Gravemind is not an easy character to figure out.
From his initial appearance on the scene, as the rumored "big plant thingy" players who downloaded the leaked French copies of Halo 2 reported seeing, to his cliffhanger-inducing interrogation of Cortana, not much was revealed about him.
Some fans can even be forgiven for questioning whether Gravemind is, in fact, related to the Flood at all. Halo 2's cutscenes only strongly suggest this, without actually stating it. The Art of Halo here rescues us, referring to Gravemind as the "Flood hive mind".
What exactly does that imply? What does Gravemind want? Given that all these events have apparently played out in the past, with the result that the Halo system was used and all life eradicated, but with the Flood preserved dormant for the cycle to start all over again thousands of years later, what other outcome can be hoped for?
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'Now I Shall Talk, And You Will Listen'
The first cutscene in which Gravemind appears is pretty pivotal. Not only is it the point at which the Master Chief and Arbiter plotlines converge, but it is the first time where we communicate with the Flood.
Gravemind's very name is a hint to his possible function. Intertwined in his tendrils is the Prophet of Regret, apparently speaking in his own voice, but possibly against his will. Is he really dead? It would seem so. The Chief was fairly thorough in killing him, and the Covenant fleet overhead reacts almost is if it knows this has happened somehow, as the Elites' phantoms are withdrawn and other ships move in to destroy the temple. While "grave" can also mean serious, it is of course also a place for dumping dead bodies, and it appears that there is at least one here: Regret's.
2401 Penitent Tangent is also here, but as there's little to no reason to suspect that he's anything but a machine, it's probably not fair to wonder whether he is live or dead. The question that does apply equally well to both is whether or not they are speaking voluntarily, and whether or not the words they speak are their own.
That the two disagree with each other, as well as with Gravemind himself, suggests that either they are in control of their own speech, or Gravemind has enough access to their minds to construct an elaborate hoax, manipulating them like puppets, perhaps for the purpose of convincing the Chief and the Arbiter to do his bidding.
That seems a little too complicated, though. Both those characters act so thoroughly as you'd expect them to that any grand charade would seem pointless. Regret wants to finish his sermon, 2401 wants to activate the ring to contain the Flood, and Gravemind wants to point out that they're both talking about the same thing.
Gravemind tells the Chief and the Arbiter that there is time enough to avoid Delta Halo's activation, and supposedly sends them to separate locations to seek the Index and prevent it being used. He does not give much evidence for why this should be done, other than self-preservation. The Chief and Cortana believe the activation will kill all sentient life in the galaxy, and 343 Guilty Spark confirmed in Halo 1 and in Halo 2 that this is the case, and that it has happened at least once before.
'What Would You Have Your Arbiter Do?'
The Arbiter, however, doesn't seem to buy this. Unlike humanity, his culture has a reason for what they're doing and believes the installations to have another function. Gravemind seemingly does little to overcome this.
In fact, one really has to wonder what the Arbiter believes before Halo 2 concludes. He was sent after a supposed heretic, who told him the prophets were liars. He said the Forerunners had no effective weapon against the Flood-- only containment. However, the game doesn't give you an option to spare the heretic leader; you must kill him to advance. After that, the Arbiter might have had a chance himself to be educated by Installation 04's monitor, perhaps even being converted to the Heretic cause himself. Tartarus eliminates the possibility of that happening, taking possession of Guilty Spark and bringing him to Truth and Mercy, apparently.
The Arbiter then finishes his mission of retriving the Index, only to have Tartarus steal it as well and betray him, supposedly on the order of the Prophets.
The Arbiter's state of mind thereafter is somewhat difficult to judge. So far in the game he's been publicly humiliated and tortured, then sentenced to death. He's told the death sentence will be carried out in the form of a suicide mission, in which he can regain his honor, but not save his own life.
That mission culminates in the retrieval by the Index by Tartarus, who then knocks the Arbiter into the abyss of Delta's library, and says he's doing so on the orders of the Prophets.
