Friday, November 16, 2012

The Elegance of Halo's Title Screens

November 6, 2012 saw the release of Halo 4, the newest installment in Microsoft's premier franchise. I'll save my review for another post. For now I wanted to share something that's otherwise completely innocuous: the Halo title screen. Ever since I picked up the original Halo I've been in love with the music. Series composer Marty O'Donnell (and Flintstone's jingle creator) created an amazing soundtrack for the series, one that eschewed from games of the time by incorporating elements of classical music, world music, and, most memorably, Gregorian chant. Each of these elements are distilled into the Halo title screen, that initial screen that greets you every time you boot up the game. Let's take a look at them.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

The ur-Halo title screen begins with Halo's iconic Gregorian monks while the camera swoops around the ring-world structure. Ahh, it's like I'm in an Enigma video. The music shifts to a bit of classical style music, and then moves into the marvelously named Rock Anthem for Saving the World, another of Halo's iconic themes. Notice the touch of world music with the tribal sounding female vocals in the background. Future Halo titles generally dropped the world influences and pushed more into the classical direction.

Halo 2 (2004)

The sequel's title screen includes the iconic Halo monk chant adding in some female voices and instrumentation. Then the music shifts briefly to one of my favorite pieces of music, Unforgotten, before heading back into some more monkish chant, with some female monks thrown in for good measure (monkettes?). Instead of showing the titular Halo ring, now the screen pans around the (fictional) African city of New Mombassa under attack, highlighted in a purple silhouette. I like to think there's a certain solemnity to Halo's title screens, the combination of music and images providing a sort of soothing calmness, something you wouldn't expect out a game that requires you to mercilessly kill aliens.

Halo 3 (2007)
The third Halo entry was Bungie Studios's biggest to date, needing to show off the chops of the new Xbox 360 hardware. They didn't disappoint. For me, this is my favorite screen of the bunch. As the camera whips around the alien Covenant ships uncovering a gigantic alien artifact in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we're treated to a full suite of wonderful music. Again, it begins with the monk chant, moves into the appropriately named Choose Wisely, moves quickly through the energizing Movement, finishing up the definitive version of Unforgotten, this time relabeled Never Forget (@3:16), which at about 4:10 brings in the piano keys which to me sound, however briefly, that it's going to transition into My Heart Will Go On. This is a classy, elegant title screen if there ever was one.

Halo 3: ODST (2009)
The next entry in the franchise, Halo 3: ODST, was a bit of a departure. Instead of continuing where the series left off, we're presented with a side story. This one follows a group of ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) partaking in a mission that was concurrent with the events of Halo 3. The game was inspired by film noir, with the main character finding himself alone at night in the alien-occupied city of New Mombassa. Your character was much more vulnerable than the normal series protagonist and the game's atmosphere accentuated this. Here Marty O'Donnell utilized saxophone to great effect. The title screen shows main character "The Rookie" in a moment of calm before being dropped into the nighttime city (this is the best video I could find, ignore the visuals and concentrate on the music). The saxophone creates just that bit of tension and mystery that was crucial to the nighttime atmosphere of the story.

Halo: Reach (2010)
2010's Halo: Reach was a prequel to the original Halo, showcasing the fall of the planet Reach to the Covenant invaders. Going into the game, it was already established that this was going to be a losing battle, and the music reflects that. The horns have been more emphasized, giving it a more somber tone. After a brief introduction that includes a bit of a tribal beat, we're presented with a simple matte painting of one of Reach's vistas. The horns are mournful, almost Taps-like, but the music still sounds like Halo.

Halo 4 (2012)

And so here we are now in 2012 with Halo 4. What makes this iteration particularly notable is that Microsoft brought on a new team of developers to helm the franchise, 343 Industries, with former developer Bungie having moved on to other pastures. A new studio means an entirely new team. Gone is Marty O'Donnell as lead audio director. To compose the music for this game 343i brought in Neil Davidge of Massive Attack fame. Gone are many of the more classical elements of the music (with most of O'Donnell's work almost completely removed to many fans chagrin), replaced with more chilly electronica, which is appropriate not only because of Davidge's familiarity with the genre, but fits in well with the new alien setting. That being said, the title screen defies this new sound and takes its cues from the more classical, mournful music of O'Donnell. It even brings back that element of world music with the prominent female vocals and the piano keys and horn that pick up halfway through. A beautiful title screen, I've found myself just watching this for a few minutes before actually playing the game.

Well, thanks for indulging me as I reminisce here. I'll be writing up my review sometime soon (hint: it's good). In the meantime, back to shooting aliens, pew pew pew!

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