With the sequel on the horizon, it's worth asking: what, exactly, was the first game about?
With the sequel on the horizon, it's worth asking: what, exactly, was the first game about?
"I don't even have time to explain why I don't have time to explain," says a mysterious stranger you meet in the first hours of Destiny. This line pretty much set the tone for the first three years of Bungie's wildly ambitious sci-fi shooter, which was bad news for players who went into the game hoping for an epic story. Combining MMO elements with the tried-and-tested first-person gunplay of its Halo series, Bungie's grand experiment was met with a mixed response upon its release in 2014. Destiny's world is as richly imagined and beautifully rendered as you'd expect, coming from the studio that made the original Halo trilogy, but its approach to narrative – because of the role-playing component at the game's heart – is a huge departure from the blockbuster cinematics and characterization of previous Bungie titles. This wouldn't be a problem, were it not for the overwhelming sense of wasted potential the first game represents in its weakest moments.
There's ample evidence to suggest Destiny was once a very different game, with a much stronger emphasis on traditional storytelling. The best examples of the game's narrative aren't in the game at all; instead, they're relegated to the Grimoire located at Bungie.net – a vast, cryptic archive of short fiction and vignettes, each written from the viewpoint of a character within the game's eon-spanning lore. Not to beat a dead horse, but the decision to exclude the Grimoire cards from Destiny itself is a serious blunder in an otherwise historic, occasionally masterful game. Why not let us experience the story while we're playing? Even if it meant finishing a raid and then flying back to the Tower to read an ebook on my TV, that'd still be a marked improvement over a game with almost no story at all beyond the tales we live out ourselves.
Given how widespread these criticisms are, there's little doubt that Destiny 2 will do a better job of incorporating narrative within the game world. Bungie has announced a live premiere of the sequel's gameplay for May 18, and that means we'll soon know a lot more about the next part of the Guardians' journey than we do now. In the meantime, it's worth looking back at Destiny's story so far and teasing out where we might be about to go from here.
The Traveler and the Golden Age
In Destiny's opening cut scene, a present-day Mars expedition dubbed the Ares One arrives on the Red Planet to intercept a Big Dumb Object that's been making the rounds across the solar system, visiting Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus along the way. This is where the story begins.
Sometime in the early 21st century, three astronauts – armed with assault rifles – made contact with the Traveler, a massive floating sphere of unknown origin. They stood and watched as it seeded Mars with water, oxygen, and then life. Once the Traveler had terraformed much of the solar system, humanity reached out beyond Earth and began to colonize nearby planets. For the next few centuries, civilization experienced a Golden Age of social and technological progress – diseases were eradicated and grand discoveries were made. As the Speaker – the alien Traveler's PR flack, basically – puts it in the game's first few minutes, "Great cities were built on Mars and Venus. Mercury became a garden world. Human lifespan tripled. It was a time of miracles."
The Collapse and the Dark Age
After the Traveler brought humankind to its potential, something else arrived in the solar system: the Darkness. The Earth's automated defenses scrambled to fight back, and to save the giant floaty Traveler, but the AI Warminds charged with protecting humanity were no match for this new enemy. The precise nature of the Darkness – what it is, what it wants – no one knows. But we know that the alien enemies in Destiny – the Cabal, the Fallen, the Hive, and the Vex – are all considered to be "minions of the Darkness," each with their own unique relationship to the cause of the "Collapse" of civilization's Golden Age .
Rasputin, the last known surviving Warmind, went into standby mode within an underground bunker in Old Russia (where, incidentally, the game begins). Many escaped Earth in hopes of finding sanctuary outside the solar system, faith in the Traveler having faded at the sight of its defeat. The Exo population – human-made cyborgs which may or may not be walking hard drives for human minds – became refugees, while the descendants of humanity became known as the Awoken. They're the bluish gray-skinned people that now mostly live in The Reef, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Those who'd tried to flee the solar system found something out among the Kuiper belt (which is the asteroid belt out near Neptune...so way out there), though. "If I existed before, I existed as possibility, as potential, stretched thin across the aether," one of the Awoken says, adding, "I didn't notice the singing until the singers fell silent." So far, so emo.
