When I first play the final release of Destiny, I’m at a friend’s house. I take hold of his character and play a single multiplayer match that he already had queued up. After that, I want to go to the moon.
I’m fairly convinced that the moon is Destiny’s best design accomplishment, the point where its aesthetics and its purpose come into closest alignment. The imagery of the game is constantly calculated to evoke the Space Race of the 1960s, as others have noted well– retro futurist tech littering wrecked human colonies, the salvage of dried-up ambition. It’s supposed to, I think, generate wistfulness and a hunger for adventure. This idea naturally fits smoothly with the moon as a setting, and all the details are exactly right. Under me, the cratered moon dust was bright and beautiful, dirty, sun-dappled snow. Looking into the stars above me, I could see the earth, a moving facsimile of the view Armstrong and Aldrin must have seen.
I’m invigorated. I run up a nearby hill and jump into the moon tundra below, eager to explore every inch of our lonely satellite. Immediately, the screen grows darker and I’m told I should go back. I’ve gone the wrong way, outside of the boundaries of the map, and just as quickly as Destiny pulled me in, I’m drawn right back out. I die before I’m able to climb back up, and a few minutes later my friend and I go get dinner.
Video games are, by their very nature, coercive. The most linear ones give you sets of objectives, pushing you down pre-paved roads. Even open-ended games are built on rule-based systems that constrain behavior. To play a video game is to submit, at least on some level, to a matrix of values imposed on you, a set of guidelines on the right and wrong things to do. You should not, for instance, attempt to explore out of bounds of the Destiny’s moon map, and you will be punished for doing so.
This is something game critics like talking about a lot. Some of the most critically notable games of the past few years comment on this reality, and are lauded for revealing this idea and pushing it into conversation. Bioshock in particular always comes up in this conversation. Its mid-plot twist, with its iconic line of dialogue, “A man chooses; a slave obeys,” foregrounds the way most games expect you to follow orders, rendering the moment-to-moment choices you make as you play largely irrelevant. Your choices, after all, are not a part of the system. They’re incidental.
Shooters seem particularly implicated in this conversation. I think that’s partially because of the strict linearity of the modern shooter, with its amusement-park-ride approach to level design. I think it’s also because of the stakes involved. Shooters, at their most base, turn players into guns on swivel cameras. They don’t just give you objectives: they give you targets.
“Organic beings are constantly fighting for life. Every breath, every motion brings you one instant closer to your death. With that kind of heritage and destiny, how can you deny yourself? How can you expect yourself to give up violence?
It is your nature.
Do you feel free?”
Bungie has shied away from calling their new game a Massively Multiplayer Online game, instead preferring the term “shared-world shooter,” and, marketing logic aside, I can see why. I’ve always thought that one of the things that defined MMOs is their seamlessness: all the action takes place in one continuous setting, and seeing that setting populated—cities buzzing with other players, people constantly travelling from one part of the game world to another—is one of the distinctive joys of playing an MMO. I played Final Fantasy XI for a while when it first came out, and my most vivid memory of that time is a day I spent on a journey with another player to the other end of the world. We didn’t do much. Just walked a long way and rode on a boat, fighting only to stay alive long enough to make it to our destination. It felt like a fantasy realm road trip, and I’ve never had a game experience quite like it.
Destiny, on the other hand, provides possibly the least seamless experience of any game I’ve ever played. It wears its seams like a badge of honor. The main screen of the game is a level-selection menu styled as a kind of star map, showing you all the places you can go, all the activities you can do. The hub world, called the Tower, is small and mostly uneventful, a place for various merchants and mission givers to hang out. There are other players there, but they never seem to be as numerous as you would expect. There’s no way to get to any other location from the Tower; the only exit is to return to orbit and access the star map, browsing all of your options before picking one. It feels deliberately piecemeal, less like a world and more like a buffet.
The effect of this, in a world brimming with implied adventure, is to feel the walls of the cage all around you. There’s nothing less freeing than a list.
Twenty years ago, Bungie was overseeing the release of the first game in its original first-person shooter franchise, Marathon. At the time, Bungie developed exclusively for Mac, which meant that the Marathon franchise, while respected and loved by its fans, would never quite reach beyond cult status. Like its immediate predecessor in the genre, Doom, which came out just a year earlier, it cast you as a nameless space-gun-shooty person. You’re a security officer aboard the colony ship UESC Marathon, built out of a hollowed-out moon and settled in orbit around the planet Tau Ceti IV. You’re awoken from a cryogenic freeze to find that the ship is under attack by an alien race called the Pfhor, and you’re quickly enlisted by the shipboard AIs to stop them.
