“IF YOU DONT BELIVE THIS IS REAL, GO TO THE E3 TRAILER OF HALO3 AND STOP IT AT 1:15!" reads a 2007 message board thread on the website Newgrounds. "it is there."
In most cases, people are shouting out time codes in a trailer because they noticed something cool, an overlooked detail other fans might appreciate, or a technical issue, like the way Halo fans kept pointing out the ugly pop-in during the recent Halo Infinite trailer.
The Newgrounds post above was also discussing a Halo trailer, but the time code wasn't pointing at a newly revealed weapon or feature. It was pointing at an alleged alien penis that immediately prompted developer Bungie to start an emergency investigation. How, exactly, could a penis end up in a trailer for one of the biggest games in the world? Did someone sneak it in? Was it a glitch?
A few months before Halo 3 was finished, a new trailer was released at E3 2007. Like anything Halo, it was carefully scrutinized. What some fans noticed wasn't significant enough to even merit a mention on the Wikipedia entry for Halo 3, but was enough to send the studio into a tizzy and prompt several developers to spend a whole day trying to figure out what did (or did not) happen.
Because what Halo fans believed they saw at one minute and 15 seconds was...a penis. More specifically, an enormous penis attached to one of the game's enemies, the Brute.
This isn't some random Photoshop image from a decade ago. I captured that screenshot myself, using the official trailer released by Microsoft and Bungie in 2007. It's legitimate.
"some say its an animation glitch in the armor," reads the same message board thread on Newgrounds that flagged the alleged Brute penis. "while others think its an easter egg. Idk."
Game developers have been sneaking secrets into their games (typically called "easter eggs") since the medium started, whether it's their name, one of the first instances of LGBTQ representation, or much like what was suspected in Halo 3, loads of penises.
"It's been a long, long time since I have thought about that [incident]," said Steve Scott, the VFX art lead on Halo 3 at the time, who was initially blamed for the alleged Brute penis in the trailer. "It all got resolved by the end of the day but for a wild couple of hours there were a lot of accusations flying around a very stressed studio in the middle of crunch."
The E3 2007 trailer for Halo 3 was a little different than what Bungie usually produced for Halo games. A new Halo trailer was often an event in and of itself, thanks to Bungie's flair for the cinematic. But with Halo 3's release only a few months away, Bungie didn't have time to produce something flashy, so what showed up at E3 2007 was a lengthy gameplay montage.
It's normal for video game fans to scrub through a video game trailer second by second, pixel by pixel. Play, stop, enhance. A video game isn't playable until it ships, which helps explain why trailers are such an obsession within the gaming community. It's one of the only ways to get a sense of what a game is and whether you might like it before it's actually out.
In this case, it was the first real glimpse at the campaign for Halo 3. People were looking at it closely, and one detail that people latched onto was the idea of this Brute with a dick openly flailing around.
"You can see why our community people would freak out," said Scott. "I would have in that role."
After fans started pointing out the possibility of a hidden Brute dick, Bungie panicked and started ordering various employees to look into what happened.
"The funniest part is that everyone was dead serious about it and these were like...orders from TOP MEN," said Dan Callan, who was a build verification tester for Bungie at the time, which meant he was intimately familiar with the games Bungie was working on. "I was being talked to by pretty high-up Bungie people. I was a pretty low-level tester at that time and I was given the task from people like two or three levels above me within the studio."
There are two reasons Bungie was on high alert. One, this was only a few years after the infamous hot coffee incident, where a hidden sex mini-game designed for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas but ultimately removed from the final game was later discovered by fans on the disc that had been bought by tens of millions of people. It caused a huge shitshow for the industry, prompting San Andreas to get pulled from shelves while a new version of the game was produced. The existing version was branded with the rare Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, barring it from being purchased by anyone under 18.
"Hot Coffee hit Rockstar hard in 2005 so everyone in AAA development was aware of the risks," said Scott.
But there was also a second, very important reason.
"I assume the consequences of the butt thing made them take this a little more seriously," said Callan.
