Talking Transmedia, Writing & Halo 4 with Armando Troisi

Last Saturday, the Vancouver International Film Centre gathered together several world-renowned game designers and artists for the annual Vancouver Game Design Expo, to talk about the art of making video games.

One of the special things about the Vancouver Game Design Expo is not only hearing stories from veteran game designers, but hearing stories from those that have worked on some of gaming’s biggest franchises.

I had the pleasure of being able to sit down with Armando Troisi, narrative director for 343 Industries to talk about writing, narrative, and interactivity in Halo 4.

Armando grew up in Vancouver, and started his career here working at BioWare on the Mass Effect series, Microsoft, and Propaganda, before moving to Seattle to work with 343.

As well as working on the story and narrative on Halo 4, Armando also coordinated the game’s trans-media strategy across books, comics, and film.

“The expanded Halo universe was absolutely a huge consideration in the Halo 4 writing process,” he says.  “Each channel needs to stand up on its own.  So for example, if you’re a huge fan of the comics that’s awesome.  We will make sure the stories we tell within that comic are complete and awesome and great and you can enjoy them.”

Halo 4 was the first Halo game made by 343 after Bungie left to pursue other projects, leaving the franchise in their hands.  For their take on Halo, 343 attempted to bring more emotion to the universe and with that, humanize protagonist Master Chief, who has traditionally been more of a blank slate.

“Early on we made a decision to make humanity a fulcrum of our universe, so Master Chief needs to feed in to this whole idea of humanity,” Armando said.  “As far as Master Chief vocalizing more, it’s a balance.  This character is me and somebody else.  We see him objectively when we see him in cutscenes but we see him subjectively when we play him in gameplay.

“If you look at the early development – and I guess you wouldn’t be able to – we had versions where Cortana and Chief talked all the time, and we needed to go through that in order to understand where to pull it back.  It’s like we added everything we could into the game and then we went through an editing process.”

Armando is someone who has been able to work on some of AAA gaming’s best narratives.  Both Mass Effect and Halo are big sci-fi blockbusters, but I wanted to know if there is a substantial difference in the way he approaches writing for an open-ended game like Mass Effect and a more scripted experience like Halo.

“It really comes down to the structure of your narrative design.  I talk about narrative design as the mechanism with which we tell stories.  We all have different mechanisms, writing being just one.

“I often talk about the four considerations of stories.  Narrative: which is the specific use of words and actions, a very traditional writer role.  Drama: which is the digital acting and the actual human element that we put into it, like the voice acting for example.  Presentation: which is when we ask if this a conversation, is this a cut-scene,  is this a level event, what is it, how are we presenting it?  And then maybe the most important pillar is interactivity.  How are we making the story interactive?  How do I make the story work with a controller or a touch-pad or whatever?”

Armando notes that the way Mass Effect constructs its stories is based on conversations – that they’ve been turned into a game-play system in order to expand and contract the story as much as the designers want.  When you enter a conversation it can end up being 10 minutes long, or 30 seconds.  But Mass Effect is an RPG.  In a first person shooter like Halo, it’s harder to make a game mode out of the narrative.

“[In Halo] we run into the problem of level metrics,” Armando says.  “If I sprint through a level, I can sprint through it in X amount of time.  During that time, we can have encounters, and during those encounters, we can have VO.  That VO can only be so long before it starts running into other VO or running over combat.  So just like any other ingredient in a level, there’s metrics around story which constrain in ways that the conversation frees us.

“The advantage is that we are constrained, so it causes us to edit a lot more.  Every line is sacred.”

Armando believes we still have plenty of room to discover how to tell powerful stories with game-play mechanics, even in genres we would least expect to find it.

“How do you make a Call of Duty game that has a love story?”  He asks.  “It’s not an impossible thing but it’d need to be planned.  We’d need to be sure we’re answering the right questions.  It’s really easy to say the Call of Duty games are going to be about war, or the Halo games are going to be about shooting, but people don’t like that.  People like contrast.  Halo 4 is about John and Cortana, and their relationship, and the backdrop was all the plot that was going on.”

As our conversation wraps up, I ask Armando why Halo’s universe has always felt so strong.  He says that the secret to building an interactive narrative is to build it along with the game-play and everything else.  It’s about balance.

“You can go from a personal story between John and Cortana, all the way up to the firing of the Halo rings and the eradication of all life in the universe.”

The secret to Halo is that it simply tries to perfect that balance on a massive scale.