REED BETWEEN THE LINES
Jeff asked me if I’d do “a post-mortem on creating the Halo 5 story” which is practically a topic for a book. But after thinking about it, I thought it might actually serve as a nice window on the world of game development to walk through just one tiny bit of the mountain that is Halo 5. The first thing to know about making a game with the size and scope of a Halo title is that every second of every day, across a team of hundreds, there are decisions being made. And each of those decisions eventually informs or invalidates every other decision being made, sometimes simultaneously. Every polygon, every line of dialog, every texture, every map goes through this same craziness. To illustrate just the tiniest part of this process, let’s look at how we approached developing Fireteam Osiris.
The story of Osiris actually begins with Fireteam Majestic, because in a nearby parallel universe, they are the stars of Halo 5. When I was first talking to Frank O’Connor about joining 343, he made it clear there was a desire to expand the Halo Universe’s character roster in games. This had already started during Halo 4 with the introduction of characters like Captain Lasky, and Palmer, and would continue into Halo 4: Spartan Ops with Roland, Doctor Glassman, and multiple other Spartans and fireteams, including Fireteam Majestic. As Creative Director Tim Longo came onboard, and the story of Master Chief and Cortana developed, it became clear that Majestic was the wrong team to send into the field for this mission. So we put Majestic on the bench and created a purpose-built team. They would be Fireteam Kodiak. Or maybe Fireteam Artemis? Firteam Zodiac? Hmmm...
If you ever wish to experience madness, get involved in a naming discussion for a massive project. There will be whiteboards covered in candidates, and email threads that go on for days as every person in every department from game design to consumer products has an opinion on why every name is wrong except the one they like. So before anybody or anything gets a real name, we use a lot of code names. That’s why we started Fireteam Kodiak/Artemis/Zodiac with Spartans Smith, Jones, and Brown. The three of them were blank slates. They weren’t even male or female at this stage, they were just Our New Fireteam, and they would help us with the stated goal that Halo 5 was to be a co-op focused game.
The first goal for the Narrative team was to figure out who would lead the new fireteam. We started working on the idea that Spartan Smith might have been an ONI agent recruited into Spartans, initially discussing Smith as “the child of James Bond and Lara Croft” because those characters each had traits we wanted our lead to have. Smith was to be the Spartan you sent into impossible places to find targets that didn’t want to be found. This idea led us to the creation of ONI Acquisitions, and we started to think of Smith as a person who was once basically a hitman for ONI, but had recently taken on the mantle of the hero. This gave us a character who had spent their military career making sure you didn’t know who they were, and decided that we’d know them mostly through their actions and the way they spoke to their teammates.
Once we loosely knew who our lead was, we started assembling the rest of the team. Even though we didn’t think Majestic as a group fit the mission of Halo 5, we liked Thorne as a character and we wanted him involved. His way of looking at the world as a potentially good place would pair nicely with Spartan Smith’s more cynical “every target is just another target.” Thorne would also serve as a Spartan the fans would know from a previous product and would lend the new kids on the block an air of legitimacy. We liked Palmer too, and toyed with the idea of her deploying on this mission alongside Smith instead of Thorne. Then we thought maybe they’d both be on the team. For a few weeks we had Smith, Thorne, Palmer, and Spartan Jones (who would be a Spartan fluent in alien languages).
As we put the story on its feet, we began fleshing out the characters, and got to know our fireteam pretty well. Spartan Jones became Spartan Vesper (in part because nobody could keep the names Smith and Jones straight), but she was proving to be too “kid genius,” so we worked on maturing her voice a bit while still retaining enough of her innocence that she could marvel at Sangheili ruins or ask Smith why he would help a man he was once planning to assassinate.
The first big and permanent change to the team came when we hit on the idea of Meridian being a glassed planet outside of the UNSC’s jurisdiction. We wanted someone who could act as our window into that world, and replaced Palmer (who was needed elsewhere in the Halo 5 story anyway) with Spartan Song. Her history started as “grew up outside the UNSC” and came to include her surviving the glassing of her home world.
At this point we were months and months into development, and Thorne was working quite nicely with the group since his personality matched nicely with the other Spartans. He’d hunted and killed like Smith, seen loss like Song, and had a certain wonder at the galaxy like Vesper. Since everything was going so well, we shouldn’t have been surprised when the scheduling gods saw fit to throw us a curve. Ethan Peck, the actor who plays Thorne, was unavailable due to a conflicting project, and we really didn’t want to have his face with a different actor’s voice after we’d gotten to know Thorne so well in Halo 4. With Thorne out of Osiris, we discussed what personality would fit best with the rest of the team. We talked about a whole new Spartan, but we still wanted someone established. We toyed with the possibility of a member of Blue Team, but it never felt right.
Someone jokingly suggested we use Buck since his jovial attitude would work well as a counterpoint to Smith’s all-business personality, he’d be able to get Song to open up about her past, and the difference in character’s ages meant he’d get to have a sort of kid sister thing with Vesper. The fact that Buck was a fan favorite and promoting him to Spartan would be exciting both worked to get us pretty excited about the idea. But I say “jokingly suggested” because it was never going to happen, right? There was no way Nathan Fillion had the time with his work on a little hit TV show called Castle... yet by some series of scheduling miracles I still don’t fully understand, he did. As we moved into casting actors and recording dialog, we settled on our final character names. Smith became Locke, Vesper and Song became Vale and Tanaka, their characters continued to mature, and Fireteam Osiris as you know them began to take shape.
So back to that thing I said at the beginning about decisions. This has been a lighting fast 1000-ish word version of 2+ years of craziness. And that’s just for those four characters. Now extrapolate that out across the game and multiply by infinity. Literally every facet of every piece of Halo is touched by hundreds of developers. There’s a handful of us that get to make decisions on what makes the cut and what doesn’t, but the truth is we have an army at our backs. It’s an amazing team to be part of, and a privilege.
To all of you outside of the halls of 343 who are reading this, thanks for joining us on this adventure, as well as those yet to come.