In Defense of Destiny.
My love for video games is no secret; I’m an 80s kid, after all, born of that Golden Era of toys and cartoons and the first few game systems. Although, funnily enough, I never had one of my own until I was old enough to buy a Playstation for myself, I cut my teeth on my friends’ Mario, Zelda, and Sonic games.
Forward a few years– I guess it’s a few decades now– and I still love games. Like a lot of lifelong gamers, I sometimes bemoan the state of current gaming, complain about difficulty or the lack thereof, a lack of innovation, whatever, but, ultimately, there’s still enough quality that I still buy the stupid things. I just don’t buy them like I used to do.
Recently, I’ve been playing the controversial MMO-ish FPS Destiny. Destiny, the product of Halo developers Bungie, has caught a lot of flak since it came out. The story, primarily, has been widely ridiculed.
To be fair, the story is thin, the voice acting sometimes wooden, and the use of the voice actors slightly bewildering– Peter Dinklage, he of Game of Thrones fame, voices an AI companion, and gets a lot of screen time, but we also have folks like Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres playing what are essentially bit parts. Weird, right?
Destiny could’ve used its voice actors better, given them better direction. I won’t argue that, and I won’t argue that Dinklage is sometimes perplexingly bad. (Although I will argue that he’s not as bad as people think he is.) What I will argue is that Destiny‘s story is just fine.
I don’t know where Bungie took their inspiration from, but I can tell you what I see in it: hints of space operas, hints of planetary romances, hints of Lovecraft, and a lot of hints of William Hope Hodgson’s seminal dying earth novel The Night Lands. Destiny‘s sun still shines, and the solar system itself is just fine and dandy, assuming all those celestial orbs don’t care about who, exactly, is living on them; but humanity, as in The Night Lands, is holed up in one final, impregnable city, besieged by hostile and mysterious races and mysterious gods. Some appear to be mercenaries, some undead; all are servants of a mysterious Darkness that threatens humanity and its benefactor, the slumbering, moon-like Traveler.
Frankly, while the script is thin, its a lovely world. Bash, if you will, the fact that we are facing races called The Fallen, The Hive, The Vex, and The Cabal, rather than, you know, giving them species names like “gorn” or “sebacean”, but I submit that these names add to the mystery and atmosphere: We don’t know why the Fallen are Fallen (Though it likely has to do with the Darkness), or where they fell from; but sometime, in the past, they were better than this. The names give the species character that we wouldn’t see from just gunning them down en mass.
I submit that Destiny is using its story less for narrative and more for mood. Let’s be honest; massively multiplayer online games are not the ideal medium for telling a story. You can, and sometimes you can tell them well– as World of Warcraft learned to do and Star Wars: The Old Republic did right off the bat– but even when you tell them well, you wind up with this odd situation where the universe is saved by different people performing different actions. The story is in some respects an internal, emergent thing, something we’re used to seeing more normally in games like Civilization, where you begin to appreciate the war-torn history of Philadelphia, that brave outpost on our border with Babylon, because you’ve traded that damn thing a dozen times back and forth when Nebuchadnezzar decided he wanted oranges. (I digress.)
Narrative isn’t really a main concern for an MMO– it’s good, and we like well done stories, but what an MMO wants to do is keep the people playing. It does that with atmosphere and mood.
To be honest, at their core, computer role playing game mechanics are trying to make an equation come out the way you want it to: with someone else’s health value at zero instead of yours. With the first person shooter, it’s popular these days to describe disparagingly as “clicking on the enemy until they die” because that crosshair on your screen is really just a fancy mouse pointer. What makes us play these things is, on one level, story, and on another, atmosphere and mood supporting that story.
Destiny‘s mood is great. The world is old, used, scarred, and broken; never once do you feel like you’re not fighting through the ruins of a long past golden age (A golden age nearer to us, the players, than to the characters we are playing.) That worlds have been terraformed is never mentioned, but obvious; Venus has jungles, but still a rocky, primordial look; Mars a dessert with apparently breathable air (Many members of the Cabal are helmetless).
Stop, for a moment, and appreciate the world you’re playing in when you play Destiny. You are a Guardian of humanity, desperately trying to save your species from the Darkness that nearly obliterated it. (And yeah, I’m familiar with the alternate story/potential plot twist about the nature of the Darkness.) Soak up the mood. Savor it. Some of the best works in science fiction are mood pieces– the story of Alien is rather thin, although admittedly far better executed than many more complex stories. The success of Alien, the “joy” of Alien, is in its mood. Dark, cold, lovecraftian in the sense that the universe is hostile, mysterious, and uncaring. It’s not in “miners find a monster and die one by one.” It’s all about how you feel while watching it.
And in the end, that’s true of any creative work, isn’t it?