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The Story Mechanic Part Eighteen: Guessing Our Destiny

by on March 15, 2013
 

Some guys are too big to tackle on your own. Bungie are designing Destiny to be one of those games. It only seemed fitting that I talk to resident Bungie mega-fan Mick Fraser about Destiny, Bungie, Activision and the Next Big Thing in video games.

Mark Bridle: I want to be a positive person, but I don’t think that I am. Whenever I look back over previous columns, wallowing in my own brilliance, of course, I always think about how negative I am. Every column sees the bad side of things. As such, I am focussing on being more positive in this week’s The Story Mechanic. That’s why I want to talk with a fellow Bungie fan about the studio’s new game, Destiny. It must be easy to be positive about something that exciting, right?

I’ll answer that. No, it isn’t.

I’m scared, Mick. Real scared. The hype machine for Destiny clearly has the acceleration of an F1 car and I think it’s only reaching second gear.

I worry that Activision, with their mammoth investment, will be poking their nose in. I worry that Bungie think they have a formula for success and will retread old steps rather than break new ground (the ominous, magical circular thing in the sky isn’t exactly a great start). I also worry that this is the difficult second album to Halo and Bungie has proved it can struggle with second albums (Halo 2 was a bit stinky).

Most of all I worry about how they are going to make a Bungie-quality story work in a multiplayer environment. The previews sound exciting, but the challenges are numerous.

Can you sooth my nerves Mick? Or are you nervous too?

The Great Mick Fraser (hereafter known as simply ‘Mick’): Well, yes and no, Mark.

I don’t like to jump on hype trains as a general rule, but likewise I can’t bring myself to be cynical about any game I know so little about.

On the one hand, it’s Bungie. Having been a fan of Bungie since Marathon I’m inclined to put my faith in them again. BUT, it’s interesting that you use the term “Bungie-quality story”, as I’m not sure that such a thing exists. The original Halo, in my eyes, never lent itself to the trilogy it became; Halo 2 had a fairly awful story; Halo 3 did its best to fix the trilogy as a whole. Halo: Reach is essentially a Seven Samurai tale in new clothes. The core concept of their universe at war borrows heavily from other sources – as I’m sure Destiny will. So in that respect I’m not nervous, but I’m not expecting the backstory of Destiny and the universe of Destiny to be anything we haven’t seen elsewhere in some form or another.

So, to answer your question: No, I’m not nervous. I’m excited. Even at this early stage as we cross the first hyperbole minefields, I’m excited. I trust Bungie to deliver a universe that I WANT to game in, and I trust Activision to supply the resources and guidance for them to do so.

But maybe I’m being too trusting, Mark? Maybe I’m not cynical enough.

Mark: I knew it … I’m a misery.

It’s interesting that you picked me up on “bungie-quality” stories. You’re right, the guys at Bungie get a HUGE free pass, story-wise, because of the unquestionably brilliant twist in Halo 1. They proceeded to tie themselves in a whopping great knot over the next two games, but there wasn’t too much of a backlash as the multi-player side of the series increased in importance.

They have a monstrous challenge. Halo is beyond iconic. My hope is that they don’t try and re-create Halo, by which I mean play it safe and try and catch lightening in a bottle. In the same breath, I hope the pressure doesn’t manifest itself in the studio taking on too bigger challenge and not quite achieving its goals. For example, the explanations we have seen of the drop in, drop out raiding parties with different groups crossing paths with each other. Gameplay-wise, it sounds amazing. Story-wise, there are real problems.

I look at it with trepidation. The default position is that Bungie have the pedigree, but their story track record is mixed. What do you think?

Mick: I’d be inclined to agree. I’d suggest that Bungie need to be careful going forwards with Destiny. The fact is, it’s going to take a lot more than accomplished shooting and epic posturing to make a playable MMO.

Too much story and it won’t hold the interest of high-octane FPS fans; not enough story and it’ll be like a better looking Unreal Tournament. That might sound facetious, but the point I’m making is that striking the right balance is absolutely crucial to Bungie’s success with Destiny. Yes, they can make things go boom with the very best of them, but giving context to the booms is a different matter.

Taking it a step further, my biggest fear here is that Bungie rely on the aesthetic and the premise (not to mention the kind of ridiculously expensive marketing that an affiliation with Activision can bring) to blag another free pass. They are juggling a lot of balls here, and I’m as keen as you to see how they handle convergent narratives. Level -or quest- specific matchmaking and instanced dungeons will fight half the battle, but in a universe that will likely rely heavily on its setting to stand apart from established favourites like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, how will Bungie ensure that the uniqueness isn’t swallowed by bog-standard fetch and kill quests that do nothing but pad out the runtime and provide opportunities for grinding. I guess what I’m saying is that, as excited as I am for this game, I want to see something I have never, ever seen before, or it won’t be enough to take me away from what’s already available in the MMO market.

Mark: I knew I’d break you … Now you’re a cynic like me! I shouldn’t be allowed to speak with people who like games.

That’s a really good point, though. Bungie are trying to walk a line between two very different genres here, the FPS and MMO, and whilst games like Dust 541 and PlanetSide try and do that, they are adding a big X-factor with the proposed dense narrative layer.

I have got to say, however, that whether they can effectively integrate it or not, I like what I am seeing so far from the story assets. I’m fascinated with what The Traveller is and could be. I already know that, if this was just a single player game, I would happily sink many hours into finding out what that floating globe is. I was also really struck by the piece of concept art with the floating Fez level in it. That sort of thing could make for really interesting levels and really interesting lore. Having said that, the concept art for the enemies was less exciting, certainly compared with Halo.

