Game Design Grad Armando Troisi Talks Narrative Direction On Halo 4

Halo 4 Promo-Poster

Halo 4 for Xbox 360 launches today (November 6, 2012) with much excitement, after three years of development. There have been some great teasers produced over the last couple of months, including the live-action trailer by David Fincher and Tim Miller, and the five-part web series Forward Unto Dawn, which just released the final episode on Friday, Nov 2.

Halo 4 is the first installment of the Reclaimer Trilogy, which builds off the world developed in the original trilogy Halo, but is its own distinct story.

We’re very proud of the fact that VFS graduates were involved in the development of this highly anticipated game, including Game Design alumnus, Armando Troisi (Narrative Director, 343 Industries), who was kind enough to spare some of his time for us, during an intense period, to talk about the game and his involvement in it.

Halo 4 Narrative Director Armando Troisi

Hi Armando, can you tell us about your involvement in the development of Halo 4?

Armando: My title on the project is Narrative Director which means I am ultimately responsible for all the storytelling in Halo 4. I run a team of writers and narrative designers across the project, writing and implanting the story, and I also work with external partners to develop everything from the Halo: Infinity series to motion comics and live-action.

After you graduated from VFS Game Design, you were Lead Cinematic Designer at Bioware, which at the time was a new kind of position, now you’re Narrative Director at 343 Industries — can you talk a little bit about that trajectory?

Armando: Before enrolling in the Game Design program, I was active in the local film industry as a sound editor. During that time I worked with a lot of really great producers and directors soaking up a lot of information about storytelling. When I arrived in the program, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of focus they had on interactive storytelling, and I began to apply what I knew from film into the game world.

Through the encouragement of the staff and mentors at VFS, I focused my final project on applying visual storytelling techniques to an interactive experience called Dark Corners. [Which won student game of the year—Ed.] Using my game as a center piece, VFS put me in contact with the Design Director at BioWare, who was trying to staff a newly formed department called Cinematic Design. This new discipline would be responsible for crafting the systems, tools and content for conversations in the Mass Effect series. I was the second hire into the department, and I went on to ship Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3 in a lead role.

Working at BioWare on such a key feature of their games was an amazing experience. I often say working at BioWare was like going to Storytelling University. But after five years in Edmonton, it was time for me to move on and try applying effective story production and design to other IP’s in the industry.

I eventually landed at Microsoft as the Narrative Director on the Halo Franchise, and that alone has been an amazing journey of personal growth for me. Halo as an IP is amazingly complex, with many different Transmedia Storytelling channels that need to work together. Although Halo is very different from Mass Effect, the basics of effective interactive storytelling, which I honed at VFS, remain the same. I still find myself referencing ideas and lectures offered to me as a student at VFS in my daily work.

Halo 4 artwork by Ryan Watkins

What was your initial interest in games and game design, and in what way did you hope to be involved in the industry?

Armando: I’m a creative person who is always looking for new and exciting ways to express myself. My interest in game design was really just an exploration that turned out to be much more. While I was working as a sound designer on a movie, I remember taking a break and reading the Georgia Straight. There was an advertisement for a part-time Game Mechanics course that sounded interesting and I thought I’d give it a try.

During the course I was exposed to high-level design and how to deliver game pitches… and I loved it! It was amazing and I met some really awesome industry professionals, who encouraged me to join the full-time program. I did, and it was the best decision of my life.

Your role has obviously evolved, but do you see a consistent line drawn through your involvement?

Armando: I’m a storyteller at heart and that’s the common thread that binds my many roles in entertainment. Whether its games, films, sound design, writing or cinematics, the one thing that connects all these endeavors is my drive to entertain others.

What about your participation in the development of Halo 4 did you find the most interesting or rewarding?

Armando: I find learning and expanding my knowledge of interactive storytelling to be the most rewarding and interesting part of any project. When I joined the Halo team, I had experience in RPG storytelling but not FPS design, which is quite different. The most striking difference is the amount of real estate narrative designers have to play with.

In an RPG like Mass Effect, the construct of the conversation provides a mechanism for storytelling that can contract and expand without affecting the pieces around it. It’s a game mode and it’s part of the activity-chaining of the experience. In a FPS, the storytelling needs to happen while players are constantly moving forward and shooting. This forward momentum inherently makes narrative attention to every word and moment more careful, since there is a finite space available for exposition. This is a good thing, because it forces us to get to the heart of the moment and rely on other avenues, like combat and environment, to tell the story.

Game development is a very collaborative process — in the VFS Game Design program you learn this straight away — the results have a critical dependence on the quality of the team. How were the different aspects of making Halo 4, particularly on your end, handled to make it all come together so beautifully?

Armando: It really comes down to partnerships with other disciplines. On Halo every discipline is responsible for the quality of each moment across the game, and that means having buy-in for each design choice. If you take combat for example, there are many disciplines at work to make it rewarding: Sandbox is responsible for mechanics; Level Design is responsible for exploiting those mechanics; Art is responsible for making the enemies move and look a certain way; and Story is responsible for making you care about shooting them. This is true for each and every encounter in the game. If any of these elements fails to be in sync, the game suffers. Collaboration has a positive effect on the game quality when everyone works toward the same goal.

