‘Destiny 2’ tackles the original’s biggest problem: storytelling

With a character-driven story and a more complex villain, ‘Destiny 2’ finally has my attention.


The first time I played the original Destiny, I felt frustrated and annoyed. It was a fun online co-op team shooter but the game's narrative was insultingly shallow -- a poorly written space opera where a vague "darkness" was out to destroy a mysterious entity called the Traveler that somehow thrust humanity into a golden age, but also might be dead. It took a year for Bungie to patch in interesting characters and emotional hooks with The Taken King expansion, but by then, I had moved on. Destiny 2, however, has my attention. Not only does it look like a good starting point for new players, but it has the one thing every epic story needs: a great villain.

It's possible I'm jumping the gun here. Technically, we don't know a lot about Dominus Ghaul, the antagonist of Destiny 2's campaign, but what Bungie has shown hints at a more complex villain than the franchise has had before. He's not a vague, undefined evil or a menacing warlord out for revenge, but a character who feels his people have been deeply wronged by the Traveler, the entity that bestows the game's players with their powers. In Ghaul's mind, the Traveler made a mistake when it chose to bless humanity alone. His race, the Cabal, should have prospered, too.

"The phrase I've used in the office is that Ghaul is the hero of his own story," Destiny 2 Director Luke Smith told Engadget. Smith describes Ghaul as a character with a sense of purpose, someone who feels he's doing the right thing for his people. It's an idea that authors like George R. R. Martin have long championed: Nobody thinks of themselves as the villain in their own story -- and writing characters from this perspective gives them a sense of realism and depth. It makes them relatable. "There's a little bit of that dissonance there," Smith said. "In some ways you're excited to put your reticle over his head and shoot him, but in other ways, you're like, 'Man, from his perspective he's not totally wrong.'"

This character-driven approach builds on what Bungie learned from the original Destiny's expansions. Smith specifically cites The Taken King, which heavily used Nathan Fillion's performance as Cayde-6 to guide players through the expansion's story. Voiceovers, cutscenes and character cameos are all used to draw the player into the narrative. "We're spending a lot of time just trying to make sure that we're telling a story and that we have characters that people want to meet and want to work with," Smith said. "This is part of our general commitment to narrative in Destiny 2. Telling a story that you can follow."

It's something the original game failed to do, but Bungie is looking at the sequel almost as blank slate. Destiny is now less the beginning of the franchise than it is a prologue. "It's issue zero," Smith said -- a nod to comics terminology. "We established the universe and its rules, and established some characters, but now with Destiny 2 we're going to set things in motion."

It may be a bit disheartening for players of the original game to learn they were only playing the backstory, but it puts the sequel in a much better position to attract a new audience. It's the kind of soft reboot that lets Bungie reintroduce the universe without relying on the assumption that Destiny 2 players know the original game's lore back to front. It's an opportunity to tell the game's story right -- without relying on vague cliches of good and evil.

Smith wouldn't give any hints to how Destiny 2 would introduce the complex idea of The Traveller and its powers to a new audience, but promises that new players wouldn't feel left in the dark. As someone who felt abandoned by the original game's narrative, I hope it's a promise he can keep. With the right execution, Destiny 2 just might be able to do something the original game never could: make me care about the world of Destiny.