LOCKHART & LOADED
GrimBrother One: Okay, so, let’s talk a bit first just about you. What’s your background in storytelling in general, and what’s your history with Halo specifically, including the role you find yourself in now?
Morgan Lockhart: I’ve been storytelling in a professional or semi-professional capacity since I was sixteen. As a teenager, I wrote serial novels for Teen People Online for an audience of other teens. It was totally unpaid, but it was great to have an audience and be held accountable to put out content regularly and maintain quality. I got my first job in games my last year of college, working as an editor and game designer on the MMO Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and after that continued working on various fantasy MMOs (most notably Everquest 2 and Rift) before knowing I needed a change. I joined the Halo team as a narrative designer in February 2012 to launch Halo 4 and stayed on for the development of Halo 5: Guardians.
My specific role is a “narrative designer.” That means different things to different teams, but at 343, it’s not synonymous with a writer. The writers are in charge of ‘what’ and I’m in charge of ‘how’ and that means driving forward not only what our stories are but how we tell them. In the early phases of our games, we all work together to develop the characters and story, but I also design and prototype gameplay systems related to narrative and work on improvements to our storytelling pipelines. Then, as we go forward, I write VO for my missions, but I also implement game design elements related to the narrative and work with mission designers, sound designers, VFX artists, environment artists, etc (everyone) to nail down how well tell the story outside of the VO and cinematics.
GRIM: Do you have any favorite corners of the narrative in particular? Are you more “head in the clouds” or “boots on the ground” when it comes to the stories you love to tell and/or experience?
MORGAN: When I’m working on a game, I’m definitely the boots on the ground sort of person. While I do love the imagining part (and would say I prefer it when writing a project on my own), when I enter a collaborative environment, I immediately become the problem solver. It probably has something to do with the fact that before Halo 5, I had always come into a project after it had started and either drove it toward completion (in the best cases) or tried to fix it (in the not so best cases). It’s the first game I’ve worked on from the very start to the very finish in almost ten years of game development.
In story meetings, I often hang back at first, and then come in to the pitches that are out there and show what is wrong or missing and then offer complimentary ideas to drive the idea toward completion. As a narrative designer, it’s really my job to think about how a story is going to work in the context of the game experience, so I also own the process of making it actually happen within the framework of the gameplay and I think that makes me inclined to always have that approach to the story.
GRIM: Any interesting or fun stories to tell from behind the curtain of Halo 5: Guardians’ development? What is your take on the process of helping craft such a narrative?
MORGAN: Basically every story meeting ends with members of the story team riffing on what would happen if we introduced grunts into (insert whatever we are talking about at the time.) Tim Longo usually lets out a sigh at that point because he knows we’re out of useful ideas. While it’s all mostly just good fun (though we might really write that hard boiled ‘grunt cop’ noir one day), the team’s love of grunts is also pretty unabashed. We all have a favorite funny grunt moment we crafted somewhere in the game. Finding humor in even the most serious of stories is important, and returning the comedy of the grunts to Halo (not to mention Buck’s smart ass remarks and the occasional quip from the other members of Osiris and Blue Team) has been a real delight.
GRIM: I can personally vouch to such epic derailings, and they are indeed magnificent. So other than Unggoy, do you have a favorite character in the Halo universe?
MORGAN: Dr. Halsey. I’m always drawn to characters that not everyone likes and who are difficult to nail down. She’s a very flawed, layered person and having her as part of a story immediately makes it that much more interesting. You can debate her, and that makes her fun to me.
GRIM: Totally agree there, and debate we certainly do!
MORGAN: Also, I love the Huragok and their absolute science fiction strangeness, and love all the Huragok characters we have featured. The relationship with Lucy and Prone to Drift is one of my favorite storylines in our extended fiction. I know that’s a funny thing to answer when I say that I also love Halsey, but characters I enjoy being in conflict with another is totally necessary.
GRIM: How about a favorite non-Halo story or character? Anything in particular that has inspired you throughout your creative days?
