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How Destiny 2 became 2017's biggest video game — and what it says about the medium's future

The critical and commercial hit attempts to balance the narrative-driven games of the past with social-driven open worlds of the future.

Bungie / Activision

Destiny 2 is a serviceable science fiction adventure that never quite reaches the highs of the films and texts that inspired it. Destiny 2 is also one of the most successful pieces of entertainment released in 2017: The hit new video game is inspiring fawning reviews and achieving considerable (albeit vague) commercial success. Earlier this month, more than 1.2 million people around the globe were playing the game at the same time.

Destiny 2 isn't the only blockbuster game with a humdrum story to achieve mass popularity, but better than most of its genre contemporaries, it skillfully delivers its story — sometimes embracing its complex lore, other times replaying the same blunt instructional dialogue for the 50th time — in service of what actually makes the game fun.

The gap between the quality of Destiny 2’s story and its critical and commercial triumph speaks to what modern audiences enjoy about blockbuster video games; how these games are designed, marketed, and sold; and ultimately the ways in which video games diverge from other popular media. Understanding Destiny 2’s popularity is crucial to foreseeing where video games as a medium are heading.

Destiny 2 uses a familiar story to conceal addictive game design


Unlike a novel or film, in which story can be a backbone or blueprint, the plurality of big-budget video games treat narrative as ornamental — a decorative material to be tweaked, excised, revised, or altogether rebooted in service of the game’s overall design.

This isn’t to say current video game stories are bad; rather, it’s to recognize that story is one of the many load-bearing beams that keep incredibly complex games from caving in on themselves, along with contributions like art, music, and the many invisible systems that create a game’s “feel.”

Nonetheless, story is the nut of the marketing campaign and, as a result, the vessel through which the newcomer is introduced to the series. So here’s the rundown: Destiny 2 is superficially a video game about the capture of humanity’s last great city following an attack by the burly alien force the Red Legion and its military leader, Ghaul. As a result, Earth’s protectors, the Guardians, have been stripped of their special powers (namely, an ability to return from death). Quirky names and warring factions with overlapping incentives abound, but it’s nothing a Game of Thrones fan can’t parse — if anything, the story’s delivery is intentionally straightforward.

The story structure borrows from wanderlust comedies like Blues Brothers and heist films like Ocean’s Eleven; the player travels across the solar system to regain their powers, collect a motley crew of allies and weapons, and with their help pursue revenge in the most elaborate and spectacular possible fashion.

But the core of Destiny 2, the engine that keeps fans playing for hundreds of hours across months, even years, is the pseudo-artificial growth of the player’s character through a brilliantly designed bundle of feedback loops, paired with an interface that makes playing with friends seamless and intuitive.

The power of this combination of narrative and character is why even the person with a casual interest may want to give Destiny 2 a try, even if jargon-heavy science fiction isn’t their thing.

Destiny 2 is a pleasure to play, and difficult to stop playing


Destiny 2’s design nurtures compulsion. While skill benefits a player, everything from their rank to their weapons is rewarded based on their investment of time. As the player progresses through the game, they rank up. Each rank rewards new weapons and abilities, and each new weapon and ability is just powerful enough to let the player progress through new areas with increasingly powerful enemies. Throughout the game, the player is also semi-randomly awarded rare items that give them unique abilities or further improve their rank.

In some ways, playing Destiny 2 can feel like playing slot machines, with each enemy killed equating to a pull on the handle. The game may finally award a big prize — though most often it won’t. To people who don’t regularly play video games, this may sound like an insidious time sink, reminiscent of the smartphone games spawned from the Farmville era. But Destiny 2 differentiates itself in a number of substantial ways.

For one, the shooting is fun. Very fun. Super duper ultra fun. I’ll be honest, sometimes video game tangibles are tough to pin down with words, to the point that descriptions sound reductive. I think it helps to understand the context around these little feelings, like what makes them possible. The game’s creator, Bungie, has bona fides when it comes to the je ne sais quois of first-person shooters, a genre it helped popularize with its creation of the Halo franchise. In Destiny 2, the moment-to-moment act of saving the universe by zapping aliens with direct shots to their forehead or throbbing weak spots is pleasurable because these designers give it a look and feel that captures the essence of going ham on a roll of bubble wrap or listening to the carbonated psst of a freshly cracked beer.

Second, the craftsmanship on display is top-notch. Evocative, grand open spaces are beautifully imagined and diverse, and they are populated with countless tiny details to find and things to do, like a pickup soccer match or a joyride on a landspeeder that unabashedly echoes the floating bikes from Return of the Jedi.

More importantly to the core of the game’s success, these spaces are built around socializing. Destiny 2 is meant to be played with friends online (or strangers, who automatically populate its world). Through voice chat, teams rally through quests, completing objectives, and comparing and contrasting their loot. While the items may have little value in the real world, they’re given social capital when compared with the stashes of friends and strangers.

