As you may have read in part one of our Halo 4 PAX panel recap, the formation of 343 Industries and how the studio handled the transition from Halo contributors to full on Halo owners put the team in a unique and creatively challenging position. Hardly surprising when you consider they inherited one of the biggest game franchises of all time from one of the most acclaimed developers in the industry. For as much as their PAX panel was devoted to “debuting” 343 and its core creative talent, it was also a time for Halo fans to find out more about what the studio has planned for Halo 4, from the sound design to the overall aesthetic.
Diehard fans of Halo are keenly aware, there are multiple channels through which the epic sci-fi narrative of Halo is told. And while most fans get their Halo fix through the various games, the story continues to be told and expanded upon via comics and books as well. But if you think these transmedia efforts are standalone efforts meant to simple tide people over between games then 343 Industries creative director Frank O’Connor has some news for you.
“Everything we make in that franchise, whether it’s a comic book, whether it’s a novel, even action figures, they all feed directly into [Halo 4].”
This even extends to the various covers chosen for Greg Bear’s Halo: Cryptum and Halo: Primordium, as well as Karen Traviss’ upcoming Halo: Glasslands, as 343 artists worked closely with these authors to find meaningful and relevant covers that more clearly tie the books to Master Chief’s next adventure.
“I’m not giving too much away…Those cover images come directly from Halo 4 concept work. And they are germane to the work Greg is doing, and that’s an example of how every single story we’re telling, from Cryptum to Glasslands and beyond, is feeding the game. Everything falls into the game eventually, and people love the extended franchise, and we just want to make it a richer and more meaningful experience.”
Speaking more directly to what 343 has planned for Halo 4, art director Kenneth Scott said that what truly inspires the development of Halo 4’s visual vocabulary is a “love for the deep fiction the universe has and trying to find ways we can, in a very genuine fashion, bubble that up through the art.” Scott went on to say that one of the ways Halo 4 will set itself apart is the way in which the visual design reflects “the emotional tone of the player’s experience throughout the game” while also expanding the aesthetic pallet that fans have come to know from the series as a whole.
“The fanbase and the people who have invested in this universe have been in this universe for 10 years now. They’ve grown up, and the art and the experience they’re having needs to mature to.”
Of course, for as much as Halo 4 will push the visual boundaries of the series further than ever before, the team remains focused on making sure whatever mysterious and unidentified world Master Chief is heading towards (see Halo 3 legendary ending) elicits the same sense of wonder and amazement that players felt the first time they set foot on Halo a decade ago.
“I think the thing that really connected people initially way back in the original Halo experience was that awe and mystery,” explained O’Connor. “So that’s where a lot of our pressure on the art team is going. We really want the player to feel that initial experience of discovery. And you’ve lived with the Forerunner for 10 years now, four games, what do we do to kind of move it forward so it still connects player with the mystery but it hasn’t fallen into the abstraction that can happen a lot of times.”
Speaking of Forerunner, O’Connor went on to say that players can expect to see Forerunner technology and creations in an entirely new light in Halo 4. “You’ve lived with inert, static Forerunner abandoned structures. It’s going to be really interesting to see a different aspect of Forerunner engineering and Forerunner architecture when it’s not completely inert and empty.”
On the story front, we know that Halo 4 will be a direct continuation of the events of Halo 3, however it’s still unclear exactly when it will take place. And just in case you were one of those furious speculators online who thought the 2554 model number for the Warthog shown in the Forza Motorsport 4 Autovista mode reveal during PAX Prime 2011 was an accurate representation of when exactly Halo 4 takes place, O’Connor clarified that the 2554 model “would have actually shipped at the end of 2552.” So no help there.
However, Scott did drop a few details about the big Chief himself, primarily with regards to his design this time around.
“The chief you saw in the [E3 2011] teaser is not the final chief,” Scott admitted. “We understand how important Chief is to this universe. We’re probably on iteration number four right now. There’s a lot of love and investment in making sure he’s the best he can possibly be. I think the focus for him specifically was really wanting to make the player feel like him, and sell that fantasy of ‘I’m a bioengineered superhero wearing 800 pounds of tank and jetfighter.’ Hopefully, when we cross the finish line and you guys are playing it, that’ll read to you.”
For as much work as 343 is investing in the look and feel of Halo 4, the game would be nothing without top notch audio to bring the experience home. Considering the work Bungie did on bringing the now iconic alien sounds of the Halo universe to life, 343 designers have no small feat ahead of them. But, as you’d expect, they are more than up to the challenge.
“The audio team is focusing on making something unique all the time,” explained audio director Sotaro Tojima. “We want to achieve a believable sci-fi audio experience. We want to bring exciting, realistic audio to the Halo universe. So in a galaxy of the future, I imagine Master Chief’s experience should sound a little bit different from the sound we were familiar with. So we need a new sound. So actually, we have tried to record something in outer space using a special microphone, but it was hard to get money for that.”
Space recordings might be outside the budget, but improvisation and earthly sources were well within reach for the audio team who traveled to Tasmania and even used special microphones to capture sounds in fire and ice. And while delivering a believable sci-fi experience was clearly top of mind, the audio team, as with the art team, looked to Master Chief’s emotional journey for inspiration as well.
“My main goal on Halo 4,” continued Tojima, “is to achieve music and audio design well synced with a deep Halo story. Therefore, I started audio production with writing down that emotional column considering the whole story, and whenever composing music or designing stuff for particular section, we are thinking about where Master Chief’s emotions is, where players’ emotions is in the story. So with a strong connection of story and audio, I want to move people who love Halo, make it exciting, feel tension, and cry.”
Of course, for as important as the story, presentation, and audio are to the overall experience, the biggest area of concern, especially for devout Halo fans, is gameplay. So to put any lingering fears to rest, creative director Josh Holmes chimed in to make one thing perfectly clear: “It plays like Halo.”
“It sounds simple,” Holmes added, “but that was really important to us. As a team, we’re brought together by this love of this universe and this play experience, and we really wanted to maintain the core of that magical Halo feel. But at the same time, it was important for us to have the courage to take risks evolve the gameplay feel so that is fresh and different…It was really important to us to maintain that commitment to the sandbox nature of Halo gameplay and making sure that we’re empowering players to make choices in how they approach each problem instead of just giving them one solution.”
As for Halo’s beloved multiplayer experience? “You look at the Halo community, and it’s such a diverse community," said Holmes. "There’s so many different perspectives that people bring to the experience. And it was really important to us as a team to try to represent all of those perspectives and all of those different playstyles and make sure we’re striking the right balance between them and giving different players different experiences.”
This balance and diversity doesn’t just exist in the Halo fan community. As executive producer Kiki Wolfkill explained, that diversity is a big part of 343’s genetic makeup as well.
“I would say there’s also a lot of good, healthy, heated debate on the team around all of these features. We have the very hardcore, and we have some of the broader audience, and I think that mix is really valuable in helping us make decisions.”
While the majority of the Halo 4 panel involved the 343 leads dancing around questions without providing any concrete details to go on, you can’t really blame them. The game is still a ways out, and they have no desire to tip their hand too early, particularly because of the reputation the Halo brand carries with it. Still, it’s encouraging to hear that so much of what 343 believes and strives to achieve with Halo 4 appears to be clearly driven by a passion for the property that so many of its most devoted fans share.