Destiny as a Tale of Mankind’s Place in the Universe

For years, Bungie has been examining mankind's place in the universe through its games. Destiny is the most cyptic example.

Bungie’s Never-ending Cycle

Throughout its long 23-year history, Bungie has often looked up at the stars for inspiration. Whether it’s Marathon, Halo, or the brand new Destiny, the AAA developer has more than once told the tale of humanity’s place in the universe through its games, filling them with celestial beings, ancient civilizations, and technologies that help or hinder mankind. Stepping into the shoes of one of Bungie’s protagonists, the player is always thrust into a world that he/she doesn’t comprehend right away. Immediately apparent is that there are always forces at work that are beyond our control or understanding. We are but a speck in a very, very big space. 

The events of Bungie’s games always take place in the remnants of an ancient alien civilization that managed to break the bonds of gravity and spread out across the universe. But somehow, these great civilizations always disappear, whether by their own hand or more mysterious means. The races that sprout up in their absence millions of years later are fated to fight over the machines and weapons that these ancient aliens left behind. It becomes a never-ending loop of ascendance, supremacy, and fall. Is humanity’s purpose to play its part in this cycle or to break from it?

Marathon‘s Jjaro race (who actually first appeared in 1993’s Pathways into Darkness) vanished a million years before the events of the respective series, leaving behind technologies capable of destroying stars, warping planets to new locations, and manipulating time. Not much is known about their disappearance, but much of what happens in the series is a direct consequence of what the extinct race left behind. The humans in this game are all known as BOBs (the name given to those “born on board” the human ship Marathon), and are Bungie’s best example to date of humanity as pawns of the greater galactic scheme. This version of humanity is often helpless and prone to getting in the main character’s way during missions.

Bungie used much of the same backstory for the Forerunners in Halo, who created world-sized rings that lend their name to the game. Players, behind the visor of the legendary Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana, must discover the secrets of the Halo rings before the Covenant, a theocratic alien empire that worshipped the rings, can use the weapon against humanity. Little by little, it is revealed that the Forerunners sacrificed themselves to stop an evil parasite known as the Flood from devouring the entire galaxy. By activating the rings, the Forerunners managed to contain the Flood and eliminate its food source aka EVERY OTHER SENTIENT BEING IN THE GALAXY. Luckily, they built an ark, and humanity, who the Forerunners named their succesors or “Reclaimers,” got a ticket to ride before the rings were activated. Halo is humanity’s shining moment in the Bungie-verse, the protectors of a galaxy prone to blow itself up. 

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In Destiny, Bungie’s latest foray into the stars, mankind ventures out to space and makes a discovery that will forever change its way of life. While on a mission to Mars, astronauts find the Traveler, a gigantic white sphere, that is in the process of terraforming the planet. The Traveler, the embodiment of Light in the universe, shares its knowledge and technology with us. Thanks to the mysterious celestial being, mankind triples its lifespan and expands across the Solar System, terraforming and colonizing many planets and moons. This time of growth and evolution on Destiny‘s Earth is known as the Golden Age. 

Fast forward to the events of the game, in the aftermath of the Collapse, a massive cataclysm that eradicated most of humanity except for the small population that the Traveler was able to save back on Earth. In the ruins of the once great civilization stands one last city, and looming above it in a permanently dormant state, is the Traveler. You play as one of the Guardians, who must protect the last city from the agents of the Darkness, the evil that’s spread across the galaxy and fuels the enemies in the game. The main portion of the story sends you on a quest to stop the Traveler from completely diminishing at the hands of the Darkness.

All of these instances portray a human race shackled to a puzzle the size of the universe, trying to find the space in which it fits. Sometimes, mankind fits the role of pawn and other times it is destined to become the protector in the absensce of its predecessor. But things get very interesting in Destiny, undoubtedly the most stylized, cryptic, and abstract version of Bungie’s tale of mankind’s place in the universe. As warriors of the Light, in a game that’s already established magic and gods, are humans destined to transcend?

Have Monolith, Will Travel(er)

 In every Bungie story, as soon as humanity takes that first step into a larger galaxy, it’s thrust into a set of events that it has no control over. The humans are unwilling participants, shoved into the spinning wheel prepared for them by the beings that came before. As far as the in-game events go, the humans serve their intended purpose, pushing back the bad guys and keeping the ancient machines safe for future generations or races. But in Destiny, that first step is instigated by the Traveler, which is quietly reminiscent of another great mythical presence. 

The guys at Bungie have undoubtedly read their Arthur C. Clarke. In case you don’t know, Clarke wrote the sci-fi masterpieces 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama, and Childhood’s End. Although all three of these novel have direct influence on Bungie’s work, e.g. contact with very advanced alien races that change humanity’s way of life, we really want to take a quick look at 2001‘s Monolith.

The Monoliths in this novel and its sequels serve as a bridge to the next step in human evolution. For example, the first monolith is discovered by a group of starving hominids who thereafter begin to use weapons in order to kill their prey. Later in the novel, the second monolith is discovered on the Moon. This monolith allows humanity to travel deeper into the Solar System (Saturn or Jupiter, depending on whether you’re reading the novel or watching Stanley Kubrick’s excellent film) where they find the third, which turns into a stargate to parts beyond our known universe. By the end of 2001, one astronaut, Dave Bowman, has transcended his human form and becomes the Star Child, an immortal being that resides within space. In later novels, Bowman watches over the further development of mankind. 

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The connection between the Monolith and the Traveler is apparent. When humans come into contact with the latter, they gain the knowledge to achieve incredible things. Even after its apparent death during the Collapse, the Traveler continues to lend its power to humanity to push back the Darkness. If you paid attention to the very beginning of Destiny, you’ll even notice that humanity has even figured out a way to bring people back from the dead. Could it be that the Traveler has been waiting to hand off the torch all along? Perhaps humanity’s destiny is to ascend, spreading its own knowledge and energy across space. The Traveler waits patiently for mankind, as it passes its tests, before it can be sent on its own mission.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t have even a hint of an answer as to the origins or motives of the Traveler or the Darkness. This might be a case of poor storytelling on Bungie’s part (most people agreet that it is) or something more cryptic than that. What if Destiny is going for something much bigger in these concepts? Perhaps the forces that allow us to exist, guide us, and seek to control us are beyond rational thought. Maybe the lack of answers is the answer. There’s just one big celestial puzzle and our little place in it.

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