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
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:
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.
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
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.
Follow us on Twitter for updates and links to general coolness