The Butt Thing
One of Microsoft's big pushes for its Windows Vista operating system was an officially sanctioned port of Halo 2, which ran the game at higher resolutions than on the Xbox and included a map editor. It also, it turns out, included an image of someone's ass. Microsoft was later forced to add a "partial nudity" sticker to the game's box, and edited the code to remove the offending ass from being accessible by players in future versions of the game.
The Vista incident with Halo 2 was in May 2007 and the Halo 3 trailer dropped in June 2007. It's not hard to imagine why executives at Bungie and Microsoft would assume the worst.
"The infamous .ass error," said Callan. "The butt thing was very fresh in people's memories."
A bunch of different groups within Bungie were asked to get to the bottom of the brute dick issue, including the testing, character art, and graphics engineering departments.
Callan was one of those people, and he started by loading the then-unfinished Halo 3 and replaying the part of the game where the footage came from.
"If you look through the video frame by frame there are a number of things that could have contributed to this," he said. "For example, practically on the same frame you have the grav hammer impact effect and the rocket detonation effect starting at the same time. Could that have been it? The explosion also breaks the brute's shields, could the dong be an errant piece of armor that flew off? Could it be a bug in the rigging that affected the hit reaction animation that caused a single vertex to protrude through the brute's leg?"
Part of the problem is that reproducing the same sequence seen in the video is difficult. How do you make sure the enemy leaps from the same area, at the same distance, in the same direction? How do you ensure they leap—period? It's not as if there's a secret developer button that prompts the Brute to jump into the air. Callan was at the mercy of the game's AI as much as regular Halo players are, which meant he simply had to be patient and try again.
It also reveals how important testers, part of what's commonly called the quality assurance (or QA) department, are to designing video games and making sure they function properly. It's easy enough for thousands or millions of players to play a video game in a variety of different ways and uncover bugs. Now imagine being part of a small handful of people who are supposed to achieve the same result before a video game is released. It's really hard.
He did have some secret advantages, though. He could slow the game down, helpful with getting the timing right on the rocket launcher shot featured at the moment in question in the trailer, and pause the action entirely and start walking around, like a scene from The Matrix.
During those moments when he was able to line up the shot with a Brute in the air, precisely recreating the scene in question, Callan would pause and "flycam around the Brute's junk."
Unfortunately, this answered nothing. He couldn't find it. But Callan had another idea.
"It was time to make sure that there were absolutely no other weird combinations of circumstances that could make this issue [reproduce] again," he said.
Callan loaded a test level into Halo 3, a sandbox where Bungie artists could experiment with different lighting conditions for objects they were building for the game. Callan inserted every version of a Brute that had been produced for Halo 3 and spent the rest of the day screwing around, testing every kind of weapon interaction, shield break, lighting effect, etc.
"It was a lot of shooting brutes, waiting for some kind of state change, triggering an effect, freezing the game speed, and free-flying the camera in an orbit around a Brute's crotch," he said.
A Surprising Resolution
But again, Callan was just one person trying to figure out what happened. This method of attack was trying to ruthlessly and methodically reproduce the penis. Scott was tackling it from another angle: investigating the in-house tools Bungie had been using to build Halo 3.
"It actually didn't take long to prove the VFX team had nothing to do with it," said Scott. "Our tools were so primitive I couldn't have put that there if I wanted to. Which for the record I didn't.”
Getting to that point was stressful, though. Scott had the president of Bungie and other staff huddled around his desk and demanding to see the textures he'd built for the game. He had to prove to everyone there was not a secret penis hiding in his hard drive.
In the end, the culprit was surprising and mundane: a technical error where "the HDR buffer in the explosion interacting with a normal map in the Brute armor" translated into a penis.
"The HDR buffer shall hereby now only be known as the Hidden Dong Rendering buffer," said one fan in response to Scott sharing part of the story on Twitter last week.
There was, it turns out, no hidden penis. Just a weird glitch, because video games are mysterious and messy objects of code and artistry that sometimes act in surprising ways.
"It actually is super important that you keep people from putting personal or possibly offensive stuff in games," said Scott. "but this was just a weird, one-off visual glitch that happened to look like a four foot long dong."