In the early stages of running this website, I wrote an article discussing why I thought Destiny 1’s Grimoire system was a functional and innovative method for developing narrative. I stand by that article today, and everything I said within it, with one fundamental exception: the lore might not need to be presented to you directly, but it should still be readable in game.
Today, as I sit here at the start of the Season of the Lost, the final Season of the Beyond Light expansion that will take us up to The Witch Queen in February 2022, Destiny’s narrative experience has never been richer. Lore tabs and lorebooks maintain that rich depth to the worldbuilding, rewarding players of the main gameplay loops as well as those secret hunters that scour the maps for new discoveries. However, coupled with that depth is a wonderfully paced seasonal storytelling model that has, in my opinion, encapsulated every benefit that the (ugh) ‘live service’ model of game has to offer in the narrative department. And the best part? You don’t have to go anywhere else to experience it.
Credit where credit is due, I was watching a My Name is Byf video on this topic when I got the idea to respond to my old article. In it, he speaks about the massive strides we have taken since even the beginning of Destiny 2, which is absolutely true, but more specifically what interests me is the cadence of seasonal content and how well it’s working. ‘Timegating’ is often a dirty word in gaming, used to describe artificial inflation and padding of a narrative in order to make content last longer and, in live service games, keep players engaged week after week. A small element of that still exists, certainly, but what is fascinating in both its audacity and its success is the slow burn of character arcs and personal development that can take place when it’s paced out in such a way. The example Byf uses is of a particular character in Destiny, infamous across the stars for his hatred of another alien race, coming to terms with their shared existence when he is forced not only to live alongside that same alien race, but actively protect them on several occasions. This is a huge shift for a character with centuries of engrained prejudice, but it doesn’t take place over a 5 hour seasonal campaign, a few short story missions and a capstone Strike where the big bad is defeated and everyone ends up best buds.
It happens over almost four months, in what is effectively real time.
That’s the key, really – it is, for all intents and purposes, genuinely happening in real time. Of course, we don’t see their movements day to day and hour to hour; this character, Saint 14, is always posted in his vendor position in the Tower social space so that players can interact with him as needed (would I love to see that changed too, to have players need to seek characters out as they go about their day in a real living world? Absolutely, but maybe that’s asking too much right now). However, the implication within the narrative is that he is spending his days coming to terms with this new reality, meeting with and interacting with the Eliksni, the aliens, out of neccessity. Slowly, his attitudes change, through that constant proximity over an extended period and through the stories he is told by their leader that demonstrate how he is just as demonic to them, ruthless hunter of their species as he was, as they may be to him or any other human. These stories, these interactions between two foes becoming two friends, are of course detailed in the lore books we slowly unlock each week as we complete the seasonal missions – the timegated missions. Because that’s the idea, to timegate the narrative and in doing so, give it the space to breathe and realistically unfold.
Sure, it took four months of real time for the story to actually resolve. But that final cutscene, in the final mission of the season that took all four months to reach, showed Saint 14 fighting alongside his once-sworn enemies, defending their innocent children and civilians just as he once defended the innocents of humanity against Eliksni attackers. And it was believable. It made sense. It was a powerful story moment, a huge shift in the way we as players consider the Eliksni and the binary good/evil, light/dark we might have previously taught, and it was totally earned.
It was also just one big beat in an ongoing narrative of the blurring lines between good and evil, a narrative that has realistically always been in the game but has been given special attention ever since we woke up the Pyramid Ships at the end of the Red War campaign. It was significant, its significance earned through time and slow development of the lore around it, and we saw it happen in real time. If that’s not the beauty of a living, constantly evolving world in action, if that’s not the beauty of video games and a glimpse into the truly awe-inspiring potential they have for telling stories, potential we have only just begun tapping into fully –
Well, I don’t know what is.
I could write an entire separate article on why the depth of the additional readable lore in Destiny is still awesome, and still everything I aspire to in my own writing. Hell, maybe I will, eventually. But the point here is this: Destiny’s Grimoire worked really well, but I was wrong to leave it at that. This, what we have right now, works so much better.