How A Great Sci-Fi Epic Got Buried Inside A Video Game
Remember Destiny, Bungie's ambitious, but ultimately-too-flawed-to-live, MMORPG/Shooter/Peter-Dinklage-tormenter? No? I don't blame you. It came out in 2014, riding the most hype any one thing can have without Flavor Flav screaming in the sidecar. It was a resounding disappointment. Rightly derided for having little content variation, punishing mechanics, and worst of all: no story. In fact, that's being too generous. Destiny had the anti-story. It was a series of events seemingly tailor-made to destroy the very integrity of the word "story." It was just a list of base cliches and terrible tropes strung together incoherently, all read to you by Peter Dinklage, whom you could actually hear slowly losing the will to live as the script went on.
Looking like this the whole time.
I loved it.
I played it all the way up until last week, when I finished "Age Of Triumph" -- the game's last round of mini-content. There will be no more updates. The game is over now.
Why on earth would I keep playing that clusterfuck for three goddamn years? Was it some sort of meta-gulag for an unappreciative gamer? The curse of an especially modern witch? A dare gone terribly wrong?
Yes! To all three!
It's uh... it's been a busy year.
But there's also this: If you have the patience, the persistence, and a blatant disregard for the inherent value of your own time, Destiny actually has one of the best stories in gaming. It just didn't make it into the game itself. Well, not all of it, anyway. The explanation is very complicated, the situation is entirely unique to this particular game, and the reason why it all happened is balls-on-the-stove crazy. Bear with me here, because while I am going to try to be brief about the fantastically stupid story behind the making of Destiny, we do have to start from the very beginning to understand the very end.
Spoiler alert: Nobody ever told Bungie that.
If you're interested in the machinations of AAA gaming, or just a fan of very stupid decisions and the "logic" of the fist-chewers that make them, you should check out this exhaustive article on the behind-the-scenes of Destiny's development. I'm just going to hit on a few of its main points real quick:
Back in the early development days, Destiny did actually have writers. I know, I know: It sounds too crazy to be true, but the plot of the game was not entirely cribbed from the ramblings of an idiot trying to explain Star Wars to other, greater idiots.
There was a whole team, in fact, led by Bungie veteran Joe Staten. They'd spent years carefully crafting an entirely new world, complete with its own lore and mythology, then built a tale to introduce us all to that place -- one with a satisfying arc, yet still leaving some key territory intriguingly unexplored. Just before launch, the time came to show the brass what all their effort had wrought, so the writing team mocked up a quick video to give the higher-ups the gist. And the higher-ups fucking hated it. But they didn't send the writers back to address these concerns, or even hire a whole new team. The brass, for possibly the first time in history, decided they should do the work themselves.
Yes, all of it. From a source on the team:
"The writing team Joe put together was ostracized. The story was written without writers."
And who needs them in a story?
The brass set about creating their whole new story, but they didn't have the time, or money, or desire to do it the right way, so they slapped it all together exclusively from existing resources. And again, remember: This is all being done weeks before launch. Staten and team spent years writing the original version; the Bad News Bears of game design gave themselves two weeks to Frankenstein a new one together out of the screaming pieces of the old one.
"The priority was, 'Hey, we have to take a bunch of content that we've spent millions of dollars on, we need to cobble it together in a way that is not going to break continuity, and we've gotta do it quickly.'"
Needless to say, basically everybody hated this new story. Even avid Destiny players couldn't defend it. They liked the game in spite of itself, because they could just "feel" something else was going on. And, in fact, if you venture far, far beyond the bounds of Destiny -- literally leaving the game itself behind, turning off the console, going to your computer, jumping on the internet, and carefully navigating a cramped and confusing archive on Bungie's website -- you'll find the lore files. Countless pages of text, most of it left over from Staten and his writing team. That's where Bungie inexplicably stowed the rich, sprawling world they'd made.
And this isn't like regular game lore, in which you'd find a recording, or a book, or something that expands and adds some flavor to an already existing world. Regular game lore is never absolutely vital to the story itself, much less containing the entirety of said story, as with Destiny. But if you have the mentality for it, if you have the time for it, and if you're a bit of a masochist, you can cobble together a pretty amazing narrative from this wreck.