Guardians of the Last City
After the Collapse came the cleanup and the reboot. The Awoken and the Exo, along with humanity's last survivors, gathered in the shadow of the Traveler which still has one last thing on its to-do list. In the moment of its death, the Traveler created the Ghosts – small but powerful AI companions with the ability to resurrect the dead and to transport complex materials across space. The Ghosts had one primary purpose, however: to find and unite the Guardians. Also, to give Peter Dinklage one of his least satisfying roles ever.
The Guardians – that's you – are basically Earth's last hope. Made up of the Awoken, the Exo, and select humans, the Guardians are referred to as an "army of the chosen dead," brought back to life for the purpose of ushering in another age of peace and prosperity following the loss of the Traveler. With no memory of their former lives, the Guardians took up arms to safeguard the City, armed with the supernatural power of the Traveler's Light – and a pile of tasty guns.
The Last City is where most of humankind's remnants have settled, with the silent Traveler floating overhead and huge Trump-sized walls built up around its borders in hopes of keeping the minions of the Darkness from getting too close.
Years ago there were eight huge towers built by the Titans – one of the three classes of Guardian, the tanks – to protect the City's walls. But only one remains. The Tower's where the Guardians hang out, and it's where most of the various Earth-friendly or neutral factions can be found: the leaders of the separatist Dead Orbit faction, the fight-happy Future War Cult, and the nostalgic New Monarchy who just want to do whatever they can to bring back the Golden Age. It's also where you'll come across the Awoken Cryptarch Rahool, whose job it is to decipher the lost secrets of the Golden Age and Crucible Handler Lord Shaax, who seeks to "[forge] a new generation of warriors". The Tower is also the home of the Consensus – the City's governing council, led by the Speaker – and of the Vanguard.
The Hunter Cayde-6 (the one voiced by Nathan Fillion), the Titan Commander Zavala (the one voiced by The Wire's Lance Reddick), and the Warlock Ikora Rey (the one voiced by Firefly's Gina Torres) make up the Vanguard – a triumvirate of Guardians representing each of their respective classes. The Hunters are explorers and scouts, seeking fragments of Earth's lost history. The Titans, by contrast, remain near the City whenever possible, sworn to protect it; they are extensions of the Traveler's mission to protect Earth and a last line of defense against the Darkness. Warlocks are the curious ones – philosophers and tinkerers, looking to understand both the world they've awakened to and the Traveler who chose them to save it. In D&D terms, the Hunters are Rangers, the Titans are Paladins, and the Warlocks are, uh, Warlocks.
Journey to the Black Garden and Beyond
By the time you arrive at the Last City, the Fallen House of Devils have made their home in one of the abandoned cosmodromes of Old Russia, and the Hive have seeded the area for an impending invasion. The Fallen, a race of spacefaring scavengers, once believed themselves to be the Traveler's chosen protectors; the Hive, on the other hand, are an army of the undead, using dark magic to try and extinguish the Traveler's Light. The Hive are single-minded in their goal of summoning their gods – Crota, a prince, and Oryx, his father – to Earth's moon and snuffing out all that remains of the Traveler and its Guardians.
Meanwhile, in the jungles of Venus, ancient machines called Vex are waking up, and they really hate Guardians. On Mars, a warmongering interstellar empire of nasty-tempered "space turtles" (part Koopa, part Roman centurion – they're also sometimes called "war rhinos") called the Cabal are preparing for war.
On the Moon, you meet the mysterious Exo known as the Stranger, who urges you to make your way to Venus, find a way into someplace called the Black Garden, and destroy its Heart. This quest takes you to the Red Planet; to the Reef, where the Awoken Queen, her brother, and the Fallen House of Wolves reside; and to a Vex domain beyond the edges of known space-time.
