Up until two weeks ago, I had never played Destiny before. You know, Destiny – from Bungie, creators of Halo, one of the defining games of the early oughts, a game responsible for countless scenes in film and television where the protagonist and/or a younger sibling bizarrely waves an original Xbox controller about, while aliens die in canned footage flashing across their telly. Those aliens used to be be Halo aliens, and now they are Destiny aliens. It’s Halo for the new millennium’s troubled teenage years, a game praised for its slick feel, derided for its grindy, skinner-box progression, chronicled over its heavy post-release revisionism and developer infighting, and, most importantly, touted as far back as 2012 as containing original music from Paul McCartney, your mum’s favorite Beatle.
It’s also a game with a well chronicled release, a huge, multi-million dollar endeavor that was almost dead on arrival, finding a lukewarm reception from critics claiming it had a rubbish story, too much grind, and lots of hokey padding.
So I wasn’t just making my way through 3 years worth of content, but 3 years worth of design iterations, sharp about-faces, attempts at make-goods. If you’ve never played Destiny before, playing through the complete collection now is one of the most fascinating experiences in gaming. Playing through, from start to finish, you are witnessing the game consistently reform itself, and its rule-set never stops renegotiating the compact between game and player. And even though I’d heard tell of the most high profile changes, but still they, along with a million other little shifts, always surprised me.
Given the game’s particular (and very public) production woes, playing through Destiny at this stage is an exercise in spelunking, archaeology, even. As I explored the game, I was finding little relics from versions previous, poking out from the ground like an ancient Roman coin glinting out from the middle of a muddy field in the West Midlands.
First, there’s the matter of The Dinklage. One of the most ostentatious aspects of Destiny‘s pre-release marketing was the fact that your Ghost – your in-game floating robot Siri – would be voiced by all your colleagues’ favorite Game of Thrones actor, Peter Dinklage. He’d be there by your side while you selected missions, equipped items, and scanned objects. But I’ll never know what it’s like to be spoken to by A Scanner, Dinkly, because by the time I joined the party he had already left. You probably already know that all the dialogue had been re-recorded (and then some) by professional voice-over gamesman Nolan North around a year ago. People tell me it’s because the Peter Dinklage performance was awful, but I’ll never be able to gauge for myself, even from the YouTube compilations that now exist, what it’s actually like to trudge through the game’s many hours myself, Dinklage in tow.
“Playing through Destiny at this stage is an exercise in spelunking, archaeology, even.”
The Tower, the game’s social hub, is full of such remnants. Display panels sit alight with ways to redeem promotional items from events long-past, events prefixed with phrases such as ‘year one’ or ‘legacy’. And the game’s early missions, or rather, the game’s pre-expansion story, is like the wall of an old house, wallpapered and painted over by a succession of tenants. You still see the vague old shape of what used to be, under all those additive layers. And trudging through those early days, the compulsion is always to try and piece together a narrative. Not of the game’s actual story – you very quickly learn to let go of any hope you might have had to get a coherent plot out of the thing – but a narrative of how the game once ebbed and flowed.
Not just out of journalistic curiosity either. See, I always wanted to get through Destiny at its best, and at its best for me meant being able to walk that razor-thin tightrope of difficulty, that Halo on Heroic loop of just barely making it out alive. But unlike Halo, it’s possible to plot your journey incorrectly. Stray from the (barely perceptible) path, wallow in the same mission too long, or get too absorbed into side-content, and you may find whole swathes of the game rendered easy, for no other reason than the fact that you’ve leveled up and obtained better gear. At the very least, the game is never trivially easy – it’s always possible to get backed into a corner and die horribly – but the game of tearing through hordes of enemies is very different from the (arguably more Halo-esque) experience of getting into a fight, barely surviving, dodging that life-or-death laser beam before your health finally (finally!) regenerates, and getting back into the fight. At this point, the relics from previous versions feel like they are out to snare you, as the route to the top is littered with little pockets of content that would have served some previous endgame, but which further expansions have extended beyond.
“A Huge Demon Man starts causing trouble, you go onto his Huge Demon Spaceship and stop him.”
Which is a shame, because those expansions are fantastic, lifting Destiny out of itself in a way that is quite stark when witnessing them directly after the base game. The Taken King (and, to a lesser extent, Rise of Iron) is an incredibly cohesive little story, and, unlike the main game’s meandering mess of arbitrary missions, I felt like I knew why I was doing what I was doing. A Huge Demon Man starts causing trouble, you go onto his Huge Demon Spaceship and stop him. Even the writing is better, and I found myself surprised by jokes that actually landed. The base game’s missions’ triggers are satisfying to pull, but it’s a sequence of drab space installations with nowt to do beyond shoot baddies. In The Taken King, I found myself climbing towers, protecting teammates as they ferried precious cargo from objective to objective, even completing a class-specific quest that, by sheer virtue of the fact it was only to be seen by a third of the player base, felt weirdly personal. There’s even a moment near the start where you see your own ship in a cutscene – your ship being an object which has so far otherwise languished at the bottom of an inventory menu, displayed only during the game’s loading screens.
At least, in comparison with Destiny’s strict no-Dinklage door policy, it was nice to be able to see the transition in The Taken King. I kind of wished they’d only recorded new voice-over work and not gone over the old stuff. Bungie say it’s to provide consistency, but there’s such a stark difference in everything else – in mission design, pacing, even the sheer theatrics of the thing, that all consistency is already out the window by that point. In Destiny, your player character is always scavenging the ruins of some collapsed civilization picking up trace clues of a largely forgotten apocalypse. Given the game’s aggressive post-release reconfiguration following its initial lukewarm critical response, I can’t help but feel a certain kinship with ma’ dude. I can do little else but constantly scour this game for the trace outline of what once was. It’s a game that has, in the drive to correct its own mistakes, ripped out so much of the context that would make sense of of those corrections. The end result is still fun, and frighteningly addictive, but until I fast-forwarded to the present day design sensibilities of the most recent expansions, I found myself adrift, floating, like the game’s beautifully rendered ships hanging over the glowing planetoids of its many loading screens.