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Re-aligning the elements of charted Space – an addict’s analysis of Destiny.

by Jedrzej Czarnota on 09/19/14 10:04:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It has been over a week since Destiny launched in the UK, and I am still enjoying it profusely. In fact, the first thing that I thought when I dragged myself out of bed this morning was “gosh, I can’t wait to play Destiny in the evening”! It used to be worse – last weekend I spent glued to my console and TV screen, playing Destiny all Saturday and almost all Sunday. Now I am slowly becoming a high-functioning addict – I go to work every day, I work out, I talk to my friends again – but the game has still not loosened its iron grip on my ‘hearts and minds’. In this article, I will explore some of the things that, in my opinion, make Destiny brilliant – in the contexts of multi-user gameplay and mature narrative.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Destiny taken by the author (uploaded via PlayStation application).

Not The Last of Us yet, but getting there

Forgive me the strong and a bit controversial heading here – but it accurately reflects how I feel about the comparison of the degree of complexity of narrative in The Last of Us and Destiny. The Last of Us, to my mind, remains the pinnacle of the industry’s maturity as a storyteller so far. I am actually debating whether I should tie Naughty Dog’s game with Dishonored, another game which I resonated with strongly (but it could have been all in my head, as the narrative in the latter title is more player-focused, and player has more agency in shaping and interpreting it), but I think that The Last of Us shines a bit brighter in that department. Destiny of course is a FPS game, with different game design ambitions that The Last of Us (as a shooter, The Last of Us is nowhere close to Destiny’s brilliance) – but Bungie took a serious attempt in it at providing the players with a more mature, thought-out story, going beyond a bit childish power-fantasy of the Halo series (save for Halo: Reach, which narrative of a civilization’s fall, losing battle and poignant ending were actually quite interesting). The sheer fact, that we can compare the narrative achievements of The Last of Us and Destiny is a huge credit to the latter. In Destiny, the appeal of the narrative is also located more in the world and background story, as opposed to The Last of Us, where it is all about the protagonists’ development over the course of the game.

The tale of a fallen human civilization, desperate struggle to survive, unknown forces, semi-dead gods and last bastions of light is a far cry from hyper-masculine Master Chief bundled together with sexually objectified Cortana. Destiny, especially in its opening sequences and first locales (meaning here the Old Russia and Cosmodrome locations), conveys the feelings of nostalgia, loneliness and an unarticulated, yet present, threat.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

One of the most striking things about Destiny is its excellent level of polish. The game is rock solid – it plays great, it looks great, it very rarely glitches, the music is mind-blowing. Peter Dinklage as the Ghost (I am a big fan of Tyrion Lannister, both from the books but also in the HBO’s show) is doing a God’s work (the rest of voice acting is outstanding as well, by the way)… There are of course no surprises here – Bungie has mastered the genre of console FPSs and had set the previous benchmarks of quality with Halo series. In terms of design decisions and features comprising the game, there are no redundancies, things have their clearly defined purpose, with a room to expand the experience even further in the future DLC releases.

The production value of the game applies not only to the console experience alone – it also goes for the companion smartphone app. For a high-functioning addict like me, being able to swap my character’s gear during lunch break is like a breath of tank air for a scuba diver 15 meters under sea’s surface. I don’t know if I could make it to the end of the day without it – thank you Bungie! That app is also a solid advancement in integrating phone as the ‘second screen’ with the main gameplay experience – for example the Grimoire, the in-game encyclopaedia and repository of knowledge, is best accessed from a phone.

Of course, some may argue that Destiny as a FPS is very, very reminiscent of Halo again – with rechargeable shields, many alien races as enemies, weapon system etc. – but those are all tried-and-true elements that have proved themselves in previous games. Bungie knows already how to implement them well – and even more importantly, that allows them to focus on innovating elsewhere in the game. Bungie also has learned a lot from its previous experiences as the makers of FPSs – they know what players like, what is needed and what will contribute to the positive gameplay experience. For instance, such a small-yet-powerful touch are customizable name banners that other players can see when gaming together – apart from displaying practical information (name, level, guild membership etc.) they are also an outlet for creative customization of one’s character.

Innovation at the crossroads of genres – a lot of cross-pollination

At the first glance, somebody could say that Destiny is not an innovative game – yet another AAA shooter on console, focused on competitive multiplayer. Maybe the story is more mature, maybe the graphics are better, but there is nothing more to the game that breaks any new ground. Well, that is completely wrong.

