Aug. 30, 2011 at 6:00 PM ET
The Master Chief — famed hero of the Halo games — is making his return in not one but three forthcoming video games. And the people responsible for this new trilogy promise that players will get to know the space soldier, as well as his unusual partner Cortana, better than ever.
During a panel discussion at the Penny Arcade gaming expo in Seattle this weekend, the top brass at 343 Industries — the new stewards of the Halo franchise — talked about the future of the famed series.
For starters, they revealed that the next three Halo games will be known, collectively, as The Reclaimer Trilogy.
I had a chance to catch up with 343i after the panel and though they wouldn't reveal story details and still haven't announced a specific launch date for the first game — "Halo 4" — they did talk about the direction they're taking the ground-breaking and best-selling franchise and about some of the pressures associated with taking over a series that is so well loved it's sold some 40 million games.
343 Industries was put together to shepherd the Xbox-exclusive franchise when Halo developer Bungie left Microsoft in 2007. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
343i now has 200 people working on "Halo 4" and has, in fact, been working on the game in secret for the last three years. ("Halo 4" was first revealed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.)
"It's been so hard on the team to not share what we've been working on for so long," Josh Holmes, creative director for the game, told me.
"Just even saying 'Halo 4' — I still catch myself before saying it because we couldn't say it for so long," added executive producer Kiki Wolfkill.
At PAX this weekend, Frank O'Connor, franchise development director at 343i and formerly of Bungie, told an audience packed full of Halo fans that "Halo 4" (scheduled to launch some time in 2012) will be "a direct continuation" of the events of the 2007 game "Halo 3." But the future of Halo goes well past the number 4. The series will continue over the course of three games which O'Connor promised would have "a big, epic story with lots of wonder and lots of explanation."
"A lot of what this trilogy is going to focus on is exploring the character of Master Chief [aka John-117] and what it means to bring him back, and really getting a little bit closer to that character than we've ever experienced before in any of the past games," Holmes said. "I think there's a lot of depth to John that exists primarily in a lot of the other fiction that we really felt we wanted to explore more deeply and lay a journey for him that would transform and evolve him as a character and as a man."
But it's not just the Master Chief that players will be getting to know better. Cortana — the wily artificial intelligence who is Master Chief's partner — will be more fully explored, as will her relationship with Master Chief.
"It's such an intimate relationship between the two," Holmes told me. "Imagine that you're kind of sharing the same brain — it's unlike any other experience. For us that's a point of fascination as a team — how would that feel, what would that experience be like?"
Beyond that, Kenneth Scott — art director for the project — said they have been working on what the new Master Chief and his armor will look like. They brought a live model on stage at PAX, though Scott explained that the Chief's look — currently in its fourth iteration — was not yet finalized (see top photo).
Scott said they are also "investing heavily" in further exploring the look and feel of Forerunner environments and technology.
"You've lived with inert, static Forerunner abandoned structures," added O'Connor. "It's going to be really interesting to see a different aspect of Forerunner engineering and Forerunner architecture when it's not completely inert and dead and empty."
For a glimpse of what they're talking about, check out the following trailer, revealed for the first time at PAX, showing off some of the "Halo 4" concept art:
Of course, the folks at 343i realize that what gamers really want to know is how the new Halo games are going to play. And it's here that they say they are especially aware of the balance they must strike between Halo's past and its future.
"As a team we were brought together by this love for this universe and this play experience, so we really wanted to maintain the core of that magically Halo feel," Holmes said. "But at the same time it was important for us to have the courage to take risks and evolve the gameplay feel so that it is fresh and different.
"It's this constant question of balance for us that we've wrestled with since the beginning as a team: How do we maintain both what is the core of Halo — making sure it feels like Halo — while at the same time adding new weapons, new abilities, new experiences you've never had before in a Halo game?"
O'Connor said that, in fact, they have prototyped successful and fun new gameplay features that they have, ultimately, ended up throwing out of "Halo 4" because they weren't the right fit for what people expect from the franchise.
"That's really unusual. Normally if you have a successful prototype, it goes in," O'Connor said. "But we ended up taking it out because, while it was awesome, it wasn't Halo awesome."
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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.