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Halo's Big Grunt

Joseph Staten’s love of games, intrigue and acting has turned him into a master storyteller as a creator of the video game series Halo.


by Cathy Lu

“I felt like I had stepped into the twilight zone. It was kind of mind-blowing.”

Sitting on a leather couch inside the loft-inspired office space of Bungie Studios — a building that once housed a Safeway grocery store — Joseph Staten (C94) recounts a trip he took to New Zealand last October.

But it wasn’t the dramatic vistas and lush scenery that blew his mind.

It was the company. It was the fact that he sat in a conference room with noted Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson and talked shop about one of the director’s next projects: the Universal Studios movie adaptation of Bungie’s top-selling video game, Halo. Jackson is such a fan of the game that he’s already signed on to executive produce the movie version.

“He was supposed to talk to us for 15 minutes and go off and keep working on King Kong — the final edit of King Kong,” says Staten. “So his assistant basically had to remind him to stop talking to us and go work.”

It was just one more sign that Staten and his company had not only created a great video game — they had created a pop culture icon.

Yet that’s a fact that still seems to escape Staten at times. As director of cinematics at Bungie, Staten was responsible for writing the script and creating the in-game cinematics (animated sequences within the games) for Halo and Halo 2. Holed up in his corner of Bungie’s hangar-like office in Kirkland, Wash., he sometimes finds it hard to see his work the way outsiders do. Add in 80-hour weeks during a game’s crunch time in the months preceding finalization (longest stretch without sleep: 72 hours), and he’s often too bleary-eyed to even notice that his game has become a phenomenon.

The original Halo came out in 2001 and became an instant success, not only elevating Bungie’s profile but also establishing its mother company, Microsoft, as a major player in the video game industry. At the time, Microsoft was trying to make inroads in the industry, having just released its Xbox video game system. The company was competing with Sony, which dominated the market with PlayStation, and Nintendo, creators of some of the most beloved video games in history, such as Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda.

But now, five years later, Microsoft is a dominant force in the business. “Halo was the game responsible for putting Microsoft on the map, the game that legitimized them,” says Dan Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

In 2004 Bungie followed up the success of the original game with Halo 2. It was so highly anticipated that the night before it went on sale, tens of thousands of fans stood in line for the game’s midnight release. Within the first 24 hours, Halo 2 sold 2.4 million copies and earned $125 million, making it the fastest-selling video game in history. To date it has sold more than 7.4 million copies.

Now Staten’s job is to make sure the Halo universe retains its integrity as it’s transformed into other media, whether books, toys or movies.

The road from theater major to video game creator was not exactly planned. When Staten entered Northwestern in 1990, he intended to be an actor. But after meeting the other students, he realized he was not exactly leading-man material. (“The dudes were hot,” he says.)

Staten, on the other hand, is a self-described geek. At 5 feet 6 inches, his slender frame is easily swallowed by his full head of hair, black plastic-framed glasses and long-sleeve T-shirt. He looks like an adult in a kid’s body.

Still, he stuck with theater because he enjoyed the challenge of analyzing text and performing a scene each week. After graduation Staten taught English in Japan for a year, then came back to get a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Chicago. His goal was to become a CIA agent or join the U.S. foreign service.

“I had visions of going to Afghanistan, growing a beard and actually doing field work,” says Staten. “I was always fascinated, growing up, with spying. Not the James Bond stuff but doing the actual work of spying. The acting of spying was oddly appealing to me.”

When Staten didn’t get accepted into the CIA, he decided to ditch the idea of entering the foreign service as well, even though he was partway through the application process. Instead, he went to work at his family’s business, Field Stone Winery in California’s Sonoma Valley, where he did everything from harvest grapes to help his father fix the bottling line. Because there was nothing to do at night, he would play video games (a hobby he had enjoyed since the ’80s) before hitting the sleeping bag on the floor of the winery’s farmhouse office. (His dad got the lone bed.)

His video game obsession at the time was Myth, a new game by a small Chicago company called Bungie Studios. Myth was the first Bungie game that allowed people to play against others online, and it was during those live multiplayer sessions that Staten met some of the guys who worked at the company. Eventually Bungie asked Staten if he would be interested in doing international marketing for them. Staten interviewed, landed the job and moved back to Chicago in 1998.

