The array of information stored deep in the dark confines of Bungie’s inner sanctum includes the concept art and reference imagery that informed the creation of every major character and species brought to life by our lore. Thumbing through these annals is to witness to the creation of the Halo universe unfold. Humanity, the Covenant, the Forerunners, and of course, the Flood…they are all indexed here, the blueprint of their collective births preserved for all eternity.
And there are visual oddities here, as well. Crude progenitors and bizarre transmogrifications of the characters and creatures we’ve become so familiar with. Some of the most disfigured forms and some of the most fundamentally disturbing, of course, are embodied by the collective we’ve come to call, simply, the Flood
Fictionally speaking, the details of the Flood’s primordial beginnings have been kept secret by the vast expanse of time and space (and by the tightly sealed lips of Bungie’s veteran artists, storytellers, designers, and engineers who brought them to life). What matters is that “they,” the Flood, are extra galactic in origin, hopelessly and unreasonably ravenous, and that they, for all intents and purposes, are unstoppable.
But their visual genesis is imminently more understandable. Deep within this compound, preserved in cold state storage, still burns the spark that birthed the galaxy’s most potent destructive force. We can lift the veil and gaze into the flame. We can revisit the gnarled, primitive visage whose sacrifice ultimately fed the Flood.
And so we will. Cue the soft, melodious music.
It’s March of 2010 and I’m sitting across the table from Robt McLees. Other than Jason Jones, Bungie’s Creative Director, no one’s been with the studio as long as this Ancient. Fittingly, for this particular discussion, we’ve set up shop in conference room “Halo.” It’s not 2010 we’re here to discuss, though. I need McLees to delve into the dark folds of his memory to a time before time – at least in terms of the Halo universe.
To guide us along on our historical travels, I’ve come equipped with concept art to map out our journey. McLees? Well, he’s just brought what must feel like a millennium of memories.
“Can you put this about seven hundred feet away so I can actually tell what it is?” Robt McLees asks.
The joke is on me, but it’s at his own expense. He’s referring to one of the oldest Flood illustrations we have on record. It’s literally the size of a postage stamp, the full resolution original lost in the shuffle and whirl of thirteen years gone by.
“That might be have been drawn in ‘97 or ‘98. We were still in the Halsted office, down in Pilsen, sort of our first real office in Chicago.”
McLees has some pretty good horror stories about this original office space. A furnace that was turned off at night in the dead of winter to conserve energy, the side alleyway doubling as a sub zero wind tunnel, a cantankerous landlord. But those are tales best left untold.
Perhaps another time.
“I did some pencil sketches prior to this,” McLees notes, referring to the thumbnail sized image, “but that’s probably the first digital one. It’s actually pretty close to what the Carrier forms ended up looking like.”
Well, the color tones are a bit different, I note. Instead of the muted tones that form the pockmarked surface of the slithering menace we’ve come to know, this image of the Flood Carrier features colorations more akin to healthy human skin, strokes of pink and red and ivory.
“That’s because I’m color blind.”
If you’ve ever wondered why the Rocket Launcher in Halo: Combat Evolved was tinted red, you now have your answer. Even still, the more gratuitous blood and gore in this particular take has to have been born of something beyond color blindness.
“Right. You could directly see the alteration of the victims. The next picture you have in that stack is a modified version of my cousin’s thumb without all the weird branching and stuff like that.”
It doesn’t take much to image the carnage and pain that befell McLees’ cousin’s fifth digit. One ill-advised and extremely overzealous swing of the hammer was all it took. You can probably guess the rest, but you don’t have to. According to McLees, the thumb looked downright infected
. He drew it. It became the template for The Flood’s visceral and viscous visual palette.
And your cousin is still alive?
His thumb is still intact, too.
“Anyway, you can still see that the updated version I drew in 2000 has the same withered tentacle-like, useless forelimbs, though I chopped this one off at the knees. That infuriated the animators, by the way. The Flood Carriers waddle and that’s sort of humorous, but the designers always wanted them to move faster.”
“So, it’s an enormous bloated body full of infection forms. Since the Carrier forms by this time were Combat forms that were no longer of any use offensively, the head had already been deposited with the Gravemind, the legs had been shot off, and it didn’t have any arms so it couldn’t hold weapons. The one thing it is good for is carting around infection forms. And then they asplode.”
