Destiny is a lot like dancing

Opinion
3 months ago by Steven Strom

Bungie's loot shooter MMO has a rhythm and motion which take time to truly appreciate.

For all its faults, Destiny has rhythm. When people -- like me, for instance -- pick up the torch to defend Bungie's infamously repetitive loot shooter, you can be sure we'll mention just how "good" its shooting feels. But more than just the arc of grenades and bullets, motion has always been the foundation beneath my obsession with a game that is otherwise often pretty mediocre.

Now that Destiny 2 crests the horizon, and the original game which ate up hundreds of hours of my life is finally on the way out, it's a good time to reflect and give Destiny's rhythm of trust, movement, and execution its due.

Destiny's successful core loop is mostly thanks, not surprisingly, to the game's Raids. If shooting is every Destiny defender's opening salvo, then the Raids are our cavalry charge. The game's complicated endgame missions are easiest recommendation-- and also its hardest sell. They're gated behind Bungie's arcane "Light Level" progression which, even from the beginning, requires obsessive grinding for randomly dropped gear. If you got into Destiny after the charmingly broken "loot cave" was patched out of reality, that means dozens of hours spent playing the same sparse dungeons and story missions for the chance at getting what you need.

If you haven't seen the Raid-shaped treasure at the end of the grinding rainbow, they might sound like a lot more of the same: repeating a single mission, ad infinitum, in hopes of attaining a particular breastplate or cape needed to move a single number. And it is the same, in theory. But taken as a whole, Destiny's Raids provide something the game's lower-impact trials don't: the explicit need for cooperation.

The final phase of the game's first Raid, for instance, automatically splits your mandatory group of six players into sub-teams. These squads are separated and forced into timed shooting galleries. If even a single player can't keep their bearings, the whole team dies in a flash of color. Then the machine resets. The contestants get back into position, and the whole thing starts over until every human cog finds its place.

When we use the word "repetition" in relation to Destiny, it's usually to reference the game's thin mission roster. But here it means practice. It's rote memorization that leads to the ultimately satisfying synchronicity of a successful Raid.

And for as much as Raids stand out as Destiny's best feature, that same work ethic pervades everywhere else in the game. It's committed to teaching you its particular rhythm and patience. Strikes -- low-stakes cooperative dungeons -- take more than just a taut trigger finger to overcome. When Strike bosses (or any opponent, really, but bullet spongy Strike bosses are a prime example) take too long to stand and fight safely, Destiny becomes a dance of motion, as well as gunplay. You turn, crouch, step from side to side, and lunge -- all on a pseudo-improvised schedule dictated by your AI opponents and human allies. Your whole virtual body, such as it is, is part of the same twisting pattern.

That kind of action and reaction is divested from the game's repetitive levels. It's a kind of control you develop over your own existence in the game. A limited number of environments and enemies only restricts the number of steps you need to learn (and the hours it'll take to remember them).

That changes once you take those lessons you learned back into Raids, of course, but not as much as you might think. The steps are different, thanks to hazards not directly like anything else in the shooter, but the primacy of self is still very much the same. After several hundred hours of falling with style -- and guns, and fists, and rocket launchers -- alone, Destiny trained me to always think about where I stand, where I look, where I move, and when I do it.

That's all anyone can say for themselves in any kind of dance. Even if you depend on, say, five other people to pull off the whole routine.

As a first-person shooter, Destiny is particularly good at engendering that kind of trust in your fellow performers. A tight field of view means, in the heat of an often time-sensitive Raid, no one player can ever keep the rest of their group in sight -- much less babysit their every move. Instead, nonverbal communication is key. If my teammates have the same aggressively gate-kept gear that I do, required to even enter a Raid, I can assume a shared understanding of how the game works. The rest is just knowing where to stand, learning how to trust, and hoping that my teammates' patterns are compatible with my own.

For all its repetition, Destiny has variance. A well-executed, rhythmic Raid is never quite the same achievement twice. Someone is always going to go left where someone else would go right. Someone is always going to jump over a stray shot where someone else would duck. Yet the thrill is in the connective tissue -- the compatibility between players working towards a goal successfully -- rather than the acts themselves. The shooting might be a Destiny apologist's best friend, but it's the hands, feet, and eyes behind the guns, as well as where I put them, that make me want to defend the game.