I talk about video games a lot on this blog, because I love them and play a lot of them. I also write about storytelling because it’s kinda my thing. Now, there’s a lot to say about video game narrative, which, honestly, can apply to narrative in general. Games are special because narrative — or even story of any sort — isn’t necessary for a good game (See: Pacman, or better yet,Pong).
But, contrary to what game designers like Jonathan Blow think, games can tell excellent stories. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an emotional story that rivals great film and has found its way into many of my papers for school. Bungie too has told great stories through the Halo games. No, they may not on the same level as The Last of Us, but the original trilogy did tell a solid story, ODSThad great characters, and Reach was genuinely sad at times. All of these games are very linear and have a very traditional narrative. Which is great.
Destiny, on the other hand, is very loosely linear. There are story missions for you to do, but there’s no urgency with which you have to do them, and thus you can spend plenty of time exploring the world at large and taking on side missions. Story information itself is dispersed through the occasional story-focused cutscene and through bits of dialogue with your companion, the AI Ghost. This all to say, there’s very little in the way of explicit storytelling.
The game’s gotten a lot of flak for this. Here’s this grand expansive world with hints of incredible backstory, but where’s the actual story? Where’s the character development? Where’re the big arcs and twists? The story, apparently, feels too nebulous to be worthwhile. Granted, the gameplay more than makes up for it, but the way its critics see it, a weak story is Destiny’s greatest flaw.
But Destiny’s story isn’t weak, it’s open. Modern Warfare 2 had a woefully weak story, with underdeveloped characters and a plot that made very little sense. Sure, it was spelled out for you, but there really wasn’t much there. See, a lot of Destiny is conveyed through spatial and environmental storytelling. The very world of Destiny: the ancient ruins on Venus, the decaying colony on the Moon, the colonyships in Old Russia’s Cosmodrome; they all harken to something older and greater than what we see now. Mentions of the fall, of the Hive taking over the Moon, all this hint at something big. This is what Destiny does: the incredible world building does much of the heavy narrative lifting. Those scraps of story which, combined with the Grimoire accessed online or through the companion app, paint a great world for the player to inhabit. In there you go on these missions and carry out the main story, with lots of empty spaces in between.
These empty spaces is where you come in. Destiny wants you to use your imagination. There’s so much empty space in the story it’s easy to fill it up with your own ideas as to what happened. It’s like playing with your toys again, where you’re given the character and a little bit of story and let lose to make up how it plays out. This is the strength of Destiny’s story: Your imagination. Yes, it’s drastically different from a lot of modern — or even adult — storytelling, but it’s this open-endedness that sets Destiny apart. Here the player is free to create their own story. The nature of fireteams, the backstory of your Guardian, even some of the relations between characters, it’s all up to you.
This is what I’m loving as I play through Destiny, the freedom to wander through the world. I’m still not yet done with the game (almost finished the last mission on Venus) due to not only real life commitments, but also plain getting distracted by every Patrol mission and Strike in Destiny. But unlike Assassin’s Creed 4 where spending hours sidetrack hurt the plot’s pacing and any emotional attachment; Destiny’s side-missions and even competitive multiplayer feel like an addition to the overall narrative arch. It’s as if Bungie’s opening up a big sandbox and inviting you to play.
For more on spatial and environmental storytelling, read Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture. If you have a PS3 and want to play Destiny with someone cool, let me know.