The first season of Spartan Ops is now complete, but if you missed anything, fear not: Our very own Brian Reed, franchise writer and author of Spartan Ops Season 1 is here with a start-to-finish, behind-the-scenes look at the entire story arc starting with episode 1. Needless to say, spoilers abound. You have been warned!
Episode 1 – Departure
The Spartans of Fireteam Majestic are welcomed aboard UNSC Infinity, and the battle for Requiem begins.
This was very much a “Welcome to Halo” for people who might discover these episodes through secondary channels, and who might be sci-fi fans, but never have played a Halo game before. But it also needed to be friendly to folks who had not yet played the Campaign, and were now experiencing a story set six months after its events. There’s a lot of table to set in this episode: Introducing five new Spartans and Roland, then establishing Palmer as a character, and laying down our mission statement for the coming weeks of gameplay and episodes. I still love the job Axis did, showing the Infinity coming out of slipspace and smashing through the Covenant carrier.
Episode 2 – Artifact
An artifact, retrieved from Requiem’s surface, creates problems aboard Infinity.
This was the first time we showed that the events in the game would come back to the show. It was interesting to see fans slowly discover that the story weaved back and forth, and was built to be enjoyed by fans of just the game, just the show or both. Doctor Glassman was originally slated to die at the end of this episode. And as I started writing episode 3, he was still very much a dead man. But there was this problem with telling Jul’s plot in the later episodes and Glassman argued his way back into existence. It’s rare to have a character insist on the story going a particular way when you’ve planned it out so meticulously in a different direction, but Glassman did exactly that, and lived past episode 2.
Episode 3 – Catherine
The infamous Catherine Halsey is brought aboard Infinity to solve the mystery Glassman could not.
The game came out and hardcore fans were excited to see Halsey in the prologue. Then they demanded to know where she went for the rest of the game. That was part of the fun of building Halo 4, seeding elements all the way through that weren’t designed to pay off for weeks. She was an interesting character for us, as she’s someone the hardcore fans knew from the novels, but was essentially a new character for most of the players who only knew the fiction of the games. As it turns out, she’s a heck of a lot of fun to have in the Halo Universe and the fans that are new to her are really enjoying what she brings to the story.
Episode 4 – Didact’s Hand
Thorne and Halsey talk, we learn a bit more about his history… and that she has a secret friend.
Jul ‘Mdama comes onto the stage here. Again, he’s a character the hardcore fiction fans know, but is completely new to gamers. But he’s also another one of those seeds we plant in the game that doesn’t sprout until much later. It’s almost impossible to spot the first time, though (intentionally, by the way), since you’re sort of really paying attention to everything else going on in the world, but when Didact wakes up and declares “so fades the great harvest of my betrayal,” you see the Elites all falling to one knee – including Jul ‘Mdama, who shouts “Didact!”
Episode 5 – Memento Mori
Majestic brings home a Promethean’s “brain” and discovers it is something else altogether. Halsey is caught red handed talking to Jul, and Thorne takes the same trip as Glassman.
The “autopsy” scene in this episode was one of the first scenes we knew we needed in the Infinity story. We knew we wanted to do this bit even before we knew the artifact existed, or were 100% sure Halsey would be part of this story. The flip side of that is Gek, Jul’s Lieutenant who comes back in a big way starting in episode 6. I had an entire subplot for Gek that we cut because, while fun, it just didn’t fit in the shape of the episodes. But I knew every beat of his story before I knew Halsey was going to be so important to us. Who knows, maybe he’ll show up in another story someday and you’ll finally learn how he lost that eye and why he hates Spartans so very, very much.
Episode 6 – Scattered
And we’re back from our midseason cliffhanger! One of my favorite moments so far while working on Halo was when episode 5 hit and I got a message from a fan: “How dare you end on a cliffhanger!” I’m excited people have taken to the crew of the Infinity and they want to know what comes next.
Because when we shot the end to episode 5, we weren’t exactly sure ourselves…
See, in a lot of ways, episode 6 is where we as creators figured out what Spartan Ops was all about, on both the game and the animated sides of the coin. I’ve compared it to TV shows in the past, and how they mature over time. Think of your favorite show that has a couple years under its belt. Then go back to the first episodes and you’ll see the show you know and love, but it will likely feel wonderfully awkward. That’s because, just like their fans, the show runners were still learning exactly what their show was all about.
We always had a good outline for the Spartan Ops Season 1 story, so we knew where we needed to end up, but an outline is like saying “We are going to France,” without knowing just what café in Paris will serve as your final destination.
By the time I started scripting episode 6, we had already shot mocap for episodes 1 -5. I had the chance to see the scripts being acted out by our talented-as-hell actors and we were getting our first glimpses of what Spartan Ops was going to be. We were also quickly discovering what it needed to be if it was going to grow as big as we hoped.
