Halo 4 comes out today. And, like with most major gaming franchises, Halo has grown far beyond just games on a disc. With extra missions and multiple novels that expand the universe's storylines, the Halo team battles to keep everything accurate and on-message.
November 6, 2012 2:00 PM Text Size: A . A . A For millions of Americans, today is a big day. In our darkest hour, a hero will rise-the living embodiment of our collective hopes and most deeply held beliefs. That hero, as it turns out, is a cyborg.
No, this isn't a particularly bad Mitt Romney joke. Election Day 2012 also marks the launch of Halo 4, the latest installment in one of the biggest video game franchises in history it will find millions of Americans are holding out for a hero whose foreign policy amounts to slaughtering entire platoons of invading aliens and whose gun-control concerns are limited to whether to fire controlled bursts or just shotgun everything in sight.
While Halo 4 is, like all first-person shooters, an extended exercise in simulated gunplay, the franchise that redefined console gaming is poised to redefine gaming itself. Because unlike other blockbuster video games, Halo is no longer limited to a single, high-selling game released every year or two. Halo is a pop-culture onslaught, with a steady stream of New York Times best-selling novels, a recently-concluded five-part web series whose production values rivaled network TV shows, and, along with the disc-based game itself, a series of additional missions (all of them free to download) that are all part of an ongoing story told across a 10-week "season."
Each of these elements has been done before. Tie-in novels have been best sellers for years (Think of the canon of books that constitute much of the Star Wars Expanded Universe). Live-action clips have been used for pre-launch hype (most notably, in fact, for previous Halo games), and downloadable content (or DLC) that extends a game's storyline is now standard-issue for the industry.
What's unprecedented is the volume of content. By next year, two trilogies of Halo 4-related novels will wrap up. And that web series wasn't a trickle of three-minute-long teases; taken together, all five parts add up to nearly 100 minutes, as long as many feature-length action movies. As for the free, downloadable narrative missions, called Spartan Ops, there will be five 15-minute-long missions issued weekly, for 10 weeks. In the end that adds up to roughly 12.5 hours of gameplay, leaving aside cinematic intros and inevitable mission replays.
What all of this amounts to is quite simple: Nothing less, or more, than the rebirth of pulp.
I'm not the first, by any means, to call video games the new pulp. Comic book writer and Entertainment Weeklycontributor Marc Bernardin, made the case on io9 earlier this year, arguing that games "fulfill the same role that the classic pulps did: easily digestible genre entertainment that you "used" then passed on to a friend or simply threw away. (In the case of games, you trade `em in.)"
The problem with that, though, is quantity, or the lack thereof. The video game industry, like Hollywood, conserves its ammo, waiting anywhere from a year to a half-decade between releases, and making every multimillion-dollar shot count. But Halo 4, and its attendant books and downloadable missions, has hit the pulp threshold in terms of production pace and devoted audience-as well as collective dismissal by critics.
Halo has been part of the game industry's shift towards "transmedia," or the expansion of a game universe though various media, since the first tie-in novel came out in 2001. But until a few years ago, those non-game products were, in a narrative sense, ancillary diversions, isolated from the central storylines for fear of contaminating them, according to Frank O'Connor, whose work on the franchise started with Halo 2 back when Bungie was developing it, and who is now Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries.
"If we did a novel or a story ... we'd say, Well, we don't want to interfere with the main game line, so just make it happen over here on a distant planet, and don't have it effect our main story. And it was safe, but it was sort of unsatisfying for consumers, who had invested a lot in the universe. If it's Star Wars, you want to find out what happens to Han Solo. And so if every time you're picking up extended fiction, it's just ignoring that, I think it's unsatisfying. So about three years ago we just made a decision to make everything matter."
343 Industries already had veteran video game tie-in novelist Karen Traviss signed up for a trilogy that would span the years between Halo 3 and Halo 4. But O'Connor wanted to bring in a sci-fi heavyweight to go deep into the franchise's mythology and write a trilogy focusing on the Forerunners, a powerful, long-dead civilization whose abandoned works figure prominently in the series. (The titular Halo is part of a network of their intergalactic weapons of mass destruction.)
