I imagine I’m not the only person who’s ever misheard a song lyric or misunderstood a quotation only to find its true meaning unsatisfying afterwards. Like discovering that Jimi Hendrix is singing about coming up for air, having dreamt about being underwater, when he sings “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky”, rather than brazenly canoodling with another man, saying, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy.” There’s an entire website devoted to this phenomenon called kissthisguy.com. The front page there is pretty goddamn ugly, though, so I’d advise against clicking it if you have functioning eyes.
That’s a silly example, but I had a much more hurtful experience when I reached the end of Halo 4’s campaign. I found myself watching a bold, abstract, emotional and exciting finale, only to have this cruelly undone leaving just the emotional experience to persist. In this case the truth was frustrating, robbing me of a future for the franchise I was genuinely excited about. Let me explain.
It’s the last cutscene in the game, so you really shouldn’t need a spoiler warning, but there it is.
Halo 4 has a lot of shit happening in it. Themes are picked up and discarded with alarming frequency, but one that remains throughout is the “digitisation” of humanity, which kind of runs parallel to how our society is currently changing with constant connection to the internet and each other. It asks some questions about how good this is and who benefits from it. The main counter-argument the game presents is about the loss of humanity, individuality and independent direction in those being digitised. The Prometheans are all identical but were ostensibly individuals who were digitised and their appearance is obviously non-human, monstrous even. They also lack free will and are wholly in the thrall of The Didact, the game’s antagonist. Halo 4 chooses to represent the conversion as a distressingly painful process in what is by far its most violent sequence. A lot of this stems from the fact that The Didact is a dogmatic military leader who sees flesh and bone as a weakness for disease (The Flood) to exploit. He sees this digitisation as a positive step, albeit for twisted reasons.
Alongside this the game questions the place of “artificial constructs” in human society. Cortana is an AI, Master Chief is a genetically engineered soldier bred and trained to be only that. They are both artificial in different ways and their place as a class (above or below humanity) is a question that’s been asked throughout the franchise. The ethics of the creation of AIs, their limited lifespan and organic components are also explored, most notably in Halo 4 itself with Cortana’s excruciating, inescapable decay.
That’s a little bit deeper than I’d normally be comfortable going for a blog post, but it’s important to point out that these ideas permeate the entire franchise, particularly in this latest instalment. They directly influence how I understood the ending before it was fully revealed.
There’s one final bit of background I need to cover before I talk about the ending itself, 7 paragraphs in. At a point about midway through the game Master Chief has his biological form changed in some profound but unrevealed way by a benevolent entity called The Librarian. We are told that this is specifically in response to The Didact’s plans for humanity and his process of digitisation. There are also vague references made to the “next step” for humanity, again tying in some of the perspectives on Spartans and AI. It also keeps with the Master Chief’s identity as special or chosen.
Synopsis time. In the finale of the game The Didact is attempting to digitise all of humanity with a device called The Composer. His motivation is now the punishment of humanity for perceived past transgressions, rather than as a countermeasure to The Flood. The Master Chief and Cortana are able to prevent this by killing The Didact with a grenade and throwing him off a light bridge (in a fucking QTE of all things. Really, Halo?) They then destroy the device with an extremely powerful nuclear bomb. Prior to this Cortana has sacrificed most of herself to enable the Chief to reach the Didact in the first place. This part ends with the player detonating the bomb in his hands atop the bridge and the screen fading to white.
I assumed at this point that Master Chief would have cheated death in some way, since it really didn’t feel like they were going to kill him off in the first part of the new trilogy. The story just hadn’t been heading in that direction, but it had been eulogising Cortana and her relationship with the Chief so I was pretty sure Cortana wasn’t going to make it out. Unsurprisingly, the white screen fades back in to Master Chief crouched, surrounded by the flowing blue lines and geometry that have always defined Cortana and the digital realm in the Halo Universe. As soon as I saw this I thought, “Oh Shit! Master Chief is IN the digital world.” My eyes literally widened. His body has obviously been obliterated since he was holding a nuclear bomb, but the Chief, in some form, persists as information. The idea that he’s now in the ether is cemented by the fact that the space in which he finds himself appears infinite in extent. His voice echoes when he speaks, which suggests emptiness and expanse (although not technically infinity because the sound would need something to bounce off but give me a break here).
I thought this was what the whole game had been building to: all of the talk about digitisation and how it’s possible but imperfect since it was tainted by The Didact’s rage. But Master Chief was changed in some way to resist The Didact…he’s able to retain his individuality when he’s digitised! That’s how he was changed by The Librarian, made possible by his identity as a Spartan. He is special. He is an evolutionary step further and he is a trailblazer for mankind in yet another way. It all fits. As does the next shot of him standing with his back to the camera surrounded by this new world.
