When Destiny released in 2014, many players were eager to dive into the universe that Bungie created. Leading up to the launch of the game, there had been many hints at the nature of what had happened to human society and what the Guardians' mission was. However, Bungie wisely kept their cards close to their chest, letting out only snippets of the lore they were creating.
Fast forward to launch and the reality of the narrative that Bungie had been teasing came out... There really wasn't one. The clues revealed by the developers during interviews prior to release turned out to be more than just suggestive of how the story would be told.
"We can really tell stories through the environment," said Osborne. "Whether it's the wind moving through the trees or derelict planes with broken hulls and rust with enemies scavenging it. We've always prided ourselves on our ability to give people enough to let their imaginations run wild through the world. We add a lot of visual language that tells stories." -Polygon
Once the game found its way into the hands of the average player, the true story began to unfold. Destiny's story turned out to be as barren as the abandoned cities that populate its universe.
It's In The Cards
Destiny definitely has a storyline to it; far more now with the release of The Taken King I might add. The truth of the matter however is that the storyline of Destiny is threadbare still. Instead, it counts on solid gameplay to hold the player's attention in lieu of anything deeper.
Bungie seemed content however to pepper in the lore of the game into their website and mobile app, telling non-vital, but world-building background information with their collectible Grimoire cards. This wouldn't be such a problem except that the omission of the lore from the main game ended up gutting the experience.
Instead of including the information from the cards through some other method, Bungie chose to relegate a major portion of Destiny's lore to a status of obscure collectibles. This in turn neutered the background Bungie seemed intent to build their 10-year franchise on, leaving many players unsure of what the Guardians were even fighting for.
Destiny also suffered from a severe lack of story in the game itself as well. All of the missions in the base game consisted of being talked at by someone in a loading screen, usually by the famous Peter Dinklage. Sprinkled into the game itself were occasional bits of narration that usually only helped set the stage for a battle against hordes of enemy combatants while players defended a location. Again, this was mended a little with the introduction of the paid expansions, though the damage had already been done.
Dredging Up The Past
You may ask why I'm talking about a game that released over two years ago, but I'll tell you why. Bungie committed a grievous mistake that has been repeated time and again both before and after Destiny came into being: they failed to flesh out their creation. This may sound very familiar.
No Man's Sky came out and stood poised to fulfill the dreams of many players, including myself. Hello Games created a wondrous universe of infinite improbability, giving players the freedom to craft their own stories. The problem here was that there wasn't a story to create. The tools to do so weren't given to the player. Gameplay ended up consisting of collecting resources to fuel your cookie-cutter ship and keep your life support online. The ability to make your way as a merchant of the stars or take sides in massive space battles were either removed, or never added.
So Hello Games chose to craft a story for the player instead, as a motivation to venture towards the core of the galaxy. I won't ruin anything for players that have yet to dive in, but it's safe to say that the "ending" leaves much to be desired. Combine this with the fact that the lore of No Man's Sky, the reason for the state of things, is almost entirely tied up in the optional explorative parts of the game. A player that chooses to focus solely on the story, would actually miss most of the story; there's almost humor in that.
I'm not one to beat a dead horse though; plenty of people have levied complaints against the experience that No Man's Sky provides. To look at another example, you only need to go back six months to the launch of The Division.
Ubisoft, like Bungie, created a world that drips atmosphere. Everywhere there are signs of what happened to the world before as well as the dark realities of the world as it is. In this regard, just like Destiny, The Division is a beautiful example of how to make a setting tell a story. It's just a shame that the lore was unveiled the way it was.
Ubisoft inadvertently made a small step in the right direction by actually including background lore in the game itself, similar to No Man's Sky. They also seemed to make the same mistake in stride by making the lore completely possible to miss. Every piece of background information that supplements the existing story is a piece of optional content that litters the game's map, meaning that anyone that doesn't want to spend the ludicrous amount of time it takes to find every collectible will inevitably miss part of the story.
It's a shame too, because the collectibles add so much atmosphere to The Division. They tell the stories of the inhabitants of New York City prior to the events of the game. There are some truly heartbreaking, inspiring, and sometimes funny anecdotal stories that are told with the crashed drones, ECHO beacons, and lost cell phones; but they are so easily missed if you don't bother to collect them.
So What's The Big Deal?
To some, these complaints may seem like a non-issue. There's plenty to enjoy in games that provide solid gameplay, even if it comes at the cost of losing a compelling story. There lies the reason that I've always had trouble getting into games like Call of Duty and sports titles. The thing to keep in mind is that some games don't need a solid story that is dripping with deep, world-building lore.
However, games do need something at least. Titles like Call of Duty can get away with being light on a complex narrative because the multiplayer is such a big part of the experience. Some may make the argument that Destiny and The Division do the same thing since they were built from the ground up as multiplayer titles. I'd venture to say that it would be a gross oversight to give them a pass because they masquerade as MMOs though.
You see, Bungie marketed Destiny as more than just a sci-fi shooter with aliens, and Ubisoft sold players on The Division by teasing them with the task of liberating a plague-ridden New York. Hello Games portrayed No Man's Sky as more than just an exploration game. All of these hinted at something grander in their stories.
Think of games like a cake (because I like food analogies). The narrative is the cake itself, and the lore is the icing. Cake is okay on its own, that's for sure, but it's better with the topping. The problem with these games is that they attempt to present the icing to players separate from the cake. Sometimes eating a tub of icing is good, but it gets old after a while, especially if you have to go looking for it. Boy, that was a tortured analogy...
The point is that lore and story are not at their best as separate entities. They're meant to be intertwined. Story gives the player the reason to keep moving, while the lore gives the player a reason to care in the first place. Lore builds the setting for the player to become engrossed in the story, and when part of that pair is ripped out to fill a gap somewhere else, the core experience suffers.
What are your thoughts? Sound off in the comments!