Ever since Peter Molyneux popularised distrust in gaming hyperbole, it’s become a whole lot easier to default to a distrustful stance whenever game developers paint in broad strokes. We gaming journos are all too ready to dismiss or call bullshit when such embellishments hit the fan, and yet Bungie has seemingly achieved the possible—not just once, but twice—by painting with the broadest of strokes, but still managing to garner excitement with the almighty potential of the rhetorical power of the ‘what if?’ question.
We recently sat down with two Bungie developers: Joseph Staten, writer and design director; and Christopher Barrett, art director; to discuss all things Destiny. And by “all things”, we mean “gleaning assumptions and reading between the lines” on the potential of a 10-year offering that the Bungie duo expresses more than just a quiet confidence for; despite the fact they were more interested in teasing than delivering hard-hitting facts. After some initial banter, the very real confession that one of the Bungie guys was in excruciating physical pain (but wanted to finish the interview nonetheless) and some pop-culture jokes that included Arrested Development references, we delved into the interview.
Initially, we wanted to know about the genesis of Destiny. With the legacy of Halo behind it, Bungie was free to explore whatever it wanted, and it was time to go back to the drawing board. Barrett was all too eager to discuss the beginnings of Destiny that were, even at genesis, erring on the side of ambitious.
“We actually, in the beginning, explored a lot of different things. Like, we talked about the different worlds we could create,” Barrett confesses. “Did we want something more fantastic, or did we want something more harder sci-fi, but harder sci-fi than something like Halo? We explored a lot of different ideas and talked about the merits of them and, I think, like we talked about today, we had sort of gone down the direction of fantasy, but realised that it wasn’t going to give us the kind of game and gameplay that we really wanted. We wanted something that played upon our strengths and we were really good at making. So we thought about mixing those together, and I think at that point that was the jumping-off point where we were like, ‘Hey, we can have both. We can make this world that has both in it’.”
With the genesis point out of the way, we wanted to know how the idea evolved from that starting point. Staten fielded this particular question, and introduced Destiny’s enticing albeit confusing go-to phrase “mythic sci-fi”.
“As far as evolving that [idea] over time, it’s really about taking that basic theme of ‘mythic science-fiction’ and just fleshing it out,” he enthused. “How can we continue to introduce more familiar places or things and gradually evolve them into things that have deeper mysteries that go even stranger and more exotic? We start with a strong theme, a strong genre that we’ve constructed, and build it out over time, being flexible along the way and knowing what to cut.”
Staten’s reference to knowing what to cut is an interesting aside, particularly in light of the 10-year timeline of Destiny that, one would assume, would benefit from the addition of as much content as possible. This needn’t be the case, though, as has been referenced by Irrational’s creative director, Ken Levine, in his not-so-long-ago admission that Irrational had cut around two games worth of content
for BioShock Infinite -- a move that clearly worked, given how we scored it
. We’ve also explored the merits of under-embellishment before in our extensive feature on storytelling in games
, making this solid affirmation that there are developers out there thinking about overabundance, context and narrative, beyond tropes and marketable expectations. But we digress.
As evocative as the “mythic sci-fi” phrase is, it isn’t exactly self-explanatory. When pressed on this, Barrett was able to clarify that “a lot of the ‘mythic’ comes from some of the inspiration and elements that we’re bringing in, and less about the world itself”.
“The world is based in a possible future for humanity on Earth,” he continues. “So it’s bringing the things that we like from fantasy, like, the history and the old tattered cloaks, and the feeling that there was this frontier that people are going to be exploring; all of those mysteries. We brought that into the science-fiction world to get that mixture. We definitely don’t want to literally take a troll and put it in a spaceship. Obviously, that might work for some people, but we wanted to make something that felt really coherent.”
That sounds a lot like Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, to us. When we made this observation, the Bungie duo laughed, but was unwilling to commit to such a simplified comparison. Staten added his own two thoughts to the definition debate.
“We call it ‘mythic science-fiction’, we don’t call it ‘hard fantasy’,” he said. “We’re definitely rooted in a sci-fi world. I mean, there are spaceships and guns and people in armour, and all those things. That’s the foundation.”
