By Rich Stanton
If you want to know why Halo is one of the games of the last decade, it's not too hard to find reasons. You can almost reel them off – the 30 seconds of fun, the two-weapon limit, the regenerative shield, and the role as flagbearer for Microsoft's fledgling Xbox console. There's the context of where the console FPS was in 2001. There's the big things like AI and the small ones like incidental dialogue. Talking about why Halo was and is brilliant almost risks turning into a checklist, not least thanks to the sheer size of what Microsoft has subsequently built around it.
This article originally ran in Edge magazine issue 215, January 2010. It’s been reprinted here with permission to mark the 15th anniversary of the original Xbox’s UK launch.
Before all of that, though, what is Halo? It's a mould- and market-cracking FPS. It’s an atmosphere that draws in influences and shades them in Bungie’s slimy greens and royal blues. Though it may be derivative of other material, though the alien war waged around you has been depicted in countless big-screen blockbusters, and though the journey of this Great Green Hope may be, by any standards, trite, you remember Halo. It’s written on your memory in Needler shards and fluorescent, hissing sticky bombs thrown in haste and detonating just in time. It’s written in purple lights and orchestral overtures: the ring itself, the stars, and the Warthog tracks all around.
The titular, world-ending construct is an environment the scale of which was new. That first glimpse remains remarkable: stepping from a cramped pod into fields and mountains, the sky bisected by a structure that goes on and on. You could argue the short and somewhat obligatory ‘abandon ship’ prologue exists purely to foreground what you expect from other examples of the genre: the confines of walkways and funnelled directives. Since Doom FPSs had shown snapshots of the outside world – distant cities painted in sable brown and grey hues – but Halo’s freedom was again something new. The environments are simply huge, and even the corridors give your 7-foot starship trooper a wide berth. Exploration isn’t incentivised by pickups or rewards – Combat Evolved has very few treasures to be hunted – but an end unto itself. It might have all been an accident, because it's a world that pre-dates the Master Chief himself.
“Before we knew what we were making, we had most of those environments,” reveals Chris Butcher, AI programmer on the project (incidentally, and surprisingly, the first location built was The Silent Cartographer, oft-cited as a series highpoint). When you bear in mind that one of Halo's prototype forms was as an RTS, pieces start clicking into place. A big part of why Halo's environments are such a pleasure to traverse, for example, is the transportation system. Bungie wanted to take their show on the road: “I think the Warthog is the real reason Halo became an action game,” says designer Jaime Griesemer. “In the old RTS-style game it was just so cool to watch a squad of jeeps driving across the terrain [that] we wanted to drive them ourselves. And then we wanted to get out of them and run around as an infantry guy and from there it snowballed into what we eventually shipped. In some ways, Halo is the story of the warthog and the universe we built to drive it around in.”
The Warthog is certainly one of the stars. Attaching camera control to steering shouldn’t have worked, but in practice granted drivers the opportunity to fully observe their surroundings, almost like a mouse-click directing an RPG avatar along with your field of view. It's hulking yet agile in full flight, requiring co-operation (one driver, one gunner, and an optional passenger) to be a real threat, demanding players specialise in one of its disciplines. The Covenant have their own shiny toys but it's a mark of the Warthog's brilliance that driving a Ghost or Banshee is no substitute. The car in front is a badass.
But Halo just as often strands you without a ride: out on a limb, outnumbered and outgunned in an environment that’s suddenly too big for comfort, facing down the formidable Covenant. And if the Warthog's a star, these guys are showstoppers. “It was the AI, the encounters we didn’t have [at that stage],” continues Chris Butcher. “So it was a case of figuring out where to place them.” Here, too, circumstances led to happy accidents: “We designed [the enemies] that way because we knew we wanted to have wave attacks in our title. We went from that bunch of concept designs to a full-on console title in a very short time.”
A full-on army is more like it. Whatever your take on the Covenant as a fictional race, as AI groups they remain the high watermark in the genre. Merely refined by Halo's sequels, and mystifyingly uninfluential on the likes of COD, the Elites and Grunts are the base for an endlessly surprising cocktail of hostility. The intelligence they mimic is more animalistic than human, the group prodding and breaking onto you in tandem, Grunts sacrificed for attention while Elites creep outside of your sightline. Griesemer says “the idea was that the Elites were like graceful, predatory cats and the Grunts were like crazy little monkeys. The Covenant are a tool for the users to deconstruct and play around with.” The Grunts were given an appropriate 'crazy monkey' voicing by Joseph Staten, the lead writer on Bungie’s games until Destiny, after which he left to become a creative director for Microsoft.
