In online games narrative often comes secondary to gameplay, but Jem Alexander argues that it’s Destiny 2’s strength of story and world building that keeps its claws in him and encourages cooperative play
I tend to bounce off MMOs. A couple of weeks, usually, but some have managed to stick with me for as long as a few months. Ultima Online, Final Fantasy XI / XIV and Neocron are those that lasted the longest. Yeah, Neocron. Remember that? I developed a strong obsession with that game just before my GCSE exams began. Meaning I spent less time studying than I did daydreaming about cyberpunk sewer systems and min/max strategies.
But I always played it alone, and perhaps that’s why I always bounce off. I play MMOs as if they are single player games, which just happen to be inhabited by other players who are doing exactly the same thing as me. I rarely engaged with other players, though 14-year-old me did once receive an in-game marriage proposal in Final Fantasy XI, so I guess technically I did once get engaged. But that’s another story.
The destruction of the tower is a symbolic cleansing of everything that came before
My point is that these games, which are social by design, never got me to play “properly”. I never joined forces with those players performing the same quests as me; instead I would scowl at them as they murdered the ten cellar rats I needed to kill in order to save the old mill owner’s business. My cellar rats.
And yet, here I am, utterly addicted to Destiny 2. Again. I can’t explain what it is that this game does that those MMOs didn’t, but there’s something here that makes the game incredibly sticky for people like me, who are basically playing it as a single player game. It helps that this sequel has a strong, well performed narrative.
I’m amazed by the number of reviewers who seem to suggest that this is a first for the series. Clearly there are a large number of Destiny players who fell off of Vanilla and never came back. Which means there are a lot of people playing Destiny 2 who never experienced The Taken King and who might never have properly met Cayde-6, Ikora and Zavala. People who still haven’t met Eris Morn!
As someone who jumped into the series at The Taken King, seeing the step up in narrative from the Vanilla content was like Bungie flipped on a light switch. The Vanguard gave this story-chaser a reason to care about the world that the mute player characters, manically chasing their tails around me, could not offer.
Beyond the strength of story, The Taken King and Destiny 2 did something remarkable; they convinced me to play with friends. Not the narrative sections – there’s a reason the “real” Destiny, with its grindy pursuit of power, is best played with friends and begins after the main campaign ends. But this grounding of story before you are required to join a fireteam is so deep and strong that it grabs people like me, the single player gamer, and gives us all a shared history on which to build our multiplayer experiences. Perhaps other games have managed this, but this mixing of a story campaign and multiplayer, all in one shared world, not separated out as title menu items, feels unique.
The step up between The Taken King to Destiny 2 (the less said about Rise of Iron, the better) was even stronger. The destruction of the tower isn’t just literal, it is a symbolic cleansing of everything that came before. All the story beats from Destiny Vanilla are ‘fixed’. Even individual lines of dialogue are given second attempts, where appropriate (“I don’t have time to explain...”) and characters are killed off in an attempt to reframe the entire franchise. The tower is rebuilt – a new tower, constructed using the years of experience gained since the launch of Destiny in 2014. Experience gained by the human survivors of the Red Legion, but also by Bungie itself.
For both, mistakes were made in the past. Hubris was punished and learnt from. But a bright, hopeful future can be seen on the horizon as the game’s campaign ends. The Traveller is awake and its false prophet is dead. With that, everything changes. Despite the familiar trappings of Destiny 2, this feels like something new, and no-one knows what’s going to happen next. Whatever comes, let’s experience it together.