After Destiny 2’s disastrous launch, I wasn’t sure Bungie could get things back on track. With Forsaken, the developer has done its best, solving most of the sequel’s major problems. It’s not as good as Destiny was at its best, but Destiny 2’s come a long way. Unfortunately, there’s one major problem I’m still struggling with: the death of Cayde-6, Destiny’s best character. Bungie, you did Cayde dirty, and it sucks.
We were excited for Destiny once. Bungie’s track record is astonishingly good; nearly all of its 14 games released prior to Destiny are beautifully-designed, incredible experiences. Unfortunately, when Destiny came out, Bungie was left with a big egg on its face.
Rumors of a troubled development swirled. Some of Bungie’s most influential employees left, like Marty O’Donnell, Marcus Lehto, and Jaime Griesemer. Halo writer Joseph Staten had worked on Destiny’s story, but it wasn’t well received by the studio, and he left the company shortly after.
When the game finally shipped, a year late, it wasn’t what anyone hoped. Destiny’s story was a mess, an incomprehensible plot that saw you waking up an ancient artificial intelligence, dropping that plot thread to introduce you to some evil space magicians, then abandoning that plot thread to introduce you to robots on Venus. You’d need to follow them to Mars where you’d meet another race, all so you could kill a black, pulsating blob with the power to reanimate three robots. There was a robot lady who occasionally showed up so she could tell you she couldn’t explain things.
According to journalist Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Destiny’s first DLC The Dark Below was crunched in about 9 weeks of development time, but it was still an improvement over the main game. The plot concerned an evil wizard’s plan to resurrect Crota, a fearful Hive knight, and Crota’s eventual demise at the hands of the players. It wasn’t a great story, but it was something. The next expansion, House of Wolves, was even more involved, introducing players to the Reef, a faction that players could almost consider allies.
Thanks to some major gameplay improvements, the summer following House of Wolves featured the best gameplay Destiny would ever have: great loot, and fun activities. It was wonderful, if you were a Destiny fan, but so many people had been burned by the main game’s awful story that Bungie knew it would have to rehabilitate Destiny.
Enter The Taken King.
The Taken King itself did little to improve Destiny’s systems (if anything, it introduced a less-exciting PVP meta and a not-that-great upgrade system), but it did dramatically alter Destiny’s reputation for the better. With The Taken King, we saw the wholesale destruction of the Reef’s forces by Oryx, father of Crota, hellbent on revenge for his son’s demise. His massive spaceship, the Dreadnaught, loomed over Saturn. To kill him, we’d have to find a way to board it. We wouldn’t be able to do this on our own. We’d need help.
We’d need Cayde-6.
Destiny’s budget was huge, and Bungie seemed happy to throw money at actors like Lance Reddick, Peter Dinklage, Bill Nighy, Gina Torres, and Nathan Fillion. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great—nobody will top Lenny James’ Lord Shaxx—but many of the characters, especially Reddick, Torres, and Fillion, seemed wasted, acting as vendors and occasional questgivers, offering some quips in the tower and nothing more.
With The Taken King, all that changed. There are three classes in Destiny—titan, warlock, and, most importantly, hunter. They’re standard fantasy archetypes (paladin, mage, rogue) wrapped up in Destiny-specific trappings, and each class has its own vendor, known as the Vanguard. There’s Reddick’s stalwart Commander Zavala, the mighty titan who has vowed to protect the city at all cost. Gina Torres stars as Ikora Rey, the unremarkable warlock leader. Then there’s Cayde-6, voiced by Nathan Fillion, and clearly cast because of Fillion’s role as the handsomely roguish Captain Malcolm Reynolds from the television series Firefly.
Cayde-6 had some great lines, begging players to take him with them on patrols or telling players they were his favorite guardian, but it wasn’t until The Taken King that he got to be as awesome as he deserved to be.
