header is screenshot from Games as Service
Destiny Anxiety
Yussef Cole

Though true throughout human history, it feels all the more true now: we live in grim times. Every day brings with it more disturbing news, whether on the subject of the interminable global pandemic, the foibles of our unjust and ineffectual governments, or our unstable and rapidly deteriorating climate. A cacophony of misery; an ever-growing list of reminders of the brevity and fragility of human life.

Each of us only gets one life, one brief span of years with which to make our mark on the world and to experience all that we can before we are all swallowed by history. Despite this, we willingly squander our precious time playing videogames, including popular live service games like Destiny 2. Live service games are less traditional games than interactive platforms, which are constantly updated and iterated upon. They are designed to occupy players’ leisure time for countless hours, days, and even years; they extend deep into our futures, hoping to eclipse all other games, activities, and competing horizons.

But Destiny 2, along with the rest of its live service contemporaries, also serves a vital purpose: it distracts us, with its ever-extending longevity, from the existential dread of living in the world. During a recent event for Destiny 2's upcoming Witch Queen expansion, Narrative Director Adam Grantham admits that the series’ journey is “drawing to its dramatic conclusion. The light and darkness saga will end.” He quickly adds: “But make no mistake, Destiny 2 will not. We’re building, not so much to an ending, but more to this transformative moment for Destiny 2’s future.”

As long as the game’s developer, Bungie, remains solvent and committed, Destiny will continue on, in one form or another. Its framework of endless, drip-fed experiences provides us with a way to defeat death; to seek out and claim the bounty of life everlasting. It is less a game than a tiny, boundaryless universe, where our choices, shallow as they are, never close off avenues of possibility, but rather branch out in infinite, endless directions.


Irvin D. Yalom, a psychoanalyst who specializes in the interaction of existential philosophy and talk therapy wrote about this style of death avoidance in his book Existential Psychotherapy. “It is one of life’s most self-evident truths,” he proposes, “that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must live, nonetheless … in the face of the fear.” He adds later: “All individuals are confronted with death anxiety; most develop adaptive coping modes ... to overcome death through a wide variety of strategies that aim at achieving symbolic immortality.”

Symbolic immortality is the ultimate goal here, and there are plenty of methods aside from games with which to achieve it. Traditionally, people have lost themselves in their careers, their personal relationships, their sex lives. We all strive to escape the narrow confines of our own limited identities by pouring ourselves into our ambitions, into other people, into any vessel which might save us from holding onto the terror of death alone.

If we keep rushing up the ladders we construct in our heads, if we seek after the attractive and the glamorous, we can momentarily stave off having to look at ourselves. As Yalom puts it: “To the extent that one attains power, one’s death fear is further assuaged and belief in one’s specialness further reinforced. Getting ahead, achieving, accumulating material wealth, leaving works behind as imperishable monuments becomes a way of life which effectively conceals the mortal questions churning below.”


In Destiny 2 the common complaint goes: all you do in the game is grind through repetitive missions in order to get more powerful gear in order to be able to grind through further repetitive missions. It doesn’t have the same satisfying arc as games with linear narratives, where you amass power in order to defeat the hardest bad guy and receive the congratulatory, release-granting gift of a final Game Over screen. Destiny 2 can’t give the players this gift because it cannot end.

It’s in this cyclical, ouroboros dilemma that the shape of the game’s narrative is revealed. Destiny 2 coming to an end would imply the symbolic death of our little heroes within it. And we refuse to let our magical Guardians die. After all, as Yalom writes, “Death is connected with banality and ordinariness. The role of magic is to allow one to transcend the laws of nature, to transcend the ordinary, to deny one’s creaturely identity—an identity that condemns one to biological death.”

In spite of all its proper noun-ed techno jargon, it is magic which Destiny promises. The magic of symbolic immortality, played out in the daily and weekly rituals of flying around its sandbox, burning and pillaging the same endlessly rejuvenating enemies for eternity. There is no real, lived humanity in this story or its mechanical systems. Rather, in reaching for the eternal sublime, your heroes have progressed beyond the “banality and ordinariness” of biological life. Humankind’s saviors were dead long before their story even began.

So you play in the graveyard, in the twilight of a once vibrant civilization, one that once lived and died. And you struggle vainly against the natural decomposition of the Final End. “The light and darkness saga will end … Destiny 2 will not,” remember. Your unnatural, inhuman bodies will continue to twirl and frolic through the dark, cycling through nonsensical emotes, casting yourselves off ledges and into canyons while your anxious ghosts hurriedly suck you back into corporeal existence.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, pyschiatrist Viktor Frankl’s account of his time spent in Nazi death camps during World War II, he surmised: “The Latin word finis has two meanings: the end or the finish, and a goal to reach. A man who could not see the end of his ‘provisional existence’ was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life.” The universal lesson drawn from Frankl's tragic experience is that “provisional existences” cannot allow for growth or for understanding, for new knowledge gained from living with the choices we make or the ones made by those around us.

The choices and decisions other games offer (however minimal) have no place in Destiny 2. Sure, there’s always a better gun around the corner or a hard-earned badge to win, but the future otherwise washes over all progress, like a wave erasing footprints on the sand. Progress without finality, without measurable results, is impossible. Choices without consequences are hollow. Immortality erases life’s meaning.


Getting older, living with my choices and with the closing of certain doors, has always felt like a double-edged sword. I have produced work which I cherish and which has made an impact on others; I have achieved much and have made my loved ones proud. But getting older also means facing my own isolation. It means recognizing that the elders who once guided me are no longer in positions to give the same guidance and comfort. Now I am the one who must guide others, I must hold the responsibility of decisions made on my own shoulders with no one else to show me how.

Live service games offer a balm for this existential dread. They offer us the promise of everlasting life within their infinite playgrounds. They offer safety and comfort, they distract us away from the ever-present hissing of sand against the side of the hourglass. The gamble which live service developers make is that we will gladly sacrifice the potent and the compelling aspects of finite art in order to be spared the reminder of the limitations of our finite lives.

And for the most part, we do. Live service games are some of the most popular and profitable in the industry, part of a trend that shows no sign of slowing. Like the Last City in Destiny 2, scrabbling for light and life even as darkness swoops in from all sides, we turn to our own Great Machines (available in limited quantities at Walmart and Best Buy) and grind our precious time away within their comforting gears. We soak up the ephemeral comfort, the sense of freedom from the yawning abyss, for as long as we can.


During a recent encounter with the Awoken Queen, Mara Sov, she describes to the Guardian the obsessions and self-deceptions of her erstwhile brother Uldren: “Uldren never stopped repeating the same old stories … Even as his demeanor darkened in his later days, I know it was the thread of a story that kept him upright and walking. Something fake for him to believe in. A star to chase … ” This narrative finds reflection in our own approach to games like Destiny 2. We chase our own stars: rare items, proof of our prowess and our perseverance, comforting stories to keep us upright and walking. But without meaning, the sense of comfort which these transient distractions bring will always be a fleeting one. We need meaning in order to lose some of our fear of death and of the darkness.

In Destiny 2 we burn away the darkness however we can. We throw our Guardians at it with all their terrible might and righteous, invincible fury. And once that speck of darkness is momentarily erased, the game drops into our hands small glittering trinkets, minor goals to keep us going. Small comfort in the face of everything—against the constant reminders of our fragility—but as long as it continues to exist, it is comfort which we will gladly and compulsively seek.


Thanks to Vivian Chan for consulting and research help. Many of the ideas in this essay were first explored in the essay we co-wrote for the digital zine, Endgame Sequences, entitled “Until The Last Moment.”

Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.