Friday, November 4, 2011

Feminist Analysis of Halo 2

(written for the video version)
Halo 2 is the sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Unlike the previous game, Halo 2’s story shares the Covenant’s side with a second protagonist, a Covenant figurehead called the Arbiter, who over the course of the game comes to realize that the humans are good and his leaders are evil. The Covenant society appears patriarchal, and there are no female characters among the aliens, but the human side makes up for that with the addition of Captain Keyes’ daughter Miranda and finally some female Marines.

The story starts with the Covenant holding this Elite guy (named Thel ‘Vadamee in the novels) on trial for letting the Chief blow up Halo. We’re introduced to the Covenant leadership: the Prophet of Mercy, the Prophet of Regret, and the real leader the Prophet of Truth. By the way, all these guys’ names are ironic. There’s also Tartarus, leader of the Brute species, and minion of the Prophets. Thel is declared guilty of heresy and tortured as a scapegoat. Meanwhile, the Chief is on a space station over Earth getting new armor, when Sergeant Johnson comes to take the Chief to an awards ceremony.

So, Master Chief and Johnson receive medals for their action on Halo, while Miranda gets a medal for her dead father. She’s there, but she’s not recognized as being any notable figure in her own right. Based on what I’ve been able to glean from the early Halo 2 script seen briefly in the “Making of Halo 2” featurette, I think there may have originally been some focus on her filling her father’s shoes, but that’s not really in the final game. Basically, Cortana announces that the Covenant have found Earth, and then everyone rushes to battle positions.

The Chief fights Covenant through the station, and after seeing them take out the other stations, Cortana figures out that they board, plant a bomb, and leave. As the Chief goes to take care of the bomb, he helps Miranda when she gets pinned down on the way to her ship. When we see her, she’s taking some shots at the Covenant. I think this on its own is a decent portrayal of a female fighter. She’s capable enough to fight Covenant, but can get pinned down the same way male fighters can, so she’s not a Mary Sue. It’s not an indication on its own that the character is action-oriented but allows herself to become a damsel in distress for male characters to save. No, that will come later.

So, the Chief and Cortana stop the bomb. Their teamwork really shows here. The Chief eliminates the enemies around the bomb and allows Cortana to access it, and she uses her hacking ability to turn it off. The Chief gives the Covenant back their bomb and goes to Miranda’s ship, In Amber Clad. The In Amber Clad goes to Mombasa to attack the Prophet of Regret’s ship, and the Chief’s Pelican is shot down. While travelling on foot, we encounter Halo’s first female Marines. Yay! First there’s one in a cinematic and then there’s a female Marine fighting alongside you in gameplay.

When Johnson drops off a tank, there’s some flirty banter. It’s sexual, reminding the player of Cortana’s status as a sexual female character, but I’m actually fine with it. It’s pretty low-key, and there’s a joke made immediately after about ladies liking various tank attributes depending on the difficulty level being played, and that doesn’t have any innuendo attached. It also serves to hint at the romance between her and the Chief, which becomes more overt later in the story.

After the Chief blows up the Scarab, Regret decides to leave. His method of departure—jumping into Slipspace in atmosphere—will create a huge explosion, so Lord Hood tells In Amber Clad to follow it. On the other side, they find another Halo, which they dub Delta Halo. Regret wants to activate Halo, which the Prophets say is the secret to the Covenant members becoming gods, so the Chief and Cortana go to stop him. The Chief kills him, but the Covenant target the location with an energy weapon, and he jumps into the water where he’s pulled downward by some tentacles.

Meanwhile, the Prophet of Truth rescues Thel and turns him into a figurehead called the Arbiter. He sends the Arbiter to quell a rebellion. A rebel Elite (named Sesa ‘Refumee according to his action figure) preaches that the Covenant is being lied to by the Prophets, and his source is an oracle that turns out to be 343 Guilty Spark. The Arbiter kills Sesa and Tartarus captures Spark.

Around this time, the Covenant politics get tense. The Arbiter’s species, called Elites, are competing with the Brutes. After the Chief kills Regret, Truth decides to replace the Prophets’ Elite guards with Brutes. The two other Prophets seem to have hacked Spark, so Truth knows what is needed to activate Halo. He gives the Arbiter a mission to secure the Index.

However, the In Amber Clad gets to the Library first. Unlike the first Halo, the Flood seem to be already out, so the humans get pretty much overrun. Miranda makes it to the Index, though. Miranda, much in the style of Captain Kirk, takes it upon herself to charge straight into dangerous situations, which one familiar with military protocol might find odd. The Index is floating in the middle of this chasm, so she uses a Flood tentacle tangled up an Enforcer wreck to lean out over it without really verifying how secure the tentacle is. Johnson has to save her.

