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Art Book Review: The Art of Halo

Join Alex on his adventures reading, reviewing, and analyzing video game and film art and design books. Today's episode: reading and reviewing 2004's The Art of Halo.

The Art of Halo is, I think, a learning experience for western video games. Here is a game that spawned a massive franchise, selling tens of millions of copies, and its first art book is about 160 pages. Considering that it covers both Halo and Halo 2, an appropriate size in my mind is something more like 300 or 400 pages. We’re talking Halo here! Cortana, Master Chief, the Pillar of Autumn, In Amber Clad, Covenant and Earth warships battling in space … by all rights this should be an encyclopedia, not just an art book. Which is why I think this book was a learning experience for western games. Followed by the excellent (and rare) Art of Halo 3, we saw the Halo Encyclopedia, Halo: The Art of Building Worlds, and The Art of Halo 4, all four books having significantly larger page counts, higher production values, and in general just being better put together. That’s not to say The Art of Halo is a bad book - on the contrary, it’s a great book. I just wanted more Halo when I read it.


 

The Art of Halo begins with a tour through some Bungie history and promo art for the games. It’s a little intro in case you have been hiding under a rock and aren’t aware of what Halo is. There are some cute one-off pieces of art here, like Master Chief reading a “I wort wort wort you” valentine’s day card from his secret Grunt admirer. There are also some stories from the Bungie team, talking about the history of Halo and the franchise’s meteoric growth. The next section is where the meat of the book begins.

The eponymous cover title
 

One of the best pieces in the book is the origin of Master Chief himself. Art Director Marcus Lehto talks about how Shi Kai Wang came up with a more anime, sleek look for the main character, which was in the right direction but not quite there. Once they took Wang’s design and married it to some tank-inspired armor, they got that futuristic helmet along with the solidity they were looking for. It’s pretty awesome to see the very first sketch that inspired Master Chief. The next pages take that design and build on it, showing some ortho sketches and screen grabs from Halo to compare against the updated look for Halo 2. I find these sketches amazing because we’re literally looking at history here. The thought that went into these sketches took millions of players to a whole new world. Having that large of an impact is a life-changing opportunity, and they just perfectly hit his design.


 

One of the things I look at when reading an art book based on a military premise are the uniform concepts. You can tell a lot from the uniform someone is wearing. In Halo, they went with a more traditional uniform look, possibly to ground you more firmly in the universe. Having some context with the game’s items and world is important to keep players from feeling lost. It looks like Bungie deliberately went with a more traditional feel to the formal and even informal attire in Halo. It’s an interesting complement to the high-science look of the alien Covenant.

Some of the normal attire of space marines
 

Speaking of the Covenant, I hadn’t realized that the Grunts hunchbacked profile is because they’re carrying their atmospheric tank on their back. I’d just taken it in stride and thought it was added because it broke up their silhouette. Concept art in the book shows a couple different options for their tank, and throws in a render without their trademark breathing mask. Some early studies of the Grunt show a more slug-like character, with a less defined face and limbs. The early sketch really reminds me of Invid concepts from Robotech or Mospeada. Jackals, Hunters, Brutes, and of course Elites join the Prophets, with several pages devoted to each, including early concept art and the finished product.


The Flood are next, and include some nasty concepts for both infected humans and their carrier vector. Another great piece of history is a shot from the very first iteration of the flood in a game, back in 1997 when Halo was conceived as a real-time strategy game. A bloated, gas-filled creature lumbers across the screen, looking pretty close to some of the flood forms we later see in the games. From there, we see the Gravemind. I am largely unimpressed with the Gravemind. I think that the Flood is more terrifying as a mindless force. I’ve always found infections and pandemics terrifying, so the thought of something like this spreading across the galaxy is pretty awful, especially if it’s just doing what’s it’s programmed to do. I feel like having a malevolent intelligence focuses your fear to a single point, rather than promoting a climate of fear in the player.

The Gravemind

The environments section is nice, but lacks some of the awesome commentary about Forerunner architecture that’s in The Art of Halo 3. The book does touch on the inspirations behind the architectural choices of the game: the industrial and functional human architecture, the sleek Covenant ships and cities, and the cavernous, massive Forerunner buildings. The design decisions that had to be made to have three entirely separate sets of styles must have been pretty epic to watch. Keeping the right balance between bulbousness and function for the Covenant would lead into another discussion of what’s too high-science for the Humans. Decisions like those are difficult, and the artists talk about some of the tough changes they had to make to bring Halo to life.


Lastly, vehicles, weapons, and gear take up the rest of the book. Some of the designs are very functional, and while the human weapons have a different design from ours, they’re instantly recognizable for players. While I find it hard to believe weaponry hasn’t changed much between now and five hundred years in the future, I know that they were keeping weapons similar to balance out the more alien and confusing weaponry of the Covenant and Forerunners. Sometimes you’re tired of lasers weapons and exploding needles, and just want a good shotgun. I do wish that the Bungie team had included more concept art for the Covenant ships; there are some good pieces for the In Amber Clad, but I really want to see the concept designs behind the Covenant supercarriers, which I think look so distinctive.


Overall, the book is definitely worth it for anyone who is a fan of Halo or video games in general. Halo’s appeal is so broad that it’s hard not to see the book and the games as something that will be historically significant in the next decades. That’s part of the reason why I keep my collection and try to keep it in great shape. in decades, it’s unknown whether Halo will survive in any playable form. Though it seems impossible to imagine, a lot of games have been lost over the years, with few copies remaining in a (playable) form. That’s why I love seeing the ROM movement digitize a lot of the games and create emulators for them, because it gives me hope that in the next few decades we will still be able to play the games of the past.

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