When Staten got to Bungie, he not only helped with the marketing but also started working on a new project — a game called Halo — alongside the company’s young, charismatic founder, Jason Jones. Staten’s job was to create game trailers that the company could show at trade shows.

“When I joined Bungie, I had no idea how to make movies and video games,” he says. “Luckily no one at Bungie did either. It turned out that the person who could stand up and talk about Aristotelian dramatic distance and how to break or not break the fourth wall was like the Oracle of Delphi and got to figure this stuff out.”

By the time Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000 and moved the company to the Seattle area, Staten had inherited the job of writing the story and creating the cinematics for Halo.

To show off the cinematics, Staten starts up a DVD he’s been working on, a director’s cut of all of the cinematics from the first two games. In one scene the helmeted hero, Master Chief, hurtles through space, headed for an enemy ship to dispose of a coffin-size bomb that he’s carrying. The scene lasts minutes, yet you’re immediately drawn in and want to find out what happens next.

But that’s where game design gets tricky, because what happens next is up to the player. To continue the story, you actually have to pick up an Xbox controller, assume the role of Master Chief and fight the Covenant yourself.

On the one hand, Staten hopes to create a cinematic experience that draws players into the story. On the other hand, it’s important to let players craft their own story. As Staten puts it, the goal is to create a sandbox and fill it with fun tools and toys (weapons and vehicles) with which to play. The game gently nudges players through the sandbox, without making them feel as if they’re being dragged through it kicking and screaming.

Video games have always had stories. But rarely are they as intricate as the plots in Halo. For example, in Halo 2 not only do you play as Master Chief, a superhuman soldier fighting an enemy called the Covenant, but partway through you assume the role of the Arbiter, one of the Covenant’s elite forces. Suddenly you’re playing a character who represents the very enemy you’ve been fighting — and you’re forced to understand their side of the struggle. You come to see that the Covenant is not necessarily this stereotypical alien bad guy.

“You have games like Mario, where you have to save the princess, and it’s a very fundamental goal,” says Francesca Reyes, editor in chief of Official Xbox Magazine. “[But Halo] has a complete game world. The writers thought about everything. The enemies — what their politics are, what their world should be, how it should work. And the humans — how they interact, what things are driving them. A lot of other games miss that.”

Credit Staten, and yes, his theater background, for much of that. When crafting the story, he draws upon his knowledge of theater, whether he’s using Bungie’s proprietary technology tools to block “actors” in his cinematics or scripting grandiose dialogue. Lines like “blessed be the path they took” or “the weight of your heresy will stay your feet” (both from the opening cinematic of Halo 2) are not likely things you’ll hear in other video games.

“Training as a theater major is training as a storyteller,” says Staten. “Through osmosis, you’re learning about structure, you’re learning about pacing, you’re learning about being selective in terms of the artistic choices that you make, and you’re learning the discipline of being a storyteller.” Of course, he jokes, “It also means the cinematics are overdramatic.”

Staten’s theater experience also comes in handy in one other way: helping to direct voice actors. He even does a little voice-over work of his own, playing the role of the Grunt, a comic relief character that Staten describes as “Covenant cannon fodder.”

In a squeaky, high-pitched voice (think Big Bird on helium), Staten recites some of Grunt’s lines. These consist of “ooks and acks,” noises the Grunt makes when he’s shot, and nonsensical lines like “Good thing there’s a food nipple waitin’ for me at the starship cuz, whoa, have I worked up a big Grunty thirst!” (Don’t ask. Loopy things happen when game developers are sleep deprived.)

The Grunt isn’t just Staten’s character in the game, it’s also the way he views his lot in life. But he’s OK with that — just as he was OK with the realization that he was never going to be a Hollywood star. “I’m not Jason Jones, leading man of Bungie. I’m the funny little grunt. The little sidekick. But you know, heck, if the little sidekick gets to work with Peter Jackson, make a movie and do other fun things, that’s awesome.”

Cathy Lu (C94, GJ95) is a freelance writer living in Seattle.
Joseph Staten
Joseph Staten Photo by Bungie Studios, Microsoft Corp.
The Grunt character
The Grunt character Photo by Bungie Studios, Microsoft Corp.
The Halo ring
The Halo ring Photo by Bungie Studios, Microsoft Corp.
The Warthog vehicle
The Warthog vehicle Photo by Bungie Studios, Microsoft Corp.