When The Taken King begins, the Vanguard’s leadership are struck by analysis paralysis. Zavala wants to protect the city. Ikora wants to get a warlock onto the dreadnaught to figure out what they’re dealing with. Eris Morn, the rogue who’d helped us murder Crota, arrives and explains the nature of the threat Oryx’s ship poses. But Cayde? He wanders off. The way he sees it, the ship poses a threat. It needs to be taken out. The pointless discussion won’t help anyone, only action will, and he’s determined to make it happen.
Cayde hatches a plan: using modified stealth tech and Eris’ Hive-like ship, he’ll send the players to the dreadnaught, where they’ll knock out its main weapon, establish a beachhead, and assassinate Oryx, ending the Hive threat to the solar system. The Taken King’s campaign is the story of this plan and how it was pulled off successfully. Even though he upset his partners in the process, Cayde was the only member of the Vanguard who got things done.
Even in The Taken King’s massive aftermath, like the Shield Brothers strike, Cayde’s fun to listen to. He has lines talking about the craziness of Cabal loyalty, surmising that the Cabal might be rigging the Dreadnaught to blow in a suicidal attempt to get their commander back or explaining how Cabal are thrown out of the Empire when they join the army. His dialogue is equal parts enjoyable and informative, and when you finish the mission, he tells you that you did good work by putting these war criminals down. He tells you to be proud, because this is what the Vanguard is all about.
Cayde became a tremendously popular character because he actually managed to be a likable mentor. His jokes landed, his encouragement felt genuine, and when things needed doing, Cayde made it happen. Rogues are always popular characters, whether it’s Han Solo from Star Wars, Sawyer from Lost, or Mal Reynolds from Firefly. People love them.
One thing that endears us to rogues is their fallibility; one of my favorite scenes in Star Wars sees Han Solo charging after some stormtroopers, only to run into a room full of them and nope back out of there, stormtroopers hot on his heels. A rogue’s mistakes define them just as much as their cool one-liners and clever plans. Rogues are the best, most well-rounded character archetype in fantasy fiction because of this.
When someone looks at a rogue, they see their best self. Paladins and mages don’t provide that same kind of mirror. Most people could never see themselves becoming a single-minded paladin or a privileged, powerful mage, but rogues tend to be more human characters, like you and me, who succeed because of their wits and likability. Many rogues are defined by their perpetual misfortune, and it’s easy to identify with that too. Who wouldn’t want to be a wisecracking, attractive, intelligent badass? Who can’t identify with occasionally biting off more than they can chew and getting in too deep?
Everything seemed great. Destiny finally had a story worth paying attention to with a charismatic character in a lead role. The Limited Edition of The Taken King included a beautiful copy of Treasure Island, which includes notes written by Cayde, exploring his past. It’s some of the coolest lore Destiny’s ever had, right up there with The Taken King’s Books of Sorrow.
Through his notes, we get insight into a character who’s smart. He wouldn’t call himself an egghead, but this is a clever SOB. “In a second my mind rifles through a trillion possibilities,” he writes. His life has been long. He’s seen a lot and suffered more. Not so many jokes here. The journal hints at a character even more interesting than we give him credit for. Cayde’s been working things out, trying to figure out the mysteries of his past. Wily bastard hid it in a copy of Treasure Island for us to find, and he signs off with a message of hope, telling us that we need to forge the future.
Destiny puts us in a hopeless future with humanity’s backs against the wall, and it tells us that we can make the world a better place. Cayde’s story is Destiny’s story. He embodies everything that Destiny is about, while his compatriots sit there acting out the part of glorified vendors with boring, RPG class-cliched motivations. Cayde is the best Destiny has to offer.
Then something happened.
In December 2016, Bungie released a strike called The Nexus Revisited. Ikora, the mission lead, tells you what you need to do, and Cayde pops up, offering to help. Ikora is audibly annoyed by this, passive-aggressively attempting to get Cayde to go elsewhere until it finally boils over into full-on condescension.
“If you’re bored,” she says, “the Warlock halls could always use a once-over with a mop.”
