343i franchise development director Frank O'Connor talks Halo 4 and the past, present, and future of the fiction of Halo.
How do you take an 11-year-old series and make it fresh, make it as relevant as it once was?
This is the question 343i has been tackling for the last three years as they've pulled the expansive fiction and reach of the Halo series inward once again in the lead up to the series relaunch in the form of Halo 4. While millions of fans have faithfully jumped on for installment after installment, it would be difficult to argue that Halo hasn't occupied the first person throne for some time. Halo 4 is the opening shot in Microsoft and 343i's mission to take it back. And Franchise Development Director Frank O'Connor's job has become pulling the sprawling threads of a fiction that includes almost a dozen books and six games into something that casual fans can understand and still enjoy.
Not the easiest job in the world. But O'Connor and his team have had a luxury that few other studios do: time.
Polygon visited Kirkland, Washington last week to spend the day with Halo 4 for the first time since its announcement. While we were there, O'Connor sat with us and discussed how the past has directed the future of Halo, and how Halo 4 intends to move it forward.
One of the challenges that Bungie faced in making Halo games and making Halo stories, is that projects sort of sprawled or existed over an extended period of time, or dealt with some pretty major and rapid changes over the course of development. Reach is the exception to this and easily felt like the most coherent Halo game, narratively speaking. Has that been in your mind as you've overseen the creative process for Halo 4?
I think that the universe building that was done before we took over the franchise was so enormous and so rich that it made that process a lot easier. To your point, you think about things like sprawl and [development] momentum ... and it definitely has an effect. But we had a luxury of time where we weren't physically building the game, prototyping technology and new shader techniques and rendering approaches, so we were able to build the story way more in advance than had previously been done on a Halo game.
That doesn't mean it's going to be better or more coherent, but we had a luxury of time and planning to do it. We philosophically approached that story knowing that a lot of people were going to be lapsed players, or had never played a Halo game before. And we needed to, not just in terms of sheer execution of lore or depth or nuance, we had to make this completely comprehensible to new players and people who are new to the universe.
So that's sort of formed the total shape of the story more than any other process, the decision that this has to be approachable to people who hadn't played Halo 3, and you know, the Legendary ending of Halo 3 said ‘we left that here," but for most people, wedidn't leave that here, because most people don't finish on Legendary. Some people went to YouTube or have heard about it, but we don't make assumptions about what people do or don't know. And we take the responsibility that we have to tell them everything in an entertaining fashion as job one. So we have a narrative director Armando Troisi, who came from Mass Effect, and two excellent writers, and a huge bunch of people working on our cinematics to make sure that we're telling a clear, compelling, and comprehensible story. And again, part of that is the luxury of time and hindsight.
The development process of most games turns into a tug of war between narrative design and the realities of a fixed amount of development time. Because cutting a level from a design perspective is not necessarily a difficult thing, but from a narrative perspective, cutting a chunk that isn't working from a technical view is a bigger challenge. Is there a way that you guys have built in a means of dealing with that, to keep the story coherent and moving in the event that you need to jettison parts of the game?
I remember when we were working on Reach, we sort of built it with that in mind, and ended up not having to cut all that much stuff. But it ended up more flexible and malleable in terms of which sections could go where. I'd like to say we did that withHalo 4, but the reality is we didn't. So we made sure to make those cuts early, and make them smartly, so that the story as its laid out, with just a couple of exceptions, is the story that we mapped out for it.
I think there's another way to address it, which is that there's constant interaction and communication between the narrative design team, and the designers, so that there's no surprises, and so that even the writers know that a crazy vehicle slalom section might get cut if we can't get the technology working, and have the writers think about that in terms of how they're putting the pieces of the story and the pieces of the narrative together. And that allows more flexibility when things do go wrong. And they do. Things have been cut, and features and items get cut because they're not fun, usually. So if you have a crew of good writers on staff, they can adapt quickly with good smart ideas. We did have to do that a couple of times, but we were pretty fortunate that we didn't have to do anything radical with the story.
As an attempt to set the Halo story back on track, is there a point where there may have been discussions about cutting a section, and as narrative overlord, you needed to push back and stress that this was necessary for where the story needs to be move the series forward?
