This post contains massive spoilers if you haven’t already completed Halo 4 (and, to a lesser extent, the other games in the series). Continue reading at your own risk.
As a long-time fan of the Halo series across all media, be it games, books, or videos, the fourth video game installment in the Master Chief/Cortana story arc really piled on the feelings. (“Dem feels” as I believe the kids of today refer to such things.) Interestingly, I haven’t played through the game myself—the timing of the release wasn’t good for me and in the end impatience won out and I instead watched the playthrough published to Youtube by PauseUnpause. That first time I just sat back and absorbed the story. Recently, however, I watched through a compilation of the cutscenes, along with some important moments during player control, and considered what factors caused the game to really hit the target emotionally. I believe that it comes down to three essential factors, as described below in no particular order.
1. CG quality
The quality of the in-game models increased as the series progressed, but the difference in Halo 4 was dramatic. There is a comparison of Cortana across the series available here. The look of Cortana in the fourth game was criticised by some due to what appeared to be overt attempts to give her more sex appeal (particularly the larger breasts and more exaggerated hips and thighs) and to an extent I agree with that criticism.
However, fan service aside, the facial features were what really made the impact for the storytelling. The quality of the motion capture and the translation to her expressions was so good (and, in places, so subtle) that I had to rewatch certain scenes just to be sure that I hadn’t filled in the detail mentally. When she is thoughtful or sad or scared you can immediately see it without requiring the exaggerated expressions traditionally used or dialogue to let you know.
The FPS games in the Halo series traditionally followed a simple formula that put the player into one of two states: 1) watching a cutscene and thus progressing the storyline or 2) killing things. The occasional setpiece or dialogue exchange is thrown in during player controlled sections, but generally you know exactly what to expect.
Halo 4 broke that mould by never letting you forget the state Cortana is in. During player controlled sections she will be talking to you, either apologetic or scared or trying to be reassuring. The standard “plug her in and let her open doors/work magic” events are subverted by her no longer having enough control to always be able to do so. There is one section that I’m sure would have been a cutscene in previous games, where her hologram disappears from the terminal she’s interfaced with, leaving Master Chief unsure what happened and unprepared for the events that follow. That is entirely executed in a player controlled section, brilliantly setting up two things: 1) the player was expecting the usual “Cortana hacks terminal” event because there was no jump to a cutscene, and 2) the player is in control but can do nothing about what is happening, conveying the lack of power that a cutscene could never manage.
3. Personality changes
This is potentially the biggest change made for Halo 4, and the one that I most often see unfairly criticised by gamers (change can be hard). Throughout the series, Master Chief is the epitome of a supersoldier, an elite dealer of death. Cortana, meanwhile, is his sarcastic all-knowing sidekick.
In Halo 4 this is no longer the case. Cortana is suffering from Rampancy and can no longer control her actions or even thoughts. For the first time in the series, she shows genuine weakness and a need for support, she fails to interface correctly with other computers, and at least once she openly admits to being unable to figure out what to do next. She also spends more time contemplating things than she has ever done. Mortality is weighing very heavily on her.
I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real. I know it 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…
This has a knock-on effect on Master Chief. He has come to depend on her voice in his ear, always knowing the next step regardless of the situation. He respects her for her effectiveness in combat (indirect as it may be) and for her willingness to face down the worst the enemy can throw at them. In essence, he probably comes as close to loving her as a Spartan-II could come to loving anything. Now, suddenly, she has moments of being completely helpless, moments where he has to talk her through her personal crisis. This is not familiar territory for him.
All these elements combine to set up the farewell speech at the end perfectly. It’s clear during the game that Cortana accepted the inevitable result of Rampancy very early on and her focus throughout was keeping Master Chief on task. Then, at the end, her final act is to save the Chief one last time and to talk him through her own death. Whatever he felt for her was more than mutual.
In terms of the plot I felt that the Didact’s plot line was relatively weak and that several revelations were given much less weight than they deserved, skipped over even. However, the Master Chief/Cortana conclusion was by far one of the most powerful things in the series. In my opinion the arc is now complete; if they want to continue using the Chief then they will need to come up with something very compelling in order to change my mind.