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My joyless time with the digital sherpas of Destiny

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"Go stand behind that rock. When you can, pop out and hit him with your heavy weapon."

These were easy instructions to follow, and the other person on my Destiny fireteam knew what he was talking about. He had run this strike multiple times, and was nice enough to teach me the ropes.

I was taking part in a battle that had been fought hundreds of thousands of times by other players, and every moment of the battle was well-known. I walked over piles of virtual and invisible bullet shells. It was rare to die here; everyone knew what to do, and how to do it.

I stood behind the rock. I hit him with my heavy weapon, when I could. We eventually killed the giant monster, whose name escapes me. I was rewarded with a legendary helm that I barely felt like I earned.

Coming in late

This isn't a story about Destiny, not really. It's barely a story about me. It's about the well-worn paths of any game where there arises an accepted way to do things, and then coming into those well-worn paths after they have been beaten down by huge numbers of players who had come before.

desire path 2

A desire path is a path that wasn't planned, but rather created because a large number of people wanted to go another way. If you've ever seen a path of dead grass that is the shortest distance between two points, you've seen a desire path. The design of vanilla Destiny and almost all of its content has been wiped away by time and turned into one long desire path. The puzzles and surprises that delighted the first players, or possibly frustrated them, don't exist for me.

"Go left here," I'm told by my guide. So I go left.

This is what happens when you do any form of end-game content with grizzled veterans. They are doing me a favor; shepherding me from place to place like a tourist with a gun so I can get in a few shots, feel like I did something of worth and collect my loot. They are digital sherpas, and the skill and dedication that was required by the first players to figure this all out is meaningless now. What used to be unknown ground is now the litter-strewn base camp at Everest.

This happens in MMOs, and it even happens in high-level online competitive play in certain first-person shooters and MOBAs. There is a correct way to do things for the best advantage and highest payoff. If you deviate from that path, if you leave the desire path, you are shunned. There is no room for experimentation or mistakes. The perfect way is known, so why not take it? Your friends are willing to help you, so why not let them?

I'm not having a bad time, but my reward is the gear and levels, not the fun of playing the game itself and being challenged by it. In the absence of needing to be mindful of the gameplay loop we chat about our lives and our children. I hear a friend's child calling in the background. It feels more like we're out back playing checkers over a cold soda rather than playing an online game.

The perfect way is known, so why not take it?

It doesn't have to be this way. You can fight this by only playing with other people who have never played this part of the game, and that's going to be in easy in Destiny when The Taken King brings in so many new players. But I'm impatient, and I want the good gear. I want to level up quickly so I can play the higher-level content with others. I know I'm missing many of the sights and sounds of the game, but I'm all too happy to take the desire path, for now. My friends want to be my sherpas so I can later join them in the challenges that will soon be unleashed.

When The Taken King launches tomorrow, I'll be able to experience everything for the first time with others going through the same surprises. This is why I want to build a competitive character right the hell now; the payoff is being one of the first players into the game to look around and see what's there to explore. I don't want to wait for the desire path this time; I want to help create it. Buying a game at launch is often a crapshoot, but this is the reward; the spoilers simply don't exist yet. The veterans don't know which rocks to tell you to hide behind.

This is what I'm waiting for, even if my past week of playing Destiny has been fun but a bit joyless. So I hide behind the rock, and I walk where I'm told. I read the guides, and ignore the story and now-well-known surprises. I step carefully over the invisible dead, knowing that I'll likely never have to join them.

The Taken King: Rift mode gameplay