Because I'm a simple man and a creature of habit, I do the same few things almost every night after finishing work. I eat dinner and watch some kind of mind-numbing TV with my boyfriend; I have a glass of wine or a beer; I grab a controller and fire up my PS4 to play Destiny, Bungie's divisive RPG-shooter-MMO-psychological experiment. Most of the time I'm not playing with other people, and it's rare for me to work on finishing anything specific. Instead, I spend an hour chipping away at simple bounties — kill this many aliens in this specific way, beat this level, et cetera — or puttering around one of the game's planets sniffing out chests and hidden collectibles. After I'm finished, I'm ready to move onto the next part of my night: that could mean dishes, reading, or writing I didn't get to finish during the day.
If your familiarity with Destiny is passing, you know it either as the space shooter no one shuts up about or the game people hate but can't stop playing. I can't dispute either of those characterizations, but I can tell you this: playing the game has become a minor form of therapeutic recreation for me over the last year, and that's not going to change with the upcoming release of new mega-expansion The Taken King.
I was sucked in almost immediately
I bought my console a year ago today because the Destiny bundle was going for cheap at a local store. I didn't know what I was getting into, but I came home with a special edition white PS4 and started playing that night. I was sucked in almost immediately: the game's fusion of RPG-light character development and finely tuned, creative FPS gameplay was intoxicating. I didn't care much about the terrible story because I was content to fill in the gaps myself; I didn't care about Peter Dinklage's terrible performance as my companion Ghost because at the very least, it was hilarious; I didn't care that the game was skimpy on actual content because I so enjoyed the basic act of running around and shooting stuff.
Its emphasis on PvE (player vs. environment) content — and even the narrative framing of its competitive PvP (player vs. player) component — appealed to me, too: I hadn't played many shooters since teenage years spent with Halo 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where slurs flew around like bullets and team chat was enabled by default. Destiny's emphasis on teamwork, relative kindness, and opt-in sound was appreciated. When I finally managed to join a team and take down Atheon, the big bad ruling the base game's Vault of Glass raid, I felt a sense of camaraderie and achievement I can't remember a game inspiring before. It was joyous — but I wasn't pursuing that feeling thrice weekly or more like a lot of the other intense players I knew.
The game's first two expansion packs came and went, and I watched people celebrate and complain in equal measure — the game's economy changed, it was fleshed out, Bungie's approach to its world evolved, hints were dropped regarding its future. All of these changes only had a tangential effect on my experience. I had a few new missions thrown into my rotation; I had a few new weapons to play with, and it was a little easier to get them to their highest functioning level. By the time summer came into view, I was almost completely divorced from the game's highest-level content, stuff like raids and Nightfall strikes and the Trials of Osiris PvP mode — in short, anything that necessitates seeking out teammates. I was content to level up subclasses and factions, to work on upgrading my existing weapons, to beef up my Grimoire score, all stuff I could do on my own.
Destiny does a masterful job of sustaining the illusion of progress
I understand the temptation to describe my last year of Destiny investment as a total waste of time. Running circles around a game in which there's not much to do in the first place, and willfully neglecting its most challenging and rewarding activities — it sounds insane on its face. And maybe it is! But I want to try to justify it in two ways.
The first is that Destiny does a masterful job — better than any other contemporary game — of sustaining the illusion of progress. Bungie talks a big game about your character hanging around for a decade, hopping into future sequels and growing as you play year after year, and this makes it easy to believe that every humble patrol and simple bounty is helping you to Become Legend. This sense of constant forward momentum and incremental achievement exists on a more granular in-game level, too. Kill enough enemies, and your weapon will be able to kill even more of them with greater speed and style; hunt Wolves for Petra Venj, and she'll reward you with a mystery package, flinging her knife into the air with abandon; bring the Cryptarchs enough engrams and they'll finally decipher one into the weapon of your dreams.
The second piece of justification is simpler: life is hard and stressful and unpredictable, and it's nice to find a reliable source of basic, solitary pleasure. If that source of pleasure just happens to live on a video game console, then so be it. This pleasure lies deeper than the game's huge collectible arsenal or its cast of characters or its group of bosses. It has to do with qualities that are mostly intangible to the standard player: feel, the comfort derived from predictability, the easily missed artistry of Bungie's gorgeous skyboxes.
There's a comfort in Destiny's predictability
There are days where everything I write is awful, where I forget to take out the garbage, where I make a comment to someone that hurts their feelings or gets misread. In the world of Destiny, I'm proficient, knowledgeable, and completely relaxed. I can listen to a podcast or talk to my mom on the phone while I'm playing and that proficiency won't be compromised. I know that a ship is going to drop off a few Vandals and Dregs near the crumbling, seaside ruins on Venus every few minutes the same way I know drinking a glass of water before bed will make me feel better in the morning.
Maybe that sounds pitiful, or like a form of surrender: I decompress and find relief from my life's various stressors and challenges by killing the same aliens in the same places at the same time every single night. It's time that could be spent outside, or reading, or volunteering — it could be spent doing anything else and it'd seem more impressive and impactful. It might as well be a part-time job, one that pays poorly and is devoid of any paths to a promotion. But I think everyone has the right to choose their own sources of dumb, reliable joy as long as they're not infringing on someone else, and playing Destiny happens to be mine.
The Taken King is going to change almost everything about the game when it launches on September 15th, and I'm looking forward to seeing exactly what that means — but it's not going to compromise the simple release I get from popping into its world once a day, and I'm thankful for that.