This is part two of four parts to my analysis of Bungie’s Destiny.
Check out Part 1, where I look at visuals, level design, enemy design, etc.; Part 3: I spend my entire blogpost discussing how things have been named in Destiny; and Part 4: where I predict the future of Destiny’s story based on evidence that Destiny is a symbolic retelling of the story from Bungie’s Pathways into Darkness, but from the point of view of the monsters.
BOSS BATTLE DESIGN (analysis in the form of a haiku):
Big guy, lots of health,
stands still, and minions respawn.
Over and over.
CHARACTER CREATION (analysis in the form of a limerick):
You choose how you look in the game,
Don’t matter if it’s cool or it’s lame,
Ex or Awoken,
And the humans are token,
In the end, they play just the same.
CHARACTER CLASSES (another limerick!):
The classes you choose just won’t change
The tactics you’ll use in the game.
You can fight PvP,
Or go grind PvE,
But, your gun is the way that you reign.
GUNS (analysis in the form of writing what the guns sound like):
THE INABILITY TO PICK UP ALIEN WEAPONS (analysis in the form of a screenshot from Bungie’s 1994 FPS, Marathon):
The Awoken Queen looks like a 16 year old girl, but her voice sounds like a 30 year old woman.
The Queen’s brother looks stupid. Why does he have an Emo haircut? This is a very specific style of modern hair that just looks out of place in this setting.
Why isn’t there more use out of the player ships? Why can’t we fly them around a little during loading screens, even just for fun? Why isn’t there a power that let’s us use our ships to make orbital drops? I remember something like that being used in a Metroid game on the Wii, but you summoned your ship to carry large objects, rather than bomb the enemies.
Cut scenes cannot be skipped or muted.
I’m pretty sure the credits screen also cannot be skipped. I’m serious, I tried.
LOOT, FARMING, AND RPG STUFF:
I don’t like grinding. No one likes grinding. No one likes doing 20 strike missions in a row when there’s only 5 to choose from, just to do get one step closer to unlocking an exotic. This is moronic.
Some people compare Destiny to Borderlands. Destiny is not Borderlands. I know this because I actually like Destiny, and I hate, hate, hate, hate, HATE Borderlands.
In Borderlands, no matter how good your weapon is, it becomes useless after about five minutes and you have to hunt for a better gun. I can’t stand that. I just want to play a fun game. I don’t want to have that fun taken away from me every five minutes because the enemies are leveling up. When I’m using a weapon that I really like, I’d like to keep using it for more than five god damn minutes.
I know some people love the loot farming aspect of Borderlands. Those people remind me of old ladies playing the nickel slots at casinos for eight hours a day. Like, why do you hate yourself?
Having to level up a subclass separately from your main class is stupid. Especially since when you level up that class you don’t even start with grenades, melee, and super jumping. It’s really stupid that you have to start completely from scratch.
It’s nice, though that you can switch around your skills whenever you please, once you’ve unlocked them.
BUNGIE’S WRITERS DON’T SEEM TO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING…
I could harp on the narrative story for pages and pages. But, I won’t. Instead, I’ll just look at a couple of examples that can act as microcosms for the story telling as a whole.
Take for example Phobos, which is one of Mars’ asteroid-moons. You can see it during the Mars missions: it’s the giant asteroid looking thing in the sky. In fact, I believe you’re staring right in its direction when you first spawn on Mars. So, clearly it’s important since it’s so big, you start by looking at it, and you can see it from almost any location on Mars. But, we never learn why it’s important. Which is a big deal, as I’ll explain.
Now the reason it appears so big is that (according to the grimoire cards) the Cabal used their Psions to pull Phobos closer to Mars in preparation to launch the entire moon at Earth and destroy us. Which is kind of awesome.
Problem is, this is never explained or even hinted at in the actual game. Which is really negligent. You don’t even see something like a hologram showing the trajectory of Phobos being calculated to hit Earth, which could clue us in to what it’s deal happens to be.
