When Destiny 2's Season of the Haunted first kicked off, it seemed angled to set players against Calus, a villain who'd been kicking around the game since its 2017 release, wielding a new and frightening power--in other words, another relatively typical bad guy waiting for players to come shoot them. What the characters of Destiny 2 have actually wound up fighting, however, are their own personal demons.
The stalwart superheroes of Bungie's MMO shooter are the "Haunted" the season's title is referring to, and the story that has unfolded each week has been a surprisingly emotional and honest one about coming to terms with personal trauma. As merritt k noted at Fanbyte, somehow, a shooter about killing giant aliens is taking on conversations about mental and emotional health--and doing an admirable job dealing with those difficult subjects.
The premise of Season of the Haunted is actually an outgrowth of the Shadowkeep expansion, where players confronted ghost-like enemies called Nightmares. While Nightmares look like red, spectral ghosts, they're actually the manifestations of memories and regrets. In Season of the Haunted, Nightmares are being weaponized against the game's characters, forcing them to face those regrets head-on. Once Bungie solidified the direction of the season, according to senior narrative designer Robert Brookes, approaching the topics with sensitivity became an important part of the process of building its narrative.
"We didn't start the season with the goal of approaching mental health as a topic," Brookes said during a group interview that included several Bungie developers who worked on Season of the Haunted. "But once we realized what we wanted to do--like, 'Okay, every character of our main cast is going to be confronted by Nightmares'--we realized that we wanted to come at them in the same way that Shadowkeep did, which was [Shadowkeep main character] Eris not just, like, banishing her Nightmares and making them go away, but coming to peace with the loss of her fireteam."
"So being able to use the language that Shadowkeep had already built for us and then take that and expand on it allowed us to develop a story that felt like it was a natural place to approach the ideas of things that are related to mental health, because how do you get past the Nightmares? It's by accepting them... So I think that it was just a natural growth of what we wanted to do."
The Season of the Haunted has so far focused on two major characters, Crow and Zavala, who have both been major parts of the game's overarching narrative for more than a year. Crow's story is all about his past regrets--though he's now an immortal Guardian, in his past life, he was Uldren Sov, a villain who murdered Cayde-6, one of Destiny's most beloved characters. When people are resurrected to become Guardians, they forget their past lives, so Crow is a different man than Uldren is. But earlier this year, Uldren's memories were restored to Crow, and he's been grappling with the fear that he could slip back into the same dark places Uldren once occupied ever since.
Zavala, meanwhile, has been the stoic leader of the Guardians since the original Destiny launched back in 2014, but lately, that role, as well as the losses he's suffered along the way, have been greatly weighing on him. Season of the Haunted has fleshed out Zavala's character more than we've ever seen, telling the story of the Vanguard commander's wife, Safiyah, and son, Hakim. After his son was killed in a raid, Zavala and Safiyah separated, and he's been mourning them ever since, desperate to be worthy of their forgiveness and unwilling to extend any to himself.
Both characters have dealt with their baggage through the stories playing out this season with the help of the player and other characters. The fact that Destiny 2's strongest heroes aren't able to push through these issues on their own has been central to the stories Bungie is telling.
"The truest stories, they always touch on pieces of life, of reality, and on on the sort of cultural or global zeitgeist that everyone is experiencing," explained senior narrative designer Nikko Stevens. "Things like shame and doubt, or grief, they're feelings that everyone has, and that often don't get talked about. Emotional vulnerability is often given a stigma of weakness, which is kind of ridiculous. So we wanted to make sure the way that we were overcoming these challenges wasn't just by savvy tactics or brute force or some sort of new power that you'd unlocked. We wanted these things to come from within. And we wanted them to also come from the people around those characters.
"There are these common tropes in fiction where characters simply overcome their shortcomings through a sheer force of will, or they have some crux moment that allows them to surpass something they previously couldn't," he continued. "In Destiny, our themes are centered around companionship and support, and hope. So we wanted to use those ideas through our characters and show that even some of the strongest people in the universe, with all of their powers and might, can't defeat their own personal demons by themselves. They need help, just like everybody does. That was the main drive in Sever [the weekly mission episode telling the season's story]. We, as a team...all the designers, all the artists, down to audio and music and dialogue, we were all very aligned on this idea of wanting to show that these are challenges that must be overcome by understanding and by support, and not by bravado and force."
Brookes also said that the process of writing Destiny 2's characters working through their grief and pain helped him personally, when he found himself dealing with grief and pain of his own.
"When we were working on the season, I didn't expect it to become kind of a personal journey," he said. "But when we were on the tail end of developing the season, I very unexpectedly lost my mother. And having spent three months working through three different characters' sets of grief and their different emotional journeys, and then having to go through my own, right as I finished--that moment was almost like a surprise bonus mission I didn't ask for, to put it glibly. But I also feel like exploring these three different ways of approaching trauma helped kind of ready me for my own journey in that too. And it also just made this a very personal season for me, because getting this job and getting what I have is something my mother always pushed me for. And so there's a little piece of her in the story that I kind of hold on to."
While Bungie might not have gone into Season of the Haunted originally intending to address issues of mental health, Destiny 2's story is in keeping with the studio's recent approach to the topic in general. Back in 2021, Bungie added a page on its website dedicated to mental health resources, with in-game loading screen messages pointing players to the site.
Responses on social media suggest there are definitely Destiny 2 players with whom Season of the Haunted is resonating. Brookes said he thinks games can be useful in dealing with tough subjects like grief and trauma, providing players a different way to engage with those feelings.
"Mental health's an important thing just in general, not only for storytelling and for acceptance of a general audience, but also just at Bungie," Brookes said. "And we wanted to do that topic justice. That was our first main, real driving goal when we knew that it was something we wanted to approach. And it's also a universal experience--everyone has suffered something that lingers with them.
"...Mental health is a topic that not everyone's always comfortable talking about. So sometimes games as a medium can be used to explore those things in a way that's safer and in a way that is novel, and gives you a bit of a distance between what you're feeling and what the characters on the screen are feeling. And we wanted to kind of explore that in a way that was realistic and nuanced and wasn't easily solved, and to make our characters feel like they were people that were actually dealing with these kinds of struggles."
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