In the days leading up to Destiny 2: Shadowkeep last fall, I was determined to get back into Destiny in a big way. This time, it would be different. This time, I’d finally understand the notoriously convoluted lore, the bits of inscrutable storytelling many Destiny fans swear by. Things have changed since Destiny once locked critical parts of its world building inside collectible cards, but Bungie’s never provided an easy path for newcomers to catch up on the past. The answer, most told me, was to watch the intricate videos by My Name is Byf.
Around this time, My Name is Byf had released their magnum opus, a four-hour epic that promised to walk through the entire confusing story of Destiny, including events that predate the timeline of the games by theoretically millions of years. The video isn’t just rambling commentary layered over footage of someone shooting up monsters in Destiny, but a moody walkthrough of Destiny’s layered history, complete with original artwork bringing things to life.
It nonetheless remains incredibly hard to follow, but that probably has less to do with the work of My Name is Byf than it does with the often rickety foundation he’s working with from Bungie. But I’ve watched a lot of lore videos, and most are nonsense. There’s a reason My Name is Byf, otherwise known as James Byford, has become a household name for the most dedicated fans of Destiny. It’s how one ends up affectionately called “Lore Daddy.”
Byford started their channel at 16 years old, and has amassed 758,000 subscribers in the eight years since. The channel started with Byford uploading random videos from Halo and other video games, before Byf landed on something that worked: Destiny analysis. It wasn’t a home run at first, with most videos amassing less than a thousand views, but Byford’s audience began to skyrocket around the time of the Destiny beta and its eventual launch, when he started publishing exhaustive analysis videos and guides to the game’s weapons.
The four-hour Destiny take, according to Byford, “took months” to complete, requiring a document with 28,500 words, 48 hours of voice recording, and splitting editing into 15 different sections because otherwise it’d have crashed the computers it was being made on.
Making videos like this is Byford’s full-time job. It should, perhaps, not be a surprise it’s possible to carve out a successful career making lore videos about a popular video game, but I also can’t help but wonder more about his work. It’s why I reached out to Byford, which got us talking about his process, how he’s able to keep all of Destiny’s lore in his head (there’s a reason!), and why the complicated story of Destiny has entranced so many.
VICE Games: How'd you originally get into Destiny? What drew you in?
James Byford: I remember being a huge fan of Bungie back in 2013, thanks to Halo: Reach, and I still remember when I saw the first Destiny trailers. I was instantly hooked by the premise. The sentence “Bungie is making an FPS RPG” was like a siren’s call to me. I knew immediately that I was going to play it. Halo: Reach had mostly reached the end of its life cycle, and Halo 4 didn’t grip Halo fans in the same way. As we moved on, so did my content. (Not to disrespect the hard work of 343, just the sentiment of the time).
When I got to know the universe of Destiny more, I really saw why I’d be there for years to come. The scope of the world was immediately open to almost any possibility. Let me give an example: Destiny is a world with rust-punk spider pirates in the form of The Fallen. That theme alone is enough to support any game’s identity alone. However, they’re just a single race. They’re a small fraction of Destiny’s world. For the punky tech of The Fallen, there are a dozen contrasts. The Hive are all about the ritualistic—savage and eldritch themes. The Cabal are all about a near-future military feel. The Vex are totally alien, in the sense of being nearly completely unrecognizable with their brass-futuristic feel. And those are just the main enemies.
The Iron Banner (basically space knights), The Awoken (Space Rivendell on steroids and with a dash of intrigue), the Ahamkara (dragons that grant wishes), the OWL sector (a shadowy emergency organisation given complete control of the city in some circumstances). Any of these themes could be the focus of a game. Destiny balances them all.
Destiny is my “everything-lifestyle” game not just because this gives me a backdrop for any cool game scenario, but also because I can experience any story imaginable. The universe is remarkable because it conveyed this from the very beginning, and it presented it as a blank canvas and just said “be a part of this.” I needed a place to belong and I wanted to be in a world I could at least partly make my own.
I feel like I do this in Destiny. I feel like I mattered then and I feel like I matter now.
VICE Games: People seem to be obsessed with Destiny lore in a way they often aren't with other games. Why?
Byford: Have you ever planned a surprise party? Or have you ever been in on a secret that was going to change someone’s life, even just a little?
That’s what it’s like to know something like this about Destiny. Let me give you an example. The Telesto exotic [weapon] has a lore tab like most exotics. That lore tab has a report to Petra from one of her Paladins. That lore tab is lying. In the lore tab, there’s a hidden message that basically tells us that Prince Uldren has been found and it hints towards Forsaken in a way that only a few key lore masters were able to decipher.
Take another story, this time from the Forsaken campaign. It appears clear that Uldren has been hallucinating a vision of Mara all campaign long. It’s not completely clear why, until the final mission where Mara can be heard saying to Uldren: “Free me, oh brother mine.” When my friend and I heard that, we gasped because it made it clear to us what was going on. The phrase “oh _______ mine” is a dead giveaway. It’s a magical binding phrase that’s used, mainly by Ahamkara, to influence those they bargain with. That moment was huge for us, because we knew that the ultimate enemy of Forsaken was a dragon. And low and behold, we were right. Last Wish [a raid in _Forsaken_] put us up to slay a dragon, and it led to us completing events set in motion hundreds of years before we as Guardians even arrived.