There's an encounter soon after your first steps on Halo that's one of many peaks, and illustrates how your opponents work perfectly. Driving in to support a marine position, you're presented with a maze of rocks that tower over your head, the high ground where the marines are posted, and a stretch of open ground leading to where the Covenant dropships are about to land. Gung-ho charge? Snipe with the marines? Hide in the rocks and pick off advancing enemies from behind? Whatever your answer, the brilliant realisation is that the Covenant will soon give their own reply. They'll cut you down with concentrated crossfire, or rush the ridge and overpower your meagre group with massed numbers, or perhaps start hunting you through those selfsame rocks. The ultimatum: adapt or die.
It’s why that shield works so well. Adopted wholesale by the FPS genre post-Halo, recharging health is more often than not a crutch for attritional can-shoots. Here it's what the combat system is built around, a flowing switch between attack and defense that forces strategies to be changed and discarded over the space of seconds. The Covenant forces pick and poke at you before any all-out charge, almost like the Grunts are working up their courage, tempting distance shots and, inevitably, a hail of return fire. You're hit, the reddening screen and urgent bloops switch your mind into turtling mode, and the hunt begins: seconds until you recharge, seconds you haven't always got. Fights that should be epic brawls turn into tense creeping affairs where the silence is only broken by your element of surprise – or theirs. Playing hide-and-seek creates as much of Halo's charge as any headshot.
It’s an on / off mode of play that’s also heavily informed by what you’re holding in your jolly green mitts. The 2-weapon restriction brought an element of practicality to your fantastical armoury: the choices may be many, but the talent is now in choosing. Would you whittle away an overshield with a full clip then charge in for some buckshot to the brain? Or unload a Needler and finish off with a crown-caving pistol shot? Whether to leave behind your favourite but half-empty weapon for a fully loaded alternative is a constant worry – there’s nothing worse than stubbornly sticking to your trusty sniper only to end up in a tight space crammed with Covenant and all the wrong kinds of ammo.
The choices and strategies that the Covenant, the weapons, and your capabilities open up are what gives Halo all those little degrees of freedom – which is where its nomadic, player-authored stories come from. Engagements, particularly in the game's moody, tense opening, are stretched out across a vast terrain, travelled between in long stretches where the only sound is a pair of heavy-duty wheels. Halo's pacing is cursed to forever be associated with “30 seconds of fun” – not because that's an inaccurate description, but because it's only one part of a polymorphous whole. It describes the basic guiding principle that underlies Halo's combat: each encounter should last just long enough to get the blood pumping and create a real sense of peril, before offering up a respite. Sounds neat, and is, but Halo isn't defined by it.
Engagements aren't of a type, but switch from popping a few Grunt heads to full-on, drawn-out ambushes and counter-offensives, even entire levels constructed from waves of zombie bullet hell (but more on the Library later). The respites can be a five-minute drive, a meet-up with reinforcements, or three seconds snatched beneath a rock under withering plasma fire. As a rough principle you can see the place of ’30 seconds…’ in Halo's combat, but it's grossly unfair to take it as emblematic of such an expertly-paced and comprehensive whole.
It's why, as much as any 4x4 leap of faith or sharpened one-liner, it’s the quiet times that get you. The moments you think in. Standing alone in a clearing, you’re so awed by that construction looping the sky that Master Chief almost seems on the wrong scale. The frequent, brief silences, or the tranquillity of the Cartographer’s underground hub, is heightened to modern sensibilities by the lack of a sprint or roadie-run, now an FPS given (even, it would turn out, for later Halos). There’s an unerring steadiness to Master Chief’s movements across the galaxy that give a sense of invincibility, a sluggishness that hints at your size and strength without restricting avenues for attack and navigation.
This was thanks in large part to a control scheme mapped to a somewhat divisive controller. Butcher didn’t see the plate with handles as an obstacle: “I actually think the original Xbox controller has the most responsive set of twin sticks around – even over any of the current-gen handsets [bear in mind, Butcher was being interviewed back in 2010]. Initially we were developing and testing with Sidewinders, which had a similar setup to the Xbox controller. I really wish there was some way for me to use that controller with the 360.”
