A Thing Or Two About Destiny
Destiny is a 9/10 video game, so I wouldn’t normally write about this sort of thing, but like how I sometimes say that the constraints of a low budget force a game to be interesting, sometimes a budget can be so big they can only end up making bad decisions with it, like a music video with Paul McCartney and hiring a famous voice actor and then replacing him a year later with a different actor while not changing a line of the script that has a character to say “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain.”
I think maybe this is inevitable? Maybe it turns out video games are too big just fundamentally, and we’re going to be left with massive quixotic messes until someone figures out what to do about it? Destiny is a very obvious and very contemporary billion dollar entertainment idea with a science fiction aesthetic that feels like it came four years after Star Wars instead of forty. It’s weird! The raids are fun. This will be more about how it is weird.
1. I watched Jodorowsky’s Dune like four hours after I played Destiny for the first time, so I am kind of biased in thinking that you absolutely need to watch Jodorowsky’s Dune to make any coherent sense of Destiny. This is partially because Jodorowsky’s Dune makes all science fiction of the seventies and since make sense; Jodorowsky brought together so many people already defining science fiction in their respective fields, and even though it was to make a movie that never happened, many of them went on to work either together or with other important science fiction artists and their collective body of work is pretty much all of the things most contemporary scifi in film and especially games is imitating. Anyways the thing I actually wanted to talk about was how Jodorowsky’s Dune was, conceptually, a super optimistic work of science fiction that also had a lot of fantasy feeling to it, much like Star Wars and some other sci-fi romances of the time and earlier, and how Destiny resembles those works aesthetically and thematically so much more than any other contemporary work, let alone say, Halo? Science fiction found cyberpunk in the 80s and 90s and cyberpunk has stuck, space is gone and with it the optimism, as it seems more and more inevitable this world will kill us or we will kill it. And then Destiny makes the loading and menu screen a personal spaceship. Your default state is orbiting a planet. Not even hanging out in the home base and main city. You start every game in space. The planets are all beautiful lost frontiers. What nostalgia. This is maybe out of a desire to evoke fantasy tropes just because it’s an mmo, out of a strange kind of obligation to borrow from them structurally and thematically, and drawing from these particularly retro sources is the most logical place to find a precedent. A fundamentally black and white universe just feels odd in the context of contemporary science fiction? I believe it was implied in some earlier drafts of the story that the benevolent entity that catalyzes the plot was secretly evil, and to Bungie’s credit they went back on that, perhaps realizing that in 2014, having a deity show up and actually be good would be far less cliched than it turning out to be evil. This is interesting even if Destiny has absolutely nothing interesting to say about it, because Destiny is now committed to continuing to tell stories in space and with shades of optimism which will either create an out of touch contrast with our lives or delibrately have to acknowledge it. Either way it will be interesting.
2. Destiny’s naming sense is unreal, which is definitely (not a joke) the most important place to put all writing efforts, even though making the script slightly less unbearable probably should have been up there. But it turns out you can get a lot done in just item descriptions; there’s a cold and laconic space queen who if you please her mildly might give you a shotgun called Her Courtesy, and that’s what I call character development. It’s a strange kind of storytelling, that depends so much on the incompleteness, so much on painting a single brushstroke of a world and getting you eager enough to try to imagine and piece together the rest. The best story is in the equipment names and descriptions, and that is important because they’re really what the game is about anyway. See, the items establish lore, they don’t reference it! If you get a full armor set you might see a 5 sentence short story. It’s all you need. It’s a game full of “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”
3. In the central hub you can go up to some guy inspecting an inscrutable science fiction device and he’s standing next to a table full of computers, inscence, books, crystals, and this is SUCH a strange image in a game to come out in 2015 because the idea that naturalistic object exist by science fiction ones is very rare, the future almost always looks plastic and dystopian, like everything prior to it becoming The Future stopped existing. CliffyB of all people commented on this when he was designing Gears of War? Which is why there’s like, cars and houses made of brick in that game. Destiny is bad at being specific or consistent about when it things happen but is good about feeling like there’s history instead of just “the future” and also the presence of natural objects manages to feel almost sort of warm? Here are beautiful overgrown lush worlds on venus and mars and earth at a time in our history this has never seemed less possible. By the way, thank you for the Vex being evil plastic robots with ominous obelisks that are beautifully overgrown with quiet nature? I love the ancient Vex that are covered in moss and vines the best.
