Welcome to the second installment of our Game In Progress review for Destiny 2. Over the next several weeks, internet culture editor Clayton Purdom will be shooting his way through Bungie’s massive sequel and sharing his impressions. As always, we invite you to play and comment along as he makes his way toward the intergalactic terror known as Ghaul and, more importantly, stacks of fat loot.
I have a confession to make that, depending on where you stand, may invalidate everything I’ve ever written about Destiny: I’ve never completed a raid. The sprawling, six-player levels are universally held as the most daring, triumphant game design in the series, odysseys of expressive architecture filled with secrets, puzzles, risks, and awe-inspiring spectacle. Bungie has long held that getting six people together to tackle them creates a shared sense of investment that’s necessary to stop people from quitting halfway through, or trolling, or tearing-ass off on their own, which truly makes sense if you’ve ever played a video game online. The stereotype of gamer toxicity has never been arguable; just look at the ease with which Pewdiepie shouted the N-word on camera recently. The history of online games has been one of rolling back social interactions. In early Halo games, for example, you could hear every word that every other player said. Over time, this turned to selective voice chat, then opt-in voice, then carefully created emotes.
Today, you generally play video games online not with people but with mute avatars pantomiming various pre-approved memes and dances. And this is only, really, in competitive play, where players’ natural antagonism toward each other forces them to at least play the game correctly, in general. Cooperative modes, like the strikes in Destiny, are still rife with trolling, show-offs, and mid-match quitters; Bungie’s solution is to simply replace those players and to nudge people along checkpoints, as well as to make the game more of a funhouse ride than an obstacle course, with the exception of the bosses. Still, none of these smoothing tactics would work for the dense, day-long raids, which require a full team (no less than six!) with voice chat, teamwork, and carefully coordinated character builds. And so rather than attempt to fix the problem, Bungie said: You figure it out. Find five people you trust, or don’t play it.
I never did, despite always soaring up to the appropriate light level to do so. The result was a sort of existential despair. I soloed a chunk of one once, and it was both arduous and deeply depressing, like cooking a family-size meal and then throwing most of it away. Despite probably a dozen good friends who play Destiny regularly, some of whom even own headsets and play alongside me occasionally, the notion of getting six people to put aside a long evening or full weekend day has proven impossible over the years. Board games require something similar, but at least have the shared destination and feel of an event; this would just be six people with headsets on, occupying their TVs for a night or longer, regularly. Devoted parties could go outside Destiny’s platform, finding groups on Reddit or the various “looking for group” services, but these still suffer from many of the problems of normal matchmaking and an inherent contradiction for an investment this huge: There’s a real intimacy to something like this. It’s less like sharing a ride somewhere with strangers than it is going on a camping trip with them.
Given the general interactions I’ve had online over the years, I never leapt at the opportunity. They’d probably make fun of my helmet or something, or hate me for throwing a grenade at the wrong time. For all its masterful refinements, Destiny 2 still hits this brick wall when it demands you assemble a fireteam for these end-game activities. The sinuous arc from the campaign (which is a lovely tutorial) up into the colorful, engaging mid-game level-grind comprises a couple dozen hours of dazzlingly conceived sci-fi shooting. The ugly assertiveness of the first game has been replaced entirely by a gradually growing investment in the world, a fond familiarity that develops with its water-logged ruins and sprawling, strobe-lit auditoriums. But all roads eventually lead toward this high-level social play (clans, Trials Of The Nine, Nightfalls, the raids), and it’s an awkward jump in investment. Anecdotally, at least, I can say that it doesn’t work. Clans are easy enough to find your way into, but many of my friends still haven’t. If you lurk on Reddit, you can grab one, but the interactions therein will be base grabs for loot rather than the meaningful friendships Destiny intends you to make in-game.
The truth is that, while much has been made of Destiny’s fusion of the first-person shooter with the MMO, as an MMO, it’s woefully lacking in meaningful social interaction. Without building this in, the leap they expect you to make comes incongruously. There’s no economy to participate in, no plots to launch against other groups. You can’t help a friend out in a pinch or ruin an enemy’s day. Instead, the competitive play leads to extremely difficult competitive play; the cooperative play leads to extremely difficult cooperative play. Its social hubs contain no actual social activity, but rather dozens of sometimes-translucent avatars sprinting about their various errands. Tucked into one of the hallways is a little robot quietly sweeping I’ve become pretty fond of, and I’ve had more fun hanging out with him than any of the Guardians running about. The game is less a social platform than it is a beautifully designed argument in favor of being antisocial. (And the less said about its impossible-to-use companion app, the better.)
Destiny 2 ultimately demands that you either be the type of person who has a regularly scheduled gaming clan or that you somehow turn into one. Console shooters are generally the dominion of the more casual video game player, and as such, the game does nothing less than invite those casual fans in, sit them down with some snacks, and pleasantly begin a PowerPoint presentation on why they should be playing video games much, much more than they currently are. It’s a sumptuously good-looking and -sounding game, and its reward system scales up as masterfully as could be imagined—up until the moment when the road gives way and Bungie just crosses its fingers and hopes that you have enough momentum to land safely in hardcore gamer-dom on the other side. The gulf between those two experiences is yawning, and it’s worth imagining what they’d look like if they were made to resemble each other more. As someone who has slogged through countless JRPGs, I’d be happy to continue grinding solo in increasingly bizarre locales for a few more dozen hours. On the other hand, if they truly want this to be a clan-based MMO, it lacks the meaningful, messy interactions that lead to a real in-game culture. You can’t demand the sociality of clans and six-man raids without including the tools for griefing, trolling, and game-breaking. What passes as Destiny’s culture is so homogenized and streamlined it’s like calling a shopping mall a sculpture.
My resolution isn’t to look toward what Destiny isn’t, or what it might eventually be, but what it is. For now, I’m setting my sights on landing on the other side of this thing, seeing its mechanical arc through to its decidedly social conclusion. Destiny 2’s attempt at a smoother transition, called “guided games,” is currently in beta, and it’ll allow unaffiliated players to pair up with clans and more experienced groups so they can tackle these endgame activities. It’s not the endgame I want, but it’s the one I have. Let’s see what this raid thing’s all about.