I still remember when I made that fateful decision. It was a summer night, and I’d had a couple of drinks, prowling around Los Angeles with some coworkers after a week of E3 tomfoolery. As we chattered along in the back of an Uber, we decided it was time for one more drink. (It’s always “just one more,” though of course it never really is.) We walked down the hallway of the hotel toward the bar in the back, and that’s when my colleague Sam Byford said the magic words. “Plante’s going to start it, too. I’ll get up early to play with you; I don’t care.”
That’s when I decided to try Destiny.
I’d heard all the stories: it was a narrative mess; a mash-up of first-person shooters and role-playing games, armed with a fistful of bad sci-fi tropes and writing to match. There didn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground with the game; it was either slavish devotion or outright hatred. But I had a brand-new PlayStation 4 on the way, so when I got home that night I ordered the first physical copy I could find. I wasn’t worried about The Taken King or expansions. I figured I’d use the game as a periodic distraction, just like I’d played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy back in the day. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I first started, nothing really stood out as problematic. I whipped up my character (an Awoken Hunter with red hair, natch), and after getting through the set-up mission I proceeded to run around the Tower realizing I had no idea what the hell was going on. My savior was Peter Dinklage.
If you’ve never played Destiny, Dinklage provided the voice for your Ghost, a sort of floating robot spirit guide / deus ex machina that guides your trip. If you have played Destiny, then you know that Dinklage’s performance has been despised since the game’s earliest days. But for me, he was a companion and a friend; I was running through this post-apocalyptic galaxy doing ridiculous things against ridiculously named villains (the Vex? Really?) but how bad can things be when Tyrion Lannister has your back? It was only well after my Destiny chipping had grown into a daily habit (and the ensuing internet research began) that I realized other people didn’t like Dinklage’s performance. But I didn’t care whether the wizard he was talking about came from the moon or from Endor; I was in with Tyrion. But as my skills improved I realized something very sinister was at play.
Because Destiny is both a shooter and an RPG, you spend a lot of time gaining experience so you can level up. Levelling up to get stronger, levelling up to wear better armor, levelling up to take advantage of more powerful weapons. When you hit a certain point, it becomes a brutal, slogging grind — and that’s not even taking into account the bizarre experience-plus-equipment formula the game used when you hit level 20. (It involved magic armor and something called Light; that system has thankfully now been fixed.)
A therapist would point to some sort of latent obsessive-compulsive disorder
Destiny became a sort of virtual to-do list for me: proceed along the story levels, complete bounties to work up points and currency to buy other things, rinse and repeat. For somebody like me, who spends a lot of time arranging the apps on their smartphone screen just so, there was something strangely appealing to it. I’m sure a good therapist would point to some sort of latent obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a need to bring order to the universe, but either way Destiny soon became an obsession.
I’d grab a quick hour of gameplay after work, only to realize I’d somehow warped to 1AM. At which point I needed to wrap things up, of course, with another quick 15 minutes (that inevitably turned to another hour). My girlfriend, who had kindly requested I not turn into a gaming junkie when the PS4 arrived, started to ask about the clicking in the background when we’d talk on the phone. Or why I couldn’t remember certain topics that we’d discussed. Or why I talked about Peter Dinklage a lot.
Look, I’m not proud, but I’m not going to lie to you, either.
Over the weeks, my obsession increased as I zeroed in on a level 30 character. That was a signpost of particular importance, because as I fell deeper into the game I did become interested in those expansion packs and the upcoming The Taken King. Players that hit level 30 when The Taken King came out would get exclusive digital stuff, you see, labelling them as early adopters who had taken on the challenges of Destiny well before The Taken King brought it to the commoners. (I’m fully aware that none of this makes any sense, but such is the power of gaming addiction.)
At level 27, crisis struck: I had to go on vacation. Vacation where I wouldn’t be able to play my precious Destiny, stranding my ginger-haired avatar without means of advancing. I checked in on him with the Destiny mobile app during brief down moments, just to see what he’d accomplished (and where I could improve; the kill-death ratio on my last few missions hadn’t been so hot). And I made the mistake of reading some of the "grimoire cards" that are part of the game; little snippets of backstory and context that would have been integrated into the story in any kind of cohesive experience, but here were relegated to the backwaters of the web and mobile apps.
And that’s when the emptiness started to creep in.
After I got back home, I threw myself back into the game, rapidly advancing until I completed the story and hit level 30. I urged other friends to buy the game and join me in co-op missions, desperate to recapture that initial feeling of magic. I preordered The Taken King and began exploring the missions that came in the game’s first two expansion packs. I maxed out at level 32, high-end armor and weaponry across the board. I even started up a new character, hoping that beginning again with a Titan would somehow fill the void.
It all came crashing down on August 14th. I was getting ready to head to Anaheim to cover an event, and just before I jumped in the car I saw the news: Xûr (a magical salesman that shows up in the game every week) was selling Gjallarhorn (a super-fancy rocket launcher). It was a coveted weapon, and my endorphins kicked into high gear as a single thought surged forth in my consciousness: I must have this.
I turned on the TV and powered up the PS4. One quick trip to the Tower, and Gjallarhorn would be mine. I got there. I found him. He had it. And I was two credits short.
"I can just play a quick mission to make up the difference," I thought. I tried. I failed. I looked at the clock. I had a 90-minute drive and a hotel check-in ahead of me. I could still do this.
I tried again. It was one of Destiny’s no-bullshit group missions, where you can only resurrect if a team member revives you. If you all go down, it’s game over. We fought against the villain — some crazy wizard skull-looking thing in a room full of metallic scaffolding — and it was like being in an Iron Maiden video with a sniper rifle and a robot costume. I went down. The other two teammates got me back up. They went down. I got them up.
Like being in an Iron Maiden video with a sniper rifle and a robot costume
Then one of the players quit. There were two of us left. We battled hard, fast, back and forth as legions of monsters and magical glowing orbfire shot out at us. (I’m sure there’s a grimoire card explaining what the orbfire is made of, but I never found it.) Then I went down one final time. I waited for my teammate to revive me… and then he succumbed.
I left the house and drove to the conference. I posted one sorrow-filled missive online, and then went inside.
I don't know what's worse — that I understand this headline, or that I'm away from home and can't take advantage. https://t.co/LWJqtKkePO— Bryan Bishop (@bcbishop) August 14, 2015
When I emerged two days later, I came back to the game, but my heart wasn’t in it. Sure, I was finally improving in some of the competitive Crucible matches, but that wasn’t what intrigued me about the game in the first place. And then the final crushing blow, a piece of news I’d missed after I’d returned from vacation: Dinklage was out, and gaming voice-over artist Nolan North was in.
With The Taken King days away now, I’ve thought about returning to my former home. Bungie has promised a bit more of a coherent narrative this time around, which could be the thing to lure me back in and make me care again. I leapt online yesterday, in fact, to give the new levelling-up system a whirl. I couldn’t even remember how to wield my arc blade. I think it’s better that way.
Although I never did play with Sam.