343i’s narrative director Brian Reed is Halo fans’ bogeyman. If you search for “Brain Reed 343” in Google there are five results that directly question his capability as a writer or demand his resignation on the first page alone. People on the Halo Waypoint forums got used to not explicitly call out his name as Brian Reed threads get locked on a regular basis.
It’s no wonder that Reed went on a social media blackout, masking his identity. As of today it’s practically impossible to reach out to the man without some serious digging or a direct contact to 343i.
But is any of that justified? Is Brian Reed just a victim of misguided frustration, a scapegoat?
First of all let me say that there is no justification for any kind of harassment or personal attacks, these things have to stop immediately. On the other hand I think that it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize a person who is in a leading position. Brian Reed is narrative director, thus it’s only logical that storytelling complaints (unwarranted or not) go his way.
But that is one part of the problem. While Reed should theoretically be the point of contact no one at 343i (including him) seems to feel responsible for addressing this kind of criticism or communicating with that part of the community in general. While Josh Holmes, Frank O’Connor, Bravo or Tom French are relatively quick to react to multiplayer or Forge related questions there is no such public face for campaign/universe/storytelling matters.
Although both campaign and storytelling are still extremely important to a huge group of Halo fans and H5 got heavily punished for shortcomings in that regard by the press as well there’s nothing but silence coming out of the 343i headquarters.
But frustration doesn’t go away just because there is no dialogue. Quite to the contrary the lack of communication is the fuel in the search for a simple explanation, in the search for someone responsible. And that person has been identified as Brian Reed.
Were it so easy
We have limited insight into what goes on behind 343i’s scenes. We don’t know why key players like Armando Troisi or Christopher Schlerf left the company and how Reed became narrative director. We don’t know who’s deciding who’s going to write the story script and how other people like Frank O’Connor (franchise development lead) or Bonnie Ross (general manager) influence storytelling decisions.
What we can however do is to look at a person’s professional experience and his individual work. Which is exactly what some fans did and why Reed became the focus of criticism even before he was narrative director.
Reed was a comic book writer for Marvel before he joined 343i. He never worked on any other major videogame before. Consequently he was listed under ‘franchise development’ and not the narrative team in the Halo 4 credits although he did the writing for Spartan Ops and the terminals. Brian Reed’s first Halo work was the comic book adaption of Nylund’s ‘The Fall of Reach’ titled ‘Halo: Fall of Reach’. He was also responsible for the comic miniseries ‘Halo: Initiation’ and issues 7-10 of ‘Halo: Escalation’.
Some fans heavily criticized his work especially the two-dimensional characters, silly dialogue and plot-holes. The consensus was that Christopher Schlerf (who also wrote for ‘Halo: Escalation’) did a much better job overall. Most people agreed that Reed isn’t necessarily bad for Halo – he just shouldn’t be the one writing the plot for a mainline game anytime soon. Retrospectively speaking that assessment was justified. Under Reed’s lead H5 suffered from the same flaws that had plagued his previous Halo works as well – in particular flat characters and an incoherent plot.
While the quality of an artist’s work is always debatable Reed’s professional experience is not. Brian Reed is without a doubt a seasoned comic book writer but that doesn’t automatically qualify him for the job of narrative director of one of the biggest videogame franchises of all time. So how did that come about?
A history of decline
Halo 4 developement
343i started out strong. Armando Troisi who previously worked on both Mass Effect 1 and 2 as lead cinematic designer joined the team in July 2011 as narrative director. Christopher Schlerf who also worked on Mass Effect in the past created the original draft of Halo 4’s script. The narrative team was additionally supplemented by Lindsay Lockhart and Nathan Moller. Brian Reed was listed under ‘franchise development’ at that time.
Halo 5 developement
343i’s narrative lead evaporated within one year after H4’s launch. Armando Troisi left 343i in April 2013 to work for Black Tusk, Fathom Interactive and finally Quantic Dreams. Christopher Schlerf left 343i in November 2013 to work on Mass Effect Andromeda and has now found his way to Bungie.
In that vacuum Brian Reed became narrative lead. Guillaume Colomb, Patrick Downs, Caleb Doughty and Kristina Drzaic additionally joined the team with both Lindsay Lockhart und Nathan Moller still on board from the old crew.
Post Halo 5
As of today six out of nine persons working in 343i’s narrative team have left the company. Troisi (Quantic Dreams), Schlerf (Bungie), Moller (Bungie), Colomb (Bungie), Drzaic (Amazon Studios) and Downs (freelance) are out – Brian Reed, Lindsay Lockhart and Caleb Doughty remain.
There have been no new personnel according to my research.
So what does that tell us? Personal fluctuation isn’t unusual in this industry especially for narrative designers (often contract workers). What is noticeable however is that some of the key departures (Troisi, Schlerf) have not been replaced equivalently. No matter how you look at it – 343i’s narrative team has lost quality over the years which might be a sign of bad management.
A question of significance
Filling a vacant executive position with someone from within the team is nothing unheard of. But if you do so you have to be sure that this person is not only loyal and passionate but will be able to live up to the task as well. When it comes to the person in charge of Halo’s storytelling there can only be one credo: Hire the best!
Is an experienced comic book writer an enrichment for the team, especially when it comes to trans-media projects or franchise development? Definitely!
But is a man, with no writing or leadership experience in the videogame industry, a good choice for narrative director for Microsoft’s most valuable entertainment IP? No!
Writing for comics is not the same as writing for videogames. Penning the script is something else entirely and can’t be done by everyone. H4 while absolutely not perfect proved that with an experienced director (Troisi) and a good script writer (Schlerf) Halo can tell a compelling and surprisingly mature story. Consequently both fans (e.g. Haruspis level-by-level analysis) and press (e.g. Forbes ‘Halo 4 is a beautiful tragic love story’) praised the game for it’s achievements. H5 by comparison is a train wreck. Gamesradar even went so far as to argue that ‘Halo 5’s narrative failings go deeper than gaming’s usual story stumbles’.
There have been warning signs all along. If however the sheer amount of negative press alone isn’t enough to make 343i’s management rethink their strategy I really fear for my favorite videogame franchise.
Unfortunately the outlook isn’t good. Five months after H5’s release there are no signs of personnel changes or at least some sort of acknowledgement that there is a problem and that 343i is working on it.
But what can we, the fans do about it? Keep on talking about it! Let 343i know that you, that we care!