“The only way that I’m going to become a better writer is to do things that I haven’t done before.  To push my limits and see what I need to work on, or discover that I can do something that I wasn’t sure of before.”

~Mike Morgan “Dagoonite”

In part 2 of this series on storytelling in the Halo universe, I check in with the puppetmaster of a grassroots ARG named “Bzzt!“.  Mike Morgan, aka ‘Dagoonite’ began creating his ARG long ago, and after some growing pains it was soon launched and picked up at the HBO forums and Args.bungie.org.

Before it settled down, players had discovered some controversial elements that prompted some debate — Mike opted to have his story purposefully contradict some established Halo canon in order to tell the story he wanted to explore. Over time, his team had also dwindled to just himself, making running it practically a full time job. The focus of his project was a story- and dialogue-driven experience centered around a Spartan named F484, and allowed the community to interact with some characters. All this unfolded in parallel with a narrative timeline of events occurring in the future.

I chat with him below about his experience as a first-time puppetmaster, a Halo fan, and about storytelling unofficially within the Halo canon. Mike is a passionate writer – his detailed responses are certainly a testament to that!

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First, can you briefly summarize what your ARG was about?

The UNSC Theseus comes to an uninhabited star system to build an unmanned space station, reportedly to listen in on Insurrectionist communications.  However, two crew members are in a hold when a mysterious explosion is going on, and appear to have disappeared.  On one datapad is some basic information on F484, an Orion IV.  (This setting’s version of Spartans, effectively.)  When the Captain questions HIGHCOM about this, he’s given a stern “none of your business.”  Soon after, an ONI operative contacts the Captain, “leaking” information to him about F484.

As time goes on, strange things continue to happen, with fortunately fewer deaths.  As the story of F484 unfolds, the crew’s own stories become apparent: a survivor of an incident hundreds of years in the past; a woman all too familiar with [post-traumatic stress disorder]; an unorthodox but idealistic XO; a marine engineer who has SPECOPS in his blood; a poor guy who just wants to run his RPG despite claims that he’s lost it; and more, if you read closely enough.

As things begin to get serious, the ship receives a supplementary AI from ONI who is less than helpful.  Though through the quick thinking of the Captain and the history of his own AI, the ONI AI calms down and becomes a valuable member of the crew.  Together, they achieve extremely limited communications with the forces disrupting their ship, and appease them.  This comes as the truth is revealed about F484, how he (almost) single-handedly wins the Human-Covenant war, and even the true mission of the ONI operative that’s been in contact with him.

A short synopsis that doesn’t answer much, but a more detailed version would take quite a while to go through.

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What was it that inspired you to create this type of interactive fiction?

Halo, naturally, especially [Eric] Nylund’s books.  But explanations like that are a dime a dozen. I got turned onto ARGs with The Beast, the ARG for the movie AI.  Since then, I’ve always been a passive participant.  I either didn’t have the technical skills to solve a puzzle piece on my own, or somebody would post an answer to it before I did, so I pretty much kept quiet and enjoyed the stories.

The wonderful Enkidu ARG and ilovebees were two other great inspirations. A good fusion of two things that I love: ARGs and Halo.

The wonderful Enkidu ARG and ilovebees were two other great inspirations.  A good fusion of two things that I love:  ARGs and Halo.  How could I not love it?  I’m a sucker for a good story, what can I say?  Halo Fanon also inspired me quite a bit.  I’m hesitant to share most of my work for various reasons, but to see so many people working at it and interacting…  It was an oddly huge inspiration.

I’ve done plenty of roleplaying, both at a table and online.  I was an AST for White Wolf’s moderated chats for some time, and am both a participant and a room-level moderator for a chat-based roleplaying site.  I don’t mind interaction, and enjoy the challenge of working with somebody else to tell a story, especially when that story can change greatly in no time flat.

I’m hesitant to share most of my work for various reasons, but to see so many people working at it and interacting… It was an oddly huge inspiration.

Lastly, the desire to stick my neck out.  I want to be a full-time writer.  The only way that I’m going to become better at the craft is to do things that I haven’t done before.  To push my limits and see what I need to work on, or discover that I can do something that I wasn’t sure of before.  This project was one way for me to do that.

Perhaps the most important thing, though, was that I had a story that I wanted to tell.  Several stories, actually.  This was an effective way for me to tell a lot of stories at once, in a way that people might enjoy.

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How did your story come about? How much did you plan ahead of time, and how much was written dynamically as the community interacted with characters and played through?