The whole Phobos narrative is important, and it’s a powerful visual. It shows the strength of the Cabal and the threat they pose towards humanity. And, because Phobos is a giant set piece that is seen from almost any point during Mars missions, it is a CONSTANT reminder of that threat. It is such a dominating visual presence that I’ve seen several internet playthroughs where the players actual stop and wonder what that thing is in the sky. Is it a mountain? Is it an asteroid? Why is it so big? And then they just shrug their shoulders and move on because their are no answers.
So, considering how well it works at drawing the attention of players, it is really negligent that Bungie didn’t use that opportunity for some non-expository storytelling. And, I can’t stress enough how powerful this moment of storytelling really is, especially since you can’t do anything about this threat at this point in the game.
When you see Phobos, you’re dealing with another threat, the Vex and the Black Garden (although we never really learn why it’s a threat, but whatever). So, you can’t deal with the Phobos threat because you’re dealing with SO MANY threats and you can only attack them one at a time. Obviously, we will deal with it eventually, which makes Phobos act as a bit of foreshadowing, but staring up at that giant asteroid moon as it is prepared to annihilate humanity really drives home how impotent humanity must feel in the face of all these disasters.
If you have several set pieces like this (one or two for each alien race) then you really create this sense that every bullet in the universe is about to be fired at Earth.
But, of course Bungie didn’t address any of that. The moon appears in Mars’ sky with no explanation and no context. It’s just there, and it means nothing to the player when it could have meant a great deal.
Now let’s move on to a short bit of dialogue. It’s only one sentence, but it really shows how a lot of the storytelling in Bungie seems half-assed, unplanned, and incomplete.
It’s near the end of the story campagin. You appear in the Black Garden and you fight through a bunch of Vex to get to the Boss Room. You see a bunch of Vex Goblins kneeling in submission in front of an undulating, amorphous blob that looks like it was animated in 1998.
Your Dinkbot says, “Think you can kill a god?”
A ballsy question… but hold on a sec. What the hell is Dinkbot talking about?
This is the first mention of any sort of god in this entire mission. It may even be the only mention of a god in the entire game. There has been no buildup and no clues to suggest that the Black Garden contains a Vex God. Why would Dinkbot suddenly just assume that this amorphous, undulating blob is a god? Where in the world (pun intended) did he get that idea?
I mean, sure the Vex are kneeling in front of it, but why does that mean its a god? Couldn’t it just be their king? Couldn’t it be a High Priest who is preaching to them? Couldn’t it just be a “statue” of a god and not the god itself? And then it begs the question of why does Dinkbot think you’re going to kill the god. Couldn’t it be that you’re just going to close the doorway to the god? Couldn’t this just be an avatar of the god and you’re destroying the avatar?
Dinkbot’s dialogues simply makes no sense.
But let’s say it does. Let’s say Dinkbot totally has a rational reason for thinking this is a killable god of the Vex, and let’s assume he’s absolutely correct.
This dialogue still comes completely out of nowhere for the player. Leading up to this point, Dinkbot’s dialogue has not in any way prepared us for, “Think you can kill a god?” It just comes off as a random comment. No other character has hinted at the presence of a god in the Black Garden. Nowhere in the Black Garden level, leading up to the final boss battle, do we see anything hinting at what’s about to take place. There’s no statues of amorphous blobs lining the corridors, there’s no mosaics or stained glass windows displaying amorphous blobs being worshipped by Vex. Nothing.
So, this line of dialogue just makes no sense in context of what has taken place in the game, and even if it made sense to Bungie’s writers, it randomly comes out of nowhere from the player’s perspective.
So, it comes off like Bungie’s writers don’t know what they’re doing.
…. EXCEPT THE WRITERS DO KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING (GRIMOIRE CARDS):
Now, I hate the whole notion of Grimoire cards, and the fact that the story is being told outside the context of gameplay. It’s even worse that you can’t view the cards in-game and have to go on Bungie’s website.