4. I like that they make important characters out of what is essentially a party of players that wiped in the dungeon that you’re about to do. Both Vault of Glass and Crota’s End have their backstory entrenched in the deaths of a bunch of people who failed at what you’re going to do. This is so kind to people like me who are bad at games and it’s kind of comforting to know all these other people died horribly so I’m not the first? And there are things to help you through these horrible places that are directly a consequence of them having left something to help you. Imagine having characters that have something at all to do with what the players themselves are doing! Here are characters that actually went and did the thing that you literally do in this game. Why is this…so hard. You don’t have to care about Ludonarrative Dissonance but you should think how do I get anyone to care about and invest in all of this plot bullshit, how do I make it relevant, and this is said while creating a system of feedback designed to get players super invested in playing over and over again, and it’s like, idk dude, try making characters that have anything at all to do with what you’re making the players do? Eris Morn, who sells you stuff to deal with one specific raid, is completely obsessed with helping you beat it, because it killed all of her friends, including someone who she was probably in love with, because she mentions her constantly. This sad mall goth spends most of her time bickering with one of your main mission givers and it’s funny and cute but like, in-between the witty banter she really misses her dead robot gf?
5. All the robots have numbers after their names so you can tell they’re robots, which is like endearing silly, but Erris always calls her dead robot gf Erianna instead of Erianna-6, like this is a more intimate way to refer to robots? It’s cute result.
6. Body language and animation are part of character design and a lot more important than just designing a scary space monster that shoots a space gun at you. Maybe this is especially because in a game which mostly you shoot things, you’re not going to get the closest look at them anyway, and furthermore your entire interactions with them will be through combat, so having the two most basic enemy types of two of the game’s evil alien factions share nearly identical AI and animations makes them feel as interchangeable as they honestly are. The first time you fight the Hive, they show up it’s in total darkness and a screeching horde of them charges at you, clawing at your face. But their most common unit behaves nearly exactly like the basic unit of the Fallen, who are supposed to be scrappy space pirates and not undead goth insects. Vex advance slowly and robotically and Cabal hunker down behind shields or leap through the air, and even though the Cabal’s Psion uses the same basic pattern as the those basic Hive and Fallen soldiers, the contrast between the fast and cunning Psions and the lumbering Cabal soldiers make their behavior an interesting contrast. I know I’m supposed to be advocating for games where you don’t shoot people but actually I am most interested in games that convey character and personality in any capacity? I think what bothers me is that literally all of my fascination with games as a child game from the 90s pixel art monsters that seemed to have lives and personalities of their own that was only barely hinted at by their context as adversaries for the player. I definitely empathized with and was much more interested in every alien monster over any protagonist until my teens, probably also because I wanted to be some kind of biologist until then, and when I decided I wanted to write also humans became more interesting, or the other way around. I still like to meet creatures with fun personalities even if I am mostly shooting them, and I think I remember this being the most distinct thing I can remember about playing Halo? I loved that they yelled things in English.
7. It IS nice that all of the factions except the nicely simple and pronounceable Vex are named with english words that give you a sense of what they actually are, except then every named Hive has a nonsense salad of unpronounceable syllables so I think this one evens out.
8. The novella about the Hive unlockable in the Destiny app is actually really good scifi and does a really good job of balancing science fiction nonsense, alien terminology, and very human interpersonal drama to give backstory to evil bug space zombies? The trick is that the author or authors use actual dang english words, like they call the Hive “krill,” which is like haha yes they’re bugs get it, but also it also establishes their species as being the absolute bottom of the food chain and everything on the huge gas giant they live on wants to kill or eat them, and when they go one to devour most of the universe they have a decent motivation for it at least. All of this is conveyed by just calling them a word you learned in science class before you were a teen. There are also chapters of the three sisters who originate the Hive just hanging out and having fun? They’re all so likable. They go on to extinguish countless species but there was a time where they talked like friends who loved each other. It’s neat how in prose giving them dialogue that sounds like an actual person is all you need to humanize them even though they look like some sort of horrible bug monster? It was neat and it made me root for them to get powerful enough to start consuming all life in the universe. I love that there’s so little room in the grimoire entries to tell a story they were forced to use words that meant things and like, whoever was designing the cutscenes should probably be told that this part of the game is much better?
9. The graphic design is so good. Everyone in the future is fashionable. There’s a faction you can join called the Future War Cult which is the most video games thing I cannot stop loving it. There is literally nothing in the game that is NOT a future war cult, and then there’s literally something called the Future War Cult. That’s Destiny, that’s SO Destiny, Destiny is its own answer to Destiny.