Even if you haven’t played Destiny yet, you probably know that the story is about a group of warriors called Guardians who defend The Last City on Earth from an unknown encroaching Darkness. Also there’s a big white Borg Sphere reject called The Traveler involved somehow. If you have played Destiny, then you know that the story is about a group of warriors called Guardians who defend The Last City on Earth from an unknown encroaching Darkness. And that the big white Borg Sphere reject called The Traveler is involved somehow.
Before Destiny came out I was expecting the story to be akin to what Bungie gave us in the Halo series: a big space epic filled with interesting characters, extensive lore, and wicked villains. I figured there would be a mix of linear missions filled with combat and scripted events, plus a full suite of CG cutscenes for most of the plot and dialogue. You know, basically what every game does. When I first sat down to play Destiny, I realized I was going to get a very different story experience. What I didn’t expect was that that experience would completely suck.
Destiny’s story is by far the weakest area of the game. It is so hands off, so minimalist in its approach that you learn nothing about the world, nothing about what you’re trying to accomplish, nothing about your enemies, nothing about the characters, basically, nothing at all. Once I realized that the game was never going to fill in the blanks for me, I decided to fill them in myself.
Destiny begins with a boring voice-over by Bill Nighy which told me the two things about the game I already knew: The Traveler is good; The Darkness is bad. The game proper kicks off by having robot Peter Dinklage (henceforth called Dinklebot) wake me up from the dead. With Space Magic. He quickly informed me that The Fallen (the who?) are attacking and that I should run into those caves to find cover and a weapon. I grabbed my first gun and blasted my way through a bunch of easy enemies, found a ship, and headed for The Tower, apparently the main base of operations.
Once there I was greeted by Bill Nighy, who said some cryptic things, some dumb things, some boring things, and some things that provided more questions than answers. After he left me to wander about The Tower I had some revelations about the world of Destiny. The Guardians are a secluded cult of weirdos who live in a tower isolated from the normal human population. The Tower has a 100% gun based economy where every business either sells guns or things to protect you from guns. Every gun and article of clothing can be broken down into money and component materials used to buy and upgrade, you guessed it, more guns. The Guardians believe they are the last bastion of Light left in the world and that they are all that stands between human civilization and an unknown, fast approaching Darkness. It was at this moment that I realized Peter Dinklage had woke me up from the dead to join the future NRA. I therefore did the only sensible thing under the circumstances: I bought as many guns as I could afford, jumped in my ship, and blasted off in search of Space Obama so I could staple the 2nd Amendment to his forehead. But by half way through the game Space Obama had yet to show up, and by the end of the game this metaphor had worn out its welcome.
The issue at hand here is that Destiny’s story never explains anything. There’s plenty of techno-babble and oblique references to what I assume is the lore, but it’s all meaningless noise when I don’t understand any of it. You can’t throw some aliens on the screen, call them The Fallen, and expect me to accept that they’re bad guys at face value because I’m going to have some questions. Like, “where did they fall from? And why aren’t their shins broken?”
To answer burning questions like these, you actually have to shut down the game and access the Grimoir, Destiny’s online lore database. The more you play the game, the more back story becomes available to browse in the Grimoir. This is stupid for several reasons. First, most people are never going to look at the Grimoir, so the whole thing is a bit of a waste. Second, a game is supposed to use its lore to draw you in and immerse you in its world, not use it as a barrier of entry to understanding what the hell is going on. Third, the existence of the Grimoir makes you resent the poorly developed story even more. The game does have rich lore and extensive back story. It just doesn’t incorporate any of it. Finally, the nail in the coffin is that that the user interface on the Grimoir is clunky and terrible. I’m a lore junky, and I abandoned browsing it in around five minutes. One day I’ll look things up on the Wiki.
Another issue with the story is that it never really goes anywhere. That’s not to say that the environments don’t change (they do), but there’s no sense of progression, no feel of an arc, no build up for a climax. Part of that is because all the missions basically boil down to doing the same thing: arrive at planet, shoot aliens, travel from point A to B while shooting aliens, arrive at point B, shoot aliens, have Dinklebot hack something, shoot wave after wave of aliens until the hack is finished. It’s hard to feel like you’re accomplishing something when the next mission has you do the exact same thing as the last mission, just in a slightly different location.
Initially, I was bamboozled by how bad the story in Destiny actually was. This was made by the same people who did Halo? How is that even possible? Then I realized that for better or for worse, Destiny is a very different game from Halo.