Though it certainly wasn’t a one-size invitation to FPS fans, the control system proved to be another of Halo’s most lasting influences. Sans mouse, the console FPS hadn’t dared dabble with jumping since Turok: Dinosaur Hunter had made a prehistoric chore of it. The instant melee attack, too, was almost unheard-of. The inspiration was close to home: “A lot of our ideas came from third-person action titles,” says Butcher, “where virtually every single one of them had A for jump and B for melee. We experimented with a third-person camera at one stage, having made ONI and really enjoyed it.”
Bungie also considered how the game was supposed to make players feel, and to this end introduced a levity of tone in certain elements - in early work, for example, the marines were basically a desolate bunch who’d given up hope. “It’s interesting, with the Marines, we had originally designed their animations vastly different to how they turned out.” Griesemer enthuses. “The initial idea was that when you jumped in the Hog they’d be clinging to the mini-gun, crying their eyes out. But we wanted to encourage the player, so that’s why we decided to change it and have them hollering and screaming “woo-hoo!” as you jump. They’re with you, they’re behind you all the way.”
Everything's a part of Halo's world, and it's a world designed to make you feel like what you are: the big, bad Master Chief. It's easy to be sneery about Halo's wider universe, but it's one that at least looks outside of videogames for its sci-fi influences. And, in the beginning at least, the struggle to save humanity from the invading, rabid Flood isn’t conveyed by piles of expository cutscenes or shoe-horned characterisation. Bungie’s original is more show-don’t-tell, which does seem funny in the context of the lore-heavy way it would go.
“When we were starting out on PC we had designs on a much more text-based narrative,” says Griesemer. “There are hints of that in Cortana’s logbooks, something more like Marathon, which was popular and we loved doing.” Butcher adds “I think videogame sci-fi tends to be much more concerned with the lasers and guns, whereas literary sci-fi is about the themes.”
The literary influence runs deep: shooting aliens may be Halo’s hook, but if the mechanics are a perfect blend of genre tropes then the story is an equally potent concoction of literary influences. The point isn’t that Halo tells these stories, but that it can visualise some truly fantastic ideas. “All of us here at Bungie are huge fans of sci-fi literature,” says Griesemer, “And of course there are shades of Iain M Banks – think of Consider Phlebas with the ship being destroyed. But the influence of something like [Larry Niven’s] Ringworld isn’t necessarily in the design – it’s in that sense of being somewhere else. That sense of scale and an epic story going on out there. One of the main sources of inspiration was Armour, by Robert Stately, in which a soldier has to constantly relive the same war over and over again, that sense of hopelessness, a relentless battle, was influential.”
Such grand ambition may sound hollow to those familiar with Halo’s later brand of B-movie storytelling, but it's reflected in the original’s design. Wondering where that infamous Library fits into all of this? It’s the one link in Bungie’s chain of maps that can turn the most ardent supporter a ghost-grey, a linear map that gives you no avenue for escape, no avenue for improvisation and no longer a sense of invincibility.
The Library is infamous because of The Flood, a mob of mutants with kamikaze pathfinding hell-bent on destroying your shield and reminding you of the thin line between life and death. Though arguably crude in design – a mass of beige blobs, the antithesis of the neons that pepper your memories – Griesemer cites one particular source: “A major influence I know of was a book by Christopher Rowley called The Vang, about an alien species that were invading and assimilating people. The Vang were basically the Flood but it took days for their gestation period to transform people.”
Common opinion may be that The Library wasn’t a successful experiment but, even with its divisive moments, Halo is trying something different rather than going through the motions: trying to create a new feeling in the player, rather than retreading an old one.
Halo’s journey from concept art to floating polygon islands and finally onto shelves was, of course, just the beginning. While we're on the early days, Halo came with a subtitle that named a thousand features: Combat Evolved. So a slight digression into the making of a super-franchise. “Oh man... the subtitle,” groans Griesemer. “At the time, Microsoft Marketing thought 'Halo' was not a good name for a videogame brand. It wasn’t descriptive like all the military games we were competing with.”
What can you do?
“We told them Halo was the name.”
Things are, alas, never so simple. “The compromise was they could add a subtitle,” says Griesemer. “Everyone at Bungie hated it. But it turned out to be a very sticky label and has now entered the gaming lexicon to the point where articles that have nothing to do with Halo get titles like 'Skateboarding Evolved'. So I guess in hindsight it was a good compromise.”
“But the real name of the game is just Halo.”