Indeed. Though their shamble was
quite comical, there’s no doubt they brought more than their fare share of frustration for players looking to grenade their way through The Library. The chain reactions were the stuff of Legend. Who cares if they teetered a bit on the way to getting blown up?
Ah, the Library
. It brings back such fond memories. Everyone’s favorite romp from Halo’s inaugural run – the proverbial gauntlet featured reluctant players being goaded by one very vocal Guilty Spark. Just one more dark corridor. One more encounter with an endless tide of Flood. One more elevator. If only it could have lasted forever.
“The initial write up for the Flood required a bunch of immobile forms that were active at their ‘base.’ Down inside the bowels of Alpha Halo, they’d had an outbreak.”
McLees has pushed on to the next image.
“Funny thing is,” McLees offers, pointing at his take on the proto-Gravemind, “that one started out being called The Librarian.”
In this early take, you can clearly see the human heads strewn about. Wanton carnage, right? Nope.
“There’s another drawing that I have that looks like a little bulb of garlic with two pill bugs attached to it which were non-combatant things that would be seen attached to a head, rolling it back to where The Librarian was. The Librarian was supposed to be cataloging all the memories of its victims. All the knowledge and all the skill sets that were contained within that brain were then broadcast to all the locations – to all the other combat forms.”
Pretty similar to what we’ve come to know concerning what little we know about The Flood’s communication protocols. Of course, the beheadings didn’t make the final cut, if you’ll excuse a pun. McLees further cements the notion that we are, in fact, looking at a progenitor.
“This was created post ’98, but still in the pre-Mac World era. This is where the Keyes proto-Gravemind came from.”
So why does the Keyes “proto” form look so different than the in-game model?
“There was absolutely no time to go in there and remodel anything or really do much more with the textures.”
Ah, time. It defeats even the Flood.
This is from early 2003. Post Halo ship. The idea of the Gravemind, to the player, didn’t exist.
“Even though this is a sketch I did of the Gravemind, I always thought of the Gravemind as a sock puppet. It doesn’t have a mouth or a face.
It’s not the lead spook in the graveyard, it is the graveyard itself
The face gives you something to focus on; otherwise it’s just weird mumblings in your head, but if you hear a voice and then you have something to focus on, you’re paying attention to what it’s saying instead of you just hearing voices in your head.”
The composition of the Gravemind itself is also significantly more grotesque than what was displayed in the finished product. The "teeth" being bared by this particular take on the Flood mastermind are formed out of the very skulls of its vanquished and consumed enemies.
Pretty sinister stuff. There's more.
“This is Eddie’s [Smith] interior design with my heap of corpses. This is the Infinite Succor, which was never used” McLees notes.
He glosses over the fact. Artists are used to producing a ton of concept content, much of which might never see the light of day. It’s just part of the process, much like a living graveyard in its own right.
“Here, the Gravemind is basically a giant mass grave of putrescent flesh and bodily fluids.”
McLees is laughing. He has what you might call a warped sense of humor. There’s no telling what you might see on his computer screen at any given moment. But his ideas about the Flood have always been explored and approached from a more serious angle. He’s never strayed from the original vision outlined by Jones. The Flood needed to be horrifying
Back when Halo: CE was going through its initial certification passes, the ESRB agreed.
“When the ESRB saw the Flood, even still images of the flood, they instantly said, ‘This is a Mature rated game.’ That was without them seeing that the Flood could be chopped apart and disassembled. They were, in fact, so grotesque at the face of it that they required a Mature rating.”
But some of Mclees’ images definitely showcase some of his quirky brand of humor.
Check out this image of an infected Grunt. I ask if this was just something he did in his spare time for giggles. After all, Grunts aren’t ever seen being transformed by the Flood in the games.
“No, the idea was that every species in the Covenant could be transformed by the Flood, but again, we were still just thirty dudes. We weren’t a huge studio. And when I say thirty dudes, we weren’t all artists either. That was all told. That was every single person.
