Crispy Gamer

Print Screen: Building Mythologies Out of Games: The Halo Franchise


The number is so huge that it's almost unbelievable. Bungie reports that Halo 3 players have killed 10 billion Covenant enemies. Ten billion. Throw in the first two Halo games and the number could be twice as high -- maybe more. Still, the Covenant keeps coming. As if we needed any more evidence that the Halo franchise remains the king of shooters, a Halo encyclopedia is in the works, explaining what this world is about and breaking down the history of the human/Covenant conflict.

Print Screen: Building Mythologies Out of Games: The Halo Franchise
Such a simple game, and so many dead (Photo: MobyGames)

In my interview with Dave Pottinger, the design lead on Ensemble's Halo Wars, Pottinger called the franchise "this generation's Star Wars." It is a bit of an exaggeration. The Halo world hasn't blurred into mainstream culture the way that Lucas' epic did, and World of Warcraft probably has a better claim on the hearts and souls of gamers than Bungie's signature series does. But Halo clearly stands as one of the only games with a mythology larger than the game itself. Just as Star Wars gave birth to an Expanded Universe of content, with new heroes and new villains, Halo is slowly building a literary empire that few other games can come close to matching. It may not be Star Wars yet, but there's time.

Game novels are an odd enterprise. For a long time, publishers were content to simply follow the pattern of film novelizations: Take the story told in one medium and then put it in print. Add a few details, an omniscient narrator and a cheap price, and you have yourself a book. This led to a lot of very bad books, but it didn't seem to hurt either gaming or publishing. Somewhere along the line, a smart manager got the idea that books would best serve readers and the game property by taking place outside the game itself, but inside the same universe. It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment that this became the way things were done, but both Warcraft and Halo have become the exemplars.

Print Screen: Building Mythologies Out of Games: The Halo Franchise
"Ghost of Onyx" is Nylund at his best.

Warcraft had the easiest job. The story of that world, after all, is your typical Tolkien-esque race war between good and evil. Though the history of Azeroth has become more complex as the world of Warcraft has expanded, at its heart is the standard fantasy story well plowed by Dungeons & Dragons. Its huge new audience has imbued it with new meaning, but Blizzard -- as usual -- is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Halo's success is a little more mysterious. It's a science-fiction action game with a standard game plot. For Halo to move into New York Times Best Seller territory, it had to make another leap. Halo: Combat Evolved broke the established mold when Eric Nylund's prequel novel "Halo: The Fall of Reach" was published a month before the game came out in 2001. (BioWare would follow this path with the original Mass Effect prequel novel in 2008.) The franchise had already been conceived as a world with a story to tell.

Frank O'Connor, the director of franchise development at Microsoft Game Studios, acknowledges that expectations were modest.

"Initially it was a simple opportunity: Novelize the characters from the game," he says. "The opportunity in a novel is huge. You can do more to describe the Master Chief's state of being in a couple of paragraphs than in an entire game -- that's just the nature of prose. And, of course, you can take the reader on wild tangents and different journeys, introducing that reader to new characters, worlds and events that give the game universe a better sense of scale."

The first Halo book was a prequel, the second almost a traditional novelization, and the third a "while you were gone" setup to explain what happened between Halo and Halo 2. O'Connor says that things took a turn when the novelization of the first game got into the hands of a skilled writer.

"When Eric Nylund wrote 'Fall of Reach,'" he says, "he knocked it out of the park and embroidered the Halo universe in directions I don't think gamers were expecting. He took Bungie's rich characters and lore, and gave them a more personal context and a sense of grounded origin that the game, which by its nature is constantly moving forward, can't do easily."

Personal context is central to any genre fiction franchise. In the game, the player is the Master Chief. He is not designed as a character as much as an avatar, an embodiment of the player in the game. That a standard sci-fi shooter lifts this paper doll in green armor to legendary status is, in itself, a minor miracle of writing and plotting. Nylund's prequel novel filled out the context for the Spartans and gave the hero a soul largely missing from the empty suit in Halo the game.

Print Screen: Building Mythologies Out of Games: The Halo Franchise
Greg Bear takes over the series with a prequel trilogy.

The full mythmaking power of the novels can be seen in Nylund's "Ghosts of Onyx" (2007), the fourth Halo novel. Admittedly, the main plot is still about taking out a mysterious enemy, and the writing is full of techno-gobbledygook. But the opening subplot has the military lowering the genetic requirements for Spartans in an effort to persuade people to undertake desperate missions in the name of patriotism. By the time you reach this book in the series, you already believe that the UNSC is capable of bending its rules for propaganda as well as military exigencies. "Ghost of Onyx" takes this expectation and pushes it further, with loyal soldiers following orders even as they have misgivings about what they are being asked to do. Each book in the series builds a new story into a still-evolving world without losing track of what makes the games themselves so compelling.

Like many popular fiction franchises, Halo has a "bible" to guide anyone who writes official stories for the game. O'Connor's description reveals how seriously they take this. "It weighs about 12 pounds in its hardcover form, and contains everything from Spartan blood types to starship dimensions. It also contains a lot of more philosophical guidelines -- how certain characters carry themselves, what their religious schemes are and so on, and it covers a much longer time span than the games themselves."

The recent Halo Wars game was Microsoft Game Studios' first step into building the history of the Halo universe, and this too is being expanded. Noted "hard" science-fiction writer Greg Bear, an author clearly worthy of the task, has been recruited to write a trilogy set 100,000 years before the first game. This "Forerunner Trilogy" won't be available until next year, so an announcement this early is another sign that Microsoft Game Studios envisions Halo as a product now, and not simply a very profitable console game.

Print Screen: Building Mythologies Out of Games: The Halo Franchise
The most recent Halo novel opened at No. 4 in the New York Times Best Seller list.

Halo is not alone in having some success in the print world. Even DOOM, one of the most shallowly plotted games in history, has given rise to at least five novels and a terrible movie. But Halo's example is almost unique in that it has created a literary franchise whose success rivals its achievements in the game space. The books regularly top the New York Times Best Seller list in genre fiction, and remain strong sellers on Amazon many months after their publication; the two most recent novels are in the top 6,000 as of this writing.

Few other studios have followed suit with this sort of thing. Many titles are simply poor fits for a franchise world-building strategy and some, like Metal Gear Solid, confine their literary pretensions to the game space itself. But should the long awaited Halo movie ever actually get made, don't bet against it. Bungie and Microsoft probably have everything all planned out.