Suraya Hawthorne: Destiny 2's token human

When everyone around you is a superheroic Chosen One, it's hard not to feel like your presence is just a box being checked.

One of the main NPCs in Destiny 2 isn’t one of the Guardians, those beings granted immortality by a giant alien orb known as the Traveler, but a mortal human woman named Suraya Hawthorne. Previously a lone wanderer outside of the walls of the Last City, Suraya helps the power-stricken Guardians regain their immortality and defeat their enemy. As a result, she is allowed to serve as an “honorary” Guardian and take up residence in the Tower, the base of Guardian operations.

Her name is from Arabic and translates to "The Pleiades" a group of seven stars belonging to the constellation Taurus. As the stars guide sailors across the sea, Suraya guides the player to their missing light, despite having her own set of goals and priorities. Where the player, and the rest of the Guardians, seeks adventure and glory through battle, Suraya is really just there to look out for the Last City’s vulnerable civilian population.

In a series about the flawed promise of the stars, Suraya’s feet stay firmly planted on Earth, among the human refugees born of the collateral damage from the Guardians’ endless wars. Her role, as a guide who must reluctantly put aside her qualms and assist a group of powerful and influential people, reminds me of the Sherpas, a Nepali ethnic group defined by their servility and usefulness to the rich western climbers who seek every year to summit Mt. Everest -with their help.

Like the Sherpas of Everest, Suraya wears the mantle of a model minority, less for her hazy Middle-Eastern lineage than her role as a guide and a liaison assumed to be helpful to the Guardians despite how little space their leadership has for her viewpoint. As companies and universities tend to plaster their brochures with brown faces to project an image of diversity, the Guardian Vanguard urge Suraya to join their ranks in the Tower to effect a posture of embracing humanity as whole -not only the godlike variety. But considering how dramatically her ideology differs from the Guardians, and how little the status quo changes after she joins their mission, she winds up being little more than a token. As Cameron Kunzelman points out in his recent essay in Polygon: “Destiny 2 can entertain Hawthorne’s perspective, but the game’s commitment to playing out a narrative of a chosen people versus heartless invaders means that, in the end, Hawthorne cannot be right.”

In one of Destiny 2’s early missions, Suraya describes the Last City as a prison: “There’s another word for a place you’re not allowed to leave - you know - with walls you can’t see over, and guards everywhere.” Despite Devrim Kay, a walking colonialism trope, chiding her paternalistically, she persists in contrasting the authoritarian nature of city life with the freedom of the Farm, the only location in the game under human, rather than Guardian control. But once you finish the story of Destiny 2, you won’t find her at the Farm; instead she spends the remainder of the game keeping a lonely roost at the Tower. She’s left behind the life she knows, her comfort and community, to serve the dominant hierarchy on Earth. She may intend to change the system from the inside, but that path will be long and difficult, considering how little time Destiny 2 spends on matters that don’t affect the Guardians or their Traveler.

Speaking about the Traveler, Suraya says: “Once upon a time, that big white ball in the sky was there for all of us.” But the miracles that it offers have always flowed primarily toward the Guardians and their Vanguard. Meanwhile, the destructive forces it draws bring equal ruin to everyone. Comparably, Mt. Everest is viewed around the world as a beacon of hope and accomplishment, “the raw material that can be spun into charitable foundations, movie rights, pub boasts and motivational speaking tours,” according to Jemima Diki Sherpa. Just as the Sherpas risk their lives leading rich westerners up Everest’s face in pursuit of this fantasy, Suraya leads the Guardians back to their exalted Traveler, first by showing the player the way to its Shard and finally in assisting the Vanguard as they retake the Last City and win the Traveler back from Ghaul -- putting her own neck on the line for someone else’s dream.

But does she truly get to revel in the accolades and the celebration once the war is won and the Guardians are back in power? Throughout the game, Suraya attempts to explain to the player how she observes the world, sharing her fears of dangers that the player either blithely ignores or recklessly runs toward. What may be adventure to the player is life or death to those humans for whom Earth is a place to wrest survival from, not to grind down for loot and upgrades.

