A few ways Destiny 2 could still salvage its awful writing
Warning: there might be some very mild spoilers in here. But, honestly, I don’t think that’s going to matter much to most players.
For the last week, I’ve been really enjoying Destiny 2. (I realize it has been out for longer than that now; I’ve been very busy). I came to the original Destiny late, but found a game that I understood the hype behind, more or less. For all of the campaign’s flaws, and the myriad things Bungie had to fix along the way just to make the game function, Destiny made me feel like a part of something bigger. It also had some of the most fun gun mechanics in games, because Bungie are old pros at this point. I ignored the plot, though, as many had advised me to do, talking over cutscenes and using the downtime they offered to check out my newly acquired gear.
I’ve played more of Destiny 2 by myself this time, completing roughly half the currently available story content alone. The game’s more balanced for solo play this time around, and it makes each mission in its fairly slim campaign count as part of the story it is, I suppose, trying to tell. I like the campaign plenty as a series of set pieces; I enjoy being ushered from scene to scene, walked into new rooms full of Taken or Cabal. I dig Destiny 2’s take on the loot grind. I’m in. It’s great. You should play Destiny 2.
But let’s talk about the script for a moment, and the dialog the game’s characters deliver. It’s…bad. Not just perfunctory or serviceable in the way these big-budget action game scripts often are, but bad. Not consistently bad, necessarily, but the bits that suck really, truly suck. I say the script rather than the story because I think the generic structure of the game’s plot is basically fine – it’s just there to facilitate your good times – but I’m bothered by the dialog I continue to be subjected to.
The first warning happened early on when main villain Ghaul was interrogating The Speaker about the Traveler. Mid-conversation, Ghaul, who sits somewhere below the Resident Evil Nemesis and Gears of War’s General Raam on the ‘fleshy grey-ish ghoul’ villain design scale, pondered that he and the Traveler ‘aren’t so different.’ The game has an actual ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ line, very early on, and it immediately killed any enthusiasm I might have had for Ghaul. In every cutscene he features in after that, his monologues fail to make an impression beyond growing irritation, and he never grew as a villain with any sense of agency or reason.
My dislike for Ghaul doesn’t come close to how I feel about Failsafe, though. Failsafe is Bungie’s attempt at creating GLaDOS 2, and hoo boy, do I not like her. I am actively avoiding doing the missions on Nessus because I cannot tolerate her ‘say something positive in a chirpy voice/say something negative in a downbeat voice’ gimmick. It is awful. I feel the same way about Asher, who uses the word ‘hypothesis’ in his very first sentence in a way that immediately reveals the entirety of his personality. He is the ‘nerd’ character from that cartoon you half remember watching as a kid, with the thick red glasses, the one who only knew about rock ‘n roll because he’d read about it in books.
I am aware that Destiny 2 was written by a large team of writers, and I don’t want to shit on them. It must be very difficult to write for a game like this, with so many activities to do, so much information to communicate, and a need to write economic dialog that delivers what it needs to during cutscenes that people probably won’t want to watch, because they’re with their friends and want to chat to them. But I wonder if there’s a coherent vision underpinning all of this. We know that when Destiny began, the writers didn’t really know what the ‘Light’ was. From what I can gather, long-time fans have given up on hints and reveals from the first game yielding any results.
When I look at Destiny 2’s dialog, I see a larger problem: games of dialogue being undervalued as anything other than a way of communicating information. This is a game where internal thoughts are never insinuated. The internal lives of characters exist only as part of the lore; their lines often aren’t written in a way that really conveys anything other than their most literal interpretations. Destiny 2 has a pretty amazing cast (I love you, Lance Reddick) that is more than capable of communicating subtleties, but many of the lines sound like vocalized thought bubbles. The game does a good job with the things it needs to get right, but I wish there was an iteration of Destiny where I didn’t find myself immediately switching off whenever a cutscene rolled, or avoiding entire areas because I find characters annoying.
With all this in mind, I’ve got five suggestions I’d make if I was in any sort of position to be taken seriously by Bungie’s writers.
1. Ghaul was an awful villain.
Next time, develop a villain who serves a function other than being really big and powerful. Maybe have the player meet them in-game before they battle them, without relegating them to a cutscene. Have them explain their motivations. Have those motivations be interesting, maybe even understandable. Ghaul felt like he existed purely to motivate the player, rather than having his own purpose to fulfill.
2. Stop pretending that we are all the chosen one.
Please. The main appeal of Destiny is feeling like you’re a part of something much bigger, which the game repeatedly ignores. I’d feel so much more connected to the action if my Fireteam popped up in cutscenes with me, and it was acknowledged whether I was or wasn’t working alone. There’s a strong disconnect between what we are being told is happening in the game and what is actually happening as we play it.
3. The jokes really need some punch-up.
This is a bit more subjective, perhaps, but Destiny 2 is never funny. Levity goes a long way! Halo had a strong sense of humour – right down to the way Grunts ran away screaming – but these games are really falling flat. Again, I think this is a ‘too many cooks’ situation, as too many of the jokes in the game feel like one-liners slipped in for the sake of having something goofy in the game. The characters that are meant to be funny aren’t – speaking of which…
4. Jettison Failsafe.
Lock her in a capsule and fire the capsule into space. Let it happen off screen. You don’t even need to explicitly say it happened in-game, if you don’t want to. She’s a computer, she’ll be okay with it. Never mention her again.
5. Recognise that players have grown really invested in this world.
A lot of the heavy lifting is done now. We know the world, the basic lore, the archetypes Destiny is working with. You can afford to invest more time in characters now. You can give them lives outside of our actions, and truly figure out who they are when they’re not talking into our ears. Think less about how the dialog can communicate the character’s core traits fast, and more about what these people would actually say. To make us know a character isn’t difficult; to make us like them requires more nuance.