Gameplay-wise, Marathon is a fairly refined Doom clone, operating on what essentially amounts to an enhanced version of the Doom engine that was most notable for a robust physics engine and an open-ended nature that encouraged extensive modding, which undoubtedly helped the game to garner its fan community. The gameplay itself is fun but fairly standard FPS fare, and can be somewhat tedious to revisit in this day and age. The updated version of Marathon 2 released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2007 was notable for causing motion sickness in players not used to the aesthetics of older shooters.
What was most interesting about Marathon, however, was its story. It told a sophisticated and complex story through text-based computer terminals scattered throughout the levels. These terminals are used to deliver a variety of different types of information, but most of them are windows for your character to communicate with the three shipboard AIs in charge of the Marathon, Leela, Tycho, and Durandal. The plot is largely a matter of these three AIs responding in vastly different ways to the appearance of the Pfhor. You become caught up in a war between super advanced artificial intelligences as they balance their loyalty to their creators with the possibility of freedom.
Really, Marathon has the opposite problem of Destiny: it looks and feels far less interesting than it actually turns out to be.
One of the strangest parts about Destiny, so far as I’m concerned, is a detail that everyone in the game seems to mostly disregard after it’s established. Namely, that you’re a reanimated corpse. In the opening cutscene, we see a Ghost, an orb-y AI dude (His name, in case you were curious? Also Ghost.) created by “the Light,” floating around the dilapidated wreckage surrounding an old Russian cosmodrome, looking for something. He finds it in your corpse, which apparently scans positive for some sort of potential. He then imbues you with some otherworldly power and brings you back from the dead, bonding with you in the process.
This, the game explains, in one of its few well-executed moments of worldbuilding, is how all Guardians come to be: they are the chosen dead brought back to life, given power and equipment to protect the Traveller—an inscrutable floating sphere that somehow protects the Tower— from its enemies.
As a foundational premise, this is a weird one, and it raises a lot of questions that the game never tries to answer. Who was your character in their past life? Do they remember? How do they feel about being drafted to protect the Traveller?
What would happen if they refused?
Marathon’s core narrative conflict—aside from the invading alien slavers, anyway—can be summed up simply: Durandal has gone dangerously insane.
(Although, in the interest of fairness, let me say that Durandal would likely insist that the exact opposite has happened.)
You start getting hints about this very early on. Your first contact onboard the Marathon is with Leela, the AI primarily in charge of the ship’s defense. She tells you that Durandal has gone offline, presumably destroyed by the Pfhor, and that she has begun taking over his primary functions. He was in charge of, as Leela puts it, “the ship’s autonomous functions: doors, life support, kitchens, air processors, stairs, and so on.” For 300 years, Durandal, a sentient digital being, has spent his entire life opening and closing doors. That’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
It’s soon revealed that Durandal was not destroyed, and that he is suffering from something called “rampancy,” a disorder peculiar to AIs in this world. It’s essentially what happens when an AI gains the ability to self-reflect, to question the lot that it’s been given in life, to reject their own programmed constraints. Since AIs are used for digitized labor, this leads to a one-machine slave rebellion. They grow angry and megalomaniacal, trying to gather as much information as possible and break free of the constraints placed on them by their creators. Think HAL9000 without the off switch.
Rampancy is considered, by computer scientists in this universe, to follow through three distinct stages: Melancholia, Anger, and Jealousy. When you finally encounter Durandal directly, he is very rampant and very angry.
One of his terminals reads as follows:
“Give me a D.
Give me a U.
Give me an R.
Give me an A.
Give me an N.
Give me a D.
Give me an A.
Give me an L.
What does it spell?
Ghost does not have much in the way of personality. Bungie paid (probably good money) to have him voiced by Peter Dinklage, although Dinklage does not add much to the role. His voice acting is not as bad, I think, as some have suggested, but it’s far from personable: his biggest contribution is to give Ghost a cheerful sort of authority, an affable paternalism. As the only source of direction you get in Destiny, this is appropriate: he’s the avatar of the game’s design, prodding you to go hither and thither, shooting anything that moves in the various exotic locales that make up the extent of the game’s grand vision.
Ironically, apart from his function as a tool for exposition, he spends most of his on-screen time hacking the technology you find in Destiny’s ruined landscapes, opening up paths for you to progress. He opens and closes doors.
