It's all about the Exo Stranger.
Back when Destiny first came out in 2014, one of the things that it most struggled with was telling the story of its vast and strange world. Set in a distant, alien-filled post-apocalypse in which flying robot flashlights resurrect the dead to turn them into immortal superheroes, Destiny packed so much seemingly random stuff into its original campaign that it was truly challenging to follow.
Part of what made Destiny 1 kind of a mess was that while you were being bombarded with all of those worldbuilding elements, Bungie decided to tell about half of one story, toss it out midway, and start another one. And that was all the fault of a weird character who showed up, pointed you at a new threat, famously gave you no explanation, and then disappeared for years: the Exo Stranger.
With Destiny 2's Beyond Light expansion, we've finally seen the return of the Exo Stranger six years later. Along with her return, Bungie is, at long last, taking the time to explain. In fact, there's a whole lot of story baked into Beyond Light--and it all finally fills in the gaps of what happened in Destiny 1. In a big way, Beyond Light just recontextualized everything that has happened in Destiny up to now, upending our understanding of the story. After six years, Destiny 1's story kind of makes sense now.
What Happened In Destiny 1
In order to understand what Beyond Light has clarified, you need to know what actually happened in Destiny 1. Not only has it been a while since that game came out, but as mentioned, its story doesn't give you much to go on. It begins with your character getting resurrected by your robot buddy Ghost, turning you into a Guardian for the first time in a place called the Cosmodrome in old Russia. The gist of your job as a Guardian is to fight on behalf of humanity against various alien threats. More specifically, you're meant to stand against a super-powerful entity or race or force called the Darkness, which invaded the solar system centuries earlier to end the age of human prosperity in an event called the Collapse. The Darkness has since left the solar system, but it so devastated everything that Guardians are constantly worried about dealing with it sometime in the future.
Newly (nearly) immortal, you come across the Hive, Destiny's death-worshipping monster enemies, who are hiding in the dark down in the ruins in Russia. They should not be there.
See, the Hive mostly hang out on the moon, which they invaded years in the past. They got a good foothold there, too, creating a vast subterranean tunnel network filled with ritual spaces and temples. Eventually, the Vanguard, the military command structure in charge of Guardians, got the superheroes together in numbers in order to go kick the Hive off the moon.
That counterattack failed spectacularly and a mess of Guardians died, mostly at the hands of Crota, one of the Hive's pantheon of leaders who are effectively immortal living gods. Crota had a sword that could absorb Guardians' Light, the power that makes them immortal, and he used it to massacre a whole bunch of them. Guardians abandoned the moon and quarantined it, leaving the Hive there--until you discover evidence that the Hive are starting to drop "seeders" on Earth that would allow them to start building an invasion force.
So you go to the moon to figure out what the Hive's deal is, where you discover they're performing a ritual that drains the Light from the Traveler, the big robot god that showed up in the solar system centuries earlier, bringing humanity into a Golden Age of discovery and prosperity. All the aliens want to destroy or subjugate the Traveler, and it's from the Traveler that Guardians get their power. You put a stop to some of the Hive's immediate plans, without really knowing the scope of what they're up to. But you also don't really have time to worry about it, because there's something more important happening.
Partway through your time on the moon, you receive a strange message directing you to Venus. Head there, and you're met by the voice on the other end of the radio, belonging to the Exo Stranger. At this point, you're not worried about the Hive anymore--the Stranger tells you about a much worse threat from the time-traveling alien robots known as the Vex. They have a weird home that exists outside of normal space and time called the Black Garden, and in the Garden is a wad of Darkness, called the Heart of the Black Garden. If you don't kill the Heart, whatever the hell it is, uh...bad things will happen. ("," she famously says, later leading to the introduction of a tongue-in-cheek Destiny gun called No Time to Explain.)
So the rest of Destiny is about finding a way into the Black Garden, which takes you across Venus, to the distant Reef (the colonized name for the Asteroid Belt), and to Mars. Eventually, you fight your way into the Black Garden, smash the Vex faction there known as the Sol Divisive, and destroy the gooey Heart. Darkness is stopped, apparently. The day is saved. The Exo Stranger tells you that you did a good job and then vanishes. Six years go by, with more scary alien threats rising, only to be put down by your gun.
