Halo 4 – Inside the Gaming Studio: Lead Writer Chris Schlerf Talks Master Chief

I, like many of you, have been playing Halo during most of my free time over the last few days....

Patrick Dane

Contributor

I, like many of you, have been playing Halo during most of my free time over the last few days. And I have even seen the credits roll on the main campaign. 10 hours later and Master Chief had well and truly returned. Thanks to a tragic personal story and some great ideas, Spartan 117 has a fantastic base to launch into further sequels.

I have already interviewed one man who was responsible for giving a breath of fresh air to the story of Master Chief last week in the shape of Armando Troisi, and this week I had the chance to talk to the other responsible party.

Chris Schlerf is the Lead Writer in charge of the Reclaimer Trilogy. Writers in video games can get a lot of unfair flack for shoddy writing that can often be attributed to a development team that aren’t interested in implementing the story elements properly. However, this clearly isn’t the case over in Seattle with 343 industries. Troisi last week talked about how important that all departments grow together, and this week Schlerf has gone into quite some detail about the process and theory behind writing for a AAA franchise.

Welcome back to Inside the Gaming Studios.

Where it Begins…

It starts with complete immersion in the storyworld of the property. And that goes for whether it’s something pre-existing or a new IP, where you may just be talking about a loose collection of themes or ideas that are floating around. I try to absorb everything that’s already available before letting any concrete seeds of where a story could go to take root.

In the case of Halo, where there is a breadth and depth of canon that rivals almost anything else out there, you’ve got this enormous responsibility to understand the fine detail of what has come before. Regardless of whether or not you plan to build off of that foundation or to move in a new direction, your creative decisions are going to live side-by-side in that same sandbox (pardon the pun). I was fortunate in that I was already a big Halo fan coming in, so the learning curve here wasn’t as steep and I was able to hit the ground running.

Story in games is Developmental

A game’s story will naturally run the risk of falling apart if it’s not an equal partner with the other disciplines (design, art, audio…) , and I believe that’s a fairly frequent occurrence throughout the industry. Also, and this is entirely our fault as writers, many game stories don’t account for the actual play experience; on paper they may read great, but it’s important that we remember that we’re creating
a blueprint which will eventually have to be constructed by the player. And so, the ‘writing’ doesn’t end when we finish the script (or at least, it shouldn’t). Because of how iterative game development is, you don’t have the luxury of just connecting all the dots one time and walking away. We have to be developers as much as writers, which is part of why you’re increasingly seeing the concept of ‘narrative designers’ being welcomed into the process.

Admittedly, many writers (I’d argue most) don’t have the luxury of being continuously involved in the game’s production, which to me is a fundamental problem. Unless you have someone full-time on your team who is an expert at story creation, it will be next to impossible to maintain the quality of a narrative consistently from moment to moment. This is why you see such loose structure between set pieces; a lot of folks see only those big moments as being the ‘story’. They become just additional modular elements which gameplay is molded around, and that often contributes to the sense that they aren’t holistic parts of a single whole.

What was interesting with Halo 4 is that, in many ways, the start point for our narrative was predetermined before 343i even existed as a studio; Bungie had already posed a question with the Halo 3’s Legendary Ending which we knew we’d need to answer.

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