Destiny

So, I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny on the PS4. This won’t be a review. There are already plenty of those.

I wanted to talk about a specific moment I had, where the intended experience warped in dramatic fashion, revealing interesting subtleties to the design.

I had finished the campaign with one character already, my Titan, and was playing my Hunter. They are a little faster, a little more fragile, and I have made mine a patient long-range specialist, taking headshots (enormously satisfying in this game – a lot of the time a big gout of what looks like steam erupts from their neck stump, for some reason) and darting from cover to cover.

Given that this is my second time through, I was being  rather impatient. Generally each story mission makes you trek through the same environments over and over until you get to a new bit. On the way, packs of enemies will attack you. You can stop and take them out for a little XP and the chance of loot, or just blaze past and get to the place that Dinklebot wants you.

This second time through, I blazed.

I got to Mars, the fourth and currently final planet, much faster. But I was several levels lower than my Titan was at this point, with gear that wasn’t quite as shiny.

The enemies – Cabal, dudes in 800 lbs of power armour – were pretty straightforward with the Titan. Suddenly, with the Hunter, they were taking way longer to kill, and shredding my shields with alarming alacrity.

Hm. This is awkward.

At one point, I just had to get to a little tower and use a console in it. It was guarded by a couple of tougher-than-usual Cabal minibosses, and I realised I couldn’t take more than about a second of their attention/withering hail of bullets and rockets, so I had to sneak around corners, taking potshots. This was stressful and time-consuming, but turned out to be a mere aperitif.

I kept going, kept pushing my luck, kept dying and restarting, until I got to a specific mission. A specific boss.

Primus Sha’aull, you unpronounceable bastard.

Here’s what happens. I am in a roughly circular arena strewn with bits of rock and assorted cover, with a building in the middle. I stand by a plinth thing, and activate it. A fancy animation happens, a door on the other side opens, and out comes Primus Sha’aull and his friends. A couple of Cabal goons (these are bog standard but still take more than a clip of ammo from my rifle, each, unless I’m incredibly accurate) and a couple of Psion dudes who are unarmoured and therefore relatively fragile but can do a horrible shockwave attack which can take out almost all of my shields and health at once.

Sha’aull is mobile. He jetpacks around, and can easily pop up next to you. He fires rockets which, if not one-hit kills, are very close. More dangerous still he’s a big ol’ distraction and while you’re worrying about him, one of the little bastards shoots you in the back.

He is tough. He has a ridiculous amount of health. He is powerful. He can kill me in less than a second if I am not giving this game my absolute full focus.

His little friends, by the way, keep coming. Small groups of them arrive at set intervals, so if you don’t keep on top of them they will overwhelm you. Their job, in a ‘normal’ experience, is to be walking ammo crates, to make sure you don’t somehow run out while pwning the boss.

This is a bit boring, sorry, but some details are necessary for context.

Oh, yeah. In Destiny, when you die, you start again with the same amount of ammo as you had at the moment of your death. If you rinse through your rocket launcher, sniper rifle and then get caught short while frantically trying to headshot him with your rifle – you’ll start again with zero rocket launcher and sniper ammo. Good luck.

Normally, you’d just kill a few of the little dudes until you were restocked. Suddenly, I found that wasn’t an easy option any more.

I realised that I simply didn’t have the number of bullets, mathematically speaking, to kill this guy. Even if every shot was right to his head, it was logistically impossible. And so the game changed. It stopped being the tense sci-fi movie action scene, and became a logic puzzle. The veneer peeled away, and now I was playing directly with systems. I was in a dialogue with the designers, pushing and prodding at what was possible, and what was necessary.

I needed to build up my ammo stocks to have any chance. So, I would kill one or two little enemies, desperately double jump all over the place trying to grab any ammo they might (or, heartbreakingly, might not) have dropped, and immediately die. This was fine. Conserve ammo. Gain more than I lose. It was almost, dare I say, a metaphor for the slow spiritual progression that the soul experiences through reincarnation. Or not.

Even though I was no longer engaging with the narrative of the mighty Guardian murdering mechanised mercenaries on Mars, it was still a very tense and challenging experience. I’m generally quite good at games, but I’m not one of those people who masters everything on the hardest difficulty. I just don’t have the time, patience – or, to be honest, the skill – for that.

Two dozen deaths later, I realised I might not ever be able to kill this guy. That I might have to quit. And if I did, I would need to repeat rather a lot of rather difficult content. What a horrific prospect. I might rather just stop playing this character altogether.

Just one more go. One more. Okay, that one didn’t count, I died so damn fast. One more. One more…

Another realisation dawned. Sha’a’aa’u’au’aul couldn’t leave the arena, but I could. There was a whole extra bit behind me, a bridge over a basin, that I could jump to. He would just stomp as close as he could get, trying in vain to get line of sight on my tender skull.

It’s basically cheating, but it was all I had. I had a decent amount of ammo now and – cunningly – you never actually run out of grenades. Throwing one triggers a cooldown, that’s all.I knew this already, but this predicament suddenly gave this fact new significance. The damage it deals is not repaired (in this case), and the source of the damage is essentially infinite. Similarly, over time, your ‘special ability’ bar slowly grows. Once it’s full, my Hunter can conjure up a glowing Golden Gun with three shots, each of which takes off a good chunk of health. While the situation was desperate, there was always something I could do. Fair play, Bungie. Maybe you saw this scenario coming after all.

There’s a specific ridge. You can stand behind it, and he will stomp towards you, but will only get close enough to reveal his head. I stood there, zoomed in, blasting away for tedious hours. Well, minutes – but it felt like hours. He could still catch me with splash damage from his thrice-accursed rocket barrage, so I had to zip back and forth, hoping that the AI wouldn’t trigger some new behaviour based on my position and availability.

The game had gone away, and been replaced with a new kind of game. A different interaction. And yes, I know. This isn’t the first time anyone’s ever done something like this, but it’s the first time I have in a very long while, and that’s why it made such an impression.

I haven’t watched this video, but just reading the description leads me to believe that this guy had a similar idea. It’s ten minutes long. I don’t expect you to watch it. It just makes the post look a bit cooler having an embedded video, y’see.

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