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Destiny’s roots can be traced long into Bungie’s past

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Tracing Destiny’s DNA back to its creators’ cult origins

Marathon: Durandal on Xbox Live Arcade
Bungie

With Destiny 2’s Forsaken expansion, Bungie has managed to bring the original game’s compulsive, skinner-box addictiveness to its divisive sequel. By most accounts, their gambit looks to have paid off — in large part due to, well, Gambit, the addictive new mode at the heart of Forsaken. It’s taken a while for Bungie to fully exploit the game’s underlying appeal, but clearly Destiny 2 is a critical enough venture for the studio (and publisher Activision) to motivate them to redeem its shaky launch.

Destiny 2’s initial launch — it reviewed well but seemingly failed to retain players in the same numbers as its predecessor — prompted many pundits to write off the franchise and studio alike. But is Forsaken’s tale of redemption really so surprising?

Bungie’s history always catches up to it

Bungie has been dabbling in first-person shooters since before the genre had a name, having published its first take on the FPS back in 1993, when everyone called the style of game “Doom clones.” Despite occasional false steps, Bungie’s FPS excellence stretches back to the days of MacOS cult classic Marathon and its sequels. These are works to which Destiny, as it happens, owes a tremendous debt.

The demands of creating and marketing a modern tentpole franchise have sanded down many of the quirkier elements that defined Bungie’s older shooters. You can still spot them, though, if you know where to look. There’s a common theme and some idiosyncratic story-telling techniques we’re going to explore throughout this piece.

And this connection holds true even if the Bungie of 2018 barely has any direct connection to the studio that operated under that name back in 1993, when the studio self-published its very first retail release: an unique take on the FPS called Pathways Into Darkness.

Pathways played a lot like a Lovecraftian interpretation of System Shock (albeit a year before System Shock’s launch). It made Bungie an instant favorite among a small but enthusiastic audience of gamers who, like Bungie, refused to abandon Apple’s dying Macintosh platform. The company’s efforts to create a sequel to Pathways mutated into Marathon, which turned out to be a more typical interpretation of the FPS.

The Marathon trilogy retained the complex narrative element that had made Pathways so fascinating, but it reduced elements like inventory management and exploration down to a superficial nod. Marathon put its emphasis on fast-paced shooting, a host of LAN-based deathmatch modes and a sizable palette of multi-purpose weapons to keep things lively.

Again, Marathon was created by a different Bungie than the one that exists today. Only company chief Jason Jones — lead designer and programmer on Pathways, and one of the studio’s two original employees — remains from those first years as a cult MacOS developer.

In the quarter-century since Pathways, Bungie has grown, moved, been acquired (by no less than the Mac fan’s old nemesis Microsoft, at that), and purchased back its own freedom. Amidst all this turmoil, though, the company has never strayed too far from its shooter roots. There was that flirtation with real-time strategy in the form of the Myth trilogy, sure, but even that ultimately led back to the FPS. The grand, space-opera RTS to follow-up to Myth mutated into Halo, which immediately became one of the biggest and most influential FPS franchises in the history of gaming.

Unlike Marathon and Myth, Halo’s still running strong ... and if you think Destiny 2 took a while to come into its own, just consider Halo’s Master Chief Collection, which has finally been updated to meet fan expectations nearly four years after launch.

Of course, Bungie itself has no involvement with Halo now; the company relinquished its hold over the Halo series more than a decade ago, leaving it in the hands of Microsoft’s 343 Industries. You don’t have to look hard to see Bungie’s heritage percolating through the current Halo games, though. The next chapter will ship under the name Halo: Infinite, which echoes the title of the Marathon trilogy’s finale, Marathon: Infinity. That 1996 classic got its name because it shipped with a host of design tools intended to give fans the means to create endless content; one of those tools was called Forge, a moniker Bungie recycled for Halo 3’s map editor.

Destiny 2 doesn’t include any such overt connections to the Marathon games, but you don’t need to work too hard to spot the connections between Bungie’s past and present projects. Marathon: Infinity reads like an early prototype for Destiny in a lot of ways, albeit a prototype limited by the realities of 1996 technology. Infinity ran on a humble 2.5D engine rather than sending players through worlds constructed of actual polygons. And while it supported local multiplayer, the idea of teaming up with a squad of internet-connected friends from around the world to take on enemy hordes would have been inconceivable 22 years ago.

Despite the constraints of the era, Infinity represented the pinnacle of what could be achieved in a 2.5D shooter. Infinity’s engine lacked true 3D support, yet its level designers — a coalition of Bungie staff and contributors from a short-lived studio called Double Aught — managed to contort it into intricate, interlocking spaces with a sense of height, depth and interconnectedness rarely seen in pre-Quake shooters.