A climber with Sherpa on Mt Everest (photo: Ivan Gomez, Wikimedia Commons). A climber with Sherpa on Mt Everest. (Photo: Ivan Gomez, Wikimedia Commons.)

On April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali workers. It was the deadliest recorded accident in what is already a highly treacherous profession. Sherpa guides tend to face disproportionately greater danger than their western clients. According to documentarian Jennifer Peedom, The Khumbu Icefall, where the avalanche hit, is crossed dozens of times in a single ascent by Sherpas lugging supplies and equipment back and forth. Western climbers only have to cross it twice, once up the mountain, once again back down.

In Destiny 2 the player’s journey has them hopping briskly among planets and moons on their way to take down Ghaul and his Red Legion. Suraya, on the other hand, has been wandering the dangerous wilds outside of the City long before its downfall forced the Guardians into her orbit. They are tourists in her world, doubly so once they regain their immortality, relegating to the backdrop the fear of death and loss that so drives Suraya and the remnants of humanity. The end of the game’s first act finds the player leaving Suraya and the human refugees to fend for themselves as they depart Earth to reconnect with the surviving Vanguard. Suraya appears hurt, if not surprised. Like the Sherpas who — ever since Englishman Edmund Hillary stole the fame of being the first to reach Everest’s peak in 1953 from his guide and partner, Tenzing Norgay — have rarely been honestly credited for their contributions to mountaineering, Suraya remains a bit player in the grander story of the Guardians retaking the City and regaining their power.

This is not to imply that the Guardians don’t recognize some of the inequalities that Suraya brings up during her time with them. When Ikora Rey attempts to diminish her role in taking back the city, Suraya fires back: “You think you've cornered the market on sacrifice? You forget that we've had to survive without the Light, all our lives!” Destiny 2 does a good job in making it clear that differences of perspective do exist between the Guardians and the regular folk. But acknowledging a problem doesn’t mean you are solving that problem, or even trying to.

A memorial dedicated to the 16 Sherpa lost in the 2014 avalanche. (Photo: Omar Havana, Getty Images via Baltimore Sun.) A memorial dedicated to the 16 Sherpas lost in the 2014 avalanche. (Photo: Omar Havana, Getty Images via Baltimore Sun.)

In Peedom’s documentary Sherpa, Russel Brice, an expedition operator addressing the surviving workers after the 2014 avalanche tells them: “I am afraid every single day for the boys going through the icefall. But guys, we also have to progress… for the future.” It seems like an uplifting speech, but in reality he’s urging these men to return to a mountain that just killed 16 of their friends and colleagues for the promise of a payout. Meanwhile the wealthy western clients will take all the credit for themselves, sharing their mountaintop selfies as Sherpas out of frame drag all of their gear up the mountain.

Likewise, when Zavala or Ikora give a rousing speech in Destiny 2, they’re addressing Guardians, and speaking in terms of success and glory for Guardians above all. The citizens of the last city are kept safe, but do not have a say in how that safety is carried out -- nor what happens when their protectors inevitably fail them. All power structures require people at the bottom to support those at the top, and Destiny 2’s society is no exception. No one accomplishes anything alone, but the epic narratives of heroic conquest that drive Destiny players to reach new heights of power and ability do plenty of groundwork to paint it that way.

Suraya is something of a thorn in that traditional heroic narrative, and an inkling that Destiny 2 is aware of some of its contradictions. But as long as her role remains honorary, her position ancillary, and her protests brushed off by the ever-forward momentum of the game, she remains a token, a dash of color in a black and white universe; a stand-in for the humanity that the Guardians claim to act for, but who, far more often, suffer for their proximity to the Traveler’s light. In Jemima Diki Sherpa’s pragmatic description of Everest, one can imagine Suraya describing the Traveler, marooned on her perch, hanging impossibly far above the fractured and rebuilding Last City: “Barren black rock, a rather bland dented triangle compared to the beautiful, dramatic ridges that surround it. All of this, for that.”