Artists of War Matt McCloskey and Kiki Wolfkill play god in a virtual world

Open on the distant colony planet of Sedra, in the year 2557. Lieutenant Commander Jameson Locke, badass agent of the superpowerful Office of Naval Intelligence, wields a gun the size of a bazooka and hunts something secret, alien, and deadly. But there’s a problem: Does Locke call his agency by its full name? Does he use the acronym ONI? Does he pronounce it “oh-nee”? Who knows twenty-sixth-century lingo?

But then seams start to show—a lighting rig here, a cord that leads to a camera there—and you realize, slightly disappointed, that it’s actually 2014, you’re on the Halo: Nightfall film set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Jameson Locke isn’t a real person. Executive producer Kiki Wolfkill—real person, real name—is on hand to make those calls. (Her verdict: Say the acronym, oh-nee.) Wolfkill leads a team at 343 Industries, a studio within Microsoft that handles the $4 billion Halo juggernaut. In 2001 the property was just a first-person shooter that helped launch Microsoft’s Xbox. Some 60 million sold games and 13 years later, Halo is a cultural touchstone, a saga its creators liken to Star Wars. 

Halo: Nightfall will debut November 11 on a brand-new Halo online channel accessed through Xbox Live or Windows devices, paired with the release of four remastered Halo games called the Master Chief Collection. The Good Wife actor Mike Colter plays Jameson Locke over five episodes. The series is overseen by executive producer Ridley Scott, who earned his sci-fi bona fides directing Alien and Blade Runner. In short, it’s big time.

Microsoft has brought Halo to life before, in commercials that teased new Halo games and 2012’s Forward Unto Dawn web series. A feature film announced in 2006 floundered in production, but Nightfall made it to release in part because Scott was so enthusiastic: At the first pitch meeting he wouldn’t stop paging through art books of Halo’s military characters fighting an interstellar war. 

Wolfkill makes sure that the world of Nightfall fits the universe of Halo—a saga that began with a soldier, the Master Chief, battling bad aliens on ringlike worlds (hence the name) and now involves countless planets and aliens, battles and backstories told through eight video games, an anime series, a graphic novel, and 14 novels.

That’s a lot of story, but there’s no single Halo bible for Wolfkill to reference when an actor asks how to
pronounce ONI. So she calls on 343’s franchise team, packed with experts who remember every single character, weapon, and event. Many were Halo fans running their own websites, which 343 used to check its facts. “Seriously, encyclopedic knowledge,” Wolfkill says of the gamers. “Eventually we said, ‘You guys, come work for us.’ ” 

Nightfall will be a landmark production for 343, but as Wolfkill’s colleague Matt McCloskey points out, it’s not so cutting edge to tell a story this way. “Great storytelling has never changed,” he says. “You have three acts: beginning, middle, and end.” But technology has finally allowed the audience to jump between platforms, where act one could be interactive Xbox play that flows directly into act two, a high-def episode of Nightfall.

Next year Wolfkill will oversee another live-action Halo series, produced by another filmmaker who’s dabbled in sci-fi, Steven Spielberg. As always, her quest will be to maintain Halo’s core pillars of heroism and humanity while keeping it grounded emotionally. “There’s something to be said about the Halo universe,” says Wolfkill. “It brings you to a place that feels like home.” Even when on the planet Sedra.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

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