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Destiny - Exiled to the Fun Zone


The experience of Destiny hit home as I stood on Mars for the first time. Around me, the sand danced over hills and emerged from caves; everything was silent, punctuated by brief whispers of sand twirling as dust devils. My tiny companion said something as forgetful as always - highlighting that all of Destiny's dialogue is more about waiting for it to end than it is about "story".

Out here, on the vast desert of Mars, gravity was the same as on the moon - which was the same as it is on Earth. It didn't matter - none of it did.

It was silent, dead, meaningless and beautiful. Ghost stopped talking, I got on my vehicle and moved to the next target - this was the 1000th time I'd done this probably.

And yet... I still did it.

still did the mission, I still invested in my character, I still bought and sold. I still upgraded my useless ship which does nothing but mask a loading screen.

There are two main reasons I'm continuing to play this repetitive, gorgeous mess of a game: I'm having "fun" and I'm addicted to grinding/looting. Neither one tells you that the game is any good, in itself. What's noticeable is that we can recognise Destiny for its numerous flaws and - more prominently - disappointments, but continue playing anyway. I do however want to examine why this might be a problem for games in general.

Having fun

A lot of people seem to think that games are solely about having fun. The problem isn't that this is not true, it's that it's "not even false". Games are about many things - reducing it to fun undermines not only what games can do but what they already do. Of course games can be fun, but there's no rule they have to be - and indeed it hurts games when we judge them solely according to fun.

That's different to saying something like "satisfying" or "fulfilling" - fun has a lightness to it that doesn't fit, for example, games like The Last of UsThe Walking DeadLimbo.

How absurd would it be if we said all films have to be "fun" - would anyone describe The Shining as fun? The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now? Yet, those are revered and loved films - for their quality, writing, pacing, cinematography, etc.,  - all not "fun". As a Follower mentioned: "It's like saying all movies should be comedies. The things we'd miss out on!"

When some of us make this point that games can be fun but need not be, we're told we're trying to "ruin" games. The exasperated people upset over in-fighting and political aspects all cry "Why can't we calm down and have fun?" Again: no one is saying games can't be fun. That would be almost as silly as saying games have to be.

Also I must point out: even detractors recognise games can not involve fun. If you have to keep defending fun as a property of games, you realise that it's not an inherent property of games. For example, we don't need a campaign to defend iPhones' ability to make phone calls. They will do so by definition. If games were fun by definition, that wouldn't need "defending". This indicates games are still games without fun - your wanting games to be, by definition, fun is in fact what's "ruining games", since I'm advocating for greater variety and saying that's good; whereas you demand fun as a measuring stick or criteria barring acceptance.

Everyone wants games to be better but saying the only (or even most important) path is fun does not seem to be the way to do so. More universal properties should be the focus: Quality, care, heart, production values, good writing, etc., are qualities we want (I'd like to see fully-fleshed arguments about why any of these types of properties shouldn't be part of as many games as possible). Fun doesn't need to be one of them, though, of course, it can be.

Is that it?


Destiny is fun. I'm having fun. It's made more fun with friends. What it is not is: well-written, well-paced, smart. It's a glorious shawl on a shambling skeleton: hollow, barebones, and repetitive. It has a solid foundation of stable servers, production values, integration with other players: it does not have any reason to care about the story, care about missions, care about characters, diverse mission parameters, different environments. It is as stagnant as the planet Mars itself.

Many of us imagined open worlds, exploration, journeys into fantastical worlds that we saw in the trailers. What’s annoying, of course, is that those spaces do exist: but as background, as distant spaces you can never go to. As Kevin van Ord wrote in his Destiny review:

It's called the Black Garden. You see it from a clifftop above, gazing across the blooming acres through a thick green haze, and imagine the sights that might be seen there, and the adventures you might have there. The reality of the garden is sadly never better than the stories you might make up in your head when you look down at it. What you see is a facade; the garden is a broken promise of adventures you never have and landscapes never explored, and it represents the whole of Destiny, a multiplayer shooter that cobbles together elements of massively multiplayer games but overlooks the lessons developers of such games learned many years ago. I dream of the tales that might one day be told in that sprawling expanse, but Destiny is not yet telling them.

black garden.jpg

The strange thing for me is that Destiny would be better off focusing on fun; indeed, the laughable delivery of talented performers only heightens the cringe-worthy insertion of unnecessary plot baggage. Whether it’s the drawling boredom of Peter Dinklage, the three lines of Nathan Fillion, the overly hard Lance Reddick, the gorgeous repetition of Shohreh Aghdashloo or melodic enthusiasm of Claudia Black (both of whom play Quarian generals in that other great space opera franchise Mass Effect) – we have some of the world’s leading voices made banal from writing.

The game is so tight-lipped about its lore that entire lines of dialogue and mission statements whizz passed due to containing nouns that aren’t English. Or are English, but are arbitrarily capitalized because… sci-fi? Regardless, the problem isn’t ignorance about words. Yes, you can read the backstory and the lore and such on the Destiny website and companion app, but why would I? That assumes I’m interested enough to read as opposed to confused enough to just want clarity. Mass Effect with its massive worlds and diverse case and races didn’t require me to make the effort before working first on making me care.

Destiny’s main fault, to me, is that it doesn’t care that you don’t care. You’re not playing the game to fight evil or defend people you care about. There are no characters here, just vessels for you and your friends to blow things up with.

The problem is this game is only fun.

That’s bad?

Or at least “fun” according to a definition I hope isn’t too weird: almost any definition will indicate it’s primarily about “amusement”. And Destiny is amusing. I felt rewarded for doing Strikes, Missions, etc., grinding to level up. I felt I’d accomplished something with skill and finesse; the excellent combat (which is the best I’ve ever encountered in a first-person shooter) allows for this smoothness. It sucks you in and there you remain: in the fun zone.

As I said before, fun can be a bad thing if that’s all we care about and focus on in a game's creation. Destiny, with its non-existent and, when it exists, awful story, it’s lack of character engagement, its repeated maps and spaces and enemies, its boring bosses who are bullet sponges, is nothing if not fun. But it carves all those other aspects out.

It troubles me when a game this big, with incredible background mechanics and shooting action, is so barren. I worry that draping a cloak of mindless fun over this diminishes both what it could be and what we should expect.

Consider, for example, Bungie's justification for no early review copies. They claimed it had to do with an unpopulated world, that to get the full "experience", you needed other players. But other players are glorified window-dressing: public events are great, but they actually require other people to be there. There have been numerous times when I've been alone or others don't participate.

Further, there is little to no interaction with other characters who aren't specifically invited into your Fireteam or match-made - which defeats the purpose of a populated world, of said "experience". Even in the social hub, the most interaction I've had has been playing football with random players. While I hate using microphones and mute almost everyone, there is no option to turn it on and create a sense of other humans in a public or world setting. Again: mechanics are stripped or not even implemented, resulting in a strict focus on getting you back out shooting. 

I'm not saying these other dynamics were sacrificed at the altar of fun, but it seems clear to me that a focus on one aspect can be detrimental. That this one aspect is so engrossing is actually a bad thing since it means we more readily excuse deep faults in the game. And when we excuse faults, it means they'll keep appearing. We need to be critical and vocal about it - even if, like me, you are still playing and enjoying Destiny. Silence is acceptance and I - and no doubt all of us - want Destiny to be better, as I want all games to be better.

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