MORGAN: This is not an original answer for a geeky writer, but I’m am definitely a big fan of Joss Whedon, and since I was exposed to his work as a teen, it’s been a big influence on me. He is exceptionally talented at taking characters on arcs and letting characters you like do things you don’t like (and characters you don’t like do things you like). If I had a particular favorite character of his, I’d probably say Anya. She’s another character who, while often likeable, had moments where you could question her and her motives. The moment in the seminal episode “The Body” where she expresses frustration over not understanding death is one I refer to a lot when thinking about how to write characters who are “others” and may do a good job of seeming human but really are not.
GRIM: So, shifting towards Halo 5: Guardians specifically, this week, we revealed new gameplay of the “Swords of Sanghelios” mission from the upcoming campaign. Can you talk a little bit about the political climate of the Sangheili homeworld and what it’s like to help finally give Halo fans a chance to experience a place they’ve heard so much about?
MORGAN: It has been incredibly fun to go to Sanghelios. I’m a big fan of Halo 2 and the Arbiter and of the Sangheili in general – I tend to be drawn to the alien cultures and alien characters in science fiction universes, as I find that exploration to be one of the most fun parts of the genre. (If you give me a choice, I will always play an alien character.)
The climate there is definitely, well, rocky. An animal is most dangerous when you back it into a corner and it knows it’s fighting for its last shot at survival, and that’s essentially what the Arbiter has done to the last of the Covenant when we reach Sanghelios. They’re going down, but they’re giving hell as they do. The fact that Locke waltzes in at such a heated time needing the Arbiter’s help in finding Master Chief and that Arbiter deigns to assist Osiris is a testament to the Arbiter’s character, because he really does have better things to do.
GRIM: You’ve been particularly instrumental in helping bring the story to life throughout pages upon pages (upon pages) of in-gameplay dialogue. Can you talk to both the advantages and challenges of revealing aspects of the narrative through vignettes and combat dialogue within the gameplay itself?
MORGAN: Success with in-game storytelling is really what makes video game storytelling special. Game players don’t just want to see a story, they want to experience it, and that means marrying gameplay and narrative as closely as possible. Success with that level of interactive experience means you can engage people on a deep level because it makes everything that happens personal.
Now, the challenges. There’s a lot. A game needs to serve a lot of different purposes, and the narrative is only one, and teams have finite resources and finite time. You set out with an idea of what you want to accomplish, and along the way dozens (hundreds, really) of things have to go, or have to change, and you stay on your toes to keep it all serving the narrative as well as possible. You’re always shooting toward a moving target.
The biggest challenge posed by this game was the co-op nature of the gameplay. You have to build a game’s story to be reactive to a player – understanding that outside of cinematics you can’t completely author any given narrative experience completely and respecting/taking advantage of that – but the challenge is magnified when you try to account for four players and you set out to have the characters played by all four players as active participants in the story. We couldn’t always trust that Locke would be right out in front, so all four characters had to be able to react, for example, to anything contextually significant that happens. We also couldn’t trust that all four players/characters would see every in-game event and that required narrative tricks accounting for a potential lack of knowledge on one or more characters’ part. So, we ended up with narrative that was pretty close to four times as much work as one would expect, but it has been very rewarding.
GRIM: So lastly, what are your hopes and thoughts as we hurtle towards the launch of Halo 5: Guardians? What would you love for fans to come away thinking when the credits finally roll?
MORGAN: There’s always a point in a game’s development, hopefully toward the very end, where you as a creator start to go a little cross-eyed when you look at. It’s difficult to look at it for what it is and not see the things that got cut, that you couldn’t fix, that didn’t turn out quite how you wanted. This dissatisfaction is key to keep driving toward quality, but it also makes it hard to really stand back and see what you did do well and enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the day it’s out there and hopefully the fans are loving it and getting to see it through all of their eyes. I truly hope people enjoy what we have done, and also that, in particular, they love the new characters on Osiris as much as we do.
GRIM: Thanks so much for joining us today, and for all the passion you and your team pour into the story!