At a recent event for Halo Wars 2 at Microsoft’s headquarters up in Seattle we got a chance to try out some of the new gameplay modes (check out Blitz in the video above). But we also sat down with Kevin Grace, 343 Industries’ narrative design director, and Jeremy Cook, 343’s art director, to try and get a little more insight into how the Halo Wars story is unfolding and what ramifications it’ll have for the wider Halo universe.
GameSpot: Where did you guys begin with the story for Halo Wars 2? Did you come up with Atriox the villain first? Or did you try to connect to the original to current-day Halo?
Kevin Grace: Kind of all of those. It’s an interesting dance- we’re starting the game, we’re saying to the team, “What do you guys want to make?” Because I can’t just run off and write whatever story I want.” That’d be fun, but if it doesn’t connect to what the designers are doing and planning and would actually make a fun game, then I’m wasting everybody’s time.
At the same time, we’re here as a huge Halo resource for Creative Assembly–they’re coming up with ideas. And I wasn’t kidding when I said we needed to find some place to fight–so location is one of the first big things. And that line from the Legendary ending: “Captain wake up, something’s different,” from the first game. That was the first line that I wrote down when we got started on the new script. Because I wanted to have that…it’s strange to say “continuity” with 28 years in between, but as far as Cutter and Anders and all the crew on the Spirit of Fire, that really is the next moment. They close their eyes, and then this happens. They’ve missed everything that’s in between, and catching them up on that passage of time is a big part of bringing them back into Halo.
Jeremy Cook: For sure, and just on a “get it done” side: getting those early writings, getting that high level script written out, and talking with Blur, and the game design team–it’s not an assembly line where it’s like “Oh, hey! Script done! Now make a game!” There was a lot of ping pong. We look at the high level, and Creative Assembly chimes in to ask if can tweak things for gameplay. Then Blur chimes in asking about cinematics. There’s definitely a lot of handing off the torch.
KG: The cinematics are just one part of the story as well. There are lots of different ways that the story and the setting come alive in the game. You’ve got the story that’s told in every level through the mission dialogue, through combat dialogue. The little things people shout when they’re fighting. Information about the troops and Spirit of Fire records, things like that that players can experience if they want to go deeper into the story. So all of those story pieces have to be synchronized at the same that Blur is working their production, that CA is doing theirs.
They’re changing levels, because they’re making levels more fun. They make a level, they play it. Make a level, play it. A hundred times. Every one of those hundred times the events could change a little bit, and so the story has to change a little bit. So it’s definitely not, “Sweet! I got the story written. I’m going to go hangout for nine months. Guys, good luck with the rest of that game thing.” We’re changing dialogue, we’re adding characters, removing characters, trimming out whole arcs sometimes. If that’s the right thing to do for the game. We went through some wicked scoping on the cinematics. The story we came up with, at first, was huge. It would have been awesome. But it wouldn’t be something that we could pay for. So you make some choices. And, actually, that scoping exercise and the editing, especially with Blur’s help, I think made it a lot better. Made it a lot tighter.
JC: And very closely related to that is moving the story, if you look at that diagnostic of partner and discipline, we’re constantly deciding what’s the best medium to tell that part of the story. Is it to give you the wheel and let you play it? Versus short and cinematic. Versus something we could do in an in-game cinematic or a vidoc or whatever. We’re always making sure that we’re trying to give the controller to you as much as possible, because it’s a game and we want you to have fun. Not just to be holding onto the idea that, “This is my precious script, we’re trying to make a film with some game elements.” No, we’re making a really fun experience that has all these cool story telling mediums in it. We want to make sure we’re using the right one for the job.
As of right now, we know that he was blown up. That’s a very carefully worded answer.
KG: On the Banished too, we knew that we needed some new enemies in Halo. We’re starting to establish stuff with Cortana, obviously, from Halo 5. And some of the leftover Covenant bits there. But just looking at the pieces that are left in the universe, what out there could be fun to be elevated. Brutes were a pretty strong, pretty obvious choice. We could have a lot of fun with those guys. That’s when we got thinking, “How do we make Brutes different? How do we make Brutes new?” And that’s really where Atriox got started.
What was the idea behind bringing in Isabelle and what’s going on with Serena?
KG: So, how familiar are you with Halo lore?
AI rules, rampancy, seven years?