I was playing Reach and was a little dissatisfied with certain aspects of the story.  As usual when I have this problem, I started thinking about how I would have done it differently.  That started with my tag, F404, as the main character.  That mutated into F484 (4+8+4 = 16, 1+6 = 7) and the F404 became a bit of a joke.  But as I worked, I realized that I needed to go back further than that.  All the way back.  With that, I sat down and started to write the story of F484.

This started with research.  Reviewing the books and the games.  Analyzing everything that I could on Halopedian.  I don’t even want to try and count the hours spent researching.  With that, the story of Chair (the ONI contact) virtually wrote itself.  When I got to the end, I raced back and rewrote sections to give subtle hints as to her relationship with F484.

And then, when I adapted the whole thing for the HBO forums and it went live, I tossed most of that right out the window.

While I had some people reviewing that, I went back and started to work on the story of the crew.  I created a core cast of characters that “interesting” things would happen to, what their motivations were, and how I could work in more nods to the community.  From there, I wrote out a basic set of scenarios and interactions, taking breaks only to edit the core story of F484.

The character of Raschad was created from all the time I’ve dealt with people who suffered from PTSD.  I saw how they could appear to the average person to be a normal member of society, but yet they could be terribly haunted by it.  It also helped to have a different viewpoint; all of the ship’s cast were written as people who had come after the Human-Covenant war.  I liked the idea of there being somebody there for whom the Rainforest Wars meant as much to as the H-C war meant to the rest of the crew.  He was actually kind of bitter about that, though the circumstances for him to address it never came up in the game.

And then, when I adapted the whole thing for the HBO forums and it went live, I tossed most of that right out the window.

Ask any RPG game master and they’ll tell you that people do crazy stuff that you can never anticipate.  It happened before the game even went live.  I created Hive, fleshed out Helen, and watched as the players proceeded to do things that I could never have anticipated.

I’m glad I had that core work done, even if most of the crew stuff was rewritten on the fly.  Scenes were shuffled (with some meant for early on appearing late in the game and visa versa), deleted, or completely mangled beyond recognition.  Almost every aspect of the crew portion went through at least partial editing during it.  A great deal was rewritten completely.

Surprisingly, the base Chair stuff stayed the same.  I added supplementary communications with the emails and other communications, but a great deal came from one of three drafts of the script, the majority being the first draft.  Though it was more rough, it was also the most familiar to me, and would lend itself to the fastest adaptation.  Because when you’re hammering out replies as fast as you can, familiarity is vastly important.  I also found that the roughness worked for the character of Chair.  With who she really was, reliving all of this was hard on her.

Of the crew stuff, I’d say that in the end 70% was written or rewritten within 48 hours of it being posted.  Of the Chair stuff, only about 10% in total was written dynamically, but part of that number comes from the sheer amount of text that was in the total Chair stuff.

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There are some elements of your story that don’t quite jive with official Halo canon. Can you expand on your choice to take some creative liberties? What are your thoughts on working within the Halo canon?

Perhaps the most important thing to me was showing this man who had been all but destroyed when made an Orion quickly degrade, while the players knew that it was happening to all the Orion IVs.  That it wasn’t the Covenant that was destroying them, but the fact that their bodies had been pushed farther than they could handle.  It’s a potent thing to me, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of a super soldier program.

The most interesting aspect of a character in my mind isn’t what they accomplish, it’s what they fail at. Or accomplish despite their flaws. I like to see people fall and get back up. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, seeing people get back up is really what makes me feel for a character.

Of course, Spartans don’t have this problem.  They’re perfectly balanced, assuming that they survived the augmentation process in good enough condition to graduate.  That has never sat well with me.  Though some of the supplemental information has shown that this isn’t quite the case, I never really felt that it was handled with the horror necessary.  Honestly, that’s the core of the entire story that I wrote.

The most interesting aspect of a character in my mind isn’t what they accomplish, it’s what they fail at.  Or accomplish despite their flaws.  I like to see people fall and get back up.  Emotionally, physically, spiritually, seeing people get back up is really what makes me feel for a character.  In real life, all of us are broken in our own ways, but we push forward.  I like to see that in fiction as well.  Therefore, I had to break the Spartan II program.

However, I tried to make all of the changes make sense within the Halo universe as best I could.  That was one of the initial rules: none of this is actually broken, don’t fix it if you don’t have to.  For example, I considered making a small tweak to the Rainforest Wars but decided against it.  On one hand, it’s so far back that it would hardly make any ripples.  On the other hand, what would be the point?  Better to work within the confines given me than not.  Besides, outsmarting your constraints can be fun!  Even if they are self-imposed.

