Since Halo: Combat Evolved came out in 2001 the Halo video game series has become one of the best known franchises of all time. For everyone not being too familiar with the game the blank sales data gives a very good impression of Halo’s importance in the gaming industry: Since the very first chapter had been opened inside the Halo universe, over 65 million units of the sci-fi shooter series have been sold and with every new release hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue are generated within the first hours after the release date.
Almost 15 years later the animated series Halo: The Fall of Reach was released last October, being part of the Halo 5: Guardians Limited Edition as well as it is available on the Halo Waypoint Channel and on Blu-ray. The Fall of Reach is based upon the novel of the same name, written by Eric Nylund. It tells the story of how the main character John-117 a.k.a. Master Chief became the cybernetically enhanced supersoldier and the saviour of humanity within the Halo universe. Thus it is a prequel to the very first Halo game.
In line with the foreshadowing name of the series, the tone of the whole story is overall pretty sad. What makes it even worse is that – from the title alone – the viewer knows what will happen in the end: In the year 2552 the Covenant, an alliance of alien races, is about to destroy Reach, humanity’s last major stronghold apart from Earth and thanks to The Fall of Reach we can experience how scientist Dr. Halsey comes up with the idea to create the so-called Spartan II Project as humanity’s last hope to save it against the Covenant’s invasion. She decides that her only option is to use real children against their will; basically kidnapping them from around the galaxy and then throwing them through a set of procedures and augmentation that kills many of them. A certain section survives, including John-117, later to be known as Master Chief. The story of The Fall of Reach tells the story of these children becoming soldiers, so-called Spartans.
The Launch Trailer gives you an even better idea of the The Fall of Reach‘s story, created by Sequence:
I got the chance to speak with composer Tom Salta about his score for The Fall of Reach. Tom could only confirm the darker tone of the series as well as he told me what makes it so interesting for the millions of Halo fans out there – including himself:
The Fall of Reach is a very sad and dark series and certainly the music reflects that in many places. There is an intensely chilling funeral scene where these kids are standing, looking out the window as they eject coffins into space, you hear a solo boy’s voice representing one coffin that it focuses on – it is hard! But for Halo fans I think it’s iconic, it’s got everything. It shows all the main characters and where they came from. Even Captain Keyes whom we see as Lieutenant Keyes right in the opening scene talking with Dr. Halsey. Author Eric Nylund created such an unbelievably rich back story to setting it up!
How to foreshadow iconic themes: About comradery and a children’s choir
The solo boy’s voice leads then to one of the main themes Tom created for the score. When you have ever played Halo you most definitely remember the famous monk theme. For The Fall of Reach Tom now asked himself, where did those monks possibly come from and what’s leading to the iconic monk chant. Since the whole storyline focuses on children becoming soldiers he thought, “Why not use a children’s choir for much of the score to allude to, whether consciously or subconsciously, where it’s going?”
You can hear the children’s choir in the opening track ‘Send A Message’ below:
Tom told me how he approached the different themes for the series:
One of the things is picking certain textures, methods and instruments; for example the children’s choir. But there was something really unique about this story compared to any of the others and that was the comradery that developed between the Blue Team [the team around John-117] over the years. While I was working on the score the choir progression was something that I kept coming back to and I found it worked really well throughout the team. That’s how it became their comradery theme.
It started when they first bonded in their first test mission in the woods [Another Walk in the Woods], then all the way to planning their first attack against the Covenant ship and even straight out into the epilogue of the film. It bookends the whole story about them, their friendship and them being a team. That is why it was such an important theme.
In general Tom was explicitly told not to use or refer to existing themes from the Halo universe too much (“Foreshadowing them, yes, but revealing them, not really.”) An exception was another memorable theme originally heard in Halo 4 and 5: The Master Chief theme. It was used in two specific scenes in The Fall of Reach; the first being the prologue and the second being the scene where John puts on his armor and helmet for the very first time.
Tom himself got involved for the first time in the Halo universe some years ago when in 2011 it was decided to re-release Halo: Combat Evolved because of its 10th anniversary. Tom was offered the opportunity to become a member of the team working on it and to redo the whole score of the game – which had never been done in the video game industry before. He had gotten a call from his friend and colleague Paul Lipson whom he had known for over 10 years already from the time when both were young composers and sharing their interest in games in particular. Paul had been asked by Microsoft to take the lead on the recreation of the score and is now the Senior Audio Director of 343 Industries, the developer team responsible for everything connected to Halo at Microsoft. Both Paul and Tom had always been fans of Halo and for Tom in particular, Halo was the reason why he wanted to get into scoring video games in the very first place. So back then when he got the call that he would be able to join the Halo team, he almost dropped the phone as it was a dream come true.