“We wanted things that are mythic, like legends, heroes and strange gods and stories that people make up in that world because there are a lot of mysteries in it,” Barrett adds. “So we have all that stuff in a sci-fi world.”
The trick with creating myths, legends, strange gods and mysteries, at least as far as we’re concerned is that it generally involves the creation of a hell of a lot of backstory. As this can be an arduous challenge in itself, we asked Staten how he and his writing team are approaching the balance of backstory versus the much more active realities of present (and even future) narrative that players can actively explore, discover and create.
“One thing we’ve really consciously tried to avoid has been spending lots and lots of time writing backstory,” he revealed. “ I found, over time, what you really end up doing is writing handcuffs for yourself; especially when you’re building a new world, it’s really important to be flexible. As a writer and the writers that work for me, our job is to take all these great ideas, all these fantastical filled-with-mystery images that we get from the artists or ideas from other people on the team, and create a loose structure and try to fit things in where they most belong.
“For example, we came up with a great image of the buried city on Mars, and we’ve also got these great images of combatants,” he continues, highlighting a practical example of how this would actually look in Destiny. “We decide, ‘Well, who goes there?’ We’re not going to go into a room and write a story about what happened on Mars; what we’re going to do is work with the artists and say, ‘Well, what would be the most pleasing combination of palettes?’ Or work with the combatant designers and say, ‘What’s unique about these races and how do they complement these other ones?’ It’s about combining these in elements and trying to be flexible for as long as possible.”
Narrative is obviously a key interest for Bungie, given its emphasis throughout the Halo series, all the while building on a foundation of solid gameplay. For Destiny, though, Bungie seems more interested in turning players into detectives as they discover the many mysteries on offer in the sprawling universe.
“First, what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to fill the world that is big and filled with mystery and encourages people to explore,” Staten offers on the topic of the challenges relating to creating an engaging persistent game world. “If you look at the Halo games, we certainly had non-linear gameplay sections of a mission, but that’s way different than building a place, like the buried city on Mars [in Destiny], that you will intentionally drive players back to again and again for different reasons. And so, part of the making it a world that evolves is one, making it big enough to handle that sort of evolution, and then coming up with great reasons to bring players back there over and over again. When we thought of even our best levels in Halo, we just had one great reason to send you through it from front to back and then go onto the next one, and we’re definitely explicitly not doing that with this game.
One of the most consistent criticisms levelled at the Halo series, though, was tied into its level design. As Staten highlighted, there was always a compelling reason to get you from the starting position to the end point of the map; but there was also a lot of backpedalling through the same environments -- a motif that continued throughout the franchise. Exploration is all well and good as long as there is enough fresh content to be found in environments; even in those that may be familiar. We were keen to know how Bungie was approaching the static-world limitations of franchises such as Halo, or even more closely comparable MMO worlds, in a series they’re hoping will have, at least, a 10-year shelf life.
“I would say choosing who you want to be in the world is a really important part of the game,” Staten says on the matter. “First of all, whether you want to be a female robot hunter, or a male awoken Titan. Those choices are really important, but we also want to make sure that, over time, you grow this character in new and unexpected ways, and the armour you find and the weapons you find become a part of you, too, and those evolve as well. It’s our intention that as you continue to evolve your heroic character there are real choices in the world that matter and new things you can find to change who you are.”
Using Halo as a reference point didn’t end there, either. When asked about how important it was for Bungie to separate itself from the first-person-shooter zeitgeist of the contemporary military shooter, Staten used a comparison to Bungie’s juggernaut sci-fi shooter to provide context for what to expect from Destiny in terms of genre progression
“I would say, for us, it was more about, ‘How do we evolve as a studio from what we’ve done previously?’,” he says. “We had certainly spent a decade working on a pretty straight-up hardcore sci-fi shooter, and I think we wanted to play to our strengths and do stuff that we loved; but we also wanted to build a world where we can accommodate a lot more of those crazy ideas that we had while we were developing Halo, but there just wasn’t a natural place for them in that world. And we certainly look at other things, but I think that Bungie has a long history of being very introspective and very self-critical, and always trying to evolve our own ideas and push those ideas as hard as we can.”
