Halo, is it me you're looking for?
The ‘Halo’ game series has generated billions of dollars through its videogame series, books and other merchandise, and
several Hollywood heavyweights have tried to get a film version off the ground. JOE GRIFFINmeets Frank O’Connor, the amiable Scotsman responsible for the franchise
Who can blame them? As well as generating roughly $3 billion (about €2.4 billion), the Halo series has developed a rich, complex sci-fi narrative that has spawned numerous games and 10 New York Times best-selling books, and its aesthetic has influenced recent beloved space operas such as District 9 and Battlestar Galactica. Elsewhere, eagle-eyed TV viewers recently spotted a Halo logo for the United Nations Space Command accidentally used on a BBC News story about the United Nations.
Frank O’Connor, an amiable Scotsman, is the franchise development director for the games. This is not only one of the biggest game properties of its generation, but one of the most lucrative franchises (in any medium) ever. If he’s feeling the heavy burden of responsibility, it’s not showing.
“I started in videogame journalism,” he says. “Then one of my first [copywriting] gigs was working on Halo manuals, then game fiction, liaising between marketing departments [working on] game story; it was a really mixed bag that prepared me for what I do now.”
Halo 4, the seventh game in the series (including the spin-offs) is released later this year and continues the saga of intergalactic war. Some believe that it will be the start of a new three-part story. But after 10 years, is it hard to keep track of the ever-expanding mythology? And with no end in sight, is there a danger of it becoming a shaggy dog story, like TV’s Lost? O’Connor says that the series’s popularity means that they can plan far into the future.
“We’re locked in on Halo 4,” he says, “almost down to lines of dialogue; all the motion capture and voices are done. So we have time to edit and polish but the story is locked. Beyond Halo 4 we’ve done some narrative building for games in the series.
“We’re planned further than the Lost guys [were]. In TV, you debut with no existing fan-base, but when working on a franchise like Halo, we have the luxury of knowing that there’s a core fan-base so we’re able to plan long-term.”
For a franchise to grow to the extent that Halo has, it has to appeal to a huge variety of fans. Many Halo players are casual consumers of the main story, but are mainly in it for the game-play and the single-player campaign.
It’s a smooth, elegant and intuitive first-person shooter. Millions of other devotees, however, dispense with narrative altogether and concentrate on online multiplayer. And then there are others who love the storyline, gobbling up all of the various strands of the mythology. Within each of these groups, there are different styles of game-play, from the cautious snipers to the macho gun fetishists.
Is it hard to balance appealing to such a diverse group? “It’s becoming more and more important as the community is far from monolithic,” says O’Connor. “They all just want to get a visceral experience. We get people who follow it religiously, but ultimately we’re building a piece of entertainment with believable characters and scenarios to make you care. Without an objective or drive [game-play] can get repetitive. We try to get as much story, universe and atmosphere on to a disk as [possible].
“Halo is a big selection box of pieces for people to play. Campaign, multiplayer, forge [which allows players to construct their own levels], and there’s a lot of stuff there. The challenge isn’t evolving what’s there; it’s adding new content to move it forward. Significant big innovations are really challenging.”
One can’t help but notice a number of political allegories in the Halo universe. Like the best science fiction, it hints at current events. Over the past decade, Halo players have seen a holy war, suicide bombers and a weapon of mass destruction. Is there an intentional political message? “We never try to insert a brand of politics,” O’Connor says, “it’s more about making it believable. I think the interesting part of the subtext is how subjective it is. We use a lot of the same story tropes – a hero’s journey, a three-act structure for our big extended pieces. We never politicise things beyond the need to give real character and detail. We have subterfuge and subplots, and the humans aren’t monolithically heroic.”
As pervasive as Halo is, the brand name could have been even bigger. Numerous attempts to develop a film have stumbled. Alex Garland (author of The Beach and the videogame Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) was hired to write a screenplay, and Peter Jackson was set to produce with Neill Blomkamp on directing duties. Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro circled it too. Nobody really knows what happened with the films, but rumours abound that budget was an issue as well as that old chestnut, artistic differences. Jackson and Blomkamp went on to work together on District 9, a film that took many stylistic cues from the Halo games.
“We’re not working on a motion picture at this time and there is obviously a history about that,” O’Connor admits. “One interesting thing we are doing is a web series. The quality we’re shooting for is closer to Game of Thrones than what you might typically expect from a digital series. It tells a couple of origin stories that eventually will pay off in Halo 4. That will launch in October. If you buy the limited edition of the game, the shorts will be included, adding up to about 90 minutes.
“And if you want a quick Halo live-action narrative fix, Forward unto Dawn [a promotional web series] will definitely scratch the itch.”
Halo 4 is released in November
Halo: A brief introduction
Halo is the flagship franchise for Microsoft’s Xbox, showcasing the original Xbox’s technology and – with each instalment – building on the machine’s capabilities (Xbox, and later Xbox 360).
Halo: Combat Evolved was released in 2001. Setting the template for the series, it was a sci-fi, first-person shooter in which you played a super-soldier known as Master Chief.
Most of the plot revolves around the discovery of the mysterious, eponymous WMD, the Halo. This giant structure was capable of destroying life in an entire galaxy and was built thousands of years ago by an alien race called The Forerunners. It was built initially to combat alien parasites known as The Flood.
Halo, its sequels and spin-offs have a broad mythology, dealing with the colonisation of distant planets and galaxies, an invasion of Earth, an ongoing war with fundamentalist aliens known as The Covenant (who see humanity as an affront to the gods), and the destruction and rebuilding of Halo structures.