When Bungie's Destiny launched last week, it arrived in care of a massive marketing budget, the kind you'd normally see attached to a blockbuster film release like Star Wars.
Star Wars keeps coming up in relation to Destiny, in fact. And not just because they're sci-fi odysseys. There are references to the films scattered throughout the game, too. I keep expecting someone to look up at the Traveler and mumble, "That's no moon...."
Surprisingly, though, most of the Star Wars allusions I've seen remind me of the reviled prequel trilogy. No one has complained about the roughness of sand, yet, but — for example — an entire class of enemy (the Fallen Vandals) resembles General Grievous from Episode III. And when you go streaking across the landscape on your Sparrow scooter, it sounds not like the Speeder Bikes from Return of the Jedi but rather the rattling rumble of Episode I's podracers.
I guess it makes sense we've begun to see people plundering the prequels for inspiration; the original trilogy is pretty well mined out at this point. There's a deeper connection to the Star Wars prequels at work in Destiny, though, and I don't just mean the fun audio-visual allusions. Destiny suffers from a serious issue that affected those movies as well: It rests on its laurels to its own detriment.
Destiny clearly represents a tremendous amount of work by Bungie not only to create a beautiful world but one with extensive lore. Humanity is shored up in a last fortress city after provoking the ire of alien invaders who scoured the planet of our race. The aliens come in multiple factions, and within the last human city a complex social system has come into being. Various factions and races vie for your affiliation, and weary elders allude to the world's desperate situation. That's the problem, though. They allude. They hint at. They insinuate. But they never really tell.
After hours of playing Destiny, I have no idea who any of these people or enemies are, or what any of it means. You go into the Tower, mankind's final refuge, and people make cryptic comments about affiliations. None of it matters. Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame follows me around as a robotic Ghost, kind of a cross between a Phantasy Star Online MAG, that little Bit thing in Tron, and Halo's 343 Guilty Spark. He spouts off a ton of exposition. None of it matters. You travel across multiple planets fighting aliens and completing mission objectives. But none of it matters.
Why does none of it matter? Because Destiny doesn't bother to take the time to make it matter. You complete mission after mission, and your Ghost vomits jargon at you, but none of it fits together with any cohesion.
Destiny doesn't even take advantage of its natural rhythms of play to allow players to explore its lore. You frequently need to return to the Tower, a safe and peaceful zone where other players and NPCs alike run around outside of combat. But there are no dialogues to be had here; you can't talk to any of the NPCs, unless they have a mission for merchandise for you. In other MMOs, towns offer a chance to relax and fill your brain with as much backstory as you like. Destiny never gives you that chance. As one USgamer commenter noted on our review-in-progress, there's a cut scene early one that features a dignified-looking man who says, basically, "Oh, the stories I could tell! But you don't want to hear about that, let's carry on with the next mission."
But... I actually do want to hear about that. I am killing an awful lot of alien hordes and activating quite a few machines from ancient Earth or whatever! I feel like it's not unusual to want to know why I'm doing all of this without having to visit Wikia's Destiny site or go to Bungie.org to get even the most rudimentary interest on the narrative elements of this game. Didn't we all agree that second-screen gaming is a fallacy?
All of this isn't to say I don't have some sense of what Destiny's plot is about, but that's only because I've seen these bits and pieces used elsewhere. There's a lot of Halo in Destiny, from the Flood-like Hive to the mysterious Array that you activate in Old Russia. And the hints of reawakening a dormant AI to level the playing field call back to a personal favorite, Marathon. Also by Bungie! But none of this is coming to me through Destiny itself. I'm picking up on this through my familiarity with Bungie's previous work — plot through osmosis.
And this is where I keep having Phantom Menace flashbacks. Like Star Wars Episode I, Destiny leans heavily on the notion that players already kind of know where this is all going. When "exposition" amounts to "you've seen this already," it may be time to rethink how you're telling your story. In both cases — Destiny and the Star Wars prequels — the creators have jumped straight ahead to the adventure without bothering with any of the setup. But the setup is where players form a connection to the world and its characters.