This is Cayde she’s talking to. Cayde, who saved the city from the Dreadnaught. Cayde, our mentor. Cayde, our friend. We like Cayde. Ikora, in contrast, is just kind of boring. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and when she does, she says things like “One tendril of the Vex surge has been severed. But their presence here still grows in other dark places, far out of our reach. We must continue to understand their power and haunt the realms where they gather.” When we defeat the final boss of The Nexus Revisited, Ikora tells Cayde that people just don’t like him. Her lines to her equal are condescending and pointlessly rude, and up until this point in the story, no one’s ever indicated they dislike Cayde. It’s a strange deviation.
Fast-forward to Destiny 2’s reveal. Bungie’s trailer gives us two contrasting speeches, one by Zavala doing his Zavala thing—talking about ideals and stuff—and the other with Cayde telling us the stuff that actually matters, ending with a rousing cry of “there will be a ton of loot!”
Just what we wanted to hear.
Then we get to the game and… well… yikes. Not only isn’t there a ton of loot, but Cayde gets turned into this… really weird, stupid character? His antics reek of flanderization, the process by which a few traits are exaggerated over time, eventually replacing nuanced characterization entirely.
When the Cabal invade The Last City, scattering the Vanguard to the winds, Zavala retreats to Titan, feeling that he has failed to protect the city. He’s lost and has no idea what to do, but your arrival rallies him to swift, decisive action. Ikora ran away to Io, mourning the loss of her immortality. I think Bungie wants us to sympathize with her, but her entire arc is basically moaning about how it sucks not to be immortal anymore. Seriously, Gina Torres deserves a better character than this.
Then there’s Cayde, the brave and brilliant hunter. Unlike Zavala and Ikora, Cayde hatched a cunning plan to take the city back. In Destiny lore, a hunter’s job is to act as a scout for the city. While the titans stay on the city walls and the warlocks retreat to their ivory towers, hunters roam the wilds. They’re survivors, lone gunslingers who roam the wastes, taking bounties and performing reconnaissance. A hunter knows how to survive; the ones who don’t never make it back to the city.
So, of course, Cayde gets caught immediately by Vex, trapped until you arrive to roll your eyes at his antics and let him out. When he retreats to the safety of Failsafe’s crashed ship on Nessus, he cowers in cover while you take the fight to the enemy Fallen outside. In the strike he’s supposed to run, Cayde shows up late, unsure where his datapad is, not even realizing the strike’s already started. He makes stupid jokes about “really weird defenses” and giant flame turrets that don’t land. No one really seems to appreciate his presence. In one mission, Failsafe says that cleaning up Cayde’s mistakes must be one of our most important day-to-day functions. Another mission is all about how he’s shirked his responsibilities because, uh, he’s apparently a jackass who just does this now. Failsafe tells us that “Cayde’s dumb.” Everyone in the story seems to agree.
Throughout Destiny 2, Cayde is portrayed as an idiot who gets himself into trouble, bonds with a chicken, acts like a chicken, and takes credit for successes that aren’t his. He’s still got some good lines, but everyone seems to roll their eyes at him. Cayde’s no longer a wily hero who’s quick with a good joke, he’s a liability everyone tolerates because… I have no idea, to be honest.
Cayde no longer occupies the role of the loveable rogue. Instead, he’s become Scrappy Doo.
So, this spring, Bungie announced it was killing him off. Apparently, this was supposed to make us sad. I was at first when I thought about the awesome dude who’d helped me take Oryx down a peg, but then I played through The Arms Dealer strike and groaned and remembered how much I’d come to hate what he’d become and how glad I was that he’d be dying.
Cayde, my mentor and friend, died before Destiny 2 even shipped. It seems as though Bungie wants to position Ikora as the most sympathetic of the Vanguard. When Ikora talks down to Asher Mir in The Pyramidion Strike, we’re supposed to be on her side, because Asher Mir is a nerdy idiot who speaks in riddles. When Ikora talks down to the legendary Osiris, savior of all humanity, the one who stands between us and the Vex, we’re supposed to be on her side because Osiris is kind of a jackass. When Ikora talks down to Cayde, it’s because Cayde is dumb.
