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The Dichotomy of Destiny
Last night, I logged into Destiny, excited to play through the game’s hardest content with the hope of acquiring some of the game’s legendary gear. As my team and I struggled our way through the game’s newest raid, we made sure to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. However, when we finally reached the raid’s end boss, the atmosphere quickly changed from casual to tense, as we did battle not only with our assigned enemy, but also the game’s frequent glitches. An epic battle with swelling orchestral music became an exercise in frustration, as the boss refused to die, despite his health reaching zero. After several more attempts, my team became so exhausted by the experience that we decided to take a break and try again later. And yet, as I sat at Destiny’s title screen, I wanted to go back, to try beating the boss one more time. Why did I feel this way? Why, after so much frustration, did I want to subject myself to that experience again? These are questions that millions of gamers continue to ask themselves the more they play the game.
It is no secret that Bungie’s latest foray into the FPS genre, Destiny, failed to live up to expectations and was one of 2014’s biggest disappointments. Even those who have never played the game can describe its many flaws and are eager to expose the game’s shortcomings. I myself often get asked by my fellow gamers why I continue to play this overhyped, incomplete title. Indeed, why do millions of people continue to shoot aliens in the head when they know it is all the game offers? These questions expose the heart of what Bungie’s sci-fi epic has become; a living, breathing dichotomy of excellent gameplay and repetitive content, of an addictive drive for loot and an exploitative RNG system, of capable social features within a system that frequently discourages social communication. Yes, Destiny is a walking contradiction of concept and execution, where every positive idea is negated by flawed design. And yet, so many gamers insist on endlessly skewering themselves on this double-edged sword. Perhaps it is the very dichotomy itself that keeps us coming back for more.
Other than the non-existence of a coherent narrative (parodied hilariously in CultureShockNetwork’s video below), Destiny’s most obvious flaw that would seem to alienate players is its lack of diverse content. Even including the recent Dark Below expansion, dedicated players can run through the game’s entire gamut in less than two weeks. Although the content is fun, there simply isn’t enough of it. I have run through the game’s six strikes (eight on PlayStation) innumerable times, to the point where I am now able to flick on my internal autopilot and let it do all the work. The strikes themselves are designed with little variety, as each mission generally follows the same pattern: run here, shoot some aliens, run here, kill a boss. The game also encourages players to complete daily missions and bounties, or special challenges that reward experience. Unfortunately, there are only so many of these missions and bounties to complete and, similar to the strikes, a sense of being on autopilot pervades the experience. Yet, despite this endless sense of déjà vu, millions of players keep tuning in to replay the same content for one simple reason: gameplay.
To even the most cynical players, Destiny’s most immediately apparent strength is its addictive gameplay. Bungie are masters of game design and the finer elements of the first-person shooter genre, as evidenced by their extraordinary work on the Halo franchise, and that mastery is on full display here. When you fire one of the many weapons in Destiny, you feel an inherent sense of satisfaction, as if the controller itself becomes the weapon in your hand. There is a common phrase among players that has come to define the conversation around Destiny’s gameplay: “It is simply a lot of fun to shoot aliens in the head.” Nothing beats the unique pleasure of watching an alien’s head explode, knowing it was your bullet and your skill that made it so. However, the gameplay truly shines when you team up with five friends to tackle the game’s most challenging content, the raids. Containing some of the most innovative game design ever seen in an FPS, Destiny’s two raids combine the addictive gameplay with unique puzzles and obstacles that can only be overcome through communication, skill, and teamwork. Indeed, raids are the pinnacle experience in Destiny, offering players the opportunity to engage with the game’s immensely satisfying combat and to form bonds with total strangers. Thus, while Destiny suffers from a severe lack of content, its successful gameplay design is more than enough to keep players coming back for more.
