Why Destiny 1's Worlds Were So Special
"No one is to blame. It is neither their fault nor ours. It is the misfortune of being born when the whole world is dying."
You wake from a hazy dream, outside the perimeter of what you later learn to be 'The Cosmodrone.' You've waited years for this; years, waiting for Bungie's 'Destiny.' Set in the sunset of humanity at its most powerful, you're tasked with picking through the ruins of what once was, and waging an unwinnable war for humanity's future.
"Ruins" are key to the game's immersion because our motivation throughout is sandwiched between humanity's past and future. For players discovering this world for the first time, ruins are the first step toward understanding the events of 'The Collapse.' It was a catastrophic event that left human civilization in shambles, and our species itself near extinction. We survived only for the sacrifice of a monolithic orb known as 'The Traveler.' It's the same entity that blessed us with The Golden Age, a period of technological advancement which allowed us to spread throughout our Solar System.
The central theme is in the game's name- Destiny - just a single word removed from 'manifest destiny.' It becomes apparent that the taking of these worlds are our manifest destiny. This isn't the case merely because "it's a videogame, just accept it;" it's because these worlds were once ours. They were taken from us. And they must be ours once again. Destiny works because the ruins of The Cosmodrome, The Moon, Venus and Mars are a constant reminder of what was taken from us. And it's the central motivation that drives Destiny forward.
To understand the importance of Destiny's worldbuilding in its environments, let's explore how this is manifested in two of the base game's worlds: The Cosmodrome and The Moon.
The Cosmodrome was a vital link to space during humanity's Golden Age, and centuries after the Collapse, the remnants of forgotten colony ships on the launch pad can still be seen, waiting to fly again.
The most recognizable elements of The Cosmodrome --meaning 'Spaceport' in Russian-- are the massive, rusted buildings and the behemoth remnants of the Russian space program. The ground is overgrown, and ever metal surface is coated in rust. Patches of snow rest untouched. It has been long since these ships left the ground, much less our atmosphere.
Next, players will notice Hive pods, and remnants of Hive technology. The only enemy players will have encountered thus far are The Fallen, impoverished space pirates picking at the ruins of the dead world, and entirely disconnected from 'The Darkness,' the main antagonistic force. Upon finding The Hive, their Ghost will inform them:
Quote courtesy of Ishtar Collective
Since The Collapse, there are two recorded eras of human history: The Dark Age and The City Age. Despite records of many of the battles fought during those years, there's no evidence that something as massive and overwhelming as a Hive invasion had occurred. So, it's safe to assume that The Hive's last invasion was during, or soon after, The Collapse since it's incredible unlikely they made any kind of appearance on Earth (at least above the surface) since.
This simple line introduces a seed of dread that blossoms into the game's overarching conflict. The Hive are agents of The Darkness and their return heralds the return of the enemy that left us near extinction, and our civilization in ruins.
Within the first few missions, players are given a tour of The Cosmodrome that intuitively provides a backdrop for all the story they need catching up on. A lesser game would have had a text-crawl, or a narrated cinematic explaining events. But by dropping players in the ruins of Earth and walking us through the new world, Bungie creates a far more memorable introduction.
For that reason, I believe The Cosmodrome to be the pinnacle of world design for any Destiny location.
Worldbuilding isn't grimoire cards. Or scannables. It can be those things, but it's better when it's not. The Cosmodrome represents Destiny's worldbuilding at its best: history self-evident in the world.
During the Golden Age, the Moon served as an outpost for supporting humanity's colonies across the system…The moon once housed a thriving human colony of interconnected bases, but now only broken domes and scattered space suits half-buried in the lunar soil mark humanity's faded dominance.
The Moon is a relatively simple location, both geographically and visually. It's the same moon Neil Armstrong landed on in 1969 and Bungie's artists revel in that identity. The style of the moon's colony is primitive in comparison to the elaborate, futuristic colonies on Mars and Venus. It's machined, industrial and utilitarian, and easy to imagine it's what NASA would build in the near-future.
There isn't much color to the structures, just steel, white and occasional yellow/orange accents. Geometry is simple: plain metal shapes, welded together, with braided cables running between. Beyond the simplicity, the buildings are sparse. The moon's open, white surface is everpresent to remind you--it's the moon. It's not an exotic location by any means. If anything, it's a miracle what little is on its surface hasn't floated off into space.
The Moon's surface isn't the star of the show, though, because evil stirs deep within. Just as we found lingering Hive in the caves of The Cosmodrome, there are Hive forces within The Moon's crust. It's no small remnant. There's a massive temple to the Hive god, Crota-- ornate, massive and terrifying as you'd imagine. In stark contrast to the naked, sparsely settled surface, the Hellmouth is the entrance to a fully realized pocket of a deeply evil ecosystem.
The horror of being swarmed by The Hive goes beyond the "I'm being mobbed" panic of your standard zombie game. The moon is a simple thing, a plain white orb we've seen float through our sky from the day we were born. That something such ancient, malignant evil as The Hive could roam the busy walkways of our moon is a betrayal of everything we know of our own sky.
Bungie designed The Moon to introduce The Hive and the show off a basic iteration of human colonization. The location's art portrays does both incredible well, giving us a familiar taste of our own exploration of The Moon, and a suitably shocking introduction to The Hive. The environment portrays an overwhelming evil that's clawed its way beneath our moon, serving doubly as an introduction to The Darkness, a gnawing force, chewing away at the universe. In this way, it's not just an introduction to The Hive; it plants the seeds of dread that are present whenever The Darkness appears later.
Beyond Earth's Orbit
Even after these two initial locations, this excellence in worldbuilding is ever-present. Mars, Venus and later, The Dreadnaught, are fully realized worlds; their art styles reveal and elevate their histories and conflicts. On Mars, we have an endless war of attrition between The Vex and The Cabal. The brutalism of The Cabal Empire is reflected in the monolithic towers of Clovis Bray, and each endless waves of The Vex may as well be a crest in the endless sand dunes. It's reminiscent of Rome's North African campaigns, seemingly intentionally. The Cabal are modelled after The Roman Empire, with units and characters bearing Roman names. Mars is a desolate, brutal place. In fact, Bungie delivers the location so seamlessly that it's hard to tell if the Vex-Cabal war shaped the world design, or vice-versa.
Meanwhile, Venus is a lush garden world, thanks to The Traveler. In the real world, we known it as an acidic inhospitable planet, so Bungie takes care to bake that into its new identity. We see an acidic -almost citrus- color palette in the rain, fauna and atmosphere with the sky still cloaked in burning clouds. What was once a petri dish in an oven has become an extremely humid rainforest. It's a natural transition, where past and future combine beautifully. Throw in a portal to a 'Black Garden' to contrast, and Bungie delivers another masterclass in world-building by using their art to portray the story's themes.
It's impossible to claim that Destiny's worlds are excellent solely because of a single element. Beyond the art, they're gloriously fun to play in and it's a technical marvel that such graphics were even possible on last-gen consoles. Building these worlds is a multi-discipline Olympic event, and the art style is a single strength. It'd be hilariously reductive of me to claim that the art style, and attention to portraying themes in art, is solely responsible for making these worlds so special.
With this in mind, I'd like to claim that this attention to art is the single strongest reasons I found Destiny such a compelling game.
I'm a very picky gamer and the sheer variety at my disposal has made me like Ratatouille's Anton Ego: If I don't love a game, I don't finish it. Destiny, on paper, is a game that I should have quit many times. There hasn't been a single year where the game hasn't faced some massive crisis that would have crushed any other game. Yet, here I am. Bungie's attention to their world is unparalleled and it just might be the reason I can't quit Destiny.