Spoiler warning: We're going to be talking in some detail about the Destiny 2 campaign. While I'm trying to avoid too many specifics, this is going to reveal a lot about the plot. If you want to go in completely unspoiled, maybe turn back here.
Everything you hold dear is being laid-waste. The sky is choked with smoke and fire. Your home is shattered and burning below. And for this scene, all your character can do is lie gasping on the ground while the warlord Ghaul kicks you into the abyss.
"You're not brave. You've merely forgotten the fear of death. Allow me to reacquaint you."
The first act of Destiny 2 poses a lot of interesting questions about the nature of the heroic Guardians and their relationship to both humanity and the mysterious and powerful Traveler, which offers them immortality and great power. These questions strike at the heart of Destiny as both a franchise and a story. It's always had an aspirational bent in the way it addresses players, smothering them in congratulations as it tries to reassure them that, yes, this really does all mean something. They—you—are legend in a world of myth.
But Ghaul arrives from outside the narrative to lay out the fiction as he sees it, as anyone might see it from the outside looking in. What's impressive about victory when you can never truly be defeated? How sweet can the fruit of victory ever taste when the system is set up to ensure you always win in the end?
Ghaul isn't the only one suggesting that the Guardians are self-congratulatory beneficiaries in a rigged game. Suraya Hawthorne is a non-Guardian human hero who has been surviving with her own community beyond the city's walls for years. She says she chose to live out there because the refuge of the Last City, where the Guardians have kept humanity safe for centuries, is itself a prison. It's become a place where Guardians have kept most of humanity corralled under their rule, while ignoring and abandoning anyone in the outside world.
By the end of Destiny 2, these questions have not been answered so much as brushed aside as everything goes back to being exactly the same as before, wrapped in narrative assurances that everything has changed.
That's not a big surprise from Destiny 2, itself a refined and convenient sequel that in many ways feels like the much-improved Mark II version of Destiny. Each aspect of its design feels like it's building on the stronger foundation built by The Taken King, and even after completing the campaign I still feel like I've only scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. But I wanted more from Destiny 2 than an incremental upgrade in storytelling technique.
( Disclosure: A longtime friend was a writer on The Taken King and a narrative lead on Destiny 2. I don't have special insight into the game or its story, and have not discussed it with him beyond a brief, "So did you like it?" exchange and some pointed questions about why I hate Asher Mir.)
As a franchise, Destiny has a notoriously convoluted narrative backdrop, a product of the compromises and changes that occurred late in the first game's development. The Taken King didn't take up any of the original campaign's dangling threads and Destiny 2 almost starts from a clean slate.
Judged solely against its predecessor's trainwreck of a storyline, Destiny 2 is a success. It's admirably coherent, at the very least. Characters are capable of articulating their feelings, and most of the actions they undertake have a clear motivation that ties back to their overarching goals. In the end, they work together, believe in themselves and each other, and save the day.
There are some great moments along this journey. Your flight from the city, stumbling through the wilderness in a series of snapshot moments. Lance Reddick turns in a great performance as the humbled leader of the Guardians, Zavala, and if there's any pathos at all in this story, it's largely down to him selling the shit out of every scene. Ghaul is paired-off with the Speaker, who spent the first game dispensing exposition about the Traveler and its greatness. He wasn't much of a character in the first game, but his professorial air is used to good effect here. He and Ghaul perform a one-set play about the nature of heroism and self-worth, and it ends up making Ghaul seem both more monstrous and more pitiable by the end (and if this turns out to be the last we see of the Speaker, he at least got a great send-off line).
The plot might well be about defeating Ghaul and his super-weapons, but the first act tells us this game is actually about is something very different.
The campaign also does a great job of mixing public and private sequences together. At several points it merges your own journey with that of other players, but the most memorable is at the outset of your assault on the Last City. It's a hell-for-leather sprint through alleys and rooftops that both imparts some character to the world and creates an amazing (and thematically appropriate) sense of collective power with your fellow players. You're part of an onrushing tidal wave of badasses, helping smash barricades and overpower the Red Legion occupiers, and it's one of the rare times that the series has ever succeeded in making the superheroic nature of the Guardians feel like more than a gameplay conceit.
But those questions raised in the first act remain stubbornly unaddressed. The plot might well be about defeating Ghaul and his super-weapons, but the first act tells us this game is actually about is something very different. It's questioning the premise of the Guardians; the way protection and security lead toward controlling paternalism; the nature and limits of bravery and heroism.
