Fifteen years ago, Joseph Staten was pulling 80-hour weeks at game developer Bungie, making feverish last-minute changes to the script and story scenes for Microsoft’s audacious flagship Xbox title, Halo. It’s safe to say that without that game there’d be no Xbox division at all today, and the iconic Master Chief – along with his sarcastic AI sidekick Cortana – would be forever lost in space, never again to rid the universe of bathroom-less megastructures and galaxy-ending super weapons.
Today, having since penned the stories for four Bungie-made Halo sequels and the original story for the studio's latest blockbuster Destiny, the 44-year-old Staten is once again back in the fold as Microsoft Studios' Creative Director for Publishing, a role designed to blend his knack for accessible storytelling with his feel for world-building. He spoke to Glixel during the crowded Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention in Seattle, where Microsoft Studios' latest game – the colorful sci-fi adventure ReCore – drew long lines of players eager to experience the game ahead of its release today.
The game was the result of a rare collaboration between Japanese and the U.S. developers: Its far-from-Earth sci-fi script was written by Staten himself and it was coded and directed by the Texas-based Armature Studios – a crew that draws much of its talent from the team that made the peerless Metroid Prime for Nintendo's Gamecube. It was produced by ex-Capcom legend Keiji Inafune, whose Japan-based studio, Comcept, is looking for a win after a disastrous attempt to re-incarnate his most famous creation – Mega Man – earlier this summer as Mighty No.9.
If the throwback gameplay on display that day at PAX – ReCore looks like any number of 3D shooter/platformers that defined the PS2 era – seemed to offer a limited palette, Staten is banking on a “simple story, well told” to paint a more complex emotional backdrop.
So is there a secret to writing game characters?
Joseph Staten: E.M. Forster was right – you just want to connect, right? Even Master Chief wasn't just faceless. He had a gold visor and he had a voice and a wry sense of humor and he had a companion, Cortana. From the very first moment of that game, the story of Halo is about this big, tough, silent-type hero with his foil – the very intelligent, smart woman inside of his head – and that's the core of the whole story. Even back then I was very interested in colliding fun, memorable characters together with humor and I think most of the games I've worked on have some humor. I can't avoid trying to inject a little bit of fun into the stories. I mean, that’s what makes us human. So it's funny, I actually see a lot more similarities with the way I approach these differences.
You're now creative director on the publishing side instead of working in a studio. What does that mean for the games you're involved in?
My job is to make sure that whatever we do in terms of marketing and franchising and world building lines up with the goals of the creators that are actually making the games. Microsoft is a big organization, it has big marketing teams and PR teams. I sort of sit at the connection points of all those things, making sure everybody understands what we're going for thematically.
How did ReCore come about? Was it Inafune's idea, originally?
The three founders of Armature were former Retro Studios guys, the leads of the Metroid Prime series of games and they got to know Inafune-san during that era. When they both left to do their own things – Inafune with Comcept and the Metroid guys with Armature – they were always talking about ways to get together and how they both liked making the same style of game. Inafune-san was very passionate about really reaching out with a Japanese style of game into a Western market so they both came to us with this idea for ReCore.
What were the influences on the story?
I pull influences from all over the place. Certainly Mega Man and Metroid were big influences in the way we treated the robotic characters and the way you unlock the world. I always say that the most important character in any game is the world itself. It has its own story and its art and if you do your job right, there's this silent context in the world – people play through the game and look at the way things are built and arranged and there are stories that they make up for themselves that have nothing to do with the cinematics. For me, looking at Mega Man and Metroid and how those worlds – especially the Metroid games – where so much of the history was there for you to find and scan.
Metroid did a lot of storytelling using environment. Did you look at that?
