Monday, August 29, 2011

Feminist Analysis of Halo: Combat Evolved

(I wrote this specifically for a Going Rampant video)

The Xbox first-person-shooter Halo: Combat Evolved, made by Bungie Studios, became one of the most popular American games after its release in 2001 and spawned the long-running Halo franchise. A revamped version of the game will be released this November, what we all recognize as a desperate grab for cash but what Halo fans will get anyway because we’re just that geeky. While the success of the franchise encouraged Bungie to appeal to women in later games, the first one was centered on the generic male market with a lot of homages to their mostly male established fanbase. Even though this is the future where all the countries have combined, it looks pretty much like modern day America in space.

So, the story is that in 2552, humanity is getting exterminated by a religiously zealous alien alliance called the Covenant. After the planet Reach falls, this one human ship called Pillar of Autumn makes a random jump into subspace to escape the Covenant but not lead it back to any human colonies. It lands near a Larry Niven rip-off that the Covenant call Halo, an ancient alien artificial world of unknown purpose or origin. The Autumn carries the last Spartan supersoldier, at this point known only as Master Chief, and they wake him up when the Covenant show up on their tail.

The Autumn is captained by Jacob Keyes, who depends highly on the ship’s artificial intelligence called Cortana, the main female character of the Halo series. Cortana is the highly intelligent controller of the ship who is also a naked hologram. You don’t see anything to make this an Adults-Only game, but her naked form is on display there for the male audience. I believe Bungie wanted to make a female character that wasn’t as overtly attractive as Konoko from their previous game Oni, but that didn’t pan out. The general consensus in the Halo fandom is that Cortana is superhot. Even if you recognize that she’s, you know, a cartoon, there’re plenty of Cortana cosplayers to make the character still regarded as basically a sex object. Besides that, I do appreciate the character. I know that’s like saying that besides that Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the play, but Cortana is smart, witty, fun, and has enough human personality to really make me feel for her.

Anyway, Keyes explains that if the Covenant get their computers they’ll learn valuable intel on them, so he plans to wipe everything. He has Cortana transfer to the Master Chief’s helmet so she can escape with him, while Keyes tries to land the ship on Halo. As the player is the Master Chief, Cortana acts as an adviser throughout most of the game, giving hints and complaining when the Chief doesn’t address the mission. She isn’t just your AI, though, she sometimes commands military units from her position, and she isn’t regarded so much as equipment as she is a person in the chain of command, below the captain but superior to most everyone else.

As the Chief boards the escape pod, we see that the pilot is a woman. This is the last female character we see visually depicted, though there’s also a character called Foehammer we never see but do hear on the radio. All the pilot really does is say they’re landing on Halo, and then she turns out to be a red-shirt with the rest of the pod save for the Chief and Cortana. It’s nice to see a female soldier, but the only human women are both pilots. All the fighting Marines are male, most based off of the game developers with the exception of the black sergeant—named Johnson in the credits—who’s an homage to Aliens.

So, the Chief basically just goes around and unites the Marines that landed in the general area while fighting Covenant and admiring the game’s graphics, which were gorgeous ten years ago. The pilot that picks everyone up at the end is Foehammer, piloting the Pelican aircraft Echo 419. Halo: Combat Evolved passes the Bechdel test, by the way, because Cortana and Foehammer talk about her delivering equipment. They then go to rescue Captain Keyes from the Covenant, during which Cortana shows her usefulness as a hacker who can open doors. Keyes describes how the Covenant revere Halo and think it’s a weapon, so the humans need to take control first. Keyes’ intel then leads them to a map room, where they determine the location of Halo’s control center. The Chief fights his way in, and Cortana downloads herself into Halo’s main computer.

At this point, she starts acting oddly. The Halo series is kind of a reworking of Bungie’s previous series Marathon, which involved AIs entering a state called Rampancy, where they became rebellious and often hostile to humanity. AIs would frequently go Rampant after absorbing a lot of information, so the implication here is that Cortana is going Rampant. This won’t happen until Halo 3, and Halo Rampancy works a bit different from Marathon Rampancy, but we’re supposed to feel some distrust toward Cortana.

She acts cocky and refers to the Chief as a barbarian when he calls Halo a weapon. Then she sends the Chief off on a vague mission to stop the captain before something happens. He finds this creepy facility where Covenant are running away in terror. They accidentally let out this parasite called the Flood that the Halo builders—the Forerunners—were trying to keep contained. The Covenant sealed off part of the facility, but the humans, thinking the Covenant were protecting a supply of weapons, opened it up again. The Flood are like a cross between the Xenomorphs from Aliens and zombies.