The subhead was subsequently dropped, but was it so bad? Bungie’s opus neatly fits the idea of FPS combat evolved, from simple ranged combat to the art of war. Encounters with the Covenant are heavy weapon symphonies, assault rifle rattles punctuated by the percussion of a Needler and the drumming of a mini-gun. Grenades explode like cymbals. And then Martin O’Donnell’s score kicks in.
“It’s actually Marty’s own voice on the title screen, you know – that choir”, Griesemer says, in a matter-of-fact way that’s so typically Bungie. “And it was him and his wife for the sequel”, adds Butcher.
Fifteen years on, it seems laughable anyone could doubt ‘Halo’ as a franchise. It's worth pointing out, also, that it’s arguably the trailblazer for today's FPS-heavy console landscape – its success and subsequent evolution into a premier brand what everyone wanted to copy, at one point. No other shooter has had such a continuing and visible influence on consoles.
The success makes Griesemer speculate. “There were a lot of very talented people working on Halo, but it was also about timing. I think the world wanted an epic, heroic story in the fall of 2001, they wanted to see the world saved.”
Whatever the reason, from the fan-community engagement to spin-off books and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, Halo didn’t just become a success, it became a phenomenon - a beacon to other FPS games, a cultural artefact, even a mainstream franchise.
But the story of Halo's development and Master Chief’s crusade are only part of the picture. Ask any fan, any forum member, what they remember most and you’ll be bombarded with anecdotes about Blood Gulch campers and Warthogs launched into the atmosphere by cunningly-placed grenades. About four player split-screen and that arsehole who’s too damn good with the pistol.
Halo’s local multiplayer mode was so good, one suspects, because even though it was developed fast, it was constantly played. “QA testing was where Microsoft really helped as a resource,” says Butcher. “But then again we were doing a lot of it ourselves, we’d be playing 16-player, 90-minute games on Blood Gulch after hours. Everything came together in such a short time. Talk about a test centre, we had four TVs with 16 guys crowded around. It was only in the last 5 weeks of the project that 16 player games were stable enough that we could play them.”
“My favourite anecdote relates to Blood Gulch and the Scorpion Tank,” adds Griesemer. “Some of the guys were really panicking towards the end, saying we had to take out the tank altogether, that it wasn’t in the game enough. But we really wanted to drive the tank around Blood Gulch, we thought that would be so cool. So the tank stayed purely for that reason.”
If that wasn’t enough, there’s one more development detail that arguably makes Blood Gulch the most influential multiplayer map in Halo’s history. “We were given too much license, you might say. And that’s how maps like Chiron happen,” laughs Griesemer. “We only had a couple of weeks to implement the multiplayer – from scratch. The Sniper Rifle’s scope is a direct result of the distances between the bases in Blood Gulch. And we didn’t have a Shotgun, either, until that point.”
It’s surprising, actually, just how much of Halo seemed to come together. I mention the moment that always gives me uncontrollable goose bumps, the fantastic Warthog escape that ends it all - with that magnificent score booming. “The last level, the escape, came about in the last weeks of development,” says Butcher. “We originally had planned just a cutscene with the Chief taking off, but then decided we wanted a real climax. It was originally going to be a driving and fighting section, but we thought that was too much. The real problem was the Warthog, we’d refined it throughout the campaign levels and then suddenly you couldn’t land a single jump. We had to really tweak the feedback for that section.”
Griesemer gets the goose-bumps sometimes, too, but he chooses another moment. “It comes in one of the arctic sections. You’ve just fought your way through the Covenant wall, you’ve broken their backs, and then you leap into the Banshee and take off and the music kicks in. That’s still what Halo’s about for me.”
Does anyone play Halo in these moments, I wonder, without wanting to chant along?
Halo’s legacy – on forums, on Youtube and in Machimina – is a story in itself and stems from the creation of a universe that encouraged, rather than forced, a sense of free-form interactivity and procrastination. “The player agency really stemmed from getting lost in huge maps” says Butcher, “that point when you just say – Urgh… I’m totally lost, what do you do now? And you play around.”
Just how do you rationalise a game that gets grown-ups giddy with excitement at the prospect of a new instalment, a decade-and-a-half after it was released? That still has people worldwide bellowing with rage and triumph every night? After 15 years the series may have lost some of its lustre, not least because Bungie has long since moved on to other things, but the original remains one of the most important FPS games ever made.