Destiny’s newest expansion, The Taken King, is getting strong reviews. But we should remember how much of a disappointment the shooter was to some when it first came out last year.
It had plenty of problems. One of the most common criticisms was its lackluster story. Bungie is the same studio that made the Halo series, so many expected that it’d deliver another cool sci-fi tale with Destiny. But that’s not what debuted. Instead, Destiny’s story was a series of random missions loosely strung together by a robot who wouldn’t explain anything.
But a lot can change in a year.
With The Taken King expansion, Bungie said that it would actually have a proper story to tell. And it backed up its claims by introducing sweeping changes that’d essentially rewrite Destiny’s history. So I decided to jump back into the game after a seven-month absence to see if the storytelling improved.
As I played through Destiny and its expansions, I went through old interviews and videos about the story and compared the studio’s comments to what we got in the final products from publisher Activision. The best way to track these changes is to start at the beginning.
Destiny (launch version)[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwOUi4JDC4o]
Release date: September 9, 2014
What Bungie promised:
It’s hard not to laugh when you revisit what Bungie was saying about Destiny in the years leading up to its release. In the reveal trailer from 2013 (above), it gave an overview of Destiny’s solar system, saying that if you could save the city from destruction, you’d become “legend.” That tagline stuck around, but some of the areas and planets seen in the video weren’t included in Destiny’s original release (only a few of them showed up later in the expansions).
During a press event at Bungie’s Seattle headquarters in February 2013, the studio referred to the plot as a series of stories “that unfold like chapters” in a book. It was up to players to find out “the mysteries of the world and the looming aliens” within it. GamesBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi heard something similar: Destiny’s campaign would eventually look like a “series of interconnected novels with self-contained stories.”
And in an interview with GameSpot during the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow, Destiny writer and design director Joseph Stanten (who has since left the company) said it would use different storytelling methods. He ended the interview by saying, “But if you love a great cinematic story, Destiny has that for you, absolutely.”
What we got:
The version of Destiny that Bungie released is nothing like the vision it was pitching. You play as a Guardian, a space-faring supersoldier who’s brought back to life by a floating little robot called Ghost. Together, you go on a series of missions around the universe to eradicate various alien threats. But it never amounts to anything. It doesn’t have any stakes. I killed the Fallen on Earth and the Hive on the Moon because a character said it was the right thing to do. I fought the Cabal on Mars because they were evil, too.
And then I went to the ominous-sounding Black Garden on Venus to destroy a giant piece of goo because the Vex were suddenly the most important villains in the game. The ending, if you can call it that, is a brief cutscene that is more or less a pat on the back, as if Bungie is saying “Nice job!”
I didn’t give a damn about any of Destiny’s characters. Their only purpose is to guide you from point A to point B. The few people who look or sound interesting — like the queen of the Awoken people and her brother — only have a few minutes of screen time before Bungie inexplicably drops them from the storyline.
It’s mind-boggling. How could Bungie and Activision spend so much time and money — $500 million over the next 10 years — and not come up with a good story? Without a strong narrative, the game feels hollow and aimless.
If you want more details about the lore, you have to go outside the game to Bungie’s website or the Destiny mobile app to read short descriptions on Grimoire Cards. I couldn’t believe that this was the best the Halo creators could come up with.
The Dark Below (first expansion)
Release date: December 9, 2014
What Bungie promised:
In a December 2014 interview with Eurogamer, Bungie president Harold Ryan said that the new missions in The Dark Below were partly influenced by the intense criticism the story received from fans and reviewers. Bungie would try a new storytelling approach. Ryan said it would “feel much more emergent and interactive in the world” and that it’d be “faster-paced with more action” and exposition.
What we got:
The Dark Below adds the dreadfully serious Eris Morn to the growing roster of people who tell you what to do. Some time ago, she and other Guardians ventured to the moon to kill a powerful alien god named Crota. They failed, and Eris was the only survivor. Now she’s out for revenge, and it’s your job to help her finish what her team started.
As Ryan said, The Dark Below did try a different approach, but it isn’t that much of a departure from the original game. With Ghost’s dialogue relegated to just text entries, Eris becomes the most talkative character. She spills plot details into your ear before, during, and after each mission. The Dark Below doesn’t have any new cutscenes, so you only see Eris in person when you turn in your completed quests.
Without much face-to-face interaction, I felt like I was listening to an audiobook rather than experiencing a real story. All the good stuff happened in the past, like when Eris was with her squad of Guardians attacking the Hive, or when she was hiding in the moon by herself for months trying to survive. I’d much rather play those events from her point of view. Instead, I was her one-man cleanup crew, mindlessly checking the boxes on her little hit list.
The House of Wolves (second expansion)
Release date: May 19, 2015
What Bungie promised:
In an interview with Xbox Achievements, Destiny lead designer Christopher Barrett said that one of the goals for House of Wolves was to create a new area for players to explore (a social hub known as the Vestian Outpost), and that it “sets a really great wrapper for the story and I think it adds to the narrative of the story itself.” Barrett noted that the way Bungie is telling stories in Destiny is always evolving, and that “hopefully you’ll see some continued evolution of our story content with House of Wolves.”
During another interview (this time with GameSpot), Barrett said that between the new story quests and bounties (where you hunt specific aliens for money and experience points), they want to “give players that fantasy of hunting down bad guys, killing them, getting lots of loot, that real bounty hunter kind of feel of the ‘Pirates of the Reef.’ That outlaw feel.”