A Forerunner AI called 343 Guilty Spark then pops up and recruits the Master Chief to help him contain the Flood. This involves a ritual where the Chief secures a device called the Index after walking through a place called the Library, which happens to be filled with Flood. The AI chatters away and it becomes clear that he’s both Rampant and a little deranged, believing that the Chief is a Forerunner he knew a hundred thousand years ago and referring to him as Reclaimer. After the Chief gets the Index, Spark teleports him to the Control Room.

Cortana seems absent for some reason, and the Chief starts activating Halo’s main weapon by inserting the Index into the console. Cortana then shuts it down and zaps Spark. I think we’re supposed to think she’s evil now. She soon reveals Halo’s true purpose (weapon of mass destruction to kill everything in the galaxy), and Spark turns into the antagonist. Cortana absorbs the Index and goes back into the Chief’s head. After he fights off Spark’s robots, she directs him to cause some damage to Halo to keep Spark busy repairing for a while. She seems very egotistical and liable to turn on him at any point, but she doesn’t. She decides to blow up the Pillar of Autumn to destroy Halo, but to do that they need the captain’s codes. The captain managed to get himself captured by the Covenant again, so Cortana sends the Chief to a ship, where it turns out Keyes has been absorbed by the Flood and turned into some hive mind mass that the Flood intend to use to pilot the ship. Cortana seems genuinely shocked, and I think it’s clear that she considered Keyes a friend and she can still feel for people (and isn’t evil).

The Chief grabs Keyes’ neural implants and takes a Covenant aircraft to the crashed Pillar of Autumn. Cortana starts to detonate the engines from the Autumn’s controls, but Spark hacks in and halts the countdown. She has no idea how to continue, and the Chief has to suggest a plan. The idea is that she’s intelligent but doesn’t have a grasp of the practical hands-on realm like the Chief. They go damage the engine so it starts to overload, and then rush to get picked up by Foehammer so she can take them as far away as possible. The Covenant shoot her down before she reaches them, though, so Cortana leads the Chief to a Longsword fighter. The Autumn blows up and destroys Halo, the Chief and Cortana head home, and Spark shows he’s still alive at the end of the credits.

On the whole, it’s not that bad from a feminist standpoint. Cortana’s sex appeal’s kind of annoying, but she makes up for it by being a strong character. I wish there were female Marines on the ground with you and not just pilots. That combined with Cortana acting as the intelligent counterpart to the Chief with his physical ability makes it seem like women don’t have the ability to be real active fighters. There’s technically a big gun attached to Echo 419, but Foehammer never uses it. Hopefully the Marine gender issue will be addressed in the Anniversary Edition. There are things that would improve the game, but it’s ultimately not that bad.


Gubreez said...

Hey interesting read! Just wanted to say a few things in response.

I did not know all this time that halo was a ripoff of Larry Niven. I will have to find that novel and read it.

The reason Cortana can be naked is because the game is rated M. I didn't find Cortana in Halo 1 or 2 to be at all sexual. What people think of her does not make her sexual. I really don't see a problem with it especially like you said because she has a strong character.

In Halo 2 and 3 they have female marines. It may be possible that bungie was lazy in producing a female model since halo 1 you will notice the graphics for the marines are really really simple.

last thing the name of your blog is rampant and you have spark's picture. <3 him he is a great character. I'm assuming you would be interested in seeing a female monitor in the upcoming halo anniversary?

Dragonclaws said...

Ringworld: Yeah, also check out Iain M. Banks' Culture series. He's got ringworlds inspired by Niven that I believe were more of a basis for Halo. Niven was first, though.

Cortana: Well, the game is probably M for the Flood, and the Cortana design is allowed to be as sexual as can fit within that rating. Halo 1 Cortana isn't overt in her nakedness until the Halo control room when she's giant-sized and a color that stands out (green-ish). It's limited due to the technology, but she's clearly a naked woman floating there.

I know there are female Marines in the later games, which I appreciate, but I was focusing on the qualities of Halo 1 specifically. I suspect adverse reaction to the male predominance in Halo 1 is responsible for the addition of female Marines in Halo 2. While the graphics look really simplistic now, in 2001 it was amazing, so I don't consider Bungie lazy. They did describe in a Bungie Update how they took a male model and made it female for the Bumblebee pilot, so I don't see why they couldn't have used that in their randomly-spawning Marine pool.

Going Rampant: Yes, I like Spark. I don't know why everyone thinks of him as annoying. He's fun to have around.

I don't know about a female Monitor. The Forerunner AI gender thing is weird. It might be nice to see a female Monitor. I would prefer if it didn't have a traditionally feminine color, though.