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Originally published September 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 24, 2007 at 2:07 AM

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Brier Dudley

Hey, is that Mount Rainier in "Halo 3"?

A few things about "Halo 3" may seem familiar if you're from the Northwest. Like that huge mountain looming on the horizon. I almost dropped my...

Seattle Times staff columnist

A few things about "Halo 3" may seem familiar if you're from the Northwest.

Like that huge mountain looming on the horizon. I almost dropped my controller when it came into view during a marathon session a few weeks ago at Bungie Studios in Kirkland, the Microsoft subsidiary that created the blockbuster Xbox franchise.

The mountain is supposed to be Kilimanjaro, but it looks just like Rainier.

During part of the game, you tromp through a jungle, but it has ferns, evergreens and streams gurgling past mossy, granite boulders.

If you were chasing Sasquatch instead of aliens, it would be a dead ringer for the Cascades.

With a little digging, I learned it's no fluke that the terrain Halo's Master Chief crosses on his epic journey to save mankind often resembles the Northwest.

Bungie's art director, Marcus Lehto, told me the team was blown away by the environment when they moved here after Microsoft bought the Chicago-based studio in 2000.

They were working on the first installment of the "Halo" trilogy at the time, and the game started out with a Midwest feel.

"It's funny, the entire franchise changed when we moved out here. It had been, visually speaking, a lot of flatter lands — big, wide open spaces," said Lehto, an Ohio native.

"When we first moved out here, there was just such inspiration ... from the mountains right behind us to the Sound and the ocean and everything. We pulled upon all of those references."

One of the first views in the series is a coastal scene "that is drawn directly from some of the coastlines in the state," Lehto said.

Those visual themes continued through its culmination in "Halo 3," which goes on sale Tuesday.

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Nice bonus

The scenery is a bonus rather than the main attraction, but it gives the game an extra dimension for people who know the area. It can also make the game more challenging. You won't make much progress if you keep staring at the sights.

Frank O'Connor, a lead writer at Bungie and my guide during the preview, wasn't offended when I forgot the game was set in Africa.

He said the mountain is "more of an homage to Rainier than a literal interpretation" since many Bungie employees live in Seattle and see it during their commute.

Lehto confirmed this.

"It's no coincidence that we see Mount Rainier on the horizon every day like that," he said. "That's certainly the inspiration for that majestic mountain out there."

Regional ferns, trees

Smaller things in the game also reflect its local roots. Like leaves, ferns and trees that the game's artists used as references.

It turned out the jungles around Kilimanjaro "were strikingly similar to the forest around us," Lehto said.

The team also drew on African terrain and spent time with Special Forces soldiers in North Carolina for guidance on how soldiers move and handle weapons.

Much of the game takes place in futuristic structures or in Mombasa, as Bungie envisions it looking 500 years from now.

But the designers don't mind that local influences crept in, unlike Microsoft's Windows and Office groups, which downplay any Seattleness in their geographically neutral products.

"Some of that percolates into your brain, and you don't even realize you're drawing on influences until you stand back and say, wow, a lot of it does feel like the Northwest," said Chris Carney, lead designer of multiplayer environments in "Halo 3."

Carney previously was an architect at Callison in Seattle, where he worked on the Pacific Place garage and high-end office interiors during the dot-com boom.

His architect buddies called him on a multiplayer level in "Halo 2" called Ivory Tower, which feels like an ultramodern office interior with concrete, stones, trees and a wooden walkway.

It wasn't intentionally modeled on any of the offices he designed in Seattle, but it captured their essence.

Carney said two levels in "Halo 3" are particularly Northwest to him.

Pine trees, valley

One is called Valhalla and includes a valley ending in a lake with pine trees and snowcapped peaks in the distance.

"If you show that to 50 people and ask where that is in the United States, they'd all say the Northwest," Carney said.

There's also a multiplayer setting with a series of metal structures hanging above.

"It's one of those levels, when you walk through, it instantly vibes with a lot of the natural experiences around here," he said.

"It feels like you're in the Hoh Rain Forest, but you're not on the ground, you're up in the trees."

Carney said the designers use lots of reference material, including books, art and images on the Web, as well as photos taken on their travels and things they see while hiking and biking.

Highly detailed

"The level of detail that we have to deal with now on 'Halo 3' is so insane — we're almost down to where we're modeling the leaves on the trees," he explained.

"Since we're surrounded by this stuff every day it's just natural for us as artists to reflect what's around us," he said.

"You go hiking around Snoqualmie and get to a mountain lake, it's just stunning, so cool. A month later, if you're trying to design a mountain system with lakes, you just vibe off the experience."

With "Halo 3" expected to sell at least 8 million copies and gross more than most feature films, the game may inadvertently give the region its best cinematic exposure since "Sleepless in Seattle."

Until they begin filming the "Halo" movie in New Zealand.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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