There is a lot of cinematic beauty evident in this release, even at the prerelease stage (helped of course by the participation of people like David Fincher and Tim Miller), which is obviously an attractive lure into the world of the game, and the narrative aspects are quite strong — How do you work with the cinematic elements, like strong artwork, and more importantly, narrative and character development (including plot, cultural and environmental aspects and back-story) to make it integral to and enhancing of the game play?

Armando: The role of narrative in gameplay is to provide a relatable context to abstract mechanics, this is true for any game. In a game such as Halo with such a rich and vibrant lore, the real balancing act is to not overburden the player with information that they don’t need, while leaving them the opportunity to explore deeper if they choose. This design methodology in Halo is called Critical Path.

The Critical Path of the game is the spine that runs through the entirety of the campaign, and which represents the minimum amount of information needed to enjoy Halo 4 as a standalone product. If a player follows the design, it guarantees they will have a satisfying and immersive experience with the story. Off the Critical Path, we have what we call Secondary Storytelling. These are explorable elements in the game that give the player the choice to discover deeper information about the situation. This design also expands into our Transmedia Storytelling features, and players who read the novels or watch the web-series Forward Unto Dawn will see things in the game that add a richness to their experience.

Although there are many ways that narrative in games corresponds with film, television, and even comics, there is a major difference because of interactivity. The story is always negotiating a relationship between the gameplay and the player’s immersion into its world. What’s the best way as a Narrative Director to manage that relationship?

Armando: The interactive component of a game will inherently contribute to absurdity in your story. As narrative designers, we need to accept and account for player choice and agency. For example, in a level, we can set up the premise, “OMG the ship is breaking apart! You need to get off now!”, as a mechanism to build tension. But through choice, the player could decide to explore the level or engage in pure “play” after this premise is established. If these mechanics that allow for” play” are established as part of the mechanical design, then punishing the player for delaying, exploring or “playing” is not an effective design choice.

An effective design would allow them to engage in this activity, even though it directly contradicts the narrative design of the level. The goal should be to suggest the critical path of action, and make it a compelling choice for the player to make. Forcing them along the designer’s path is not a good design choice, no matter what. It’s the player’s game and the player’s story, we need to respect that!

What unique and innovative aspects of Halo 4 are you particularly excited by or proud of?

Armando: There are so many — From the chess-like design of the Prometheans, to the Transmedia Storytelling offerings (e.g., the novels, the web-series) — but if I had to pinpoint one thing in particular I’d have to say it’s Spartan Ops.

Spartan Ops is an innovation that I don’t think many people have got a handle on yet, and I don’t blame them, because it really hasn’t been done before on this scale. SPOPS is a like an interactive television show that continues the story of Halo aboard the UNSC Infinity six months after the end of the campaign.

Each week we release an episode of an animated series, as well as five story-driven co-op missions that continue the story between each episode. What I find fascinating and innovative is that each component, the show and the missions, stand on their own. If a player loves the show, but not the mission—that’s great! Just watch the show and be a fan of that. If a player loves the mission but not the show—awesome! Go kill some covies! But if the player does both, they will find a rich connection between the two components of the mode, ultimately making each activity deeper and more rich for it.

Did the innovative aspects of Halo 4 demand in any way a different approach to its development?

Armando: When it’s early in the development process, I find it effective not to try and answer all the questions about the story upfront. Rather, I prefer to answer story questions “Just-in-time” — so as to allow other groups to continue working. This methodology of narrative design allows the story to develop organically, and in lockstep with the rest of the game, which is bound to change. This agile approach to the story keeps things loose and fluid during the critical opening iterations of the game.

It’s an approach that is different to what many in the industry do. Many designers believe writing the entire story out in detail, like a movie script, is the best course of action when writing a game story, but that has not been my experience at all. Game design is a fluid and evolving art form, where the most valuable commodity is our ability to respond to the design changes that will eventually occur. As the levels, art and mechanics begin to solidify, the story follows along. Answering the right story questions in the right order is a key pillar to a successful interactive story production.

Halo E3 Demo Game Art by Ryan Watkins

Thanks very much Armando for your time, and congratulations on what promises to be a great series!

Congratulations also to these other VFS grads that were involved in the development of Halo 4:

From Game Design: Cory Hasselbach (Mission Director); From 3D Animation and Visual Effects: Andrew Bosold (Environment Artist), Kolby Jukes (Senior Character Artist), Paul Parsons (Senior Sandbox Designer), Mark Tanner (Senior Animator), Thiago Teles Trilux (Paint/Roto Artist) & Ryan Watkins (Matte Painter/SkyBox Artist—and who did the two stills from the Halo E3 Demo featured here); From Digital Character Animation: Steve Dyck (Lead Animator); From Sound Design: Robbie Elias, Kyle Fraser & Noa Lothian, Daniel Raimo (Sound Design), & Charles Sinex (Production Assistant)