It never becomes especially clear what you did in the Black Garden or why it was important, beyond the usual "kill Darkness because it's bad" reasoning. In Beyond Light, however, we've discovered what killing the Heart was all about, and how it was a crucial moment for the entire rest of the Destiny story.
The Exo Stranger's Past
The details about the Exo Stranger took years to drip out through Destiny lore. Over time, however, we started to understand that the reason she showed up in Destiny 1 for three minutes to point us at the Black Garden is that she was from the future. Her intervention in the original game's story was an effort to change that future, but it took quite a while for us to find out what, exactly, she was trying to prevent.
Beyond Light fills in a huge part of the Stranger's background. We find out that she's actually Elsie Bray, the granddaughter of famed industrialist Clovis Bray. You'll see Clovis's name all over buildings in Destiny, and his company had a huge presence on Mars. Clovis Bray was responsible for creating Rasputin, the giant AI Warmind that controlled the solar system's defenses, and the Exos, a race of robots with human minds (and one of your three race choices when creating a character).
The Exo program is what we're interested in. Back during the Golden Age (the time before the Darkness invaded), Clovis was struggling to turn humans into Exos, which he was doing in pursuit of immortality. He finally cracked the secret of transferring a human mind into a robot body by utilizing a mixture of Vex technology and "Clarity," Clovis's name for the energy generated by the Darkness.
See, when the Darkness exited the solar system, it left some things behind. On the moon, Clovis Bray scientists discovered a huge black pyramid that also doubled as a spaceship, which turned out to be one of the vessels of the Darkness. The energy coming off the vessel corrupted the scientists, but Clovis received messages from the Darkness directing him to Europa. There, he discovered Clarity Control, a huge Darkness artifact that looks like a statue and which gives off the energy Clovis dubbed Clarity. With it, he was able to solve his Exo problem, while studying and trying to harness Darkness energy. Elsie joined him in his research and eventually became an Exo, saving her life from a degenerative genetic disease that was killing her.
During the Golden Age, Elsie helped fight off a Vex invasion of Europa, one that was made possible by Clovis's research. In doing so, she seemingly gained some pretty extensive knowledge of the time-traveling robots and their capabilities. That'll be handy later.
Now we skip way ahead to the present in Destiny 2, more or less. The Collapse happened, the Darkness left, Guardians rose and fought off various threats. Those Guardians include Ana Bray, Elsie's sister.
In Beyond Light, the Darkness has returned to the solar system. It's not just here to wipe everyone out, though; instead, it's actively trying to corrupt Guardians to its cause, offering them incredible power to buy their allegiance. When we've interacted with whatever intelligence composes the Darkness, it hasn't threatened destruction, but instead has claimed to serve as our salvation. The Darkness wants to control Guardians, which sounds a lot more insidious than another big alien planning to blow everything up.
The expansion sees the Darkness leading players to Europa to offer them a gift, the Darkness-infused ice power called Stasis, seemingly in hopes of turning good Guardians bad. But it's Elsie who leads you to the Darkness's power, and she tries to train you in utilizing it. The plan in Destiny 2 right now is to use Stasis against the Darkness. As the thinking goes, just like you can use the power of the Light to do bad, you can use the power of Darkness to do good.
The corrupting power of Darkness is a major issue, though. There are a bunch of stories in Destiny lore about people who fell, like Jedi in Star Wars, to the seductive power of the Dark Side. There's Dredgen Yor, a Guardian who slowly turned evil after the Hive got into his brain through his gun, Thorn. There was the Kentarch 3, a fireteam who headed into the Black Garden, only to succumb to whispers of the Darkness found within and turn on each other. There was the K1 Artifact team back during the Golden Age, who worked closely with the moon Pyramid until its influence over them became too great. There's Clovis Bray, who received direction from the Darkness that led him to Europa to create his Exo program, during which he did a whole lot of horrific experiments on people. And there's Eramis, a Fallen leader and Beyond Light's primary antagonist, who is twisted by using the Darkness until she abandons the idea of creating a safe home for the Fallen and instead decides to build an empire.
So far, the threat of corruption hasn't really manifested itself in the game as we're experiencing it. The threat of corruption is something characters mention, but we haven't seen it happen yet.
But it can happen, and it probably will happen. We know because of Elsie Bray, the Exo Stranger, and one key element that alters everything we think we know about Destiny so far: time travel.
