343 chats to GR+ about Locke and Master Chief's mystique in Halo 5

As 343 Industries takes stock of Halo with The Master Chief Collection and moves towards the much-anticipated release of Halo 5: Guardians, we’ve got a two-part interview with the Chief’s own guardians. First up, 343 Industries’ Frank O’Connor explains why it’s important to keep the mystique of Master Chief alive…

To us, the campaign playlists in The Master Chief Collection really hammer home the diversity of play styles contained in Halo. What, to you, is the essence of the series?

It’s hard to say, as I have two levels of engagement. One is to step back and look at our audience and not get monomaniacal about one aspect. There’s this huge community of different players, and part of my job is to stand on top of this building, looking down on our whole audience and not get focused on one thing. Luckily, I like the variety of Halo. When I was playing FPS games when I was younger, it was Doom, Quake – simple, baseline arena play, really straight-up shooting. The way Halo introduced vehicles and all the play mechanics we take for granted now is massive to me. But the thing that is really the seed of Halo for me is the ability to explore these worlds. I can see the story, I can see the gameplay mechanics and I can go explore – and it gives me tools to explore. Sometimes the tools are literal – the vehicles – and sometimes it’s just well thought-out gameplay mechanics.

Then how do you grow a universe without losing sight of the core idea?

We definitely think of Halo as… I don’t want to use the word ‘fake’, but we definitely think of it as an invented history. In gameplay terms, it’s kind of like World War II. Wars are bad and complicated, but World War II is this conflict that you say, “Yeah, there really were good guys and bad guys in that war,” and you can’t say that about a lot of conflicts. As a child, I would build aircraft and battleships, and I would look at the silhouettes and say, “This is the Axis and this is the Allies.”

Halo is similar in terms of how the history’s constructed. Really recognisable silhouettes, colours and palettes for the Covenant and the UNSC. It’s in some ways anachronistic, you know? 26th-century soldiers, running around with machine-guns and driving vehicles that sound like they have gas in the engines. All that’s done on the surface to make it familiar and approachable, but then we give you the ability to go explore in this big universe and these strange, mysterious places. It’s built like that on purpose.

Do you worry that the ‘narrative’ universe may grow so big as to make it difficult to find an entry point?

That’s a great question and it’s a practical issue we have to deal with: how big is the universe? How is its continuity? To go back to the World War II comparison, there’s no barrier to entry to someone watching Saving Private Ryan or watching a spy drama like Valkyrie. It’s a big conflict that has recognisable import and meaning, and real stakes. Hell in the Pacific is a great example – it’s a movie about two soldiers from opposing sides trapped on a desert island. It’s a reverse Robinson Crusoe, but it’s a WWII story and that’s what’s important – you understand the personal stakes in these stories. You also understand, in our case, the galactic stakes. There’s no barrier to entry for well-told stories. We have to get better at it – videogames are getting better and better at storytelling – but it’s not just universe-building, it’s technique. Gaming is in the early stages of cinema; I think we’re moving into the ‘talkies’ phase and we have to get to the colour phase, but that’s happening already. I played the new Konami Silent Hills demo and I was literally too scared to continue. That’s important, and I think we’re going to see more and more of those moments.

Where does Master Chief fit into this? We invest a lot in this character, but he’s almost beyond the conflict.

Chief is complicated because in some ways he’s this literal vehicle for you to inhabit and go explore this adventure. I go in, as Frank, and I’m running around in this galaxy full of terror and madness. People like literally filling those shoes, but over the years the stuff that has happened to him has become more meaningful and people keep asking us about him. The simplest version of the question I get is, ‘What does he look like?’ There’s this weird tension that players have between ‘I want to know more about him’ and ‘I don’t want him to stop being me’.

You know what? I’m okay with that. I don’t think there’s any pressing need for us to do a biopic about the Chief and show his face on the cover. I think it’s okay for people to still have him ‘be’ them. And it might get a little more complicated in the future. Already, in Halo 4, things got more complicated for Master Chief, for the universe – and it definitely humanised him, but I don’t think we took it too far. I think we’ll see how it plays out. He’s a real guy; we’ve described him physically in the books – there’s no real mystery there if you go explore the canon, but forcing it down people’s throats might be a mistake right now. But we’ll see how people feel about him in the future.

Agent Locke is so prominent in the teaser art – to me, it feels like he’s being set up as this equal part to Master Chief. Any truth in that?

I would say definitely not – that it goes back to your last question about how you humanise the Chief. We don’t want to do that; we want the Chief to be in some ways above the fray – he’s literally a legend in the universe he inhabits. Locke lets us humanise the boots on the ground without messing with the Chief – the irony is that Locke is going to do some of the heavy lifting for people’s need for better storytelling and characterisation without altering the Chief. The Chief is the core hero in the story, without a doubt. Forget how long you play as each character or whatever – it’s really about contextualising the Chief. As much as Locke’s an important character in the universe himself, he’s also going to be a useful cipher for you to explore Master Chief’s character from an outside perspective.

Do you see Locke as a replacement for Cortana?

Locke is going to help contextualise the universe in a way that Cortana necessarily couldn’t. She was so close to the Chief and had the big picture historically, but she didn’t necessarily have the big picture of what was going on elsewhere in Earth’s conflict. Locke is going to help solidify and contextualise the stakes, as well as the legend of the Master Chief.

Is there an element of Halo 4 you’re particularly proud of and would like to see developed further in Halo 5?

It was our first Halo game as a team and so there were a lot of things that we did that we’re just nakedly proud of: the technology, the way the team came together. But there are a lot of things we want to do better. Even though we had this long legacy of Halo games before, we had to find our feet and find out where our audience want to go. That’s the main reason for doing a beta for Halo 5 – we’re the first to say that we should have done a better job of multiplayer.

It’s a great multiplayer experience, but a lot of things maybe went too far and a lot of things didn’t go far enough, so the beta is going to help us tune it. It’s not a focus test, but we’ll look at all the data and the anecdotes, and make a better multiplayer game as a result. But the thing I’m most proud of in Halo 5 is that the things we’re doing with the technology are designed to speak to the things that appeal to me about Halo in the first place – which are scale, epicness and the world-building that the original Halo: Combat Evolved did on the Xbox. We also want to go back to that space of innovation with features and non-game interactions with things like Forge and save films – we want to make as big an impact on Xbox One as the game series has on Xbox 360 and the original Xbox.