Destiny is emblematic of the sort of videogames that killed my desire to play much of anything in the past couple of months.
The mainstay of Destiny is its shooting, and that was strong enough to keep me playing through the story missions and on up to Level 20.
For two months after I stopped playing, however, Bungie’s ‘not an MMO’ shooter gradually eroded in my estimation and I grew to resent it. Destiny, perhaps unfairly, became something of an albatross across my 2014.
Like or loathe the comparison, Destiny shares a lot in common with the MMO genre. At the very least, it is as much in the MMO mould as Borderlands was, and that game was barely mentioned upon release without ‘Borderworlds’ being mooted.
Borderlands threw loot and XP at the player in spades, and I lapped them up. There was repetition in the mission design, but no grind to speak of (at least for me). Thankfully, to help me through any repetitive sections, Borderlands’ characters had character, its humour had humour. Certainly, they, and the story they inhabited, were simplistic, and their tone likely put many off, but Borderlands held my interest through the more lacklustre moments.
Destiny does not, in my estimation, have interesting characters, humour or a story. At all. That’s not necessarily a death knell, but the lack of these made me acutely aware of the degree of gameplay repetition that I was subjected to.
Again, repetition might not be a nail in the coffin of a game in which the bare mechanics are fun enough, and Destiny’s almost are, but for me that repetition became a grind. I loved the shooting, and the traversal… but for me the grind has to feel worth it, there has to be a goal.
There are so many bars, meters, numbers and upgrades that I remain convinced Bungie conceived Destiny at a conference for free-to-play mobile game development. The game plays like a smorgasbord of media psychology theories; meters have meters and resources have resources.
Make no mistake, this is the sort of game design invented to keep the player reaching for the next DING!, and (a proportion) desperate to pay hand-over-fist to achieve it faster.
Paradoxically, Bungie aren’t a company trying to fleece their customers. A perceived lack of content doesn’t equate to that, and even the criticised DLC pricing isn’t massively out of step with the pack. Destiny didn’t offer to sell me ways to circumvent the natural progression.
In fact, Bungie were so sure of the rate of progress they had prescribed that several key resources were capped and exploits were being routinely patched. The problem I had nonetheless, was that the destination (especially beyond Level 20) seemed unclear and the looping, languorous journey felt directionless.
I’m not suggesting that mystery and exploration of mechanics cannot be a wonderful part of game design, merely that Bungie hung their hat on the tenets of the MMO and then proceeded to obfuscate player progression in the hope of adding mystery to an extremely well-worn set of systems. The result is a Byzantine contraption in which too many of the inputs are hamster wheels and too many of the outputs are hot air.
The story received the same treatment. Take your basic, nuts and bolts sci-fi story, flesh it out a bit, and then rip out any detail and colour in the hope that what’s left will hint at the deeper lore which Bungie then promised to shove into an iPhone app. Narrative evidently wasn’t high up on Bungie’s agenda, and that’s fine, but it left another gaping hole where my drive to play should have been.
Many a time have I stuck with flawed games for their one or two enjoyable aspects, and (in that respect) Destiny’s shooting is highly enjoyable. There was an easy familiarity and sense of comfort from the moment I squeezed a trigger in Old Russia; I found immediate reward for my mediocre FPS skillset. Not once did I doubt the strong foundations under the ruined structure, but they were never enough to make me want to stay.
Ironically, one of the biggest boons Destiny has is also a curse: its dedicated players. On the one hand they nurture, foster and aid new players, singing the praises of Destiny’s raids and the difficulty shifts in the endgame. On the other, they are keenly aware of the game’s shortcomings.
The frustrating thing is that those playing late-game Destiny evidently found reason to play on regardless, lending Destiny a strange allure.
Several times during my slippery slide towards resentment have people like Matt Lees, Brad Shoemaker, Sean Bell, Owen Grieve, Twin Humanities’ CJ and Paddy, Chet Roivas, Jon Denton, Dave Turner or our very own Jay Taylor and Karl Moon had me questioning a return to my Level 20 Hunter.
In the hands of these poets and scholars, Destiny is a rough gem, an acquired taste.
Stick with it, they promise, and it comes together; the enemies become smarter and the challenge greater as the journey toward the Light continues. Diligent Guardians are rewarded in spirit and wealth, come the Vault Of Glass… they tease, and I believe them.
I believe that they have found the gem at the centre of Destiny. And that is when the aforementioned boon becomes a curse. The barrier placed in front of the Vault Of Glass is rather akin to the fence over which a lonely child might watch the older, more popular kids play football.
Sure, it’s only a fence, but it makes the other side seem so much further away. It may be my loss to see that fence as a barrier, but when those on the other side caveat the worth in vaulting it by showing you their splintered hands, it’s tough to take that leap.
Destiny asks a lot of its players, it asks blind faith that the end game will be worth the often stumbling journey to arrive at it. Fortunately, dedicated players have ensured the faith need not be unsighted, but the stumbling journey remains. We’ve heard this before, of course; Final Fantasy XIII was harshly criticised for a 20 hour tutorial before the game really took off. That observation was used as a stick with which to gleefully beat that game.
Now, in all fairness, I haven’t played FFXIII, so maybe my comparison with this aspect of Destiny isn’t reasonable, but when I can so easily set Destiny next to one of the last console generation’s most reputedly disappointing games, it seems clear to me that Bungie have a problem.
For all its proponents, Destiny is not a game I’m willing to suffer gladly. The most precious resource I have is time and Destiny revels in wasting it. Bungie aren’t alone in this attitude; Ubisoft are chief among those who bolt busywork onto their games. Long cutscenes are oft-criticised as filler or as a sign of a game developer wallowing in self-indulgence, but I’ll take those over unnecessary and perfunctory economies or mediocre (tower defence) mini-games.
Of course, a mechanic or aspect that seems extraneous to me may be the draw for others, but I do worry that many big, multi-faceted games are trying to please too wide an audience. Destiny, Watch_Dogs, Forza Horizon 2, Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Whatever, to name but a few, are packed with side missions, challenges, leaderboards, multiplayer modes, collectibles, unlockables and dynamic events.
Providing a plethora of optional material is undoubtedly designed to allow players to tailor their own experience, but I’ve started to see it as a sea of inessential guff that these games come close to drowning in.
I’m all for taking responsibility for my own entertainment, but a tipping point has been reached in the lack of craft and focus exhibited by some games, beyond which I’m inclined to avoid them altogether.
Between broken games, rushed out to meet a marketing deadline, games stuffed to bursting with time-wasting distractions and those festooned with micro-transactions to wring more money from their players, the tail end of 2014 felt like an assault on my sensibilities.
I’ve gradually been put into a hypersensitive state with regards to videogames, and I struggled to separate that from my experiences with Destiny.
Yet here I sit, perpetually unable to let Destiny go. For all of my negative feelings about the game, the stories I hear from those still playing lend it a seemingly indefatigable allure. Given the time and money spent on Destiny by one of the most proficient and prominent videogame developers, it felt very unsure of itself. My resentment of it is born as much from my desire to see its potential fulfilled as frustration at that which it squandered.
There were moments where I saw the potential in Destiny, epic set pieces and inspired twists on the solid first-person shooting that Bungie do so well. That the best of the game was held out of reach was a frustration that overcame that potential… for a while.
Ultimately, I’m tired of watching the best of Destiny from the other side of that fence; it’s time to give Destiny another shot, to see if the rough gem is worth the stumbling and the splinters.