The Dark Future
Elsie Bray is a time traveler. This is something we've been getting hints about in relationship to the Exo Stranger for quite a while. Beyond Light doesn't just confirm it, however--it fills in the blanks about exactly what Elsie is trying to do with time travel.
In Beyond Light, we discover that the entire story of Destiny so far has actually been about one thing: Elsie's attempts to save Ana.
The lore book Dark Future, which you can unlock in Beyond Light by completing quests for Elsie, details exactly what she's been afraid of this whole time. In Elsie's timeline, Guardians took the power of Stasis from the Darkness, and it quickly began to corrupt them. Soon, Dark Guardians were ravaging the world. They killed and conquered just about everybody, all over the solar system, destroying the Last City and annihilating the Vanguard. Anybody who didn't join them was killed.
The lore book gives a sense of how things go down, as Elsie rallies Ana, a maimed (and bearded) Zavala, and the last surviving Awoken in an attempt to defeat the new evil: Eris Morn. Destiny players will recognize Eris as a Guardian who was touched by the evil of the Hive after she and her fireteam attempted to destroy the Hive god Crota, back before the events of Destiny 1. She's been around since the first Destiny expansion, The Dark Below, serving as an advisor to the Vanguard on all things Hive. Eris has been a major part of the Destiny 2 story since the Shadowkeep expansion, but in Elsie's timeline, Eris was corrupted by the Darkness and joined up with Savathun, another Hive god who has been menacing the solar system from the shadows since Destiny 2 was released.
Elsie, Ana, and the other survivors mount a final assault in an attempt to destroy Eris and Savathun, but they're betrayed at the last moment--by Ana. It turns out that Darkness corrupted Ana too, and she secretly serves Eris. When she turns, it destroys the last resistance. In the Dark Future lore book, we find out that this is something Elsie sees coming--because she's lived it, over and over.
We don't know how long Elsie has lived, how many lifetimes she's seen, or how many timelines she's attempted to correct. We do know she made several attempts to stop the Darkness from corrupting Ana and the other Guardians, effectively bringing on the end of the world. She keeps failing, but somehow, she keeps traveling back in time to try again.
The story we've been playing through in Destiny since the very first game is Elsie's latest attempt to change the future. We, the players, are the lynchpin in her plan, in fact. At some point, Elsie learned about the Black Garden in the future, and instead of ignoring it or letting it gain power, she showed up in Destiny 1 and told us about it. Destiny 1 players destroyed the Heart of the Black Garden, setting the Darkness back in its plans.
So Destiny 1's confusing story was all part of Elsie's plan to rewrite history, setting a new course to stop Guardians from eventually becoming corrupted by the Darkness. We've finally reached a point where things might start to go differently in this timeline, based on Elsie's interference.
So now we're into a future Elsie has never seen before, in which she has teamed up with the Drifter and an uncorrupted Eris Morn to try a new approach. Instead of fighting the Darkness with the Light, which leads to it creeping into the minds of Guardians and corrupting them, she and the others are working together to harness the power of Stasis and use it against the Darkness.
This is a major change-up from what happened in Dark Future, where Elsie and few others used Stasis, but the Vanguard largely forbade Guardians from the power. That was a major mistake in other timelines, because it led to people like Eris using Stasis in secret, against Vanguard orders, in an attempt to fight the Darkness--and eventually succumbing to it.
Instead, Elsie is working with Eris, the Drifter, Ana, the Vanguard, and you to make Stasis safe to use, and to stop Guardians from going to the Dark Side because of it. She's also using her presence and influence to help people like Eris and Ana understand Stasis without being overwhelmed by it. She's hoping to give them the support they need to keep them from going to the Dark Side. We're seeing the last stage of Elsie's gambit to change the future, with your help. In Destiny 1, she used time travel to influence events by sending you to the Black Garden. Now she's back, hoping to work with you to change how the Darkness affects the rest of the Guardians.
So finally, the overarching story of Destiny has some coherence, and the story of Destiny 1 makes sense--we just didn't know what it was all about at the time. Now we have to wait to see how things shake out thanks to Elsie's changes. We can make some guesses that not everything will be successful, however: Bungie is planning two more major expansions over the next two years. The 2021 expansion is called The Witch Queen, with sounds like it'll finally see players facing down Savathun, followed by Lightfall in 2022, which sounds pretty, uh...bad. What'll happen between now and then, though, is anybody's guess.