Not exactly. I think that the biggest narrative decisions that were essential were character driven, rather than event driven, so that when events change, or a level changes, it's actually quite easy to adapt. That's the nature of the storytelling. The cinematics are going to be filled with meaningful drama, and sometimes really quite meaningful things, but sometimes the narrative is just ‘go press the switch.' That stuff is fairly easy, and you always have ingredients like that which you can move around fairly simply like furniture to accommodate the more important things that are happening narratively, that you can then leave untouched by the process of design change. It's not perfect, but it's been fairly smooth.
I think, ironically, it would be more difficult next time we do this, because a lot of the things we had created that were new to the game technologically were new to the game fictionally. So if one part fell out, the whole thing fell out - the story element was gone as well as the object. But the two disciplines need to work seamlessly together to avoid that kind of conflict and that kind of breakup.
Previous Halo games have been fit to deal with some basic narrative structure in the game itself, but have relied heavily on external sources to build the fiction. It seems like Halo 4 is trying to be more self-contained in that respect. But simultaneously, you've spent the last two years doing a tiny bit of tidying up and even a tiny bit of retconning here and there, and drawing threads together with the pieces of fiction that are releasing into the game more than you have in the past. Why is it so important to pull the external fiction back into the main game, especially when the main game is more narratively driven than its been in the past?
I'd like to think of the extended fiction as history that we're pulling from. That we're pulling from "real events," which have additional gravity and weight to them. And the funny thing is, then we're a little more official, so you can put down stakes in the ground and say, ‘we're just going to stick to this." They're good anchor points to hold onto in the fiction. But it also gives you a lot of material to draw from when you do have to make changes, and I think that's what's important about it. It's true to itself, and it feels like when you're coming up with a bad guy, that its being drawn from a place that feels real.
And hopefully it feels real to an audience who isn't familiar with the fiction. 99 percent of people who play Halo 4 will not read the books. That's a fact. So they have to understand who this bad guy is. They have to understand a little bit about that history, and the background, so they can understand what that character is supposed to do or be. So all of that has to stay in the game. We will never build a game's story that relies on understanding an external concept. We can take external concepts and rephrase them in the game, and reposition them, but we need to give people all of the information that they need to understand the game, and it's as simple as that.
Over the last 11 years, the various threads of Halo's external narrative, and even some of the internal narrative, have knotted here and there, if you will. The continuity has become tangled. Obviously you've had to spend two years worth of different authors and other projects to clean that up.
The clean up is really easy. Why is the Pillar of Autumn not in orbit here? Why are these dates slightly different? That's like spackle. We're just attempting to return your dented wall back to its original flat shape, and that's easy. I think that the difficult part with this sort of richer deeper stuff, in terms of making it, is when you're putting it on the screen for people who have been imagining this stuff through a terminal or through the novels, that it's compelling enough to stand up to how they imagined it. But it has to match the scale and the epicness or scariness or however they've imagined the thing. That's way harder than dates.
Most of the books for the last two years have dealt with building backstory for Halo 4, rather than fixing canonical errors or mismatches. We've bought ourselves a little bit of latitude with the terminals in previous Halo games. We knew that the fiction was going to evolve when we were writing the terminals for Halo 3. So there are some caveats built into our fiction, that these records are not complete. We do something a little bit weird this time. We're dealing with why the records are incomplete, so we're hopefully satisfying the most granular, anal Halo fans as well as the general audience.
"HALO IS ABOUT BIG SCI-FI."
Is it a goal to use Halo 4 to add another layer of complexity and cohesion to the series fiction in general, including Halo CE through Halo 3?
I would never say we're adding complexity. In fact I think we've simplified a lot of things. From a very high level, now you have a unified, singular bad guy. You know, if you look at Halo 2, a fairly complex, baroque story, the bad guy was a complex series of internecine politics. You couldn't just say ‘the Prophet of Truth was the bad guy,' because that's not really correct. So in some ways we focused in on a more traditional and approachable narrative. But we don't want to lose the sense of mystery and scale and deep sci-fi stuff. People have said ‘oh, you're competing with Medal of Honor andCall of Duty, blah blah, why don't you go more in that direction?' Because that's not what Halo is about. Halo is about big sci-fi. That's its differentiator. That's what people love about it. And they don't simply want us to take Halo and make it about marines and Omaha Beach. They want the mystery and scale and the epicness you get out of a sci-fi universe. That also gives us lots of really cool sandbox toys to play with.
Lots of other first games in a new trilogy have to make themselves self-contained enough to exist on their own while still hoping to put in hooks for a possible sequel. I think it would be safe to say that Halo is not in that position.