What we got:
In House of Wolves’s new social hub, you meet Petra Venj, the queen’s emissary, and Variks, a Fallen creature who’s actually a good guy. Like Eris Morn before them, Petra and Variks give you different tasks to accomplish: You’re helping them hunt down Skolas, a powerful and influential leader of the Fallen. While most of the story is still told through audio transmissions, it felt a lot more lively to have two characters talk to me (and often times to each other).
A long time ago, the Fallen and the queen’s realm waged war against each other. Petra and Variks offer different perspectives on that war, and they also provide some background information on the events that lead up to House of Wolves. They’re both charming, too. Petra is a veteran warrior, but lately she’s been stuck with mundane jobs, so she vicariously lives through you on these missions. Her positivity and excitement is contagious.
Variks is interesting because he translates Fallen chatter on the battlefield and talks about the time he was a part of Skolas’s army. Ghost is still unusually silent, but I didn’t mind it too much here.
House of Wolves was a vast improvement over Destiny’s storytelling blunders. It was the first time I felt like I was part of a team and not just some interplanetary errand boy.
Release date: September 8, 2015
What Bungie promised:
Destiny’s big 2.0 patch wasn’t an expansion, but I put it here because it changed a lot about how it tells its story. Included in the 17GB update was the Quest tab, a new part of your character menu that organizes all the active quests you’re currently in; a new voice actor for Ghost (Bungie ousted Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage for Nolan North, thus erasing all of Dinklage’s lines from the game); and a subtle tweak in the top-right corner of your screen that tells you the name of the person who’s talking to you.
What we got:
Everything worked as promised. But the new quest system confused me when I loaded up my dormant Warlock character (who I first played with last year when I bought the game). I saw completed tasks on my quest tab — like talking to certain characters in the Vestian Outpost — that I never actually did. Rather than backtrack to see what I missed, I did what any sane person would do: start over. As much as it pained me to go through the original story again, the quest system and North’s performance alleviated some of the repetitiveness.
Starting from scratch made me realize how much more information the Quest tab added. Ghost and other characters have more things to say in the descriptions underneath your chain of quests. The story is still nonsensical, but I at least had a better idea of what to do. North’s version of Ghost isn’t that different from Dinklage’s performance, but he does sound more upbeat than his predecessor.
The Taken King (third expansion)
Release date: September 15, 2015
What Bungie promised:
As part of its coverage on The Taken King, Game Informer magazine spoke to executive producer Mark Noseworthy and creative director Luke Smith about how Destiny’s newest expansion would present its story. They said the campaign would last around six or seven hours, and that it’d have some humor to balance out the otherwise dark tale about Oryx, the father of Crota (who players killed in a multiplayer raid mission from The Dark Below). Smith said that Bungie hopes Oryx’s arrival “inspires” players to imagine what sort of repercussions their actions in The Taken King could have on future Destiny content.
Ghost would also have an expanded role as a “purveyor of lore.” Noseworthy spoke about hiding more bits of Destiny’s story in the environment that you can uncover through Ghost’s new scanning feature. It’s not the same as having the Grimoire Cards, but Noseworthy said “making some of [the lore] discoverable is really exciting.”
What we got:
The Taken King borrows the House of Wolves’s dual narrator approach, pairing Eris Morn with Cayde-6, a character who has been in the game all along. But it’s the latter who ends up stealing the show — the real name of this expansion should’ve been called The Nathan Fillion Hour. The actor is known for his funny on-screen performances, and his role as Cayde-6 is no different. Cayde-6’s biting one-liners contrast wonderfully with Eris’s jargon-filled rants about prophecies and visions.
When they’re not bickering, Cayde-6 and Eris help you on your adventure to take down Oryx and his Taken army. He’s so powerful that even the other alien races run away from him. Oryx’s presence gives the story a strong focal point. Everything I did in The Taken King was working toward the goal of fighting him on his creepy Dreadnaught ship.
It seemed like Bungie added everything that was missing in the original Destiny: multiple cutscenes, more characters to talk to, and a sense of continuity (Taken King missions have several references to things you did in the past).
Once you’re done with the main campaign, the story continues with optional side quests from almost every character you’ve ever interacted with. It’s huge.
Is Destiny worth buying for the story?
I’m torn. On the one hand, Destiny finally has a decent tale that almost lives up to Bungie’s vague prerelease promises from 2013. It now has a fascinating cast of characters with distinct personalities and backgrounds — I actually want to hear what they have to say! That’s a huge improvement over the forgettable performances from the original release. The callbacks and references in The Taken King made me feel like I truly was part of the story and that my actions had real consequences.
But it also kind of sucks for anybody who bought the game last year expecting to play through a good story. Assuming they stuck around, they had to wait a whole year and spend more money on the expansions to see if Bungie would address that problem. The story eventually improved, but as seen with The Dark Below, the studio still had a few missteps along the way.
Players who are just jumping into Destiny for the first time are the lucky ones. They have way more story missions to explore with the $60 “legendary edition” (which includes the base game plus all three expansions) than those who paid the same amount of money in September 2014.
However, I still wouldn’t recommend buying Destiny for its narrative alone. You’re better off grabbing a single-player game where story was actually a priority for the developers. The biggest difference between Destiny in 2014 and Destiny in 2015 is that it now has an entertaining reason for collecting those shiny new weapons and items for your Guardian.