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Why the Internet is Full of $#!t About Destiny’s Story

Destiny-Logo-XBox-One-PS4Like many of you, I’ve been playing Destiny. I’ve mostly retired from playing AAA video games for a number of reasons documented here at NHS and elsewhere, but a new game from the creators of Halo was compelling enough to get me to go to Gamestop- for the midnight release, no less- to pick up a copy of this big-budget blockbuster. Because Bungie understands video games better than many other developers. They understand play, and the Halo games have always excelled at providing players with lots of ways to engage their content. Their mechanics are impeccable and their games are thankfully free of the kinds of negative, hateful “let the bodies hit the floor” style violence so common in other popular action games.

But one thing Bungie has never been good at is telling a story.

Let’s face it, if you were over the age of 18 or so when the first Halo came out then you’re old enough to realize that the success of Bungie’s world-building and lore-crafting has more to do with their James Cameron-like sense of military detail and production design grounded in practicality. The actual writing, the dialogue that spills out of the mouths of Master Chief, Cortana and…that other guy…is atrocious. The plotting is nebulous at best, nonsensical and incoherent at worst. Dialogue is mostly of the sort that sounds really awesome when you’re 15. Tropes flood the games, watering down the most successful parts of the story- there is a mega-weapon called the Halo. Aliens shoot at you unless you shoot them first.

Coming back to Destiny, one of the common complaints that discussion forums and comments are neck-deep in this week is that the Destiny story “sucks” or is practically non-existence. There is a sense of disappointment that there’s no Master Chief-like character to anchor the action. Folks are upset that there isn’t more of a sense of world-crafting or specific narrative upon which to hang all of the alien-shooting.

At first, I’ll admit I felt that too, that it was missing a narrative binding to hold together the outstanding, finely tuned gameplay. But then I realized after a few hours that not only was I thankful that Bungie abandoned both their own storytelling techniques from last generation, but also the faux-Hollywood methods that have poisoned AAA game development by shoving gameplay to the back of the bus in favor of non-interactive spectacle.

Instead, it seems that Bungie took a cue from the Souls game rather than The Last of Us. The story of Destiny is effectively told in two pieces. One piece, the most important one, is in what you as a player do with your character over the course of the game. The weapons, missions, social connections, discoveries and events are the story. It’s not told in non-interactive cut-scenes. It’s not told in a vast, open world filled with NPCs spouting canned sentences.

But the other piece of the Destiny story is the more interesting one. Bungie has opted to do something that is almost never popular with the proletariat. They decided to create the world, the story of Destiny almost entirely through vague suggestion, imagery and wilful exclusion of detail.

Even if you’ve just played the alpha or beta, you can see this in the Russian area of the game. You know about the Traveller, some vague suggestions that it has some kind of function similar to the Monolith in 2001. There’s a couple of different alien species that have sort of waylaid humanity’s expansion into space. There’s a mysterious power called “the Light”. And then the Guardians, sort of ranger-warriors fighting to preserve what’s left of humanity.

It’s clear when you first walk out into post-Collapse Russia that something went down. There doesn’t need to be any more detail than what is shown. You see downed, ancient jet fighters and tanks. There’s that amazing vista of the Cosmodome, its launch pad prepped for launch but in a state of arrested function. Do you really want there to be a cut scene that shows you exactly what happened, or would you rather engage your imagination and wonder?

There are, of course, some minor details supplied by Peter Dinklage’s much-maligned, disaffected line readings. There are bits of background story amorphously suggested here and there- the names of guns, systems of nomenclature, allusions to organization and culture. But the vast majority of what happened and is happening is implied, not enumerated. I think this was a brilliant decision, and one that is already divisive. They went gameplay first in it, but they took a much more sophisticated approach to world-building and storytelling than I expected.

Destiny, in a lot of ways, shows how Bungie is very much trying to sort out what exactly a next generation FPS game looks like. It’s a highly studied, carefully constructed game that draws from a number of trends in game design from the past several years. It’s surprisingly experimental for a game with a gazillion dollar budget, but it plays it very safe in terms of actual gameplay. Yet they’re skirting close to (and actively) antagonizing gamers by witholding “lore” details.

I applaud Bungie for taking a big chance by jettisoning the weakest part of the Halo formula. I’m really quite stunned that they dared to dare players to use their imaginations, to tell their own story through gameplay rather than by parading didactic fake cinema across the screen and calling it a “game”. Once again, the internet dogpile mob has demonstrated that it can’t be trusted when it comes to opinions and analysis about video games.

The Quiet Year Review

Quiet Year cover

The world is full of things that should not work, but somehow do: pineapple on Pizza, or mixing opera and hip-hop, or making jokes about death. Some examples are personal, others largely universal. And to that last list we can now add a game called The Quiet Year.

