As I watched the recent reveal trailer for Bungie’s Destiny 2, I experienced the same conflicted response I have when playing the original Destiny: here is a franchise that isn’t exactly sure what it wants its players to care about. It offers us goofy multiplayer shenanigans and dry, lore-heavy narrative exposition in the same breath. One mode in particular that reflects Destiny’s tonal dichotomy is its competitive multiplayer, and the manner in which it gets incorporated into the rest of the game.
Bungie’s foray into multiplayer first-person shooter gameplay began with the Marathon trilogy. The single-player campaigns of each of the three titles are darkly humorous at times, lonely and treacherous at others, but tell a consistent narrative of humanity stretched far out into the stars, pitted against alien races and manipulative AI. Its multiplayer, on the other hand, is a stripped down, local area network (LAN)-only affair; a chaotic reappropriation of the weapons and assets from the main story that results in an experience all its own.
Marathon was followed by Halo which newly featured online multiplayer thanks to Microsoft’s console support. Halo’s decisively popular multiplayer mode is an entirely distinct entity from its main narrative, which continues exploring the themes established by the Marathon games. Exemplifying this distinction are video series like Red vs. Blue, a fan-made machinima that uses Halo’s multiplayer to craft original, funny videos that deliver a narrative bearing no relation to the game’s original plot.
A series like Red vs. Blue most likely wouldn’t really work in Bungie’s latest franchise, Destiny. Why? Because Destiny’s multiplayer represents a dramatic shift in their approach to online play by being snugly joined with the single-player both in narrative and mechanics (in the form of loot drops that can then be used in the main game). In order to explain a mode where players repeatedly murder each other in a game that’s supposed to be about a cooperative struggle for survival, Bungie crafted an in-game narrative justification for the mode by naming it the Crucible and describing it as a training ground and “a rite of passage, as new generations of Guardians stand and fight where the brave fell,” according to Lord Shaxx, the NPC who handles all Crucible activities, and who pats you on the back for pwning noobs.
Bungie, by presenting a narrative paint-job for Destiny’s multiplayer, takes a departure from its previous first-person shooters. It marries its main storyline – about a humanity overwhelmed by darkness, staring down the end of its own existence – with a plotless and irreverent multiplayer mode. By doing so, it reveals the game’s wider thematic confusion.
Why are we supposed to care about the fate of humanity (the definition of which is shaken by the seeming immortality of its guardians) while spending all this time shooting other players for glory and random loot drops? Can a game’s multiplayer mode subvert its larger themes to such an extent that to play it erodes whatever goodwill I have toward its narrative?
Competitive multiplayer is usually designed to be an activity that players get to partake in after finishing a game’s single-player storyline. Sometimes, in the case of games like Call of Duty, the single-player campaign takes a backseat to the multiplayer in terms of prominence. Destiny, however, prides itself on being an always-online experience. With improvements to console and PC hardware as well as more stable internet connectivity, online play has become far more ubiquitously applied to what were previously single-player focused experiences. Shooters like Borderlands and MMO’s like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 allow players to interact with dozens of friends and strangers alike in vibrant, connected ways, and are clearly inspirations behind Destiny’s design.
When exploring the freeroaming overworld of Destiny’s planets, its always-online approach to multiplayer works wonderfully. It remains a joy to randomly hop into a battle against a Fallen Walker or defend a crash site against waves of enemies alongside other human players who’ve seamlessly shown up to help. This kind of interaction reinforces the image of guardians as a friendly coalition of helpful spirits, roaming around and doing good -working together or drifting off to do their own thing just as easily. It recalls the casual multiplayer offered by games like ThatGameCompany’s Journey which brings internet strangers into your orbit, but doesn’t force you to engage with them more than you feel comfortable with.
Where things begin to break down is where that sense of teamwork inverts and becomes competitive in nature. It represents a tonal shift that jars me out of the positive feeling of cooperation that the rest of the game does such a good job at reinforcing. In both Marathon and Halo, you are a solitary unit, navigating through lonely spaces -there is no one else like you. But in Destiny, each world is crammed with players and enemies alike. You rarely have to go it alone, as very few aspects of the gameplay truly support solo play. As a result, turning the guns around and killing your fellow guardians, even if they come back afterwards, winds up feeling pointless and brutal. It also serves to remove the pathos from characters which barely contained any to begin with.
And it’s not that you have to play the Crucible. But even when engaging with other areas of the game I am constantly reminded of the Crucible’s presence, whether through the bounty system offering tantalizing bonuses for offing fellow guardians in impressive ways, or through hints at fabulous gear that can only be gained through Crucible play. It’s a snag in my ability to suspend disbelief and engage in the narrative being piped through Peter Dinklage’s (and later, Nolan North’s) robotic voice. It’s joining friends online for grand adventure only to spend hours in the Crucible, killing and being killed, feeling the same leaving as I did going in. Lord Shaxx tells me that “honor is earned,” but the things that go on in the Crucible; the taunts and teabagging, the early-2000s vibe of deathmatch arena shootouts, feel far from honorable.
The trailer for Destiny 2 leads us down a similarly discordant tonal path. It is immediately clear that Bungie are not only aware of the original game’s dissonance but seek to canonize it as an essential component of what makes Destiny work. The trailer cuts back and forth between two of the original non-player characters, Commander Zavala and Cayde-6 as they deliver dual versions of the same speech. Zavala speaks to the guardians in the a tone and urgency consistent with the game’s main narrative, urging them to sacrifice all to avenge the lost; while Cayde-6 delivers a meandering and joke-filled monologue that ends with an admission that loot is all anyone cares about anyway.
Of course, it’s unavoidable in any MMO-style endeavor to completely sell players on the seriousness of the central narrative -not when you can see other players’ avatars hopping up and down and jumping to their deaths right behind the NPC vendor or quest-giver delivering their stony monologue. Exceptions like Journey prove that by limiting the actions a player can take, you can maintain a coherent narrative and tone. But Destiny and other games of its ilk, such as The Division, Borderlands and Ghost Recon: Wildlands are more interested in providing a platform for fun multiplayer experiences than delivering coherent plotlines. This begs the question: what use is there in having a self-serious narrative if you admit in your own marketing that a significant chunk of your player base doesn’t care about what it’s saying?
Destiny would not be the same game without its multiplayer gameplay. This essay isn’t urging a rejection of online multiplayer-focused titles en masse and a return to the LAN parties of old. In Destiny’s random interactions with strangers online — getting revived during a particularly difficult boss fight, being guided to out of the way item locations, even being shown the latest funky dance move — are small moments of joy that wouldn’t be the same without the human touch only real people can provide. These moments round out and provide depth to the world. Having your game’s narrative stiffly try to explain its competitive deathmatches as an honorable form of spartan training only serves to shrink it and expose its edges.
After all, the benefits of role-playing should not be undervalued. Being able to inhabit a character and adopt their concerns and goals is a tough thing for a game to accomplish -tougher still when the multiplayer does all it can to degrade the foundations of that connection. While there’s still joy in playing Destiny with other people, it relies too heavily on its players to imbue its world with meaning — and in their absence, leaves a hollow and superfluous narrative. It’s a hollowness we can safely expect to encounter in its sequel, considering the conflicted and flighty tone of the marketing materials we’ve seen so far.
Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also deeply enjoys thinking and writing about games.