Like many twenty-something gamers, I distinctly remember the release of Halo: Combat Evolved. Though I'm ashamed to admit it now, I was sceptical of the series at the start. After a few minutes of the game's opening level, I was ready to dismiss it as little more than empty hype and go back to playing Counter-Strike on the PC. Though it's taken me a few years to realise it, I was wrong about Halo.
I was definitely in the minority at that point, however, and by 2004's Halo 2 the quality and importance of the original game was firmly cast into gaming canon, but topping the original's mammoth success with the sequel would prove problematic. Bungie had gone from a cult developer with the privilege of time to one with a strict development schedule, the pedigree of a critical hit, and weight of an entire platform resting on its continued success.
It was never going to end happily, and Halo 2 will always be remembered for two things. The first, the one quickly cited by its naysayers, is its unforgivably dire ending, which closes on an unsatisfying cliff-hanger in the middle of a pivotal sequence. "The ending of Halo 2 is Halo 3", jokes Bungie cinematic director Joseph Staten during a Halo Fest panel before being corrected by O'Donnell, who says he's stored away Halo 2's actual ending so it's never seen or heard by anybody.
Where the campaign faltered, however, the multiplayer shone. Bungie's second Halo would become Xbox LIVE's poster child for over three years - until Halo 3 launched in 2007. Halo 2 popularised online gaming, introduced it to a whole new generation, and offered an enormously respectful multiplayer experience to boot. In some circles of the mainstream media, "Halo" and "multiplayer" were virtually interchangeable terms for years.
The second game's weak resolution obviously stung Bungie, and the studio has made an obvious effort to up their storytelling with each subsequent title - Halo 3, Halo: ODST and eventually in last year's Halo: Reach.
"I think there was a time in Bungie's history where we weren't all storytellers," says Staten. "I think there was a big disagreement in Halo 1 about how important story really was. There were lots of people who thought we didn't need a game with a story in it, we just needed to ship a fun game and the story was kind of a pain in the ass, actually. I think over the years we've all realised the importance of not just telling a story but creating a real living world".
Few games do a better job of crafting a sense of place than Bungie's Halo games, notably Halo: Reach, which not only conjures up a beautiful living world, but a dying one a couple of hours later. Crafting worlds and fleshing out environments is perhaps Bungie's greatest narrative talent, and it's something the team (and underlying technology) accomplish far more successfully than, say, subtle characterisation.
Whether it's due to its single or multiplayer triumphs - or both - Bungie has clearly created worlds worth exploring, and enjoyed a sizable community of adoring fans as a reward. But few developers have ever seemed to have reciprocated in the same way as Bungie, with the team revelling and nurturing their neighbourhoods of fans with such passion and zeal; the team has been entertaining its community long before it became an industry buzzword a couple of years ago. Services like Call of Duty: Elite and Battlelog currently take up their fair share of column inches, but all current developers will have used Bungie's pioneering work over the last decade as a source of inspiration for their own respective projects.