With over 3.25 million listens since its inception, Microsoft and 343 Industries’ “Hunt the Truth” podcast ended with a cliffhanger on June 14, only a day before the big Halo 5: Guardians reveal at E3 2015, the year’s biggest gaming convention. The podcast had an all-star cast: Keegan Michael-Key (Key and Peele), Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother and The Avengers), Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), Troy Baker (The Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins), and others.
It followed journalist Benjamin Giraud (Michael-Key) as he investigated the origins of the Master Chief, the contentious protagonist of the Halo franchise, and his controversial child soldier origin. It was a good listen and a great way to establish the general feel and context for the game by showing a more nuanced, human experience of the Halo universe than players are probably accustomed to.
What long-time Halo fans are used to is the way the series’ makers tend go bananas with viral marketing. Back in 2004, the hype for Halo 2 was already off the charts when Microsoft launched the “I Love Bees” alternate reality game. It sent fans, goaded by secret messages hidden in trailers, on global scavenger hunts and crowdsourced puzzle solving to a degree never seen before. The goal with “Hunt the Truth” is much the same: to build hype for Halo 5 with a viral campaign that goes above and beyond.
“The goal was Radio Theater,” Taylor Smith, Microsoft’s Senior Director for Xbox Global Marketing Communications, told Playboy. “We’re big fans of Serial. It came from a similar place.”
Serial, a nonfiction podcast that spun off from This American Life, drew millions of listeners and revitalized the medium in 2014. It portrayed a riveting investigation into a 15-year-old murder case, but it ultimately provided more questions than answers. Similarly, “Hunt the Truth” didn’t reveal much about Halo 5’s story. Those answers will have to wait until Halo 5 is actually released in October, although Microsoft’s keynote at E3 did shed some light on what to expect.
THE COVENANT STRIKES BACK
“In some ways, it’s kind of like Empire Strikes Back to Star Wars,” Frank O’Connor, Halo’s Franchise Development Director, told Playboy. O’Connor, known among fans as “Frankie,” has been working on Halo for well over a decade, first at series creator Bungie and now at 343 Industries. 343 took the reigns on Halo development when Bungie broke ties with Microsoft to go make Destiny, and Halo 5: Guardians is the Washington studio’s second stab at the franchise, the first on the new Xbox One console.
Microsoft gave fans an early peek at Halo 5 during a beta testing phase that ended in January. It let players who owned The Master Chief Collection, an anthology of earlier Halo games, play Halo 5’s player-versus-player battles almost a full year before the game is scheduled to be released. It featured a lot of new and alien mechanics, yet somehow still managed to feel like an updated throwback to earlier Halo games. But O’Connor doesn’t see Halo 5 that way.
That’s where the Star Wars comparison came in. Frankie agreed that while the multiplayer is more in line with the fast-paced, hypercompetitive nature of some of the older Halo games, the story-centric campaign mode is going in a different direction from past games. “In the last game Master Chief went through a significant amount of trauma, personal and emotional trauma, in a way that he hasn’t before, and I think in this game you’re going to see the results of that,” he said.
The Halo 5 campaign gameplay that Microsoft demoed during E3 shows a much more layered, squad-driven experience through the eyes of Agent Locke, a Spartan super soldier tasked with tracking down the AWOL Master Chief. It looks like one part political thriller and one part The Expendables in space.
And excitement mounted after the reveal of the game’s new “Warzone” multiplayer mode, where vehicles and advanced weaponry are earned through performance in a 24-player (12 vs. 12) killfest and mid-match boss fights pit players against various computer-controlled behemoths that can turn the tide of battle. The classic game types are still very much part of the multiplayer experience, but the huge new ‘Warzone’ maps and squad-based four-player co-op campaign levels stand to add a new level of complexity and strategic gameplay to the now 14-year-old franchise.
ALL ABOARD THE HYPE TRAIN
All of this is to say: the Halo 5 hype train has left the station. “Hunt the Truth” and other peripheral marketing materials, including the comics, books and live action “Halo: Nightfall” web series, serve two purposes: to set the stage for the game narratively, and to shovel coal into that hype train’s shiny, purple engine.
The “Hunt the Truth” podcast in particular walked a fine line between telling a story and shoveling that coal, which O’Connor explained eloquently. “The best marketing, and the best advertising, is storytelling,” he said.
The “I Love Bees” campaign was extensive and intriguing, but it was also a very tough nut to crack. All but the most diehard fans were more likely to simply hang out on message boards, waiting for others to crack the codes, than do any secret-hunting themselves. “Hunt the Truth” was designed to be more accessible, and the response to it has reflected that. “Hunt the Truth” trailers, with the tagline “The truth is never what it seems,” have earned millions of views, and the podcast has dominated conversations about Halo 5 on social media and elsewhere. Fans convene on Reddit, Tumblr and Wiki pages to decipher the clues dropped throughout the podcast and ad spots, just like the good old “I Love Bees” days. They’re painstakingly scrubbing through YouTube videos a single frame at a time in order to justify the tinfoil hat fan theories about what the hell the Master Chief—surely not a true deserter, right?—is really up to.
With storytelling-light games like Battlefield and Call of Duty taking up so much of the conversation around blockbuster shooters, it’s oddly refreshing to see 343 Industries take Halo back to its roots with a rich story told across multiple mediums. The story does seem to be shaping up to yet again set the Chief up as a messianic/Christ allegory in a corrupt and war-torn galaxy—only this time he is a persecuted Jesus allegory in an extremely corrupt and war-torn galaxy—but to most fans that’s no issue.
O’Connor said the studio’s goals with Halo 5 are twofold: “Let the players have the freedom to play the game how they want to play it…but definitely tell better stories in more sophisticated ways.” As Smith, the Xbox marketing director, explained, Halo 5 won’t feature the “binary sense of right and wrong” present in earlier Halo games, leaning more toward the nuanced universe-view of the more recent ones, with fleshed-out characters and shifting alliances. What better way to set that up than with some well-produced viral marketing?
The “Hunt the Truth” podcast does a great job of setting the stage for Halo 5, even without an expansive knowledge of the backstory, making it worth checking out for even casual fans of the games. A supercut of the whole podcast can be found here, on the podcast’s official Tumblr.
Yes, its official Tumblr—like the Master Chief himself, Microsoft and 343 clearly aren’t afraid to navigate unfriendly spaces (what’s really the difference between Tumblr and a Covenant stronghold?) and get their hands dirty when it comes to making sure Halo 5 arrives with fanfare.
Joshua Smith is a professional web developer, cheap whiskey enthusiast, compulsive gamer, and occasional contributor to Playboy.com living in Greenville, S.C.
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