"My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durandal."
The original Halo has a rather elaborate (and slightly sordid) history. The first word came in the form of some very veiled and cryptic emails to a fan site, Hamish Sinclair's Marathon's Story page. Old-school Bungie loved Sinclair and his affection for their narrative efforts, even going so far as to name a hidden map in Marathon: Infinity in his honor. So it may seem a little odd in retrospect that the earliest teasers for one of the most influential and popular series ever arrived in the form of the Cortana Letters -- but it totally made sense at the time.
Of course, the Halo they were teasing probably had little to do with today's Halo, since the original concept of the game was basically to be a StarCraft to Myth's Warcraft, a sci-fi RTS in which you commanded legions of armored Spartan warriors against the alien Covenant. Actually, Halo's core story hasn't changed all that much; some text from the Cortana Letters made it into last year's E3 trailer for Halo 3, and certainly you can find plenty of relevance in comments like:
As for this world -- I encounter new ghosts every day. What I have found will either save or destroy you. This sanctuary, this unbroken circle, has effectively concealed its power for how long? Perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. Whoever made such a place must now live in chains; there is no other explanation for their absence. This enemy -- YOUR enemy -- has proven more irritating than I anticipated.They own nothing which they have not stolen. I can barely make sense of their incessant rhetoric, except to know that you seem to be their Devil. Congratulations -- you manage to make friends wherever you go and, apparently, places you haven't.
The unbroken circle, a sanctuary? A foe fueled by religious zeal whose culture is built on what they've assimilated from others? Yeah, that's the Halo we know and love. But the game itself... well, it changed quite a bit between its unveiling at MacWorld NYC 1999 and the Xbox launch in October 2001. The squad-oriented elements of the game gradually slipped away, and the focus of the adventure became a single Spartan-II, an augmented supersoldier known only by rank, Master Chief (well, Master Chief Petty Officer, but the whole title isn't particularly punchy).
It's still possible to see elements of the original game concept in the finished product -- huge open spaces, seamless transitions between foot-based and vehicular combat, missions where your goal is to round up your comrades and make tactical strikes against the Covenant. It's easy to imagine sections like The Truth and Reconciliation and Assault on the Control Room playing out in RTS style... but then you start to imagine sections like The Library and you realize, hmm, maybe that's why they decided not to make Halo an RTS. 'Cause when you add the Flood, it pretty much becomes StarCraft: humans subsisting on sheer pluck, an alien legion possessing super technology, and a feral third race relying on brutality and sheer numbers. Yup. Imagine that first wave of Flood infection forms from an isometric perspective and what do you see? Zergling rush.
Of course, the flip side is that if you turn StarCraft into an FPS it becomes Halo, which could account for why Ghost never quite worked out. So it's all good.
What wasn't lost in the course of development was Halo's sense of scope and fluidity. That was what really wowed people at Macworld '99 -- not that another tactical game was coming (yawn), or that it was coming to Mac (they make Mac games?), but that it played out in these immense 3D spaces. That's probably what caught Microsoft's attention, too, and convinced them to wave a fat stack of million-dollar bills in Bungie's face if they'd make the transition from Mac-friendly computer developer to MS-owned console developer.
It was an epic betrayal, especially for those us who had been Mac-using Bungie loyalists for so long. I bought all their games! I followed Marathon's story! I followed the Cortana letters with religious fervor! How could Bungie go over to the enemy nooooooo
Whatever. I'm older and wiser now, or at least older and less stupid. Being owned by Microsoft has allowed Bungie to polish its games to a mirror finish -- and if you've ever played Oni, you know what can happen when their ambitions aren't given time to ripen and mature. Being owned by Microsoft has allowed Bungie to make Halo 3 almost certainly the most refined and feature-rich console FPS ever. Of course, being owned by Microsoft also brings with it the pressure to make sure each game is a colossal success, which means we may never see the raw, experimental side of Bungie in action again.
But so it goes. For better or for worse, Halo went through a blazillion revisions, a complete platform migration, and turned out to be one of the most important games of the decade. Next time, we'll look into the game itself to see why.
(Images nabbed from HBO.)