Master Chief (John-117), the main character of the Halo franchise is described by Eddie Smith, the game’s concept artist as “a consummate professional. He does his job, walks off, doesn’t even get the girl.” In its full context this quote refers more to John’s personality than his relationships, but it is an interesting observation. It would be far more accurate to say that the girl, Cortana, got him.
Cortana is one of the UNSC’s most capable military AIs, and, just before the beginning of Halo:CE is given permission to pick whichever Spartan she wants to escort her on a top secret mission (which is subsequently derailed in the events leading up to the game). She, by virtue of her special skill set, is allowed to pick which ever Spartan she finds appealing and John, her choice, is simply informed that he will be working with her. Inverting the usual pattern of ‘getting the girl’ where the male hero is essentially awarded a woman for his heroic achievements. This is part of a larger pattern in Halo, Cortana has agency and John lacks it.
Superficially, the way John and Cortana’s agency plays out appears counterintuitive. John, as both the lead and the primary playable character of the Halo games is the leader of the Spartans and spends the games running and shooting and saving the world. Cortana, being an AI, is stationary and relies on John to take her from place to place. In the games, she exists largely in the background, conveying information and unlocking doors. In the novels, she has more page time, but most of what she does still occurs from John’s perspective, meaning that the results are much more prominent than the activities.
But activity cannot be mistaken for agency. Although Cortana’s actions occur primarily off screen, her decisions drive the plot. John, in stark contrast to Cortana, is overwhelmingly passive. It is Cortana who finds Halo in the first place, when she decides to investigate the symbols on a Forerunner artifact rather than following UNSC protocol and making a random slip-space jump away from Earth. By contrast, in the final scenes of Fall of Reach John asks to be allowed to decide his own fate and join his fellow Spartans on Reach, but is denied and leaves aboard the Pillar of Autumn against his own wishes. This state of affairs is reflected in the opening cutscene of Halo: CE, which is the original piece of Halo media and therefore serves as the first introduction of the characters for many viewers. In Cortana’s initial introduction within Halo: CE, which is the original piece of Halo media, she is in control of the warship Pillar of Autumn and using it to battle Covenant troops. John begins the game in the consummately passive state of cryogenic stasis and stays that way until Cortana wakes him up.
Once they arrive on Halo, Cortana becomes responsible for coordinating the movements of human troops on Halo whose chain of command John enters. In The Flood John’s passive acceptance of his superior’s orders are brutally highlighted in a scene where Major Antonio Silva, who leads the ODSTs on Halo, calls John a ‘freak’ and an ‘experiment’ and insults his fellow Spartans, who have just died defending Reach. Throughout the tirade John does absolutely nothing. Cortana is the one who locates Halo’s controls, and discovers the Flood and the function of the Halo rings and prevents Halo’s activation by stealing the Index. Interestingly, since Cortana is an AI, a sentient computer program, for her, hacking Covenant computers is a physically violent activity, just as shooting Covenant soldiers is for John, although this is discussed only in passing in the novels and never addressed in the games. When John and Cortana are briefly separated while John attempts to rescue Captain Keyes from the Flood, John is perfectly willing to take orders from Halo’s AI 343 Guilty Spark, and trustingly follows Spark’s orders until only Cortana’s intervention prevents him from accidentally activating Halo and wiping out all life in the galaxy. Tellingly, this takes place in a scene where Cortana manifested in a much larger than usual version of her usual hologram, and the hovering Guilty Spark literally argue over John’s head about what he should, or should not do with the Index (a moot point, since Cortana has pre-emptively stolen the data).
Like Halo: CE and The Flood, the plot of First Strike is driven events where Cortana makes decisions and John accedes to the decisions of others. During the events of First Strike there are repeated references to the tension between what John wants to do and what he actually does. John briefly takes charge of the survivors from Halo but he does so in the context of a larger mission assigned to him and readily gives it up when the mission changes, even though he dislikes and disagrees with Lieutenant Haverson, who takes his place. He attempts to complete the earlier mission even though he would rather return to Reach. Then he accepts that mission being scrubbed even though he views it as sacrificing “his dignity and pride… for the greater good” (First Strike) to deliver information Cortana obtained on Halo and during the subsequent battle with a Covenant AI. When they do go to Reach with the data, on John’s suggestion, he does not suggest looking for any surviving Spartans, which is so transparently what he actually wants that his entire team realises it (and discuss it as soon as he leaves the room). Cortana is also the one who discovers that the Covenant have located Earth which drives the plot of the latter half of the novel and the second two Halo games.
