Spoiler alert for Destiny 2: Lightfall’s campaign.
The Destiny franchise is famous for starting out as a totally incomprehensible mess. The player wakes up with no memory, resurrected by a little robot guy that was Peter Dinklage for a little while, and you’ve got powers because the big ball in the sky says so, and hey here’s all these aliens trying to murder what’s left of humanity so you need to go shoot/incinerate/punch them, but the story makes no sense and the guide character doesn’t have time to explain why she doesn’t have time to explain, and Bungie, the developer behind this disaster, is damn lucky the game’s even more fun than Halo because otherwise it would’ve died quicker than me in the jumping puzzles.
But then, things got better. Expansions like The Taken King, Forsaken, and Witch Queen filled in those initial gaps while adding to the narrative constructively and coherently. Though there remained a lot of questions about the nature of the player’s powers, the structure of the universe, and the next big bad zipping toward earth, there was enough structure here to make those questions feel like mysteries rather than overlooked holes in the plot and the lore.
Enter Lightfall, the latest Destiny 2 expansion. Despite how much I enjoyed Witch Queen and its subsequent seasonal storytelling, I’ll admit I went into this one a bit worried. The evil Witness was coming to earth to confront the Traveler, the unknowable being/machine/ping pong ball that grants us our powers. So why the hell did the trailers show us putzing around in a previously hidden neon-stylized city all the way out on Neptune?
Because, of course, there was a MacGuffin to chase. See, the Witness confronted the Traveler to find the location of the Veil, which it apparently needs even though it can walk in outer space and slice people in twain with a flick of its wrist. We spend the ensuing six hours traipsing around Neptune, searching for this thing that’s so very, very important–but no one ever explains why. Turns out, in spite of the loud insistence of our supporting characters, no one actually knows what this thing is, why it’s important, or what happens if the Witness acquires it. That part’s a mystery, which will be revealed in a couple months.
In terms of narrative construction, that is certainly…a choice. I’d argue it’s on par with not resigning your franchise shortstop and then being surprised when your fanbase–which you know is full of half-drunk Massholes who drop F bombs like it’s breathing–decides that’s unacceptable.
Mysteries are nice. In Witch Queen, the mystery of how the villainous Hive acquired the Light was a compelling question that drove the plot forward and kept the player guessing. Those are the bad guys! And they got good guy powers! And they’re using those good guy powers against us? How in the world did that happen? But, wait…what does that say about the bad guys, and the source of our good guy powers, and our very status as the good guys to begin with. Holy fuck, that’s better than a medium Dunkin iced regular on a warm afternoon.
What’s going with the Veil, however, doesn’t work the same way, because we understand neither the rules nor the stakes. There are no expectations around this thing for the narrative to challenge or subvert. We need it, because otherwise Something Bad Will Happen, but without understanding exactly what that Something is, we can’t decide how badly we want to stop it. It’s not the equivalent of the baddest bad guys we’ve been shooting in the face for a decade now suddenly being on par with our abilities; it’s just another point on the map.
To make matters worse, when we eventually do fail, tricked as we are into helping the Witness forge a connection to the Veil, the end result of that action is left vague. Many different characters use many different words to describe the state of the Traveler after the Witness attacks it. None of those words are good, but because they’re so inconsistent, and because the general state of the world hasn’t changed much otherwise, it is unclear exactly how fucked we might be. Just a little, like your mom on a Tuesday night? Totally and completely, like my rapidly disappearing hair? There’s no way to know, which means there’s no way to determine how much we should care, and so we just…don’t.
I do think Bungie can dig themselves out of this narrative hole, but they never should’ve had to bust out the shovel to begin with. If you can’t write a good story about sending players to Neptune, maybe just don’t send the players to fucking Neptune. It smells a bit like someone fell in love with the idea of chasing down something special in a neon city and just forced it right in there. I’ve seen writers do that plenty; it never goes well.
But we do have a whole year of seasonal content ahead of us before the next expansion, so I guess we’ll see.