Chronique:Canon Fodder - The Fall of Leaves

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This week in lore-land, we’re celebrating the successful launch of our latest short-story anthology: Halo: Fractures. The collection features a smorgasbord of stories scattered over several settings across the Halo universe. From the waning moments of the ancient Forerunner era, to deep and impactful tales that pick up where Halo 5 left off, there’s pretty much something for everyone here. Now that fans have started getting their hands on the book, we’ve seen lots of discussion beginning to pop up throughout several canon-curious community corners. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to chat a bit with some of Halo: Fractures’ internal 343 contributors about both their prose and their process. Let’s see what they had to say!

Fractured Words[modifier]

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GRIM: Thanks for joining us, guys! What made each of you choose the specific corner of the universe to play in for Fractures?

MORGAN LOCKHART: I really liked Evelyn and wanted to tell more of her story and the story of Meridian. When I first thought about the story presented in her audio logs, I knew I wanted to describe a person who had seen all the cycles of Meridian and had been through the hell of this ongoing war. She was there the first time Meridian was destroyed, tried to come back to save it, and she finds herself here after it has suffered another major catastrophe. She has grit, but you can tell its wearing on her. I figure hers is the story of many of the “little people” in our universe.

KEVIN GRACE: Technically artificial intelligences are computer programs, but Smart AIs are born from a human mind and (dis)embody a whole new being from that mind. Life and death and birth have as powerful a hold over artificial human beings as real ones, and I wanted to take a peek into all those topics as the importance of AIs in the Halo universe grows.

BRIAN REED: I originally wanted something like the [Rossbach’s World] scene in Sydney to be in the final moments of Halo 5. Production realities being what they were, this story found its way into prose rather than cinematic, but that’s great because we got to spend considerably more time with Osman and company than the game cinematics would have afforded us.

GRIM: As “internal” authors, can you each talk a bit about how might the writing process differ versus someone who is “outside” of the organization?

MORGAN: We have more available to us to choose from, knowing what we do about the minor details of everything presented in the game. I definitely wanted to take advantage of that and write something that I knew someone outside of the game team probably never would. Mine was one that was more of an extension of one of the games and less of a jump into the rest of the universe.

KEVIN: It’s incredibly helpful to understand of all of the upcoming stories planned for Halo so I can cook up large and small connections (and avoid stepping on any toes as best I can). But really it’s not too different for internal writers because 343’s Franchise Team does such a good job bringing all new creative partners into the fold so they have all relevant and interesting Halo details as each new project begins. I think the quality and Halo-ness of the stories from all the external writers in Fractures attests to that.

BRIAN: I’m not sure how much it does honestly, but then again I’m not as day-to-day with the novel production itself as others. We still pitch our stories, we still run drafts past Franchise Team for approval, etc. The biggest difference for us as 343-employed writers is that we can more easily introduce new continuity elements since part of our job description is steering the direction of the larger Halo universe.

GRIM: Having worked on both sides, how would you describe the creative process of writing a more linear short story/novel as opposed to the work you might do for a game?

MORGAN: There’s not a lot of comparison between a short story and developing a game’s story. With a short story, you pick a fairly small idea and you structure it in a way you think it is compelling and you hone it (hopefully with feedback from others); either until it is “done” or you eventually arbitrarily stop honing and/or hit your deadline. While there are still a few limitations presented by source material, you have a lot of control over what it is and how you tell it and thus how the reader experiences it.

With the game, you need a have lot of ideas, both big and small, and they have to work within a lot of limitations presented by the game – all of the various mechanics, the level structure, co-op vs single player, etc. And a lot of people work on it together and it has to continue to change over the entire process as the structure of the game and the gameplay changes. You’re constantly aiming at a moving target and changing as things evolve. You’re also not just working with words. You have all the other elements of the game that are telling the story as well, from the mechanics to the environments to the vignettes to the music, and so you work with those teams to be sure that the story is consistent there as well.

On top of all that, you ultimately have very little control over how the “reader” (player in this case) experiences it, with perhaps the exception of cutscenes. As a narrative designer, I work with the in-level narrative – so you have to build something that can be experienced in multiple ways depending on how the player chooses to interact with it.

KEVIN: Writing a short story is mostly just me and a keyboard and “is this idea interesting enough to borrow 20 minutes of anybody’s time?” Writing for a game involves sometimes hundreds of people and hundreds of meetings and…yeah. Put another way: Sometimes you want to play solo campaign, and sometimes you want to play capture the flag. Both make for a great night of fun, but coordinating 250 flag runners is an interesting gig.

BRIAN: Prose involves using correct punctuation and complete sentences; more often than not at least. Also, the threat of massive production-related changes is near-nil. But mostly, there are just fewer wild dog attacks working in prose than in games.

GRIM: “Fewer” for sure. Morgan, fans have been pretty excited about your story, “What Remains,” particularly in regard to how it explores – like you mentioned earlier – a much “smaller” and more personal story. Can you talk about what inspirations you had for the setting of the tale?

MORGAN: I like survival stories; especially survival horror, though What Remains is not really that. I grew up in the woods and would play out survival scenario games a lot as a kid. I loved Gary Paulsen books. I’ve also really enjoyed the Marvel Front Lines set alongside their big cinematic events, and the “little person story” side of What Remains takes a page from those as well.

