Destiny: What's In A Name

We've had Destiny awhile now, and I've been playing it as much as I can. I've finished the story, and I'm enjoying leveling up my three Guardians quite a bit. I'm having fun and I feel I've gotten my money's worth, but there are still a lot of things about the game that I think are worth notice-- things that may challenge the expectations of gamers coming from shooters, those coming from MMOs and RPGs, and those coming to the game straight from Halo.

One of these is how Destiny throws so many names at you in such a short time it feels like we've been hit in the face with Bungie' little black book of aliens. In comparison, here are all of the times that the aliens that comprise the Covenant are mentioned within the transcripts of Halo 1, taken from HBO:

Truth and Reconciliation

CORTANA: Captain! Hunters!

Silent Cartographer

CORTANA: Chief, Bravo 22 was bringing us some heavy weapons. After I saw we were up against Hunters, I thought you could use them.

343 Guilty Spark

SARGE: Looks like a Covenant patrol. Badass elite units, all KIA.

That is it. All the mentions of Halo's iconic enemy types that occur within the game's official transcript. The player encounters Elites, Grunts, and Jackals all before any character ever names them, and it's arguable that Sniper Sergeant's reference to "elite" is as an adjective and not a proper noun-- after all, at this point even he doesn't have a name. Hunters, for some reason, get special attention from Cortana, as they are called out by name at the end of their first appearance in Truth and Reconciliation, and then namechecked again midway through the next level, Silent Cartographer.

If players knew the names of these units, it came from the manual, from Bungie's website or fan websites, from gaming press, or Bungie's own PR. The game itself is practically silent on the subject. And why shouldn't it be? The Master Chief has been at war with the Covenant for quite awhile. The UNSC has been at war with them for four decades. The player doesn't know either of those things, either, without reading external material like the novels, but the point is that no time is wasted telling the characters things they already know just for the benefit of the player, especially when it is relevant to the greater context but not immediately relevant to the action at hand.

Contrast that to Destiny, which tosses out both names of enemy factions (Fallen, Hive, Vex and Cabal) as well as subfactions (House of Winter, House of Devils, Hezen Corrective, Virgo Prohibition, Hidden Swarm, Dust Giants, Blind Legion) and the names of individual enemies (Sepiks Prime, Draksis, Riksis, Aksor, Bracus Tho'ourg, Bracus Tha'aurn, Valus Ta'Aurc, and many others. It's not so much assumed that we already know these (they are mentioned in briefings as well as in the Grimoire) as it is assumed that it means something. It's even harder to make these enemies and their defeats mean something when they can be repeated infinitely-- and not just the way Halo missions are repeated. Campaign levels in Halo are repeated by looping the same moment in time. Each time you choose a level, you're returning to a fixed point within a linear story and repeating the general events, while changing only the details.

This is not the case in Destiny. In Destiny, you can defeat a boss, pick up some loot he drops, like boots or a gun, and then put on those boots and use that gun to fight the same guy a second time. You're not repeating a fixed point within the story, the moment when that boss character was finally defeated, even though the intro and outro sequences of story missions try to treat it that way. You're performing similar actions at a different time, as evidenced by the fact that you still have the boots and the gun from the first fight when you start the second. Like it or not, Destiny's loot stream enforces continuity on the coop nature of the campaign. It makes we wonder why Bungie didn't stop naming things with types, instead of individual names. It invites heckling to hear the Vanguard talk about how Sepiks Prime cast a shadow over the city and now it's great he's gone when I know he'll be back in five minutes. If it was just a Prime Servitor, a thing the Fallen keep bringing back into position because it's important and necessary for them, then I could get behind it. Same for all the other leaders-- I'll buy that promotion from within means that for every target we take out, eventually someone else will take his place.

It wasn't until Halo 2 that we knew the name of any individual enemies in the Covenant, and that was when he became a playable character-- the Arbiter. Later, we grew familiar with two boss characters, Truth and Tartarus, and another NPC, Gravemind. Before that, the game was basically the Master Chief, Cortana, 343 Guilty Spark, Captain Keyes, and a crowd of semi-anonymous marines and targets. Individual enemies in Destiny have no role within the story except as targets, unlike the Arbiter, the Prophet of Truth, and Tartarus. Why do they have names? Why do we need to know what those names are, especially when the factional similiarities between individual names is so strong, as well as the nature of each name so arbitrary, that it becomes difficult to tell them apart even after several plays?

Players in Destiny spend as much time with their Ghost as the Master Chief does with Cortana, but while the part got big-name casting, the character itself doesn't have a name, unlike many of the enemies he helps us fight. This is another area where the coop nature of the Destiny experience collides with the needs of a traditional linear narrative. Is the Ghost voiced by Peter Dinklage "our" Ghost or everybody's Ghost? NPCs in the Tower also have their own Ghosts, but we never hear them speak. Would they also sound like Peter Dinklage? This is complicated by the fact that Destiny cutscenes, even when playing story mode with a fireteam of four, only show the avatar of the current player. So each guardian appears to be interacting with their own Ghost and NPCs alone during cutscenes-- fireteam members disappear and reappear magically for reasons I don't think can be justified technically or narratively. This is a big step backwards from Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST, where squadmates function together both as part of the story and as part of the action.

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