Halo does not have the depth of a lot of game series (I’m looking at Mass Effect, which has my saddest moments), but the Cortana/Chief relationship does have some good developments.
And you can tie his “lack of emotional response” to what the Spartans are. Damaged. Broken. Fundamentally incapable of functioning on the same level as you or I. Because they aren’t like us. During Halsey’s interrogation, they touch on the fact that the Spartans show the signs of sociopathic tendencies, lack empathy, and cannot function normally.
I wasn’t moved by a lot of the Halo plot, because it wasn’t meant to be emotionally taxing. You were supposed to feel relieved at defeating a threat to humanity at the end of Halo 3. I was, and did feel a tinge of sadness at the perceived loss of Chief (though the Legendary ending took a bit of that away). Fast forward to the end of Halo 4. I wasn’t terribly enthused with the game, but at the end…. I was torn apart because of the familiarity with Cortana. She was Chief’s (and by extension, the player’s) guide, and constant reminder that there was more going on than a blood bath.
Their whole sequence after the explosion is telling of just how emotional Chief really is.
Oh, I’m the strangest thing you’ve seen all day?
“But if we’re here…?”
You did it…. just like you always do.
“So how do we get out of here?”
I’m not coming with you this time…
Most of me is down there. I only held enough back to get you off the ship.
“No… that’s not…. we go together.”
It’s already done.
“I am not leaving you here.”
And Cortana reaches out. Touches his shoulder. Chief looks down at this luminescent hand that should never have been able to touch him, but has been a part of him for what is now years.
I’ve waited so long to do that.
“It was my job to take care of you.”
We were supposed to take care of each other… and we did.
Cortana backs away. Slowly.
Welcome home… John.
Then she is gone.
And what do we see?
Falling all around Chief. And he is standing still. In shock.
Then he realizes everything around him is falling apart. There is nothing but broken pieces of what was once a part of this world.
We fade in to him floating through this debris field.
How long has he been there?
How long has he been stuck in the void of space with nothing but his own thoughts? Replaying the events that led to Cortana sacrificing herself to save his life.
How long has he been watching these events unfold, wondering what could have been done differently to save Cortana?
And he is recovered by a lone, silent pelican that was just one of many combing through the mess. Later we see him gazing over the planet.
Thinking of who knows what?
And he is joined by a lone human. Which snaps him back into the only mode he knows: military protocol.
This man tries to connect with Chief. He opens up with something you or I would be able to comprehend. Recalling home. The origins of where this man came from. With no response.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Chief, I won’t pretend to know how you feel. I mean, I’ve lost people I care about. But… never anything like what you’re going through.”
And then it happens. Chief – hidden behind his armour, safe inside his mobile fortress and impenetrable veil – joins the conversation. For a moment, he is putting up the only thing he knows: a masque of strength. He has to be strong. He has to be a bulwark.
“Our duty, as soldiers, is to protect humanity… whatever the cost.”
This man turns to him, and his face shows a hint of surprise…. and something else.
“You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren’t machines… they’re just people.”
Chief, not having looked at this man, tilts his head at that. Because we all know he has been called a machine. A monster. A tool of war. And this man just contradicted a simple fact of Chief’s existence. He has always been a machine of war. That’s all he knew. But it brings something back. From long, long ago.
“I’ll let you have the deck to yourself.”
And Chief… John looks back out the window. Onto Earth. The home of humanity.
“She said that to me, once…. about being a machine.”
We can hear then, that Chief isn’t a robot. He isn’t a blank slate to project ourselves on.
He is a human.
A human that was made to be something different…. not less, and maybe more, but not entirely like every one else.
We’ve trekked this path with him. We’ve seen those that could have empathized most with what he felt, how he reacted, the subtlety of his reactions, die off one by one in their attempts to protect humanity. We’ve watched them die, and be forgotten by most, damned as monsters by others, and revered as a hero in times of need by a few.
Chief was special.
Cortana knew that. And Cortana let him know that’s why he was chosen. Because she knew it, because Halsley knew it from the moment she met him.
And now Cortana is gone.
Now who knows that behind the veil of Master Chief, there is John?
But who knows what John has been through? Who was there with him to shoulder that load? Who, in the end, could he ask “do you remember when….?”
As he looks down onto the home of humanity, aboard a ship manned by thousands of marines, naval personnel, officers and doctors, all scurrying about the halls performing duties that keep the cogs of humanity turning, we realize something: John is utterly alone.
And you know what?
Behind his visor, John realizes it too.