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Bringing the World of ‘Destiny’ to Life with Grimoire Readings

The best storytelling in 'Destiny' happened outside the game—but is that a failure, or a vestige of a lost narrative art?

by Rob Zacny
Apr 5 2017, 3:00pm

Above: Destiny: The Taken King image courtesy of Bungie, Inc.

So last week, in a fit of enthusiasm, I performed a dramatic reading of a Destiny Grimoire card. In my defense, it's fun watching the blood drain from Patrick's face when you go deep-diving into Destiny lore in front of him, and also Austin had just read some really shitty lore that I felt required a little palate cleanser. So I read my favorite, most tantalizing piece of the Destiny Grimoire—Legend: The Black Garden.

I thought I'd done a serviceable if amateurish job, until a listener linked to the reading from "Ghosts and Echoes," a series on YouTube that tackles the best of the Destiny Grimoire like a radio play. At times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale, at other times of Alpha Centauri's flavor text, the readings go a ways toward capturing how evocative Destiny's criminally under-utilized lore can be, if given its due.

Above: Destiny reading by YouTube user GhostsandEchoes.

It's easy to bash how poorly Destiny told most of its story in-game (with the possible exception of The Taken King, but its storytelling techniques were still dated, even if the writing was punched-up). But the thing I love about the Grimoire as a device is that it doesn't have to cohere into an overarching narrative. It is a collection of out-of-context observations, images, and histories whose incompleteness gives your imagination space to wander.

There's the cheery, bro-tastic loot chase that features in a lot of Destiny marketing. But then there's also the Destiny I've assembled in my head from bits and pieces of the Grimoire: a game where Earth is held in the thrall of an ambiguously-helpful-at-best symbiote that's kept safe by an army of undead super-soldiers.

It used to be easier to make this kind of storytelling work, because there were limits on what you could show the player doing and taking part in. There's a case to be made that Halo's story was more compelling when your Master Chief was on his own lonely odyssey while the star-spanning epic played out in the background of cutscenes and lore dumps. Myth: The Fallen Lords and Soulblighter couldn't actually serve up the Lord of the Rings-sized battles they implied, so the job fell to mission briefings and short stories buried within the game manuals.

Above: Myth: The Fallen Lords video from YouTube user legoboll.

I think today it would be very easy to criticize this kind of interstitial reading as "telling not showing" but I'll be damned if Myth's world doesn't remain more vivid and real to me than a lot more modern narrative games. Maybe it's because I was younger then and more willing to collaborate in its storytelling, but I also think there's something to be said for this approach to narrative and world building. Like children listening to conversations from the top of the stairs, the act of eavesdropping on bits and pieces of a larger story invites us to fill in the gaps with our own suspicions and fears. Stories are never more exciting than when they are about what could be happening, and the Grimoire is the place where Destiny is a game of narrative possibilities.

The question for me, when it comes to Destiny 2, is whether the universe will be able to keep this interesting and mysterious aspect alive, or whether, in fixing the incoherence of the main campaigns, Bungie will end up flattening the strange, contradictory readings you find in the Grimoire.

Tagged:
GAMES
Halo
Narrative
Bungie
Waypoint
The Taken King
Destiny 2
Myth: The Fallen Lords