This was dangerous territory. Novels that establish a game's core setting typically come from someone on the development team, the same people responsible for writing or crafting the in-game story. "What we needed is someone who does big, hard sci-fi, with these really crazy aliens, not just humans with silly hats on," O'Connor says. "We wanted a Greg Bear type."
One phone call later, and they had Greg Bear himself, the two-time Hugo and five-time Nebula award-winning author of sci-fi classics like Eon and The Forge of God, a writer known for his hard science tendencies and realistic, often bleak takes on star-faring civilizations. Bear's Forerunner trilogy, the last of which comes out in March, breathes life into a vague set of myths, painting the vivid portrait of a society whose god-like mastery of technology isn't enough to hold off a galactic menace. In fact, it's the petty, internecine squabbling that prevents real action from being taken and from the species as a whole from surviving.
"The things I was working with were really good solid bones, they were really great constructions, and there were sufficient clues, that we could see the outline of a really cool story, a real tragedy, actually," Bear says.
Bear received a striking amount of freedom not only to establish the foundation of Halo's universe, but to guide the look and content of Halo 4. "I had a lot of freedom in the first two books," Bear says, "until we got into the last third of the [third] book, where we're coming up against the game, and then it was a really collaborative process. Because, to my chagrin, they aren't willing to change a hugely expensive game to fit my text, at that point."
Up to that point, O'Connor says, the 343 team changed a great amount of the game's content to adapt to Bear's work. It flowed both ways, actually. 343 would send Bear music and graphics related to environments he'd come up with, or recorded dialogue from characters he'd created, and was, at the time, still writing about. As the studio's own writers hammered out the game's storyline and set up the framework of the later Spartan Ops plot, they would consult regularly with both Bear and Karen Traviss to maintain continuity throughout. "It reminded me of working on a movie or a TV show," Bear says. "You really do have deadlines, and hundreds if not thousands of people relying on moving that story along."
And that's what separates the new pulp from the old. Where Robert E. Howard wasn't beholden to anyone when describing Conan the Barbarian's homeland of Cimmeria, the game-centric take on pulp is a strategic assault with a demand for solid command and control-and the empire pays the price when the details aren't correct. For example, Mass Effect: Deception, a novel from the enormous Mass Effect universe released early this year, was riddled with inconsistencies. Angry fans went on a rampage of crowdsourced fact-checking, creating Google Docs with scores of errors. When it became clear that this wasn't mere fanboy griping, but a serious backfire-shattering continuity, instead of expanding it-the novel's publishers, and the game's creators, vowed to essentially patch the book, fixing those errors in the next print run.
While 343's approach doesn't seem prone to a similar pratfall, there's still an experimental quality to its cross-medium storytelling. Fans didn't have to pay anything for that high-quality live-action web series, and the Spartan Ops missions are also free-of-charge, provided you've subscribed to Microsoft's Xbox Live online network. Maybe these products are closer to an HBO or Showtime program than an ad-supported network TV series-they're a way to keep up those monthly subscription renewals.
O'Connor won't say whether live-action or downloadable story-based content will ever come with a price tag-even if he knew, that's not his call-but maybe that's irrelevant. For now, Halo is more than the sum of its parts, a franchise more carefully curated than Star Wars or Star Trek, with an ongoing story that's so big, so unabashedly convoluted, and so ridiculously popular, that it can only be described as pulp.
While the overall story arc for the next five to 10 years of Halo games has now been mapped out, there are details that still need filling. "A lot of the foundation work is done, so in the regard that we need someone to define that aspect of the universe, Greg's work is done," O'Connor says. "But on the flip side of that, we have serious demand for more Forerunner books. It may be that we have to go further back in time."
Bear is more than game to continue writing Halo's creation myths. "When you get a franchise like this, the fans want to go in-depth forever and ever," Bear says. "So if they want it, we've got billions of years of history to explore."