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Talking to the monsters in Destiny’s House of Wolves

The Fallen were the first thing we saw of Destiny. Appearing in a lone piece of concept art, trickled out by Bungie in response to a leak. It was a simple reveal, but a careful one, with Bungie knowing well enough that the Fallen would come to be one of the game’s most compelling races. Long before the game’s release, and longer still before the Fallen-themed expansion, House of Wolves, it was these four-armed aliens that were the vanguard.

In this early image they are picking their way across a winter landscape, hidden beneath domed helmets, long cloaks, and fur collars. The figure closest to us has tubes and straps loomed around his chest; it looks out with dimly glowing eyes. Like Tusken Raiders in arctic garb, their cloaked shapes and concealed faces draw us in. Is there a person beneath that mask, we wonder, or a monster? Behind this figure a bulbous tank sits in the snow, its tan carapace suggesting an overgrown beetle, weaponised and marked for war. There are hints of Warhammer 40k’s Tau in its design, shades of Half Life 2’s striders. It shows the kind of sophisticated and distinctive science fiction styling that often never makes it out of the concept design stage, remaining tantalisingly distant, a sketch yet to be filled in. Yet the Fallen were filled in. They were modeled, designed, textured and scored, then delivered unto the muzzles of a million eager Guardians. Their arachnid tanks marched across Earth’s shattered remains, their foot soldiers swarmed the Moon’s ghostly craters, and their captains hid in the dappled light of unearthly Venusian palms. Thousands of words were written to expand their history, hint at their grand origins, their great fall. Their organizational structures, military tactics, beliefs, and desires were all detailed.

Despite this, in Destiny the Fallen mostly hang around in tight formation waiting for a player to turn up and gun them down. Despite their long history, detailed lore, and strong design, the Fallen are at their best when they are simply targets arranged in just the right configuration. That’s because the most interesting thing you can do with one of the Fallen is shoot them in the head. That’s not an insult—the Fallen are among the best things you can ever shoot in the head in a videogame. Put a bullet between their four wormy eyes and their heads pop off like champagne corks, releasing a chemical-white burst of ether. The sound that accompanies this uncorking is like the sound Coke bottles make on hot summer days. This crisp shiiink is followed swiftly by the unmistakable whine of a soul being released from its material bindings to dance among currents of pure energy. All this is scored to the creature’s four arms clutching at their now-absent faces, before they slump dramatically to the floor. This kinesthetic combination of sound and image, the result of many hours of work by a team of skilled artists, has the feel of being tuned to perfection. Even after the thousandth time, a Fallen headshot, snatched in just the right moment, can emanate a feeling of simple satisfaction.

Yet, there is also something distinctly unsatisfying about the Fallen. Perhaps it has something to do with the distance between that first image and the final headshot: a gulf between the promise of a mysterious alien race, fed by ornate technology, clothed in ragged scraps, stalking through the snows of a distant world, and their long and endless genocide at your very capable hands. Perhaps it is something Bungie have noticed too, as they have chosen to revisit that first image, to fill in the sketch a little more. The opening cinematic of the game’s new expansion,  House of Wolves, begins with Fallen soldiers stalking through an icefield, in darkness now, lit by a ominously hovering Servitor. It’s a promising start, recalling that first mysterious bit of concept art, but it is also a false promise. After all, the player never gets to pick her way amongst flurries of snow, stalking alongside the Fallen just as they quest on an unknown purpose. No, this cinematic is little more than the animation of a bowling computer, a setting-up of the pins before the next strike.

the death of your enemies is so mathematically brilliant

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“If only you could talk to the monsters. Now that would be something.”

This infamous line from Edge magazine’s low-scoring review of DOOM has become something of a running joke. Held up as a prime example of “missing the point,” and lately, retconned into representing some kind of fictional anti-gamer conspiracy, it is widely disliked. It’s easy to see why. In a game like DOOM, where shotguns kick like cannons, demons collapse into lovingly animated bloody corpses and labyrinthine corridors bristle with secret doors, looking for dialogue options seems like a fool’s errand. There is artistry to DOOM, after all, and the swagger of its pulpy violence is exactly where that artistry is located. In the case of Destiny, the same argument might be made. When movement through 3D space, the weight and heft of weaponry, the arc of your grenade throw, and the death of your enemies is so mathematically brilliant, so elegantly designed, why ask for anything more?

The problem with this argument, and with simply palming off Edge as missing the point with DOOM, is that it presents a very limited view of what interaction in a game actually is. It’s true that input and feedback lie at the heart of game design, but it is also true that games are able to offer more. That “something more” might be loosely joined under the concept of fiction. Games can build worlds, tell stories, they can expand characters and arguments. None of these things are passive processes. They are active interactions between the player and the game, even if they don’t hinge on the timing of a button press. That’s what Edge were asking of DOOM—for it to give attention not just to the process of killing monsters, but to the process of bringing monsters to life. It is an argument DOOM helps support by its very design—which is suggestive, intriguing and coherently built. The legions of demons, their purpose on Mars, and the world from which they have arisen are hinted at in the game. Whether DOOM likes it or not, it has built a world, and while it may be full of monsters, there will always be those among us who would like to ask them a few questions about it.

The world Bungie have built with Destiny feels even more worthy of complex interaction. Its optimistic space-age attitudes, distinctive design and trademark Bungie love for symbolism, Latin, and ancient mythology makes it a few shades richer than a typical science-fiction world. There is genuine originality to its ideas and a width and depth that holds a huge amount of potential.

