So despite the fact that I can’t get Bungie to give me an interview for any of their writing positions, I’m still playing their games. Destiny 2 is gearing up for the release of their latest expansion, Shadowkeep. This expansion will see the game move from Battle.net to Steam (which I am very excited about, and am not quite counting the days until I can uninstall Battle.net from my various machines), and from what the trailers tease will reunite us with Eris Morn, a fascinating character from the first Destiny who spent entirely too long trapped in Darkness and was changed by it.
As this Season wraps up, I find myself looking back at the Forsaken expansion and ruminating on what it did, what it tried to do, and where it could have done better. Keeping in mind, these observations are purely from a storytelling standpoint. I’m not going into mechanics and weaponry and whether or not RNJesus was fair and balanced in the rewarding of loot. I am just looking at the themes explored in Forsaken and whether or not they were explored proficiently.
Forsaken begins with the death of one of the Vanguard, the Hunter Cayde-6 (primarily voiced by Nathan Fillion, briefly voiced by Nolan North for his tragic death). This kicks off a quest for vengeance. There are tensions back and forth within the surviving members of the Vanguard, the other denizens of the Last City, and even your Ghost as to whether or not you’re doing the right thing. Whether or not this is vengeance or justice. This is a question that has been explored many times in different fiction, to varying degrees of success. Sadly, I don’t think Destiny 2 did the best job with this trope, and I will explain why.
The problem with the whole morality debate in Forsaken is that during your quest to bring Uldren Sov (the former Prince of the Awoken who is responsible for the death of Cayde-6) to justice, you discover that he attempted genocide. He returned to the Reef after being thought dead, was welcomed by the Awoken there, and he slaughtered them. There is a scene where it shows you the throne room, and the bodies strewn across it. Now death is often meaningless in the Destiny universe because Guardians are dead warriors who have been reanimated by the Traveler, and filled with Light. And so long as their Ghosts can touch the Light, a Guardian can be revived. Over and over and over again. Cayde-6 died because one of Sov’s men took out his Ghost first. The Awoken of the Reef, however, were not Guardians. They’re all dead for good. As such, it is almost impossible to feel bad about hunting down someone who attempted genocide.
Sov is being assisted in his actions – and in murdering Cayde-6 – by a group known as the Scorn. They’re Fallen who have been changed in some weird space magic way, and now they can come back just like the Guardians do! Fun! You murder all their important people. Because of course you do. They try to make you feel bad about it, and make many a false equivalence, as if this group that was rotting away in a prison for crimes against all humanity until they were broken out to go COMMIT GENOCIDE are on the same moral playing field as you and Cayde.
During your hunt, you find out that Sov is being controlled by some sort of powerful, cursed creature who has been speaking to the prince inside his head pretending to be his potentially dead sister. Queen Mara Sov died or went missing or something (she went missing, she’s off doing magical things, it’s fine – sort of) during the first Destiny and Uldren has been a wreck ever since. Also, if you played the first Destiny at all, Uldren is a pretentious shit and you kind of don’t care that he went through hell to begin with. Anyway! Sov is being controlled, you fight and win, and they purposefully set the scene so that you don’t know if your Guardian pulls the trigger or if your guide on this adventure, Petra Venj (another character from the first Destiny, whom I love), is the one to do it. Half the people in the Last City think it was you, half think it was Petra. They all have weird emotional responses one way or another. And the entire time, I’m just sitting here behind my keyboard like, “Genocide! He attempted genocide! There is no moral debate here!”
Destiny continues to build upon the question of whether or not all Guardians are good by the introduction of the Drifter. Described as a Rogue Lightbearer, the Drifter comes into the Last City with a new game called Gambit. It’s a combination of PVE and PVP elements that overall is less obnoxious than the Crucible, but we’re not discussing game play here. The Drifter has a sketchy past, he’s been around since the Dark Age, and now he has guardians collecting light from corpses which he uses for…something? Now, I’m not very good at PVP segments, so I have not continued the Drifter quest lines to their end, and so am missing some important story line bits (because I don’t watch other people play games that I am playing). However, I know enough to know that the theme continues.
The Drifter frequently makes comments about how you are behaving in a less than ethical way. “Let’s be bad guys,” he says as a round of Gambit kicks offs. He works with Taken and Hive energy, both of which are dangerous and dark things. He makes comments about eating the enemies you’re facing – a lot of comments. During Gambit you fight creatures called Primevals, which appear to be Taken but are actually a stronger version embodying concentrated Darkness. He is doing something with the light you collect for him, but no one knows what. There is also a rumor he may have been involved in some way with Cayde-6’s death. Despite all this, Guardians continue to flock to play Gambit. Heck, there are achievements in the game that make you play Gambit.
This is where the story starts to trip itself even more. There is clearly a developing theme that maybe being a Guardian doesn’t make you a hero. Maybe just because you were resurrected to serve the Light doesn’t mean you were an upstanding person. Maybe you were resurrected because you’re good at killing, which is not often paired with having a heart of gold. Interesting concept, yes, but if you want the good equipment to keep playing the game and not be horribly behind, you are railroaded into sketchy behavior. Destiny has never been good at giving you an alternative to any of its PVP segments. You have to play Crucible and Gambit if you want to do the events. This story line could have been more impactful if players had an actual choice.
Finally, we continue into the Season of Opulence, which wraps up at the end of this month. Emperor Calus decides you are his Favorite Guardian and wants you to party with him. Emperor Calus is the ruler of the Cabal, who are beings of Darkness. In the beginning of Destiny 2, the Traveler and the Last City and all of the Guardians are almost destroyed by the Red Legion, who are also Cabal. Now, the Red Legion was not acting on Calus’s orders, near as we could tell, and theoretically hoped to overthrow the Emperor if they were successful. Still. Three Panel Soul put together the following comic regarding the situation:
I am with the poor Titan in the first panel going, “I don’t know about this.”
Still, the Season of Opulence is perhaps the most successful at posing the ambiguous question of whether or not all your actions are wholesome because it is more subtle in its approach. Emperor Calus seems to just want you to continue being you, this glorious example of all that a Guardian can achieve. Don’t look too closely at the feel of decadence and decay of your tribute hall, replete with vines growing through it and pots of something that looks like fruit in dark colors which will most certainly not be eaten and likely thrown out. And maybe don’t read too much into how Calus encourages you to drink deeply from the Chalice of Opulence and grow fat with victory and strength. There is a feel to everything involving Emperor Calus that harkens to the fall of Rome – a comparison made more poignant by the fact that the Cabal have an emperor and some of their units are referred to as Legionaries and Centurions.
There is a pervasive sense of “not right” when you are doing missions for the Emperor – which largely consists of picking up bounties and running the Menagerie, a sort of mini-dungeon where you destroy the Emperor’s other champions and random grunts for his amusement. The Menagerie allows you to use the Chalice of Opulence to make sure you get specific armor and weapon types when you win. It’s also nigh impossible to fail – you just don’t do as well, and this adds to the underlying theme of indulgence.
Overall, I would say that I am glad that Bungie took this direction and attempted to explore other sides of the character and what it means to be a Guardian. I just feel like it would have had more meaning if you really had a choice. These sort of “which path will you take” scenarios lose meaning if there isn’t another path. Now that’s not always true – there are games that have led you on a linear story of corruption, but it’s in a tighter, more controlled environment. Destiny just doesn’t offer that setting. Still, it’s nice to see them strive to add levels of complexity to the story. And I am very much looking forward to Shadowkeep, though I hope they leave off the ham-handed morality story lines and get back to heroic space adventures.