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Interview: Halo 4’s other story is found in its visuals

Halo 4 Screenshot - Halo 4 art book cover partial

Games like Halo 4 have stories — breathtaking adventures that transport us across galaxies to distant planets, which shelter unimaginable secrets and life different from our own. That’s part of what makes them so fascinating. You can explore these worlds by playing the game, but what you see on the screen is only half of the story. The other half … well, we asked concept artist Gabriel Garza for the truth behind the gorgeous environments, iconic characters, and meticulously designed vehicles of Halo 4 — which you can admire in the new Awakening: The Art of Halo 4 from Titan Books.

Stepping into Bungie’s universe was both “exciting and frightening,” said Garza. “We had to reinterpret an established set of characters and bring new ones in, and make it all look great and concise.”

Garza worked to redesign the Chief and create new entries to the Halo universe, such as the Promethean enemies and the Mantis mech vehicle. But the information relay from previous Halo maker Bungie to new studio 343 Industries, which now oversees the series, was kept to a minimum.

Halo 4 concept art 1

“We had some visual inspiration from previous games at the beginning of the project, but we really wanted to take Halo and make it ours,” he said.

So what makes 343's Halo different? The look, for one, is more “mature,” according to Garza. “We [also] have a very heavy sci-fi influence in the concept art team,” he said. “We really wanted to envision as many things as we could, from spaceships to seats and consoles. Colors, shapes, and forms were always used to dictate the mood of each level and character in relationship to the story arc. I think our goal was to try and be as consistent as possible in the quality of the visuals.”

The distinct colors of the Convenant and Promethean weapon fire, for example, helps differentiate the enemies and balances the aesthetics. “The orange looks awesome against the cold, gray blues of the Promethean weapons,” said Garza.

Halo 4 concept art 3

Not all structures are equal, either. Each one reflects a specific presence. “The areas and objects where players had to interact had more purpose, more of a hint of functionality,” said Garza. “And the areas that are far away or might not be reachable have a more free-form spirit to them. We want the players to be able to fill the gaps and imagine how [these] things came to be.”

Where a sense of awe helps to stimulate players, a touch of the real world keeps them immersed. “There are shapes and forms that we as humans relate to certain functions, like the shape of a door knob, a key hole, a door — even the height where these elements are placed in relation to your eyes,” said Garza. “For example, we wanted to do a very ‘hard sci-fi’ look for the UNSC environments and props, [so] we took visual reference from real-world machines and architecture and repurposed it in a different way. Like airplane landing gear to make a helmet, or tank panels to make a gun.”

The artists also paid closer attention to the vehicles. “We wanted a more functional look to all things UNSC, so we gathered reference. For example, taking photos of small panels inside of a C-17 cargo bay and using those as armor plates for vehicles. We would use small things for big ones or vice versa — anything goes.”

Halo 4 concept art 2

These types of design decisions apply to the sentient as well as the inanimate. Cortana’s new look is arguably the most dramatic of all the characters, and it’s important for pushing the story. “We did some sketches to explore the overall look and feel. After deciding, [art director] Kenneth Scott did Cortana's final look, and I wish we could show folks what a beautiful piece of art it was. But alas, this one stayed in the archives. We wanted our characters to be able to emote their emotions in a more direct and meaningful way.”

When it comes to the set pieces in the game, though, Garza’s favorite is one of the earliest. “I love Haven since it was our first map, and also, it plays so well. The Pelican flight area in single-player [because it’s] beautiful, the Railgun … Man, there's just too many things I like about Halo 4.”

But what he loves most is visiting the universe he helped reimagine. “I guess playing with my friends on the game we worked on for all these years is the best part,” he said.

Follow @wita on Twitter.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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