Though most big budget games featuring heroes with god-like powers tend as a result to tell mythically inspired stories, Destiny 2 is unquestionably a religious game. Its main cast of characters are a uniformly devout bunch, and its background fiction is full of tales concerning the celestial beings who actively shape its universe and provide spiritual guidance for the many mortal races who follow them.
The primary heroic body of Destiny 2 are the Guardians, who worship their god, the Traveler, despite knowing little about its true aims or intentions. After many years of expansions and story arcs all we ultimately know is that the Traveler blesses some with its life-giving Light, and keeps that gift from others. For those who are the active recipients of the Traveler’s boon, that blessing serves as an important strategic resource and a forcefully defended one, at that.
In this manner, the Traveler performs a strictly mechanical function, and behaves like any other vital natural resource such as crude oil or uranium deposits. One of the game’s alien races, the Eliksni, who have come from across the universe in a desperate attempt to regain their lost favor with it, call the Traveler the “Great Machine.” And it certainly acts like one. It sends forth its tiny robotic drones—called "Ghosts"—in order to reanimate a select group of corpses, granting them inhuman strength and immortality. It’s a big hovering generator, a supersoldier factory hanging in the sky.
But it’s also a god; to your Guardians, to their Vanguard, to the citizens of The Last City who cannot see the sky but for its all-encompassing pale white magnificence. It is a celestial force, doling out justice and divvying up power as it sees fit. Though we fight to protect the Traveler, we cannot truly know it, and can only anxiously clutch its warm Light to our hollow chests, hoping desperately that it won’t be taken away.
Destiny 2’s original villain, aptly named Dominus Ghaul, wrestled with this contradiction. At first he approached the Traveler like the lifeless machine he assumed it to be, a giant outlet he could park his own plug into, ejecting the Vanguard’s in the process like a rude Starbucks customer. Over the course of his narrative arc however, Ghaul becomes more and more indoctrinated into worshipful obeisance to the Traveler, to the horror of his more practically minded generals. He’s helped along this path by his captive, the Traveler’s Speaker, a character who guided and helped indoctrinate the player’s Guardian during the events of the first Destiny.
The Speaker, in his cutscene interactions with Ghaul, comes across more as a religious ascetic than someone essentially in command of a powerful military resource. “The Light lives in all places, in all things,” he calmly intones into Ghaul’s rage-contorted mug. Later, he continues: “Only those who the Traveler chooses will be reborn in the Light.” The Light is everywhere, but only humanity is apparently deserving enough to be able to wield it as a weapon.
Those who are blessed are naturally also the ones who believe. The Traveler’s validity as a god is tied to its ability to strengthen us. As our nervous little Ghost whispers into our Guardian’s ear: “The Light is sacred, Guardian. It’s what gives you your power.”
Though the Vanguard long considered the Traveler’s power as their divine right, recent events have seen the Hive Witch Queen, Savathûn, previously a despised villain, receive that very blessing. A perversion. A blasphemy! “Stealing our most sacred resource,” as the Wizard Ikora puts it, “the one thing we thought she could never touch.”
Yet, in light of Bungie’s recent narrative efforts to make sympathetic some of Destiny 2’s long list of enemy hordes, Savathûn cannot merely be discarded as some grasping conqueror to be put down, as Ghaul was. We’ve already learned much about the Eliksni, previously dismissed as “The Fallen.” They were once a species as gifted and successful as humanity, but were abandoned by the Traveler, fleeing from its mortal enemy, The Darkness. Once the nameless cannon fodder of the Destiny games (occasionally still so), the Eliksni are now sympathetic allies, “there but for the grace of the Traveler go I” types. So it’s only natural that Destiny 2 would go on to invite us to extend our sympathy in the direction of other groups previously considered as enemies.
In Destiny 2's latest expansion, The Witch Queen, the Hive falls under this same lens. We learn that the Hive, once considered to be purely violent, amoral, and self-interested, were in actuality tricked into abandoning the Traveler and putting their faith instead in a group of worm-like beings with an incessant hunger for conquest and blood tithes. Their faith, one which has produced so much ruin and catastrophe over the years, is revealed as hollow, nothing more than a galaxy spanning shell game. If their worm deities, seemingly vast, unknowable, and enormously powerful, are nothing more than false gods, is it so outlandish that the Traveler, our own impenetrable white sphere, floating just out of reach, might also be less trustworthy than we had always so devoutly assumed? In seeing other belief systems collapse in the face of cold truth, it seems inevitable that the Vanguard will experience its own crises of faith. Not just the Vanguard but the players controlling them too; Destiny 2’s hardcore and devoted audience.
Because it’s not just the game’s characters who believe in the triumphant power of the Light, it’s the players as well. How else would you explain the urge to return endlessly to the digital gacha grind day in and day out, and after so many years? How else would you explain the rush to complete each new, even more impenetrable raid just to get to say you were the world’s first, or replay that same raid content week after week just to gain access to all the dazzling weapons and armor which may or (far more likely) may not have dropped?
Destiny 2’s Guardians, and the players who motivate them work in service of that seemingly divine responsibility, irregardless of a Traveler who remains silent and stoic, unreachable. But “devotion inspires bravery,” as the Traveler’s Speaker once said. We are the devoted and so we seek to prove our capabilities and our strength. The systems of the game readily embrace and reward that devotion, in the form of artificial scarcity and online bragging rights. Destiny 2 agnostics need not apply.
Instead, bring on the holy crusaders, the level-maxed elite. The champions of the Crucible’s meta, festooned in the rarest of gear. We are flush in the game’s sacred resource: Light for the Guardians, exotic loot for their players. All of it, jealously guarded and hidden away. Any and all interlopers or pretenders to the throne to be unceremoniously crushed.
We would do well, however, to learn the lessons of the Hive or those learned by Ghaul, all those expansions ago. The full line that the Speaker delivers to him is: “Devotion inspires bravery, bravery inspires sacrifice, sacrifice leads to death, so ... feel free to kill yourself.” And, helped along by the player, Ghaul eventually does. He and the Hive are sad, pitiful figures, worshipful of a fake god, unable to access the warmth and reward of the Traveler’s Light. Misdirected and lost, sent on meaningless and futile crusades.
Meanwhile Savathûn herself seems to have learned something from all this. During the events setting up her storyline in The Witch Queen, Savathûn is mortally wounded and seeks out the Traveler in a last ditch moment of desperation. Gazing up at its silent bulk she quips: “Wouldn’t it be clever of you if after everything, you simply let me die?”
Wouldn't it be something if after everything, after all those missions and sorties, the mountain of bones crunched into dust beneath our boots, the heads melted away into oblivion beneath the heat of our fusion rifles, we, too, were allowed to die? If, after everything, like Savathûn and her Hive, we also learned that the faith we served and protected for so long was just as hollow, just as blatant a lie?
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.