But, still, you can see some evidence of really good writing in the grimoire cards. They’re not all great, some of them are lame or bad, but there’s others that show some real talent and imagination among Bungie’s writers.
So, let’s look at these well written grimoire cards (and let’s avoid the badly written ones).
(I’ll be providing links to Destiny Tracker, a pretty cool and useful site that happens to have the grimoire cards available for everyone.
Here’s a grimoire card that tells us a vignette about the Nine, a mysterious… something. Xur, the vendor in the tower, has been sent by the Nine, and he’s a pretty weird guy. We know almost nothing about the Nine.
The Nine are survivors of the cis-Jovian colonies who made a compact with an alien force to ensure their own survival.
The Nine are deep-orbit warminds who weathered the Collapse in hardened stealth platforms.
The Nine are ancient leviathan intelligences from the seas of Europa or the hydrocarbon pits of Titan.
The Nine arrived in a mysterious transmission from the direction of the Corona-Borealis supercluster.
The Nine are the firstborn Awoken and their minds now race down the field lines of the Jupiter-Io flux tube.
The Nine are Ghosts who pierced the Deep Black without a ship and meditated on the hissing silence of the heliopause.
The Nine are the aspects of the Darkness, broken by the Traveler’s rebuke, working to destroy us from within.
The Nine is a viral language of pure meaning.
The Nine are the shadows left by the annihilation of a transcendent shape, burned into the weft of what is.”
I love this vignette so much.
After a couple of lines it should be clear to the reader that none of these things are true. These statements contradict each other, so they can’t all be true, and the way it’s written should be a clue to the reader that NONE of them are true. These must be rumors about what the Nine are, the kind of thing you might hear in a tavern from a drunk stranger.
There’s also nine of these rumors, which is a nice touch.
Sure, there’s some questionable writing, like, “a viral language of pure meaning.” Aren’t ALL languages made of pure meaning? It’s not like there’s some language out there made out of confusion. But, that’s beside the point.
What I love about this story is that by NOT telling us anything conrete about the Nine, this vignette tells us A LOT about the Nine and about the universe of Destiny (although nothing specific). The vignette communicates in vagaries, shadows, and implications.
This list about the Nine implies they are incredibly mysterious, obviously, but that they’re also very powerful and unlike anything else in this universe. They are transcendental. They’re also viewed with awe, trepidation, and wonder by the people of Earth. They cast a massive shadow, whatever their body actually is like. They are something familiar while simultaneously being something completely exotic.
There is also the possibility that by listing these nine contradictory “facts” about the Nine, that the writer is implying that the Nine are so strange and incredible that no written language could ever actually describe them accurately.
When the Nine will be revealed in the game, there are two possible outcomes. Either they will be completely mundane, a complete reversal of the rumors. Or, they will be even stranger than the strangest of all these rumors.
And also, if these rumors are believable to the people of Destiny’s universe, then that’s how weird that universe really is. Leviathan intelligences in ice seas of Jupiter’s moons? An alien transmission managing to command and lead a group of former humans? Yeah, that’s all possible in the universe of Destiny.
Let’s look at another vignette from the grimoire cards. This one is a list, written by a Fallen Dreg.
“A ROUTINE SUMMATION OF DARLINGS WON AND HEROICALLY HELD DURING THIS PROFITABLE CYCLE, AS COMPILED BY A DREG
ammunition of rich makes, quantity adequate to incinerate 6X6 foe
11 operational weapons, alien design, suitable for salvage
3 explosive charges of obvious design, suitable for salvage
1 cabal fusion reactor, disabled but perhaps repairable
61 machines, alien, inoperable, unknown significances
13 alien machines, inoperable, known significances
1103 twists of essence
15 human body parts, kept for study, scorn
55 human adornments, full of glory and warm memory, worth the cost of their acquisition and more so
some ether, quantity negligible
considerable experience in battle
4 dregs dead, rendering House of Winter weaker
1 dreg honoring self and House, leading to consideration of fabricated arms
1 disabled Fallen skiff, scrubbed of House identity and stories
1 Fallen story found beside the disabled skiff, unknown House, partly corrupted, rendered as follows:
what others call dark which is not I know what it is but no time room calm given for an appropriate telling so I say only that what is not shadow is an ally and a wonder and I respect what I cannot steal from and you cannot take from the dark you can claim only pain from the dark and that is why the dark is worthy of love beyond all other love that astonishing ability to evade being robbed
I love what I will not name
1 story, Fallen and found beneath the skiff, unknown House, story uncorrupted
subsequently the second recording has been washed away
I know what no one else knows and now I am a marvel with ten thousand arms”
I love non-traditional forms of storytelling, and this short story is a great example (and yes, this list is in fact a short story). I mean towards the end it kind of loses its punch because it’s trying to convey some foreshadowing about Destiny’s plot, but everything before then is golden.
