Skip to main content

Unable to "defeat gravity" and keep old content, Destiny 2 has become the Darkness

"We're keeping the stuff that's important"

Cayde-6 and Ikora look at a giant pink triangle looming over valley in Destiny 2: The Final Shape's CG trailer.
Image credit: Bungie

The original Destiny storyline opened following the collapse of a vast Terran civilization at the hands of an invading, amorphous Darkness and its various alien accomplices - an advance stymied only by a benevolent Big Dumb Object known as the Traveller. It cast you as an ancient warrior, resurrected by a flying robot to reclaim humankind's old dominions together with their antique, storied weapons and gear. So much of its appeal for me, back in 2014, was the mystique of that reclamation process, bolstered by alternately zany, obnoxious, fragmentary or intriguing writing that expanded upon the viral mythological element in Halo.

Fast-forward nine years, and Destiny 2 has turned the destruction and loss of history wrought by the Darkness into a seasonal - or as it's shortly to become, "episodic" - content "cadence" (a term that stems from the Latin word for falling) of erosion and restoration, with areas, weapons and quests stripped periodically from the game due to a mixture of technical pressures and commercial priorities. It's sort of become the very thing you're fighting, but where the Darkness aims to engulf and extinguish the Guardians of the Light, Destiny wants to keep you engaged.

A screenshot of the fan favourite rocket launcher Gjallarhorn in Destiny 2.
Image credit: Bungie

I reviewed the first Destiny on Xbox 360, back in the heady Dinklage era when the hot goss was of whether Raids would make the difference between 8/10 and 9/10, and the very first loot caves were unearthed by players hoping to skip the grind. I've not been keeping up with the Bungie behemoth - I rolled Destiny 2's campaign credits before it went free-to-play, peered at the vast Escher labyrinth of drops and dailies beyond, and decided I'd had enough. But I continue to be fascinated by the game. As regards the European and North American industry, at least, I think it's the ur-example or patient zero for the particular, baroque forms of artificial scarcity today's service games must cultivate, as they try to keep players hooked. Again, this is largely thanks to how Destiny ravels the concept of erasure into its on-going storyline.

I was reminded of all this by a just-published PCGamer interview with game director Joe Blackburn, in which he discusses Destiny 2's forthcoming switch from a seasonal content model to a more "agile", "reactive" framework of three episodes per year, each divided into six-week acts with new quests, story, activities, weapons, artifact mods, armour, pass ranks and rewards. As ever with Destiny, the question is what happens to all that extra stuff once those six weeks are up. "I don't think we're talking about that yet," Blackburn said, when asked whether episodes would be archived away in the infamous Destiny Content Vault at the end of the year.

The roadmap for Destiny 2's new episodic release "cadence" across 2023 and 2024, showing what each three-act, six-week episode contains.
Image credit: Bungie

There are some entirely fair-sounding reasons for the ebb and flow of materials between Destiny 2 and the Vault. On-going engine changes sometimes oblige the removal of older locations and features, and Bungie don't want Destiny 2's file size to grow too large - it's topped 165GB in the past, including expansions.

"The answer that's not great here is that the pressure of how much stuff can fit on the disk is still immense for Destiny," Blackburn went on. "For the last few years, we've been really focused on how to keep all the stuff that's critical to the Light and Darkness saga in the game. We want to make sure that in the next year of Destiny, the most critical content, both from player enjoyment of logging in every day, and from knowing what's happening in the narrative and seeing the best content, remains in the game. That's the lens that we're looking through. We have not been able to defeat gravity in terms of making Destiny twice as big as it is, but we want to make sure we're keeping the stuff that's important."

I can't say I've ever had to oversee a decade-long service-game production, so will hold off poking too hard at Blackburn's reasoning here. But as ever, it's worth noting that other service-based games have managed the trick of retaining their pasts - the obvious one is Minecraft, though some would describe the Mojang monolith's sprawling history of alterations as a form of erasure. And there's the obvious element of commercial calculation: removing treasured or even worn-out aspects of Destiny allows them to be triumphantly restored or resold as updates and DLC, once enough time has passed.

Non-service games do this from sequel to sequel - think of reboarding the Ishimura in Dead Space 2. With Destiny, Bungie have packed that loop of cultivating and harvesting nostalgia into the arc of a single game's saga of extinction and recovery. This layered entropic cycle is mesmerising, and a little chilling, especially now that Destiny has become a de facto memorial for Lance Reddick, the wonderful screen and voice actor who died this March, but lingers on temporarily in the shape of Destiny NPC Zavala. He'll be revoiced by Keith David in the game's vaguely Pink Floyd-esque Final Shape expansion, which launches 27th February 2024 and brings the Light/Darkness storyline to a conclusion.

It's also intriguing to compare Bungie's approach with the growing handful of games that are thinking about longevity in more of a, well, long-term way, probing beyond the intrinsically ruinous "if it pays, it stays" mindset of the industry at large. The one I keep returning to is Billy Basso's Animal Well, which, perhaps quixotically, is designed to be compatible, playable and packed with unsolved mysteries in 10 years time. I wonder if we'll still be playing Destiny by then.

Read this next