He is once again alone, as he was before as The Last Spartan. He calls out for Cortana, his lone companion who saved him from solitude. She appears. I had another “Oh Shit!” moment because now, finally, they’re both in Cortana’s realm. She talks at the beginning of the game about only being able to “measure” or “detect” the false sun, but not “see” that it is fake. But now, since they are both just lines of code, she is truly able to “see” her great friend in a way that she profoundly understands. It’s a much more meaningful take on the “computer becoming human trope” because it doesn’t present humanity as a zenith. There’s even a wonderful side-on shot that really displays the whole “seeing each other with new eyes” thing. And there’s a great subtlety to it: Master Chief only takes a few tentative steps towards Cortana, confused and afraid, but Cortana, who has wanted this moment for most of her life, yearningly strides towards her friend in his new form, ready to comfort and protect him as he has so loyally her. I have to tell you, I was seriously moved by this. I still am, rewatching it for this article, despite the disappointment that’s coming.
This would be a really bizarre turn for the franchise to take, I thought to myself. These are pretty big concepts the player is being asked to consider and this new world is really abstract in comparison to the existing one. It’s been grounded in the real world, with bullets and monsters and cars and tanks. Cortana’s next dialogue seems to directly address this concern. Master Chief simply asks,
And Cortana glibly responds, as if to the player,
“Oh, I’m the strangest thing you’ve seen all day.”
This was telling me not to worry. That the games have always been strange and epic and this is no different; it’s just a new adventure. At this point I was giddy with excitement, as a consumer of stories and as a player. What stories would they tell with this new dual setting? And what gameplay could I expect? Would there be an entirely abstract space to explore? Can Master Chief teleport as information now? Will others be joining him or is he truly special? What does he get built from when he rematerialises? Will he rematerialise? And will Master Chief finally be able to open his own goddamn doors? My mind was running with questions and possibilities. But the scene wasn’t done yet. Their conversation continues, again reinforcing the idea that they are both now “elsewhere”, some new place:
“But if we’re here…”
“It worked. You did it. Just like you always do.”
This is Cortana referring to how he was changed by The Librarian and again reinforcing his role as a special one and a leader.
“So how do we get out of here?” Master Chief asks, still frightened of his new identity and longing for the familiarity of his corporeal form, but again reinforcing the idea that they are in a new place.
“I’m not coming with you this time.”
“Most of me is down there…”
Now we’re seeing their separation play out since Cortana is dying and has been dying, painfully, in front of us for the entire game. It’s made all the more heartbreaking because the friendship between these two people has truly evolved into something unique, special and powerful. And more humanly, there is still the joy of new discovery between such old friends, but they’ll only be able to share it for an instant. And it will have to be enough. It’s so fucking sad. But it’s really, really good.
The use of “down there” referring to the real world where Cortana used herself up destroying The Composer calls back to the ideas of digitisation being a step above in human progress as well as Chief and Cortana possibly being of a higher class.
Then the big moment comes: Cortana reaches out and touches Master Chief. But it’s not a lame and nebulous need for contact. When they touch, Master Chief appears to glow a little and a new, pulsing sound plays; there is information flowing between these two entities. They’re no longer viewing each other through a display or a hologram, they’re actually connected. They’re communicating in the way Cortana thinks, not through human speech. In that touch they share everything, even though they both already know it.
“I’ve waited so long to do that.” Cortana says breathlessly. She’s wanted to share her world with her friend, for him to see it as she does, to interact with him in a way she knows, rather than he. This touch actually fucking symbolises something.
As Cortana steps into the blue expanse she fades into it, her information lost in the endless sea that stretches out before the Master Chief. Her last words to him are
“Welcome home, John.”
Because he is home. He’s where he belongs. In her home. In the new home for the player. And she uses his true name. “Welcome home, John.” Fucking CREDITS. Beautiful.
At least, that’s what I was expecting. All of the questions above are going to be answered through discovery in the next game. I was excited. I couldn’t wait. But the credits didn’t roll. The cinematic kept going. The debris of The Composer appeared around the Master Chief as the apparent infinite blue expanse faded around him.
The light bridge. It was hard light. She put him in a hard light bubble shield. They were just in space. She’d just made herself out of hard light like she did in the battle with The Didact. The touch was no different than walking over one of the countless bridges in the campaign. And why had she waited for so long to do that? She could have done that in Halo 1. “Down there” is just the debris fallen to Earth. “Home” is just Earth. Master Chief hasn’t taken on a new form; he’s just floating in space. And the implication that a hard light shield can withstand a point blank nuclear blast just makes me ask, “Why the fuck isn’t everything made of this? It apparently doesn’t need a power source as the whole Composer was destroyed but Cortana was still generating one.” It’s asinine. It’s nonsense. Master Chief was just changed to resist the digitising ray, not to usher in a new era for humanity. The next game is just going to be more Halo. I have never felt so robbed of a story, of a moment, in all my life. Perhaps that’s an accomplishment. But I’d rather have my future back. I’d rather be excited and unsure.
[The entire scene in question can be viewed here]