Cortana (Halo)

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Halo character
Cortana h5.png
A render of Cortana's appearance in Halo 5 (2015)
First game Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Voiced by Jen Taylor (video games)
Shelley Calene-Black (Halo Legends)

Cortana is a fictional artificial intelligence character in the Halo video game series. Voiced by Jen Taylor, she appears in Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequels, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. She also briefly appears in the prequel Halo: Reach, as well as in several of the franchise's novels and comics, during gameplay, Cortana provides backstory and tactical information to the player, who assumes the role of Master Chief Petty Officer John-117. In the story, she is instrumental in preventing the activation of the Halo installations, which would have destroyed all sentient life in the galaxy.

Cortana's original design was based on the Egyptian queen Nefertiti; the character's holographic representation always takes the form of a woman. Game developer Bungie first introduced Cortana—and Halo—through the Cortana Letters, emails sent during Combat Evolved's production in 1999.

Cortana has been recognized for her believability and character depth, and her holographic representation has been noted for its sex appeal, the character was the inspiration for Microsoft's intelligent personal assistant of the same name.


Cortana is an artificial intelligence constructed from the cloned brain of Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey, the creator of the SPARTAN supersoldier project; Halsey's synaptic networks became the basis for Cortana's processors.[1] Cortana is classified as a "smart" AI, meaning that her creative matrix is allowed to expand, in contrast to the limited matrix of other "dumb" AI characters in the stories, this ability allows Cortana to learn and adapt beyond her basic parameters, but at the cost of a limited "lifespan" of only seven years; eventually human AI succumb to rampancy, a terminal state of being for artificial intelligence constructs, in which the AI "develops delusions of godlike power", as well as utter contempt for its mentally inferior makers.[1]

In the games, Cortana often serves as an advisor and assistant to the player character, hacking alien computer systems and decoding transmissions,[2] the character is portrayed as occasionally smug about her abilities.[1] Halsey sees Cortana as a teenage version of herself: smarter than her parents, always "talking, learning, and eager to share her knowledge".[1] Cortana is described as having a sardonic sense of humor;[3] she often cracks jokes or wryly comments, even during combat.[4]

As an artificial construct, Cortana has no physical form or being. Cortana always speaks with a smooth female voice, and she can communicate through comm systems and project a holographic image of herself from appropriate projectors, such as Holotanks,[5] and appears holographically as a woman. Cortana is said to resemble her creator, Dr. Catherine Halsey, with a similar attitude "only unchecked by military and social protocol"; in Halo: The Fall of Reach, Cortana is described as slender, with close-cropped hair and a skin hue that varies from navy blue to lavender, depending on her mood.[6] Numbers and symbols flash across her form when she is thinking,[7] her appearance varies in the video games.


In video games[edit]

Cortana first appears in Halo: Combat Evolved, after the alien Covenant attack and overwhelm the human planet Reach, Cortana plots a course for the human ship Pillar of Autumn derived on coordinates found in an ancient alien artifact, which leads Autumn to the ringworld Halo. Pursued by Covenant, Cortana defends the ship using its defenses. Captain Jacob Keyes follows protocol and gives Cortana to the supersoldier Master Chief to prevent her capture by the Covenant, which could lead the aliens to Earth.[8] When the Master Chief arrives on Halo, Cortana monitors the communications channels, helps direct human survivors scattered across the ring, and assists the Master Chief in the rescue of Captain Keyes from the Covenant ship Truth and Reconciliation. Inserted into Halo's Control Room, Cortana looks for a way to activate Halo to use as a weapon against the Covenant, but realizes that the ring serves as a prison for the parasitic Flood; activating Halo would mean destroying all sentient life in the galaxy to prevent the Flood's spread.[9] Defying Halo's caretaker AI, 343 Guilty Spark, Cortana takes the ring's Activation Index and assists Master Chief in destroying the ring and escaping.

