Friday, November 4, 2011

Feminist Analysis of Halo 3

(Written for the video version)
Halo 3 is the last game in the official trilogy made by Bungie Studios. The upcoming Halo 4 was not intended by Bungie and will be made by Microsoft’s 343 Industries. Though Cortana doesn’t show up until two thirds of the way through, she has a large presence in the story. The Gravemind is communicating with the Chief psychically and Cortana hijacks this sometimes. Miranda’s back too, and so is her lack of competence. There’s also a connection with the novels, and Cortana’s creator Catherine Halsey is referenced but not featured.


It starts with the Chief falling to Earth after jumping from the Keyship. Cortana narrates about how she chose her Spartan companion because he had luck the other Spartans didn’t. Johnson and the Arbiter arrive to meet him, and then they go fight some Brutes on the way to a facility to meet Miranda. That facility is attacked shortly after, and then Miranda delivers one of the stupidest lines in the series.
Johnson: “Where should they go?”
Miranda: “To war.”
While technically just corny writing, the way in which Halo fans tend to use this to justify calling Miranda incompetent—using phrases like “dumb bitch”—points at the misogyny in the Halo community. In the Halo universe, Miranda is respected as their fearless leader who—I guess—makes a cute commentary on their circumstances.
Well, the Chief and Arbiter leave the base, while visions of Cortana show interesting tidbits. They then go toward this Covenant excavation site. They take out some anti-air artillery so Lord Hood can attack, but the Covenant activate this Forerunner device that creates a portal, and they leave through that. Then the Flood attack. Supposedly Cortana’s in the ship, so they go to rescue her, but it’s just a holographic message. Spark reveals that he’s on the humans’ side now, so Spark repairs the message, and Cortana says that she has a plan to stop the Flood. Hood thinks it’s a Flood trap, but the Chief has enough faith in Cortana that he and his friends enter the portal to get to her.
It turns out that the portal leads to the Ark, which is the Forerunner facility that can activate the Halo Array. It’s outside the galaxy, which means it’s safe from the Halo effect. The Chief and Arbiter go to a map room, while Miranda helps by sending reinforcements from afar. The Chief and Arbiter go to stop Truth from activating the Ark, while the Flood show up and attack. Then the Gravemind makes another truce with them, but they still don’t move fast enough to stop Truth.
Truth could order his Brutes to have Johnson activate the console, but he decides to brag a bit first. And then Miranda arrives. I have to admit this is pretty awesome. She moves to kill Johnson, which he encourages her to do, but she hesitates long enough for Truth to nail her in the back with a spiker. I think Bungie wanted to avoid a ‘Black Dude Dies First’ thing and so had Miranda die first. This does make her stunt pretty much pointless, though. Truth uses Johnson’s hand and activates the Ark.  Chief, Arbiter, and Flood attack him, though, and put a stop to it.
The Gravemind then laughs evilly and announces he’s going to kill them. Johnson escapes on the Pelican, while the Chief and the Arbiter fight their way through the Flood. Then the Chief sees a vision of Cortana walking down a hallway. He follows and sees the Ark spitting out a replacement Halo for the one destroyed in the first game. Spark comes out and seems nervous that they’ll want to destroy this one, but the Chief agrees that activating it to kill the Flood hosts is a good idea because they’re out of range of the Milky Way. Spark rushes off to prepare the Halo, muttering that it will take a while to make a new Index. Because Cortana absorbed the first Index, the plan is then to go into the Flood hive and rescue her.
Throughout this level, Cortana makes frequent transmissions that imply she’s being assimilated by the Gravemind. It also sounds a lot like she’s a rape victim.
Cortana: “I ran! I tried to stay hidden, but there was no escape! He cornered me, wrapped me tight... and brought me close.”
