Archive for December, 2012

I usually don’t like commenting on articles about feminism, sexism or stuff like that, as I find it hard to articulate my views without getting into trouble. Ultimately, I’m a supporter of better representation of women in videogames, as it’s been a bit of a boy’s club for too long. Sometimes I think over-zealousness gets in the way of common sense, but at the end of the day I’m a guy, and I can’t really put myself into the female mind-set and so I’m not really qualified to speak. But every now and then, I’ll read something that really makes me “hmm”, like these two articles. They’re both about the portrayal of Cortana in Halo 4, and whilst I don’t take issue with everything they say, there are just some interpretations that I find puzzling. That and they’re also both written by guys, so if they can comment, so I can I.

It was Matt Barton’s piece on Armchair Arcade that I read first, which references an article on Gamasutra, so I’ll deal with each piece in turn. Like I said, I don’t object to everything that’s said, and there are some fair points in both cases, but there are other instances where I can’t help but think the authors are just a tad uninformed about Halo’s lore and background.

Take this excerpt from Matt’s piece for example: “Cortana is not even granted a body, but exists only as a hologram. She is completely and utterly dependent on the Chief for protection as well as mobility–he literally picks her up and plugs her into his suit.”

To be fair, this is a valid argument if you disagree with the original decision back in Halo: CE to make the Cortana character a hologram and female. If you’re just looking for someone to be the antithesis to the Chief’s gruffness, then perhaps it could quite easily have been a chirpy guy. I can’t help but feel it was probably due to the fact that Bungie didn’t want to add another physical character into the mix which made the Cortana character a hologram. But that’s something rather separate to the fact that the Cortana character is female, even if it does appear to say something by casting the emotional side of the duo as a woman. Even if you take this as an affront though- we’re on the fourth Halo game now. Cortana has always been a hologram, has always been “dependant” on the Chief because, funnily enough, holograms are incapable of existing outside of a computerised environment like the Chief’s exo-suit. I’m only saying complaining about it now is a bit redundant, which is never reason not to speak up, but 343 weren’t going to make changes to Cortana like giving her a body. Cortana can no more be ‘real’ than Tali could be Bi-sexual.

It’s the next bit though that I think really made me pause: “In perhaps the final insult to females in this game, it’s emphasized that even her individuality is an illusion; she can be copied again and again when the need arises. Finally, she is even denied rationality, and becomes increasingly less coherent and more dependent on Master Chief until the closing credits”.

This comment could have been influenced by a couple of instances from Halo 4 – I profess I don’t know which one Matt is referring to, but I’ll deal with them both. First off, there are a couple of comments that Cortana makes when trying to figure out how to deal with her on-coming Rampancy. The second is a bit in the last level where Cortana makes copies of herself in order help feet the Didact. In both cases, having read Matt’s article, I get what he’s saying, I just again think it’s a bit… cynical, to take the material and interpret in that way. Matt himself does go on to say he doesn’t believe the game is truly sexist, but he raised the argument so I shall respond.

In terms of the last Halo 4 level – I just saw it as a computer thing. Cortana is an incredibly advanced computer program, and one of her abilities is to be able to make copies of herself so that she can monitor or do several things at once. In the novel First Strike, she does a similar thing when they assault a Covenant Space Station, and as far as Canon goes, the ‘Cortana’ you meet in the Halo Reach game is supposed to be a copy or shard as well (It’s one of the few things they did to reconcile the game Halo: Reach with Eric Nylund’s companion novel The Fall of Reach which had been released nearly ten years prior).

Then there’s comments Cortana makes earlier in the game where she says a ‘new’ version of herself could be made if they don’t get her back to Earth in time. In the Halo universe, “smart” AI’s like Cortana are created by using the natural synapses of a human brain, usually the brain of someone smart and already dead because the organ is destroyed during creation. Cortana’s case is unique however as she’s the only AI generated from a living brain, that of Dr. Catherine Halsey, an important figure in the Halo Universe who made her first in-game appearance in Halo: Reach. Halsey cloned her brain to create Cortana, and considering Halsey is still alive and well, the process could be done again (even though it’s illegal).

Cortana is quick to point out though that the ‘new’ Cortana, should she ever be created, wouldn’t be the same as the Cortana you’ve known through the past four games – she wouldn’t have the same knowledge or experience, and so ultimately wouldn’t be the same person at all. Despite what the author may think, I don’t think the game is trying to say that Cortana can be replicated at will, far from it. I personally would find the inclusion of a ‘new’ Cortana fairly interesting, as the Chief will have to undertake a new emotional challenge of dealing with this entity that’s so familiar, yet so alien. As far the “even denied rationality” comment goes, Rampancy has been a known quantity in Halo lore for donkey’s years – Smart AI’s (for reasons you’d have to look up as I can’t remember) only have a shelf life of 7 years. By the start of Halo 4, Cortana had been in service for 8 years, so the fact that she hadn’t already gone Rampant is a bit of a miracle. Cortana was always destined for Rampancy, as is every other human AI in the Halo universe, like Roland the AI of the Infinity who you see in the Spartan Ops cutscenes.