This studied complexity resulted in a notoriously unforgiving game. Consider the one-two punch that opened Infinity’s second chapter. Called “Acme Station,” the level forced players into narrow corridors crowded by a handful of powerful foes. Hulking cyborgs blocked the winding, intricate paths players needed to traverse in order to reach the exit, and the entire affair was set inside an environment that drove players to race to complete the stage before their oxygen supply ran out.

Even reaching the exit didn’t offer a respite; you beamed directly into the next stage, which was a huge hangar bay patrolled by enemy soldiers and autonomous gunships. A hangar that, like the station, lacked breathable air.

It’s hard to imagine many modern shooters presenting anything quite so taxing as Infinity’s most harrowing moments, especially in their early stages. Some of that is a sign of the medium’s evolution into a mass-market concern. Infinity’s layouts relied a little too much on sly nooks and crannies that weren’t always evident as elements of the critical path. Its stages were crammed with the sort of quirky roughness that modern play-testing would likely sand down to make things more intuitive and minimize friction.

Still, Bungie has never lost its taste for challenging players. The nature of its challenges has shifted toward tasks that require teamwork. Even so, besting a Forsaken raid demands every bit as much of a personal investment as, say, beating Infinity’s brutal penultimate battle gauntlet (cheerfully titled “You Think You’re Big Time? You’re Gonna Die Big Time!”) on the game’s brutal “Total Carnage” difficulty.

Infinity didn’t offer online play, but it planted the seeds that ultimately led to Destiny’s team-oriented design. Its story-driven campaign mode, “Blood Tides of L’howon,” could be played cooperatively. While very little of the “L’howon” campaign was designed to take advantage of this feature, it did include a handful of extra stages that were only accessible through two-person teamwork.

It’s in these bonus levels that you see the clearest through line to Bungie’s current approach to the FPS, because they contain tantalizing hints that further fleshed out Infinity’s enigmatic storyline. Four years after Destiny’s debut, players still don’t really know what the Traveler is, understand the nature of the Darkness or fully grasp the overarching plots and ambitions that drive millions of players to run around shooting stuff.

The Halo series’ story under Bungie tended to rely on similar enigmas; much of the franchise’s background first came to light in Halo 3, and only then through hidden, cryptic computer terminals that forced fans to compare notes and spin best-guess theories about their true nature. That particular gimmick came straight from the Marathon series, which predated the use of real-time cut scenes in shooters to convey narrative.

Marathon come with ample story and lore in hand, but it doled out critical information through the use of computer terminals. Critical terminals communicated gameplay objectives to players, while computers on the periphery doled out tangential information that hinted at (but never explicitly stated) information that fed into the core plotline.

That technique reached its peak with Infinity. The central narrative of the game played out in what initially seemed like a disjointed, chaotic mess. Players teleported around to different locations, serving at the whims of different factions in what appeared to be different points in time.

Taken as a linear experience, Infinity made practically zero sense. Only when players took the time to pick over all the supplemental terminal information (and, yes, to hunt down those co-op-only text fragments) did the story begin to come into focus.

Infinity never clearly stated that it centered around time travel, forcing players to explore alternate story outcomes and prevent a galactic disaster; they had to sort that out for themselves. And not only did the player need to skip backward and forward through history, they could even take a wrong path and end up stuck in a recursive loop until they found the proper terminal to advance to the next of the surreal dream stages that served as chapter breaks in the story.

Infinity’s baroque story was every bit as tough to navigate as its intricate stages. Unlike the games surrounding it on either side — Marathon 2: Durandal and the Myth games — Infinity was the last Bungie release to ship exclusively for MacOS.

It’s a shame, really, because it truly does embody the strengths and weaknesses of Bungie’s approach to FPS design. The sheer craftsmanship invested into its two dozen campaign stages and numerous multiplayer maps place Infinity at the pinnacle of the 2.5D shooter format. Between co-operative play, pioneering (and now-standard) deathmatch modes and a suite of distinct multi-function weapons, Marathon Infinity hints at its creators’ future far more directly than the games most developers were producing in the turbulent transitional year that was 1996.

Thanks to Bungie’s decision to release the Marathon games to the open-source community, stepping back in time to rediscover Infinity (and its predecessors) is pleasantly painless. Still, it’s not strictly necessary to go to that length. After all, Marathon’s DNA powers Destiny 2. Forsaken may be a prettier and more social take on the genre, to be sure, but it’s really not so far removed from its 2.5D predecessors as you might think.