Jeremy Patenaude: Writing the Halo WayA game interview article by: Laura Akers
In 2009, after an extended bout of unemployment, something wonderful happened to me. I was hired to work on Halo Waypoint as their editor. It was the strangest interview of my life. From the team leader’s incredibly laidback style and the fact that everyone wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie to being asked to play Halo 3: ODST in front of them (during which I spent most of my time running like hell from a Hunter—oh, the shame!), you’d think I should have had some insight into what this job would be like.
But nothing prepares you for working at 343 Industries. Nothing.
There’re the full-size Spartan statues everywhere. The guys who turned their work space into a machine-gun bunker, complete with camo-netting and machine-gun turret (plastic full-size gun attached to a file cabinet). The unbelievably intense arguments over every geek show/comic/movie/book/meme/etc. out there. The way homemade food left in the kitchen unleashes a Flood-like frenzy (hardly surprising considering the sheer number of young, unmarried men at 343 who, apparently, can’t cook). And you’re working on Halo. There is nothing better.
But the best part of all of this is the people. When I started at Halo Waypoint, there were just a handful of us. There had never been anything like Waypoint (a website-like presence on a console), and none of us really had much experience creating daily content. But there was a love, a drive, a work ethic unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like being constantly in battle-mode in the war of fun. Long nights and living in each other’s laps, trying to get content out to the world at midnight every night: we were manic, stressed, and having the time of our lives.
Working together like that reveals a lot about those involved. And the one thing we all had in common was passion. Some of us were fans who were excited about working on Halo in any capacity. For others, it was, and continues to be, the culmination of years of devotion and hard work. Over the next few days, I am sharing interviews with three of those superfans who helped to build Halo Waypoint. Two have moved on to other important positions at 343. One has stayed precisely where she belongs. All are my friends, my fellow soldiers and Spartans, and people whose love of and passion for Halo still takes my breath away. And I wanted to share them with you.
As the editor for Halo Waypoint in the early days, I worked closely with the team’s writer, Jeremy Patenaude. Jeremy, like Jessica, was an important member of the Halo fan community long before he joined the ranks of 343 Industries, having co-authored the Halo fiction-based website, Ascendant Justice. In our time together, we wrangled over word choice and struggled to find ways to express the complicated and sometimes confusing world of Halo (without giving away all of its secrets), sometimes squabbling like siblings. That writer-editor relationship has to be based on trust and respect. And I can say that there are few people I respect as much as Jeremy. Of course, he’s also shot me in the head at point-blank range from behind playing Halo 2, so it’s not like I can trust him. But I’m so glad he’s giving me the opportunity to share the amazing guy I know with the world.
Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: So tell me what it was about Halo that got you working on Ascendant Justice?
Jeremy: Hmmm. What was it about Halo? I have been a Halo fan since 2001, since pretty much the day it came out. I actually first encountered it on my way to get a Gamecube, and something about the first mission, as light as the first mission is compared to rest of the game [Halo: Combat Evolved] just caught my eye, and it pulled me in. I had been moving away, just the inertia of my life had been pulling me away from games in general. Halo brought me back in, and shortly after that, I became a pretty passionate fan of the franchise.
I helped developed--with a bunch of other guys--a community, and that community eventually evolved into a blog where me and Cocopjojo (Mr. Jacob Benton [tune in Friday for my interview with him]), and Ivan Jiron basically wanted to explore different aspects of Halo 3’s fiction in particular, but the franchise in general. I would say when it comes to Halo, what would make me want to write stuff like Ascendant Justice content would be more or less the fact that the universe has a really unique and appealing aspect to it: it never gives way to it not being fun and enjoyable when you play and experience it. The stories never over-encompasses how enjoyable the gameplay is, and vice versa. The experience never encumbers how fun the story is and how clever the story has to be. So that is rare. That rare combination, that balance, is difficult to find in games. It’s a actually difficult to find it in anything that connects two different types of experiences together. I think Halo is one of those rare franchises that managed to figure it out.
CB: So what did you see then as the end goal of Ascendant Justice?
Jeremy: Ascendant Justice was designed to specifically cater to fans of Halo who loved deep fiction. And loved exploring the philosophical elements, and the archetypal elements of Halo’s fiction. It was never intended for the casual fan; it was never intended for anyone who didn’t want to get into the trenches and really try to figure out, you know, "what are the motivations of this character?" and that kind of thing. Even to some degree, our goal was kind of to push past where maybe even the original authors had gone, and say “Well, maybe there is even more to this than they ever thought.” What about this? And this? And this? And we sometimes asked questions that in some ways filled in gaps that maybe weren’t even being considered at the time by the people who are making the game.