We're supposed to view this as a betrayal of the Arbiter in specific and the Elites in general, further underscored by the changing of the Honor Guards from Elites to Brutes and the murder of the Elites on the council. This interpretation has some holes in it, though. As a disgraced death-row prisoner sent on a suicide mission, the Arbiter should full well have accepted his death upon the completion of his mission, and that this death would come at the orders of the Prophets. That Tartarus, a Brute, should fulfill this order rather than an agent of the enemy, is actually a minor point. In a way it's a bit odd that he sees it this way.
It should also come as no surprise either to the Arbiter or to the audience that Tartarus is power-hungry. He might very well have lied when he said he was under order of the prophets. As he expected the Arbiter to die, he'd have had no way to verify it, so it was a nearly risk-free lie; just a way of adding insult to murdery.
So the Arbiter's betrayal might really have been an independent act on Tartarus' part; the Arbiter has no way to know. If he's a traitor he can certainly be a liar as well, or just a power-hungry maniac.
Secondly, even if Tartarus is telling the truth, the Arbiter already knew he was sent on a suicide mission and expected to die. It's conceivable that, should he survive, Tartarus would've been ordered to finish him off.
If the Prophets' sentence of death, conferred on him by the council and confirmed by his assignation to the role of the Arbiter as a holy suicide warrior did not shake his faith in the Covenant or its beliefs, as well as its leaders, then why would Tartarus' otherwise completely explicable actions do so?
'Open Your Eyes, My Brothers'
Of course, the audience is a lot easier to convince than the Arbiter himself would be. We already know, or think we know, what Halo really does, and we think the Covenant don't know. We've got more sympathy for the Heretic leader than Tartarus or the Arbiter could possibly have, and we're much more likely to take Gravemind at his word, at least about some things.
The Arbiter possibly knows that while the political structure of the Covenant is now shaky, that does not necessarily mean that its religious foundations are as well. Selling the idea that the Brutes have now supplanted the Elites in the hierarchy and should be punished is easy. Selling the idea that the entire Covenant has been either a lie or a mistake from the first, that there is no Great Journey, is much more difficult. The Arbiter doesn't even broach the subject until the very end of the game, where he asks for, and receives, confirmation from 343 Guilty Spark that what the Master Chief and Gravemind said about Halo is true, that it is a weapon that destroys life, rather than a magical transporter to paradise, as the Prophets have seemingly promised.
It seems just as likely that, if the situation had been a real one, it would be easier to convince members of the Covenant that the Prophets and Brutes had betrayed them by trying to exclude the Elites from the Great Journey than to convince them that the Great Journey was a lie all along. It's less upsetting and provides a ready explanation for taking immediate action. But given what the player already knows, this slips by most people when they play without so much as blinking.
'Time To Stop The Key From Turning'
If avoiding the activation of Delta was truly Gravemind's first priority, it seems strange that it is the Arbiter, and not the Chief, that eventually achieves this, given that Gravemind has so little reason to trust the Arbiter believes him. Instead, it seems Gravemind turns his attention to High Charity, where he sent the Chief.
Although it appears the Index was there-- Truth holds it up for the video cameras-- it cannot be used from there, and Gravemind probably knows this. It would have been far more sensible to send whatever forces he had at his disposal, including the Arbiter, the Chief, and Flood combat forms, to the Control Room, to prevent the Index being used. However, this is an arguable point, as it places too much importance on the success of a single engagement. He might have considered it better to try and attempt to recover the Index further away from the Control Room, in order to allow time for a second attempt in the event of failure.
Flood forms are sent to swarm High Charity, not the Control Room. There, the fighting is only between Covenant units. Although we don't see it, it appears the Flood also invaded In Amber Clad, as the ship crashes into a pylon on High Charity about the same time that the Flood invade, leading to the perhaps obvious conclusion that he used the ship to transport himself there.
It may make sense for several reasons; if Gravemind knows that a human is necessary to activate the ring, as well as the Index, then eliminating humans serves the goal of preventing activation. It also makes sense out of why he sends the Master Chief to High Charity, and the Arbiter to the control room; at the very least, that way he knows the Arbiter himself can't activate the ring, although the Chief could.
