Disappointed by Destiny. Betrayed by Bungie. A 20 year relationship is over.
I’ve been a devoted fan of Bungie Software for twenty years. I was 12 years old when a friend showed me the demo version of Marathon that came with a copy of MacWorld magazine or one of the other wonderful publications from the halcyon days of the mid-90s. I was blown away by the atmosphere of the game and the hints of an epic science fiction story. 12-year-old me was still processing Star Wars, and Marathon told an equally wondrous story set in the (future) real world!
I eventually got my hands on the full version of the game (each level took 3 minutes to load on my Performa 650.) As a pre-teen I was beginning to feel the inherent frustrations of being male and 12, and Marathon gave me a universe to explore, understand, and save. Most significant: Marathon told a gripping story. It did so using text — specifically, blocks of text representing communications between characters in the story and the player.
This was of course driven by the technical limitations of computers at the time, but for me it was perfect. Those limitations forced the designers at Bungie to tell their tale with wit, metaphor, pacing, and other elements more typically associated with great literature. Even better — unlike the books I was assigned to read at school, Marathon had aliens, spaceships, and ME!
I cannot over-state the impact that Marathon and its two proper sequels had on my professional goals. Marathon was set about five hundred years into the future — far enough afield that the fictional technologies felt possible, but not so far that there was no connection to the present day. I knew that I wanted to be a part of making that grand, galaxy-spanning future for humanity. At numerous times throughout my life I have re-played the games and found inspiration to continue on the path I set for myself. As an adult, I work for NASA, and I can thank the story of Marathon; no, the vision of Marathon, for helping me develop my own vision of what I want the future to be. The canon Marathon story ends with the most satisfying conclusion of any story I have ever experienced — equal parts closure and imagination. All three games are worth playing to this day for the experience of that final block of text.
In those days Bungie was wise enough to stop while they were ahead, and we learned as the 90s ended that Bungie was working on a new game. Codenamed BLAM!, it would turn out to be Halo. I first saw Halo at E3 in 2000. My friends and I had snuck in to the trade show — my minor deviance motivated in large part to see what Bungie was working on. I waited in line for two hours outside Bungie’s theater. My first glimpse of Halo-in-development was a revelation (as it was to the entire gaming and computer community at the time.)
Halo was originally planned to be available for the Macintosh. At some point in the development process Bungie was acquired by Microsoft, primarily to make Halo an exclusive game for the new Xbox console. In my second year of college, 2001, I bought a used Xbox and Halo so I could try it out. It was everything I hoped it would be, but something was lacking. The story was good — played out in beautifully animated cutscenes — but it was missing something: depth. The technical limitations of the mid-90s personal computer forced Bungie to create a work of interactive literature. With the power of the Xbox, and every home computer and video game console since, that pressure was and is gone. Halo was still an excellent game, but it lacked the emotional depth of Marathon. Halo 2, 3 4, and the various spinoff games were acceptable, but I could hardly imagine that they were up to the original developer’s standards. With Halo 2 Microsoft created a vibrant online competitive community that continues to this day and has come to define Bungie’s output — more on this later. I had already learned that online competitive play requires more than full-time hours to remain fun, and I decided I’d rather (learn how to) talk to girls.
Halo’s endless sequels were a consequence of Microsoft’s talent for squeezing all the blood from a stone, and then continuing to squeeze until the stone collapses painfully and dies. The Bungie that knew when to quit was gone — either by their own volition or due to corporate pressure to produce. I stopped playing Halo when I realized there was no story anymore — the story had been LOST. Much like that initially deep tv show of the mid 2000s, there was no bigger story being told in chunks that would someday add up to a satisfying conclusion. There was only quarterly revenue to be gained. So, Halo was over for me.
Bungie became independent from Microsoft again, no doubt lured by the appeal of selling to all console gamers. Bungie shared around 2012 or 2013 that they were working on their “next big thing” — an experience so epic, so grand, that it would be supported and extended for an entire decade. Unprecedented in the game industry, this made waves for more than a year. Electronic Arts was announced as publisher. In retrospect this should have been a red flag. As screenshots and clips of Destiny were slowly revealed we saw that it was yet another space/alien — themed shooter. Ok, I thought, Bungie sticks to their strengths. During the year or so leading up to release a few morsels of story details became available — the usual alien threat to humanity, but a mysterious entity arriving just in time to help us and give us a tantalizing hope of salvation. A few well-worn sci-fi tropes, sure, but I’d give Bungie the benefit of the doubt. Beautiful imagery accompanied these details — emotive characters, grand planetary vistas, desperate struggles… a level of production detail never before achieved on such a grand scale.
I excitedly downloaded the beta version of Destiny and enjoyed the gameplay, excusing the lack of a digestible plot as the nature of a beta. By the time I got the full version of Destiny in September of 2014, my relationship with Bungie had lasted 20 years, and sheparded me from a pre-pimply teenager to a father myself. I look to games now for much the same reason as before — an opportunity to explore an impossible and exciting world. (I just do it for about 2 hours per week instead of many more.)
I have played Destiny for about a month now, and I am disappointed by what it has turned out to be. It has excellent gameplay, but only the faintest facade of a plot. It has visually rich characters that lack personality and beautiful vistas that lack purpose. It has a gaping hole where a story should be; a hole that cannot be filled by endless expressions of space-themed machismo or even the dulcet tones of its putative narrator, the disembodied, featureless head of Peter Dinklage. It is, despite initial marketing as a “Shared World Shooter”, an MMO in disguise. The gameplay loop serves no purpose other than to get the player to the next gameplay loop. Worse, it requires a subscription serve to access the majority of the content. That said, the content is (to me) not worth playing, because I know there is no plot beyond the flimsy justification for shooting everything that moves.
Electronic Arts has really scored a coup here. They have managed to take the multiplayer mode from the Halo games — and its rabid, mouth-foaming adherents, and created a cash generating machine. The ten year plan that so got my science fiction juices flowing is really a ten year marketing plan — a series of game expansions minimally connected to the original experience with no plot coherence.
So, I must conclude that Bungie is dead. Dead to me, at least. Perhaps even despite their best efforts, corporate beats creative.
In 1994 Bungie was a half dozen people in a Chicago basement designing an epic story told in the form of a computer game. Twenty years later, that creativity is still happening, somewhere, by someone. I look forward to seeing what they create.