font-weight: 300;
  • Daniel James

The Art of Destiny: Deconstructed

Destiny’s art style has evolved with each new entry. Here, we break down what each shift means and what the latest batch of Destiny 2 imagery could mean. We’re talking about vague artistic elements so I’m not going to pretend I’m discovering hidden plot points, story elements or even revealing the artistic mood beyond what you already understand from casual viewing. What I am doing is showing how Bungie used visual elements

Destiny’s original art style is immediately recognizable as retro-futurism, drawing on artists as Kurt Burgle and Star Wars’ Ralph McQuarrie. But bundling it with other retro-futurist games like Fallout, BioShock or others immediately fails a taste test from even the most casual player. Bungie began Destiny as a fantasy game, set in woodlands, peppered with wizards, warriors, and giant frogs. Retro-futurism became the artistic host to their fantasy story. Journey further into the game’s expansions and you discover an even denser cluster of medieval, Lovecraftian and sci-fi inspiration. Destiny sits at the intersections of the genre, yet never immediately reminiscent of any particular work.

Vanilla Destiny highlights heroism in the face of overwhelming alien forces. The monolithic imagery of the Traveler over the Tower and over Earth is a symbol of humanity’s future, its stasis a reflection of humanity’s jeopardy and metamorphosis. The Last City is a cocoon for us, presumably to Become Legend and reclaim what was once our manifest destiny. We see colonies, stations and cities built on cities across our solar system, now abandoned. Art shows them overgrown, to be rediscovered by the player—because humanity will one day rebuild them. It takes the futurist vision of Kurt Burgle—the creator of retro metropolises, fantastical rail trains and arching luminescent skylines—only to cover them in moss, brambles and rust. In our epic (admittedly vague) battle against The Darkness, the world of “the future” is omnipresent, underfoot. The game takes great joy in showing the player skyboxes of gorgeous scenery—which further frustrates the game’s “look, but don’t touch” philosophy.

In the House of Wolves, we survey The Fallen, whose society falls into more traditional fantasy, in that it mirrors historical groups. The Fallen are a foreign race that resembles pre-Holy Roman Empire Franco-Germanic kingdoms. They’re a nomadic race that invaded, sacked and now lives in the ruins of the human Golden Age civilization: clearly parallel to the Roman Empire. The art reflects this in its reliance on visual elements such as sigils, flags and armor. Different factions act as independent units that fight frequently, but engage in a form of centralized religion via their Archons—who have their own power related goals. The primary story of Skolas: the self-appointed “Kell of Kells” is an improvement in Destiny’s storytelling, made possible by robust art design.

The Taken King

In The Taken King, we get Destiny 2.0, a soft reset for the franchise. It effectively reboots the game by putting vanilla Destiny’s retro-futurism aside in favor of traditional fantasy, with a Lovecraftian twist. The world of The Taken and The Dreadnaught becomes a whole world in itself. Rather than simply expanding existing Hive characters, art and design, Bungie opts to show the Hive’s genesis. Oryx is a monarch among Hive, having come from the same “Fundament” world they did. The mystical elements present in The Dark Below are suddenly elevated. The Hive elements on Earth and the Moon are barely recognizable imitations of a greater culture. It grants Oryx the deification that, in turn, gave the story weight; simultaneously elevating the environmental design to mythic proportions. The halls of the Dreadnaught are ornamented, ragged and cavernous—just like the Temple of Crota or The Hellmouth—but ascendant.

The architecture is built for gods. As the story leads into the eventual Kingsfall raid, so does the environmental storytelling. This is architecture, made for gods to wander: hallways as broad as highways, doors that swallow mountains and stairways the breadth of fields. The ragged, chitinous exteriors are permeated with physical darkness—evoking dungeons of traditional fantasy—and delivering a physicality to The Darkness. As the Taken King is soaked in deep black, so the story delineates to us the royal family of the Darkness. Oryx may not be “The Darkness,” but he’s as close to a physical representation as we’ve ever gotten—and he doesn’t disappoint. By expanding on the visual themes of the Hive, ascending them to the realm of gods, Bungie buttresses weaker elements of the game through artistic narrative, while delivering a powerful spectacle that remains the pinnacle of the Destiny experience.

Rise of Iron

Destiny’s epilogue, Rise of Iron, takes a drastically different approach. It’s a pulpy mashup of electrified ‘Mad Max-isms’ facing off against a traditional “Knights of the Round Table-esque” order in ‘The Iron Lords.’ Two separate art styles had to coexist, and while sometimes complementary, equally often got in the other’s way.

The Plaguelands are ultimately neither a visually appealing or artistically effective open world: it presents the same worn, post-Russian elements as seen in the Cosmodrone, but aged even further, decayed and placed in the wilderness. Add the further visual concepts of industrial work (piping, cut metal, half done construction) to SIVA’s already complex visual themes, and the result is muddled. At no point does its style coexist with the Cosmodrone, or take part in its retro-futurist themes. By the end, we’re thrown the additional headache of Rasputin’s uniquely visualized tech—with no explanation, despite being the central theme of the raid. The art of the Iron Lords, the Iron Temple and the Iron Banner, meanwhile, are virtually invisible after the first mission: despite being the primary selling point and marketing tool of the expansion.