That's actually a huge luxury. We have a bunch of things working in our favor. We know our basic gun mechanics are fun. A lot of would-be triple A shooters have died on the vine because people didn't like the gun mechanics. So there's some things that are already solved for us. People love the universe, people love the Master Chief. We've got a lot of things in our favor that allow us to do forward term thinking. Which will hopefully benefit each of the products it applies to in meaningful ways. So it has been a challenge to build a studio from scratch, a herculean challenge, in fact. But we've had this advantage that people building a new franchise don't. We know that there's a built-in audience for that, and we can work to bring new players into that. We have confidence in the basic mechanics and core tenets of the universe.
The reality is, there are probably dozens and dozens of would-be triple-A games that were absolutely perfect, and should have been successes, and who knows why they weren't? They didn't get marketed right, they came out in the wrong month. Things vanish into obscurity, and unlike movies, they don't sit on the shelf and have time to become classics. They rely on a big immediate population. I often think about the graveyard of amazing games that are out there that never got the momentum or nudge they needed to break into the mainstream. We don't have that disadvantage. We have a lot of fortune on our side.
More practically speaking, it's relatively safe to say that there's a basic expectation of minimum financial success for Halo as a product. And also in the unlikely event that Halo 4 were not to perform to expectations, there would still be a Halo 5, because it's such a tentpole for Microsoft. Is it easier to write a story for a game like this knowing that you've got that extra leeway from a business perspective to keep going?
It's not easier. It's in some ways more satisfying, because we know that some of the seeds that we've planted are going to flower and germinate in the future. But even in movie trilogies, you have to make sure that an episode is completely bookended and satisfying on its own. You want people to have a good experience, and not require of them that they wait two years for the sequel to come out. So we need people to be entranced and satisfied with our ending. And you can do that with a cliffhanger or a big explosion. There are a number of devices you can do that with. But that challenge remains the same. Whatever big experience that we make needs to be in some ways self-contained, but take meaningful content direction, and content and story-arc from prior games in the series. But Halo 4 is a good example, because it's almost all new content, but it's absolutely in every way I can think of a direct successor to Halo 3. But it should function well as a standalone piece as well.
When you were bringing together the plot for Halo 4, were there considerations to the narrative creep that the previous games have suffered from? You want to place hooks for a sequel without, as you said, getting into a very complex story of the internecine politics of a religious movement, so...
There was definitely some furniture rearrangement required for that problem space, which is that that story can be quite baroque. We used to do this exercise where we would ask if you could encapsulate the story of Halo CE. Master Chief fends off an alien invasion on a ship, crash-lands on Halo, discovers it's a weapon, and blows it up. Halo 3, more or less, satisfying conclusion to the events of Halo CE. Halo 2 was always more difficult to explain, because it is quite nuanced, and you've got a secondary character and all these politics.
This one, I think we've got a very simple, straightforward story that I think I could encapsulate for you in the same way. I won't, because it's full of spoilers. But the interesting thing is that a lot of peoples' favorite moments from Halo games are the sort of noir-ish plot elements from ODST, or the politics of Halo 2. We wanted to make sure that those fans are getting lots and lots of meat out of this experience. So what we did is move that stuff out of the mainline game and into the fiction that is scattered throughout the game. Some of it's in the skyboxes, some of its in the terminals. But the complicated, super deep canon is in the game, and just moved to different places now, and to appropriate places for that audience.
THE COVENANT ARE SCARED OF US, AND THEY HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE.
343i has the design pillars for Halo including the sci-fi story, but what is the most important thing from a narrative perspective that you feel like you've had to nail down and be effective with in Halo 4?
Job one is that is has to be coherent and entertaining. You have to be able to understand it and enjoy it. There are no two ways about it. There are a bunch of subtle things that aren't the most important aspects, but I find quite compelling. Some of the undertones of the plot. The idea that in spite of what you see happening to UNSC Infinity, the truth is that humanity isn't this browbeaten, dogged, ragtag band of scoundrels anymore. They are the dominant species in the galaxy. The Covenant is in chaos. Humans are awesome at reverse engineering stuff, and they're really quick to recover, which are very real aspects of our culture.
One of the things you'll get out of this game that you didn't in previous Halo games is the sense of power that Master Chief has at a civilizational level. Our technology is better, we can kick Covenant ass now. And the Covenant are scared of us, and they have every right to be. It's not that we'll be without problems or threats - obviously the new bad guys on the world you find are going to flip some of that, but that sense of ascendancy and human achievement and evolution is going to be an important undertone in the plot.