Interviews

October 7, 2009

Halo Series Composer Martin O'Donnell Talks Halo 3: ODST
By Louis Bedigian

"We really want the player to feel differently when they’re playing as the Rookie as opposed to playing as one of the four other ODST’s. Every time you find yourself back in the streets of New Mombasa at night we want you to feel lonely, lost, and perhaps a bit damp."

Martin O'Donnell

Few games were as hotly anticipated this year as Halo 3: ODST. This pseudo-spin-off holdover game (a holdover till the next true Halo chapter, of course) was once thought to be an online expansion. It quickly turned into a full-fledged project that required all the elements that a high-end Halo game demands, including a killer soundtrack.


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But unlike the first three Halo games, players would not be hearing familiar sounds this time around. "Halo 3 finished the fight for Master Chief and all his friends," said Halo series composer Martin O'Donnell. "ODST is an entirely new story in the Halo universe. It gave me the opportunity to write all new music that sets a completely different mood."

Once you had solidified a style for the music, how much did it change – or perhaps evolve – as the writing process began?

Martin O'Donnell: Joe Staten, the writer and one of the lead designers, came to me and said that ODST was going to be a detective story set in a film-noir style version of New Mombasa. From the beginning of pre-production I was looking for a compositional approach to match that vision.

What are some of the feelings and emotions you hope this score conveys?

Martin O'Donnell: We really want the player to feel differently when they’re playing as the Rookie as opposed to playing as one of the four other ODST’s. Every time you find yourself back in the streets of New Mombasa at night we want you to feel lonely, lost, and perhaps a bit damp. We also want you to feel like you need to find your squad mates as soon as possible, so maybe some urgency too.


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Each of the previous Halo games features memorable songs that players will never forget. Is there any particular song in Halo 3: ODST that you hope will achieve similar acclaim?

Martin O'Donnell: I don’t think I have one in particular, but I sure hope one of the pieces will be memorable for the audience. It might be a different one for different people.

Have you done anything new with the interactive element(s) of the music?

Martin O'Donnell: I used some accompaniment tracks in sync with some improvised sax solo’s that play differently every time you play the game that I thought worked pretty well. We also used more randomization for the many pieces that might play in the hub (night time New Mombasa).


A look at how the music came to life.

And what do you think about the current state of interactivity in video game music? How much further can we go?

Martin O'Donnell: It’s not easy to make elegant music adapt to player’s choices but game composers have made a lot of progress in this area. I think there is still a lot of interesting things that we can do with music in games.


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Most gamers know you as the composer of the Halo series, but you are also Bungie's audio director. Tell us about this side of the job and how it differs from composing.

Martin O'Donnell: I’ve done most of my composing with Mike Salvatori, but in ODST I also collaborated with C Paul Johnson and Stan LePard on new music. Jay Weinland is Bungie’s Audio Lead. He and C Paul do the lion’s share of sound design for the game. I’m privileged to be able to oversee and direct the work they do. Since I want to have a singular audio vision for each game I’m responsible for every single sound that comes out of the speakers. That means I need to work with the writers, designers, artists, producers, actors, programmers, and even the testers to help ensure that our game is as polished as possible.

As the man in charge of Halo 3: ODST's overall sound, not just the music, what other changes (if any) did you want for this spin-off?

Martin O'Donnell: We want every new game we make to raise the bar in some way. We tried to advance the way we tell story and create atmosphere. There are some subtle things we had to do to make the nighttime city streets sound wetter than the same streets in daytime. We also had a lot of fun creating the radio plays that tell Sadie’s story.


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The characters of Halo 3: ODST are voiced by some prominent actors. Talk about this.

Martin O'Donnell: We had hired three of the cast from Firefly for Halo 3. They did such a great job for us and were so much fun to work with that we decided to not only get them back for ODST but adjust the writing to fit them even better. We got Nathan Fillion as Buck, Alan Tudyk as Mickey, and Adam Baldwin as Dutch right away. We also love working with veteran game actor Nolan North and thought he would be perfect as Romeo. We still needed our “femme fatale” and after a little searching we asked Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica to be Captain Dare. It was a blast working with these great actors and for the first time we had two actors in the booth at the same time. Nathan and Tricia worked together and the chemistry was real.

I've heard that you don't like to plan out your scores too much in advance and that you prefer to write the music after a game is completed. Is that true? And if so, what makes this strategy work for you?

Martin O'Donnell: I don’t know many movie composers who compose music before the film is in post-production. Usually composers need a scene to be close to finish in order for it to be scored. I feel the same way about a game score. There are other ways of composing for games, but this works best for me. I don’t actually wait until the game is finished, but I prefer waiting until the levels are at least somewhat playable. This means that during much of the game’s development there isn’t much music.

Have any developers, umm, complained about this strategy? From what I can tell, most developers prefer that a composer starts working on the score before the game is complete.

Martin O'Donnell: Regardless of how popular this particular strategy is, I think the result speaks for itself. I work on music almost from the moment we begin pre-production on a game but I don’t finish the majority of the music until close to the end of post-production. And yes, some developers have complained a bit about this method.

In addition to your work on the Halo series, you also own a music production studio, TotalAudio. Tell us about this and some of the other work you've done or plan to do in the future.

Martin O'Donnell: I’m a full-time Bungie employee and partner. I’m also President of TotalAudio. My composing and business partner, Mike Salvatori, keeps TotalAudio running. The only official new work that TotalAudio has done for the past eight years has been work for Bungie. Who knows about the future?

Speaking of the future, you've worked on four Halo games, and I think we all can assume you'll be working on Halo: Reach. Is your music exclusive to Bungie? Are there any other games – maybe a new franchise – that you'd like to work on?

Martin O'Donnell: Halo: Reach is certainly enough for me to be working on for the near future. It’s no mystery that Bungie has big plans for the project after that. Right now I’m pretty excited about those plans.

Thank you for your time.

The two-disc soundtrack for Halo 3: ODST is available at retail and can be downloaded via Sumthing Digital (www.sumthingdigital.com) and iTunes. For more information, visit http://www.sumthing.com/Halo3ODST.

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Halo 3: ODST (360)