However, no Flood are sent to the Control Room at all. Even in Halo 1 they are not present there until after the Index is recovered, although they were present in both Libraries, around the Index itself. That this happened on both installations would seem to indicate that there is some connection there; either the Flood know the significance of the location where the Index is stored and therefore defend it, to prevent it from being taken to the Control Room, or it indicates that Flood themselves are stored there. We don't know what was behind the blue glass bays in 04's Library. We know that infection forms were stored in cells underneath the swamp there, but the combat forms seen in the level 343 Guilty Spark may just have been the result of the action of the infection forms released there. The marines on Jenkins' recorder there are attacked, apparently, only by infection forms-- no combat forms are seen. So the two forms might both be preserved on the ring, but in separate locations. Storing combat forms near the Index might seem foolish, but it would seem that the Library is such a large structure that to assume it exists solely for the storage of the Index itself seems ridiculous.
In fact, it may make more sense to try and place these objects in the context of their names, and wonder if it is connected to how the installation works as a whole. An Index is a guide to finding what you want in a library; a list of names, references, and locations. What could that be?
We know nothing at all about how Halo actually works. We know it is supposed to kill all sentient life, to eliminate Flood hosts. Presumably that includes sentient species that might not even have evolved when Halo was built; species about which the builders of Halo could not have had any knowledge.
Furthermore, the Index is required to activate it. At its lowest possible level, the Index might just be a McGuffin; a quest item that exists solely as a symbol for what the player has to do, something to chase from location to location and give the gameplay some focus. It may have no other purpose; since it is necessary for Halo to be fired, securing it becomes a way to stop it from being fired, and gives a focus for the conflict that takes place in the game.
What if it had a deeper significance? What if instead of simply operating as a glorified "on" button for a massive weapon, it was actually functionally required? What if it in fact functions as an index to a massive library containing information on all life everywhere in the galaxy-- information necessary for the proper operation of the installations to destroy such life? The Library, then, might in fact be a giant zoo or aquarium, featuring, if not actual live specimens of species from around the galaxy, but perhaps at least genetic samples or something similar.
If the original vision of Halo as a game featured that, it might make sense of a few things. Halo as a giant terrarium of sorts would explain the need for many different liveable environments, as well as hidden behind-the-scenes mechanisms and accessways. It explains the presence of ambient life in movies like the E3 2000 trailer-- life perhaps removed later due to performance restraints on the system.
'I Will Ask, And You Will Answer'
Of course, it's probably not necessary to know how Halo actually works; we might never get a definitive answer to that question. The true nature of the Library, the Control Room, and the Index may remain the subject of speculation for years to come, and it's enough for players who want to blast their way from one level to the next to understand that it's important, even if they don't know why.
Gravemind's motives, however, probably have to be confronted directly. Rather than focusing on recovering the Index or guarding the Control Room, Gravemind focused on attacking High Charity and moving himself there, and went on to begin interrogating Cortana. He is certainly an obvious target to be implicated in whatever strange and dangerous situation Cortana finds herself in during the Halo 3 announcement trailer. But what does he want? Just stopping the Halos, or destroying them, doesn't seem to be it. If that were all, he might have found a way to crash the IAC on the surface of Halo and move High Charity far enough away that when it detonated, Delta would be destroyed and he would be clear of it. Perhaps that has even happened by the time Halo 3 begins.
There is clearly something he wants. We don't yet know what it is. The question is, what can he possibly want that he can be granted? Is any request from him just an excuse to gaining an upper hand and destroying or disabling the Halo system so the Flood can engulf the galaxy? Is any exchange with him just a distraction, as Cortana suggests at the opening of "High Charity"?
If all the Forerunners could do before was activate the system, killing all sentient life, because they could not or would not destroy the Flood, what other possible outcome can there be?
I do not think Gravemind is so one-dimensional as to want nothing more than for the Flood to spread everywhere. It's too much of a cliche, and seems at odds with Bungie's efforts to make something original, no matter how derivative some of the material is on the surface. There must be some compromise possible-- either a way to destroy the Flood the Forerunners could not or would not use, or some way to make their destruction unnecessary, or at the very least a way to shield humanity (and possibly their Heretic allies) from the effects of Halo's pulse.
What do you think it could be?