What sort of stories do you think Bungie are going to try and tell in this new world? Big space opera? Or smaller, more intimate stories inside of the world? The comparison I’ve not seen made yet is with Destiny and ThatGameCompany’s Journey. The idea of random meetings, with people helping each other through sections, feels, on one level, quite like Journey. Could those be the stories that Bungie want to tell: Tales of fleeting friendship, of loss and struggle?

 

Mick: I really hope so, mate. I want this to be more than just a grinding, farming, questing MMO. We have enough of those. I want Destiny to be a game that focuses as much on the minutiae as on the broad strokes of epic, big-budget storytelling.

Imagine a world where your futuristic paladin is engaged on a mission to (forgive the pedestrian premise) transport an item from A to B, for example. You don’t know where to go, but then another player saunters by, temporarily matched to your world because he’s never completed this quest either, and instead of him simply guiding you, you have to work and learn together. I’m not sure matching players based on their progress in the world is even possible (perhaps for instanced areas it would work), but it would be an interesting deviation from the norm. You’d all experience events in this persistent world together and grow together.

Maybe I’m asking too much, but I’m hoping that Destiny feels personal to me. I don’t want to feel like just one of 9 million people doing the same things to achieve the same ends and cross the same milestones. I’d like to feel I’m making a difference in the world, that I’m affecting other players in significant ways that add to – not subtract from – their enjoyment.

Your mention of Journey gets my imagination whirring with the possibilities of a marriage between thatgamecompany’s unique mechanics and Bungie’s incredible visual storytelling. Journey feels personal – it’s your game, your world, yet you share it with others. If Destiny could achieve that but on the epic, sweeping scale that Bungie are famed for… Wow.

It’s all speculation of course, and we could end up with just another SWTOR but in FPS clothing – but I just don’t believe we will. The potential is there for Destiny to be a true game-changer, a mold-breaker, a genre definer, but is that even what people want? MMORPGs are already hugely popular. Is a deviation from formula a risk worth taking with a project of this magnitude? I, for one, truly hope so.

Mark: It’s a slight deviation from the story chatter but I like that there is a developer who is looking to redefine genres on the new consoles. That is what next-gen is all about, isn’t it? Pushing at the boundaries and doing new things.

The more I think about it, the more interested I am in those moments of overlap between players. Will there be a way for the game to recognise when you are playing with someone from your friends list, and then give you different dialogue than if you were paired with a stranger? That would be a powerful sense of agency. You can decide to go out and trust those strangers working in the wild, or play it safe with people that you know. Perhaps there could be different rewards for risking it with strangers. Maybe quests that unlock only if you play with strangers? The idea of bonding with someone else, both in a literal sense and mirrored by the action of the story, then moving through the game with them is exciting. Over time, that stranger might be added to your friends list which again, would change the game.

Mick: I’m interested to see what interests Bungie provide outside the questing and shooting. For me, some of the most compelling elements of an MMORPG are the non-gamey bits, fishing, cooking, crafting, foraging and performing seemingly mundane tasks for a slow but assured reward. Will Destiny feature a crafting system? A bartering system? I’m assuming that loot is involved in one incarnation or another – what will Bungie do here to convince me that the world of Destiny goes on living and breathing without me shooting things? How will you build relationships outside the camaraderie of battle? Will you be able to at all?

It comes back to the earlier point of how to balance the game between an FPS – typically fast-paced and light on story – and an MMORPG – typically the polar opposite. There’s a terrible danger inherent with a project like Destiny that right now, in these early stages where Activision and Bungie are trying their damned hardest to curry interest, it’s all hyperbole and wishcasting, and what we’ll eventually be left with is a massively multiplayer online shooter with added customisation and character progression. If that happens, Bungie will lose the confidence of the public – something I still believe was mostly earned on a wing and a prayer because the blockbuster spectacle of Halo blinded most gamers to the fact that the story hasn’t ever really been that original or compelling. In Halo, you follow the Chief (or, in the case of Reach, Noble 6 who’s basically a younger Chief, to all intents and purposes) and it’s his story and his place in the universe that creates interest, rather than the actual Good Vs. Evil, alien invasion plot. If Bungie can replicate how I feel about the Master Chief’s story but on a larger, multiplayer scale – and by that I mean that every single player is in the shoes of a character whose place in the world and personal narrative is as compelling as the Chief’s – then wow. Just wow.

For Destiny to really work for me, for it to capture more than just my imagination, it must push the boundaries of what we expect an MMORPG or a shooter to do. It’s got to be a marriage of ideals that creates a perfect equilibrium between satisfying, fast-paced and exciting blasting and that sense of place in a world that exists with or without you. As for The Traveller? Who knows how that will work. If the history of that strange dead sphere is the focal mystery in the overall narrative, it will come up short as soon as a loudmouth player reaches the end of the mystery and announces it to the world just for the sake of it, so to my mind The Traveller must be something that exists beside the narrative, perhaps the focus of worship, a talking point, but not the lynchpin of the all-encompassing plot.

Bungie have taken on so much, coming close to painting themselves into Molyneux’s Corner, but if I was going to trust a partnership to adequately join the MMORPG and FPS, I would put my money on Activision and Bungie.

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