Almost from the start, Destiny signals its desire to conform to sci-fi's conventions, to pay homage to the works that all too obviously inspired its makers, rather than attempt to subvert or try anything original.
Note: This article contains very mild spoilers about Destiny's early scenes.
The opening scene shows astronauts landing on Mars, leaving the obligatory footprint-in-the-dust, faithfully reproducing a routine we have all seen many times before. Anyone waiting for a fresh take on this ponderous image is left disappointed.
Eventually the astronauts are confronted with a mysterious orb, itself something of a cliché. Despite a gargantuan budget, this opportunity to imprint the viewer with a sense of wonder and curiosity slips away. The scene is so humdrum, it is really quite forgettable.
Destiny was pitched to the world as a sci-fi epic, interactive fiction on a grand scale. Yet while it does many things very well, such as combat mechanics and lovely playable environments, its narrative, its plot and its characters have been lifted from the shelves of the Sci-Fi Fiction Dollar Store.
A lot of this game's story feels like fan fiction.
After the Mars scene, Bill Nighy voice-overs a thick slab of exposition about the orb that carries all the thrills of a schoolhouse educational film. It's dull and amateurish. I don't think it would pass muster from a movie studio or even TV production house.
All this raises interesting questions about the function of story in video games. Does it exist merely to enable the forthcoming action, to provide a vaguely convincing stage-set for the shooting fun? Or, with a vast budget at its disposal and pretensions of artistic validity, ought it try to do something vital and new in the realm of sci-fi as a whole?
To be clear, there are lots of things in this game to admire. Its in-level artistic fiction is often amazing, carrying gorgeous details. But for me, the story is slapdash and lazy. Perhaps it's a function of Bungie's desire to make the game wholly about the player and your relationship with other players. But this is still a fictional world, and what cutscenes there are (about 30 minutes worth) lack that most crucial element of all good fiction: originality.
It feels like a cobbling together of favorite scenes from Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey; a jumble-sale of Top 100 Sci-Fi scenes. This would be fine, if only it had something new and interesting to say.
Early in the game we see the aliens clambering across rusting automobiles on broken freeways, human skeletons still inside the cars. Has there ever been a more hackneyed portrayal of civilizational catastrophe?
Obviously, different forms of fiction serve different functions. Games are (generally) not as good at exploring big themes or intimate character development as novels. But comparisons are instructive, particularly if games are going to seek to cross old barriers.
Recently, I've been reading Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance. It manages to take many of the tired elements of fantasy and make them feel fresh and provocative. Like Destiny, this is a story about heroes, magical weapons, a coming darkness, agents of evil, a lost golden age. But Sanderson has taken every one of those narrative fibers and tugged and reshaped them into something unfamiliar, something that creates a sense of mystery and curiosity.
The TV adaptation of Game of Thrones is so compelling, I think, because George R.R. Martin's originals did such a great job of turning the ideas of heroism, villainy, nobility and evil on their head. Destiny does none of these things. It serves up a generic combat fantasy, and expects the player to graft their own individuality onto the story.
Unfortunately, although we were promised a world in which we are able to become legend, the reality is rather more prosaic. This game is largely a journey from A to B (albeit with choices along the way), but the story offers too little in the way of amusements and diversions.
The most obvious potential source of humor is the little Rubik's Cube robot character called Ghost, but it splits its time between delivering quest blah-blah, intergalactic profundities about the end of the world and dismal attempts at cutesy Cringer-style humor. Even while the gadget whirs and spins, nothing it says actually clicks.
Destiny's writing is really not very good. In one scene, a feeble attempt is made to impose some mystery on the orb's destruction. "There are many tales told throughout the city to frighten children," explains a glum priest-type, wearing standard science fiction robes. "Lately those tales have stopped. Now, the children are frightened anyway." Dreary stuff.
This piss-weak dialogue is a shame, because there were a lot of talented people working on this production, and no shortage of funds. It smacks of long meetings and management types fiddling with every last comma.
Many great stories spring from the mind of a single creator, and are then expanded by others. Destiny's story looks like it was concocted by committee, according to a formula we have all seen too many times before. It's a wasted opportunity to show that big games can tell truly great stories.