ESPECIALLY the line, “15 human body parts, kept for study, scorn”. That line is nearly perfect. I could actually spend paragraphs talking about this line. For example, if it said “kept for study and scorn” then the line would have been ruined. The presence of “and” would have destroyed the tone and rhythm of the sentence and it would not have as good an impact. That one comma between “study” and “scorn” conveys so much about the Fallen and their mentality. This elegant sentence pretty much tells us everything would could possibly want or need to know about the Fallen.
And that’s just one sentence in this short story.
There’s also the line, “ammunition of rich makes, quantity adequate to incinerate 6X6 foe”, whose unique unit of measuring quantity, again, tells us a lot about Fallen culture and how they view the world. Or, the notion that, “considerable experience in battle” is one of the darlings that this Fallen dreg managed to win, which shows us that the Fallen aren’t just interested in material wealth, but that knowledge is worth just as much to them as fusion reactors or weapons. Or, the use of the term “darlings” to describe the treasures they’ve won.
This whole short story is just packed with information and atmosphere, and told in an efficient unique way.
What’s most interesting is that this form of prose is almost identical to the natural form of narrative storytelling in video games. Cinematics, dialogues trees, and audio diaries are not natural forms of narrative video game storytelling; they are all forms of storytelling from other mediums FORCED into a video game. And I hate them.
And yet, in this grimoire card there is an assortment of objects which are presented to the audience and we are then allowed to interpret them however we please. Technically you don’t even need to read this list in order, even though it’s organized very deliberately. And that’s exactly how narrative storytelling works in games. The player is just given a world, or a scene, and allowed to explore it and interpret it however he sees fit. No one flat out states exposition like, “the Fallen value knowledge as much as weapons” (at least not in good storytelling they don’t). And inevitably, if done right, everyone winds up experiencing the same thing even though they approached it from different angles.
It’s fantastic, and this kind of storytelling could easily be translated into the game of Destiny if Bungie would just let this writer work with the level designers and artists to create some in-game stories like this grimoire card.
The closest thing we have in Destiny to this type of storytelling is when we see the Hive or the Vex kneeling and praying in front of things. Which pretty much gives Destiny the same level of in-game storytelling prowess as Doom (E3M4):
WHY THE STORY IS NEVER GOING TO BE FIXED (the people calling the shots don’t know what they’re doing, even if the writers do):
Here’s a Eurogamer interview with President of Bungie, Harold Ryan, where they ask him about the complaints about Destiny’s story.
Here’s the excerpt I want to analyze:
“One of the things people criticised Destiny for was the lack of story in terms of how it played out within the missions. For example, there was a general lack of characters, exposition, cutscenes and dialogue – the kind of stuff we’ve seen a lot of in the Halo series. Is that something you will address with the story missions in the DLC?
Harold Ryan: What you’ll see in this expansion, it’s going to be a very different approach to telling a new story to players than the thematically-driven story from the original launch of the game. It’s going to feel much more loot driven and story driven in that it’s going to feel faster-paced with more action as you go through it, and with exposition. The important thing about Eris is, this story is going to be her story, and she’s going to send you on a mission that’s a lot of fun.”
Based on his response, I don’t think Harold Ryan knows what he’s talking about.