It's just that you have to do so very much work: First, you must collect the "grimoire" cards (none of the original story is in the game, true, but it's still kind of around the game. For some reason, Bungie gated their entire world behind a massive set of arbitrary accomplishments). You do this by finding guns that only drop randomly, killing a certain amount of enemies, earning some obscure achievement, beating the highest endgame content, etc. -- each of those tasks unlocks a little bit of story. Just a paragraph or two, sometimes less.
Only then do you earn the right to go to Bungie's website, create an account with your personal information, and sort through a slew of arbitrary categories to find which grimoire card your latest action unlocked. Assemble all of that into something coherent, commit it to memory, and then go back into the game armed with said knowledge, and everything changes. Yes, even the stupid parts.
The story in vanilla Destiny goes like this: You wake up in what looks like a modest neighborhood in Detroit, where a "ghost" -- your little floating pal, voiced by the most begrudging Peter Dinklage this side of Knights Of Badassdom -- informs you that you were dead, but you're not anymore, and there's work to do.
You shoot a few things and make it to The Last City (the first of many laughably uncreative names) only to find that The Traveler (told you so!) -- this big moon thing in the sky -- is badly hurt, or possibly dead, or whatever. The game assumes, perhaps rightly, that you don't really give a shit.
The point is, "The Light" (double told you so!) is losing its battle against "The Darkness" (okay, I literally can't keep this up), and it needs your help. You zip around from planet to planet, doing what are probably things for, surely, reasons -- turn on a computer, absorb some crystal stuff, shoot a guy with pokey bits on his head -- until you eventually meet a female robot, whose allegiances and origins are tantalizingly mysterious. She hints at a brutal alternate future, a team of time-travelling roughnecks breaking all rules to make things right, and a grand mysterious plot churning throughout the universe. It's almost too tantalizing, but don't worry -- she is abruptly dropped from the game and never mentioned again.
Tantalization over! That's what you're supposed to do with tantalization, right? End it abruptly as soon as possible? Damn, Bungie: The last time somebody hated stimulation this much, they invented Graham Crackers.
In fact, when you have the gall to ask the magic mystery time robot what's up with her magical mystery, she tells you -- actual quote here -- "I don't have time to explain why I don't have time to explain."
If a story could come to life and spit in your eye for reading it, that's how it would feel.
So anyway, you head on over to a place with bad robots, which also has something to do with time travel, and you shoot them until they stop being bad. The end!
Yes, Destiny somehow achieves the remarkable feat of being both too convoluted, as well as so oversimplified that it feels like a parent explaining the basic concept of morality to a very stupid toddler. But if you've already gone through all of the game's main story -- plus hundreds more equally confounding game hours, then ditched the game itself to invest a few weeks sorting out scraps of lore on the terrible website -- you'll find some pretty solid sci-fi hidden in there. And what's more, it accomplishes a very tough trick: Tying actual game mechanics into the story in a way that both makes sense in the moment, and contributes to the overall world afterward.
Most of Destiny's secondary plots revolve around one of the game's races, the Hive, which the game itself explains are bad, because they are ugly, so you should shoot them. Do a few hundred hours of homework, though, and you get a much more compelling story:
It starts with The Fundament, something like a gas giant that pulls in and absorbs smaller planets. Shattered on impact, what remains of their continents float adrift on a quasi-solid "ocean." Different races live on each of these, and depending on the drift, intermittently share borders. The Hive were the weakest of them all, constantly subjugated by whoever drifted into them. They lived by what they called The Timid Truth: That they were, and would always be, the weakest things alive. Only existing to "feed" the greater beings. Essentially the krill of the universe. They only lived a few years, anyway. Why get all hot and bothered about dying?
After most of their family and kingdom were butchered, a few of the Hive began to hear voices calling them below. They directed the Hive to a ship, which they took down below the waves. When they finally made it to the center of their world, they realized something: the Fundament wasn't really a gas giant. The core of their planet was actually a Worm-god -- an immensely powerful being -- and it pulled those other worlds in for a reason. Eventually, the Hive struck a deal with the Worm-god: In exchange for taking its larvae into their bodies, they would become both powerful and immortal.
Like the Xenomorphs meet Dracula. The most scarring episode of Scooby Doo ever made.