KG: So you know that the math is not looking good for Serena. But that’s a pretty important beat of the story for the game, and that’s something that we really want people to experience alongside everyone else once we get in there. So that’s a nice way of saying “I’m not gonna tell you about Serena today.” But, as far as Isabelle, it’s a little bit like we touched on earlier. In terms of keeping that AI presence in the universe, and having a different kind of an AI, so it’s a new mix of characters. In the first game it was fun, because you had Anders and Serena, they kind of had back and forth thing going on. The captain is over here and occasionally they listen to him, and that was nice too. And then you had Forge in the mix, so for Halo Wars 2, Forge is out, he blew up.
KG: As of right now, we know that he was blown up. That’s a very carefully worded answer. [laughs]
We still got Cutter, we still got Anders. Anders has been through a lot with the crew now. That first game she didn’t really want to be there. I don’t know how much backstory you’ve read with the Genesis comics, but she was kidnapped and brought on board. So she’s much more comfortable and much more a part of the Spirit of Fire crew. We needed that kind of outsider’s perspective, both for the character mix in the game and also for bringing new players into it. Isabelle was a great way to tie the AIs, that outsider perspective, and also the modernization of the Spirit of Fire.
JC: Without giving you spoilers, she going to have a really interesting character arc. With our characters, we want them to have interesting arcs. Cool, action films are great, but characters are much more interesting and have a lot more depth than you actually give them parts outside of a simple, one-dimensional role.
So I guess the next question would be: How is the story of Halo Wars 2 going to effect the Halo series and the Halo lore moving forward?
JC: That would be a big spoiler.
Not specifically, but is it going to have significant effects on, let’s say, the next first-person shooter for Halo?
KG: It’s absolutely going to. I mean, it is a part of what’s happening in the universe right now. So, yeah, its absolutely going to have a big impact on what’s coming next. It’s still early for whatever’s going to happen in the future, but I can tell you for sure that if you played Halo 5, there are some important implications in Halo Wars 2 that you’ll be able to pick up on. So we’ve already got connections that are built in right now. Like I said earlier, bringing the story up to modern day let’s us have some pretty big crossovers if we want to have big crossovers.
All those have to be right for the story and they have to be something that everyone will understand. Because if we just dropped Professor Anders in the next Halo thing, and we didn’t explain who she is or why she’s got this attitude, how he came by all these foreign smarts and all this stuff, we’re gonna get a response along the lines of “Scientist lady, I guess?” That would suck if we did it that way. We have to be able to work them in in a good way so they make they universe better.
JC: We don’t want to squander any of those characters that we spent so long cultivating these awesome things. We’ve answered this question a couple of other different ways, but certainly when you talk about units and assets and equipment, there will be crossovers in that regard. Whatever the next first-person whatever, if there is some sort of representation of the Banished or something like that, we would try to make sure that that’s consistent. It’s not like “Remember those Brutes you saw in Halo Wars 2? Well now they’re completely different!” We would try to have some consistency. Sure there might be evolution, but it feels like it’s from the same universe.
Everyone kind of has a distinct moment in their lives where they had a connection with the Halo universe. For me it was the first time in Halo 2 when I got a shotgun spree, and when I went to New York City for the Halo 3 launch. Do you guys have a specific moment in your lives that you remember that is special for you that connects you to the Halo universe?
KG: It’s a little weird from the story guy, but mine is multiplayer moment as well. It wasn’t a particular spree, but if I close my eyes and I think about Halo, the image that pops up in my brain is me and three of my buddies. When I first came to Microsoft, I worked in office user assistance, and I brought my Xbox into the office and we had one these little conference rooms. And those were the days when it was split-screen multiplayer. The four of us were sitting four big dudes all snuggled up like this with our controllers on this crappy old TV screen and we’re playing four-person multiplayer in that room at the office. We would look down and it’d be 9:30 or something, and we’d missed meetings, and it was like, “Oh shit!” Just how easy it was to get lost in that.
JC: For me it’s Halo one, gen-one Xbox. Playing with a buddy co-op, and the first time you encounter the Flood in a meaningful, “holy shit” way, where they’re just literally pouring out on the floor. The whole time you’re saying to yourself, “Just stay alive. Just stay alive. I’m dead! Stay alive. Just please stay alive.” That whole tense moment of sweating. You’re just spraying and praying these things, and those little chicken things start coming at you. That’s the moment where I was like “This is the f***ing best game!”