We didn’t have the resources to make it happen, so into the fiction went that they were either too small, too frail, or that the Flood didn’t think of them as effective combat troops. They worked better as raw material. They became building blocks for the Gravemind.”
Since we’re on the subject of things that never made it into a shipped Halo title, I figure it’s about time to bust out the granddaddy of them all on the Flood side, the Juggernaut. Technically adroit players discovered this beast buried deep in the Halo 2 disc, but never got to test their skills against what looked to be one formidable Flood opponent.
McLees explains its eventual demise and subsequent rebirth.
“The Flood Juggernaut was the progenitor of the pure form seen in Halo 3. There is nothing left of any host in this form other than the raw materials. Even the calcium has been broken down to form armor. Whereas the earlier combat forms were hosts used as vehicles, with the pure forms, the host material is used as building blocks to craft the ultimate form. And that’s what the Juggernaut was supposed to be.
There would never be more than one of these in any give place. Once you eliminated it, the combat forms that were supplementing it would go offline.
It has four to six infection forms – brains – running it. It was supposed to be this uber-intelligent mini boss, but the suggested intelligence was way too high for what design needed to use it for, which was as a big tank.”
It’s a fine line to walk. Make the enemy too hard to kill and players won’t find it intelligent at all. They’ll find it cheap and frustrating. Too dumb and it’s just another Combat form. For a more in-depth exploration of this same phenomenon, you should check out Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher’s tag team publication, “The Illusion of Intelligence
Having explored some of the known Flood narrative, I wanted McLees to talk about their origins. Fictionally the Flood’s true roots will likely never be unearthed, but I figure there’s no harm in looking at what was and what could have been. McLees takes us back.
“The Flood, as far as I can remember, was something that Jason talked about purely as a gameplay twist. This is the enemy we could introduce to change the gameplay dynamic. It had to be horrifying. Beyond that, there was nothing fleshed out.
So, I started putting together all kinds of different sketches and ideas. Originally – and this is sort of funny considering how militantly opposed I became to the idea after the fact – the Flood was an engineered weapon. Basically a living, intelligent mine field that the Covenant seeded the worlds on the edge of their space with. You showed up on one of their planets and you were screwed as soon as you made landfall.”
McLees stops for a second. I imaging he’s contemplating the passage of time. More memories wrapped around alternate stories and worlds. Halo at its most primordial. Before it even had a name.
“Wow, that was like super early when there was no real solidity to the story. It was an RTS. There was no Chief. ‘The Chief’ was just your heaviest infantry unit.
At the time, there were a couple of different story lines that we were kicking around – this was back when Halo was still a planet. When you jumped, you jumped to a planet with this other group of humans on it. They were definitely human, but they were not part of the Empire. There was this whole other mystery. You show up and you had to train the indigenous population for when the Covenant finally arrived.”
Yet another story element James Cameron shamelessly pilfered from our stable of glorious games! (Yes, we’re joking). And if you haven’t guessed, this is also pre-UNSC. Humanity’s governing body was then known simply as “The Empire.”
“In the early levels you were fighting against the indigenous population, but you outclassed them. You had your 2552 gear and you show up at a planet where they have technology from the 1950’s. They know what a gun is, but they’re still driving around in big, -blam!- cars like we have today.”
McLees wasn’t the only one writing alternate takes, either.
“Griesemer wrote up a really interesting alternative story (and he was the guy who coined the term ‘Gravemind’ as well.) Basically, in his early version, the Flood was a type of meningitis that somehow made a life form more aggressive, but also made them more intelligent, so it was this rite of passage. When males reached a certain age, they’d be hit in the head and tossed into this mass grave. They’d come out smarter, but looking for a fight.”
“One of the other ideas for Halo was, back before it was even Blam, when it was still Monkey Nuts, was that these colonies went offline and your group was sent in to…”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Told you McLees has some pretty good horror stories. This one, though, we’re going to keep in the archives. We’re not picking these bones that
clean. Besides, we all know how this story ends. Right
All of the images contained in this article, save the small image of the Flood Carrier form at the outset, can be clicked on to display higher resolution versions. Original artworks created for Bungie by artists Robt McLees, Issac Hannaford, Eddie Smith, and Juan Ramirez.