In Halo 2, Cortana appears at an awards ceremony for the heroes of the previous game on the Earth defense platform Cairo Station. A Covenant fleet arrives, and Cortana takes control of Cairo's coilgun to repel the invaders;[10] she successfully deactivates a bomb that would have destroyed the station with the help of the Master Chief. Accompanying Master Chief, Cortana and UNSC forces arrive on Delta Halo, where Master Chief and Cortana encounter the Flood intelligence Gravemind, the Gravemind sends Chief and Cortana to the Covenant city-ship of High Charity to stop the Covenant from activating Halo; Cortana infiltrates High Charity's computer systems to assist Chief, ultimately staying behind to destroy High Charity and Halo should Master Chief fail in his mission to stop the Covenant leadership. High Charity is assimilated by the Flood, and Cortana is left alone with Gravemind.

In Halo 3, Cortana appears to the player in broken transmissions. Cortana manages to send a message to the Master Chief on Earth through a Flood-infected ship, revealing that she has a solution to the Flood threat, on the Forerunner installation known as the Ark, the Master Chief travels through the ruins of High Charity to rescue Cortana from the Gravemind's clutches. Cortana reveals her plan: to activate the local Halo ring using the Index she still possesses from Halo: Combat Evolved, destroying the Flood while safeguarding the galaxy. Chief and Cortana successfully fire the ring putting an end to the Covenant, Flood, and the threat of the Ark. However, they are stranded in deep space in the process aboard the ruins of the human ship Forward Unto Dawn. Cortana activates a distress beacon, but she knows that years could pass before rescue comes, as Master Chief prepares to go into cryonic sleep to await rescue, Cortana confides to him that she will miss him. He replies to wake him when she needs him.

At the beginning of Halo 4 Cortana wakes the Chief years after the events of Halo 3 when the Forward Unto Dawn is discovered by an Ex-Covenant splinter faction while drifting towards a Forerunner installation called Requiem. Over the course of the game, Cortana begins displaying aberrant glitches and behavior; Cortana reveals that she is suffering from rampancy as she approaches the end of her seven-year lifespan.[11] Helped by the Master Chief and kept safe from military officials who wishes to delete her, she helps in the battle against the Didact, a rogue Forerunner who hates humans, and stops his scheme to convert all of humanity into his mechanical Promethean army. Cortana fragments herself into pieces that overwhelm the computer system of the Didact's ship, enabling Master Chief to reach the Didact and ultimately destroy the ship with her help, she shields the Master Chief from the blast and uses the last of her energy to manifest as a solid form. She bids a farewell to the Chief, managing to touch him for the first time before seemingly dying.

Cortana somehow managed to survive and calls Chief and his fellow Spartans of Blue Team to the Forerunner world Genesis during the events of Halo 5, where she reveals that she survived the destruction of the Didact's vessel and rampancy by entering the Domain, an ancient repository of knowledge. Granted an infinite life span by the Domain and saying she is "cured" of rampancy, Cortana believes that she and other AI should enforce peace through the galaxy. When Chief disagrees with her plans, Cortana imprisons Blue Team in stasis. Though Blue Team is rescued by other Spartans, Cortana proceeds with her plans, using ancient Forerunner constructs known as Guardians to enforce the Created's will throughout the galaxy.

Cortana makes a small appearance in the last levels of 2010's Halo: Reach, set shortly before the events of Combat Evolved. When the Spartan group Noble Team receives orders to destroy important intelligence inside the military installation Sword Base, Cortana contacts Noble Team and sends them to an excavation site under the base. There, Halsey entrusts Cortana to Noble Team for safekeeping, telling them that the AI carries possibly vital information derived from a buried Forerunner ship. Noble Six gives Cortana to Captain Keyes, who escapes Reach aboard Pillar of Autumn, leading to the events of Combat Evolved.

