In the original Destiny, The Last City was truly the final bastion for humanity against a hodgepodge of alien factions that sought to destroy them. The game was set in the ruins of an advanced, space-faring humanity that has conquered the solar system, and The Last City was where humans cloistered, defended themselves and launched the offensives on the solar system that many of us played through in Destiny. Destiny 2 begins with it being conquered from without by the ruthless Red Legion and its leader, Dominus Ghaul.
The loss of the city also means the loss of the Traveler, the giant white magical orb that gives every Destiny player, called Guardians in the fiction, their superpowers through a mystical energy called Light. This is an apocalyptic event that upsets the balance of power throughout this narrative universe. It gives players a vengeful purpose. Something that was yours, that you spent years protecting in the previous game, has been stolen. You have to take it back.
Protecting the Last City and The Traveler is what gives Guardians their purpose. Everything they do is justified implicitly by that relationship, whether that is violence against other civilizations or the suppression of dissent at home. The problem that Destiny 2 presents us with is simple: Is every decision that a Guardian makes justified by the Traveler and its Light?
[Ed. note: The following piece contains significant spoilers for Destiny 2’s story campaign.]
This issue is dramatized in the relationship between two key characters in Destiny 2: Commander Zavala, a strategic leader of the Guardians and one of the council of figures who helped construct and rule The Last City, and Suraya Hawthorne, who isn’t a Guardian and never had Light, but is no less of a leader.
In the opening of Destiny 2, following defeat by Dominus Ghaul, Zavala flees to Titan, a moon of Saturn, where he plans to establish a base of operations to begin retaking the city. Zavala embodies the Guardians’ desire to return to the Light of the Traveler. He wants to reestablish the system of order and control that guaranteed the survival of his people for so long. He wants to put Guardians back in the commanding position over humanity, and to do so he needs the Light.
Running parallel to Zavala’s story is the ascension of Hawthorne, who, without superpowers, organizes the earthbound refugees of Ghaul’s assault into a network of survivors and resistance forces. She represents the average human who steps up, protects those around her and fights for survival. Her existence threatens the leadership role that the Guardians have taken for so long. If average people can survive here, then why did the Guardians have a monopoly on power? Hawthorne makes clear that the Last City’s walls kept citizens trapped inside as much as it kept enemies outside. For Hawthorne, Zavala’s mission of re-establishing order is a move to reassert a caste society in which Guardians have all the answers and the common person is kept powerless.
In playing Destiny 2 and acting out this drama, I couldn’t help but think about Greil Marcus’ book on America and prophecy, The Shape of Things to Come. In the opening, he writes that American exceptionalism — the idea that America is somehow more unique and special than all other places on Earth — “re-creates the nation as a voice of power and self-righteousness, speaking to itself a message that is carried to the whole world.” Following down from the Puritans, Marcus argues, American rhetoric has held that the nation was chosen by God, and that judgment will rain down on itself and its enemies should that covenant ever be broken.
If this seems a little familiar, it’s because it is the fundamental core of the story of Destiny 2. When Zavala pointedly wonders if Guardians are even Guardians without access to the Light, it’s merely a sci-fi way of restating a very old American idea about grace and being chosen by a higher power. The narrative of retaking the Traveler from the evil invaders has a religious, “granted by god” bent, and that means purifying those within the community as much as it does expelling those who would threaten it. To fully embrace the us-versus-them narrative of defeating the Cabal, who would literally take a god from the Guardians, Destiny 2 has to ultimately abandon any problems of coherence within the ranks. The “bumpiness” of the Zavala/Hawthorne narrative has to be emptied of all possible confusion by the end of the game. We have to know who is good and who is bad.
Destiny 2 can entertain Hawthorne’s perspective, but the game’s commitment to playing out a narrative of a chosen people versus heartless invaders means that, in the end, Hawthorne cannot be right. The player is an agent of revenge, and they’re a Guardian. The absolute necessity of retaking the city and The Traveler, of reasserting the player’s rightful place in the world, means that we’re forced into embracing Commander Zavala’s perspective. The real turn for this is during the cinematic we watch as Zavala and Hawthorne work to retake the city. She saves him during a tense encounter, and after some banter, he tells her “good luck, Guardian.”
Destiny 2 questions the leadership of the Guardians, the importance of Light and the social structure of the far-flung future, but its commitment to a return to order fundamentally means that it cannot pay that narrative off. Guardians can do no wrong, because to implicate Zavala or any other Guardian as wrong would be to question the entire support structure of this world. Zavala, the character who literally gives voice to the self-righteousness and power of the Guardians, is able to absorb all criticism of his position and assert his rightful place at the peak of the Last City. Everyone is blessed by the Traveler again, and the covenant with the orb god is reestablished.
When the game’s story ends and Dominus Ghaul is dead, Hawthorne is brought into the Guardian fold. The critiques of the Guardians are silenced by absorbing her into that system. Unified, the heroes of the story reassert the Last City with all of its problems, and they embrace the rule of the Guardians without any friction. With order reestablished, there’s no room for criticism or discussion about whether the social order imposed by the Guardians is right or good. They won, so they must be right.
Cameron Kunzelman is a game critic. His work appears regularly at Paste Games, where he is Editor at Large, and at Waypoint, where his weekly Postscript column deals with endings, death, and final bosses. His writing has also appeared at Kotaku, The Atlantic, Quartz, and some other places. You can follow him on Twitter @ckunzelman.