First he claims that the story in Destiny was “thematically-driven”. Really, Harold? What exactly were the themes in Destiny that drove the story? There were none, because in order for there to be themes there first needs to be concrete story elements that build up those themes, and there aren’t any. Also, in order to be thematically-driven, the story needs to be driving towards a specific goal. Destiny’s story just meanders around aimlessly. Here’s an excuse to go to the Moon, here’s an excuse to go to Venus, here’s an excuse to go to Mars. Why are we doing it? Who cares!
Second, Harold Ryan seems to think that telling a story in a video game involves telling an individual’s story. That’s simply not true. But, because Harold Ryan and the other higher-ups in Bungie think that “story” means the plot of a character’s life, now we have to follow the personal plot of someone named Eris. And they’ll probably ruin it with melodrama anyway.
Third, Harold’s statement, “It’s going to feel much more loot driven and story driven in that it’s going to feel faster-paced with more action as you go through it, and with exposition.”, is complete PR double talk, and doesn’t actually mean anything.
Fourthly, Harold Ryan doesn’t actually understand what the players are unhappy about regarding the story. He doesn’t understand what players are REALLY complaining about.
Partly the fault lies in the questioner’s phrasing, and perhaps the person conducting the interview also doesn’t understand what the players are REALLY complaining about (I don’t think players really want more exposition and cutscenes).
Where did my character come from? What is that giant asteroid on Mars and why does it look so big? What are the Vex doing in the Vault of Glass? Do all the alien enemies have the same goals? Which ones are out for vengeance, which ones just accidently came into conflict with humans, which ones are just looking to conquer?
We don’t need explicit answers to every single one of our questions. But some hints, some clues, to help make sense of what’s going on would really be helpful.
The players don’t really care about exposition or cutscenes, even if those are the words are used in complaints. What we really care about is CONTEXT. We want to know why we are where we are, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and what does everything mean. All we want is our gameplay experience to be contextualized within the narrative story. We’ll settle for cutscenes and character monologues if that’s all you’re capable of (although the grimoire cards prove that Bungie is capable of much more), we’ll take it, although we’d really prefer if it was integrated into the gameworld and into the gameplay. People may say, “there’s not enough cutscenes”, but what they’re really saying is, “I want to have some notion of what I’m doing and what’s going on.”
I think that Bungie’s writers, artists, and probably their game designers understand all this. But, the higher ups, the guys calling the shots, probably don’t understand this (as we can see in Harold Ryan’s response) and are going to drag Destiny’s story across the floor of a dusty office cubicle.
CONSPIRACY ABOUT CUT MATERIAL:
In my blogpost where I analyze the preview of Destiny I came to this conclusion: there were so many creative, imaginative, and amazing ideas that were conceived for Destiny, but the end product was a bland, watered down version of the initial creativity.
It feels like this is the same way for the final release of the game. Whether it’s the story, the locations, the raids, the missions, the loot, or the RPG elements, everyone seems to feel that something is missing from the game, like parts of the full game were cut prior to release. Like there was something amazing beneath the surface, but it was never allowed to break through the waves.
Some people have said Activision interefered with Bungie’s vision.
I don’t know. I personally feel that Harold Ryan and the rest of Bungie’s upper crust had something to do with it. Whatever the case, some strange things definitely seemed to go down at Bungie within a year of its release.
First, about a year before Destiny’s release it was announced that Joe Staten, lead writer and design director of Destiny, was “leaving to tackle new creative challenges.” In corporate speak, this sounds like, “was fired but was given the option to quit to save face.” Whatever the case, this seems INCREDIBLY strange. He was one of the major figures in Destiny’s development, one of the key figures involved in Destiny’s design from the very beginning, and he was suddenly leaving less than a year before the game’s release. And not only that, but Joe Staten was also a veteran, a grizzled ancient, of Bungie. He’d been around for fifteen years, since Myth: the Fallen Lords, back before Halo, before Bungie became a household name. And then he’s gone… for some reason that isn’t fully explained.