The catch: They must always obey their nature, be it strength, cunning, or curiosity. It didn't sound too bad, so they accepted.
Those Worm-gods were of "The Deep" -- what Destiny calls The Darkness -- and at war with "The Sky" (The Light). The war was one of metaphor: The Deep believes that life thrives through competition, while The Sky holds that cooperation is the key. It's kind of a neat mash-up of The Force and Darwinism, and while it may not be Heinlein-caliber science fiction, it functions as pretty solid folklore to ground the story in, plus it gives you some understanding of what side you're supposed to be on, and why.
The story of the Hive family goes about as well as you'd expect a "pact with ancient gods" to go: They spread the larvae throughout their race, they all grew stronger, and expanded across the universe, all the while trying to honor the pact. But what seemed easy turned out to be a curse: They could never stop growing stronger, no matter the cost. They could never stop practicing cunning, even on their own kind. They could never stop exploring, and therefore conquering.
One of those original Hive siblings would later become Oryx, The Taken King. Because of the pact, he could never rest: He conquered everything he encountered, but it wasn't enough. He killed his sisters, and it wasn't enough. He killed some of the Worm-gods themselves, and they barely minded: It was still honoring his nature -- the nature of The Deep -- so everything was fair game.
But, yeah, that gun will probably do the trick for you.
Now, it's nearly always bullshit when a story resurrects dead characters over and over again. It means they're out of ideas. But this was built into the Hive folklore from the start: The power of the Worm-gods came from metaphor, and that's what they granted the Hive. Oryx and his sisters were immortal because their physical bodies were just shells. Their essence actually occupied "The Sword Space," an embodiment of the logic that life thrives only under competition. If you want them dead, you have to do it in The Sword Space, using their own metaphors.
This is what two of the big endgame raids in Destiny are really about. As a player, all you know is that these are full of bad guys and you have some chores to do before you can kill them. You move orbs around because that's what opens the next section, you stand on plates to activate stuff, you kill a guy with a sword because what the hell else are you gonna do? He's right there, and you got a sword.
Frankly, if your first solution to every problem isn't already "SWORD!" You don't deserve to have a sword.
You're never prompted to question it. You're doing video game crap because it's video game crap. It's often complicated and requires careful teamwork, but it all seems arbitrary. And yet, factor in all that exhaustive folklore, and every seemingly random action you take starts to make sense. What's more, the big bad villain, Oryx -- who gets about four generically threatening lines in the entire story -- becomes a much more solid and tragic villain. Maybe he doesn't replace Alan Rickman in your heart (nobody ever will), but it's better than "his head is pointy; kill him!"
Another example: One of the game's raids, "Crota's End," starts with you jumping into a big hole, running around in a dark pit, killing some dudes who have the audacity to hold cool swords in your presence, when it is, in fact, you who should be holding the cool sword, then taking down the big guy with -- get this! -- his own sword.
All of this is accompanied by complete and mystifying silence from the game. It literally has nothing to say about any of that. But in the lore, the big hole is the portal taking you from reality to The Sword Space, and everything you do afterward is combat via metaphor. You destroy the sword-dudes using their own weapons to prove that you, too, embrace the Sword Logic; you kill the end boss in the same way -- by overwhelming him with blunt force, then when he shows weakness, you stab him with his own blade -- because he can only be destroyed by the metaphors that he embraces and agrees to follow.
It all feels brainless and random at the time -- like you're jumping through hoops just to jump through them -- but jigsaw together that secret lore and it makes for some of the strongest moments in gaming. And every raid is like that!
In "King's Fall," you set out to finally take down Oryx, which starts with you crossing through another portal -- another exit from reality into metaphor -- and fighting The Warpriest. Just like his name implies, he worships combat. So by fighting him, you're not really "hurting" him -- you're worshipping with him. Scattered bits of lore even warn you about the dangers of this: Doing thing's Oryx's way, in his realm. You're basically abandoning the Light's philosophy and embracing the logic of the Darkness. You don't know that, at the time: You're there to shoot things and take names, and the names these things have are pretty dumb, so you may as well just shoot things. But layering the lore onto it sets the whole thing as a kind of moral debate, and one that you might have to lose to finish the level. That's kind of heavy stuff for a shooter. Maybe it's not exactly Kant, but reading Kant doesn't involve hurling flaming hammers at a god-knight, either. Both works have their strong points.