Throughout Halo 2 John follows the same pattern, obeying orders from Lord Hood, Miranda Keyes and Cortana. Just before the finale of the game, Cortana makes the decision to remain on the second Halo to prevent the Flood from reaching Earth and summarily banishes John back to Earth, even though he would obviously prefer not to leave her behind. This point is subtly underlined by the fact that the Forerunner ship he returns to Earth in apparently has no controls. John exits the ship by leaping from near orbit and begins Halo 3 unconscious, with his armour locked into rigidity. Cortana then sends a message calling John back despite being held captive by the Gravemind. The active role Cortana plays in these proceedings is obscured somewhat by the problematic and totally unnecessary rape-imagery associated with her capture by the Gravemind, but the fact remains that she both chose to stay and to leave. At the end of Halo 3, when both John and Cortana are trapped in the wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn, Cortana is the one who remains awake and in charge of the situation while John returns to the ultimately passive state of cryogenic sleep, trusting Cortana to watch over him.
Halo 4 opens with John and Cortana still alone and stranded, being pulled into the gravity well of the planet Requiem, so, for the second time, John falls onto the battlefield and begins the game unconscious. Immediately after crash John receives the news that Cortana has reached the end of her lifespan and is dying of dementia-like rampancy. Despite growing increasingly debilitated over the course of the game, Cortana still maintains roughly the same level of agency as she has in the earlier games; guiding John and the crew of Infinity through Requiem. Where the previous three games disguised John’s dissociation from the larger decision making process behind a veneer of activity, the storyline of Halo 4 emphasizes it at every turn. Right from the get-go, John insists that they can return to Earth and have Dr Halsey fix the problem, but, especially as Cortana continues to deteriorate, this is cast more as denial and desperation than a real plan. John’s attempts to get Cortana back to Earth are also repeatedly derailed, by the appearance of the Prometheans, by Captain Del Rio’s terrible orders, and then by the need to save Earth from the Didact. Captain Del Rio takes every available opportunity to insult John, accusing him of no longer being effective as a soldier because of his age and the four years he has just spent involuntarily out of the field. John, like always, takes the abuse without comment. In the final levels of the game, it is Cortana, not John, who stands up to Captain Del Rio by attempting to force Infinity to stay on Requiem, while John only intervenes to save Cortana’s life. Even though John walking out on Del Rio is a hugely climactic moment, especially for such a passive, generally obedient character, it’s a stunningly understated response to someone trying to kill your dearest friend. He takes Cortana’s chip and returns it to his helmet without ever touching Del Rio, and refuses to hand it over with a firmly stated “No, Sir” but without raising his voice. This long awaited act of self-determination is also complicated by the fact that it actually runs totally contrary to his own goals. John wants to return to Earth with Cortana as soon as possible, especially since the very same scene he leaves from makes it clear that her condition is deteriorating, but he leaves Infinity (which is headed back to Earth) to fight the Didact because he feels he has a duty to protect humanity. The defiant nature of John leaving is further undercut when he returns to Earth and learns that the UNSC high command agrees with his decision and that rather than John being penalized for disobeying Del Rio’s orders, Del Rio has been punished for abandoning him.
John’s interactions with the Didact, the primary antagonist he is supposedly fighting, are the very height of passivity. In each of John’s three confrontations with the Didact he ends up suspended in mid-air, unable to move before he can get close enough to act and is then forced to listen helplessly while the Didact monologues at him. Even though she is struggling to remain lucid, it is Cortana, who finally captures and restrains the Didact and disables his ship by making use of the very fragmentation process which is killing her. John spends the first half of their final fight suspended in midair, and the second half hanging helplessly from a light-bridge by one hand, while Cortana battles the Didact to a standstill. When he finally does confront the Didact directly by shoving him into his ship’s reactor core, it bears more resemblance to the sort of symbolic coup d’grace which female victims in horror films are sometimes allowed to administer to defeated villains, than an action hero besting a serious antagonist.
Ultimately, even Cortana’s death becomes a triumph of her own agency. Cortana’s defeat of the Didact, which is her crowning act of self-determination allows her to die not as a helpless victim of rampancy, but on her own terms, after saving her Spartan and fulfilling her last wishes of being able to say goodbye to John while standing, for the first time, in her own, independent physical form. But Cortana’s victory strips John of even the illusion that he can fulfil his own goal of saving his friend. When he insists he isn’t going to abandon her, and that it is job to protect her, she informs him that the actions she has already taken mean that she is virtually dead already, and reminds him that while he was supposed to protect her, she was supposed to protect him too, which again asserts her agency, and then vanishes, leaving John hanging helplessly in space.
