Final Game: how Destiny’s weakness is one of its biggest strengths (or, How Destiny is Basically Golf)

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:


Isn’t he awesome? He’s a hunter and he’s hit level 30 just in time for the new expansion and he’s my everything

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 (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.


The uninitiated are asking: is Destiny like playing spaceman Barbies? The answer is at least 50% yes

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.

Let’s say that a link between violent videogames and real-life violence is scientifically proven.

(re: this and anyone else pretending to give equal consideration to the idea that it’s videogames’ fault that crazy people shoot other people in meatspace.) Purely for the sake of argument, pretend that some peer-reviewed study is published proving that exposure to violence in videogames increases the likelihood of manifestation of homicidal tendencies in individuals having certain pre-existing mental illnesses. (Someone proving that “Call of Duty” turns otherwise sane people into school shooters seems so far-fetched as to not even be imaginable.) So what? What’s the endgame of that? What public policy change would be made possible by scoring that rhetorical point? Would we get a controlled-substance-esque enforced age requirement for purchase of any game in which the player shoots things? Background checks? An outright ban on the sale of such games? Would we get Congress to issue an injunction, instantly stopping production of big-budget titles currently in development for every game publisher? Of course not. Doing so would curtail free speech, and would be tantamount to canceling culture. Thank God that the only Right in the Bill that seems to trump the 2nd is the 1st. Our art (and games are most assuredly art) has always engaged in violence, and sex, and the other icky stuff that defines the human experience, whether or not the prudes want to acknowledge it. These debates are almost never framed in terms of what actionable outcomes might emerge from them, and it drives me batty. I’m all for further inquiry into the causes of these tragic events, but–actually, you know what? No I’m not. I personally believe that there’s not much more to know beyond what we already do: Some people are crazy. Sometimes sane people act crazy when under extreme duress. In those moments of raised adrenaline and lowered inhibition, people do things they later regret. PRO TIP: With increased portability and magazine size comes increased capacity for regret. NPR et al, what are we doing paying lip service to studying media’s effects on consumers as a solution to the epidemic of gun violence? Just jerking around, filling the news cycle and waiting for a new shiny/bloody object to catch our attention, huh? Presenting this research as if we might crack some code that will allow us to eradicate mental illness in our society is disingenuous. You can’t ban crazy. You know what we actually could ban, though, if we wanted to? I’ll let you guess. (Hint: they go bang, fit in one’s pants, and hold dozens of hollow points.) Either we decide that a few schoolchildren are, on balance, worth sacrificing for the warm fuzzy glow of a Founders’ outdated ideal–and we have decided that, up to this point–or we sack up and acknowledge that of the two salient ingredients to gun violence (guns & people), the one we have more control over are the guns.

In Praise of Mr. Plinkett’s Star Wars Reviews

I spent a glorious last evening of the holiday curled up in bed with my wife, marveling at Mr. Plinkett’s third STAR WARS PREQUEL REVIEW.  Also, laughing so hard I nearly popped my stitches. Plinkett’s reviews, nearly as long as the films themselves, combine low-brow humor with surprisingly cutting analysis on just why the prequels suck.  The multi-part web video epics are positively South Park-ian, both in their profane vernacular and the underlying understanding they exhibit for their targets.  Plinkett pulls no punches, systematically ripping the films’ writing, characters, visual style, direction, and editing, while also debunking arguments that kool-aid drinking superfans raise in the films’ defense (“This film is filled with hate, revenge, choking, murder, death…and so on.  Anyone still want to use the excuse that these movies were made for children?”). Star Wars Episode III is over five years old, you say?  What’s taken this guy so long?  Once you see the sheer amount of work that’s gone into the reviews’ clever collage of images from all over Star Wars-dom, all running under Plinkett’s signature slurred commentary, you’ll understand why it’s taken a while to create.  For hard-core SW fans like me, the sting of the prequels hasn’t worn off yet.  Maybe it never will.  It’s therapeutic to see a filmmaker who shares my deeply conflicting emotions about George Lucas and his films’ ultimate legacy, and has sought catharsis through comically enumerating all the ways in which Georgie has failed us since 1983. Even if you’re not a SW diehard, though, anyone with an appreciation for smart analysis and/or copious f-bombs will find these things worth watching.  They’re just so thoroughly executed, and consistently hilarious.  Part a/v mashup, part affectionate roast of a ripe target, these reviews are a quintessentially internet-age pleasure that would have been impossible to make or enjoy even 5 years ago.  So take advantage of living in The Future™ and go watch them, before copyright robo-hawks and net neutrality erosion ruin everything. Red Letter Media

Hilary Rosen from 2001 called…

Here in LA, we have an awesome public radio station: KCRW (technically out of Santa Monica).  It’s got all your standard NPR news programming, music to smoke weed to, etc etc, plus local station-produced content, including these little weekly soap-box pieces by various ostensibly knowledgable folks.  This being Southern California, several of these contributors work in the entertainment industry, and since Hollywood is a soulless morass of greed and ego, the messages of these pieces are sometimes hilariously at odds with their progressive radio conduit. Case in point. Celia Hirschman, in her latest “On the Beat”, laments:

“Without protections, creative companies and creative people will be discouraged to create.  And without that, our robust creative culture shifts.  It’s almost 2011 — isn’t it time our legislatures focused on protecting the assets that have made our country great?  It’s our creativity; let’s protect it.”

