Continuing my three-part interview series with Josh Holmes, Halo 4‘s creative director, we delve into why the traditionally taciturn Master Chief is suddenly so chatty, the similarities between Halo 4 and Halo: Combat Evolved, the refined, almost artful look of the game and the influence of Fumito Ueda’s contemplative puzzler Ico on the Chief-Cortana dynamic.
Let’s talk about talking in games. Master Chief talks considerably more in Halo 4 than in prior games, which is interesting, because he’s traditionally this stoic, faceless protagonist — the “empty vessel” into which you’re supposed to pour yourself. I’ve never been a fan of the empty vessel approach, so I’m curious what drove the design choice here. Why the shift to a more conversational Chief in Halo 4?
It’s a really controversial topic when it comes to first-person games, because there are probably as many people who feel exactly the way you do, where the silent protagonist starts to destroy that sense of immersion and takes away from the storytelling. Then you have the people who feel that when a character speaks too much and is speaking for them, that destroys their connection.
So it’s a fine line you’re walking, and the way that I described it to the team with Halo, I think there’s a spectrum. There’s the pure empty vessel at one side of the spectrum, say Gordon Freeman [the protagonist in Half-Life 2], who never speaks and you know very little about him whatsoever in terms of backstory. On the other side of the spectrum you have a very well-defined character, say Nathan Drake from Uncharted who has a complete developed personality of his own and is extremely expressive in every scene throughout the game.
What we were striving for with Master Chief in Halo 4 was right in the middle, and I describe it as a marriage of player and protagonist. There has to be enough space within the character for you to feel you can inhabit it as a player. And also, just from the standpoint of personality, Chief is a stoic character. He’s a man of few words. If he speaks too much, it goes against his innate persona. And yet if we don’t have him speak at all, there’s no way to really understand his mind and you can’t chart his growth as a character — he becomes dull and one-dimensional.
We wanted to find that balance, right in the middle, and we went through a pretty exhaustive process of exploration when we were developing the story, and there were times, like the second mission in the game was one of the first missions that we started building out as the introduction to Requiem [Halo 4's machine-planet, where most of the game takes place], and we started exploring what that would feel like, and through that how we express Chief and Cortana and their relationship together. We used that as the test bed, going back almost two years ago, and there were times when we had an almost completely silent Chief, which is much closer to the Chief of old, and there were times when we had Chief as chatty as you can imagine, where he’d comment on everything with constant dialogue. It was through that process that we found the balance in the middle.
I’m pretty happy with the way Chief comes through because I think you get enough of the character expressed that you can see his growth as a character — not just in the cinematics but in the game as well. And there’s enough of that expression and interrelation between Chief and Cortana, which is really important to the story we’re trying to tell. It’s a personal story set against a larger action story, but you don’t feel, hopefully, like it steps on your toes in terms of the immersion.
I know you’re a big fan of Ico, and you’ve talked about how much the relationship between the characters in that game influenced you. Did it impact your take on Chief and Cortana in this new trilogy?
I think there’s a lot of similarity in just the core relationship between the boy in Ico and Princess Yorda, and Chief and Cortana, that bond they have, that need to be there for one another. I’ll always be influenced by that game, probably in ways that I don’t even understand, because it’s definitely one of the pinnacle moments in my gaming career. But beyond that core bond, they’re very different, obviously, in terms of experiences and the way that they express one another, and so I don’t see a lot of mechanical similarities, but definitely on a story level, the interdependence is similar.
I think what’s interesting about Ico, is that it’s a game that has no spoken dialogue, and yet there’s more meaning and depth to the storytelling in that game than 90% of the other games that I’ve played. I think that tells you how you can draw on core human emotions and relationships that we can all relate to, and how that can be iconic and moving rather than just using words.
In approaching the storytelling for Halo 4, there’s definitely a desire on our part to look at what those core emotions are between two friends. Cortana and Chief have all these different shades to the relationship, which makes it really interesting and fun to explore. In some ways they’re friends, in some ways she’s almost like a mother, in others they’re skirting that line of lovers, and so all these different elements come into the relationship, making it complex and interesting to explore.
Halo 4 and Halo: Combat Evolved have strikingly similar openings, where the transition is from claustrophobic ship corridors to these vast, open spaces e.g. [warning: minor spoilers ahead] coming out of stasis on the spaceship, battling invading aliens, winding through wreckage and cavern tunnels, then popping out in some strange, visually spectacular new environment, etc. Was that your goal? To bring us full circle to the “sense of wonder” vibe Halo had going?
First of all, I’m really glad to hear you say that, that it came through, because that was one of the first things that we really talked about and that I really impressed upon the team. I think one of the core elements of Halo is wonder. I have my four guiding principles of Halo, and one of those four is wonder. We talked about really wanting to embrace that sense of sci-fi wonder and epic scale across everything we were doing, because it’s something that sets it apart from any other experience. And I do feel like some of the more recent Halo games maybe got a little bit away from that, and that’s something that we wanted to get back to.
It’s funny that you bring up Halo: CE, because that game made such an incredible impression on me personally and so many members of our team. There was never a point where we said “How do we duplicate that?” or “Let’s go and reverse-engineer that.” But there were times when someone would say “Hey, this moment kind of reminds me of a moment in Halo: CE,” and so I think in some ways, subconsciously, that experience of playing through Halo: CE and the impression it left on us, that’s obviously informed the work that we’ve done on Halo 4. That speaks to the impact of that first game.
You’ve really changed the visual aesthetic in Halo 4 — sometimes it’s almost like looking at 3D concept art. I think I read somewhere that this is basically a modified version of the Halo Reach engine, but it feels much more organic than Reach.
We have an incredible team of engineers who worked basically with the art vision in mind, understanding that they’re serving that art vision. So a lot of technology where we overhauled and rewrote parts of the engine was all in service to that vision. Speaking to that, there’s really three artistic components.
It starts with the art direction of Kenneth Scott. He had a really clear and bold vision for where he wanted to take things with Halo 4, and I think he really inspired the art team. We also have just amazing concept artists, like Nicolas Bouvier [aka "Sparth"], Gabo [Gabriel Garza], John Wallin. And those are just to mention three. Our concept art team delivered just stunning, amazing vistas and moments that were then taken by the art team modelers and skybox artists to go and then realize that. So there was a real partnership between all these people that helped inform the visual style you’re referring to in Halo 4.