Apart from that though, Matt piece has some interesting sections to it, I liked his take on Cortana as the ideal women, and Halo 4’s notion of chivalry etc… although again, the bit where he says “whose very identity, individuality, and physicality, are all either denied or rendered suspect” I take issues with this as these are all symptomatic of the fact that she’s an aging AI who’s been through a lot – how else is she supposed to act? I also think Matt was being a tad unfair in the next bit:

“There’s a telling (if not touching) moment at the end of the game where the Chief is talking to a much less intimidating man, one who’s face is not obscured behind a helmet but is in fact quite animated. It becomes obvious from the man’s questions, attitude, and height compared to the Chief makes it clear he’s not nearly as rugged and self-contained as the hero. His remark that soldiers makes him seem weak and barely worthy to be in the same room. The Chief is taciturn, as a man ought to be; this guy talks too much about his feelings. Indeed, the Chief’s last words before the credits point out that Cortana, the Female, had said the same thing.”

I’m not actually sure if I’ve figured out what Matt is trying to say here (some missing words and poor sentance construction), but if I have, I think he’s making one too many assumptions as to what the character of the Chief “is”. Halo 4 raises some very interesting points, points that you don’t really think about until they’re thrust in your face. The Master Chief and the rest of the Spartan-II’s were kidnapped as children, indoctrinated, medically enhanced and trained to fight.

Fighting is all they know and fighting is all they have done since the Human-Covenant War began. The scene in question is more to do with the Chief struggling with that fact that he’s human, something Cortana tries to remind him off in game. I think trying to twist this as something about how men “ought to be” is a bit unfair. Men, even Soldiers, aren’t supposed to be machines, and Lasky (the ‘less rugged man’) is trying to remind the Chief of that.

Anyway, that was Matt’s article. Let’s take a look at the Gamasutra article he references, written by “Jon W”.

To start with, he points out what everyone has been pointing out since the first images arose – Cortana’s “makeover”. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a fan either. It wasn’t really necessary, although thankfully when playing through the game I didn’t really notice it much. Some odd shots here and there where her new cleavage is a bit ‘in your face’, but mostly the game concentrates on her face and emotions anyway, which helps support something Matt mentions in his piece about Cortana. Anyway – I don’t really have any issues with Jon’s comments here, although if you look at the two images he uses, Cortana actually does have a respectable chest to her in Halo 3 as well, so one could argue Cortana’s bust isn’t a new thing, only that the change in art direction and better technology has made it more obvious.

To also be fair to Jon, Frank O’Conner’s quote doesn’t really help things either. It’s true; Smart AI’s in the Halo universe do get to choose their appearance. I don’t know if Cortana’s choice is stated in any of the EU works, like the Fall of Reach novel, and Frank’s explanation is to be honest a little hollow. I doubt Cortana chose to be more obviously ‘sexy’ so that she could disarm people in conversation, and again it’s only in this recent game that Cortana has become so obviously “a women”. It sounds like Frank just trying to downplay something that they knew they didn’t really need to do, so Jon has a point calling them out on that.

I take issues though with some of the other things Jon points out though. For example, he rags a little bit on the Master Chief being called “Master Chief”. Sure, it’s not a great name, but Master Chief Petty Officer is his rank, and given that he’s technically the result of illegal kidnapping and experimentation, throwing his name about probably wouldn’t be a good idea either, so what does that leave? That’s not even me delving into some of the psychology of Spartan’s you get to see in the novels – they’re a close-knit family, the kind of family who wouldn’t give their name to just anyone.

Anyway, Jon moves on to point out some other examples of Halo 4’s assumptions on women, moving next to Spartan Sarah Palmer: Commander of the Spartan IV forces aboard the UNSC Infinity and voiced by Jennifer Hale (femshep). Jon makes a quip (using a still taken from the post-credits cut scene) that Palmer’s only purpose is to “gawp openly at the hero”. This is again unfair – with the Covenant laying waste to humanity world by world, the Spartan-II’s were the only force that were making much of a difference. They were deliberately built up to be heroes, and the Chief (besides being a bit of a ledge for what he did in Halo‘s 1-3) is the only ‘officially’ (as in, in the games) recognised survivor of the Spartan-II program. He’s a freak of nature, a thing of legend, and he was supposed to have just died when the Didact’s ship exploded over Earth. If you then saw him just rock up without so much of a scratch, you’d stare too. If you play that mini-scene out fully you’ll notice Palmer’s companions – other Spartan IV’s – are also staring. Also, her mouth isn’t open. This speaks to me of Jon being deliberately obtuse, and to be honest ruins the whole article as I don’t want to take him seriously. He does have a point about the achievement titles though… I  think 343 have been watching too much How I Met Your Mother.

But this is why I don’t get involved too much in more subtle side of discussions like this – Matt and Jon look at these things and see a cynical, almost juvenile representation of the relationship between men and women. I look at these things and (mostly) see eventualities backed up by a thoroughly laid out backstory, plot, and universe. Of course, there are more obvious and vulgar examples of sexism in games, and I’d happily join Matt and Jon in calling those out, but as far as Halo 4 is concerned I can’t help but ponder how they got to where they did. I think way too much about Halo stuff.