Kyle Holt bids ‘Halo and goodbye’ to a favorite composer’s time with Bungie in his latest Away from the Keys piece
On April 15, composer Marty O’Donnell announced on Twitter that he had been terminated from his position at Bungie. This shook me more than any gaming news over the past year. For me, this was bigger than the console launches, Titanfall, and The Last of Us. My desolate depression over this revelation lies in the fact that O’Donnell, with the help of Michael Salvatori, composed the music for Halo (at least, Bungie’s games in the series). That he would no longer work on Bungie’s new project, Destiny, felt like a betrayal, like one of the great pillars of Bungie had been demolished. Looking at his Halo legacy, it’s easy to see how his musical prowess contributed greatly to its success
When Bungie announced Halo at Macworld in 1999, the music was pretty much the only thing to crow about. As the above trailer shows, Halo was once awkward and, frankly, kinda silly looking. But, throughout the video, a sweeping, epic theme was played, one that required no tweaking before release. The two melodies used, the monastic chorale and what my girlfriend adorably calls the Warthog Theme, defined the series. The combination of chanting monks and vibrant cellos gave the game a unique excitement and wonder that was unheard of in shooters before then. Only upon release did the game live up to the music that accompanied its trailers.
Halo 2, coming off Halo: Combat Evolved’s success, had much more funding at its disposal and O’Donnell took this opportunity to expand and experiment with the soundtrack. He used greater orchestration, relied less on electronic music, and expanded on several themes established in the first game, not just the main ones. Truthfully, not all of it came off right (I thought some of the electric guitar portions were a bit heavy-handed) but many were gorgeous. Halo 2 took the player to a variety of environments with a complex story and the music reflected this diversity. Where many games would simply keep the soundtrack binary (exciting moments and non-exciting), Marty allowed the player to just cruise along. Many of my favorite pieces in that game played while overlooking a vista on an alien world or driving a Warthog down a mostly cleared path.
O’Donnell pulled out all the stops for the final portion of Bungie’s Master Chief trilogy. Understanding that Halo 3 tied the first two together and finished the epic tale, he composed music that was less a soundtrack and more a symphony. Gone were the three-minute bits for individual sections, replaced instead with long movements for each level. Because of this, Halo 3 has the odd distinction of having the only moment in a game where I yelled obscenities at the TV over how amazing the music was. There’s a moment at the end of the seventh level where a Halo ring rises up from where it’s being constructed and the Halo choral monk theme plays. At that moment, I realized that, not only was this the first time that theme had been used in the game, but also that it was played in a major key. This minor difference changed the tone to create a final, closing feel that positively blew my mind.
From there, Bungie went on to tell a different Halo story and O’Donnell went with them. Halo 3: ODST featured a new protagonist, new style, and no sign of Master Chief anywhere. O’Donnell took this opportunity to write music that separated itself entirely from the Halo games. No monks, no Warthog theme, no used material. Instead, he encapsulated the game’s decidedly different tone. Taking place in a war-torn but mostly quiet city one stormy night, ODST’s music evokes less heroic charges and more lonely exploring. An echoing bluesy sax calls the player down the street or a piano imitates the tinkling of rain. This is my favorite soundtrack in the series and, I will always maintain, the best thing to listen to on a rainy day.
Bungie’s final Halo game was, again, announced with the aid of O’Donnell’s talents. The above trailer tells a story different from the games before it, one of loss and struggle. Bungie’s Halo: Reach swan song, presented by O’Donnell, features a composer who has grown with the series and showed just how far he has come. The themes, again, were different from the Master Chief series but often mimicked and rhymed. Sometimes, they’d be a mere beat or two away from the major Halo themes. However, where Halo 3 would speak of heroism, Reach spoke of defeat and sacrifice. The melodies that stuck with me from this game always bring to mind a burning city or the death of a comrade. The music in this game expressed more emotion than the rest of the games combined and was, quite simply, the best gaming had to offer.
I spent much of the past year drooling over Marty O’Donnell’s compositions for Destiny. In the trailers alone, he already showcased his talents. Indeed, despite his departure, the game will still feature his music, accompanying us in another journey across the stars. But, for me, the music will always have a slightly sour note, knowing that this will be the last O’Donnell composes for Bungie.