CB: [laughs] Are you admitting to fan-fiction?
Jeremy: No, no, not a fan-fiction. [laughs] More or less, us squeezing the most we could out of Halo. Sometimes you arrive at things that are intended and unintended by the authors, and we somehow were able to pull it all together and make it into something that was cohesive. Folks seemed to like it, despite the fact that it was huge and a lot of work to go through it even if you were an avid reader.
CB: It is very dense.
Jeremy: [laughs] I don’t know how to take that. [Fair enough, Jeremy. When you’ve criticized a guy’s writing for a living, I guess you might expect a compliment to be looked at suspiciously.] Yes, all of Jacob’s articles were very dense.
CB: So tell me what it was like to be recruited by 343, and how hard was it for you to make that decision to join them?
Jeremy: How hard was it for…It wasn’t difficult at all for me to make that decision.
CB: Well, I know you had to leave your family behind [it was months before Jeremy’s family could join him on the west coast], and a lengthy career.
Jeremy: It was more difficult for me to make the transition. Yeah, so previously I worked at a telecommunications company; I had worked there for ten years. I did that as a job, and I did Halo stuff on the side as a hobby and for fun. The idea of taking the thing that I found joy in and making it into a job was a very easy decision.
The transition, however, is a little difficult because I lived in Florida before, near my family, and now I live in Washington on the other side of the continent. And I was a fan before, and I was able to be cynical and skeptical and sometimes snarky. I was able to have those certain attributes that…you can carry on as a fan as you critique, and criticize, and be negative about certain things, but when you’re brought into the fold--at that point cynicism is only important as a catalyst for positive change. And so I think the difference between me then and me now is that I had to learn how to take any complaints that I had and sort of proactively and effectively help in whatever way I could to mitigate those issues so that people on the outside wouldn’t feel the way that I did.
To be fair to our team, there wasn’t a lot of ground to cover, but the way I look at it is it’s difficult to pass between those barriers. I don’t think a lot of people recognize the difference between being a fan and receiving and then suddenly being on the other end of it and seeing all the sausage being made on a daily basis. The tension and the difficulty with getting certain things done on schedule, going through the process of development; it’s difficult to do this stuff. It’s difficult to help build and flesh out a universe. It’s not easy.
CB: Do you think that the experience of being a hardcore fan--I mean you and Jacob both have the reputation of being the hardest-core fans here at 343 with the exception of possibly Frank and Kevin [Grace]--what do you think that allows you to do in this job?
Jeremy: Well, I think that maybe I’ve got slightly different feelers than some of the other folks who are at 343 Industries. I think, like you said, Frank and Kevin, and there’s a few other people that have those same feelers and understand the spectrum of fans that we’ve got. But in particular the outer fringes in that spectrum who hold us to a very high standard, and understanding that we need to do our best to make sure the dots connect. We do our best to make sure the continuity lines up, and when we make something, it’s not just to fill in gaps--it’s got to be compelling and interesting and fun.
So I would say, in that way, my background with Ascendant Justice specifically catered to the role that I’m in now and the role I served on previously with Halo Waypoint, which was attempting to bring Halo fiction as it is, raw, to the masses--fans and non-fans. And what I learned when I first joined the team that was extremely difficult for me was how not to write the way that I did on Ascendant Justice because the way I did on Ascendant Justice was to a very specific target audience [Jeremy and I are, at this point, grinning ear-to-ear at each other as he says this, remembering the many discussions around this as a writing-editing team on Waypoint]. And when you are writing in an official capacity for Waypoint, for example, it’s not an easy transition because now, all of the sudden, I’m writing to a different audience that’s much, much broader. That requires a more gentle ramp up into the fiction than the deep-dive stuff that I did on Ascendant Justice. All of those things sort of prepared me for 343.
CB: So when you first came in, what kind of work were you doing?
Jeremy: When I first came on board I was writing content for Halo Waypoint.
CB: Some examples?