John and Cortana’s complex relationship with agency reflects their complex relationship with humanity. Cortana is an AI, meaning that she is technically a very complex computer program. Despite this fact, Cortana is, especially in the Halo games, one of the most accessible and human characters. Cortana uses an avatar which gives her a human appearance. When her avatar is visible, people will typically address and respond to it, even though technically she is present throughout any computer system and she would be able to see and hear them wherever they looked. She uses this avatar to emote and respond to other characters in typically human ways. She also has most of the games dialogue and the most overt emotional responses to their events, although this is more evenly split in the novels where John’s thoughts and feelings, like Cortana’s participation in the action, are more obvious.
Perhaps more importantly, Cortana is treated as a person by almost every character. Captain Keyes and Lord Hood in Halo: CE and Halo 2 respectively treat Cortana respectfully and include her in the decision process as does Dr. Halsey and, obviously John. Seargent Johnson and Foehammer banter with her readily and treat her like another soldier. Even the Gravemind, who captures and tortures Cortana treats her as an independent individual to the same extent he does the Master Chief and the Arbiter. In Halo 4 the Librarian tells Cortana about the Didact and his history at the same time as she tells John, even though she refers to Cortana as an ‘ancilla’, which is an odious term meaning maid and derived from the Latin term for a female slave. Two characters violate this pattern. The first is 343 Guilty Spark who, in addition to referring to Cortana as a ‘construct’ betrays Master Chief twice and murders Seargent Johnson, marking him as a very obvious antagonist. The second is Captain Del Rio who treats Cortana as a piece of malfunctioning equipment and is punished for it by the narrative when he loses command of Infinity.
John-117, once again in direct contrast to Cortana, is a human solider who is treated like a piece of equipment. Most obviously, in both the games and the novels, where Cortana is always referred to by name John is usually referred to only by his rank Master Chief or his call sign ‘Sierra-117’ or ‘Spartan-117’. In a scene early in The Flood John notes that, after the fall of Reach (this occurs before he discovers that Dr. Halsey and some of the Spartan-II’s have survived) he and Cortana are probably the only people alive who even know what his name is. Where Cortana is a machine highly identified with a human avatar, John is a human highly identified with a machine-like suit of armour. The first physical description of John in Fall of Reach is “the ghostly iridescent green of the armor plates and the matte black layers underneath made him look part gladiator, part machine. Or perhaps to the bridge crew, he looked as alien as the Covenant.” Another first impressions that people have of him later in the same book are that he and the other Spartans are “more like robots than flesh and blood”. At the beginning of The Flood the technician responsible for reviving John from cryo describes him as “almost as alien, and certainly as dangerous as the Covenant… like a figure from mythology – otherworldly and terrifying… the mirrored visor on his helmet made him all the more fearsome, a faceless, impassive soldier built for destruction and death.” When the cadets of Hastati Squad see a video of a Spartan in Forward Unto Dawn their initial questions are “what do you think that thing was… What can it be… Did you see the size of that thing?” [all emphasis mine].
The description of John as inhuman and machine-like by the other characters carries over to their treatment of him. Where it is unexceptional for Cortana to be treated like a person and failure to do so marks characters as antagonists, this sort of casual dehumanization of John and the other Spartans is totally ordinary among relatively sympathetic characters. Sam the cryo technician is “glad that he was up here in the observation theater, rather than down on the Cryo Two main floor with the Spartan.” Nonetheless, Sam is relatively well developed for a character who only lives for a few pages (corresponding to less than a minute of game-play) and his death is treated as sad, not as a narrative comeuppance for treating the leading protagonist like an armed explosive. Andrew Del Rio treats John, as well as Cortana poorly, but it is clearly the latter that he is punished for. Antonio Silva is frankly verbally abusive to Master Chief and although he eventually dies on Halo so do a very large number of much more heroic characters including Captain Keyes who in addition to being fairly heroic in his own right typically treats Master Chief well, and who actually tells Silva, that “what makes the Chief so effective isn’t what he is, but who he is.” So Silva’s death cannot be framed as narrative punishment for his bullying.