So with that in mind, episode 6 was a bit of housekeeping, wrapping up all our cliffhangers, while also establishing new threats for this half of the season. With all of our character set-up out of the way in the first five episodes, we were able to get into more action here. Thorne in melee combat with multiple Elites! Glassman running for his life, his torso about to be vaporized by an explosive vest!
But I’ll tell ya, I think the single most action-packed scene in this episode is actually Halsey’s sandbox speech in the opening minutes. She was figuring something out for me as I wrote her words – but more on that next time.
Episode 7 – Invasion
Roland has been a great character to discover. For me, it was when I realized he wouldn’t understand Halsey that he moved from “snarky AI with a flyboy attitude” to a fully formed character. In general, the AIs of Halo aren’t possessed of the urge to be “a real boy” per se. They’re all-in-all pretty stoked about how crazy-smart they are, impending rampancy be damned. But Roland, he’s proven to be easily bored by mundane things like running three-mile-long starships. He’s been excited to watch the Spartans do their thing, and to even join in on the action from time to time. I think he was genuinely excited to hear Halsey’s answer to “Why’d ya do it?”
By the way: The backdoor password Halsey says originated from an accidental text I sent to my wife one afternoon. I didn’t realize my phone was awake and I entered some gibberish that autocorrected to “Undid iridium” and sent itself. Lucky me, I’d just written Halsey and Roland’s scene the day before, and I’d had no idea what her secret phrase should be in that moment. The original draft of the script was “[CLEVER PASSWORD]”.
Last thing for this episode: The Infinity invasion is almost entirely down to the fact that I felt bad for Lasky as we were breaking the outline. The dude is captain of the mightiest ship in the fleet and he mostly gets to stand around on the bridge and talk to Roland. In trying to come up with something fun for him to do, we hit on the idea of the Prometheans invading and that lead to all the ideas that carry us into Spartan Ops season one’s third act... and beyond.
Episode 8 – Expendable
Admiral Osman makes me happy. She’s a character that fans of Karen Traviss’s excellent Halo novels (Glasslands and The Thursday War) will be familiar with, although they know her from a point in history 5 years before she orders Lasky to assassinate Halsey. And if you don’t know her from the novels, you know she’s someone Lasky has enough respect for that he straightens his uniform before speaking to her. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to do more of, rewarding folks who have sunk time into our Universe, but never punishing those who haven’t read all the novels/comics/etc.
One of my favorite bits from a production standpoint is probably something that slipped right by as you watched. And that’s good, because it’s a small touch and not something you were supposed to notice. It’s Palmer denting the holotable. That started as her yelling the line. Then, it became her yelling and hitting the table. Then yelling, hitting the table and denting it. Then at the last second, we had the idea to make the hologram fritz. Like I said, a small thing, but something I enjoyed watching evolve as the show progressed through production.
Episode 9 – Key
This was, in a lot of ways, one of the hardest episodes to write, because we had so many moving pieces – Palmer's in one place, Majestic in another, Halsey in another – but we had to get them all in the same place at the same time and we had to do it convincingly. For days and days we ran around in circles as we tried to make it make sense that Thorne and Palmer would get to that room at the same time. And then it clicked – Lasky was just standing there telling Palmer he disagreed with the order from Osman, but he wasn't doing anything about it. A quick re-write, a last second pick up shot on the mocap stage in Los Angeles, and suddenly Lasky was sending Majestic on another mission – a mission that he's going to have to answer for eventually.
I'm really happy we finally got to put Palmer in the field in these two episodes. I wanted her down there much earlier than this, but the pressing duties of high command mean you don't always get to go run around on the planet shooting bad guys with your friends.
Episode 10.0 & 10.5 – Exodus & Exodus Conclusion
We couldn't figure out how the story ended. We had a room full of smart people, all with storytelling skills and the resumes to prove it, and we could not tie a bow on this story in the outline stage. Then Frank O'Connor says, "Maybe Jul just drives Requiem into the sun." And we all laughed, because that was so wonderfully absurd. A half hour later we still didn't have an idea of how the Requiem adventure ended. Eventually we let Jul drive Requiem into the sun because – come on – that's pretty awesome, throwing planets into suns.
Poor Catherine Halsey. Don't get me wrong. She's a monster. A war criminal. A woman who kidnapped and killed children because she believed the ends justified the means. But then we come along and chop off her arm simply because we wanted a spot of ambiguity in her final line. In the original draft, she was shot, but still in one piece. When Jul asked her what she wanted, she said, "Revenge," and everyone knew what she meant – revenge on Palmer and the crew of Infinity. But we didn't want that. Halsey is a woman who is always saying two things at once. To end her storyline on such a clearly defined note just felt wrong.
So I chopped off her arm. Now she glances at her shoulder before answering Jul's question and you have to ask: who is the object of her revenge? Palmer? Jul? Everyone?
I wrote the words late one night around 2 am. The next day in the office I pitched the idea to Halo 4 Narrative Director Armando Troisi.
"Get out of here," Arm said. "She's gonna be so mad."
Yes, Armando... yes she is.