Don’t misunderstand me: I love all these elements, but they’re never presented within a cohesive visual identity. No element improves the others, or changes my understanding of either. We appreciate the noble grandeur of the Iron Temple, sheer cool of the Siege Engine and the carbon fiber tech of the Perfection Complex, but they’re never better for coexisting. Rise of Iron is an enjoyable fling through a variety of genres, but ultimately fails at leaving a lasting visual impression.

Destiny 2

We’ve explored the previous expansions of Destiny, how they were/weren’t effective and how Bungie’s art design works in tandem with their stories. Now, Destiny 2’s story is something I’m sure we’re all keenly interested it. In that spirit, Destiny 2’s artwork is something worth a long, hard look, if only to extract information on the tone and story.

I’m entirely disregarding the trailer--foremost reason being I already plan on digging that thing open with a different set of pliers, later-- because the art direction of a teaser trailer reflects an entirely different set of goals than the art direction in gameplay or, as we have here, marketing artwork. Gamers should be familiar with the disparity in style between game trailers and actual games.

First: Armor. This is that artwork they use on social media advertising, and you may recall being plastered on home page.

Let’s start by breaking down the color palette: white, silver and red. The use of red flags to frame the shot places the subject against an iridescent, cloudy sky. The design of vanilla Destiny is here, but it’s toned down and reduced to its most essential elements. The tone is restrained, regal and military: a significantly refined retelling of vanilla Destiny’s themes. These are the guardians of legend. These visual themes are present in all three class artworks.

It’s a subdued, modern look that’s more contemporary than futurist—almost neomodern. It wouldn’t be out of place in the more expensive end of a Nike store. Very minimal, textured design. The Hunter and Warlock’s armor is largely cloth based, even the chest pieces don’t look like metal. While previous destiny expansion added character to armor via rivets, clamps and the way the various components were assembled into a single piece, this is relatively seamless. The lack of detail is to illustrate something simple: It’s armor, and as the color palette indicates, regal, military armor. Contrast this with the original Destiny which used every inch of space to design.

The Cabal

Weigh this against our opponent: The Red Legion. The vanguard of the Cabal, a militaristic empire whose presence in Destiny has been defined by their commitment to discipline, honor and sheer strength. Those are all traits that human soldiers have praised for millennia. They’re uniquely like humanity. Unlike the Hive, Vex or Fallen, the Cabal has been drawn into this conflict as unfairly as we have. Just as humanity is galvanized into action by the Fallen and Hive invasion, the Cabal are pushing their empire toward ours as a response to the overwhelming forces of the Vex. Our ideals and goals are extremely similar and while Destiny 2 puts us at odds, the artwork intentionally and specifically brings out all the traits that make us like them. They ultimately want to bring order and stability to an empire that is not dissimilar to our own Golden Age.

Bungie is taking this one of two routes: via juxtaposition or mirroring. In juxtaposing the Cabal and Humanity, they can demonstrate what makes us different. The Cabal are known for extreme tactics, and for pushing the lines of that extremity—as noted by the Tower Vanguard in the Shield Brothers strike. In attacking The Last City, the Cabal may show savagery, desecration and malice that aren’t far off from humanity’s past. Through juxtaposition, Bungie can answer the question “what makes a Guardian different.” Does that ring any bells?

It’s reminiscent of Halo 2, in which The Arbiter and the Master Chief—as well as their respective societies and militaries--are juxtaposed. Halo 2 delivered a powerful introspective narrative that strengthened both characters, added depth to the core trilogy’s conflict and delivered a powerful visualization of the meta-narrative that gave impact to Halo 3’s conclusion. In Destiny, that juxtaposition could be any number of situations, interrogating any number of ideals we hold. The Cabal Invasion is a tremendous opportunity for Bungie, and their art style indicates that they have every indication of taking it, with a focus in storytelling we haven’t seen since Halo.

The second route is to mirror them. This is similar to juxtaposition, largely because juxtaposition involves a healthy serving of mirroring. The goal, nevertheless, is different. Destiny is a franchise with many races, many conflicts and many interests. It’s unlikely that Destiny 2 will exclusively focus on the conflict between the Cabal and humanity, especially since they’re the last magical, least science-fiction inspired groups. Destiny 2 will likely involve the Vex, Fallen and Fallen as major threats. The most obvious possibility is that the Cabal and humans will be forced to unite against any one of those forces.

As stated earlier, those groups lack the pragmatic goals of the Cabal or humanity and represent greater threats to the universe at large. By mirroring the two, Bungie can create common ground for alliance—their mutual respect for order, honor and self-preservation—that makes broader conflict more meaningful. If you’ve played Mass Effect, the war against The Reapers is epic, mostly because you’ve spent three games acquainting yourself with dozens of races, societies and individuals, all of whom have their own unique motivations and stories. Destiny 2 can create a self-consistent universe that makes the overall conflict more meaningful, and the art style’s clear alignment with the Cabal indicates that possibility.

Destiny 2’s artwork indicates a strong shift in Bungie’s storytelling focus. Past entries to the franchise have shown the reward that comes with consistent, focused visual storytelling and the pitfalls that come with the sprawling, epic universe. Through their artwork, Bungie is showing a promising sense of focus that, in turn, may help deliver the broad, epic narrative fans have longed for. In Destiny—through three years of grinding, raiding, complaining and rejoicing--we most certainly became legend. And Bungie’s latest artwork offers fans a glimpse of legends to come.

#Destiny2 #Destiny #Art