The short story “Human Weakness” by Karen Traviss included in Halo: Evolutions expands on this rape metaphor, making it extremely overt. The Gravemind uses electrical tentacles to penetrate her being while Cortana taunts him by saying he’s not her type. She also compares the Gravemind’s assault to how she feels in the Chief’s head, which is different because their relationship is one of love, making her mind cohabitation metaphorically sexual. This short came later and was written without access to the Halo story bible, so it might be considered a retcon, but it really just expands on an already present rape metaphor clearly visible in the game.
Anyway, in Halo 3, Cortana also makes reference to her brain donor Catherine Halsey. The idea is that humans can’t make fully intelligent AIs out of scratch, and they have to build circuitry from the brains of geniuses. In the book The Fall of Reach, Catherine Halsey (who the author describes as the smartest woman in the world) uses a cloning process generally used to create replacement limbs and organs to make a copy of her adult brain, which she then uses to make Cortana. A result of this is that Cortana has all of her memories up to the point of cloning, and is essentially a posthuman Dr. Halsey. The Gravemind messes with Cortana’s mind, so she has to deal with Halsey’s memories both as Halsey dealing with Halsey’s issues and as Cortana dealing with being a copy.
Cortana rambles about there being no more sadness, anger, or envy, which in Marathon were the three main stages of Rampancy. This, along with other quotes, is actually a reference to the Cortana Letters alternate reality game preceding the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, where Cortana was quite a different character, more resembling the plotting Durandal from Marathon. This quote’s inclusion combines with a level section here being called “Rampancy” to indicate that Cortana is definitely Rampant. Rampant AIs can be evil, but unlike the hinting teases of previous games, Cortana just comes off as a hurt woman whose mind is slipping.
The Chief breaks down a force field and rescues Cortana. There’s more of that romance between them as Cortana talks about how wonderful it is that the Chief came for her.
Master Chief: “When I make a promise…?”
Cortana: “…You keep it. I do know how to pick ‘em!”
Master Chief: “Lucky me.”
It’s just sweet. Cortana then confirms that she still has the code from the Activation Index she absorbed in the first game. This was her plan all along.
The Master Chief’s quest to rescue Cortana is very clichéd, the classic ‘male hero rescues damsel in distress’ plot. The classic Mario video game series is built on this, even the rape-y subtext part. Seriously, Bowser wants to marry Princess Peach. That trope of the bad guy forcing the distressed damsel to marry him is a classic reference to rape that the adults will understand without it being explicit enough to bother people. Bowser has the same “I have you now, my pretty” vibe about him as the Gravemind, though not nearly as overtly so. Cortana and Princess Peach are even voiced by the same actress, Jen Taylor.
Cortana veers from Peach in that during her imprisonment, she constructed the plan to defeat her enemy. Without her sending for the Chief, it is likely that Truth would have activated the Halo Array or that the Gravemind would have obtained enough power that the various species of the galaxy would have no chance against him. She even credits her ability to select the Chief as a partner when he rescues her. Once she enters his head, she’s back as the Chief’s intelligent counterpart.
Cortana tells him how to cause damage to blow up the ship and then helps him escape with the Arbiter. The Chief, Cortana, the Arbiter, and Johnson go to activate the Halo, while Rtas ‘Vadum takes his people back to Earth. On the Halo, they’re attacked by Flood and just manage to lock themselves inside the control room before they’re overrun. Johnson takes Cortana to activate Halo, but Spark doesn’t want him doing so for three more days because the Halo isn’t finished yet and firing it now will destroy it and the Ark. Spark wants Halo for himself, so he shoots everyone with his laser face. The player kills him in a boss battle, but Johnson dies.
Again, given that Bungie intended Johnson to die, I’m inclined to think they killed off Miranda first so that Johnson’s death wouldn’t be a case of the black sidekick dying first. While it’s good to avoid such racist clichés, her death is pretty disappointing for the character. She could have tackled a Brute and fallen into the chasm with him, something to show some strength. Johnson at least shows the Chief the one weapon that works on Spark before he dies.
