During an all-expense paid trip up to Bungie headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, Randy sat at a roundtable discussion with several other game journalists. For a good 20 minutes, they pried into the insights and motivations that drove Destiny 2's story and cinematics teams. The following questions came from every direction around the table, and they were fielded by Jason Harris from Destiny 2's story team, as well as Matthew Ward on the cinematics team. Despite a mildly contentious start from one of the questions fired off about character classes, the discussion dove deep into the motivations of Destiny 2's new bad guy, Ghaul, how the story will treat new players versus returning players, as well as the story writers' glee at stripping away the player's powers.
[WARNING: STORY SPOILERS AHEAD.]
With multiplayer, Destiny 2 goes down to four-player teams. One of the reasons stated was, “There’s a role for everybody.” But with that fourth person, there’s no new fourth class introduced.
That’s sort of outside the scope of where we had our involvement. We’re super dedicated to story, here. A lot of the high-level development decisions that were made, in terms of the number of classes that were made, or how the specializations were broken out, you know, those were handled by different teams. We tried to include a good narrative wrapper around some of those decisions made. But our involvement in PvP, for instance, was to develop a strong character in Lord Shaxx or—
—So, would you say there was a narrative reason for not introducing a fourth character class?
No, there’s no narrative reason.
Was there any discussion of not doing a silent protagonist this time around?
Yes, we definitely had that conversation. There’s always that conversation. We talk about everything, top to bottom with all of our creative partners and stakeholders. And Destiny 1 had a non-silent protagonist. What I would say to the silent protagonist is, that we put a particular emphasis on the player’s story and the journey that each one of you is going to experience in the world of Destiny. We feel that the balance of how much you talk versus a character we create—you see, this isn’t the Master Chief or Uncharted’s Drake. This is you. Ultimately, we didn’t want to be too presumptuous about the words we put in your mouth as you experience this story. The Ghost is there with you, to experience this story with you, to add some flavor or framing to the experiences you’re having.
And you call it out in the story. Cayde-6 says, “Say something! Say anything!”
Well, we make the joke because we’re just as aware of it as you are. It’s certainly harder for us to write a story with a character that doesn’t speak. There’s even that moment you saw, the “Say Something” moment, where you get cut off. We started to have some fun with that, too. I mean, if we’re not having fun with it, what are we doing? There’s a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that we tried to add to the story on this go-around. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. I’m sure you’ve heard this along multiple channels from multiple people, but this game is all about "finding the fun." Part of finding the fun is making sure we’re a little lighthearted, even in the context of finding the Lost City destroyed, the loss of your home, and the stripping away of your powers.
Can you talk a little bit about developing Destiny 2's new bad guy, Ghaul? We see a lot of cutscenes with him and we learn a lot of his motivations. He feels like a more fleshed-out villain, traveling on his own character and story arc, so to speak, while the player is doing their own thing. Can you talk about developing that, as sort of a departure from what we’ve seen in Destiny 1?
Any good story, any good fantasy epic, any good space epic, is going to live and die based on how you frame the depth and relatability of your villain. We put a lot of hours into this villain. At first he’s just a guy that proverbially kicks us in the balls, then presumably moves on down the road after taking over Earth. But we spend time building up this antagonist. He’s not just a bad guy, right? In his world, he’s the good guy. In his world, he’s as complicated as you. He has depth, he has purpose, he has a mentor. Everything he’s doing is by the book. His actions are meaningful. If he was a generic bad guy, he’d just be blowing stuff up, conquering world after world. We wanted to make sure that our bad guy, our antagonist, just wasn’t that cliche. We wanted him to be something more, for him to be relatable. If not during the whole campaign, we still want the player to feel for him a bit. You feel like this guy was denied something. Where he comes from, what he does should be rewarded by the most grand gods. So, here he is, at the feet of the Traveler. To yell at God and hear nothing back—what is that like?
It allowed us to have a lot of fun, and it gave us someone to care about. We wanted to make sure we had a character that was real and deep and relatable. There’s two key things going on with Ghaul Giving him a goal, a motivation, something that he desperately wants that we, as players, can relate to. Is it power? Is it Earth? When I look at you guys and the time you’ve spent playing Destiny 1, other than your Vaults in the Tower, what do you care about storywise? You don’t care. You care about your Light, you care about your progress, you care about your powers. You care about that which the Traveler gives you. If you lay those down in front of Ghaul, and you ask, “How can I relate to a villain?” it’s by giving us both an anchored want, something that we can both point to and say, “I want to have that.” It’s the same thing when you look at The Dark Knight. What are Batman and the Joker fighting for? They’re both fighting for the soul of Gotham. Same thing. Same exact thing. We’re both fighting for the soul of the Traveler. It’s the power and abilities that the Traveler gives us. And on the other side of it, I think you start to see it in the first couple CG cinematics, you see that Ghaul has this drive and obsession with being worthy. And Ghaul’s mentor walks up to him and says the Traveler’s Light is his for the taking. But no, Ghaul doesn’t want to just take it. It’s more important to him to be chosen, and to have his worth validated. And you’ll hear Zavala say it, when Zavala asks, “Without the Light, are we even Guardians?” Look at that from Ghaul’s point of view. Without the Light, without being chosen by the Traveler, is Ghaul worth anything? Everything he’s done, everything he’s gone through, means nothing unless he’s been touched by god. Lowercase “g” god. In quotes.
One of the more interesting moments is on Io when you first meet the Taken. But the game treats us like new players, like The Taken King never happened. How are you addressing new players versus returning players?