Destiny is innovative in a silent, yet thoroughly efficient, way. It does not show us things that we have seen never before – on the contrary, it heavily relies on what has been done in the past. It does not try to impress with bling or bells and whistles – it never claims to show us something that will surprise us completely and leave us shocked beyond belief. Instead, it adds small, seemingly peripheral features to the core multiplayer shooter experience. The interesting thing here is that it sources ideas from across the games industry and from completely different genres – RPGs, space simulators, MMOGs… It takes distinctive features that we have seen working brilliantly across a wide array of games – and combines them together, on a console platform to that! That is another element of that innovativeness – the fact that Bungie is bringing Destiny-kind of experience to a console – not to the PC platform. In that quiet recombination of incremental innovations, cross-pollinations between genres and platforms, Destiny’s brilliance is born. Let’s now take a look at some of the specific features of the game and track their pedigree:

  1. Persistent game world – this is probably the biggest breakthrough of Destiny. This feature, which is a hallmark of MMO games, has never been seen in a console FPS game before (to the best of my knowledge). Players can play alongside one another, help each other, or collaborate when doing planetary patrol missions. On top of that, the instances come – just like dungeons in numerous MMOGs – accessible only for the players who are together in a pre-formed party (fireteam).
  2. Third person view of player avatar while in the social area – well, that is taken straight from World of Warcraft (and other MMOGs) so that others can admire your gear while you also look at your gear – remember the Orgrimmar’s long evenings!
  3. Three player fireteams – again here, a comparison to Blizzard’s game: Diablo 3 (and especially in its expansion pack, Reaper of Souls). Easy to use multiplayer system, where you can join or leave bite-sized games without any fuss.
  4. Strikes and raids – cooperative, story-driven multiplayer is a truly amazing point of Destiny. For a person like me, who does not really enjoy competitive multiplayer in console FPS games (yes, I do get my rear parts handed to me on a plate every time!), this finally allows to enjoy those games beyond just the single-player campaign. Again, here we see a bow towards all MMOGs and their instanced dungeons.
  5. Gear – for a kid who has grown up playing Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, there is nothing cooler than that. The sheer number of customization options and details is just fantastic. Every piece of gear has its own unique look, with items graded by their rarity (from common ‘white’ trash all the way to purple ‘epix’ – I have heard that there is something beyond purple in Destiny, a grade of ‘exotic’ items, but I haven’t seen them yet).
  6. Spaceships – each player can collect spaceships which are also visible in brief moments to other players. The designs of those are also varied and interesting – and they constitute yet another feature of the game that players can obsess over (any collectors reading this?). When we talk about spaceships in games, immediately EVE Online comes to mind. On the other hand, when thinking about the collecting of those craft for one’s in-game character – well, I remember my drive to collect mounts in World of Warcraft.
  7. Player classes, subclasses and selection of skills – it is yet another element ported from RPG games. It adds variety and flavour to the gameplay. Class-specific abilities also aren’t superfluous and they constitute an interesting variation to the multiplayer experience. Combined with levelling, it is reminiscent of Borderlands system.

Bungie has definitely devoted a lot of thought to making Destiny a game that players will not get easily bored with. There are many elements of progression, incremental challenges, as well as collection – things that generally have made some of the MMOGs so irresistible. Of course, such an approach ties into Bungie’s monetization strategy – to keep player base strong and very, very involved as they are developing and releasing DLCs and expansion packs. Interestingly, this element of sustaining players’ interest has been ported from a business model that relied on subscription fees – it is quite fascinating to see that such a choice of features can also sustain a monetization technique that does not involve rolling subscription fees.

Summary, and the destiny of Destiny

If I were to decide where the greatest contribution of Destiny lies, I would say: “in bringing cooperative, story-driven, multiplayer gameplay to a console platform”. So far, we haven’t seen many of such experiences – with a few exceptions (one example coming to mind is Borderlands, although to a far more limited degree) – and the fact that Bungie does that opens the door for industry followers. Destiny is also a game which is strongly nested in the capabilities and affordances of the new generation of consoles – especially those related to integration of the social, as well as on-line experience. This is exactly the persistent game world that is the greatest and most shining achievement of Destiny – and the bold and innovative coupling of it with a shooter genre.

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