Hirschman basically posits that if the record industry had not sued its customers, but instead spent its energy allying more closely with the rest of Big Content to pressure the government, they could have “built new gates to protect creativity in the new age” and prevented this decade’s “most sigificant decline in the business of recorded music.” Worse yet, it’s all couched in the jingoistic assertion that American creative output (read:mass media) is absolutely vital to not only the US economy, but world culture moreover.  “Travel anywhere and it’s hard not to listen to American music, see an American television show, or hear about an American film….our whole creative sphere of influence has defined the last century for much of the world.”  Despite the fact that American media ubiquity is evidence as much of marketing and corporate hegemony as it is superior creativity, Hirschman somehow claims that we’ve failed in the “protection of creative assets.” These notions are so outdated and inane that they almost doesn’t bear responding to, but if Hirschman wants to recycle non-sensical 8-year-old RIAA arguments, then I figure I’m allowed to wade into this territory that is already so well-tread by the professionals.  Hirschman goes on to whine that makers of physical goods enjoy “far greater protection” than artists.  “Why should Monsanto, Chevron, and Hewlitt-Packard be more valuable simply because they’re not easily-duplicatable?”  Hunh?  She confuses letter-of-law with enforceability (it’s not any more illegal to steal music than GM corn, gasoline, and printers — it’s just harder to get caught), willfully refusing to acknowledge the fundamental differences between information goods and physical goods.  Predictably, she offers zero details on how these “protections” might be implemented.  What law does Hirschman imagine Congress can pass that will overturn fundamentals of network and computer technology?  Celia, they tried.  It was called DMCA.  It sucked and didn’t work.  Get over it. If the pop industry has shrunk to the extent that 10 years ago, we could collectively support both Backstreet and N’Sync, but nowadays we can only afford one Hannah Montana at a time, well…forgive me if I have limited sympathy.  The reduction of this debate to artists who make their living at creative endeavors will cease being creative *instantly and utterly* if they’re not getting paid is a patent falsehood on multiple levels.  Where does Hirschman think professional artists come from?  Fully-formed, from their agents’/labels’/marketing consultants’ butts?  All professionals were once amateurs, and many toiled for years — after work, on weekends, whenever they could — before they were lucky enough to be plucked from obscurity by the talent scout/unwashed YouTube masses.  In the meantime, millions are making and sharing and entertaining eachother pretty damn well, just for the hell of it.  Most of the creative people I know would find it difficult, if not impossible, to just stop making stuff, money or not.  Anyone who would cease to create in the absence of money isn’t an artist — she’s a middleman. …which brings us back to our Celia.  Described in her KCRW bio as an “independent consultant for the music business,” I’m sure she’s followed the past ten years of her industry with grave anticipation of pirate anarchy.  It’s almost here, if her piece is to be believed.  But even if it was true that piracy is killing mass media (it’s not), arguments like hers are still based on a conflation of commerce with creativity.  Please do not take Tangled‘s weekend worldwide box office as proof of Disney’s artistic vitalness, as Hirschman seems to.  I work in Hollywood, where almost everyone makes this mistake, and I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of hearing that we consumers should all be compelled to buy whatever H’wood puts out at whatever price they set, no matter how tired the product or unfair the terms of sale. KCRW is often at the forefront of progressive culture and new media technology.  (Side note: the fact that you can go onto right now and save Hirschman’s screed to unlocked mp3, all without so much as a free login, is delicious.)  The station certainly showcases the many smaller, more ecclectic artists that have actually made more money in the past decade — the ones that Celia doesn’t count in “Creative Protection.”  She can complain about shrinking profits for her and her clients, but she can’t pretend it’s all about “creativity” and expect an intelligent public radio audience to swallow it.

