pan if all of his Lost Boys had been killed by pirates and only Tinkerbell stuck around.

There remains some unusual gender subversion in this arranged marriage between Master Chief and Cortana (if we can call it a marriage, we must at least agree it was an arranged one). After all, she "picked" him, she's the smart one, the dominant one who tells him what to do. He may argue, but eventually, he'll agree that Cortana is right. She's always right.

But this subversion doesn't make me feel good about Cortana and Master Chief's relationship. If anything, it makes me question the logistical reality, let alone the romance, of a human dating a much smarter AI being. Cortana's smarter than the Chief, and not even just a little bit smarter - she's way more chock full of knowledge than the most brilliant human being could ever dream to be. In other words, she's not human. So why would we want her to date a human, let alone this one?

The reason is obvious: because this human is Master Chief, and we are Master Chief. We want Cortana to love us, because we love her. We don't see his face, ever, because his face is supposed to seem like it could be our face. We aren't supposed to see Master Chief as an alienating Peter Pan manchild, like I do - we're supposed to see him as us.

Cortana also symbolizes something: the video game Halo. She's beautiful, she's untouchable, she's sexy, she's waiting for us, she's smarter than we are, she gives us orders and we follow them (even when we don't understand why), she's expressive, she's emotional, she's dramatic, she's practical, she's artificial, she's been designed ... She manages to be all of that. And if we fall in love with Cortana, we are really just falling in love with Halo.

Aside from the assumption that the player is a heterosexual male, Halo does well at disguising its seduction of the player through the medium of Cortana. Just as Halo the series keeps insisting it won't be back yet keeps returning in more iterations, so too am I sure that Cortana will continue to re-appear in new, updated forms, again and again, until we stop buying her. She been programmed to guide and entertain us. She is an experience that we have purchased.

Even though I've loved Halo since high school, I still don't love Cortana. You'd think, since I'm always asking for more intelligent and capable women characters, that I would feel good about the way that so many male gamers put Cortana on a pedestal. Halo 4 came out the same day as the November 2012 elections, and I saw many a #Cortana2012 on Twitter that day; when I tweeted #Chief2012, multiple people actually corrected me, since Cortana is "the smart one" of the pair.

I realize those corrections were made in jest, but this disturbed me. One of the most intelligent and most celebrated female characters in games is ... not even real? Of course, all female characters in games aren't real; they're programmed and designed and fictional, and often created by all-male teams that have the words "sex sells" tattooed on their drawing hand. But, even within the narrative of Halo itself, Cortana is even more unreal, even more programmed. She's a design within a design.

Would these gamers have been willing to nominate a non-AI female character for president as a joke, had a different video game come out on that fated day last November? Instead of feeling glad that so many gamers were clamoring for a fictional female president, I ended up feeling depressed that Cortana had made the ballot ... and even more depressed that I couldn't think of any great alternatives.

But, hey, I guess no misogynists would need to worry that PMS might cause Cortana to launch our nukes in a fit of feminine hysteria. She's just a computer, so she'll do whatever we tell her to. Talk about your perfect woman.

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