Rather than making Ikora a great character, Bungie made a lot of other characters insufferable to prop her up. Instead of lots of enjoyable characters, we have none.
There was no gravitas in Cayde’s death. Oh, sure, the music was sad, but it felt like Bungie was telling us to be sad. We had no reason to be. Destiny 2’s Cayde was never worth loving, so his loss was not keenly felt. Months of teasing, including a trailer that shows his last moments in the game itself, have only lessened the impact. Cayde’s death wasn’t sad because it was tragic, it was sad because he was pathetic. Losing Cayde should’ve felt like we were losing our Obi-Wan.
Forsaken’s plot is straightforward: Cayde dies and we hunt down his killers. Every once in a while, Ghost pops up to ask whether we’re doing the right thing, or if revenge is really worth it. His intrusions are unwelcome and… kinda weird in a game that’s about killing large monsters who threaten innocent people with harm. When the Prince dies, he offers a cliched “we’re not so different, you and I” line about the difference between light and darkness blurring. Bungie’s trying to say something here, but I’m not sure what. Destiny’s morality has already been established: big monsters kill innocent people, like Cayde, so we put them down to stop them from hurting people ever again. It’s why Cayde told us to be proud we stopped the Shield Brothers.
This is a symptom of a problem with Bungie’s storytelling right now: it wants payoffs, but it isn't putting in the work to earn it. Because of his characterization in Destiny 2, Cayde is an annoyance that only matters because of Nathan Fillion’s natural charisma; his death isn’t a big deal if he isn’t worth caring about. Ghost’s constant “you know you’re not a bad person, right?” dialogue gets annoying because, yeah, man, I walk into a room, and some guy shoots at me while telling me how my friend died like a coward. Of course I’m going to shoot him back, especially when that’s the only way to progress. No, I don’t feel bad about it. The bad guy is never contextualized as redeemable.
The art of drama is setup and payoff. Everyone remembers the payoff moments, but the most common mistake in bad writing is writing a payoff without any setup. It’s why you can’t shout “to get to the other side!” and get a laugh. You need to ask why the chicken crossed the road first.
You can’t have a payoff without earning it. If Bungie is trying to use Forsaken’s story to setup some grand narrative about how our guardians are going to embrace darkness, it’s not working. One of the reasons Oryx was so successful while Ghaul, Panoptes, and Xol weren’t is because Bungie very carefully set up Oryx and his demise. We faced Oryx’s power. We felt dwarfed by the Dreadnaught. We took the time to prepare, carefully, for his death, and then we finished him off in the longest raid in Destiny’s history. In Forsaken, Cayde dies and we immediately go kill a handful of guys. Then it’s over.
As an online game, Destiny is fundamentally about the loot and the grind. You log on every day, ask your friends what they’d like to do, and go blow stuff up for a while. It’s a relaxing, fun way to spend the evenings. Personally, I’d rather turn off strike dialogue and never listen to Taeko “embrace the Praxic Fire” ever again.
At the same time… this is Bungie, man. I replayed Halo last week. I replayed Halo 3 a few weeks before that. I was having the time of my life with Halo 2 the other day, when a good friend of mine and I decided we’d try to shove marines onto the scarab while it walked around. I love Bungie games. I love Bungie stories. Cayde was one of the best characters Bungie ever produced, and it turned him into a jester meant to take pratfalls for our amusement. What dramatic purpose does it serve? Who are we supposed to care for and identify with? What do we get out of the game? Why is Destiny 2’s story worth paying attention to if this is what we have to look forward to?
Bungie never answers any of the questions about why we should care about Destiny 2's story, and it’s disappointing, because it worked so hard to make us care in The Taken King and Rise of Iron. I’m glad that Forsaken has given me reasons to play again, but narratively, I can’t help but feel like it dropped the ball.