Destiny and Writing


1. Destiny is a hodgepodge of a lot of different mechanical and conceptual elements that sometimes cohere but mostly fall apart, together, spectacularly. It’s hard to point to Destiny‘s strong points at this moment, but it is quite easy to point to its key weakness: its story.

I’m using “story” as a broad signifier of a lot of different things here. On one level, I mean the plot, which pitches forward, rolls, stops, starts again, and generally feels like it was put together with mismatched Lego sets. On another level, I mean the basic mechanical level of the writing itself. Each line in Destiny is painful to listen to. Taken in paragraphs, it is what I can only describe as violently awful, which is language I might use for, say, mind-and-body-destroying diarrhea.

This opinion seems to be held by most of the players of Destiny to various degrees. This has led to a joke I’ve seen made by dozens of people: Bungie spent $500 million dollars on a game and its marketing but forgot to hire a writer.

A given is that it is bad. What I am curious about is why it is bad, or, what is the particular machinery of badness that produced a product that emits “this is all awful” background radiation?

A quick background of some people informing the thinking going on here: Patrick Klepek wrote that Destiny‘s single player missions feel tacked-on or are at least handled poorly in their current context. Carolyn Petit wrote a wonderful post about the story (some of which I am retreading in different words) where she explains that Destiny has a” story full of vague mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t mean anything at all and is only the flimsiest excuse to send you from Earth to the moon to Venus to Mars, killing things all the while.” And Brendan Keogh wrote the currently-definitive take on the game, devoting an entire subsection to Peter Dinklage and the story of the game, ending with:

By large, I don’t care that I don’t care about the story, and I don’t care that the game doesn’t care about the story—that’s not why we’re here. But then, occasionally, it has these long drawn-out cut-scenes where suddenly it decides your avatar is now a voiced character for a little while, like these brief hiccups where Destinymistakes itself for a story-driven game. And then you go back to fighting The Bad Guys on The Planet with The Gun. But kind of like the repetitive worlds, the story doesn’t matter. It’s not what is meant to keep you here. That core shooting-things loop is what is meant to lure you in.

And so those are the things I’m thinking about here.


2. In the article I mentioned above, Petit mentions that Destiny has a lot of the same trappings as Star Wars. At the heart of this similarity is something we could call “the evocation effect.” The perfect illustration of this effect is the Mos Eisley cantina scene from Star Wars. Luke Skywalker walks in, the camera cuts around the room and shows you lots of different kinds of characters, and then time goes on. The film tells you nothing about them, but they are intended to evoke a world beyond the camera. “Dang!” you’re meant to think, “I bet they all have stories!” They don’t. (Or didn’t at the time. The Expanded Universe probably has total family genealogies for all of them at this point.)

The evocation effect is used to make you intrigued in order to cut through expository overhead and it allows you to short circuit one of nerd culture’s worst habits: world building. Essentially you are farming that work out to people’s brains and everyone is the better for it. This form isn’t used only in visual media. Philip K. Dick created a career out of evocation, and when I recently read Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon I experienced the same thing. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man evokes almost to the exclusion of plot, and because of that it feels like you’re reading the book equivalent of a runaway train for its 250 pages.

So there are two camps: Tolkien-esque worldbuilding which over-defines and over-determines the world through the use of a historical, geological, political, and every other -ical database that precisely defines the contours of the world and what did and can happen inside of it. The other is the Star Wars-style use of the evocation effect to build a world that exists more in your head than any database. It is about feeling right, setting a tone, and realizing particular aesthetics that get people thinking about the world of the media object.


3. Destiny‘s story fails because it tries to employ the evocation effect to a database.

The game Destiny presents us with a universe in which The Traveler, a giant white space egg, appears on Earth and “uplifts” our species through technological means. Quick on its heels is The Darkness, a giant force that seems to only exist to destroy The Traveler. With it comes lots of different species like The Hive and The Fallen, strange humanoid monsters that want to kill both humans and The Traveler itself.

This action all takes place in the solar system around Sol, our sun, but each of the planets have been terraformed for human use. This allows the Destiny designers to mix the familiar (we know what the Moon is) with the unfamiliar (we don’t know what The Archer’s Line is on the Moon or why there is a place called The Hellmouth or even what that is supposed to mean). On face, this is the evocation effect in full action; here’s some stuff, deal with it, have a great time.

But every time I want to deal with it and have a great time, the game keeps forcing Peter Dinklage to monotone lore in my ear. I’m walking through beautifully sculpted crypts. They suggest that The Hive have a culture, that they need dwelling spaces, and that they are a profoundly ritualistic culture. Their entire lives are spent in holes that double as cathedrals. It evokes complication and intelligence, two qualities that are lost completely when you fight against suicidal drones or cat-and-mouse leaders. If I were allowed to do this in silence then I would be able to think.

As soon as I start thinking about the world, as soon as things are evoked in me, Dinklage starts telling me about the Sword of Crota and how many Guardians it has killed. He’s telling me about the Princes and how they use the sword. After the battle, he says that the Cryptarchs won’t believe what happened to the Sword of Crota.

All of this is patently nonsense, and the reason that it is nonsense is because Destiny is trying to have both a database of lore while evoking things that cannot be accounted for in that lore by virtue of existing only in the player’s head. Put another way: Destiny does the work of two storytelling methods and fails at both.

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5 Responses to Destiny and Writing

  1. Luke says:

    Interesting. I haven’t played Destiny, but it sounds a lot like the later Halo games in this respect. The Covenent were a cliche from the start, but they were at least mysterious in the first game. The more Bungie added to their universe, the more intolerable it became.

    As for the quality of the writing: I’m sure the poor souls they hired to write did their best in difficult circumstances. Bungie’s approaches to professional game writers over the last couple of years have been… Not especially well recieved, from what I’ve heard. They were pretty clearly aiming for people willing to buy into the company ‘brand’, and not anyone who was particular about creative autonomy or respect (or, I suspect, pay).

  2. A shame! I was hoping against hope that Destiny would be Bungie’s chance to explore the kind of sci-fi storytelling talent they displayed in the Marathon trilogy, but they seem to have just gotten worse and worse at this over time… despite continuing to evoke iconography from those games. It plays with my hear

    On a tangential note, I don’t mean to be That Guy Who Brings Up Dark Souls, but this post implies a nifty framework for looking at that game’s storytelling method – I feel like it succeeds where Destiny fails, in terms of using a database to the effect of evocation.

    • Warwick says:

      I would agree on the Dark Souls count. But that is an example of a game that clearly knows its an RPG based around boss fights and a vertical level design that explores a world through a unique perspective. Storywise, Dark Souls isn’t really anything new, it’s just so well put together that the core mechanics take over while everthing else sits in the background waiting to be discovered. No one – article writers or commenters – have convinced me that Destiny is worth playing even for just the core mechanics alone.

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