After that Tom went on to score the two top-down-shooter mobile games Halo: Spartan Assault, its sequel Halo: Spartan Strike and he also was part of the team redoing the score for the Halo 2 Anniversary Edition which was part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
“No one is left behind”: Scoring tragic key moments
Now The Fall of Reach happened to be his fifth involvement in the Halo universe and as Tom told me, besides the monk theme and the Master Chief theme there is another key track in the score which is For Sam, For Us:
The story behind it includes major spoilers to the whole series so only click on Tom’s elaboration on the cue, and the two important themes it contains, below if you don’t mind the spoilers or have viewed The Fall of Reach already:
There are certain themes in the score which have a lot of emotional impact and that one is a real key moment in the scene. For Sam, For Us actually has two themes and it is split into two parts: It’s the point in the film where Sam’s suit gets punctured. Sam is one of the team members and one of their friends and he is not able to leave because he will die if he goes out into space with a punctured suit. So he makes the decision that he is going to stay behind and hold off the Covenant to slow them down as the rest of the team gets away. It’s the first time that a Spartan was lost which was a big deal because Master Chief was always about “No one is left behind!“ The first part uses the same music that you hear after one of the children died after that procedure so it’s kind of a parallel because you have the loss there and then you have the loss with them at the end as Spartans.
Then the second part is this very melodic, sad retrospective as the Spartan team is running away in slow-motion and you hear this dialogue, this voice-over from one of the team members talking about it. So it’s one of those well-up tear-jerker moments as they are getting away. It’s the end of the story and they are jumping into space and the ship explodes. But it had much more of a sad tone to it and director Ian Kirby really wanted to accentuate the tragedy of it.
An interesting tidbit is that the piece of music actually is heard in the announcement trailer for the Halo Master Chief Collection. That’s because I had originally written it for Halo: Spartan Assault but it didn’t quite work. When I was working on Spartan Assault I wasn’t thinking of it as a mobile game and I was trying to come up with amazing epic themes. This is one of those cases where you have this great theme but nowhere to put it, so we shelved it and it came back to life first in the announcement trailer for the Master Chief Collection and then it came back here. It’s one of those themes that is canon to Halo music now. It will probably and hopefully appear in the future as well.
The costs of the fight for survival: Finding the right theme for Dr. Halsey
Then last but definitely not least there is the very important theme for Dr. Halsey, her being a pivotal figure in the whole story. In The Fall of Reach we see her laying eyes on John-117 for the first time and as Tom put it, “we get a rare glimpse of her human side; to the point where she almost regrets her decision to sacrifice these young lives.” This inner struggle inside her is very obvious in the SDCC Trailer for The Fall of Reach.
Here’s what Tom told me about Dr. Halsey’s theme and its first appearance in More Than Luck:
Dr. Halsey’s theme sprinkles through certain key moments: It shows up the first time as a little tender piano piece right when she kneels down to the 6-year-old John asking him for his name [More Than Luck]. You also hear it during the procedure, which is an unpleasant scene where they are showing the children who didn’t survive the Spartan II program on a table as they are dying; it’s just horrible and you hear Dr. Halsey’s regret afterwards. Then you hear it as well when she is first briefing the kids as they are walking into the amphitheatre but with French Horns in a more military approach. So there’s a lot of detail and thought that went into her theme throughout The Fall of Reach.
You can hear Dr. Halsey’s theme also in the beginning of ‘The Fall of Reach’:
An interesting side note Tom mentioned in the context of Dr. Halsey, giving him a better understanding of another connection in the Halo universe, was that Dr. Halsey’s brain was mapped to create Cortana, her artificial brain, “and in the film and in the games, the voice of Dr. Halsey is the voice of Cortana; she just sounds like an older woman.”
When Tom was playing Dr. Halsey’s theme on his piano, he realized how the melody fit perfectly to be turned into a song. The result was the wonderful Take This Life featuring singer Jillian Aversa. There is so much to say about this song, including the fact that franchise director Frank O’Connor got involved through providing the lyrics, that you will read about it in a separate article. Furthermore you will soon read more about Tom’s songwriting background and how he turned his career around in the early 2000s from making records in the music industry to the film/TV/video game composer he is today.
Tom is working on Killer Instinct Season 3 at moment together with Celldweller as he was able to reveal to me so you should definitely follow him on Facebook and Twitter as well as you should check back on his website every now and then. You can purchase The Fall of Reach together with Halo 5: Guardians Limited Edition as well as it is available on the Halo Waypoint Channel and on Blu-ray. The Soundtrack is available on iTunes and Spotify.