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Destiny Needs Its Blank Pages Filled

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Opinion: Frustrated by the lack of details in Destiny's story? Cameron Woolsey shares your concerns, and argues Bungie needs to improve its storytelling if the franchise is to last a decade.

Keeping a game franchise fresh and thriving for 10 years is a lofty goal. But that's exactly what Activision is attempting with Destiny. Accomplishing this feat will require a solid foundation of entertaining gameplay, but it also helps to have an interesting story that draws players in, sparking interest in its mysteries, its history, and its unanswered questions. Destiny's story is certainly brimming with mystery and unanswered questions, but is presented in a way that fosters boredom. The narrative seems detached from the world around it, while many of the characters stand apathetic to your inquiries.

Destiny is a new franchise, and is developer Bungie's latest chance to create something that captivates the imagination. So why does it already feel so bland and uninteresting? Much of the reason behind this is due to Destiny's weak delivery of its narrative. Destiny veils its thin plot, burying what meager background lore it holds behind a wall away from the game itself. It doesn't help that your guardian, the protagonist, is about as intellectually curious as sparrow exhaust, and wields a script that makes Master Chief look like a chatty Cathy.

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Destiny's story is one of usual sci-fi trappings with evil aliens, space ships, and planetary exploration. But like a cheap summer action flick, trying to recall the sequence of important events soon after the credits have rolled is more strain that it's worth. Segmented among the narrative--consisting of about 16 hours of fetch quests or fighting off waves of enemies while protecting a door or some important thing--are brief moments of exposition. However, they serve to add more questions than actually inform.

What is the Traveler? What are the Fallen? Why are the guardians enlisted from the dead? And why exactly is there gravity on the Moon? These are among the many questions that lingered in my mind throughout the long journey of playing the main campaign. At the curtain fall to Destiny's vague story, none of them were answered; they were only met with even more questions. Your final reward, besides the grand speech your guardian clearly wasn't invited to, is a free gun and some glimmer for your troubles. The enigmatic female Exo hunter, called the Stranger, a supposed ally who aids you in your travels, is there to offer a final wink at the camera--the promise of more to come--before warping away to places unknown.

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In all fairness, it doesn't make sense for a long-term game like Destiny to reveal everything in the first round. But like Peter Jackson's The Hobbit films, the story feels thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo Baggins would say. It also doesn't help that the game utilizes a baffling array of verbs and nouns to describe enemies and places.

A mission on Venus reads, "Unravel the secrets of the Vex by reviving an ancient research station of the Ishtar Collective." What was the Ishtar Collective? Where did they go? How can a hostile, acidic planet like Venus sustain life? Another mission asks you to "Survive the military power of the Cabal and find the Gate to the Black Garden." What is the Cabal, and where do they come from? What is the Black Garden, and how will its destruction help the Traveler? Sure, your constant Ghost companion gives you some dry exposition during missions, but rarely do those answers feature much in the way of detail. Destiny's banal story lacks any sort of impetus to provide any solid explanations. Still, you march onward. You are a guardian, and you do it because you must--asking questions is not part of the job description.

"You must have no end of questions, Guardian." -- The Speaker

Destiny's uses Grimoire cards as a crutch for its flimsy story, but even they have difficulty keeping it standing. The reason is that many of the cards contribute no more an important role than that of a digital instruction manual, providing only the most basic information possible. If you wish to learn about classes and Super moves, the cards have all the details your heart desires. But salient plot points, such as the origins of the omnipotent Darkness, the ancient enemy of the Traveler and bringer of the Fall, are still shrouded in Destiny's safety blanket of mystery and intrigue.

Grimoire cards are handed out as you play through the game. Meeting new allies and enemies and discovering planets and locations reward you with more of these cards. As I played, I felt curious as to what information the cards held. However, I didn't look at a single Grimoire card until after I had finished the main story. The reason is because to read the card, you are required to stop playing and head to Bungie's website and sign in using your chosen gaming handle for either Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. It also doesn't help that you must accomplish dull chores, such as killing a set of enemies a number of times, to unlock other cards. I have logged in around 40 hours, unlocking many cards. There could be some cards in the Grimoire that offer an explanation to my scrutiny. But I question my dedication to play another several dozen hours of repetitive tasks in order to learn about a story that doesn't ask to be explored.

The Darkness card offers many theories surrounding its existence, but, again, there are no solid answers. And what of the mighty Cabal, the evil alien species that has taken claim on Mars, sharing it with the Vex and their Gate to the Black Garden? As the Cabal card explains, “Their origins and ultimate objectives are a mystery,” because of course they are.

Hey, don't suppose you have any narrative for sale?
Hey, don't suppose you have any narrative for sale?

If Destiny puts so much importance on the story, why not keep the information in the game? Why the hassle? Siloing important background information out of the game, effectively interrupting fluidity, doesn't make the narrative more compelling.

Grimoire cards are a good idea for a game as massive as Destiny, however, even though they are mismanaged. If you're anything like me, you appreciate it when developers go the extra mile to add fascinating lore or tidbits to supplement the stories of their games. Are you aware that the Vex's Slap Rifle is not only weapon, but also might be used as a field transmitter, navigational beacon, and more? Not everyone will care about a fictitious rifle, but I find this sort of stuff fascinating.

In fact, having lore you can pursue outside of the main story actually isn't a bad thing. There are games that have pulled it off with great success. Mass Effect is a perfect example of providing you with a great story while including some trimmings to enjoy on the side. Why do the Elcor verbalize their emotions? Look it up in the codex. What is the history behind the ancient Protheans? It's in the codex! Grimoire cards have the potential to help round out Destiny's overall story, whenever it decides to show itself. But they need to be a part of the package if the point is to spur interest.

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About halfway through Destiny, you meet the Queen of the Reef. The scene marked the first time since I began the game in which I felt the urge to sit up and lean forward with anticipation. Finally, I thought, the story is about to pick up and go somewhere. I knew right away that I'd be glad to do away with these Grimoire cards and get some real answers. As I watched my guardian walk somberly along a walkway lit by eerie azure lighting, that hope was dashed to pieces as I was bombarded with more cards.

After a few tension-filled moments, the queen sends you on a fetch quest for a head of a Vex Gate Lord. The deed done, you spend the rest of the game repeating the same missions that led you there in the first place. So much for that anticipation; I sank back into my chair and continued my hunt for the endgame.

Destiny is meant to stay around for quite a long while. So far, this reason has been the best argument for why the game at its current iteration feels so meager. Looking among all the Grimoire cards I don't have, I realize that it will be years before every space is filled with some important piece of plot that has yet to come to pass. The prospect doesn't fill me with enthusiasm. If Destiny remains the same as it is now, that could mean more short cutscenes bookending hours of repetition. No, not enthusiasm; I find the concept more exhausting than exciting. Unless Bungie does something soon to lift the story out of its slog, especially before the holiday game avalanche, Destiny owners will find little reason to return, save for playing the same missions for the slim chance of better gear. Bungie is gambling on you having the patience to ride Destiny out for the next decade in order to learn its mysteries. Like gambling on a legendary engram to provide something exotic, however, betting on the perseverance of its fans may end up to be less than an uncommon reality.

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