If you’re reading this as someone who is looking into buying Destiny, please wait until the end of this article before you let my opinions influence your purchase decision. If you’re reading this as someone trying to make sense of the confusing mess that is Destiny, then I hope this write-up puts your thoughts into coherent words.
The game in question is a recently released sci-fi epic available on Xbox One, PS4 and last-gen consoles. There’s been a lot of hype for this game as being one of the first “true” next-gen games to show off what’s next in gaming.
But if you’ve recently read a review for Destiny, then you’ve likely come across this exact sentiment: “It’s fun, but blah blah, story.”
I’m doing the same thing with this post, sort of. Except I’m digging deep into the why behind Destiny’s clumsy execution. Especially when you consider how Bungie spent a whopping 5 years putting this thing together (and hundreds of millions of dollars).
Destiny is a fascinating game. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that Destiny’s flaws are just as fascinating as the things that make Destiny a fun game.
But not even all of that fun in this FPS/RPG/MMO (first person shooter/role-playing game/massive multiplayer online) can save it from one thing that no one seems to like: the story.
This is especially sad for me, because the story of any game is just as important as the gameplay and graphics. Or at least the reason behind what you’re doing in the game.
That said, a good narrative doesn’t have to be the main reason for why I want to play a game.
Take Titanfall for example. In that game, there’s hardly a story, but I still enjoyed it.
But with Destiny? Also not much of a story, but that’s a bigger problem than with Titanfall. Why? Do I hate Bungie? Do people just hate Bungie for no reason?
That’s an obvious “no.” The Halo franchise is one of the most celebrated sagas in gaming history.
There are a lot of reasons for why Destiny’s story doesn’t work. And those reasons contribute to why everyone is so disappointed with Bungie’s latest outing. I’ll sum it up on word:
One of the main things that makes a story great is surprise. If the person experiencing the story has a hard time predicting the outcome of the story, then that increases the chances of them being pleased by what does happen.
The main way to make your story “surprising” is by being creative. Originality for the sake of originality doesn’t accomplish much. But creativity for the sake of telling a good story does more for your story than clever names for your characters will ever do.
Destiny tries very hard to create immersion. And they set your expectations very high by creating a world that you want to be immersed in. But ultimately, the writers had it backwards (I don’t know why).
Immersion doesn’t happen unless the story behind your world is compelling.
The world of Destiny, though curiously interesting, is hardly compelling. And Bungie made some rookie errors in that respect.
For example, the removal of a “codex” so that you can pester people into visiting your website is 100% a stupid decision. Specifically, the game will choose not to give you a back story into a certain event or character because you’re expected to stop playing and check it out on Bungie’s website.
That’s so wrong, it’s Raven. Bungie is essentially asking you to step out of the immersive world they’ve created to increase traffic to their own website. It doesn’t look good for them, and it’s certainly inconvenient for you.
The other problem is that if you don’t want to visit Bungie’s site to get more info on what the heck is going on in Destiny, then good luck figuring out what the heck is going on in Destiny.
These are relatively minor problems, though. Bungie could easily fix them in Destiny 2 or even the next update (not that they will). But there’s a bigger, deeper problem with the story and world of Destiny.
Conceptually, it’s an artistic mess. Let’s break that sentence down.
Conceptually: what makes Destiny, “Destiny.”
Artistic: what makes Destiny interesting and unique.
Destiny is a game full of good story ideas dressed up in overcomplicated flair. It has a cool structure, but to be simple: it tries too hard. It just tries way, way too hard.
The good story ideas come down to the setting and overall plot. Earth in the distant future? Fine. Takes place all over the solar system? Cool. Even the character designs and classes are somewhat new and interesting.
But when you go deeper, you find that everything else about the game is horribly generic. And when you combine generic execution with a creative foundation, you get, well, an artistic mess.
If you’ve played the game, yourself, then you know what I’m talking about.
The only people around (pretty much at all) in this world are called Guardians. First of all, that’s boring in and of itself. You never meet or talk to anyone who isn’t a fellow darkness-attacker.
I had to ask myself too many times, “Just who am I fighting for in this game? The guy with the mask? Myself? Peter Dinklage?”
And of course, “Guardians” is one of the laziest names they could have used as a classification. What isn’t a “Guardian” anymore these days? It’s a horrendously overused and uninteresting word at this point. Same goes with Hunters. Sure, Titan and Warlock are an improvement, but not by much.
The game is littered with odd naming choices like this. The Crucible (the hub for multiplayer) was “Mass Effected” just a couple of years ago. Sure, that one instance doesn’t ruin the name, but it does for plenty of people who are sick of seeing that word all over their video games and movies (and Arthur Miller novels).
And if you thought “Guardians” was lazy, then wait until you hear Peter Dinklage go on about “The Darkness.” You know your game’s story has a problem when it reads like a young adult novel by Stephanie Meyer.
