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A popular videogame takes a philosophical twist.
People will argue with me without a doubt, but I’m convinced that Bungie’s Destiny is the greatest videogame of all time. The reason is because it’s story arc is about as large as it is possible to get even in comparison with some of my favorite science fiction. As much as I believe that, you’d think I’d be better at playing it, but it is too massive and it’s about to get bigger.
Destiny is the story of a godlike entity that flees its enemies in our galaxy and unprompted by any humans, goes about the business of terraforming Mars and Venus. It was the ultimate good alien scenario, choosing mankind over other species to bring them new tech, longevity and peace. A golden age was created that lasted 500 years. Then, inevitably, the enemies of this entity known as The Traveler, arrived on our doorstep and waged a war of attrition. Humanity squeaked by with a win, but all of the golden age tech was lost and the remnants of the four enemy species remained in our Solar System, dominated those planets and our own moon. The last of humanity all reside in the Last Save City, where The Traveler and the world’s armies made their last desperate stand. The Traveler itself was reduced to a mere shell of its former self and eked out one last piece of space magic before it fell silent and dormant.
Enter the players, you are a Guardian, an semi-immortal soldier owing to this last act which grants you the power of the Traveler’s Light to give you extraordinary combat powers. Your mission is to defeat the enemies of the Traveler and humanity and during the process, recover what is possible of golden age tech (generally with weapons) and determine as it is possible what the hell you’re doing and why. Oh by the way, you can collect loot and glory by distinguishing yourself among the hundred of thousands of actual human gamers who play in this massive game.
The Destiny franchise has made zillions of dollars and the studio, Bungie, creator of the Halo franchise, has morphed over time into a bold pioneer, a bedraggled scapegoat, a hot property and a dicey subordinate partner. It is loved and hated for its hundreds of tweaks to the game, and unlike any other video studio participates with enthusiasm over the meta game. Every week YouTubers and Twitch hosts alternatively bitch and praise Bungie for nerfing this weapon or buffing that armor. Every Thursday, Bungie publishes official responses and exposes the direction or drops hints which give all players something to speculate about. Bungie’s video documentaries as well as presentations at gaming conferences in the US, Europe & Asia maintain a fire of hype and excitement around the evolution of a game that was highly anticipated years before it was released, and has ridden a rollercoaster of fanboy and industry kudos and scorn ever since.
Since its breakup with Activision, a game publishing industry giant many love to hate, Bungie’s fortunes have been on the upswing and a more or less predictable schedule of game updates navigating through an epic narrative and trove of lore has emerged. Each fall, a new epic chapter introduces a new overarching theme, locations and gameplay changes. This annual title then splits the year into four seasons each offering new challenges and rewards. We are now witness to the fourth annual release of Destiny 2, called ‘Beyond Light’ which begins with the Season of the Hunt.
Doubtless any students of mythology and history recognize the pattern of noble soldiers endowed with mystical powers owing to supernatural blessings of goodness and light. To their eternal credit, Bungie has slowly begun to turn the tables and introduce moral ambiguity front and center. With the introduction the Season of the Outlaw in September of 2018, Destiny introduced a character and gameplay that encouraged them to question their loyalties to the Vanguard - defenders of the Last Safe City. Instead of simply playing as light characters, what if they engaged in a little self-serving darkness?
With Beyond Light, the opportunity to explicitly wield powers of darkness, the same powers that helped defeat the Traveler are now made available to Guardians. It’s as if Jedi were at last granted leave by the Council to explore the dark side of the Force. They literally call it ‘temptation’ and ‘communion with darkness’. This will deliver excitement and drama in that special way that only the best storytellers are able to generate in us. So perhaps we didn’t know who the Traveler’s enemies were all of this time. Perhaps we were just foolish and naive thinking we represented the best and brightest in the Galaxy all this time. Maybe the Traveler’s silence is covering up something we haven’t ever bothered to consider. It is the appeal of destruction and power for its own sake. It is the deep desire to liberate one’s self and one’s people from the service of gods. This is what Destiny now offers. Defiance of the Traveler’s religion.