Instead, people who extend normal courtesies to John, like Captain Keyes in the previous example, are typically marked as exceptional or heroic. One of the ways that the morally complicated Doctor Halsey is framed as a protagonist (which is not consistent throughout every Halo text) is her interactions with ‘her’ Spartans. She is one of the only non-Spartans who can tell the Spartans apart while they have their armour on, and “unlike everyone else who greeted the Master Chief and stared at his uniform, medals, ribbons or the Spartan insignia, Dr. Halsey stared into his eyes” (Fall of Reach). Even in Halo 4 where Doctor Halsey is framed more negatively and is being prosecuted as a war criminal she reminds of her interrogators that “your mistake is seeing Spartans as military hardware.” Admiral Whitcomb, introduced in First Strike is set up as heroic partly because when he introduces himself to John “he strode to the Chief and shook his hand – a gesture very few non-Spartans cared to endure – pressing bare flesh into a cold unyielding gauntlet that could pulverize their bones.” Of all the Hastati squad cadets, Tom Lasky is the first to express any kind of confidence in the Master Chief in Forward Unto Dawn, reassuring his squad mates that “he’s gonna come back – I believe him.” Later, in Halo 4 Lasky sides with Chief and Cortana over Del Rio and is ultimately rewarded with command of the Infinity. In the epilogue, it is Lasky who reminds John that “soldiers aren’t machines, we’re just people.”
It is a well-worn science fiction trope that people have feelings and machines don’t, but it is equally well known that people can make decisions, while machines facilitate the choices of others. These are the two elements which are addressed when determining the nature of humanity in Halo. In Halo 4, faced with both her increasingly immanent death and the need to stop the Didact, Cortana says “I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real. I know because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size. I know because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star. But for all that, I’ll never know if it looks real… if it feels real… before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” Superficially, humanity is connected to emotions. Emotions are what humanize the non-human Cortana. We know she isn’t a machine, because even though she doesn’t know if the sun feels real, the grief this causes her is obvious, as are her feelings throughout the Halo series. Her human appearance and its associated expressiveness make her feelings clear to both the other characters, and to the player. John’s feelings in the scene, as in most of the series are more difficult to discern, his facial expressions and body language are obscured by his armour. He talks less than Cortana and his voice is more level. Even within the text “some people say they’re [Master Chief and the other Spartans] not even humans in those suits – that their just machines” and Doctor Halsey the non-Spartan character who arguably understands the Spartans best struggles to talk to John in some cases because “his impenetrable armour made discussions with normal social conventions nearly impossible”. This juxtaposition of an emotional computer and a seemingly emotionless man seems to be the target of Cortana’s request. But that issue is, in fact, resolved long before Cortana’s sun monologue. There is ample evidence throughout the series that John has emotions. Even in the sun monologue cut scene John is shifting uncomfortably, but before that he has also been shown grieving over the deaths of the Spartans at Reach, then rejoicing when he finds out some of them have survived. Even drawing only from Halo 4 this conversation is preceded by the highly emotional reveal of Cortana’s rampancy, and follows immediately from the emotionally charged scene of John disobeying Del Rio’s orders. It is followed by two utterly heartbreaking conversations, the first on Ivanoff station as John attempts to comfort Cortana after her exposure to the composer and then the epilogue where he begs her uselessly not to leave him alone. When Cortana asks “which one of us is the machine?” the idea that John is unfeeling like a machine is already not well supported and by the time the idea comes up again when Lasky reminds Chief in the epilogue that “soldiers aren’t machines. We’re just people,” the idea that John doesn’t feel is ridiculous.
The lingering difference between Cortana and John, which confirms that she is a human and calls his humanity into question is not emotionality, but agency. Agency has been connected explicitly to humanity within the Halo’verse. In Thursday War, another AI, Black-Box reflects that “their choices are what make them human – good and bad. If I take away their choices, I take away their humanity.” What does that say about Cortana who has choices even when her mind is falling apart around her? She is granted agency repeatedly over the course of the series, and at the same time, the characters she interacts with consistently respect and reinforce her humanity. What does that say about John, whose choices are taken away from him time after time? His agency is repeatedly taken away and his humanity is repeatedly questioned or denied by the people around him. John’s apparently symbolic defiance of Del Rio, in this context, serve not to actually accomplish his goals but to reassert the fact that John is an independent person who is, however infrequently he may do it, capable of making decisions for himself. It is, notably, only after he walks out on Del Rio that the question of John’s humanity comes up, and Lasky reaffirms that “we’re just people.”