Consider Star Wars Episode I, which begins with a pair of guys going to peace talks, escaping from an assassination attempt, meeting a horrible frog-person, saving a queen, and landing on another planet where a boy saves their bacon. At no point does the film take the time to let you get to know the guys, the queen, or the boy. No one explains the motives or history of the bad guys. It's all plot, no story.
By contrast, the original Star Wars ("A New Hope," that is) began with an exciting glimpse into a galactic war before quickly jumping to a totally unrelated story, letting you get to know Luke Skywalker and his aspirations and dreams, his humble origins, before drawing the threads together and making him into a part of the bigger story. You care about Star Wars because you care about Luke Skywalker. Conversely, you don't care about Episode I because the movie never takes the time to make you care about its characters. The only characters you have any motivation to like are the ones you know from, well, the original Star Wars.
Likewise, consider Halo. The first mission of Halo consists of the protagonist Master Chief blasting his way through alien-infested corridors... but first it takes the time to introduce you to him and gives you a short mission briefing on the situation and stakes. As the plot of Halo unfolds and the stakes change, the game keeps a running tally of why these things are bad. The story starts small, with a very specific mission, and works its way to the grander scale.
Destiny never bothers to do that. It starts right at the grander scale without giving the player an entry point into immersion. The game begins with Peter Dinklage's Ghost resurrecting your dead warrior and urging you hurriedly into safety. There's a thrill to this opening mission as you're thrust into an unknown scenario by unknown forces and forced to fight for your life. You don't ask too many questions, because you're told there are hordes of monsters bearing down on you and you're about to die if you don't mach schnell. Fine — survive now, get the full story later. Except that story never comes.
My Destiny experience has consisted of running around a lot of very pretty wastelands shooting the same enemies over and over again for no particular reason. Meanwhile, I see random other people doing the same thing.
If you'd like a more current comparison, consider Guardians of the Galaxy. Like Destiny, Guardians bumbles its way toward sci-fi excess by breathlessly vomiting a geyser of terms and names and locations with rapid-fire enthusiasm. It has way more story to tell than comfortably fits within its two-hour running time, and aside from the handful of filmgoers familiar with one of Marvel's most obscure comic properties, the whole thing makes very little sense. And yet, Guardians has been a runaway success, because all those terms and names don't really matter. The film is really about its titular protagonists, and amidst all the name-dropping it takes the time to build its cast and create a connection between the characters and the audience — something Destiny never takes the time to do.
And I think Destiny's failings have a lot to do with those other people. It's not their fault, exactly, but Bungie was so focused on making this a massively multiplayer experience that they didn't really stop to consider the fundamental underpinnings of the game itself. Because everyone plays the same character undertaking the same arc, Destiny minimizes the amount of in-game story you experience. And because it's so heavily focused on being a shooter within that MMO space, they've tried to weed out anything that doesn't involve explosions.
So the Tower, which should be a hub for player interaction and gathering exposition, amounts to a lot of people running and jumping past each other on a beeline path between the various shops. The most significant player interaction comes in the Crucible, the player-versus-player arena, and it consists entirely of blowing one another up.
Destiny's budget demands a hit. And a hit game has to appeal to as many people as possible. I can't shake the sensation that the creators were so eager to get to the fun, shooty, hitmaker bits they skipped the part where they had to lay the groundwork to justify all of that. The result is a bizarrely shallow and sterile game, where the quest revolves around a story that's all but hidden to players.
It's weird, because Bungie made its mark by integrating narrative into a shooter with Pathways Into Darkness, then Marathon, then Halo. You'd think Destiny would have been their chance to truly come into their own. But while the shooter parts are great, the story leaves much to be desired. It's not even the story itself but rather the narrative design, the manner in which everything is presented.
You were the chosen ones, Bungie! You were supposed to bring balance to action and narrative, not destroy them! I'm not quite ready to cut off Destiny's limbs and leave it burning beside a pit of lava, though. It's a living game, and while it feels woefully incomplete at launch, I intend to keep following the game to see how it evolves over the coming year. Here's hoping they'll surprise me, like they did with that little maneuver at the battle of Taanab.