In the end, I kept the changes as minimal as possible, and let those major changes leave their ripples.  The first was that the Orion program was never shut down.  This would negate the Spartan program completely.  The second was changing the dates of the Human-Covenant War.  I achieved this by having the Elites smarten up a little bit early and turn against the Prophets.  Unlike in canon, the Prophets were caught by surprise with this, causing a much quicker shift.  Without the truth about the Halo array, however, they continued on with business as usual.

Some people may think that I threw around changes willy-nilly. This was as far from the truth as possible.

Was changing the dates so important?  Yes, but not for reasons that anybody ever realized.  Nobody did the hard math or caught subtle clues that I threw out there.  Maybe they were too subtle.  It’s a risk that you run in a project like this.  One that I didn’t fully appreciate until I was up and running.

Each change was debated, and only after analysis of the canon version.  Many “ripples” were negated entirely because I could see how things would end up the same.  Some were caused by the necessity of it not being a game — that which makes a compelling video game plot does not necessarily make a good writing plot.  (Again, much credit goes to Nylund.)

This is how things like Myung, the Guide, and Monitors being rebooted every so often came into being.  I still haven’t had a chance to read Cryptum, so I had to take a logical approach to the Forerunners as I saw them.  Since then, I’ve learned that some of my guesses were off course, but I tried as best I could.  I tried to have the Forerunners have, I dunno, foresight?  (Yes, you may beat me for that.)

For the events on the ship, I just tried to make a slight and general progression in technology.  Seven years for a Smart AI became 25.  (Another seven reference.)  I found something to do with Smart AIs who had thought themselves to death.  That sort of thing.  Changes, yes, but more of a sense of progress than anything revolutionary.  If a game happens 60 years after the canon end of Halo 3, it has to show some sort of progress in technology.

Some people may think that I threw around changes willy-nilly.  This was as far from the truth as possible.  Believe me, each change was agonized over for far longer than I’d like to admit to.

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Are you an active Halo community member? Do you play online often?

I play Reach almost every day, but rarely multiplayer.  I’m not very good, so I stick to what I’m best at: single player and firefight.  (Best implying that Heroic didn’t take me a week to pull off.  Which it totally did.)  That and I guess I’m still stuck in the days where you said “Good game” at the end of a match.  I try to be a polite guy, and I suppose I expect others to be as well.  When they aren’t, I tend to become very discouraged.Since the ARG finished, I’ve been getting into more community-driven games.  Honestly, I really enjoy them.

I regret having been so quiet. I’ve already made some friends, and have gotten to play with some amazing people. People seem to actually read what I have to say

But the community beyond just the games?  I love it.  I’ve lurked on HBO since before Halo 2 came out.  I was unemployed when ODST came out, and I clung to HBO for information and the chance to live vicariously.  There’s so much talent within the Halo community in so many diverse ways.  There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t been able to find something entertaining put out by the community.  Be it forum posts or videos, or reviewing costumes and playing flash games, or even the fan fiction, the community never ceases to amaze me.

I never really said much though.  Two posts, I think, before Bzzt.  If memory serves me correctly, they were both about the Enkidu ARG.  I’m not much of a forum guy, and the chats were kind of…  I had the feeling that it’s where the cool kids hung out.  I usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the initial interaction by somebody else.

Now?  I regret having been so quiet.  I’ve already made some friends, and have gotten to play with some amazing people.  People seem to actually read what I have to say and not start out with the insults — a huge change for a guy who used to write stories for the most hostile and abusive site on the internet.  I really wish that I would have started talking in the community sooner.

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What were some of your favorite moments during Bzzt’s run?

I wish you could hear me laughing as I read this.  Since “the whole thing” is an awful answer that’s horribly overused, I’ll break it down by category.

Jaded: The day after it finished.  I came home from work exhausted.  I looked longingly at my bed and realized “Oh, hey, I can go to bed now if I want to.”  And I did.  And a full eight hours of sleep never felt so good.  As much as I loved Bzzt’s run, it did a number on my sleep.

Gleeful: Every single time that somebody said that they didn’t care if it was canon or not because they enjoyed the story.  That’s when I knew that I wasn’t wasting my time and my chest puffed with pride.  I’m not fragile, but I occasionally like to know if I should keep going or not.  I think we all like to know that our work is appreciated.

