In 2018’s Halo: Silent Storm, writer Troy Denning explored a largely untapped time in the life of Master Chief: his life before the events of his first game, Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s a story (and a time) Denning is now expanding upon with Halo: Oblivion (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Denning talks about what inspired this sci-fi space opera story, the role the Halo overlords of 343 Industries had in crafting the plot, and what kind of game they could make out of this novel.
For starters, what is Halo: Oblivion about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Halo: Silent Storm?
Halo: Oblivion takes place about a month and a half after the raid on the Covenant supply world in Halo: Silent Storm. John has matured as a leader and commander, but he still has things to learn — most importantly, when to trust his own judgement and when to compromise. The success of the attack has only convinced an enraged Covenant to bring their full might to bear, and FLEETCOM is just beginning to understand just how badly outmatched humanity is. So, when the enemy dangles a prize loaded with alien technology in front of their nose, ONI has no choice but to send in John and Blue Team to snatch the bait — hopefully without springing the trap.
And then where do you these two books fit into the chronology of the Halo games and other novels?
They’re set in the first half of 2526, when John and the Spartan IIs are fifteen or so. That’s two and a half decades before Combat Evolved and most of the other novels. Contact Harvest occurred about a year earlier, and The Forerunner Trilogy and Broken Circle many centuries before.
Where did the idea for Halo: Oblivion come from?
When 343 said they wanted to do another early Master Chief novel, the first thing they said was, “We want it to be on the ground this time.” The second thing they said was, “We want to make it a smaller scale action, something that’s more tightly focused on Blue Team.” Those parameters made a lot of sense. The Spartan IIs are, after all, more akin to infantry soldiers than combat swimmers, and it would seem weird to do too many stories where the majority of the action took place in deep space. And, traditionally, they’re a lot more isolated than they were in Silent Storm, operating as force multipliers rather than speartip units. So, after the initial story conference, I’d barely hung up the phone before I realized I wanted to go back to Netherop with the story.
The third thing 343 said during the story conference was, “We’d like to see Nizat in the story again.” As long as I stayed within those parameters — surface conflict, smaller scale, and Nizat — I was free to develop any story I liked.
As always, the folks at 343 had a ton of great insights and suggestions. Along with my S&S editor, they just elevated the whole story, pointing out when an action or piece of dialogue didn’t seem quite in character, making sure that everything had a Halo feel and followed continuity. For example, there is a scene where Nizat and his crew need to cross a canyon. I had them rig a standard zipline, and 343 kept saying, “no, that’s not Sangheili enough.” And I kept saying “but it’s the only thing they can do with the tools they have available.” And after a few emails like that, 343 finally said, “Use anti-gravity propulsors and a gravity winch.” There were a ton of practical suggestions like that.
So when in relation to writing Halo: Silent Storm did you first talk about Halo: Oblivion?
We didn’t talk about doing another book until months after I finished Silent Storm. There were a lot of things going on in my life while I was writing Silent Storm — among them, my mother was dying — so I wasn’t thinking very far ahead while I wrote. My only focus, as far as work was concerned, was finishing the book in time to make the publication date.
Like all things Halo, Halo: Oblivion is a sci-fi space opera story. But are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
At its heart, Oblivion is a military action thriller, similar to something like The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare: a small band of soldiers on a desperate mission finds themselves in deep doodoo. But it also has a lot in common with my Dark Sun Prism Pentad series, an environmental man-against-nature story where the world itself is every bit as much the antagonist as the enemy is.
Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Halo: Oblivion but not on Halo: Silent Storm or, really, anything else you’ve written?
Not really. I’m still influenced by my favorites: Ken Follet, Michael Crichton, William Goldman. I read broadly and constantly, so I’m never really sure about my subliminal influences. But I’ve studied those authors in depth and tried to analyze why I’m so in love with their stories, so they’re definitely my biggest influences.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and games other than the Halo ones; did any of them have an influence on Halo: Oblivion?
