Destiny 2 Finds Its Beauty in Numbers
Reid McCarter
There’s a kind of trance that sets in after playing more than an hour of Destiny 2’s endgame missions. Running and hoverjumping through one of its elaborate levels, the player completes activities that range from shooting homicidal robots while repairing an enormous power station to gunning down bipedal toad men while storming a gigantic spaceship. The rhythm of the game sets in like the pleasant numbing of a sedative. Though the screen constantly pops and glistens with explosions of numbers chunked off wounded enemies and flashes of flickering light indicating power-ups and new item pick-ups, the experience of playing the game is never anything but warmly monotonous. This isn’t the case during most of Destiny 2’s story-focused mode. Here, it creates and largely maintains the tension and excitement expected from a gunfight-heavy action game. Though the plot is hardly worth mentioning—the customizable player character runs across the universe getting a gang of experienced soldiers back together to retake the city stolen from them by an invasion of murderous toad aliens—the look and feel of Destiny 2 is, for now, novel. The story requires that the player gunfights across a facility installed on the fiery, blindingly bright surface of Mercury, pilots a tank capable of blowing opposition to bits with single shots through an underground base, and journeys through gloomy forests to discover new powers soon exercised on hapless waves of enemy grunts. These are scenarios that actually remain in the mind for a while—maybe the lowest prerequisite for worthwhile action scenes, but justified as an excuse to marvel at Destiny 2’s often stunning visual imagination or to revel in the technical excellence of the gunplay, where crackling bursts of bullets or rockets are lent weight by some level of dramatic tension. During all of this, the story, thin as it may be, offers a series of strange new sights to see. After completing a few hours of missions amidst the gloomy forests and wrecked stone buildings of Earth a new planet appears on the map screen, bringing with it a fresh set of environments. There’s reason to look forward to where the game will take players next. Landing on the strange moon Io, the familiar green pines and looming cathedrals of some far-future region of Europe are replaced with arresting contrasts of red vegetation, teal skies, and huge dilapidated structures carved from mountainous slabs of grey stone. An hour or two later and this scenery is replaced with a new space like the narrow streets of a city, lined with neon signs and billboards and lashed with nighttime rain. There’s simple pleasure to be found in moving through each story level, sprinting into crowds of enemies and gunning them down. Everything is designed to make each of these encounters delightful on a fundamental level. The player is provided a selection of decent guns at all times. There is always a limitless supply of enemies on hand who, in welcome Destiny fashion, either stand around waiting for their turn to be shot or run eagerly into the path of oncoming bullets or lasers as if excited for an opportunity to fulfill their role in the game’s grand design. But then, the credits having rolled, Destiny 2’s endgame appears and everything that worked about the game turns sour. Tutorial pop-ups detail harder missions to undertake, new gear to find, and, crucially, more numbers to increase in order to accomplish all of this. Everything novel having been seen by now, a vast plain of Content stretches out endlessly before the player. Here is the “real meat” of the experience, if you’re willing to believe the diehards, sycophants, and easily entertained who preach the Gospel of Loot. Here, as well, is where the math powering Destiny 2’s role-playing game-styled systems becomes completely unavoidable. Players can easily enjoy themselves by exploring each planet until they’ve grown tired of it in the early game, swapping weaker weapons and armour for their favourites from the vast piles of stronger items they’ve accumulated, then move on. There are numbers running beneath all of this, but they hardly matter. Get to the right level and slap the latest equipment onto the character inventory slots and every challenge presented by the game can be overcome. In the endgame, though, the momentum built throughout Destiny 2’s story hits a wall. The numbers become everything. Continuing onward to the game’s final levels (like the more involved “Nightfall Strikes” and extra long “Raid”) requires intimacy with arcane systems of item collecting and trading, repeating earlier missions again and again, and keeping one tired eye on the player character’s slowly increasing “Light Level,” which is a baldly numerical indication of how powerful she’s become. All of this has the effect of surfacing the rigid mechanical structure underlying Destiny 2’s initial, credible illusion of a living world. Though present in the game’s earlier missions, the game insists on shifting concentration from its aesthetics to the math governing previously deemphasized aspects of its design in a way that becomes impossible to ignore. It does so, very likely, to check the boxes required to be a “loot game,” a grotesque genre (best exemplified by the Diablo series) that prioritizes number management above all else. In these games, the cycle of gathering and discarding items is more important than on-the-fly tactical decision-making, exploration for exploration’s sake, coherent storytelling, or any other element of design that makes games enjoyable on anything but a compulsive level. Instead, audiences are trained to think of what’s in front of them as a kind of raw resource to be exploited. Enemies are not goopy monsters to be feared or appreciated as the result of an artistic vision but slot machines whose defeat may or may not pay out a slightly better item to equip. Levels cease to be foreboding dungeons or fantastic alien worlds and become instead ornate sandboxes that may hide a few diamonds if sifted through often enough. These are games, in other words, that embrace the frighteningly common idea that art and entertainment are to be consumed rather than simply appreciated.

Destiny 2, though it doesn’t begin this way, definitely ends by embracing a genre antithetical to its early game successes. Elements that worked in tandem before to create something enjoyable—audiovisual splendor, memorable gunfights, even the flimsy plotline—are all sacrificed in service to becoming a better “loot game.” The meticulous atmosphere of a level ends up as colour shading in one particular cell of a sophisticated spreadsheet. Any minor stress that could be placed on the player’s reflexes or spatial awareness is subsumed by the overriding quest only to bump up item numbers. Everything that makes Destiny 2 good in its opening dozen hours is torn away in order to recentre the experience not as an exercise in aesthetic appreciation, but something much more utilitarian: promoting mindless greed for virtual acquisition. Higher numbers rule the day.

There’s a push and pull between these two sides of the game that feels like it can never be fully reconciled. As with all “loot games,” Destiny 2 ends up showing that it’s more concerned with trapping the player in an endless quest for digital power than allowing them the finite (and presumably far less profitable) enjoyment that comes from gunning through its story-focused beginning. Its player, removed from any sense of discovery or feeling of tension created by the early hours, ends up recast from a warrior fighting across the far reaches of space to a resigned office worker, plugging away at never-ending projects that aren’t exactly unpleasant but sure don’t inspire anything like emotion.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.