One of my favorite things about being a longtime player of Bungie’s Destiny franchise is observing the studio’s ever-changing approach to content delivery and story. I consider the studio’s work to be at the forefront of delivering living stories, helping to shape how the industry thinks about ongoing world building and storytelling. They are certainly not the only studio exploring innovative ideas in that space. Developers are looking for ways to keep players engaged in a changing game world, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to even games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
I especially enjoyed the narrative beats of Destiny 2’s latest arc, Season of the Lost. The return of two queens – Mara Sov and Savathûn – as central characters feels memorable and exciting. And the Astral Alignment activity was fun at the same time and featured a compelling story turn: building a bridge that would ultimately result in a chance to free Savathûn from her prison and hopefully find the long-lost Osiris again.
This week, the new Exorcism mission concluded the overarching Season of the Lost storyline and set the stage for the major Witch Queen expansion. As an event structure, it totally takes over what I’d like to see from live games like Destiny. Here we had an important story beat wrapped in a custom mission. Like the Astral Alignment activity that preceded it, it was matchmade so solo players and groups of friends alike could enjoy it. The mission itself was exciting and action packed, but not so difficult that a wide spectrum of player skills couldn’t top it. And, perhaps most importantly, it provided a thrilling ramp to the next piece of content on the way in The Witch Queen expansion. We had a thrilling chase across a bridge, a desperate position to defend the queen and a literal exorcism – nice stuff. Like a post-credits sequence in a major comic book movie, the closing moments of the connected cinematic cutscene fuel the excitement of what comes next.
In all those respects, it’s a model for what I’d like to see in continuous, living game worlds. A growing and dynamic fiction makes a game world feel like a real place, and I immerse myself more in that fiction when I feel like I’m playing a crucial role in the big moments that shape the future. I prefer cinematic moments accompanied by new gameplay experiences, as this Exorcism mission turned out to be.
At the same time, anyone who played the event when it launched last week can tell you that not everything went smoothly.
Perhaps the biggest culprit was one of those mistakes developers should be afraid of. The final pivotal storyline that wraps up not only the mission but the entire season turned out to be skippable. And can be skipped by any member of the current matchmade fireteam. Last Tuesday, as I was excited to see the end of the story, I was suddenly thrown back into orbit, the story incomplete. My refuge was to watch a streamer’s recording of the event on YouTube. Supposedly, it was an unfortunate thing that was overlooked in the final hours of what I’m sure was a challenging content rollout. But however you cut it, it clouded the gist of the story.
Another issue was more about timing. The Exorcism mission arrived literally months after finishing the rest of the season’s story for avid players of the season’s content. It would be like reading an entire book in August and September, only to be asked to wait to read the last chapter in February. While I respect the desire to have a big moment right before the launch of a new expansion, in this case the flow of the story was too disrupted, further hindering my enjoyment.
Finally, I struggle with Bungie’s decision to make Exorcism such a short-term event. Unless Bungie surprises me by leaving the event in place when The Witch Queen launches (which seems very unlikely), it looks like this big story beat will only be available in the real world for one week. I was lucky enough to be free to play this week, but what about my friend who is now on vacation? Or the player who doesn’t watch every moment of Destiny online chatter every week and just misses this happening? I understand the desire to create a living world where players feel like they were there at some point so that they have that special memory. But a single week, with little fanfare about the nature of the offerings, feels like a particularly egregious example of fear of missing out on driver engagement. And that’s something I don’t want to see Bungie or other studios embrace as a model for live and ongoing games.
As it is, in more general terms, Destiny 2 has played a solid role over the past year with its narrative rollout. I love the sense of momentum and dramatic weight we’ve seen from recent character beats and storylines. And I love that Bungie has embraced the depth and sci-fi sophistication of its broader knowledge in its story – the game is much better with greater complexity in its themes and intoxicating concepts. The Exorcism mission is very close to what I want from a piece of bridge content that connects one season to another, even if there were some major issues along the way.
Regardless of those issues, I’m gripped by excitement at what comes next in this great multi-year story unfolding. And we’re about to get a substantial injection of that story when The Witch Queen arrives tomorrow.