"Immanuel Kant even compete, am I right folks? You've been great. Tip your waitresses."
Hidden meaning is everywhere in the game. A shooter revolves around weapons, most of which are pretty straightforward: They shoot. Destiny tags each of these with a bit of flavor text, and then heads for the door -- job done, time to drink away the sorrow. But delve into those texts, and you'll find they're often historical or literary references that not only add character to the gun, but also explain what the gun does, and the right way to use it.
Some of the guns even tell their own epic stories, and they're far more compelling than anything the vanilla plot gives you. Let that sink in for a second: The item description of a gun is more thoughtful than the game itself. There's got to be a metaphor for gaming culture in there somewhere, but it might be a Hive trap, so I'm not thinking about it.
At some point, you get a hand cannon called The Last Word. The game lets you know that this has a badass-sounding name, and it shoots well up close. End of story. Another is called The First Curse, and it's best used at range. A third is named Thorn, and it has a kind of poison effect that deals small amounts of damage over time. That's as much as you know, unless you go spelunking through obscure internet archives, desperately seeking out more information about a fake pistol. Most people don't. Most people value their time.
But if you, like me, actively hate your free time, you'll find that the three guns tell an entire tragic space western, full of actual characters, with actual arcs, and an actual point. The details are too much to get into here, but the gist: A good space cowboy is honorable. He meets you in a fair draw, right up close, the both of you relying solely on your reflexes. That's The Last Word. A bad space cowboy is in it for the kill. The only thing he wants to do is send a single bullet into your skull. That's The First Curse. Over the course of the lore hidden behind the guns, the good guys kill the bad guys, the good guys lose their way, turn into bad guys themselves, and are killed. That's Thorn: The damage done over time.
There's a fucking gun with a morality arc!
That is a crazy amount of synergy between story and mechanic -- a goddamn feat in video game writing -- and Destiny hides it all more intensely than you do your porn stash. No, not the decoy one you keep so people will think you're normal if they go looking through your files. The real one. The gross one.
And then there's "The Vault Of Glass": in-game, a complicated raid about bad robots, and the bashing of them with a magic shield thingy. In the lore, a tragic fallen hero/twisty-time-travel-thriller about Kabr, an ancient guardian who made the ultimate sacrifice: He took his little ghost pal -- the source of his own power and immortality -- and destroyed it (and therefore himself) to make a weapon, in the hopes that one day someone would come along and use it to avenge his fallen team, who were scattered throughout time, their very existences erased. Take a close look at that shield thingy you've been using in the game, and what do you know: It's actually a ghost, hammered flat, leaking light.
"Let the backstory also show, I did not volunteer for that."
Okay, so maybe it's not Asimov, but it's something. Literally something -- which is so much more than the game's nothing. Nearly everything in Destiny is like this: linked backstories to every item, location, or action, that actually fit the mechanics, as well as add depth to the world -- and for some reason, the game itself is so very ashamed of that. Destiny presents itself as one of the stupidest shooters possible, but if you do a bunch of secret, frustrating work, all of the stupid parts turn into a pretty neat story. It's such a bizarre thing to do, and being a fan of convoluted, avant-garde narrative bullshit, I think it might be brilliant.
But I'm not actually defending the game here: If you thought Destiny was dumb on release -- and don't feel you should have to work this hard to milk any kind of meaning out of your entertainment -- you are absolutely correct. You have to judge the experience based on what it gives you, and Destiny doesn't give you a damn thing. It is downright hostile to the player. It is aggressively stupid, and bland, and in your face, but then -- only in absolute secrecy, mind you -- it's also thoughtful. Even a little deep at times.
It's basically the video game equivalent of Judd Nelson's character from The Breakfast Club, and much like every teenage girl in the '80s, I fucking love that guy. Even though I know I shouldn't.
Robert Brockway also writes bizarre, convoluted avant-garde bullshit, which he puts in books that you can unlock with plain ol' money. He also has a stupid facade he presents to the world; it's his Twitter account.
For more insight into big gaming disappointments, check out 5 Things We Learned Making One Of The Worst Video Games Of All Time and 5 Things I Learned Making The Biggest Flop In Video Game History.
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