STATEN HIS CASE
As you saw in last week’s issue, we recently released a video that saw Mr. Staten sit down with 343 Industries’ Max Szlagor to talk about some of the game-design aspects of Halo 3: ODST. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely go and check it out. For our purposes around these parts though, I thought it would be cool to chat with Joseph about more of the narrative and story-driven nature of the game's campaign. Here’s what he had to say…
GRIMBROTHER ONE: So what was the process like to develop the characters both as a team as well as individuals, from the differences in their gear to their varied personalities?
JOSEPH STATEN: We started with the basics: we wanted a well-rounded squad of ODSTs with different skillsets that would enable unique gameplay scenarios. For example, we planned early on that one of the missions would focus on destroying a building to keep it out of Covenant hands, which meant one of the ODSTs would have a be a demolitions expert, and that went a long way to defining his gear, etc. Because we wanted to tell the story from multiple points-of-view, we knew our ODSTs’ personalities and voices had to be as unique as possible so players would always know which ODST’s boots they were jumping into. I really wanted to write for specific actors as much as possible, so we cast our characters early in the development process. Once I knew we were lucky enough to get Nathan Fillion and Halo 3: ODST’s other great actors, I was able to dial-in all the personalities from there.
GRIM: Which of the characters do you identify with the most personally? Did that influence your writing in any way?
JS: I’d like to say Buck, because who wouldn’t want to be more like Nathan Fillion? But honestly I most identify with the Rookie, the voiceless primary protagonist of the game. Often times, making a game is like being lost, at night, in a dangerous city after your best laid plans have gone horribly awry. You learn pretty quickly that you can’t make it out on your own. This understanding of the importance of teamwork not only affected the game’s story, it guided how we worked. The reason ODST turned out as well as it did was because, more than anything else, we cared as much about each other as we did about shipping a great game.
GRIM: Couldn’t agree with that analogy more! Now in regards to the campaign itself, how was it writing a story designed to be a bit more modular, and less linear, than a typical campaign narrative?
JS: I really enjoy writing stories with different POVs, and given ODST’s smaller team size and tighter production schedule, it made sense to create a story that was easily chunked into pieces—expanded or contracted as needed. During the first three Halo games, we learned some hard lessons about how difficult it is to alter a purely linear story. Because we started ODST with a “maximum flexibility” mandate, we ended up being so efficient that we were actually able to tell an even more expansive story than we originally planned, specifically adding “Sadie’s Story” to the nighttime, free-roam city.
GRIM: Speaking of Sadie, what was it like to tell this “story within a story”? And more generally, were there any challenges or adventures in getting ODST’s story to line up with the larger Halo narrative?
JS: We had great partners working with us on Sadie’s Story: Elan Lee and Sean Stewart, who we’d collaborated with on the “I Love Bees” ARG for Halo 2. After talking with them about where ODST fit in the Halo timeline, they pitched a great idea for telling the civilian side of the Covenant invasion of New Mombasa. The biggest adventure was probably convincing Marty to record and produce Sadie’s hour long radio play after I’d already given him the full court press to make “smoky saxophone” the signature instrument of Halo 3: ODST’s soundtrack. But all kidding aside, we intentionally picked a blank part of the Halo timeline for ODST, so the challenge wasn’t so much, “What are we going to break?” But rather, “How much awesome new detail can we put into this gap?”
GRIM: I think “a whole lot” would be the correct answer there, and I’m sure countless Halo fans would agree. Looking back on the story now, what are your thoughts on how beloved those characters and that story have become over the years?
JS: Certainly the great cast of actors is a big part of it. But ODST also tackled emotions and themes that the other Halo games didn’t. It’s a more intimate story, less focused on “saving the galaxy” than “saving the people (and city-controlling super computers) you love.” While it’s hard not to look back on the story and focus on all the things I could have done better, it’s a real honor whenever someone tells me that ODST is their favorite Halo game. It was certainly my favorite one to work on, and I really hope people enjoy playing the remastered edition.
GRIM: Oh I have no doubt they will. Thanks so much for joining us!