Jeremy: Everything from fiction content, like articles on specific things existing in the universe, all the way to different pieces that were sort of just things that I enjoyed doing. Like A Different Way to Campaign, where we looked at a specific facet in a Halo campaign mission and said that because we know how Halo sandboxes work, because we’ve been playing the game for ten years, we understand that Halo is not just a game where we go from A to B to C to D--that there are certain things you can do as a player that are infinitely more enjoyable than just running straight through a campaign mission. Things that you’ll remember and cherish. Like trying to shove as many vehicles as you can on top of a Scarab. Those sorts of things I did for fun, and I actually had an opportunity to work with Jacob on those. So that was pretty awesome. I would say that’s the range of content that we worked on with Waypoint. Deep fiction and goofy stuff that was fun to do.
CB: What are you most proud of from back in those days?
Jeremy: Back in those days, I was also helping out with the things like the Halo: The Essential Visual Guide, which was one of the first things that I really was really able to invest a lot of time in when we published it. So I would say that I’m kind of proud of that too. A Different Way to Campaign I loved a lot. Which is surprising, too. Because it was nothing like the type of stuff we normally wrote on Ascendant Justice, but I found that having fun in Halo was really easy for me to convey to the community, I think. As opposed to a more clinical this character did this, this, and this, or this vehicle is good for this, this, or this. So I would definitely say A Different Way to Campaign would be one of my shining moments.
I got to work with Jacob again too, which was really cool. One of the things about working with Jacob was that I don’t need to give him notes. He’s been there since day one as well. So he understands without any explanation. I just write a script. I don’t need any annotations on any of the lines [to tell him what cut scenes or other resources to use in creating the visuals]. He knows exactly what I’m talking about anywhere in a given script. It was hilarious because I’d get the video back, and I’d be like, ‘Yep. this was exactly what I thought it was gonna be.’ He just read a script and put a bunch of footage together and it worked. [As someone who tends to skip the cut scenes, these “fiction videos,” as we used to call them, were always one of my favorite things on Waypoint. It caught me and fans like me up on the intricacies of the story in a really entertaining and easy-to-digest way.]
CB: So can you talk about what it is you do now?
Jeremy: I’m one of the writers on the franchise team, and most of my job is fixed around working through continuity, and making sure our different various projects--the ones that I get to work on--are properly packaged so they fit with other things that are going on in the universe. And by doing that I get to do a lot of really fun writing. I think those are probably the two areas that I get to work in the most. Reviewing projects for continuity, and making sure the stuff we put out is consistent with the existing universe, and helping with some of the writing to help maintain that continuity. [Jeremy makes this sound less impressive than it is. There are few people who have the same scope of knowledge when it comes to all the stories told in the Halo universe. Jeremy is a walking encyclopedia of the minutiae of Halo fiction.]
CB: So what’s it like writing and creating in a universe as large and diverse as Halo?
CB: Exhausting? [laughs]
Jeremy: I mean, it can be exhausting, but it’s also exciting, it’s fun, it’s difficult at times because, when I was a fan, I was in the position where I could carelessly poke holes in stuff that I thought didn’t make sense or it didn’t add up. Now I have to do the same thing, but I have to do it within the framework of our development process, within the framework of production deadlines, or within the framework of a lot of different people who have different opinions on how things should be handled. So, yeah. It’s dizzying sometimes. A lot of the writing I do now is basically fleshing out what currently exists, and making sure all the dots are connected.
CB: So, you’re doing renovations?
Jeremy: Well, I wouldn’t say renovations as much as I would say that there’s a lot of compiling, there’s a lot of organization, there’s a lot of making sure things are clarified where they need to be clarified, and making sure things are properly based on however our team wants to move the universe forward.
CB: How have you developed as a writer from the day you walked through the door to today?
Jeremy: There’s a lot of different things. I mean, I would say the one thing that I liked the most about my position at 343 Industries is that I have learned so much. Such a ridiculous amount. If you would have asked me when I was writing Ascendant Justice about a variety of things--whether it’s taking feedback, providing feedback, whether it’s how to communicate to different audiences…
CB: Wait…you’ve learned how to take editorial feedback?
Jeremy: I can take editorial feedback. I can take good editorial feedback.
CB: Oh! Harsh!
[We both laugh]
Jeremy: But no, so there’s a lot of things that I’ve learned along the way that I would have--had I stayed in Ascendant Justice and even if Ascendant Justice had grown in popularity in the years leading up to Halo 4 --I don’t think that I would have personally grown as a writer in the ways that I needed to. Now I’m in a situation where, not only am I working in a capacity where I’m writing constantly and getting feedback on it, but I’m also in the position right now where I understand what it’s like to be on the other side of that coin, because I’ll work with our authors for example, and our authors are amazing by the way, and I’ll help provide them with support when they need it. And now I understand what it feels like to be on both sides of that pendulum. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned I think I’ve developed a stronger respect for people who approach Halo from all different vectors. I think that was something that probably wasn’t as apparent in me before I started here.