Barrett clarified that Bungie has certain expectations of what to expect from a game that has a projected 10-year narrative, but they were open to the X-factor of what players bring to the table during that timeframe, too.
“As story builders and world creators, also, sure we may have ideas of what may happen in 10 years, but we also want to see what people do in this [world],” he enthuses. “We want the world to evolve as well. So we’re going to continue to evolve that world and, sure, if certain things happen in that world or players do certain things in the game, we’re absolutely going to react to that down the road in the world we continue to build.”
This is certainly a fascinating prospect in terms of an implied linear narrative that complements the sort of individual player stories that are happening across the breadth of Destiny. So, for instance, players can play the role of a lone hero in what Staten describes as a “cinematic story experience”; this being a reference to the linear narrative component of Destiny. But what’s infinitely more exciting is the inclusion of a universal narrative that can carry across modes. Staten hinted at this even more.
“The story that evolves out of a competitive multiplayer match is different to the kind of story that we want to tell in a more campaign mode,” he reveals. “But the critical thing that’s new for us—at least, and really new for shooters, I believe, and someone correct me if it’s not—is that your character really will go; it will journey through all of these different modes. So the legend that you’re building, you’ll have stuff that you got out of the campaign, you’ll have stuff that you earnt from competitive multiplayer, and it will all be part of this common character that’s you in the world.”
To complement this multi-pronged narrative approach, Bungie is also seeking to create a game-world that players will want to visit time and time again. According to Barrett, the key to this was forging a world filled with hope.
“I think the main things we sort of kept in mind when we were creating the world and building ours is that we wanted it to be hopeful; a place that people want to go back to over and over,” he explains. “If we’re expecting them to spend time in these places, it’s like, it should be fun and it should be hopeful and a place that people want to visit, right? That’s certainly a pillar for us when we’re creating the world itself -- above all, it contains all kinds of imaginative fun things that we can dream up that players will hopefully also enjoy.”
In terms of how far Bungie is willing to push the all-important alien aesthetic, though, as it relates to art-direction, Barrett was interested in finding a pertinent place between the familiar and the exotic.
“I think if you create something that no-one’s ever seen before, then they’re not going to have any way to relate to it; they’re not going to bring anything to the table, they won’t have any feelings about it because it’s completely foreign to them,” he says of the creation process for the alien component. “So we want to strike a nice balance between things that are inventive and creative and new, but also that are grounded in things that are familiar to people in some way as well, so it’s always striking that balance. That is the approach we’re trying to take.”
Finally, given the emphasis on the 10-year timeframe for Destiny, we were eager to know how this would break down in terms of narrative content -- would it be like the spinning-in-the-mud plot ‘advancement’ of Days of Our Lives, or would it be the meaty plot push, character growth and world exploration of Game of Thrones? Staten unveiled a handful of influences that offer a lot of promise for the narrative emphasis in Destiny.
“I think the best answer here is that when we were looking at this game, we definitely, back in the Halo timeframe, read a lot of sci-fi and watched a lot of movies,” he reveals in closing. “When we were designing this game, we still read a lot of sci-fi and a lot of fantasy, but we really looked at things like Game of Thrones -- both the books and the television show. The narrative in the books is very much like a serialised television show. We looked at shows like Lost and The Wire; Battlestar Galactica, and all of those spoke to us because they were really great [and] fully realised worlds, but the arc of the story they were telling was much longer. It was a serial narrative rather than a straight-shot 90-minute action/thriller movie.
“As we looked to build this world over time and tell the story over time, we’re absolutely thinking in longer arcs than we have before, at the same time making it really fun. You can still devote 20 minutes to it, sit down and accomplish something.”
The concept of a 10-year story arc that can be influenced by players but, in the same breath, which is built on the solid foundation of what Bungie knows best—solid shooter experiences—has us more than a little excited for what’s going to be announced next by the studio. If reading between the lines of our end-of-interview banter was anything to go by, you may even be able to count down to hands-on coverage from E3. Fingers crossed, because we can’t wait to get hands-on time with Destiny.
In case you missed it, you can also read our initial impressions of the game from our visit out to Bungie's HQ in Seattle earlier this year for the game's reveal