Because Destiny is an RPG, its story is partially hamstrung right out of the gate. RPGs are repetitive by definition. You play an RPG to build a character and to level up by doing the same things over and over. Having similar, repetitive missions gives players a lot of endlessly replayable content. Missions that are heavily scripted or story driven become tedious after you’ve played them a few times. Once you know all the plot twists, jumping through hoops to trigger them for the 16th time becomes boring. Destiny’s solution is to remove plot twists.
Because Destiny is a social game, meaning it is meant to be played with your friends, the story is rarely the main focus for its players. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about playing in groups, it’s that the first thing about a game to be completely ignored is the story. The first time I played Halo Reach I was with three friends and none of us had any idea what was happening or why we were doing anything. That’s because groups of gamers never shut up. They talk over the dialogue; they talk over the exposition; they talk over the character development. Destiny’s solution is to remove the dialogue, the exposition, and the character development.
It’s a crude solution, and the result is an incredibly minimalist presentation that merely points groups of players towards the next group of aliens in need of decapitation via bullets. It’s not that this is an inherently bad decision. Some games work very effectively with minimalist stories. The issue is that it’s so poorly executed.
Consider Left 4 Dead. In the broad strokes it’s a similar type of game. It’s a shooter, it’s inherently social, it has a minimalist story, it reuses the same environments over and over, and all of the gameplay basically boils down to shooting endless hordes of zombies. But Left 4 Dead does two things very differently. First, Left 4 Dead doesn’t script its levels. Enemy placement is dynamic, making every play-through different each time you play it. Destiny, with its open world environments and wide variety of enemies, easily could have structured its missions this way. Second, Left 4 Dead’s dialogue is varied and funny. Instead of hearing the same lines in the same locations over and over again, the game has a whole host of lines which it selects randomly each time you play. The same events transpire, but the dialogue is different. Most important of all though is that the dialogue is funny. You might be shooting zombies in the Dark Carnival for the 16th time, but the experience is immediately enriched when your character walks passed a cotton candy stand and idly remarks, “Ah cotton candy, the wise pharaoh of foods, sitting atop the food pyramid, passing judgment down on all the lesser foods.” There’s no reason why Destiny couldn’t have done this too.
Bungie knows how to write funny dialogue. The Halo series was packed with it. Remember Sgt. Johnson’s pep talk about the enemy trying to steal the mysterious Halo ring? “I don’t care if it’s God’s own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine, or a giant hula hoop, we’re not gonna let ’em have it! What we will let ’em have is a belly full of lead, and a pool of their own blood to drown in!” Remember Cortana’s admonishment of Master Chief when he naively suggests they should activate Halo’s defense systems? “This ring isn’t a cudgel you barbarian.” Even The Arbiter with his aloof sense of gravitas and general air of awesomeness would still yell, “You shot me FOO!” during friendly fire incidents. Maybe I can excuse Destiny’s lackluster plot as a symptom of its design. But it’s boring, wooden dialogue? That is unforgivable.
Dinklebot should be brimming with sarcasm and wit. He should have funny quips for a myriad of situations, alternate lines for the scripted plot exposition moments, even verbal banter with other characters over the radio. He’s your helper character. He’s the one character that absolutely has to be interesting and fun to have around for the story to be enjoyable. But he’s not. He’s boring and dull and lifeless. Yeah he’s a robot, but that doesn’t mean he has to be robotic. In fact, Bungie’s previous AI characters had the most interesting, most idiosyncratic personalities of all their characters. Dinklobot feels like a robot that’s trying desperately to have a personality, but doesn’t really understand the principles involved. Thankfully he knows when to shut up, so he’s not getting into Navi’s Club of Hated Helper Characters any time soon, but his dullness is one of the game’s biggest issues.
If Dinklebot was entertaining, the story would at least be palatable, but it wouldn’t excuse how bad it is. Sure, the story is crippled by the design, but there are plenty of other shooters and RPGs, even shooter RPGs, that tell good stories. Destiny could have pulled it off too. Any number of changes, from the minor to the systemic would have made the story more interesting and the world more immersive. The Grimoir could have been viewable in-game. Tidbits of lore could have been flashed up on the screen during loading screens or pre-game lobbies (Elder Scrolls anyone?). Conversations with characters in The Tower could have been incorporated. The entire script could have been fired into the sun with a giant slingshot and replaced with one that didn’t suck.
Next up: The Crucible