Amazed: The moment when people started researching real-life military protocols to use as ammunition against Helen.  Wow.  Above and beyond the call of duty?  A little bit, in my opinion.  Appreciated?  Greatly.  I felt that I had to change the game a bit in order to accommodate that level of dedication.  There was supposed to be greater fallout from that situation which I kind of smoothed over.

Jaw, Meet Floor: When a certain player wrote a certain speech to the crew.  I know that the player didn’t think that it was going to cause that big of a stir when he wrote it, but there’s one speech that completely changed the game.  It made me take every plan that I still had for crew mutiny and toss it right out the window.  It was that point that the character of the Captain completely solidified for me.  Looking back and reading it, it may not seem like much, but at the time it was a total game changer.

I’m man enough to admit I cried.

Though the sleep deprivation probably helped with that.

Content: After the game ended, I chatted with the players, the people who put up with my madness and inability to spell.  I liked hearing back from the people who participated and enjoyed it.  It was like sitting around with a bunch of old friends…  on the internet.  And to think that some of them are still writing stuff about it.  It completely blows my mind.

Awww: I kept on expecting people to break up Raschad and Wolfe.  They didn’t.  Yes, the two were eventually going to be separated, but not immediately.  Every time they were allowed to spend some more time together, I felt my heart grow a size.  I’m a sucker for romance, and I’m always glad when players foster it.

Endgame: When it ended, the players did some things in-character that were…  unexpectedly sweet and touching.  They reached out to F484 and Myung in a way that I didn’t expect.  They honored Helen, and comforted Hive.  That last day will always hold a special place in my heart.  The things that they said they believed the Captain would do were magical to me.  I’m man enough to admit I cried.  Though the sleep deprivation probably helped with that.

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Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in the execution of this ARG?

The ARG was supposed to be rather…  different.  It’s own website, an internal “email” system for communication with Chair, daily reports, everything needed to really make you believe that you were the captain of the UNSC Theseus.  The transcripts were supposed to be actual audio logs.  There was supposed to be limited machinima involved.  Hidden pages, puzzles, a separate website for a Prowler where you had to use the puzzles to find pages, images, a subplot about a computer tech aboard the ship trying to figure out what was going on…  The works.

To make a long story short, all of that fell apart.  I don’t blame anybody; I doubt that most people knew the scope of what I was asking when they signed on.  Even the voice actors.  Which is fine, honestly; I’m used to rolling with the punches.  It’s when I do some of my best work.

My poor netbook! It wanted to kill me! I had Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, Notepad, WordPad, OpenOffice, and Widows Media Player open all the time.

After moving it to the forums (and then the ABO forums) I had brand new challenges.  I moved up the interaction quite a bit, since players no longer had a database to search.  So I had to rewrite most explanations to fit from Hive’s POV.

The name Bzzt comes from Hive’s unique method of communication, prefacing each paragraph with a variation of Bzzt that indicated the importance of his message.  (Thank Louis Wu for that — my name for it was always Orion IV.)  I’ve described him in different ways, but I think the best description is of a person who desperately wants to be liked so he tries to be helpful any way they can despite being a little on the innocent side.  Writing for Hive was an unexpected challenge because of this, but I enjoyed it greatly.  I think he’s my favorite character.  He’s like a little kid that just happens to be the brain of a space ship.  Maybe the heart of it, too.

One major unexpected challenge was that I honestly (mistakenly) expected players to catch onto the fact that this wasn’t canon early in the game.  I tried various ways to reinforce this, but with limited success.  I had to teach players their limits without stating the rules, and I mangled it on occasion.  I learned a lot from it, and know how to handle it better in the future.  I hope.

One of the “star” characters was Raschad.  I wanted to make a tragic guy who came off as completely normal at first glance.  A bit of a jerk at times, but an all around good guy who wanted to help out people.  Sure, he got some of the best lines, but I also had to reel him back a lot.  With the lines being the facade that he wore, I couldn’t make them too natural.

In one bit of stupidity on my end, I never made it clear that the Captain could request people report on their fellow crew members or talk to them in depth.  (“Hive, send this person this message and return their response.”)  I had various things written up for all the “star” characters, I had both shifts of the bridge staff, and a lot of really good stuff that never got used.  One thing that would have come to light had the Captain asked around was that Raschad never gave the same background information twice.  I had some extremely good stuff about McAllister, the XO.  I still regret not doing more with her, but I misjudged what the audience wanted in that regard.