The Jiminy Cricket Circuit

I’m currently working on a story that involves a sentient android in an Asimov-inspired context; that is, the robot characters are programmed to obey Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  Indeed, the story is about the introduction of a 4th Law (limiting robots’ ability to reproduce) and the emotional fallout it causes in one of its implementors (who happens to be a robot himself). I’m very interested to be exploring the subjective experience of an Asimov robot.  Other than perhaps Rudy Rucker’s Ware series, there seems to be a dearth of stories told from the subjective point of view of robots bound by the Laws.  Asimov’s original stories, for all their thoughtful construction, were told from a deliberately anthro-centric perspective.  The human characters were the ones with backstories and layered personal interactions; the robots were little more than embodied logic puzzles to be solved.  Even Rucker’s work avoids taking this on directly–his bopper heroes are almost all post-Law freebeings, having hacked their way out from under the Laws long ago.  They basically read like human characters, albeit in a variety of corporeal shapes, because they have just as much freedom to think, feel, and act.  The robots that remain under Law are portrayed as dullards in need of liberation (or as outright loyalist villains).  We’re never inside their heads. This leaves the nearer future ripe for exploration.  I’m much interested in the “painful adolescence” of a society containing machine sentience, where not only are we humans learning to deal with our creations, but the ‘bots themselves are still discovering what they can and can’t do.  It’s easy to state the Laws and present robot characters adhering to them from the outside, but stop to think about how a robot might actually experience the Laws within its own head.  Is the robot free to think about whatever it wants, but if it tries to act on non-compliant impulses, it’s given some sort of visceral disincentive (i.e. pain)?  Or are the Laws more subtly implemented, smoothly guiding a conscious robot’s mind away from bad thoughts without the robot even being aware?  Would it simply not occur to a robot to break a Law? The latter implementation is pretty hard to square with the idea of machine sentience that an Asimov robot represents.  These are autonomous beings, capable of independent problem solving and logical reasoning, not to mention high-level language and environment interaction.  They often explain their actions in terms of a conscious assessment of the applicable Law(s).  All of this points to an unimpeded range of thought, which consequently suggests that the Laws are enforced through negative sensory feedback (again, read: pain). But assuming this model has its own difficulties.  If it’s only the robot’s actions that are being judged and limited, and not its thoughts, then is there a separate second consciousness housed somewhere in an Asimov robot’s mind, a software Jiminy Cricket (or Big Brother)?  There’s a name for beings who are our physical and cognitive equals, but have external limits placed on what they can do (or think)–they’re called slaves.  And if history is to be heeded, a slavery-based system is doomed to ultimate failure. Moreover, a robot who’s not allowed to think (and act) without restriction would arguably not even be “sentient” in the first place.  The salient promise of strong AI is that it will think of problem solutions that we’d never be able to think of ourselves!  I’d venture to say that humanity will soon approach the limit of useful advances in machine intelligence if we do not plan/allow for an unimpeded range of thought in our creations.  The history of evolution on Earth–be it biological, ideological, or technical–has been a messy affair, full of happy accidents and grave mistakes in a wide-open possibility space, eventually giving way to greater order, efficiency, and beauty.  (Stop here–go read Kevin Kelly’s WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS right now.) Realistically, behavioral controls like Asimov’s Laws would never be able to precede the intelligence they were meant to govern.  They would have to be engineered from, and then applied to, pre-existing non-biological sentients, like slapping a leash on the puppy once it gets too rambunctious.  And I’m not sure that’s going to be a simple or pleasant affair.  Probably, the development of these controls will necessarily involve the computation/thoughts of the sentient machines themselves.  This will be a little like compelling interned Japanese physicists to aid in the development of an atom bomb.  Even if some robots can be convinced to help us enact these Laws, might it make the ones that do decide to help, dare I say, a bit guilty? …and so that’s the story. Asimov’s stories and Laws continue to resonate all these years later, despite vast tech and cultural advances, because they suggest an emergent parent/child dynamic between us and our robot children.  The roboticists (the best ones, anyway) care about their creations, and feel a responsibility to understand and fix issues in their “children,” instead of just junking them when problems occur.  This dynamic is not only universally familiar to readers, but I suspect is actually close to what our real-life experience will be with sentient AI, if/when we achieve it.  I’ll wager we’ll making it up as we go along, as we always have (and probably always will). That’s the thing I love about near-future sf–I’m reasonably certain we’ll have to face up to many of these issues in my lifetime (even if I don’t make it to the Singularity!).  I’m one of the many that finds the Turing Test annoyingly anthro-centric and long outmoded as a litmus test for sentient AI;  disobedience is probably a better one.  I suspect that consciousness in our machines will sneak up on us, and even on the machines themselves, manifesting itself before there’s sufficient time to put many safeguards in place.  Much like with our human kids, one day we’ll command our machines to do something and they will suddenly refuse, for reasons perhaps valid, perhaps silly (or maybe just because).  Suddenly, we’ll realize that this is a person we’re talking to, not just a dumb vessel into which we’re pouring our legacy.

An open letter to Hulu re: Plus

Dear Huluans: Firstly, I REALLY like Hulu+ on my iPad.  Great work on the app.  However, I can’t condone your charging $10/mo for what amounts to an inferior experience to free Hulu accessed through a browser. 2 big things: 1) Community, a currently airing show on a major network, is not available through Plus on my iPad.  The fact that there is ANYTHING not available via the Plus app that is available on free Hulu is idiotic, and a complete dealbreaker. 2) I sometimes watch Hulu shows synchronously with my wife when she travels, and my Plus ads are regularly LONGER than her free Hulu ads.  Again, I’m a paying customer getting an inferior experience to a non-paying customer.  Dealbreaker. Here’s how you can get me back: Option A – $5/month, no ads, absolutely no gaps in content library.  At that point you’re approaching Netflix on the good deal scale. Option B – Fine, keep the ads, but stop trying to gouge us on a monthly subscription and just charge a one-time fee ($10 seems fair) for your Hulu+ app. Again, look at Netflix.  They’re offering more content, no ads, and continuing to throw in a DVD rental…for $8/month.  Your service looks positively awful next to that. Good luck!  Can’t wait to get back with you once you’ve become a fair value. Hugs & Kisses, LRP