The last time we saw the Master Chief he was on a derelict ship drifting in space with only the super-advanced artificial intelligence Cortana to keep him company. The pair had just arrived at a strange planet before the curtain closed, leaving fans hungry to know what awaited the most iconic and important figure in the world of Xbox-exclusive video games.
Halo 4 picks up on the very scene that its predecessor left off, but a lot has happened in the five years that have passed in the real world since then.
The franchise’s originators, Bungie, gracefully exited the Halo universe, distancing itself from Microsoft to work on new multiplatform endeavours. This set the stage for 343 Industries – a new Microsoft subsidiary dedicated to looking after all things Halo – to take the Master Chief’s reins.
Until recently, fans were left to speculate as to the direction the new stewards would take their beloved universe. Then, at E3 in Los Angeles last week, 343 spilled the beans on their vision for the franchise, dumping a mountain of information about Halo 4’s campaign and multiplayer modes.
I sat down with the game’s creative director, a fresh-faced Vancouverite named Josh Holmes, at a posh L.A. nightclub with huge projected images of the Master Chief lighting up its stony walls. Over drinks he explained his team’s bold new narrative approach to the franchise, provided details on the Halo 4's innovative episodic approach to co-operative play, and waxed philosophical on the heavy responsibility that comes with taking control of one of the most recognizable characters in modern video games.
Chad Sapieha: When did development on Halo 4 start? Was the story already in draft form as Bungie scripted Halo 3?
Josh Holmes: No. The story has been created over the last three years. We officially started working on the game about three-and-a-half years ago. It was a very small team at that point. Then we built the vision up to the game we have now.
We sat down and asked ourselves: What are the stories we want to tell in the Halo universe? Where do we want to take things?
There were a lot of seeds that were planted in the franchise’s surrounding fiction. From there we were able to build these supporting stories throughout the universe that aren’t necessary to enjoy Halo 4, but instead to bridge the experience if fans care to engage in the novels and surrounding fiction. Story is a big part of what makes Halo 4 the experience that it is.
So Halo 3’s open ending left 343 Industries with a blank slate?
There were definitely ideas that at the end of Halo 3 about where the story might go. But then it was handed off to a new developer with a new creative vision. We’ve taken the story that was established up to that point and used it as a jumping off point for where we want to take the franchise in Halo 4 and in the future.
We definitely wanted this to be a continuation of Halo 3. We didn’t want to press reset on the universe. We wanted to stay true to the canon that had been established and use it as a place from which to spring off, but the story we wanted to tell in Halo 4 and over the next decade is our own vision.
It has to be a tricky task, revering the old while forging ahead to create something in your own distinct voice.
Absolutely. I think if you had talked to us when we first started, there was a sense of reverence for what had come before. It was like we’d been invited into this museum, this phenomenal universe that we all loved. People were a little afraid to touch things or move them.
It took a little while for our team to develop the confidence to make choices and change things, and take Halo in another direction. I think that was one of the most important times for us. If that didn’t happen, we would have just fallen into a rut, trying replicate what had come before. I don’t think anyone would have appreciated the end result of that.
How do you intend to inject freshness into Halo and its hero? This is, after all, a series that so many people know so well, especially those who’ve read the books.
I think that’s an important distinction. A lot of people who’ve played the games haven’t been exposed to the surrounding fiction. Those who have read the books have had the opportunity to know the Master Chief and John-117 a lot more deeply than in the game. For players he’s largely been an empty shell that they could pour themselves into. I don’t want to speak for Bungie, but I believe that was a deliberate decision on their part.