Given when Halo: Oblivion takes place — 2526, twenty-five decade before the first game — it obviously has no direct connection to the next year’s Halo Infinite. But I’m still curious if you ever suggested anything for Halo: Oblivion and were told you couldn’t do it for some reason?
I was asked to make some changes that I didn’t fully understand — and which were fine for the story. But I have no idea whether those had anything to do with Halo: Infinite, or were just continuity requests for existing material. But it would be cool to see a character I’ve introduced show up thirty years later in the game. That would pretty much send me through the sky.
As we’ve been discussing, Halo: Oblivion is the sequel to Halo: Silent Storm. But are they also the first two books in a sequence, like a trilogy?
I think it’s okay to say that we’ve talked about doing a third book for both the Silent Storm / Oblivion duology and the Last Light / Retribution duology. But there is nothing in the works yet. I think everyone involved is interested in doing them, but it’s matter of lining up calendars and resources.
As you know, some people like to binge read connected novels like they binge Stranger Things and Oreos. Is there some reason why you think someone should do this with Halo: Silent Storm and Halo: Oblivion?
I think people should read the two books in whatever manner they most enjoy. When I find a series I really love, I tend to devour the whole series, going to the next book as soon as I finish the previous one. And that’s what I hope to inspire, just because I’m trying to write the kind of book that a reader can’t put down. But there’s no internal reason that the books should be binge-read, or even in the order they were written. Both stories stand independently, with anything you need to know from the other story explained, so readers should do what works for them.
Now, in the time between when Halo: Silent Storm and Halo: Oblivion were released, Cassandra Rose Clarke started writing a series of young adult Halo novels called the Battle Born series. Would you ever want to write a YA Halo novel, or is that just not something that interests you?
You know, if someone approached me and said “We think you’re the guy to write this YA novel,” I’d consider it. But I’d have to think about it pretty hard. I don’t read a lot of YA, so I’m not sure I’d be a good choice to write it. And I tend to enjoy writing adult characters. Even with the Spartan IIs being fifteen, the emphasis is on their ability as soldiers — and their struggles with their inexperience with the military bureaucracy — rather than on their identity as young adults.
With Halo: Oblivion, you become the writer with the most Halo novels to their credit, beating Greg Bear, Karen Traviss, and Eric Nylund, who’ve written three each. In honor of this distinction, did 343 Industries give you a plaque? A sash? A Halo t-shirt?
They invited me to two Halo Outposts? Seriously, I didn’t even realize I had the record until you pointed it out. I’m not sure anyone else did either. But it’s cool. I’ll take it.
So are you working on your fifth Halo novel? Maybe something not connected to Silent Story and Oblivion or Last Light and Retribution?
If I were, I wouldn’t be able to talk about it. Sorry.
In our previous interview about Halo: Silent Storm [which you can read here], you said that if it was the basis for a game, it would work as a first-person shooter, “But I’d also like it to be an open world strategy game, where the Chief gets to influence task force destinations and battle tactics once it arrives.” Would you say the same about Halo: Oblivion?
I think Halo: Oblivion should be an open world action role-playing game. Netherop is a world of mystery, and I’d love to see that developed. And while there’s plenty of combat in Oblivion, the emphasis is on the characters misreading each other, and all sides getting into deeper trouble with each mistake. That screams role-playing to me.
Finally, if someone enjoys Halo: Silent Story and Halo: Oblivion, they’ll obviously go back and read Halo: Last Light and Halo: Retribution. But after that, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
I’d say they should read my first Star Wars novel, Star By Star. It’s really the book that made my name, a big action-packed book in which a lot of iconic stuff happens. Writing it tore my heart out three different times, which is always a good sign, and anyone who enjoys Halo is probably going to be familiar with the Star Wars universe. It’s the middle book in an 18-book series written by a bunch of different authors, but it’s very capable of standing on its own. There’s a three-page summary of the story in the previous books, but even that isn’t required. Everything the reader needs to know is explained in the context of the story itself.