Destiny 2's seasonal storytelling is now so good that other live games should be taking notes

Mithrax, Kell of the House of Light.

Over the course of this season Mithrax has been proud, restrained, and noble as he protects his fellow space bugs. (Image credit: Bungie)

Yesterday saw the curtain fall on Destiny 2's Season of the Splicer, and with it came a heroic last stand, the death of a reasonably major character, and the seeming confirmation of a heel turn from another. That twist was less shocking if you've been following the weekly story missions, which have been building to the big climax delivered in the 'Epilogue' cutscene that is embedded slightly further down the page.

It's a big dollop of lore, paying off much of the foreshadowing of the previous three months, and also setting up Season 15, which arrives on August 24 alongside the reveal stream for next year's The Witch Queen expansion. 

In the video we see Saint-14 fighting alongside Mithrax, the Kell of the Fallen's House of Light, as the Vex—a race of evil robots—mount a sneak attack on The Last City of humanity. The attack was orchestrated by Lakshmi-2, leader of the Future War Cult, because she's a bit of a racist and wasn't at all chill with previously hostile alien refugees living inside the walls. 

As is so often the way with these things, the evil robots she summons kill her first.

If it all sounds pretty soapy, well, it is! But it also represents a major shift in the way Destiny 2 handles story: Bungie is now able to deliver a genuinely propulsive plot on a weekly cadence, rather than dumping everything into the annual expansion and then leaving the months between looking like an arid nothingscape. The studio is also building a stable of characters with actual depth, flaws, and arcs to resolve.

Take Saint-14, for example, the gruff but big-hearted Russian exo (ie a self-aware machine) who was previously thought lost in time. We rescued him a few seasons ago thanks to some temporal shenanigans, but initially he struggled to fit back into City life. Over the course of several seasons Saint-14 has again cemented his place among the senior guardians of the City, and become a player favourite thanks to his upbeat approach to bashing aliens into a fine paste. 

This season, we learned through a gorgeously animated short (below), that The Fallen regard Saint as a demon who butchers their people without mercy. Through the eyes of the Fallen children, Saint is a bogeyman to be terrified of. And, as it turned out, Saint's views about aliens were initially only slightly less problematic than those of Lakshmi-2. But over the course of the season he came to respect Mithrax, ultimately seeing him and the other Fallen refugees as brothers in arms. Hence being ready to die stoically for each other in the big shooty closing cutscene. 

But instead of noble deaths, we get to see Ikora Rey and Commander Zavala rock up and pop, quite frankly, the fuck off. (Ikora even manages to make the Nova Warp super look cool ahead of its much-needed buff next season.) Bungie's increased commitment to showing rather than telling when it comes to story has enabled key characters, such as the guardian vanguard leaders, to have sweet hero moments that reinforce their position as badasses within the universe rather than just animated quest dispensers. 

And then there's the heel turn, as we watch the warlock Osiris observing the battle from a distance, then turning his back on his colleagues. Adding extra spice, Osiris and Saint-14 are actually canonically a thing after a relationship between the two was retconned a while back.

As it turned out, Saint's views about aliens were initially only slightly less problematic than those of Lakshmi-2.

It's been heavily hinted all season that something is substantially up with Osiris, who hasn't been the same since the death of his ghost buddy Sagira and the loss of his own Light (ie powers). Those willing to probe deeper will discover that we may not even be looking at the actual Osiris at all, and that this is all part of a very long game being played by Savathûn, Witch Queen of the Hive.

Bungie is steadily killing off its high profile voice actors

Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Lakshmi-2 in Destiny 2.

(Image credit: Amazon Studios)

Ever since Bungie offed Nathan Fillion (Cayde 6), I've had the sneaking suspicion that despite whatever narrative justifications existed, the studio also wanted to cut ties with expensive voice actors whenever it could. Since then we've lost Morena Baccarin (Sagira, killed off screen), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Lakshmi-2, also killed off screen), and had Firefly's Gina Torres replaced by a stand-in—though that was in part due to scheduling issues. It makes sense not to rely on Hollywood talent, especially during a pandemic, but maybe Lance Reddick (Commander Zavala) should be worried? Or not, given how beloved he is.  

What's especially sweet is that right now we can't say for sure. Bungie has become increasingly confident at building tension and creating cliff hangers, both on a season-to-season and week-to-week basis. To do that without creating a crippling workload, it has deployed a varied tool kit of storytelling devices, rather than just relying on incredibly expensive cut scenes. 

So, on any given week, the story will progress via a combination of audio messages from key characters, conversations we witness playing out first-hand (new social spaces have been created to make these feel more natural, rather than having half the playerbase emoting in the background), and high value assets like the Saint animation and the Epilogue cutscene.

The mixture of techniques works brilliantly, bringing much needed life to a game that had felt inert during the longeurs between major releases. That it's taken Bungie years to land on a sustainable model that actually works—player feedback has been near-universally rapturous—only underlines just how hard delivering a rolling narrative is in an AAA live service game. It's one thing for Fortnite to remodel its map with a flashy event once every few months, and quite another to actually drip feed a compelling plot that players care about.

It's one thing for Fortnite to remodel its map with a flashy event once every few months, and quite another to actually drip feed a compelling plot.

The result is that Destiny 2 now feels like a particularly cool Saturday morning cartoon—a stark contrast to the days when its lore was buried in grimoire cards best accessed via an app. And honestly, that kind of more ambient storytelling is still there, and actually meshes well with the more direct stuff. 

Example: There's a character called The Crow, who was previously the Awoken Prince Uldren until he got capped for killing Cayde-6 the Vanguard Hunter back in Forsaken. Crow was eventually reborn as a guardian, leading to a lot of his own interpersonal issues because almost everyone hates his face on sight, despite the fact he's technically a brand new person.

In Season of the Hunt, we saw Crow redeemed, gradually going from shunned outcast to baller assassin at large. But that's very much not the end of it. If you hang out near Crow in the H.E.L.M. social space you'll notice that he's whistling an unusual ditty that lore nerds recognised as Savathûn's song. As far as I can make out, the music is some sort of viral weapon she infects her enemies with—notably also including Lakshmi-2's Future War Cult cronies—to bring them under her control. So it could be that the Crow is already on Team Evil, but again: we don't know yet. There's even a frankly incredible fan theory that, despite her endless manipulations, Savathûn might end up being on our side. Or as on our side as a necrotic witch with a god worm living inside her ever can be.

As you can tell, I dig it. And honestly, I'm not sure there are any other Big games doing this kind of stuff on a truly episodic basis. No wonder Bungie's proud of it:

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Obviously, it's not quite perfect yet. The final mission which preceded the Epilogue cutscene was a bit of a damp squib, and certainly less dramatic than the boss battle against Quria, Blade Transform earlier in the season. (Seriously, Bungie do the best names.) It also wouldn't have hurt to tie some sort of reward, even cosmetic, to the mark the big end of season beat. And Bungie still isn't able to create enough weekly narrative content to cover an entire three-month season—there's usually a dry patch at the end. 

Honestly though, I'm just excited to see what happens next, which isn't a feeling I'm used to when talking about Destiny 2's plot, despite spending literally thousands of hours in the game. The current arc feels like it's building towards an unlikely coalition of alien races between the guardians, Cabal and Fallen who will come together in a desperate final battle against the Darkness over the course of the next two major expansions. Or at least a desperate final battle until the next desperate final battle. Because hey, that's how Saturday morning cartoons work.

Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.