Destiny’s world is a puzzle. Figuring it out and finding out these amazing little revelations, these incredible stories—that’s what makes Destiny’s lore fans so obsessive. We’re seeking knowledge voraciously because this universe, and the complexity it can unfold into, enriches our game. Getting to tell tales of the Guardians of Destiny, or simply seeing how the world unfolds, is a delight for sure. It drives the loyal lore fans, and informs our passion.
VICE Games: How do you keep track of everything? Do you have some massive document, a room filled with red twine that connects everything to everything else? A personal lore book?
Byford: I keep track of things in a few ways. The first is a really good memory (eidetic) that lets me recall relevant details from things I’ve read five years ago. Back in the day, this used to be all I used. Nowadays, I try to be academically thorough, so even if I’m 99% sure I know something, I’m still going to look it up. Enter the one stop shop for info on Destiny’s lore: Ishtar Collective.
Ishtar is possibly the most extensive knowledge base of all time, as it pertains to Destiny. It holds both the current lore of Destiny 1 and Destiny 2 through the grimoire cards and lore tabs, but it doesn’t stop there. Ishtar also records quest steps, flavour text, full mission transcripts, lore books, Bungie’s web lore, and more. The only thing it’s lacking are the occasional tweets that the Bungie writers make, which add context to our knowledge of the game. If I need to school myself or am unsure, I check Ishtar. They have the knowledge.
It also helps that I have an _It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia_-style whiteboard, which at any time either lists my video release schedule, or is a mind map of the ascendant planes and how it intersects with reality and the Vex networks (that was a fun exploration). [Editor’s Note: I asked Byford to take a photo of the whiteboard, but he’d recently wiped it clean.]
VICE Games: When did you discover you had an eidetic memory?
Byford: Regarding memory, it’s always been the case since I was a child, but of course, this comes with the fair dose of necessary scientific literature. A younger version of myself would’ve been far less acquainted with that literature, and would’ve said my memory was “almost photographic.” Needless to say, part of the reason people have veered away from that term is because memory isn’t perfect, even if it’s excellent.
Indeed nowadays, there isn’t a great consensus on the subject. There’s doubt that eidetic memory is even a thing, which is fair because, after all, it’s a tricky thing to measure. Even failing that, I’m happy knowing that I have a memory that can recall esoteric details down to the specifics.
VICE Games: To some people, an eidetic memory might seem like a super power. Is it a burden at all?
Byford: I use my memory as more of a primer. It gives me an idea of where to really deepen the knowledge I can bring to people. It lets me know what obscure points to bring to people's attention, that’ll enrich their viewing experience. But long are the days when it was the only thing I used. When that was the case, it was a curse, because even an eidetic memory is imperfect. Biases get ingrained, you remember topics spoken incorrectly, and it intertwined with what’s verified. Distortions occur with time.
I think it’s only ever a curse as far as my work is concerned if I don’t do the proper research to back up what I’m mostly sure is right. Not a super power at all, just a very useful resource. Aside from anything else, it’s helpful as a reminder that research is important and that any good historian or lore nerd should always be doing the work anyway to examine their own biases and form a more complete opinion.
VICE Gams: Part of what's interesting about Destiny is how the lore is a fucking mess, with a lot of it hidden from players and it seemingly like Bungie themselves was retconning and making things up as they went along.
Byford: I think I take issue with the statement that the team is making things up as they go along. That’s not to say that retcons don’t happen. Even as recently as this season, there have been minor retcons to things such as the Fallen House of Rain.
What I’d say is that Destiny is a little bit like Warhammer 40K, in the sense that in the grim dark future, there is no such thing as 100% certainty. Destiny is in a place where society has collapsed, and as a result, the story is bound to have these moments where knowledge is presumed and then challenged. History is very much still being re-discovered, but there is a trend towards Bungie treating the older lore (i.e. The Destiny 1 Grimoires) as more of a source of inspiration, rather than gospel or factual.
All of this stuff about the state of Destiny as still being discovered feeds into what’s great about it as a player trying to understand it. It’s a big puzzle and it needs some piecing together and explaining.
"Destiny’s world is a puzzle. Figuring it out and finding out these amazing little revelations, these incredible stories—that’s what makes Destiny’s lore fans so obsessive. We’re seeking knowledge voraciously because this universe, and the complexity it can unfold into, enriches our game."
VICE Games: The storytelling of Destiny seems purposely fuzzy, in that it gives Bungie room to work with, as they fit the pieces together themselves. On some level, because of that, you're providing people with a canon explanation for what's happening, even if that's not true. Does that give you a sense of burden?
Byford: Yes. I do feel a sense of burden because effectively what I’m doing impacts the ease with which Bungie can tell their stories. Recently, there were memes where people made commentary on the alarming regularity with which people take my word as gospel in spite of the fact that I was telling them not to.
Having this much sway is a responsibility and in the past it’s made the jobs of the people at Bungie harder. A big focus for me right now is trying to train that mindset out of my audience, and let them be more open minded. My influence has both hurt and helped the studio in the past. It’s my job now to make sure that my friends at the studio don’t have to experience any hurt in the process of getting there.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.