Absolutely. Not to speak for the Armature guys – that was their baby – and they did the exact same thing. You go into this deserted world that's been abandoned for a hundred years and changed in weird ways by the Core Bots and you hopefully can see that history and get curious about it as you play though. I always feel that the top level cinematics' job is to dig deeper in things that people have already begun to intuit just as they explore the world. As far as the cinematic story goes, all kinds of things influenced it. I feel like I read Jungle Book every year – it's just this story of a human in a world that's not human and how the characters around them deal with that character and just the wonder and charm of that world is sort of a perennial favorite for me.
Is that why the robots all have animal analogs?
Well, that was really Inafune's idea. Everybody can identify with a dog – you know what a dog does when it's angry or happy or sad. We have a spider in the game – so it was kind of a fun challenge to figure out what was funny and cute and charming about a spider.
Well, that's what most people think but then Seth, the spider is a little bit like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (there's another influence!). Every dwarf had a singular characteristic – a defining trait. I looked at Wall-E, just its ability to have endearing sort of non-English – but still understandable – words. I think it's a great touchstone. Kind of silly, but also Lassie, the TV show. I went back and watched old episodes and there's the ability for the dog to bark and to have the human characters sort of say "What's that? There's a little boy fallen down a well? Let's go fix that." And our hero, Joule, does a lot of that in the game – the Core Bots will make their noises and they will intuit what she said and sort of translate it back for you as the player.
We would love it if it were so great that it endured for all time – like why even get up in the morning as a writer if that's not your goal?
But the influences are classic children's stories?
Yeah. I think that those stories endure for a reason.
Is that because you're a dad or because of their simplicity?
I think for me, I always go back to simple stories told well. I think there are lessons to be learned there. As a dad, I've worked on a lot of games over the years – mainly first person shooters – and I've had a chance to share those with my son because he was the eldest and drawn to those games. Now I have a 10-year-old daughter and it's a nice change of pace to be able to write a game and work on a game that she is immediately drawn to with Joule as the main character and these charming, robotic characters. So yeah, it definitely has a bit of "dad" in it – from my influence.
It sounds as if there was a conscious effort to make it a bit more universal in appeal.
The main theme was you can't survive on your own and how do you build this little family that's stronger because of all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies and how do you let go of your parents and how do you as Joule become the leader? And so it's a little bit of a more mature parental role that she moves into. Thematically? Absolutely, I was thinking about that. There's a little bit of Wendy from Peter Pan – not in the prim and proper way, but like how do you get a bunch of lost boys and do what you need to do? I guess old classic stories – maybe I'm just an old fart – but I go back to them a lot. I mean, our hope is that every game we work on, we would love it if it were so great that it endured for all time – like why even get up in the morning as a writer if that's not your goal?
Seems like that core relationship is really important, whether it be Cortana and Master Chief or Joule and her robots.
The core relationship is with Mack, the dog character. So it was really important that you understand right off the bat your relationship to these machines and this world. And that was really Inafune-san's main focus. I think that if you look at the games he's worked on starting with Mega Man, his desire to really wrap his brain around 'what does it mean to be human in a world increasingly filled with non-human things, robotic things, artificial things’ is central. So for him that was really his main focus and his passion. What I’ve tried to do is stay true to that theme and explore those things while wrapping a little bit more of a cinematic narrative story around it.
If Jungle Book is one of your things - is the sidekick always Baloo?
Well, you've got Bagheera too, who's a little more stoney, whereas Baloo is more laissez faire. If you take a big step back – a 10,000-feet view – what you see is a well-rounded cast that you can instantly look at and in the first five seconds understand what makes that character tick. The fun for me of crafting stories is always taking characters who are different, who have their own points of view, and then putting them into a situation where they have to get along otherwise it's just not going to work. Baloo and Bagheera have to work together and save Mowgli from King Louie. They have to do that even though they don't like each other. ReCore, Halo, Destiny – you name it – when games are doing their job well in terms of storytelling they're doing what stories have always done: They’re putting interesting, unique characters in crisis and letting it just go.
ReCore, from Microsoft Studios was released today for Xbox One and Windows 10. Its Metacritic score currently stands at 63/100.
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