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GDC Online: Bungie's Staten On Building Worlds, Not Words
GDC Online: Bungie's Staten On Building Worlds, Not Words Exclusive
October 6, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

"Writing enduring original IP, creating a universe of stories is one of the most challenging things you'll ever do as a writer, but it's also the most rewarding," says Bungie's Joe Staten.

Creating the Halo universe, now several games into a massive universe, "really has been this whirlwind of excitement and terror", he noted as part of his Game Narrative Summit keynote.

At GDC Online in Austin, Staten addressed an audience of writers as a veteran responsible for an enormous world -- and now heading into the creation process of Bungie's "next big thing."

But he never forgets that with the original Halo, the marquee for Microsoft's brand new console, success was far from assured. So they treated that title as if it were their last -- and it turns out that's a solid way to ground a narrative.

"Halo wasn't perfect by any stretch, but [we had] laser-like focus on this one game... like it'd be the only game we'd ever make," said Staten. "This focus really paid off and enabled everything that came after it."

The most important lesson learned from the development of the original Halo, he says, is that place should always come before plot. "It would have been madness for us to write a script up front... and in fact, the scripts we tried to write got blown apart," he reflects.

So instead, "we focused on building blocks, on interesting places, interesting characters. We tried to construct this context for all the stories we could tell."

The cinematic and mission scripts came late in development, Staten says. "Fight the impulse to start with plot -- make an enduring place that allows many plots."

And faceless, iconic Master Chief, the hero of the first three main titles, works as a character not because he's an elaborate personality, but because he's the "perfect reflection of power projection," Staten explains. "Halo isn't great for its story. Halo is great because it's fun to play -- it allows every player to be this powerful actor in a rich physical simulation."

The downside of the first title's laser-like focus, he continues, is that no one made plans for the future, setting the team up for the "dreaded sophomore slump" in the second Halo game. "It was the perfect storm of design and technical over-reach, and who can forget the cliffhanger? Certainly not me, and certainly not my fine friends in the press," he joked of the second game's ending.

"Halo 2 had one of the best final acts I've ever written," he says ruefully -- "that nobody ever saw. And that's painful... but if you have the most beautiful thing in the world and it doesn't end up getting made, who cares," he says.

And thus the most important lesson he feels he has to offer from the world of Halo -- writing for games is about building worlds, not writing words, something that can be hard for heavily verbal storytelling types to grasp. He alluded to the egocentricism of most writers as artists and creators, explaining how they tend to be sensitive about the way their work is used, or insistent about the way the design teams implement their narratives.

"Most people on your teams are never going to read your scripts," he said. "Your most important words are for internal use only... don't be 'that guy', you don't want to be this out-of-touch, unrealistic writer on your team," he says. "Know the strengths and weaknesses of your game and your tech; write within those limits, and make everyone responsible for the story," he advises.

Writers shouldn't aim to develop massive canons -- "they're unwieldy and hard to shoot," he joked. "The best way to invite people into your universe... is to make safe pockets where they can play, with simple rules and clear boundaries but a lot of internal freedom."

"Don't be offended," Staten added, highlighting the importance of staying humble and meshing well with the design. "They want your worlds, not your words."

Much of Staten's talk was devoted to a question-and-answer session with the writers in attendance. Although he was strict about being unable to talk about Bungie's "next big thing," one attendee submitted a question that asked in very broad terms what other areas of design the team was hoping to address that perhaps they hadn't in the development of Halo.

[UPDATE: As much of his talk was dedicated to world-building, Staten said he felt it was a shame that most gamers could only spend handfuls of hours in the Halo world with each game they'd made. "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a world that was always there for you?" He posed, speaking with almost comedic precision to avoid a factual statement.

"Wow," he laughed. "That would be great."]

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Nathan Addison
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I like these statements. Makes a lot of sense. I never played the original Halo for it's story but after getting into the game I then found myself very interested in what's going on in the universe. Clever.

lol GOD, I love when people make me think.

sam darley
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I would love to see/hear that final act for Halo 2.

Which should totally be included when someone is hired to port Halo 1 and 2 into the Reach engine..

Daniel Escoto
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Great article; the important things that he's hitting on aren't exclusive to HALO. The stuff he touches on in this talk can be applied to almost any style of narrative story telling and will work especially for games because of their interactive nature. If you want a player to feel like they are telling their own story and living their own decisions then constructing a world that can fit multiple narratives and strong vivid characters is super effective.

Think of a few different sci-fi stories from your child-hood; now plop those characters and plots onto the HALO ring world. Does it work? Of course it does ;)

- ThePaperArchitect

dana mcdonald
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I think this is excellent advice. I believe that many people who talk about how much they loved a game's story are saying "story" but it is more the setting that they are in love with. And the actual game story is very uninspired.

Chris Day
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I think this perfectly sums up how I feel about games. All my favourite games (Halo, Metal Gear, Half life 2, Bioshock, Deus Ex, Mass Effect) work because they're set in worlds I want to explore. I love Call of Duty gameplay but I don't give a crap about the world so the single player never grabs me in the same way.