(And no, I’m not sharing these, because they’re perfect for recycling into other things.)

Another challenge was a purely technical one.  My poor netbook!  It wanted to kill me!  I had Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, Notepad, WordPad, OpenOffice, and Widows Media Player open all the time.  I kept begging it to last just a little bit longer.  It pulled through, but even after a format I don’t think it’s forgiven me.

The greatest challenge, however, was staying a step ahead while still, you know, sleeping.  At one point I was getting about three hours of sleep a day, just so that I could get stuff typed up in advance.  I had tons of flow charts, if/then statements, record sheets, and notes that I updated constantly.  An offhand comment could cause me to have to change three things.  Everything rippled, and not in obvious ways.  One time, as I was typing out a lengthy post, somebody said something that made me delete it all immediately.

And I loved it all.

All in all, this was perhaps the most all-around challenging project that I’ve ever done.  And to think that I’m not opposed to doing it again.  I might need therapy.  I wonder if there’s a real-life version of Dr. Muldoon…

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How big was your team? How did you communicate and plan out the content?

In the end, it was only me.  All of it.
Tip:  Don’t do that!  You’ll kill yourself!

I had a great crew of people helping me. Psychologists, physicists, engineers, military personnel, people in various medical fields, historians, a politician, a sociologist, an environmental historian who works for lobbyists…
But, sadly, in the end it was just me.

In the beginning, though, I had a great crew of people helping me.  Psychologists, physicists, engineers, military personnel, people in various medical fields, historians, a politician, a sociologist, an environmental historian who works for lobbyists…  There isn’t one aspect of the story that I didn’t talk with somebody over in some form.  There were aspects of the story that never made it to the public eye that were discussed and researched in rather great detail.  The research that went into it was insane.  My third biggest project yet, in terms of research.  I wanted it to feel as real as possible.

The people who reviewed the story for me were also wonderfully helpful.  They caught that my spell-check somehow turned Corps into Corpse, amongst many other things.  (I kant spel.)  Serdar Yegalup offered me so many story insights despite not actually being into either video games or ARGs.  So much, in fact, that I have to call him out by name.  The fact that he doesn’t do any of this stuff actually helped out a lot.  When he responded to one draft that it almost put him in tears, I knew I was doing the right thing.

Some of the people brought in for voice acting and image editing helped out greatly even after they bowed out for various reasons.  The machinima crew were also very responsive, even if we were never able to coordinate.

I was making notes and rambling plans out loud during a haircut.

But, sadly, in the end it was just me.  Which saves me a lot of trouble on the communication part, but the whole “life” part kind of went to the wayside for longer than anticipated.  My roommates can tell you, the few times they saw me I was constantly muttering to myself trying to plan out the next two steps.  One of my coworkers is a beautician, and she will attest to the fact that I was working on Bzzt as she was cutting my hair.  Think about that a moment.  I was making notes and rambling plans out loud during a haircut.

Man, I wish I could have had somebody else manage it for at least an hour or two every day.

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How pleased are you with how your story and this project played out?  Would you do it again?

Mistakes were made.  Lessons were learned.  And I had a blast.  The term “labor of love” gets thrown around more often than it should, but it’s true.  You don’t put so much of yourself into a project like this if you don’t love it and believe in it.  You laugh, you live, you learn, and you have fun with it.

If I could go back and do it again, would I?  Do you have a time machine handy?

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Have you created anything like this in the past? Do you have any plans for future projects?

An ARG?  No.  But I write constantly.  A short a day, sometimes it only qualifies as flash fiction.  Sometimes I write multiple stories a day.  Sometimes I’ll devote a week or more to writing something bigger.  There are places where I’m relatively well known, but I don’t share most of my work; more that I keep my ideas for bigger projects.  I love writing, and I’m always paranoid that the well will run dry.  So far it hasn’t.  I hope to keep it up.

F484 is still out there, and his story isn’t done.

As for future projects, I’ve currently got a good foundation for a sequel in mind.  F484 is still out there, and his story isn’t done.  I’m still debating if I should go for it, though.  I’d like to do this one properly, but if everything fell through again, I’m not sure if I could bring myself to do it.  I’m desperately trying to get published or get a job writing for the industry, and that takes a lot of time and effort when you have to build up the courage to send the email.

Of course, I also have ideas that are more canon.  If I had the finances/skill, I even have a very short Halo-related fan-film I’d like to make. (And a Bzzt! one too, of course!)  So who knows?  I might do any number of projects next.

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