SPOILER WARNING: This article will be discussing story mission content within the Destiny House of Wolves expansion.
It is pretty widely accepted at this stage that the story to Destiny is poorly told. There’s certainly plenty of interesting lore, but it requires the player to log on to a website and sift through an assortment of cards in order to absorb anything. As the player navigates the plot and discovers new corners of the world, Peter Dinklage casually drops seemingly important names or frighteningly recalls horrific creatures without providing context as to why they matter. No one explains to the player what sets one House of the Vandals apart from another, or precisely what The Black Garden on Mars truly is. If you want to learn about this setting, you have to do it away from the game. That is, after you’ve unlocked it by spending hours in that game world, by which point the player may no longer care.
I am lead to believe that Bungie has held a philosophy that the player should always be able to jump into the game as quickly as possible. With the exception of load times and the odd unskippable cut-scene here and there, the player is rarely rescinded control of their character. Select a location, check your smart phone during the load screen, and then drop right into the game world. This is the standard formula of Destiny, and completely necessary due to how often it is asking you replay old missions.
In terms of raw mechanical gameplay experience, this is effective. Many players are replaying missions daily for the sake of rewards. If each mission had cut-scenes, then the flow of gameplay would be interrupted. Even if you could skip said scenes, it would delay the player’s ability to jump right into the mission by a few seconds. It may not seem like much, but having to skip cut-scenes every time you do a daily soon becomes a reason to avoid these missions. You don’t want to punish the veteran player for something that only has value the first time through.
So where does this leave Bungie in regards to lore and story-telling? The first option is to include an in-game library containing these documents that the player can peruse any time. For as large as the Tower is, it actually has very little content. It is populated with characters, but you only really interact with them as a customer to a vendor. No matter what role the character has in lore, at most they are just a shopkeep, and many of them rather redundant or pointless depending on your play style.
This means that Bungie paid good money to have Nathan Fillion come in and essentially voice a merchant, or a quest giver. His character has an entire history and back story, but there’s no option to really speak with him about it. Just a handful lines of dialogue that are uttered after purchasing some new armor. The Tower could allow the player to speak with plenty of NPC’s that detail all kinds of history to the setting, and perhaps even change what they say or how they behave throughout the year. Create in-game holidays, such as celebrations of victories won or memorials to those lost. Fill the Speaker’s atrium with a library of information recorded for the sake of future generations, information to serve as a primer to all the setting.
The Tower offers none of this. It is merely a large environment with very little in it. Both a waste of space and time to traverse, if anything it goes against the perceived design philosophy to get the player into the game with as little interference as possible.
This leads to improved narrative during gameplay, which finally leads me to House of Wolves. From the introduction to the Red Queen’s assistant Petra it becomes clear that Bungie put extra effort in the writing and direction of characters within this latest expansion. Petra is much more emotive than your Ghost companion, so much so that she comes off as being a bit over-the-top at times. Even her character animation on the vendor screen displays a bit more of an adventurous, carefree attitude as she flips a dagger in the air.
Most importantly is the visible presence of Skolas, the primary antagonist within the subplot that is House of Wolves. Once a prisoner of the Red Queen, he and his clan escape to try and unite all the clans. One of the reasons his goals are much more clear is because the player has some familiarity with each environment they tread. They know they’re approaching a Vandal clan in one level, and they are aware they’re fighting a separate clan in a different level. In addition to Petra’s narration, the familiarity with the game world makes it clear to the player what Skolas is doing: trying to unite the Vandal clans beneath his banner.
This familiarity is what the player lacked during their initial run through Destiny, when so many names were being dropped with little reason for the player to care. Even after reading Grimoire cards there’s just not enough information or repetition to sink into the player’s memory. Details will be vague instead, and only discovered after the player has discovered said race, location, or character. I wonder how many players have gone through the Vault of Glass raid without reading its Grimoire card? How many even know the significance of the raid or the events that occur within?
With this familiarity and Petra’s more emotive narration, I was capable of following along with the overall story of House of Wolves towards its finale. His plan to unite all of the Vandal Houses together a failure, Skolas instead attacks the Vex and steals some of their time travelling technology from the Vault of Glass. The climax of the expansion’s primary missions has them facing off not just Skolas’ House of Wolves, but Fallen of the House from across space and time, future and past.
The implications of Skolas’ new power are as exciting as they are intimidating. The scales in power could tip into the favor of the Wolves, not only providing the Fallen an advantage over all other foes, but to create a united Fallen force. Skolas’ behavior in the expansion suggests that the Houses may be working independently towards one goal, an independence that could bring about a civil war similarly to that seen in the final acts of Halo 2. This is the sort of event that would effect all factions within and surrounding Earth and the Traveller. For the first time within all of Destiny, the story feels as if it could go somewhere meaningful.
Until the mission end, that is. The player defeats Skolas, and he is sent back into the Prison of Elders. Captive once more, the House of Wolves are nothing more than fodder for adventurers to repeatedly kill in hopes of rewards to gain brand new gear. A continual grind to prepare for the next expansion, and then the expansion after that.
If I am disappointed in House of Wolves, it is because it has shined a light on the flaw of Destiny. No matter what the lore or story is, Bungie will be unable to create truly meaningful events that have an impact on the world. Imagine if the expansion concluded with the House of Wolves feuding with the other houses. Earth, the Moon and Venus would suddenly be battlegrounds of Fallen against Fallen, or perhaps certain Houses would dominate certain territories. Even if the final mission was to free the Vex technology from Skolas’ hands, he would now have a greater strength in numbers. Imagine a fight back against the Reef for vengeance.
This is all exciting for veteran players, but anyone picking up and starting a new character in Destiny would either be at a loss or populating a completely separate instance of the world. This is a game that relies on player interaction out in the wilderness, participating in public events together. Once that overworld content is targeted towards Veteran players, it pushes newer or lower-level players at an even greater disadvantage as well as creating some narrative inconsistencies. The best solution would be to put new players in a “pre-House” instance, would it not?
Unless there’s a constant stream of new players coming in, then that instance will always have a small population. While in some ways this could help the atmosphere of a deserted planet with few capable warriors, it will also increase the difficulty of public events. Perhaps experienced players in the inexperienced players’ fire team will be able to dive into that instance, but it will always be creating a narrative disconnect, as well as forcing experienced players to progress through easy and old content.
In order to have a new story that pushes the setting forward, Bungie must either inconvenience newer players or fracture the playerbase. Either way, the experience is less than ideal for new players, and could even drive them away before reaching the post-game content, which is where I’ve already stated the game really begins.
There is, of course, a third option. Move the setting forward in Destiny 2, with an all new story, new worlds, and all players being “reset back to zero”. Which, in truth, wouldn’t be much different than fracturing your userbase, but instead of modifying existing content heavily you’re creating all new content.
On the whole I like the House of Wolves expansion well enough, but as much as I love the gameplay to Destiny it also made clear the obvious grind I will have to go through with each expansion, and all for little thematic reward. In addition, each expansion will just release new gear and tools that will make it easier to boost my light level, making any work grinding now feel all the more worthless.
Finally, months after everyone else, I’ve found the disappointment within Destiny.