You know, it’s cool that she’s this action star of a female character, especially as a counterpart to the Chief, but it kind of is negated when she gets herself into trouble and needs to be bailed out by a male character. She doesn’t even say thanks. It could have been a playful moment of comradery between them, comparable to the Chief and Cortana rescuing Jacob Keyes. As it is, with her announcing the Index being secure, it just makes her come off as foolish.

Well, the Arbiter shows up and she pulls SMGs out of that magic pocket where the Coyote and Roadrunner get their signs. The Arbiter knocks out the humans, but then Tartarus shows up and takes them away from him. Tartarus reveals that Truth told him to kill the Arbiter, so he knocks him into the chasm, where he’s saved by the tentacles.

The tentacles turn out to belong to an ancient Flood leader called the Gravemind. Presumably, Captain Keyes was going to be made into one of these guys. The Gravemind, being a combination of a lot of different bodies, has no clear gender at this point. It’s voiced by a guy, but the voice gets high-pitched at one point, and some people interpreted that as meaning the Gravemind is both male and female. This turned out to be inaccurate—the Gravemind is male and a rape monster like the Xenomorph the Flood is ripped off from—but it’s unclear at this point, which is interesting. The Gravemind says that because of the threat of Halo, the three of them have to ally to stop Truth, and he convinces the Arbiter with the help of a partially-absorbed Regret and Spark’s cousin 2401 Penitent Tangent. He teleports them away.

The Covenant tensions lead to outright civil war as the Elites and Brutes fight against each other. The Chief and Cortana arrive in Truth’s throne room. Truth runs and hides while the Chief fights Covenant on their home turf, and Cortana enters the network. Then In Amber Clad crashes into a tower, and it delivers a bunch of Flood with it, meaning the Gravemind lied (shocker). Truth turns on Mercy and allows the Flood to kill him. Truth heads for the Forerunner Keyship, and Cortana sends the Chief to stop him while she remains in the system. I get a sense of the noble hero staying behind here, as well as the romance element. It’s actually quite sweet. So, the Chief leaves on the Keyship.

Meanwhile, the Arbiter fights Brutes with his Elite friend. When he hears that Tartarus is heading to the control room nearby, he decides to stop him. His battle leads him to a truce with Johnson, who helps him into the control room. We then see Tartarus trying to get Miranda to insert the Index into the Core. Spark advises him to be gentle because a Reclaimer is needed to activate Halo. Tartarus then threatens them both, and I’m not the only one to hear it as a rape threat. He’s a big burly gorilla man thing, and she’s a helpless woman. A while ago, English scientists were under the misconception that gorillas loved to rape human women, leading to the weird rape fantasy vibe around King Kong. Western fiction involving gorillas tends to keep that rapist vibe despite it not making any sense with our modern understanding of gorillas, and that’s a vibe I get from Tartarus here.

Fortunately, her knight in shining armor arrives to save the day. Well, the Arbiter tells Tartarus (and admits to himself) that the Prophets lied about Halo, and then Johnson shows up to back him up. Spark states Halo’s purpose, but Tartarus goes into denial, forces Miranda’s hand to insert the Index, and prompts the last boss battle of the game. Miranda is quick to interrogate Spark as to how to stop it, and he suggests removing the Index, but Johnson says to wait until Tartarus is dead. When the player kills him, Miranda does a pretty cool action stunt that is actually completely successful. Spark explains that the Halo’s sudden deactivation has put the five other Halos into standby mode to be activated from the Ark. We then cut to the Chief on the Keyship at Earth telling Lord Hood that he’s going to finish the fight. And then the game ends, disappointing millions.

After the credits, we see the Gravemind approaching Cortana at a console. Given the Gravemind’s rape theme, his tentacles reaching for Cortana have a phallic look to them. Cortana’s kind of a helpless victim. Her willingness to answer his questions makes it look like she’s gone Rampant and is a traitor, but that’s just a tease and nothing comes of it.

So, that’s Halo 2. It has some definite improvements over Halo: Combat Evolved. The female Marines make for a nice inclusive feeling. Cortana is sexier, but also more present as just a general character, and there’s a sweet asexual romance developing between her and the Chief. Miranda adds more of a female element to the cast, but she’s also a disappointment. She’s kind of an action hero, but she’s not particularly competent. Half the time, she just gets in a tricky situation and has to be rescued by a male character. Then there’s the rapey undertones. It’s kind of classic sexism. Halo 2 does pass the Bechdel test in that Cortana and Miranda discuss the Covenant and Halo and stuff. So, Halo 2’s an improvement on Halo: Combat Evolved, but it’s not that much better.

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