So, Cortana activates Halo and then there’s a mad run for the frigate Forward Unto Dawn. It looks like they’re not going to make it to the portal before it closes, and there’s another sweet romantic bit. As it turns out, the portal’s collapse cuts the ship in half. The Arbiter’s on the front half and crashes safely on Earth, while the Chief and Cortana are stuck on the half floating around in space somewhere. Earth has no idea what happened, and they’re presumed killed in action.
Cortana can’t find any humans within contact range, so she puts the Chief into cryogenic hibernation until something shows up. He says to wake him when she needs him. This has the implication that because she’s Rampant, she’s entering AI dementia and will wake him to say goodbye just before she loses all grasp of reality. After the credits, we see the ship floating toward a planet with Forerunner glyphs visible on it. Again, Bungie didn’t intend Halo 4, so Halo 3 was meant to resolve their story but imply that they go on to do other interesting things in the Halo universe.
I like the romance element. It really adds something to the game and makes me care more about Cortana. Whenever I look at her, though, it becomes very apparent that she’s very sexy-looking. While I like the character and think she’s pretty strong—damsel plot notwithstanding—I hate the way her avatar is designed to be eye candy to the male market. When she lies down, it looks like she’s doing a softcore porn pose. I think her lying down makes sense with the agony she’s supposed to be feeling, though, and that her poses are not constructed for the male gaze. It’s just that she’s so sexy anyway that the porn look is a natural consequence.
I’ve got similar feelings about Miranda. I’ve read criticism suggesting that the way her corpse is shot when she falls shows off her butt, but I disagree. It’s just normal shot composition to show Truth entering the screen from the side. Plus, her curves aren’t as overt as Cortana’s and she’s more of the standard human model. However, I have to point out a sexual Easter egg that user ‘bs angel’ reported on her blog, where there’s an arrow texture on Miranda’s pants that points at her crotch. Bungie has put subtle Easter eggs on characters before, such as Jacob Keyes’ uniform saying “hellomyname Keyes”, but this one serves to sexually objectify Miranda. As an Easter egg, this was possibly the work of just one artist who didn’t tell anyone, as happened in the production of Halo: Combat Evolved when a designer put in a bloody heart for his girlfriend, whereas Cortana’s canon model was clearly examined and signed off on by everyone with that job.
Though not exactly canon, the game lets you play as different characters during cooperative play. In the first two games, if you had it a second player it would look like two Master Chiefs or two Arbiters doing the campaign together. In Halo 3, the first player is always the Chief, but if there’s a second player, they get the Arbiter. The Arbiter hangs around the Chief as a non-playable character a lot, anyway, but he’s not always there. If there’s a second player, though, the Arbiter gets sent with the Chief on every mission, and the cutscenes are adjusted for this. There are two other Elite characters available for third and fourth players. These characters are minor add-ons and do not get mentioned in the official game plot, though Bungie wrote backstories for them.
The fourth player gets Usze ‘Taham, an Elite with claret-colored armor reminiscent of the Spectre vehicle from Halo 2. This color, though not quite the striking magenta of the Spectre, is close enough to make it seem slightly feminine. Usze is male and kind of a badass renegade according to his backstory, which makes it interesting that this masculine character wears armor of a color not traditionally seen as masculine in modern American culture. This is mostly considered acceptable because he’s an alien, as is the alien Spectre and the many purple vehicles.
So, that’s Halo 3. There is a strong masculine presence to this game, due in part to the patriarchal Elites joining the good guys. On the other hand, Cortana’s the narrator and she makes several appearances from afar even if she doesn’t technically join the protagonists until the last part. As I said, I like the romance part, but not so much the damsel in distress part. Throughout the past two games it was hinted that Cortana would go Rampant and be evil, and instead she goes Rampant and screams in agony while the Gravemind mind-rapes her. While I like Cortana as a good guy, I don’t like the way her Rampancy was used to further her victimization in her distressed damsel role. Miranda reminds me of a unit from a real-time strategy game. RTS’s tend to have some unit that’s very flashy and nice to have because it looks cool, but it’s ultimately really weak and goes down quickly. That's Miranda.

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