Halo 4 is nearly here, and while I’ve played about halfway through the game’s story — I’ve masochistically chosen to play on “Legendary” difficulty, because that’s how I’ve always played Halo for reasons I’ll explain in the review — I can say newcomer 343 Industries definitely hasn’t dropped the ball.
What’s in store if you’re planning to pick up a copy next week? Will it be “just another Halo” or something more? I spoke with Halo 4‘s creative director Josh Holmes to ask those questions and others. Here’s what he told me.
What was it like, picking up where Bungie left off? Where did the team start?
The studio was founded with the goal of taking over the Halo universe, of shepherding that forward and becoming the caretakers of the Halo universe. We always knew that meant building the next series of games and continuing the saga, and we knew it’d be a daunting challenge, because Bungie built an incredible universe and they did an amazing job of taking care of that universe for the first decade. That was the challenge we started with.
Everybody came into the studio knowing that was the expectation, that was the challenge they were signing up for. People were drawn to that challenge. It’s one of the reasons I came onboard, in fact. I actually joined 343 Industries in 2009, when we were still pretty small. We had maybe 25 people or so. That was the core nucleus of the team, a team that eventually grew to 300-plus people working on Halo 4.
We already knew where wanted to take the story at a high level. Frank O’Connor, who’s our franchise development director [as well as a former member of Bungie], had looked at bounding the universe. You know, what’s the first story that we want to tell at one end of the spectrum? What’s the last story that we want to tell? He’d already started mapping that out, using his familiarity with the universe.
From there, it was really the challenge of building the team, building a new studio, and finding the chemistry together to go on this crazy creative journey.
So you know how it ends? You’ve already sketched out the full trilogy arc? Halo 4 through whatever the next two games are called?
We definitely have a sense for where we see the big beats from a story perspective going, and what the core character arcs are that we want to cover. But like anything, when you’re going through that sort of creative process, there’ll be moments of discovery and epiphanies that cause you to change direction or course-correct. We even saw that on Halo 4.
We started with a high level intention of the story we wanted to tell, and we stayed very true to that, but as we went through the exploration and process of discovery, things sort of moved and changed, so we had to stay fluid. That’s the way, in my experience, that you get the best results. You can’t go in thinking you know exactly where you’re going to end up. You’re going to learn things as you probe and develop characters and elements of the story.
You pulled in author Greg Bear to write a Halo trilogy based on the Forerunners, which is interesting because he’s a Nebula and Hugo award-winning author. How has Bear’s work impacted your approach to the series? Or has it?
It absolutely has. This goes back to when Frank and his team reached out to Greg Bear. I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think there might have been a meeting at some event that spawned a conversation, and Greg was interested and open to at least learning more about the Halo universe. Then Frank and Greg talked about what stories might be worth exploring.
When you bring someone like Greg Bear into your universe, there has to be a trust and a partnership, where you’re handing over the keys to him to some extent. You want to empower him to bring his craft to bear, and you know, bring new ideas to the table. That’s part of the reason to work with someone as accomplished as Greg.
So as we were going through the planning process for Halo 4, there were a lot of thing where we would say to Greg, “Hey, this is what we’re doing with the story for Halo 4, can you take that into account in the fiction you’re writing?” And he would say “Absolutely, that’s awesome, because that’s going to help me with this character in this moment, and I can set that up and that leads me a bit in this direction.” He’d be showing us early manuscripts from his work and we’d be looking at that and going, “We could take this element and bring that into our game.”
So a lot of back and forth, and again, that’s a deliberate philosophy we have about the way we’ve developed the universe. We want everything to connect, so that fans who have a love of the deeper fiction can go out and explore the Forerunner trilogy, or the Karen Traviss books and feel rewarded when they come into Halo 4 – rewarded by any element of the universe they engage — because they’re going to see those connection points. It isn’t necessary for you to consume all of this fiction to enjoy any one piece, but for those people who have exposure to the greater fiction, there’s this resonance and depth that will come through, hopefully.
I’m generalizing here, but you can make the argument that some of our most memorable stories in whatever form are the ones where the artist got in, got out, told the story, and it wasn’t unending. In Halo, by contrast, Master Chief keeps coming back. It’s hard to imagine someone signing off on his demise. How do you strike that balance between telling a really inventive, interesting story and commercial pressure to come out the other end with a certain amount of status quo?
I think the most important character for Halo is the universe itself. I think any great story revolves around great characters that are basically relatable to us as human beings. I think Chief is definitely a character that people can relate to, and that people have come to know and love, and hopefully they’ll experience him in a different way in Halo 4 in the continuation of his saga. But I think part of what makes the Halo universe such a compelling place for so many people is because it’s so broad an expanse that it can actually support multiple different stories, multiple different characters.
I look at it like this: Is there a world where Halo continues without Master Chief? Absolutely. I think there are stories waiting to be told across the universe that are compelling. It just comes down to having characters that people care about and mysteries that warrant exploration. Right now we’re telling the story of the Master Chief and that’s something I think people will hopefully care a great deal about, but I don’t see why you can’t have another character exist in the Halo universe that’s equally as interesting and appealing.
You’ve said before that you tend to see the Halo universe as a hopeful one, say in the Gene Roddenberry vein, where it’s about the promise of humanity instead of the self-implosion of humanity. Is there a place for a darker, less hopeful take on the Halo universe?
You can definitely look at the universe through different lenses, say with a bit more cynicism or darkness or grittiness. Those are shades that can be applied to the universe. But I think at its core, there’s this sense of hopefulness, and I think any time you lose that, it starts to feel — at least to me — decidedly un-Halo. I think that’s what sets the universe apart from similar sci-fi universes.
There’s so much that’s similar when you look across sci-fi, so many similar themes explored in different universes. I think that hopefulness and belief in humanity’s potential to ascend is what’s intrinsic to Halo. If you were to lose that, I think you’d lose a lot.