Another aspect of Destiny that falls victim to its contradictory nature is the game’s social features. Bungie’s vision for the game, what they called a “shared-world shooter,” was for players to be able to enjoy the game together, interacting with each other as they gunned down alien hordes. Yet, the game suffers from a surprising lack of communicative and organizational features. Matchmaking is still not available for the game’s more challenging content, forcing players to endlessly peruse the internet, hoping to find someone willing to assist them. Private matches do not exist for the Crucible, the game’s PvP arena, preventing groups of friends from hosting personal battles with each other. And proximity chat, a feature considered fundamental to a social game is nonexistent, forcing players to use WoW-style emoticons to convey complex messages to strangers. For a shared world shooter, Destiny frequently encourages its players not to share their experiences with others.
And yet, to a larger extent, Bungie actually succeeds in their shared-world vision. While it is not the fully-fledged MMO experience many were hoping for, there are still plenty of opportunities for players to engage with each other while playing the game. The Tower, the game’s central social hub where players gather to turn in missions and purchase new gear, serves as a simple, yet effective vehicle for social interaction. Random dance parties, impromptu soccer games, and creative platforming all occur with surprising regularity amongst players. Out in the wild, players can often be witnessed helping each other out, whether it be literally pointing someone in the right direction or bailing another player out of a tense firefight. I myself have spent countless hours traveling around the planets of Destiny with a dedicated community of like-minded gamers, joking about popular culture while shooting aliens in the head. And the aforementioned emoticons serve the necessary and often hilarious function of basic communication. Just the other day, I was engaged in a heated multiplayer battle when suddenly my team dropped from the game and left me to fend for myself. However, rather than endlessly murdering me for a quick victory, the other team began to dance and wave at me, and the entire match turned into one hilarious social affair. Indeed, while Bungie did not succeed in transitioning the MMO from PCs to consoles, the social features that do exist in the game are enough to make the constant grind seem a bit more bearable.
Arguably, the most striking example of Destiny’s dichotomy is found in its exploitative, yet addictive loot system. Destiny relies on an RNG (random-number generated) system to distribute gear to players; in simple terms, this means that the loot players receive from completing an activity is completely random. While many MMOs employ this particular form of loot delivery, it can be especially frustrating in Destiny, given the game’s aforementioned lack of diverse content. The flaws of the RNG system are readily apparent when playing through the game’s more challenging content. It is incredibly demoralizing to complete one of the aforementioned raids in the game only to receive a piece of gear you already have. Indeed, most of the time players spend in the game is devoted to running the same content over and over again with the hope of attaining that next special something. Every time I look at and use my Vex Mythoclast (at one point, the game’s most powerful weapon), I remember the immense frustration I had to endure to receive it. And yet, I also admire its beauty and power and recall how ecstatic I was to finally receive it. Herein lies another fundamental reason why people continue to play Destiny: the drive for that cool, new toy is as addictive as ever.
In addition to its sound gameplay mechanics, the game’s other core staying factor is the player’s endless drive for loot, most of which is worth acquiring. (Key word “most.”) Despite my aforementioned frustrations, I can still remember literally screaming for joy when I finally received my Vex Mythoclast from defeating an incredibly difficult boss under challenging circumstances. The sheer satisfaction of earning this powerful exotic weapon was something I had never really felt in a game before. This personal experience is at the center of why millions of players continue to log into the game on a daily basis. The promise of fancy new gear and powerful new weapons makes the often tedious grind worth the effort. Thus, despite the many ways that he plays with our emotions, we continue to pray to RNGesus on a daily basis, hoping to have our endless thirst for new toys temporarily quenched.
Ultimately, Destiny must be doing something right if millions of gamers still log in to play it on a daily basis. Although it suffers in a number of key departments and often feels like an unfortunate missed opportunity, its core gameplay is strong, its social features are satisfactory, and the drive for loot is as addictive as ever. It was not the game we were hoping for, but Bungie’s sci-fi vision contains enough compelling features to make its player base hopeful for the future of the franchise. The next time someone asks me why I still play Destiny, I will simply show them how fun it is to shoot aliens in the head.