The Quiet Year calls itself a map-making game, but it isn’t really, even though you do make a map as you play it. A lot of people seem to refer to it as a role-playing game but it isn’t that either, since it actively discourages you from the minutiae of its character’s lives. It’s one of a small but growing group of storytelling games, where a simple structure is used to explore the player’s imaginations.

All games share the same basic setting: a year in the life of a small post-apocalyptic community. They’ve just survived one war and at some point in the next twelve months another will begin, ending the game. What happens in between is up to you, a deck of playing cards, and some pencils and paper.

The setting is left deliberately light on detail. At the beginning the players collaborate to chose a physical setting for their community and flesh it out with a few key details. Some wooden huts, for instance, built near a poisoned lake in a forest clearing, short on food. These details are drawn on paper to begin the map that will be the focus of the game. What ended modern civilisation is not explained, nor is the founding of the community or the nature of the conflicts that shape its past and future.

This lack of detail feels very strange at first. With such a minimal framework, players start out grasping for foundations on which to build their tale. Plentiful examples in the short rulebook help a bit, but the whole thing is just too overwhelmingly strange. Not to mention the social awkwardness associated with telling a collaborative tale, not wanting to speak out with a bad idea, or accidentally choosing a wrong narrative turn and annoying your peers.

To try and combat this, the game then proceeds with players taking highly structured individual turns. First they take a card, look up its meaning in the rulebook, and choose one of two options listed to resolve. For example the six of diamonds says that outsiders arrive in the area, and asks that player to decide either why they are a threat, or how they are greeted.

It’s these cards that are the heart and soul of what makes the game work. The designer is clearly some sort of terrifying psychic. Or possibly he spent a very long time refining the choices on them to make sure they were likely to mould in to the evolving nature of the story. Either way, it’s the cards that suddenly provide the missing pieces of structure that the players need to work with.

And they’ll grasp on to those structures like they’re drowning in the limitless seas of their own imaginations. Grasp the structures, haul their bodies up onto the land and start to build. What began as awkward, hesitant suggestions will become stronger, more confident, start to interweave with one another into a coherent whole.

And this is where the cards reveal their majesty. The first few times you play the manner in which the questions and choices they pose will mirror things you’ve already mentioned in your fragile narrative threads and help you explore and strengthen them defies belief. I guess there are things about a post-apocalyptic community that are more likely to come up for discussion than others: finding food, avoiding predators, other survivors. But it still feels just a little bit like magic.

Quiet Year map

Once they’re decided on the effects of the card, the player then gets to choose from introducing a new thing to the map, starting a discussion about something that affects the community, or beginning a project, the progress of which is tracked by counting down a dice.

Through both card and action, the active player is totally in control: they decide how the card is interpreted and how their chosen action impacts the game. Discussion isn’t forbidden, but the clear intent is to keep it limited, leave the active player in charge and thus keep the game moving along. Other players can signal dissatisfaction or disagreement with the active player by taking something called Contempt Tokens.

The purpose of these tokens is simply to remember disagreements. They’re an interesting idea: there are curious social dynamics around accruing too many, or indeed too few of them which can start to leak into the game. They can be put back into the pool if someone feels the Contempt has been atoned for, or spent to allow a player to make a deliberately selfish decision.

But they’re the one thing in the game that doesn’t seem to work very well. Players are generally more interested in collaborating to make a compelling story to have serious disagreement or indeed to spend their Contempt to do nasty things to the community. There’s a shared goal to move things forward and that makes major disagreement rare. Or maybe I just played it with polite people.

Eventually the cards begin to dwindle and at some point, late in proceedings, the Frost Shepherds arrive and end the game. Their nature is left as obscure as everything else in the metagame, for the players to explore and decide themselves. As you do so, you’ll realise that you’ve told a tale of extraordinary richness, full of detail and wonder and drama. And you’ll wonder how those bare-bones mechanics helped your group fill in so many of the blanks you started out with.

There will still be blanks at the end. The sudden conclusion will undoubtedly leave many unresolved crises, unexplained mysteries and unexplored areas. But then again, so do most of the best stories. It’s disappointing, but strangely satisfying. And you’re left with a filled map to remember your exploits.

You can play the game with minimal household equipment. Buy a rules pdf, stick it on your smartphone and you can play it anywhere. Alternatively there’s a properly produced version with text on the cards and spiky contempt tokens in a little bag. The designer takes seriously the idea that his games should bring people together: if you want to buy The Quiet Year, or another one of his games, you can pay for it with good deeds.

I like this game a lot. I like the way it helps people pull the gossamer threads of a story they never knew existed out of thin air with minimal effort. It’s easier to pick up and play than trendy storytelling RPGs like Fiasco. But it’s not for everyone. Many of those I played it with were hardcore board gamers, most were quite suspicious of such an open ended game and some remained so after playing. But others joined the flow and watched their minds blossom into strange and wonderful shapes. Take a Quiet Year to yourself, and find out where it takes you.