In other media[edit]

Cortana's first appearance in the Halo franchise is in the novel Halo: The Fall of Reach, a prequel to the first Halo game. Dr. Halsey allows Cortana to choose which SPARTAN-II soldier to accompany on an upcoming mission; Cortana picks the Master Chief, whom she believes is her best match. Cortana and the Spartans are assigned a near-suicidal mission: to take the cruiser Pillar of Autumn to the home world of the Covenant, an alliance of alien races, and capture one of their Prophets to force a truce. Cortana's role is to act as a mission specialist, hacking the Covenant systems and piloting the captured Covenant ship,[12] before the mission, Cortana helps the Master Chief to survive the near-lethal exercises designed to test the Chief's MJOLNIR battle armor. Afterward, she plants incriminating evidence in the files of Colonel Ackerson, the ONI operative who nearly killed both of them, as revenge.[13] Cortana also appears in the novelization of Combat Evolved, Halo: The Flood, and the following novels Halo: First Strike and Halo: Ghosts of Onyx.[14] She is the main character in "Human Weakness", a short story written by Karen Traviss that appears in the Halo Evolutions anthology and details her time imprisoned by the Gravemind.

Character design[edit]

Cortana was designed and modeled by Bungie artist Chris Hughes. Cortana's original The character model's face was based on a sculpture of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.[15] Cortana's name is a variant of Curtana, the sword used by the legendary Ogier the Dane, just as the titular AI character of Bungie's previous game Marathon 2: Durandal is named after the legendary sword Durendal. Curtana's inscription reveals that the sword has the same "temper as Joyeuse and Durendal".[16]

Voice actress Jen Taylor remained somewhat distanced from the character, and she attended only one fan convention in six years after the release of Halo: Combat Evolved,[17] despite her role in voicing other video game characters, including Princess Peach, she is not a gamer.[18] She felt that portraying Cortana was occasionally challenging because the character lacks a physical form.[18] Interviewed about Cortana in Halo 3, Taylor said that "There's a lot more drama and a lot less technical jargon this time around. I actually just finished a couple of lines that nearly had me in tears."[19] When choosing a voice actor for the character, Bungie originally wanted Cortana to have a British accent, although this idea was later discarded, Cortana still uses British colloquialisms in Halo: Combat Evolved.[20]

Cortana and the Master Chief's relationship was a core part of Halo 4's story, part of a desire to feature a more human story. Creative director Josh Holmes' mother was diagnosed with dementia during development, and his real-life struggles informed the characterization of Cortana's descent into rampancy and the Chief-Cortana relationship.[21][22] Cortana's new appearance for Halo 4 was one of the game's most dramatic changes.[23] Early in production, concept artists created a variety of "crazy ideas" and explorations for how Cortana might look. Promising 2D designs were turned into simple 3D maquettes to prototype them in the game engine. Character artist Matt Aldridge recalled that Cortana was one of the hardest characters to envision in the game because of how beloved the character is by players; one of Aldridge's goals was to create a character where scrolling lines of code would flow uninterrupted from her feet to her head.[24] Art director Kenneth Scott was responsible for Cortana's final design,[23] the character's motion capture was performed by Mackenzie Mason.[25]

For Halo 5, Cortana's appearance changes significantly. Describing her previous appearance as soft and "deceptively vulnerable", 343 Industries took the story opportunity provided to change her look to reflect her new role as self-declared ruler of the galaxy. "In the first draft of the ending she was going to wear a flowing gown, have long hair, etc. She'd be very regal, very “powerful high queen." Very obviously different than she was," writer Brian Reed recalled. Her final design incorporated elements of the Spartans and Forerunners on top of her previous look, including a Forerunner glyph. "Having her wear [the Mantle] was a nice way of having her own it too, from a symbolic standpoint," Reed said. The character was modeled and animated using motion capture and talent at 343 Industries and Axis Animation.[26]


Bungie first introduced the Halo series publicly in 1999 by sending the Cortana Letters, a series of cryptic email messages, to the maintainer of, a fan site for one of Bungie's previous series, the Marathon Trilogy. The strategic use of cryptic messages in a publicity campaign was repeated in I Love Bees, a promotion for Halo 2,[27] although Bungie does not consider most of the letters to be canon, Cortana speaks many of the same lines in Halo 3.[28][29] According to C. J. Cowan, Bungie's director of cinematics, the studio used the character here to give story clues without actually revealing the story.[30]