We do have contextualized dialogue in targeted locations. When you go back and play through with your profile carried forward from Destiny 1, you’re going to get a series of different lines. They’re going to acknowledge the experiences you’ve had. We have to look at this when we tackle the story. How serialized do we want to be in this story? We want to bring new fans into this franchise. But in so doing, we have to make it accessible to those people. The experience you just had, where we introduce the Taken and talk about them as if we’ve never heard of them before, we wanted to make sure new players got that context without us making things confusing. Who the hell is Oryx? Who is Crota? We could bog down a player with tons of lore and world building, if we’re not careful. So we crafted contextualized dialogue that wasn’t going to break continuity for a new player. But when you go back and play with your profile, your profile that comes equipped with the experiences you’ve had in Destiny 1, you’re going to find these moments in Destiny 2 that are pretty well-layered into moments you’ve had back in the Destiny 1 era.
One of the best parts for me while playing The Taken King was reading the calcified fragments and the Books of Sorrow, talking about the origins of Crota, and the origins of the Taken. Was it hard ripping out the dead Ghosts and inserting all that lore as interactive stuff? I know that when you’re, for instance, looking at an exotic piece, you can hold down L2 and it’ll basically give you a Grimoire card that you can read. Is there going to be a way for us to somehow read Grimoire cards in game, or are Grimoire cards just gone?
Grimoire cards, as you know them from Destiny 1, are gone. Who’s to say how we’re going to make that content more accessible outside the game? But it was a hard and fast goal for us to take all that Grimoire content and get it into the game. To make it more accessible for a larger number of people.
Do you think that Grimoire information is more for returning fans than newcomers?
Absolutely not. I think it’s there for everyone. When a game’s story is as robust as ours, it’s an onion, you know? There’s the story you get as you play through an activity, there’s the story from the cinematics, and everything you get if you just blow through it. But if you peel back, there are going to be lore tabs, there are going to be scannables, things like that, that you’re going to be able to sit down to, listen to, and read, to add that much more depth to your narrative experience.
How do you marry your campaign progression with your Light level and leveling up? How do you find that balance? Like when you can’t go to a destination until you’re, say, level 11. How do you keep progression fluid without a person being overpowered when they do encounter the story?
That’s a designer question. I mean, we really don’t know. The only time we add narrative context to the level of power your character has is, specifically, that moment in the story when you get your power back. It’s a fine balance when you’re adding narrative context to game functions, versus what is truly part of the game. It’s something that we talk about at every turn. The thing that you pointed out right there is just something that’s very much a game mechanic, and not very narrative driven.
When you do have a narrative role in the gameplay mechanic, like the mission or two when you are stripped of your powers, what was the narrative drive there?
Oh, it was an amazing narrative opportunity. It’s the tried-and-true “Is Superman still Superman if he doesn’t have his superpowers?” moment. If given half an opportunity, I would’ve tortured you guys with another two—another three—more missions with you stripped of your Light, if I could’ve gotten away with it. But that is not the case. [Laughs.] I look at it as a story opportunity. The best Superman story is Superman II, right? Richard Donner. Take away his power. Is he still Superman? Is he still out there trying to do good?
In Destiny 2, we’re encountering a lot of familiar factions, like the Cabal and the Fallen. When returning players have fought these enemies so many times before, how do you keep them fresh? How do you make them feel like a threat again?
Let’s look at the Fallen, for example. I don’t know if you caught onto this in your progression. But in Age of Triumph, we have a few Grimoire cards in there that is the story of the Fallen. We use those to key into the current state of the combatants in the here and now. The Fallen is a great example. The Fallen have lost their house structure. You have the Kells, and the House of Kings, and the House of Judgment, and the House of Devils. All of these things are gone now. They’re just a broken, scattered people. Some of them have gathered in the European Dead Zone. Some of them have just gone back to roaming the solar system, scavenging. I think we’re able to progress their story just by asking ourselves the logical questions. Where would they have gone, say, following the events in the House of Wolves? How did that affect the Fallen as a whole? What happened after the Taken King? And on and on. It’s a matter of asking the questions and forcing ourselves to answer them. Then, going back to your earlier question, using a contextualized dialogue system to add a little more flavor, depending on how far you’ve gone through the Destiny 1 era.
Which cutscenes outside of the main campaign were your favorite to work on? You have the main cinematic cutscenes, but I’m talking about the in-game, in-engine cutscenes, like the character subclass cutscenes.
All the subclass ones are friggin’ dope. It was a lot of fun developing those. We knew this moment was going to be an important one. We knew that initial subclass cutscene was going to be a big deal. It was fun working with Nolan North on that, giving a new “voice” to the Ghost, and what it was like for him to be so close to his mother, so to speak. The excitement in that, and him getting jazzed as you get your Light back. And we knew we were going to come back and do that a couple more times. So, when we were first playing with it, we weren’t sure how big these moments were going to be. We didn’t want any one of them to take away from the other. But that’s a perfect example of when all of Bungie gets excited about what they’re doing. The design guys are excited. We just come together and create something that’s just pure spectacle. We don’t want to force words into your mouth, but we hope that everything we’re showing is everything you’re feeling, and that we’re doing it justice. We’re excited to have several more tiny, cinematic moments like those scattered throughout the game. Not just having people talking and pushing story-direct narrative. But experientially showing you something, letting you know, "Wow, this is what it feels like," rather than taking the camera away from you. I think it’s about creating a very condensed moment of player fantasy in those subclass moments. It’s like, “Yeah, this is what it’s like to have this thing!” You can feel the weight. You can feel the fire burning off of you. We got good feedback during those moments in the Taken King, too. We enjoyed making those little cinematic moments. We left everyone with that cool shot, that last hero pose. The goal of each one of those was to pump you up and get you excited.
Special thanks to Jason Harris and Matthew Ward for going into the lion's den and talking about Destiny 2's story with all of us.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games since he got out of the Navy in 2002. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile