Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Decade of Writing Halo

Halo Reach Has Energized The Gaming Community For Over 15 years.

Bungie knew they were on the right track with Halo when, in developing the original game, a tester looked at art of the ringworld arcing over a lush jungle scene and told the developer: "I don't know what this game is about, but I want to be there right now." This is because Bungie realized early on that narrative success hinged on the creation of place, not plot. That was one of the many points made this morning at "Writing the Whirlwind," a discussion of ten years crafting the Halo narrative by Joseph Staten, writer and design director at Bungie.

What Staten means by valuing place over plot, is that Bungie understood that if you create a proper playground, you can get any number of stories out of it. You can see the success of that in the simple fact that the Halo universe has been a decade-long phenomenon that spans multiple games, from the original Halo to the ODST side story to Bungie's final Halo adventure, Reach. If Bungie had sat down to create the exact narrative of Halo, they may have very easily painted themselves into a corner.

The second part of the equation is giving the player an accessible window into that place. That window is the Master Chief. When crafting the Master Chief, Staten made sure to set up the iconic hero as the ultimate "straight man." If you think about it, can you really describe the Master Chief in more than a sentence or two? No, unless you do something Bungie is quite happy about – you start filling in the blanks with your own interpretation of the Master Chief. That hooks you right into the soul of the narrative. Yes, there is a story. Yes, there are key events. But do you care more about those things, or do you care about a great way to experience the Halo universe?

Halo in Five Minutes

But lest folks think that Bungie deals wholly in high-minded discussions of narrative, Staten said that Bungie understood the core of Halo is, as he put it, "shooting stuff." And he knew that as he was writing the Halo universe. Staten understood that – and this was his estimation – 95-percent of Halo players don't care about much of the narrative. They don't explore it at all. And the best game writers understand that.

But it sounds like Staten understands Bungie itself forgot it when they built Halo 2. Staten said despite its success, Halo 2 was indeed Bungie's "dreaded sophomore slump." He recognized that Bungie never should have ended that game on a cliffhanger because it put narrative over the base desire to get in, shoot stuff, and have a great time.

According to Staten, Halo 2 also suffered from a "technical overreach" that also hampered the delivery of a good story. He likened it to "watching a cathedral self-assemble in a hurricane." Amazing how success loosens the tongue (after all, Halo 2 is a few games back and if I recall, didn't do too shabby at retail), but it is always refreshing to see even a giant like Bungie admit failings.

But things got better as Bungie swung toward Halo 3 and the later Halo projects. Staten credits Halo's flirtation with Hollywood as a major positive because it exposed the team to different talents and storytelling techniques. Was it frustrating to have the movie and the Peter Jackson Halo projects fall apart? Sure, but without that experience, Staten says ODST and Reach would have not been written so well. However, Staten didn't move on from his brief discussion of Halo and Hollywood without taking a swipe at the studios. "I dunno if games will crush movies in ten years, but g-----n we're throwing some punches," said Staten with a smile. (And speaking of the Halo movie, the latest rumor is that Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks are hungry for Halo.)

Ranking the Best Halo Campaigns

As everybody knows, Reach was Bungie's last Halo. Staten says that Bungie is at peace with the decision to move on to its new game – which Bungie loosely teased during the session. When crafting Reach, Bungie returned to its original thrust: place over plot. "Planet Reach was a strong compelling place," said Staten. It was a place where Bungie could close the circle of the Halo canon, which was very important to them. And if you have questions over various parts of the canon after Reach, well, that was intended. Instead of just leaving strings dangling, Bungie cut them. Staten says the decision not to go overboard and tie up every loose thread of the Halo story should be emulated by more writers. That kind of obsession over the plot can get in the way of creating a good video game experience.

Staten's discussion wound down with a series of questions from the audience, which touched on things like how Bungie kept the canon straight while expanding the Halo universe over ten years and what inspired Cortana ("Smart women are extremely sexy," said Staten). But one thing stuck with me as I left the room and walked to my next panel. According to Staten, Bungie "wrote Halo as if it would be the only game they ever made." Obviously, that didn't happen. But by not treating the first Halo as a commodity that it could hopefully spin into a mega-franchise, Bungie created not just a great one-time video game, but also a seed of a place that gamers forced open into a universe they wanted to experience again and again in different ways.

And it will be exciting to see if Bungie can do it again.

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