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.
We wanted to take some of those elements from the character’s back story and make him more of a well-defined human being. We wanted to bring these things into the game experience to enrich the Chief’s character and explore his relationship with Cortana.
The challenge for us is determining how much of that to bring in without violating what I call the marriage between the player and the protagonist. I strove for a 50/50 balance, so that half of the character is the player pouring himself into the Master Chief and the other half is what we define as creators in our vision of him as a human.
It’s definitely a different take on the Master Chief, and one that I hope Halo fans won’t feel is too much of a departure.
What’s new in terms of single player? Beyond guns and gear, that is. How is it meaningfully different than previous Halo games in its overall vibe?
We’ve taken a very narrative-driven approach to single-player. We’ve tried to immerse the player in what it feels like to be the Master Chief. You can see that reflected in a lot of the work that we’ve done with the heads-up display. We’re trying to represent what it would feel like to be a 900-pound Spartan surrounded with all of the fantastic technology that would be supporting you as this bad-ass super-soldier.
We’ve tried to make it feel as though there’s much more of a connection between the Chief and the world around him. We’re trying to find ways to connect him with the environment, but also to connect him with Cortana, who represents the most important character relationship he has. You’re starting a journey with two characters facing incredible challenges, not only in terms of being stranded on this fantastic world together, but also Cortana dealing with the end of her life span, which is fast approaching. As an A.I. she has seven years before she starts to go rampant, and when we start this story she’s already eight years along. She’s trying to keep it together as the two of them are going through their journey.
I think the other big change is the introduction of a new enemy. When you think back over the last decade in Halo, we’ve only ever had the Covenant to fight, and we really wanted to change things up and bring a new set of enemies to the sandbox that would change the way people play Halo. These enemies change the way players use weapons and abilities, but also challenge you in ways you haven’t been challenged before with the behaviours of enemies and how they work together. I’m talking, of course, about the Prometheans. We’re showing them off at E3 for the very first time.
Seeing a new and mysterious alien force in Halo is exciting. I’m curious to know other ways in which you plan to set Halo apart from its predecessors and other shooters. This is a genre in which competition has only grown in recent years.
It comes back to story and universe, which is at the heart of what makes Halo so amazing to me, personally. What we’re going to do for the first time is connect the multiplayer experience of Halo with our story, and create a narrative structure that provides context to everything you’re doing.
In the demo we’re showing here at E3 you see the commissioning of the UNSC Infinity, and you see this ship as it approaches the planet Requiem and is pulled in by a gravity well, and the Chief has to go and rescue it. That’s the first intersection point between Master Chief and Infinity. The Infinity plays an important role in the campaign, then goes on to be the focal point of our multiplayer experience.
Halo Infinity multiplayer is a story-driven multiplayer experience that takes place roughly six months after the events of the single-player campaign. It provides context for what we call War Games – all of the traditional competitive play you’d expect from Halo – but it also introduces a new way to play called Spartan Ops, which is this cooperative, episodic experience where players are able to take part in an ongoing adventure that takes place over a season of play.
New content is delivered every week in the form of both storytelling and connected missions.
You’ve a ton of responsibility resting on your shoulders as the new stewards of Halo and the Master Chief franchise. How are you feeling about that?
As the new stewards of the Halo franchise, I think we’re all motivated to build the very best game we can. We’re inspired every day by the fact that we have this legacy to live up to. There’s no greater critic of our work than the team at 343 Industries. We all want this game to be as perfect as it can possibly be. We come into work every day with that on our minds. E3 [was]our big coming out party.