The Hive summon their god-prince, Crota, and – if you can muster enough Light – you gather your allies to fight him in his fortress deep within the Moon's hollowed-out crust. Not long afterward, the House of Wolves turns on its Awoken leader, and the Reef calls on you and the other Guardians to crush the rebellion.
The Taken King
Destiny's year-two expansion introduces Oryx, the Taken King, who arrives amid the rings of Saturn aboard a Hive warship called the Dreadnaught. Oryx is an ancient sorcerer with the power to bend others' will to his own and, in doing so, transport them into another dimension – like a sort of evil, omniscient Tetsuya Mizuguchi. The Taken are creatures who have communed directly with the Darkness. They are, in a sense, the purest form of the Hive – though any sentient being, it seems, can be Taken. "What you call 'Darkness,' " says Oryx, creepily "is the end of your evolution."
The Traveler and its Guardians were not the only victims of the Taken War, though. In the aftermath of the campaign against Oryx and his Taken, the Cabal presence on Mars and Phobos lies in shambles, and the Guardians will almost certainly be the ones blamed when the Cabal Empire arrives.
Return of the Iron Lords
Rise of Iron and its mid-year content update, Age of Triumph, is where Destiny's first installment ends. It follows the last remaining Iron Lord, Saladin, as he attempts to rebuild the chivalrous order of proto-Guardians at the summit of Felwinter Peak – the Plaguelands-based location of the game's main social hub in Rise of Iron. A Golden Age nanotechnology called SIVA re-emerges due to the meddling of a Fallen religious sect called the Splicers – Fallen Devils seeking to harness cybernetic augmentation for the purposing of achieving godhood.
The Eve of the Coming War: Destiny 2
Dead Orbit's intel on interstellar comms has always suggested that the Cabal pose little threat to the City on Earth. Zavala disagreed – and it turns out he was right. The distress signal sent to the Cabal Empire's leader in the year-two story mission "Outbound Signal" reached its intended recipient, and now the Empire has brought the fight to Earth's doorstep, which explains the Destiny 2 reveal trailer.
A fleet of Cabal ships dominate the skies above the Last City, pillars of smoke rising from the wreckage. An orange energy field envelops the still-wounded Traveler. "Despite the sacrifice of many brave Guardians," says Zavala, "we lost everything – the Tower, the City, our home." According to the official Destiny YouTube account, "humanity's last safe city has fallen to an overwhelming invasion force led by Ghaul, the imposing commander of the brutal Red Legion. He has stripped the city's Guardians of their power, and forced the survivors to flee." To defeat him, it adds, "you must reunite humanity's scattered heroes, stand together, and fight back to reclaim our home."
The Grimoire mentions countless legendary Guardians who helped to shape the world we experienced in the first game, though we almost never saw them firsthand. If we're going to speculate on what the trailer and its description mean in more specific terms, Destiny 2 seems likely to bring some of these lost Guardians – Lysander, Osiris, Toland – back into the fold.
Bad news, though: the loss of the Tower means that the vault system located there has also been destroyed, taking all your precious Destiny loot with it. And further damage to the mysterious Traveler – along with the energy field glimpsed in the trailer – means starting from scratch, as far as character progression goes. This presents an opportunity for Bungie. If Guardians can no longer draw Light from the Traveler as they did in the original Destiny, that means you may have to seek out new sources of power elsewhere – perhaps on Golden Age worlds like Mercury, which we've scarcely seen yet. That could mean new classes and abilities to go along with them, and opportunities to take the narrative in some interesting new directions.
Given what we've learned from the Grimoire over the past three years, we know there's an incredible story waiting to be told, and the Destiny team certainly has the talent for the job. Let's just hope Bungie finally decides to tell it.
For further reading and viewing, check out the sources I consulted during the writing of this article: The Art of Destiny (Insight Editions, 2014), the Grimoire at Bungie.net, the Ishtar Collective, and the XPLore series by YouTube commentators Leah Loves Chief and My Name Is Byf.