Sep 302014
 

For the most part, Destiny‘s story is very bad. The game’s setting, a soft echo of Warhammer 40K where most of the absurd/fun bits have been excised and “Chaos” has been replaced with “Darkness”, is a major disappointment, but one that at this late date can’t really undergo significant change. What can, to some extent, be fixed, are the narratives that live in that world. Although it only has one real plot, Destiny has three different strands of story going on, none of which work especially well. Still, the game’s design makes some of them work better than others and it’s worth examining that as a way of assessing how the story might grow and improve.

The first story, the one the game is trying to push throughout its campaign, is that the player’s guardian is doing special and important things that are altering the balance of power in the system, and it is an unmitigated disaster. The story missions do not create any arc of conflict between the protagonist and any of the forces present in the system. The missions seem to exist only to enforce a structured tour of the solar system and the enemies living on its various terrestrial planets. The only thing resembling a unifying plot is the occasional appearance of a mysterious robot who seems to represent an additional force in the system separate from the Light of the Traveler or the various minions of the Darkness. However, “mysterious stranger semi-helps the hero for unexplained reasons” is barely passable as a side-plot; it’s appalling as the basis for a media project that’s supposed to have a decade-long lifespan.

Even if the game had a half-decent plot, it has no characters to breathe life into it. The protagonist is voiced in cutscenes as blandly as possible, presumably so the player can project eir own personality onto em, but the player is never given any means for conveying eir vision for the character to the game, not even something as simple as later Mass Effect‘s Paragon and Renegade events. The player can of course take up with various factions, but there’s nothing more to this than wearing an emblem, and nothing about choosing one faction precludes or even complicates shifting one’s support to another one. For whatever reason, the player cannot even take ownership of any space within the game — e has no home base to control or decorate, and personal customization options are limited to shaders by the infrequency of decent loot drops and the expense of upgrading good armor. Banal, expository dialogue and terrible voice direction rob Ghost, the main supporting character, of anything resembling a personality, and no other character exists for more than a couple of lines. The protagonist has no presence and nobody to play off of, so the story, such as it is, has no soul.

Having a plot and characters would not have prevented the story from ending up as a disappointment, however, because it represents a fundamental conflict between narrative and design. Destiny tries to give the player a typical FPS power fantasy and fails decisively because that storyline is embedded in a persistent, shared world. These characteristics mean that the player can have no real impact on the system. Killing the Winter Kell on Venus has no effect on the organization or presence of Fallen forces there, nor does killing Sepiks Prime affect the Fallen on Earth, nor do the events on the Moon or in the Black Garden have consequences for the Hive or the Vex. Rather than segregate players into different instances based on mission progress, everyone gets dumped into a single shared environment that must therefore remain constant regardless of the story they’ve been playing (this despite the game’s sharp gatekeeping with regard to character level). Destiny‘s weak single-player narrative has no hope of selling the idea that the player has done something important or noteworthy because its static world insists that nothing has changed.

So that disposes of the game’s plot, such as it is, but it doesn’t cover all of the game’s story. There are two other narratives embedded in Destiny that it conveys a little better, in part because they are better fits for a persistent, fairly static world.

The weaker of these is the story of the guardians protecting the last human city from the encroaching forces of the enemy. In terms of its core problems this story has a lot in common with the game’s explicit plot: the main players don’t actually exist in the game. Bungie has never had any talent for depicting societies outside the context of their militaries and it shows painfully here. What is humanity in Destiny, beyond a matte painting of haphazard buildings? Who are the Awoken, aside from a tiny group of people in a throne room? Even the quasi-military force lacks any personality and has little sense of shared purpose; its officers are nothing more than vending machines with a few completely disposable lines of dialogue and the Speaker has no actual wisdom to dispense. If the various human factions have any kind of philosophy they wish to live by they never share it in the game. Ultimately, there is no sense of what is being defended, which knocks a hole in this narrative well below the water line.

What keeps it afloat, barely, is the design of the game. Destiny does an indifferent job of incentivizing cooperative play; difficulty in missions and strikes seems to scale up in some non-obvious way based on the number and level of co-op players, making a fireteam seem less advantageous than it probably should be. Out in the open world where this scaling is inactive, however, players tend to informally and dynamically assist one another, especially during public events. Protecting a crashed warsat, taking on a Fallen walker, or preventing Vex sacrifices (and yes, even exploiting the infamous loot cave) encourage players to instantaneously form groups with a common cause. Even in this sense the angle is not sold perfectly: the public events lack variety, there are no human outposts to defend anywhere, and various bounties (quests) encourage selfish play in patrols, events, and strikes. Nonetheless, these moments of instant alliance are one of Destiny‘s key strengths and something that could be accentuated with little added content or tuning.

These leaves us with Destiny‘s best story, which is about the effort to understand the world. One of the few interesting things about the game’s setting is that the humans (and even the ghosts, who in principle should share some of the Traveler’s knowledge) seem to know very little about their enemies, or even their own past. A great deal of the game involves efforts to grab artifacts and information from old human installations, ancient human AI, and facilities belonging to alien races. Here, the absence of a current human society and characters isn’t a real impediment because it’s a story where the mysteries are central. The races as a whole, and the places where they are found, are the actual “characters” being encountered. This plays well with the evocative storytelling that Cameron Kunzelman identifies as one of the game’s strengths.

This is also a story that the mechanics tend to reinforce. After level 20, as mentioned previously, progression becomes a question of what armor the character possesses rather than what deeds e has performed. That concept stinks for defining a league of heroic paladins, but it’s an excellent system for a society of tomb raiders. Defining characters by the items they are able to pluck from the ruins of the past or the grasp of their enemies plays perfectly into Destiny‘s world, where that past and those enemies are known only by the artifacts that guardians retrieve from them.

Destiny could, of course, do more to sell this story. The choice, or need, to put the information the player ultimately retrieves in an online grimoire is a crippling blow to this narrative. Also the guardians don’t get to do much in pursuit of it besides shooting things and hoping loot falls out, and the absence of non-military humans (cryptarchs in the field) is an impediment. Patrol missions or public events more attuned to the ideas of this story could help sell it better, as could the addition of some gameplay elements more specifically attuned to solving puzzles and mysteries rather than just shooting everything.

Destiny‘s writing has been justly excoriated by most reviewers, but even with truly masterful plotting and dialogue, the power fantasy that story is selling would never really work in the context of the game’s static world. The more ambient stories of defense and acquisition, which do not rely on world dynamics and mesh well with the game’s systems, are better narrative focal points for the game that Bungie actually made. While it is too late to rebuild the core plot around these ideas, some relatively minor tweaks and additions could strengthen them to the point where they could carry the game and form a basis for future installments.

  One Response to “What works in Destiny’s story?”

  1. I am going to try turning comments on again.

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