CB: So your son has played Halo from a very, very young age.
Jeremy: Yeah, 2 or 3.
CB: Some people would say that Halo is not appropriate for small children. But I know that you are a really dedicated and thoughtful father, and that it’s affected your decision to let him play. I just wanted to have you talk about that a little bit. What have you allowed him to do at various ages, and why?
Jeremy: Sure. So, first off, my son Liam is awesome. I love him very much, and he loves Halo.
What I do with Liam is: I make sure that he plays Halo with me watching him and I usually play side by side with him. The thing I remember most about growing up, one of the things I’m fondest of is that my dad--despite not being any good at it, or even liking video games--would still sit on the floor with me and play hockey or football games back in the '80s. And yeah, he would throw the controller a few times. He wasn’t too psyched about getting beat by a six- or seven-year-old kid. But the thing about it was that I remember those moments fondly. Those were the closest moments I had with my dad. He would get done working a sixteen-hour day, then he comes home and sits down and he plays a video game with me.
So whether it’s because I’m heavily involved with Halo or not, that Liam is sort of growing to like it, or whether or not it’s because he’s now exposed to it and thinks it’s clever--he likes other things, plenty of other things--but at the end of the day, I think if you properly parent and curate for your child’s experiences, the context of me playing Halo with him is different than it seems at first blush. And he’s a great kid, which kind of proves that.
CB: Kicking your butt, isn’t he?
Jeremy: He’s better at the game than I am in a lot of ways. I think the thing about it that’s most interesting to me is that when I was growing up with side-scrollers where the reaction speed was not terribly important, kids these days either grow up with Street Fighter, or Halo, and so they’ve got these razor-sharp reflexes that are absurd. This (playing Halo with him) is probably a really limited window of opportunity because when we get to the age where he’s like fifteen or sixteen, I’m not going to want to play anything with him. He’s going to be too good.
CB: Does he play Multiplayer yet, or do you still have him on Campaign?
Jeremy: Uh, he doesn’t play Multiplayer online or with other people. I will let him run around the Multiplayer maps and fool around. Especially in Forge where he gets to create things, where he gets to build things. I don’t think there is any way that anybody could say that there’s a problem there either. Especially from a creativity perspective, I think that a mode like Forge allows his mind to work in ways that it can’t work in a lot of other mediums…like he creates houses, and builds castles and fortresses, and ships and stuff like that. I don’t think there are a lot of games out there that allows you to do that easily. I don’t think there’s another medium that lets you, as a child, create the way that Forge does in Halo.
CB: So you know all the best secrets of the Halo universe. I’m not going to ask you to disclose any of them, but I am going to ask you is, are there any places that you would suggest that we pay close attention in Halo 4?
Jeremy: I mean, none that we haven’t already broadcasted everywhere at this point. Halo 4 is going to be a game that focuses on the Chief, who he is as a hero, and I would say other than the Chief, the fact that we’re bringing the Forerunner mystery to light a little bit here is going to be an important facet going forward. I don’t know if that’s too elusive, or...
CB: Well, I can hardly expect you to give me too much.
Jeremy: Right. Like “This is what happens at the end of the game...”
[Okay, he actually told me. I’m just not putting it in the interview…Yeah, right...]
CB: So what do you want to be seen as, or remembered as, in relation to Halo?
Jeremy: I love Halo, and I think there’s an argument in there somewhere in there that I love Halo probably the most of anybody. Yeah. I would almost say that. [There would be few people in the studio who would disagree with him on this, I think.] I love Halo, and I am very passionate about it. But the more I realize where my cog fits into the big machine that is Halo, the more I recognize that Halo for me is probably more of a catalyst for ultimately making me a better person. And specifically my legacy, as a father and as a husband. So if you were to ask me what is the reason--what are you looking to get out of all of this?--I would say that I would like to be a better person at the end of the day because of it all.
One more interview to go with Halo 4's Mission Designer, Jacob Benton! And, if you haven't yet, be sure to read Laura's interview with Halo Waypoint's Community Manager, Jessica Shea!
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers