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Opinion – Destiny's Story Stalls Out Of The Gate

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jul 25, 2014 at 01:26 PM

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After years of trying to understand and track Halo's expansive, confusing lore, I was looking forward to the clean narrative slate that Destiny would provide. This was my chance to lay a bedrock foundation of understanding for Bungie's next big sci-fi opus. When I sat down to play the beta, I pricked up my ears and was ready to take it all in. Within an hour, I was hopelessly lost again. After talking to some of my fellow editors about what's going on in Destiny's story, I've come to the conclusion that it's not me – it's Bungie. Here are some of the stumbling blocks standing between Bungie's approach to storytelling and the player.

Don't worry; this article won't contain any Destiny spoilers, because I don't really know what the hell is going on.

The Name Game

As a sci-fi fan, I've learned plenty of geeky, made-up terminology over the years. It comes with the territory when a story revolves around tons of objects, characters, and species that don't actually exist in our world. However, there are still good sci-fi names and bad sci-fi names, and the good ones seem appropriate for the object or character they're describing. In the Mass Effect series, Mordin was a bookish alien scientist who looked like what you might expect a Salarian to look like. Wrex was a bloodthirsty warmonger, and if there's a better term for his species than Krogan, I don't know what it would be.

Compare that to whatever the hell a Silent Cartographer is. Instead of making up their own terminology, Bungie has a strange obsession with picking abstract names for things that don't really fit – like calling a trio of characters Truth, Mercy, and Regret. If you can remember who they were without using Wikipedia, give yourself a pat on the back.

Bungie's confusing naming conventions carry into Destiny, and the revelation that I have no chance of following the series' lore dawned on me when Peter Dinklage spoke this line to me:

"The Array, it's controlled by Rasputin, the last Warmind."

I had the subtitles on, so I was able to actually study that sentence, like an archeologist studying a line of forgotten hieroglyphics. Even so, I had no idea what the Array, Rasputin, and Warmind were referring to; I thought I had just activated an array, but the capitalization makes me think it's more than just the collection of computers we turned on.

To make things even more confusing, Bungie even repurposes a few terms from Halo. You can now play as a Hunter, which used to be the colloquial term for a giant enemy type that had the unpronounceable name Mgalekgolo. Similarly, a "Ghost" used to be a ship piloted by the Covenant's Elite alien species. Now it's a floating A.I. orb – which in Halo used to be called a Guilty Spark, for some dumb reason. Either way, that hovering robot has been in charge of telling me the bulk of Destiny's narrative so far, which leads me to the next problem.

Who Is Talking To Me?

Like the Halo series, most of Destiny's objectives, explanations, and plot points are conveyed via some disembodied voice as you're running around the battlefield – usually during or right after a big firefight. Dinklage's aforementioned "Rasputin" line came right after I fended off escalating waves of enemies as he fiddled with a broken computer. The intense fight mixed hordes of ambushing melee characters with sharpshooters that fired at me from cover, and the occasional (and terrifyingly powerful) boss enemy. Delivering a spoken narrative while players are trying to catch their breath and search the environment for dropped loot and ammo is a surefire recipe for missed plot points. I appreciate the fact that Bungie wants to keep me immersed in the gameplay by not breaking away to cutscenes, but the end result is that I'm actually immersed in the gameplay – processing new characters, terminology, and story points at the same time is a tough proposition, especially when your only focal point is a tiny floating robot.

Even when you meet characters face-to-face, they're mostly faceless. The vast majority of the NPCs sport big, blank helmets that completely obstruct their faces. I can't recall what a single character in the beta looks like, which is a big red flag – how can you tell a memorable story without any memorable characters? Without facial cues, the personality and emotional weight of characters all has to be conveyed through the voice acting, which so far has been one of the biggest complaints from those who have played the game.

Into the Deep End

The Destiny beta doesn't waste much time getting players into the action, which is by and large a good thing. However, Bungie thrusts the player into the spotlight without properly setting the stage first. A three-minute intro clip sums up Destiny's premise in such basic terms that it could fit on a fortune-cookie message – a mysterious ship/planet appears one day and helps humanity rapidly advance, but then an equally mysterious Darkness arrives and threatens everything. That's pretty much it. Maybe this vague oversimplification is just placeholder for the sake of the beta, a way for Bungie to avoid spoilers while players help test the game. I certainly hope so, because I need more to go on, and so far the game is lousy at conveying information.

I've encountered several different enemy species in the beta, and spent enough time fighting them to get a good idea of their abilities, weapons, and behaviors. The only problem? I still don't know who they are or why I'm fighting them.

Maybe Ghost told me what the Hive are the first time they ambushed me in the dark underground installation as I ran around panicked and out of breath with only a sliver of health left. Maybe he also told me the motivations of the Fallen as I was lining up my first headshot or playing with my Warlock's shiny new abilities. All I know is that the only reason I can tell you what they are now is because I looked them up on a Destiny wiki.  

If I missed or forgot the in-game descriptions of certain characters or objectives the first time they came up, that's my fault – but one of the keys to conveying a complex story is reiterating information. A Song of Ice And Fire features an impossibly large cast of characters, but it's easy to remember who everyone is because Martin continually reminds you as he reintroduces them. This kind of reaffirmation is all but absent from the Destiny beta – even the mission summary screen doesn't tell you what you just got done doing, instead it merely gives you a rundown of kill/death stats. After playing all the beta content, I still know embarrassingly little about who I am or what I'm doing – I'm some kind of zombie Guardian who's been tasked with defeating said Darkness, and Peter Dinklage says I'm the chosen one, but he doesn't sound too sure about it (or maybe that's just the apathy in his voice). Beyond that I spent a lot of time looking for a code to pilot my ship, but some things got hacked or something and then – ooh, let's kill that giant spider mech!

All in all, I've thoroughly enjoyed the beta – the gameplay is great, I like the MMO elements, and I can't wait to dig into upgrading my character's abilities and weapons more. The beta convinced me that I'll be playing more of the game this September – I just hope that understanding the story doesn't require reading endless lore entries in menus, searching terms on fan-compiled wikis, or bugging Miller to explain to me what the hell is going on. Bungie obviously takes its lore and storytelling very seriously – I just hope it does a better job of conveying that story in the final game.