Bungie dev comes full circle on Halo

GDC Online 2010: Writer-design director Joseph Staten on what he has learned from 10 years in the sci-fi shooter universe, how the studio walked away, and what he wants to accomplish with the upcoming Bungie-Activision project.

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Who was there: Bungie writer and design director Joseph Staten gave the Game Narrative Summit keynote address titled "Writing the Whirlwind: Lessons from a Decade of Halo Storytelling."

Reach has fallen, but Bungie fights on.
Reach has fallen, but Bungie fights on.

What they talked about: With Halo: Reach on shelves, the time is rapidly approaching for Bungie to stop talking about its past games and start talking about the new intellectual property it will be working on with Activision for the next 10 years. But before that big reveal, Staten made the trip to Austin, Texas, to talk about what he has learned from the last 10 years.

Staten began his presentation by explaining that his lessons aren't for creating a game, or even a trilogy of games. They're for creating a universe. It's one of the most challenging things a writer will ever do, he said, but also one of the most rewarding.

When Bungie made the first Halo, Staten said the studio met with success because it treated the game as if it were going to be the only one. One of the most important things he learned during the development of the game was that place is more important than plot. The story and the path players take through the world will change as development progresses, but the world will always be there, so it better be good. As Staten put it, "It's the terrain, not the roads." For Halo, the environment itself carried connotations of mystery, adventure, and an infinite horizon.

The second big lesson from Halo was how to create a protagonist. Master Chief was iconic and simple, and there wasn't a lot to dislike about him. Staten said he looked for things to strip away from the character and the story to make things as simple as possible. The second aspect about Master Chief that worked was that he was a "perfect reflection of power projection." Master Chief could do anything, from taking on hordes single-handedly and driving the Warthog, to using alien weaponry.

"Halo wasn't great because of the story," Staten said. "Halo was great because it's fun to play."

The downside of the team's laserlike focus on the first Halo was that it didn't have much planned for Halo 2. He said the game was a classic sophomore slump, with design and technical overreach. Staten said he had a tremendous final act for the game, but nobody ever saw it because of the controversial cliff-hanger ending.

The biggest lesson of Halo 2 for Staten was that making big promises and writing big checks is easy, but cashing them is hard. Now he tries to keep things simple and relies on the rest of the talented team members to bring their own expertise to the project and fill in the details. There might be one writer, but everyone on the team is a storyteller. As he said, the writer's most important words aren't for the end users; they're for the rest of the team.

As Halo has grown, so has the Halo canon. Staten said that when a project gets that big, the fans become collaborators, and dealing with the canon becomes unwieldy and tough. To remedy this, Staten said writers can make safe pockets in which other writers can take the narrative where they want. He pointed to Halo Wars and the I Love Bees promotion as such safe zones that Bungie had little to do with. Then there are the pockets they never realized were being made, like the Red vs. Blue Web series.

Staten then touched on Bungie's connection with Hollywood. He said there were positives that came from it, but they weren't the ones he expected. He said Bungie came really close to getting a game and movie made with Peter Jackson, but it didn't come together. Instead, he considered the time a master class in writing for film. He pointed to ODST and Reach as examples of how much better the writing in Halo got as a result of the collaboration with Peter Jackson.

Another lesson from the failed Halo film was that writers shouldn't be offended if Hollywood wants their world but not their words. On the other hand, writers shouldn't compromise or give up all control, as Hollywood needs writers as much as the writers need Hollywood. He points out that Bungie's current headquarters used to be a theater that went under, and in 10 years, the balance of power may tip further in game writers' favor.

Now Bungie is independent again and free to succeed or fail. It's going to be either a great party or a great explosion, Staten said, so stay tuned. Staten said instead of having the plug pulled on their game or working on a universe until they burn out, they had the privilege of being able to plan their exit from the Halo series.

"I think a big part of building a successful universe is knowing when and how to walk away," Staten said.

In walking away, the team members once again turned to the idea of making pockets for themselves. Staten said Halo 3: ODST was an example of that, a game that took risks to get out of a rut of stories about Master Chief, Cortana, and Halo rings (though he noted that wasn't a bad rut to be in).

ODST was on a really tight schedule, and he wrote the entire game--rough draft to final--in about a month. The game story was also built with a structure that could flex. If they ran out of development time, they could cut a flashback scene. If they had extra time, they could add another one. That was a big contrast to Halo 2, Staten said, where the structure was very rigid and the third act had to be scrapped.

With Reach, Staten said the plan was to make a graceful exit. He wanted to close a few big story circles and judiciously cut loose strings in the plot, but not attempt to wrap up every last thing in the universe. And, of course, he wanted to go out with a bang every time out.

"Always imagine this is the last thing in this universe that you're ever going to create," Staten said, "because you never know when it's going to be over. Do your best every time out."

After his presentation, Staten took questions from the audience, doling out answers on a variety of topics. While he wouldn't talk in detail about Bungie's next game, he did answer one question about what the team was trying to accomplish with it "in the broadest terms possible."

"I think it's a shame that we spent so much time working on this world called Halo and then we only let people spend six or eight or 10 hours in it," Staten said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a world that was always there for you, with lots of stories to tell, like a big, infinite storytelling horizon? Man, that would be great."

Quote: "Hey, what's that symbol? Who knows?"--Staten, referencing a triangular logo with three diagonal marks that served as his laptop wallpaper, teasing iconography from Bungie's next game.

"It's about shooting stuff. Shooting aliens is frickin' relaxing. Halo is a game. Story is a small part of this game that we've created. That's why it's so important to make everyone responsible for the story."--Staten, when asked what Halo is about.

Takeaway: Game writers need to keep it simple. There's a temptation for self-indulgence on the writer's part with too much story, too much detail, and too much control. But less is more, restraint can pay off in spades, and great gameplay is going to stomp all over a beautiful story anyway.

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