Destiny: A new hope, unfulfilled.
The cinematic that opens Destiny establishes itself as taking place in the present day, but everything about it—the spacesuits, the capsule design—seemed to me to take its cues from the science fiction films of the 1970s. I wound up feeling this way about so much of the game’s look. The technology I encountered in human installations on other planets that had fallen into ruin looked not like I now expect the machinery of the future will look, but how I think someone in 1977 might have thought the machinery of the future would look…
…and the fonts and iconography throughout the game all made me feel like I was on the elaborate set of a film from that era.
And it makes sense. I think our shared idea of what spacefaring science fiction looks like is still shaped by films like Alien and Star Wars, that there haven’t been new visions that have captured the collective imagination in the same way. So if you want to tap into notions of myth and magic among the stars, you look to those films for inspiration. Destiny wants to feel just a bit grounded. It’s set in our solar system, not a galaxy far, far away, after all, and those aspects of its design that remind me more of films like Alien—the corporate logos, the boxy, practical, industrial designs of some locations—give its universe a rough-around-the-edges, working-class feel that I find appealing. But Destiny is far more space opera than hard sci-fi, and it was Star Wars that I found myself reminded of again and again as I played the game. More specifically, it was the way I felt about Star Wars as a child.
In the opening cinematic, you’re introduced to the Traveler, a massive orb of unknown origin that’s embroiled in a timeless struggle against evil. What is its nature? Its very existence suggests the transcendent, that our universe is not just a place of science but of magic, too.
And I can imagine myself as a child lying awake wondering about the true nature of the Traveler in the same way that, as a child in the early 80s, my imagination was captured by the idea of the Force. The religious beliefs my parents tried to instill in me didn’t take, but films stirred in me a desire to believe that there could be things in this universe that we can never fully understand. Destiny makes gestures in this direction, too. Sadly, they end up being empty ones.
And very early on, I loved the idiosyncratic look of my character.
The game’s narrative doesn’t develop your character at all, but to me, her look suggested that this was a person with an interesting story. I was reminded of the rogues gallery of bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back, most of whom get almost no screen time, but whose looks are so distinctive and memorable that as a child, I was thrilled by the idea of their stories, and the larger universe their existence seemed to suggest.
I wanted the action figures for them, so that I could create their stories on my own.
And as I played through Destiny’s hollow story, a story full of vague mumbo-jumbo that doesn’t mean anything at all and is only the flimsiest excuse to send you from Earth to the moon to Venus to Mars, killing things all the while, this was the feeling that I kept coming back to. That I was playing with elaborate playsets and action figures that suggested stories and that have tremendous potential to tell them, but that don’t actually bother to do it. I honestly have absolutely no idea what it is I’m supposed to have accomplished at the game’s conclusion. There were words suggesting that my actions aided the Traveler in some way but there seems to be no stirring of whatever technology or spirit lies at the heart of the massive orb, which leaves me feeling like the game’s early hints of suggesting something transcendent or of telling a story that means something are just empty promises, nothing more than a framework for delivering its shooting mechanics and progression systems. Of course these things—the actual “game” part of Destiny—are refined and enjoyable. But because Destiny doesn’t follow through on the potential it establishes, they also end up feeling soulless, unlike the sci-fi the game seems to take its inspiration from.
I’m glad Destiny exists. I enjoyed the time I spent in its richly visualized locations. I just wish the game matched the richness of their design in other ways. Instead, it leaves it up to me to imbue its characters and its locations with life. Destiny is a universe full of potential, but for now that potential is almost as dormant and undefined as the Traveler itself.