Destiny 2 Failed to Use its World to Tell its Story
"What we’re doing with Destiny is we are deliberately telling a story about the Light and what it means to be chosen." -Luke Smith, talking to Kotaku about Destiny 2's direction
It's impossible to say that Destiny 2's locations aren't beautiful. They're often stunning, with an attention to detail that makes them immediately immersive. Still, they lack they memorability of the original game's now iconic locations. Why? The blame rests on a story that doesn't use its setting, resulting in a lack of world-building.
These worlds --as beautiful as they are-- are left empty of the kind of context that make the memorable. Simply put, they lack that mythic spark that makes worlds stick.
In a recent article, I argued that the first game's worlds were designed to reflect both their histories and their current conflicts. By incorporating these artistically crafted worlds into larger, meaningful stories, Bungie created fully-realized locations of legend.
The Cosmodrome mourns the ancient Golden Age space program, with fields of dilapidated aircraft beneath towering launch towers. It's a tragedy painted in rust and snow. We see our history in ruins, and in fighting the reawakening of The Darkness, we fight for our place in histories to come. It's a theme echoed in all locations, from the colonies of the Moon, to the labs of Venus and Mars' Clovis Bray facilities. On each planet, we wander the wreckage of our past, while dreading the arrival of the force that destroyed them. The world motivates us, and it begs us for our aid.
Destiny 2 has no such context for its worlds. The world is beautiful and shallow. It exists without us, and asks nothing of us. After the campaign, ask yourself: why are we in The European Dead Zone? Or Titan? or Nessus? What larger context requires our action?
Beginning to see the problem?
Destiny 2 kicks off with Ghaul’s semi-serious invasion of Earth. He starts by knocking down our precious Tower, located in Tibet. We later find the Red Legion has a presence as far out as The European Dead Zone but that only qualifies it as an invasion of the Eastern hemisphere. If there’s no touchdown in New York, is it really an alien invasion?
The actual geography of this invasion unveils a much more unfortunate problem with Destiny 2’s story. The game’s utilization of its locations is poor, and both its world and story suffer as a result. For me, the thread of this larger dysfunction sprung loose in the first mission in the European Dead Zone.
It’s odd that Ghaul's occupation of The Last City --in Tibet-- requires him to have an entire military base in Switzerland. Furthermore, it's weird that Hawthorne’s group randomly discovers us outside of The Last City --thousands of miles away in Tibet--but also lives in Switzerland. It's a gargantuan coincidence, and coincidence is the bane of credible storytelling.
What’s infuriating is that this didn't need to be a coincidence. The Shard of the Traveler is such a significant object with relevance to both The Red Legion and lightless Guardians that it could have tied the story together very logically. It could have resulted in some fantastic storytelling as well.
Imagine the stakes! We're lightless Guardians, desperate to get our powers back; Ghaul is at his wit's end decoding The Traveler's silence. It very easily could have been a high-octane race to The Shard of the Traveler to discover its power, rather than a dreary climb slaughtering low-level Fallen. It's this kind of tension and high stakes that Destiny 2 never realizes, despite having them latent in its world.
The most pervasive problem with Destiny 2’s story is the distance it allows between its conflict and the player. There’s a single, macro goal: take back The Last City. But the road to that point is dreary and boring. The plot never gets more complex than that. The story has no wrinkles, twists or turns outside of the very beginning and very end.
Each planet’s events happen in complete isolation to this larger plot.
We're in the European Dead Zone to do favors for Hawthorne by antagonizing The Red Legion. We're on Titan to aid a demoralized Zavala by clearing the local Hive infestation. We're on Io to get Ikora out of a funk by confronting a Taken boss. We're on Nessus to save Cayde from cartoonishly shallow writing by aimlessly following a variety of linear, contrived objectives. They're chores. Busywork.
At no point are any of the conflicts on any of these planets at all relevant to the larger story. In fact, the only moment of consequence occurs after finding Ikora. We get a cutscene with an omnipotent narrator explaining The Almighty is about to blow up the sun. That’s interesting, for sure, but I didn’t discover this thing exists by doing chores in the EDZ, Nessus or Io. I found out because I finished my chores, checked off the boxes, and Bungie poured this newflash into my cereal bowl as a reward.
Destiny 2’s story would have been substantially more interesting if it had baked the locations into the story. There needed to be wrinkles, plot developments and rising stakes.
When none of those things exist, there’s no reason we’re jumping from planet to planet (or moon, or centaur asteroid, I know.) The “tell the Vanguard to stop moping in their room and make them come down for dinner” list of chores is the only complication between Ghaul taking The Last City, and us defeating him.
It really makes you think: if these guys hadn’t run away from battle, we could have had the city back in a single day. I’m serious. There’s no advantage in battle that we gained across our entire escapade. We wasted all this time bringing The Vanguard back and wiping tears off their faces. If they had made a simple tactical retreat to The Farm (or preferably, a closer location), we could have executed the same, ultra-simple plan, and pulled it off.
In Destiny 1, The Vanguard were useless bureaucrats. In Destiny 2, they’re outright cowards. That clearly isn’t how Bungie or fans envision them, yet it’s what the story makes them. Rather than throwing these princesses in three different castles around the Solar System, Bungie could have taken extremely simple plot complications to justify new settings, and lend some motivation to the fights we take part in.
Let’s take a look at how differently The European Dead Zone’s introduction could have gone, using the same locations and characters, while only minorly altering a single story mission:
The Tower has fallen. Ghaul has The Traveler in his grasp. The Consul is openly itching to crack the thing open, and Ghaul's touchey-feeling nonsense is frustrating him. You've escaped the city and found Hawthorne, who realizes The Shard of The Traveler has power that could be useful to you. Unfortunately, The Consul is impatient with Ghaul's lack of progress. When Cabal scouts trace massive readings of Light to the EDZ, he dispatches an elite squadron of Psions to extract this power in case Ghaul fails.
It turns into a race against time, with Cabal troops swarming the EDZ, setting up a massive Light processing facility. You fight your way through Fallen, drunk on the corrupted Light, and the Cabal troops. The elite Psions have beaten you to the shard, prompting a battle. Victorious, you seize the power of The Traveler and reclaim your powers. It trembles, shakes, and its Light goes dark for the last time, freed from its dying shell. The Consul's plans are foiled and the corrupted Fallen are restored to their normal creepy selves.
See the improvement? It hits all the same objectives as the original story but has motivation and tension. Better yet, it doesn't require a massive coincidence where survivors and Cabal end up in the exact same location, thousands of miles away from the original fight. It's a race against time, and we win. The emotional payoff is substantially improved as well. Before, players fought off some random Fallen to get back their powers. Now, our seizing of power is a direct blow to The Cabal who invaded us. It perfectly kicks off our war against them, simply by being relevant to the larger conflict.
Bungie designs gorgeous worlds, and their artwork is top-notch. I have three entire Pinterest boards dedicated to this studio’s work. It’s a shame that they can’t figure out how tell stories within these worlds. With Destiny 2’s Forsaken expansion, it seems they’re fleshing out the world far better and I hope it avoids the pitfalls of the base game. As with all things, I say this with love.