And your robots are called “Ghosts?” Bungie (and Activision), we are sick and tired of everything being “ghosts,” especially since Call of Duty named an entire game after the concept a year ago. In Destiny, it doesn’t even make thematic sense that your robot companion is a “Ghost.”
Again, these are all simple problems that, on their own, don’t deserve much scrutiny. But all of these cringe-worthy story elements combined seriously prevent gamers from enjoying what Destiny has to offer in terms of gameplay and beautiful settings (of which I have little complaint, actually. The story is that bad).
And we haven’t even gotten to the story of the story — what’s driving you from going on those tedious fetch quests that barely vary, if at all. As you can imagine, it’s easily the game’s biggest, most obvious problem.
Because odd choices in your world and aesthetics can easily be forgiven if you have an engaging story with memorable characters.
Destiny doesn’t (really) have characters at all. Don’t get me wrong, it has placeholders. Characters, though? Can’t say I came across one.
The only character we actually get to know and listen to is our Ghost companion, voiced by Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones). His role is essentially “male Cortana.” And that’s about all the thought they put into him.
[The role of Cortana merged with the design of 343 Guilty Spark, basically]
All he does is direct you on your missions. He lets you know what you’re supposed to be doing, what to look out for, and he provides occasional insights into the ever-elusive backstory of this strange, postapocalyptic world.
The problem? All of these things are the same, essentially. Your missions are astoundingly similar to each other, and the script reads as if it were put together in a matter of minutes.
This is mostly evidenced by Peter Dinklage’s clear boredom as he voices his character. Yes, it’s so tedious that Tyrion himself can’t find much to like about it. Some people want to blame him for the dry performance, but it’s not his fault if he has nothing interesting to talk about.
It’s easy and sort of necessary to compare Destiny to Halo, which is Bungie’s true claim to fame. The “magic” of Halo just doesn’t exist here, even though the games are fairly similar to each other (and not just when it comes to gameplay).
With Halo, you had a simple story set within a fascinating world. Even the aliens were the stars. That’s why Elites, Grunts, Jackals and Hunters would remain memorable figures as Halo aged.
Destiny, in comparison, is a complicated story set within an even more complicated world (and forgettable enemies). In Halo, my mission was straightforward. I was a powerful soldier (with other soldiers at my side to prove my scale) trying to survive on a mysterious world.
Many good games have this kind of simple story structure to draw you in. Far Cry 3 starts with the imperative that you have to save your friends on an island filled with dangerous pirates. Mass Effect is all about stopping a madman from resurrecting a genocidal race of super aliens. Fallout just comes down to surviving the nuclear wasteland.
But in Destiny, it’s not clear what I’m trying to do or why I’m anywhere the Ghost sends me. There’s no intrigue. No motivation. I’m lifted out of the rubble and told to join some movement, without a second thought (kind of what Destiny expects out of us as gamers).
I just shoot evil aliens. That’s enough, I suppose, to justify buying it. But it’s nowhere near enough to say that Destiny is a special game.
And a simple explanation for all of these problems is the oft-cited observation that Destiny has a bit of an identity crisis. It tries to be all things to all people, and this lack of focus makes the overall game suffer.
I would add that Destiny is also an example of why a good recipe is more than just combining two things. Because on paper, the game should work pretty well — it has all of the things we like about Halo, Call of Duty, and the best MMOs — but it’s not any better than the sum of its parts.
And the saddest thing about all of this is that it doesn’t take a professional team of writers to make a better narrative than what we got. My own version, if this project was handed to me, would be as follows:
Centuries after Earth was abandoned for unknown reasons, a coalition of humans and robots returned to the Solar System to recolonize the still resource-rich worlds. But they find that new, feral species have appeared, and they’re organized. Thus begins a war for who will reclaim the Solar System. Will it be the “new” humans? Or this seemingly selfish race of aggressive “aliens” that (Plot twist!) actually inhabited the Solar System long before humans, making them the rightful rulers of Earth and the rest all along?
I came up with that on the fly. Bungie on the other hand had years to churn this out, and the best they could come up with was the same “humanity versus invading alien forces that vaguely look like robots. Again.”
Here’s just one more take on the Destiny universe:
Centuries in the future, the Solar System is abandoned. No one knows what happened to humans, who were on the brink of faster-than-light travel before they mysteriously disappeared without a trace. New governments and migrating species have since colonized the 8 planets (and Pluto), but a struggle for control ensues when a schism divides the Solar System into two warring factions. You’re a member of an order of scavengers who loot the battle-torn areas of this conflict. But in your pursuit of fortune, your order encounters an even more dangerous secret that could change the galaxy forever.
Seriously, Bungie. Step it up.
Overall, Destiny is a mindless game. But while other mindless games get a free pass, Destiny doesn’t because it wants you to think it’s not mindless. By dressing up its world with seemingly creative ideas that fall short of your expectations.
But, and this is a big but, Destiny is still (miraculously) worth playing if you like good shooters with some RPG elements. In those respects, the game excels and is addicting fun. You just have to immerse yourself out of the story to better enjoy it.
What do you think of Destiny?
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