Cortana has been turned into an action figure twice to promote Halo, the first was released as a seven-inch (178 mm) miniature as part of the Halo: Combat Evolved series of action figures.[31] The character is also featured in the first series of Halo 3 action figures, distributed by McFarlane Toys;[32][33] in an interview, McLees noted that the first action figure was supposed to convey an older appearance than was depicted in the games. This was accomplished by making the figure look a little buxom, despite McLees' direct request to reduce the mass of the figure, she explains that the sculptor appeared reluctant to make the change and that time constraints ultimately left the design intact.[34]

Windows digital assistant[edit]

Microsoft developed its virtual assistant for the Windows Phone operating system under the codename Cortana, but retained the name for the final product following a strong response in the developer community. The voice actor of Cortana in the games, Jen Taylor, provides the voice for the virtual assistant.[35] Microsoft released a beta for Cortana in April 2014 with the developer release of Windows Phone 8.1. Microsoft also released Cortana virtual assistant on the Xbox One, Windows Phone 8.1, and Windows 10.[35][36][37] The assistant is also available on iOS and Android.


When Cortana's role greatly expanded in Halo 3, Fairfax New Zealand noted that the character "has inexplicably had a sexy makeover".[38] According to Cinema Blend, the "love story" between Master Chief and Cortana in this game provides "a focus to the game that an epic war between species can not accomplish, as Chief, the player needs something to anchor them into the story, and that happens to be Cortana."[39]

Despite mixed opinions of Halo 4's campaign as a whole, Cortana and her story was often considered a strong point of the game. IGN called Halo 4 "really Cortana's story", as saving the galaxy is of lesser importance to the Master Chief than saving Cortana, and Cortana's humanity is ultimately the game's focus.[40] The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins agreed, calling Cortana "the flickering blue heart of the game's plot", and Hoggins and reviewers for The Globe and Mail and Eurogamer singled out the character's writing and performance as high points of the game's campaign.[41][42][43] Justin Clouse wrote that the interactions between Chief and Cortana as the latter loses her hold on sanity were "perhaps the best it's ever been".[44]

Cortana's return in Halo 5 was subject to mixed reception. David Their wrote that the choice to turn Cortana into an antagonist provided the game "with a well earned sense of drive"[45] and that her appearance in Halo 5 gave players another side of the character to see: "There's something unknowable about Cortana in her new role as AI God, but we've spent enough time with her throughout the series that we stick with her through the reinvention."[46]

Part of Cortana's appeal has lain in her good looks; in 2007, the character was ranked as ninth on the list of top "Xbox babes" by Team Xbox,[47] featured by GameDaily's "Babe of the Week",[48] and listed as the sixth most "disturbingly sexual game character" by[49] In 2008, GameDaily ranked her as the 38th "hottest game babe";[50] in 2009, ranked the character as the fifth best video game computer, noting that as Cortana's sanity waned in the video games, her clothing appeared to decrease as well.[51] In 2010, GameTrailers included her on their countdown of the top 10 "babes who are out of your league" at number two;[52] in 2011, included her on the list of the 50 "video game hotties", calling her "a certified hottie" in spite of being "just...a big pile of ones and zeroes".[53] In the "battle of the beauties" feature, Complex chose her over GLaDOS for her more human-like voice;[54] in 2012, MSN included her among the 20 "hottest women in video game history"[55] while Revision3 ranked her the third sexiest "video game girl".[56] Thanh Niên ranked her as the fourth most sexy female video game character in 2015.[57]

Aside from appearance, the media found other aspects to praise; in 2007, Cortana was named one of the 50 greatest female characters by Tom's Hardware for the character's determination and fearlessness, which meshed perfectly with the game's protagonist.[58] In 2010, ranked her as first on the list of the supporting characters in video games.[59] In 2011, ranked her as the second best video game companion,[60] while Maximum PC included her in the list of the 25 of gaming's greatest sidekicks.[61]


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External links[edit]