"Reach" Takes a Tragic Trip Through Halo's History

Halo: Reach kicked off gaming's busy holiday season, had massive launch day sales, and will have millions of gamers killing one another this weekend. But for Bungie, it is a bittersweet success, as they release their final contribution to the Halo franchise. Fast Company spoke to Marcus Leto, the Creative Lead on Halo: Reach, about creating the war epic and bidding farewell to the Halo universe.

Noble Team

Kevin Ohannessian: What was behind the decision to go from the lone superheroic Master Chief to a squad of more flawed soldiers?

Marcus Leto: The setting of the game is just prior to the events of Halo 1. It was a great opportunity to cut that tie between the Master Chief's story and start anew with a whole new cast of characters. As we began to develop Noble Team, this group of Spartans, what we really want to push forward was the campaign's connection to the multiplayer. We didn't want them to be two separate independent-feeling games. We wanted to tie them together in as many ways as we possibly could. One of those ways, of course, is that in multiplayer Teamwork is essential. Teamwork is pretty useful in campaign. While you can definitely go alone and can definitely finish the campaign by yourself, without too much help from your Spartans. If you stick back, if you play team tactics with your Spartans, the way in which you can progress within the campaign is entirely different than any other campaign we have created so far.

Why Reach as a setting? Why not go further back in time in the Halo universe? Or tell a future story with new characters (not Master Chief)?

We discussed a lot of scenarios and a lot of those came as possibilities for us to connect with. When we first began the game three years ago, our pre-production phase was all of this research and gathering, pulling in data from our studio, pulling in data from our fans, and understanding what our fans might what to see next. A lot of opportunities presented themselves at that time. Going far into the future or far back in time, we felt would require so much set-up in order to really engage or appreciate how it connected with the Halo story and we really wanted a really powerful ending to our contribution to the Halo universe. And we felt the events just prior to Halo 1 presented themselves with all kinds of great opportunities. Reach, the planet itself, is a fantastic setting. It has all kinds of great places to explore; it's the home and birthplace of the Spartan program; and it's also the setting of one of the biggest battles in the Halo universe. It was a great area for us to tackle. It quickly became the thing we were focusing on.

Why did you choose the name Noble?

It had to do with the Spartans themselves. Our tagline has been, "From the beginning, you know the end." The story is a tragedy. It's about the fall of the planet Reach due to the Covenant. What we wanted to tell was the story of the fall of the soldiers, the noble ones. Noble Team was just a natural when it came to that. To follow Noble Team, in the trenches of battle, throughout the campaign, and to witness firsthand the sacrifice that they make in order to insure one thing makes it off the planet, the hope of humanity.

As the Halo series has been made, we've had two wars start. How has the Iraq and Afghanistan wars informed Halo, and Reach specifically?

It's something that influences us—it can't not affect anybody in the world. We definitely look at that. What I think it's done, more than anything else, made us be a lot more sensitive to what we do put in the game, making sure we don't make any kind of inflammatory statements or actions within the game. We have the utmost respect for our troops. I think we do a pretty good job of representing the military forces in the game, both male and female. And the kinds of things they are up against in the midst of battle.

I thought Reach was the most war-like of the series: civilians running scared in the building, seeing skirmishes when you are being transported by air.

That was a critical part. In bringing the planet Reach to life, we needed to make sure that the user has some view of what's at stake. Bringing the civilians in, especially in the city missions—we see them peppered throughout the campaign—to understand that they are the voice of Reach, that they are the thing we are fighting for. Part of your missions is search and rescue, it's get as many civilians off the planet as you possibly can, before the Covenant can began their massive onslaught.

From the very beginning, when we began preproduction, we had this desire to tell a global battle. We wanted to depict more than what was happening beyond just the player's immediate battleground. We had a very difficult time in doing that in the past—partly, it was due to tech, what we could actually pull off in our engine. For Reach, we actually had the desire to really show the greater battle beyond the player, on the horizon; those huge battles—like in the Big Push mission, where you're out in the desert planes and there are hundreds of vehicles out there fighting. That is something that acquired us to retool our engine in pretty significant ways, in order to create the vision we wanted. And it's something we wanted to integrate throughout, into almost every single mission in the game.

Halo: Reach

[Spoiler] The survival mission after the credits was unique, the player enduring as long as he can as the last survivor of the war. What was behind the decision to include that?

We debated including that quite a bit. Ultimately the thing I really wanted to push in that moment, was that you're part of Noble Team and you are willing to fight until the very bitter end. And while you have succeeded in your mission of getting the "package" off the planet, your job is to fight to the end. And we didn't want to cop out on that one, have some backdoor for the player to escape. We wanted to bring this thing to a final, closing end for our players.

What have you learned from making the Halo games over all these years?

I've been working on Halo since 1997. It was just me and a few other people working on the game in our South Halsted office in Chicago. And we really had no idea what it was going to become. After Halo 1 shipped, we were astounded by its success. We were super excited about it, and humbled by it as well. What we learned over the last decade is just to never expect that you are going to hit another one out of the park. Always expect the next game you are going to make is going to be your next biggest challenge. I think as long as we keep moving through with that mentality at Bungie, I hope we connect with our fans and I hope that they see what we are doing is making games that we like, and that we hope they like as well. That we are not doing for some corporation; we are not doing it for some other need; we are doing it because we really have a true love for making games. That being said, we have no idea if they are going to be successful or not.

What is it about the Halo's setting and characters that has made it popular?

Halo ultimately became a universe. It became a familiar place for our plans to visit and the characters that inhabit it became something they kind of fell in love with over time. The more our fans glommed on to this, we began to expand the Halo universe. We had novels, and comic books, and the short films. These things that expanded the Halo universe beyond the games, it became something that permeated more of the pop culture. But that kind of connection with the setting, with the characters, and with the overall story within the Halo universe is something that fans really enjoy. We're excited to tackle Reach and bring some of that part of Reach to reality—things we already touched upon in the fiction, with The Fall of Reach. We give the fans a little clearer picture of what happened during that time.

Any last thoughts about Halo and Halo: Reach?

I'm glad we had this opportunity with Reach. We definitely looked back at Halo 1, 2, 3, and ODST, and we look back at what we had done really well and some things that might have gotten lost over the series, or that had altered, and some things that we thought needed to change. We had to put all of those great things into Reach, and improve upon them all, and add new features that we wanted to add over the years, and pack it all into this one final game. We put every bit of effort into it that we possibly could, in order to make sure that our fans would really remember Halo: Reach by Bungie as being the final, most definitive Halo game ever. We're super proud of what we ultimately created.

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