GRIM: Keen-eyed (and eared) observers have picked up on the fact that your story centers around and includes characters encountered in very peripheral ways in the game, including Evelyn Collins – heard in Halo 5 cinematic chatter on Meridian – and Doc Cale – referenced in one of Halo 5’s audio logs. Is it particularly fun to flesh out some of these smaller perspectives?

MORGAN: I think so, yes. I like narrowing the focus of our epic game down and being able to dig deep and hit on the emotional impact of these events. Also, I wanted them to experience and react to Cortana’s takeover in the way they would, which is mostly with confusion and uncertainty. Cortana is everything to us, those of us who play the game and read the stories, but she really isn’t anything to the rest of the universe, necessarily. I imagined it would be a bit of a “huh?” until, obviously, [stuff] started to go down. I don’t think I did that ending quite as well as I’d like to, but that’s okay.

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GRIM: Kevin, “Anarosa” deals with some particularly intimate themes, such as the collateral emotional effects on loved ones at the prospect of having someone “become” an AI. Can you talk a little bit about dealing with these types of subjects against a sci-fi canvas?

KEVIN: My hope going into the story was that the sci-fi backdrop wasn’t the most important part of the story once the scene was set. Sure it’s the future and we’re making AIs and colonizing the galaxy and such, but the question that sparked the story for me was “if someone I loved died, and there was a chance that part or even all of that soul could be brought back, walking around out there somewhere…maybe heroically, maybe in anguish…how would that affect me every single day?” Sci-fi helps set up this specific decision for Anarosa’s brother, but the “how” of AI creation in Halo was established some time back. I was more interested in what happens in the moments just before and after.

GRIM: Your story also goes into more detail of the nature of AI in the Halo universe. What’s your personal take on the task of elaborating on such a subject – something you’ve also had to deal with in other ways while crafting the story for 'Halo Wars 2?

KEVIN: Microsoft can neither confirm nor deny that one particular AI is Kind Of A Big Deal in an upcoming project which may or may not be titled “Halo Wars 2.”

GRIM: Ahh, cleverly coy as always, Mr. Grace. Touché. Now Brian, your story turns attention from the bigger “broad stroke” elements of Halo 5’s narrative towards a much smaller and more intimate setting – but one that is directly connected to the effects of Halo 5’s events. Can you talk a bit about the nature of crafting a smaller story within the new “rules” recently set up by a larger one?

BRIAN: Halo 5 was all about turning the Universe in a new direction explicitly so we could do stories like this. We wanted the galaxy to be big and scary and dangerous in a way that it really has not been for our heroes in a while. There’s a threat level now potentially on-par with the Covenant in its glory days, but unlike them, this threat knows everything there is to know about us. Even something as basic as traveling from one planet to another is once more a deadly proposition in the Halo Universe.

So once we had that up and running, it was fun to finally start to play in that setting at a very personal scale. To me, it’s always interesting any time the people that are usually in charge are running scared. When’s the last time you think Admiral Hood was as nervous and uneasy as he is now? Or that Osman was as unsure of herself as we see her on Rossbach’s World? That’s where we are now for our entire Halo universe cast, emotionally speaking, and it’s an exciting place to be.

GRIM: Regarding the return of a more ever-present danger, the juxtaposition of both Halsey’s and Cortana’s “ends justify the means” approaches create a very precarious pot vs. kettle conundrum, with a lot of different lives – human, alien, and artificial alike – caught in the middle. Can you talk a bit about the power of “choice” and how these themes have impacted Halo’s story from the very beginning?

BRIAN: Oh, man, this topic is a whole Canon Fodder column unto itself! But the short-short-short version: Every decision we make in our day to day lives is echoing down through history, affecting future generations in ways we can’t imagine or comprehend. But we always (at least I like to think this is true) try to make the decision that will serve everyone best going forward. For example, the Forerunners knew that if they didn’t build the Halos, then the galaxy falls to the Flood. Of course they’re committing galactic genocide to stop the Flood… but the Forerunners didn’t just subscribe to “the ends justify the means”, they damn near invented the concept in some ways. Does that mean they were right?

Likewise, if Halsey didn’t kidnap children and perform her wildly unethical experiments on them, then she would have been correct in her assessment -- humanity would have fallen to itself, or eventually to the Covenant. Does that mean the personal pain and suffering she caused was “worth it”?

Now we have Cortana who, like those before her, has made a decision whose cost she deems worthy of the results. Galactic peace. An end to war and suffering. Just do as she says… or else. This, like the decisions of the Forerunners and Halsey before her, has led to untold death and destruction in the name of the greater good. Is she right? Wrong? Exploring the answer to that question is a big part of the future of the Halo Universe.

GRIM: It absolutely is. Thanks so much to all three of you for sharing your thoughts this week, and for your awesome contributions to Halo: Fractures!

Well, that will do it for yours truly this week. Also, for Halo fans who also happen to love fighting games, the Killer Instinct team just released their brand-new Shadow Lords mode on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC, which means that you’ve got not only the Arbiter character to choose from, but also Fractured Ward – a Forerunner monitor making his debut in the new mode as a buff-providing guardian. Look for me this week either on the Warzone Firefight battlefield, the aforementioned Shadow Lords mode, or perhaps careening through the Australian outback via my Forza Horizon 3 drivatar. See you out there.

Until next time… Live well, play Halo, and try to Keep your Promises.