I play a lot of Destiny.
A number of factors have contributed to what I must concede has become an addiction: my wife’s departure to another state for work, leaving me with the TV to myself and a lot of spare time; my OCD-collector streak; and particularly my fetish for beautiful science fictional design in all contexts. Aesthetically, Destiny pushes all my buttons. I mean, look at my character:
The addiction has progressed to the point that I’ve begun reading about the game when I’m not playing it. (This is not something I did before it launched. I knew that it was Bungie’s long-awaited follow-up to Halo, but not much more than that.) I was a bit surprised to find that the critical response was mixed. There are certain aspects of Destiny that stick out as subpar, like Peter Dinklage’s rightfully-maligned voice performance, but on the whole the game is beautiful to look at and a blast to play.
One aspect of the game that is consistently criticized is its story, which is somewhere between disjointed and incomprehensible. The game takes place in a distant future solar system where our technology has called us to evil aliens’ attention and brought humanity to the edge of extinction. There’s something about a giant white globe named the Traveler that hangs out on Earth and protects us, and an overarching meta-enemy called the Darkness that your character is fighting. It’s all pretty vague, even if you read the extra worldbuilding content packed into Bungie’s companion Grimoire mobile app. There are aspects of the story that support the gameplay well, but overall it does nothing to craft memorable characters or build emotional stakes. Many critical reviews of the game center on the story’s weakness, and a lot of the online discussion about the game since release has speculated on why it’s so weak, given Bungie’s relatively strong track record for story throughout their Halos. Reddit conspiracy theories rage, revolving around Bungie gutting the story and withholding content originally meant for the retail release until the expansions, citing the 2013 departure of Destiny Joseph Staten as evidence.
I don’t find these theories to be particularly convincing, but that’s beside my point. I’m not here to argue about whether Destiny’s story could be better. Clearly, it could. However, the more I play Destiny and understand Bungie’s aspirations for it, the more I find it interesting to ponder the question of whether its story should be better. Would a gripping narrative enhance Destiny’s core experience? I’ve decided I don’t think so. I think a more coherent story might have actually hurt Destiny in the long run. Moreover, I suspect Bungie recognized this ahead of time and adjusted the game accordingly prior to release.
One of the challenges inherent in games criticism is that the notion of a “game” is almost impossibly broad, even if you restrict yourself to just videogames (and I don’t know why you necessarily should). Destiny is a game, but so is Tetris. It’s easy to name great games that don’t have good stories; you could credibly argue that almost no game made before the late 80s had a good story, because most didn’t have one at all. So clearly a strong narrative isn’t required. I was struck by a post on Penny Arcade from October, where Jerry Holkins imagines what a “Final Game”––a videogame that’s endlessly replayable, forever––would look like. Story is expressly not among the criteria. “I’m always going to like games that exist outside of this,” he writes, “but I’m not going to play The Witcher again when I’m sixty. But I’ll still be playing XCOM.” The game he cites, XCOM: Enemy Unknown (coincidentally, my last multi-hundred-hour gaming obsession) is a game that has a hackneyed wisp of a storyline. Its scenario of an alien invasion of Earth is as boilerplate as can be, but that archetypal familiarity provides bedrock that supports the game’s mechanics and doesn’t get in the way of repeat playthroughs. Despite its aliens, laser guns, and spaceships, XCOM is closer to chess than, say, Mass Effect.
Chess is itself a Final Game, of course. We’ve got a number of them: mahjong, bridge, golf, etc. Most mainstream games of the past two decades have harnessed the vast increases in technology to strive to match cinema or fiction as an art form through their storytelling, but a few have gone another way: they strive to be social experiences in the mode of pre-digital classics, even if, on the surface, they look like their cinematic peers. Bungie’s stated goal is to spin Destiny into a 10-year experience. Everything from the game’s engine to its 500 million dollar budget were planned with an eye towards long-term sustainability. As Joseph Staten put it in the Joystiq article above: “The most important stories we tell won’t be told by us. They’ll be told by players. Personal legends built from shared adventures.” Indeed, the Story mode of Destiny, such as it is, is over within just a handful of hours. It’s basically an overgrown tutorial mode for the game’s environments & gameplay concepts. Anyone who only played that portion by themselves could be forgiven for thinking Destiny lacked variety and emotional punch. The hook that has kept me interested in Destiny for this long has been the social aspect: new friends I’ve made through the game and the fun we’ve had together. Destiny’s best modes are the hardest ones that don’t just encourage player cooperation, but require it. Crucially, Bungie has chosen to disable automatic anonymous matchmaking for these modes, prompting players to form more personal relationships and online communities such as DestinyLFG.com (and .net, no relation) in order to fill out their squads. Though they are independent and fan-run, Bungie actively promotes these sites and proudly praises their utopian vibes.
This is nothing new, of course. Destiny’s closest antecedents are probably MMOs like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, games with passionate and supportive online communities. Bungie has synthesized the persistent character advancement of WoW (and the compulsive, slot-machine loot pleasures of another Blizzard series, Diablo) with the first-person space shooter that has been its historical strength. When a game seeks to link players with various levels of free time and commitment, especially an MMO where everyone’s character is ostensibly the “main” character, it’s easy to see how an involved story could be a hindrance. I love the Mass Effect trilogy, games with many similar trappings to Destiny and a vastly superior story, but the epic narrative that drew me through 100+ hours of gameplay the first time through stands as a barrier to my replaying the games, despite every intention of doing so someday. I think “I don’t have that much time to devote to reliving that story. I’ve got other shit to do.” (This is a fallacy, of course, but nonetheless it’s the thought process I go through.) I don’t replay the ME trilogy for the same reason I’ve never finished Breaking Bad—something about committing to the full run feels like work. And work isn’t what I want my fun to feel like. Conversely, Destiny is more like a virtual barbeque in the park, a place to unwind and catch up with friends while we engage in a cooperative/competitive distraction. It’s what I imagine golf is like for people who love golf. I don’t have a hundred hours, but I’ve got a couple this Friday night, so I make a date with my buddies to run Vault of Glass.
Perhaps Destiny’s story was weakened due to internal personnel conflicts, release date pressure, or greed. But I think it’s equally possible that, as they tested the game and saw how players were interacting with it, they realized that a focus on narrative might actually hurt the sustainability of the experience they were crafting. They didn’t want a better Halo; they wanted golf. They wanted a Final Game. Bungie basically stated this up front, but I don’t think a lot of the critics understood. In order to maintain an epic-yet-evergreen play space, Bungie needed a story that was fuzzier, more elemental and more open to player participation & interpretation. Thus: you’re a space ranger. You wield powers of high tech and ancient magic, and your gear looks spectacular. You defend the solar system from nasty threats, many so nasty that you’ll need to team up and work together.
That’s all you need to know. Go have fun with each other.