Destiny 2 rewards your time investment — for better and worse


And yet, those considering jumping into Destiny 2 because their friends have surrendered weekends at its altar may want to play solo, at least at first. Because Destiny 2’s best weapons and most exotic missions require an investment of time, players just starting may find themselves lagging behind friends who’ve moved on to the game’s later phases.

To play certain parts of the game, players must complete the main campaign and achieve a certain rank by “grinding,” or repeating menial in-game tasks. This process can take dozens of hours, and even still, players who dedicate a considerable chunk of free time may be unable to participate in the most spectacular events not because they lack skill, but because the game intentionally reduces the amount of damage a lower-ranked player can deal. This can result in squads cutting low-rank friends from their team for being a liability.

Or to put it another way, in some of the game’s modes, how good you are at Destiny is less important than how much time you’ve invested in it. People eager to be on the level with friends may find themselves maximizing the leveling-up process by following arcane guides posted on Reddit and image boards. Personally, I recommend you take your guidance from my colleagues at Polygon, who do a fantastic job deciphering this so you don’t have to.

While many activities are available for new players and advanced players to do together, there’s a risk that the metaculture around the game incentivizes newcomers to blast through the thoughtfully designed adventure in order to catch up. And that’s a shame. While the story is imperfect, the notion of burning through it is backward, like fast-forwarding through The Leftovers or Game of Thrones because you want to chat with friends about the most recent episodes.

Locking off content by time investment rather than skill can be particularly frustrating for adults with limited schedules. At Kotaku UK, editor Keza MacDonald, the mother of a 9-month-old baby, writes that she won’t be able to enjoy large swaths of the game, not for lack of interest.

“Games like Destiny give you more back the more you put in,” she writes. “The in-jokes, the lore, the exotic gear and indeed everything beyond the moment-to-moment shooting only mean anything to people who’ve put a lot of hours in. I think that excludes me, now.”

Many players will never reach the incredibly high levels necessary to play the tiny percentage of end-game missions. And that’s why there’s no incentive to rush. Why hurry to reach something your most hardcore friends will have already completed? Take your time. Savor the feel of the game. Once your friends complete the latest top-level mission, they’ll bounce back to the rest of the game that isn’t locked behind walls of investment.

Destiny 2 bodes well for video games’ continued evolution


For new players, there’s no need to play Destiny 1. In fact, with so many players migrating to the sequel, the previous game has begun to feel a bit empty. Besides, big-budget video games sequels tend to exist somewhere between true sequel and reboot: Games are iterative in nature, meaning a game like Destiny 2 builds on the lessons learned from its predecessor.

And what lessons it had to learn. The original Destiny’s creation was mired in drama, and the game launched incomplete. It took years of updates and additions for it to approach its ambition, but a humongous player base stuck around because, despite its flaws as a game, it largely excelled as a digital town square. Perhaps the best way to learn about this is from your buddies playing Destiny 2, who will regale you with tales of Destiny back before it was fun. Surely somebody will be happy to chronicle how the story was reimagined right before the game was released, or how the flying AI sidekick, the one that follows you through all of Destiny 2, used to be voiced by Peter Dinklage.

If there’s one reason so many folks have gathered around Destiny 2, it may be this: Here is a game struggling to balance classic, narrative-driven games of the past with social-driven open worlds of the future. And while it occasionally fails — sometimes spectacularly so — its creators continually improve upon it, always in service of the community’s relationship with itself. Nothing else is sacred; nothing interferes with what is ultimately a giant hangout in space, not even a story.

Again, to an outsider, a video game that encourages hundreds of hours of play may sound childish, frivolous, or even malicious. But I offer a few considerations. For starters, Destiny 2 is an astonishing value proposition, turning $60 into an abundance of entertainment. (I haven’t even broached the competitive multiplayer modes of the game, in which skilled players battle one another.) While this isn’t Moby Dick, there’s certainly as much cultural nourishment to be mined from the game as from a lot of mainstream film, television, and pop lit.

But what I find most fascinating about games like these is how they serve as cultural permission for groups to bond. As a former Midwestern boy, I think of young men, who in the past would have seen hopping on the phone with friends as emasculating, now meeting on a nightly basis to converse. Online video games are infamous for their aggressive communities in which predominately young males pepper strangers with threats, harassment, and hate speak. The optimist in me hopes games like Destiny 2, particularly modes that leverage cooperation with friends, are passively teaching players, no matter who they are, skills in communication and teamwork. There’s a precedent in communal games like Minecraft and World of Warcraft, two very different games that produced inventive and passionate fan bases that spawned everything from marriages to real-world cottage industries.

Destiny 2’s story does a fine job of welcoming players, but it was bound to cede its turf to the stories created by friends who connect not over a shared love of popping the heads off aliens —though, who doesn’t love that — but over the time spent talking about their days, their families, their responsibilities, and, yes, even the intricate lore in a quirky science fiction story that's just good enough to get you hooked.