Before the game launched, during the release of the beta back in 2015 I wrote a fan fiction that took a cynical look at combat videogames and war in general by creating a character in the Destiny universe and making him ask the sort of questions that bring matters of loyalty to the fore. As much lore as surrounds the Traveler, battles, weapons, enemies and historical events, there is precious little that involves ordinary humans. But this is to be expected in such literature. Star Trek Lower Decks, a new spinoff that focuses on cartoony Millennial renditions of the generally heroic crews of that franchise, met with open hostility when it first arrived this year. The foibles of the USS Cerritos cut a workaday profile of Starfleet officers and subordinates. As much as I hated it at first, I admire it now. There ought to be room for subpar in our literature. In fact, I think our civilization demands it, not anti-heroes so much as people who sign up for the noble task and find themselves mowing the White House lawn, or fixing the plumbing on nuclear submarines, or painstakingly counting ballots by hand and questioning whether or not they have made the right choices in life.
I don’t expect Destiny to give us deep existential choices, but the introduction of directly wielding the powers of darkness as we now know them, given the current level of exposition in the game, is significant. This is because it has always been the aim of Destiny’s creators for the game to be morally uplifting. One thing I’m sure they recognized was how awful it ultimately is for gamers to step into the shoes of true criminals day after day, month after month and year after year. There are only so many civilians you can carjack and cops you can kill before Grand Theft Auto becomes something other than entertaining. Readers who know me might recall how I came to a tipping point over the formulaic anti-heroic dramas perfected by HBO starting with the Sopranos. It took a while to be sure. Quality must be recognized. But by the time Deadwood rolled around, I had my fill. Even as I got pulled back in by the quality of Breaking Bad, the maintenance of sociopathic behavior and the failure of redemption is a dramatic device I no longer can stomach. This is why I feel The Expanse has been so successful in my little world. Everybody’s interests conflict and they all pursue them with moral conviction.
Before you dismiss me for praising this grab bag of PG-13 space operatics, consider that I am on a path to do several things. One of them is to stop giving credence to the American idea of generations. I am doing so with the same ultimate moral fervor as I do to disable thinking around race. What is a generation but a group of people whose defining attribute is beyond their control for whom we maintain expectations and excuses around a subset of capabilities? Operative phrase ‘soft bigotry’. I’m not using those weapons of the Culture Wars. The other serious matter is to put something more forward in my optimistic thinking. It is the set of principles put forth by something I call the ‘Secular Northstar’, to which I owe gratitude to their originator (AFAIK) Vinay Gupta @leashless. But we’ll have plenty of time to get into that. Here’s an excerpt and the gut of it:
Think of the children. It’s such a cliche. But let’s think about it in terms of our ability to solve problems and work towards a better future for the world. How far can we get by putting children first? Just roll with this, we’ll do details later. If we just think in terms of what happens if we go about ensuring global child welfare, how do we do on the other global challenges?
You can look, situation by situation, rule by rule, law by law, and ask “am I harming these the children?” If the answer is yes, you don’t do that. The kids are profoundly collateral damage in the power struggles of the adults, and we’re using them like hostages all the time. But a cease fire could be arranged.
An easy way to think about it is “What’s good for children is what’s good for global governance.” The trick is to limit and/or re-prioritize governance and spending..blah blah. Zillions of details.
But if we don’t give children complex games that actually prepare them for the epic battles of adulthood, we are doing ourselves, all of us a disservice. Disney is wrong. Lewis Carroll is better. GTA is wrong. Destiny is better. You get what I’m saying.
There’s probably little in the ideas of the Secular Northstar that proper Muslims don’t already know - and the same goes for all students and practitioners of ancient wisdom. The problem with secular modernity is that it can’t seem to figure out how to spread the good news in any way less expensive than liberal arts colleges, and that is unsustainable. So I’m saying good gaming, in the same way I’m saying decentralized manufacturing, governance and currencies are the way forward - or at least the right direction for reform of what we know sucks.
Now you can back that up into what the Destiny universe is all about if you care to think that hard. Either way, it’s a great game for gaming’s sake.