Then about half a year before Destiny’s release, Marty O’Donnell was fired from Bungie. Marty claimed that he was fired “without cause” and filed a suite against the President of Bungie, Harold Ryan. Again, this is staggeringly bizarre. Like Joe Staten, Marty is a veteran of Bungie from before the company became absurdly successful with Halo. His music was one of the most consistently praised things about Bungie’s games, and his sound design was excellent. He was also a fan favorite among Bungie’s followers, and was affectionately called Marty the Elder. Why on Earth did he get fired?
Marty’s termination adds to my theory that Joe Staten was forced out against his will.
It’s all very, very strange, and it’s hard not to see some strange conspiracy going on where the creative vision of Bungie’s core is being compromised by someone who didn’t care about the craft of game development and only cared about… well, I don’t actually know what.
WHY I WOULDN’T BUY DESTINY, AT LEAST NOT FOR SEVERAL YEARS:
Let’s get one thing straight. I could play Destiny forever. I mean, it’s a fun game, and someone like me could just play on Mars, alone, forever. But, I wouldn’t want to do that for $60 dollars.
The general census seems to be that Destiny does not contain a complete game and certainly not $60 worth of game. Sure, more content will come out in expansions, but those expansions will also cost money, and who knows what they’ll be like [I wrote this before the expansion was released and still haven’t played it]. For all we know, the expansions will feel just as unfinished and short changed as the full game.
And there’s the psychological annoyance of paying for extra content that will feel like it should have been in the vanilla game to begin with.
If the next two expansions come out over the next two years, and let’s just say they cost $25 each, then that’s basically the same as a whole new game coming out in two years for $50. That actually seems reasonable when you think about it that way (aside from how some of that content should have been available at launch).
Nevertheless, it feels wrong and it is frustrating. When I buy something, I want to have it. I don’t want to keep paying money to get more pieces of that thing. I don’t want to watch half a movie for five dollars and then watch the second half for another five dollars. Just let me pay ten dollars to see the whole thing. And Destiny does feel like only half a movie right now.
But, I’m going off tangent a little here.
Do I think Destiny is worth $60 dollars? Unfortunately, that’s not the question.
Here are the cost components of playing Destiny:
12 month XboxLive membership: $59.99
12 month PSNetwork membership: $49.99
Sure, there are some packs and editions of Destiny that would save money, but for the sake of this exercise I’m ignoring them.
So, since there is so little content in vanilla Destiny, you’ll probably have to buy the expansion packs to really get a complete experience. Let’s say expansions come out once a year, just for the sake of this exercise. And let’s assume that expansion packs will cost $19.99 each, since that’s how much “The Dark Below” cost (although I suspect they’ll begin to increase in price with each expansion).
If I wanted to play Destiny for the next two years (two years of console network, two expansion packs, and the vanilla game), here’s the cost, before tax:
On Xbox: 219.95
On Playstation: 199.95
That’s how much it costs to play Destiny for two years.
I’ve seen some comments being made about how $500 million was spent on Destiny’s development and there isn’t that much to show for it. But, the question isn’t, “Is Destiny worth $500,000,000?”
The question also isn’t, “Is Destiny worth $60?”
The question is: IS DESTINY WORTH TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS (for two years)?
Just as a side not, here’s the cost for five years, assuming one expansion release a year (which probably won’t happen, but whatever):
On Xbox: 459.89
On Playstation: 409.89
A game like Destiny isn’t just a game someone buys, it’s an investment, and you need to know that you’re going to get a profitable return on that investment. Based on what we’ve seen so far, who knows what corners they’ll cut, what game design they’ll shortchange, what promises they won’t fully deliver on, what employees they’ll suddenly fire. It’s a risky venture.
Is it worth spending over $200 dollars to play Destiny for the next two years? Is it worth spending $400 dollars over the next five years?
You tell me.
I’ll continue my Destiny analysis in Part 3, where I focus entirely on how things have been named in Destiny. It’s going to be a doozy.