For a couple hours there, Destiny 2 puts its relentless fan-service of the player on hold and starts looking—really looking—at what its premise really means for its world and characters. The opening scenes are filled with images and symbols of your failure: Cabal troops marching through the smoke-shrouded streets of the Last City, the Traveler ensnared in a Cabal weapon, being drained of its energy, Red Legion ships soaring with impunity overhead.
That existential shock is echoed by your mentors Zavala and Ikora, both of whom have lapsed into wounded fatalism in the wake of Ghaul's attack. They are practically paralyzed by the knowledge of their own mortality, and fixated on their personal losses.
But in hardly any time at all, that frustration and doubt becomes a problem for Other People as your Guardian reclaims their power and gets back to the business of shredding waves of enemies. Destiny 2's dark night of the soul lingers in the lavish backdrops and the voiceovers from your fellow heroes, but as a player you're just going from strength to strength.
I thought a lot of about Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk while I played Destiny 2, which is in some ways a cinematic version of the stunning skyboxes that animate Destiny. It's a film that's made of backdrops, its characters anonymous and unknowable as they provide a sense of human scale to the catastrophe that's befallen the French and British armies in 1940. There is the shock and disbelief of the survivors, the detritus of a shattered army washed up on a suddenly alien landscape. The shame of failure and the gnawing doubt that, even if you make it back, there will be something disgraceful about having survived.
It's an example of how you can tell a gripping, dramatic story about defeat even without clear and relatable characters. Sometimes being immersed in the awful spectacle and all its absurd, terrifying, inspiring, and crushing vignettes is all you need to tell a great story around a simple plot.
In Destiny 2, I always felt like space-Dunkirk was happening in the far distance while I was playing through a highly abridged Rocky IV.
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So I was disappointed but not surprised when Destiny 2 ended, like The Taken King before it, with another "most dangerous enemy we have ever faced" being dispatched and the Guardians resuming their static vigil over a largely notional remnant of humanity. It is a sort of MMO, after all, and things can only get so dramatic before the major characters must resume their role as quest givers and reward dispensers.
But this is a series that also likes to high-five you and your friends for shooting sweet guns in gorgeous environments, which doesn't exactly lend itself to introspective angst. So even though the ending leaves us in a functionally identical situation to the what we have always seen in Destiny, there is a new triumphalist veneer to the same-old, same-old. The game ends with Traveler apparently signaling a new age and a new mission for the Guardians, with Zavala announcing a new catholic interpretation of the Last City that encompasses anywhere and everywhere humanity can go—a Manifest Destiny, as it were.
Bungie's apparent inability or unwillingness to create a meaningful sense of peril or consequence is turning Destiny into " Entourage in Space." It is a loot-chasing shooter that keeps hinting that it might want to do more, without ever managing to get around to it. Instead, every enemy is soon vanquished in a hail of gunfire as you inevitably defy the odds and snatch victory from your Potemkin adversary.
Maybe this is the real root of my grief over the disappearance of the Grimoire, a microfiction encyclopedia of Destiny's lore world that players filled-out during their adventures. The Grimoire was where the Destiny universe was freed of its constraints, and most importantly of its connection to you, the player. In a recent essay for Waypoint, Dante Douglas underlines the commonality of this player-centrism in games and their stories:
Any game with a player who affects the world, must, by definition, be individualist in some degree. Games exist in the margin between player action and world reaction: What the player does, the world will respond to. ...As such, it's the individual—the player—who moves the world along. The world exists for you to change it.
The Grimoire offered you a way into the world of Destiny without making that world about you. Its snippets of ambiguous, suggestive fiction started invest its universe with the life and mystery its haunting and striking vistas suggested. It transformed all the weird, incomprehensible threads of Destiny lore into a playground for the imagination, where stories and characters could thrive without suffocating under the Chosen One narrative around the player.
I still want to explore that world, and maybe as I do more Adventures and Lost Sectors I'll be able to do so, but in its main campaign Destiny 2 is stubbornly, resolutely avoidant of its own themes and contradictions. It stirs from its complacency just a bit at the start, only to rock itself back to sleep listening to the percussive rhythms of combat.
It might be unfair to expect more from a Destiny game. But that promise always seems so tantalizing. I can see it right over there, on the distant horizon. Except remains a mirage, enticing the imagination with suggestion and implication, but never feeding it.