At the heart of this potential are the game’s alien races, and at their peak are the Fallen. House of Wolves is an expansion that seems to have some interest in expanding this potential. Building a series of missions and a set of endgame content around the Fallen and their new leader Skolas, it begins to present an almost sympathetic view of the Fallen. Much of this is of course tucked away within Destiny’s biggest world-building problem; the Grimoire cards, a lore library much like in any other RPG, yet inexplicably inaccessible from within the game. Instead, players must log into Bungie’s website in order to read what they have unlocked. It’s a choice that seems designed to push home the idea that Destiny is a franchise (albeit one with only one product) and therefore its world exists outside of the limited horizons of a single game. However, the result is a distinct disconnect between Destiny and its lore. In the case of House of Wolves, what we seee of Skolas is an angry alien whose only interaction with the player is either to try to kill her, or hurl incomprehensible insults at her. Yet descend into the grimoire and you find a sympathetic if dogmatic character, with a desire to unite his broken and scattered race. His hatred for the player and the Guardians stems from the fact that it was the Guardian’s god, the Traveller, who brought destruction to the Fallen’s once great empire.

Bungie are beginning to fill in the empty spaces

All this, of course, is expressed through a few hundred words of pompous text. Try to find evidence of this in the game and you’ll come a dead end. This is a systemic problem in Destiny, with the Grimoire reading like a list of unexplored possibilities for the game’s world. In the Grimoire there are desperate outlaws, mysterious derelicts, unlikely alliances, coming of age stories, ghost stories, scientists, explorers and monsters of all kinds. Yet this richness never seems to filter into the main game. It seems Bungie does not trust its players to show an interest in these things. Instead they are cast as Guardians, the most blinkered and uninteresting characters in a world full of pioneers and monsters. Even the Grimoire turns on these ceaselessly violent warriors, accusing them in one particularly esoteric entry: “You are a dead thing made by a dead power in the shape of the dead. All you will ever do is kill.”

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As is always true with Destiny however, there is a glimmer of promise. House of Wolves may adjust some of Destiny’s more abusive design, particularly the systems of the last expansion, The Dark Below, but it is in its slipping of lore into the main game that it best succeeds. In particular, it does this through a monster that talks. Variks the loyal, the last member of the Fallen to remain loyal to the Queen of the Reef, is the monster’s name. Sinister, intelligent and strongly voiced, he seems to carry all of the aspects that are so sorely lacking from the rest of Destiny’s NPCs. He also has a habit of dropping lore into conversations, rather than hiding it away in collectable cards. It is by Variks words alone, that players know the true name of the Fallen—the Eliksni. And it is through his translations of Skolas’ battle cries that players have been able to begin the long process of translating the Fallen language to English. Much more information is needed, of course, but it’s interesting to see that, given half a chance, players are so desperate to talk to the Fallen they are willing to learn their language. Suddenly those Coke-bottle headshots seem less glorious, the endless waves of Fallen less satisfying to kill. The Fallen aren’t only standing around in formation any more as well. Bungie has added more timed events and more bounties, concealing Fallen spies behind Vex ranks, or having their sappers lay mines in previously empty areas. Sure, these encounters eventually fall victim to Destiny’s endless unvarying repetitions, but for a while the Fallen seem less like bottles on a wall and more like a functioning society of pirates and raiders.

Yet House of Wolves still doesn’t deliver on the concept of talking to monsters. Variks is just a shopfront, like every other Destiny NPC, and while he is fairly talkative, you don’t ever get to say anything back. Mute submission is hardly a thrilling interaction with a character as tricksy as Variks, a character who begs to be bargained with, to be questioned and never to be trusted. As House of Wolves proves, we don’t just want to talk to the monsters because they are there; we want to talk to them because they are monsters. I imagine DOOM’s demons to be far more interesting creatures to interact with than a whole game worth of potato-faced Bethesda NPCs or photofit Bioware civilians. Similarly, Destiny’s pliant, agreeable and dully optimistic characters fall into the same issues. It’s not just that you can’t talk to them—you wouldn’t want to. Hopefully House of Wolves is an early sign of Bungie discovering this fact for themselves, of learning that their extended galaxy is meaningless if it isn’t felt in the game. They certainly have some precedent for these kind of decisions, with the Arbiter’s appearance in Halo 2 enlivening the series and its lore by giving us an inside look into Covenant politics. No longer were we fighting a united force, but a fragmented, politically ornate alliance. Does Destiny’s future hold a similarly important step out of the boots of humankind?

It’s always been easy to be optimistic with Destiny; the game almost enforces it. But this side of two expansions, it’s difficult to know what we are looking forward to. There’s plenty to suggest that the formula is set, the slow trickle of content constant. The arrogance of Destiny has been to assume that it is already an extended universe, already a franchise before it has earned that right. The Grimoire are an ugly artifact of that arrogance, an endless stream of stories that bloated a world before it even had one good tale worth telling. Yet after months of scrabbling things seems to be slotting more easily into place. Bungie are beginning to fill in the empty spaces behind all that strong visual design and suggestive naming. The monsters are beginning to have names that mean something, languages that say something, characters that feel something. Shoot first, ask questions later, goes the old maxim. Perhaps after months of shooting, the time has come for questions. Which monster is going to answer them?