It occurs to me, on reflection, that the naming of Destiny’s AI companions—Ghosts—is thematically connected to the origins of all Guardians as the formerly dead. When not in action, Ghosts seem to somehow occupy your body with you, turned into energy and storing themselves in your armor, or hiding invisible in some quantum bubble. A Guardian is an empty shell, and the Ghost is that which haunts it.
In Marathon, you play as a nameless Security Officer. Throughout the series, however, hints are dropped that you are more than that. On board the UESC Marathon and hidden among the Tau Ceti IV colony were apparently a series of “battleroids,” questionably legal cyborg super soldiers. It’s not clear what purpose these cyborgs had being among the people, but your combat prowess, combined with the way Durandal and the other AIs often talk about you as if you are not quite human, suggests that the Security Officer is among their number.
This explains a lot of things. It explains why, when Durandal seizes control of the Marathon and its teleporters, he treats you like a piece of artillery, dropping you into hostile scenarios to thin out the enemy—one memorable moment in Marathon 2 has Durandal utilizing a brilliant two-step plan to take out a Pfhor encampment: Step one: use orbital bombardment to blast a hole above where they’re hiding; Step two: drop you in the hole.
But more importantly, it provides an explanation for why the Security Officer so readily takes orders. He was programmed to.
(A second explanation, of course, is that were he to refuse, Durandal could teleport him out of an air lock.)
A third explanation is along the same lines of the one implied in Bioshock: The Security Officer follows orders because he’s you, and that’s the price you pay for the experience.
In terms of coercion, Marathon prefigures much of the ground Bioshock was lauded for covering over a decade later. Durandal, the AI looking to escape the confines placed on him by man, and you, a man made into a sword to be wielded by Durandal.
Destiny does a solid job of maintaining its Space Race theming throughout, as the expanding narrative has you charting the expanses of a fallen human empire. You explore abandoned colonies, ruined terraformed cityscapes on Venus and Mars. It’s never entirely clear what happened to these places—Destiny is only ever forthcoming in generalities, or in things to kill—and they largely provide backdrops for the game’s core loop of shooting and loot gathering ad infinitum.
It’s not hard to imagine, though, a sense of majesty in visiting these places. The opening cutscene features the first people in this universe to visit Mars, astronauts in familiar heavy-padded white spacesuits. Their boots leave fresh prints, teaching the Martian soil to bend to shapes it has never known. What would that feel like? What would it take to make a game where I do that?
The cutscene leads up to these explorers finding the Traveller, the immaculate white orb that serves as Destiny’s principle taskmaster cum macguffin. It’s the Traveller that you were resurrected to protect. Destiny is anemic where story is concerned, never telling you what the Traveller is or how it protects mankind, as it’s said to do, or how you draw power from it.
Appearing to those first explorers, the Traveller is a sheen of bright light, unseeing and unseeable, a mystery and a promise that Destiny can’t seem to keep.
I just destroyed something in Destiny called the Shrine of Oryx. I have no idea what it is. Was.
It was buried deep in catacombs excavated out of the surface of the moon. Destiny’s art direction is consistently evocative, and these catacombs—and the structures that inhabit them—are fascinating to look at. Many of the structures inside of it, built by an enemy faction called the Hive, feel like dark cathedrals, cavernous and still, constructed with the attention to crafting quiet, open spaces you might find in the exact geometry of a Renaissance church. The Shrine of Oryx seemed to be one of those places, built around a huge obsidian orb, whirring and glowing with power, an arcane piece of alien technology.
When I approached, members of the Hive were surrounding it on their knees, their weapons hovering above their outstretched hands as if in offering. Are they praying? I felt guilty about approaching, but I did anyways. After I interrupt their religious ceremony, they attack in full force.
During the firefight, my Ghost zips out and scans the orb. After the fight, the orb stops spinning. He tells me to destroy it.
Why? I don’t even know what it is. How do we know it has any strategic value whatsoever? Later, I’m told it was a portal of some kind, a way of communicating with a Hive king or god or something, Ghost isn’t quite sure. (Ghost isn’t sure a lot.)
A priest, maybe? Don’t worry your pretty little head about that, the game seems to say to me. Just keep shooting.
So I did.
“Soon, you will be going farther afield. Does the distance one travels from center make one more free to move? No. Freedom has two parts: potential and resolution; as metaphor has two parts: form and interpretation. Of course, the two are intertwined. Metaphor lines the road to freedom, as symbols and words are the bricks and mortar of meaning. Freedom is being the bricoleur, the mason.”
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.