One of the major criticisms of Destiny in its first year has been a lack of story. On the surface, the game’s strength isn’t depth of character or richness of world: it’s serviceable gameplay and a thriving multiplayer community. But with every expansion, including this month’s The Taken King, Bungie suggests that the game might become more character-driven, might more fully express its world of space wizards and strange sciences, but that doesn’t always translate to more characterization for the people the player encounters in the Tower and in the field.
The criticism is certainly valid. One only has to take a look as far as the scholarly Speaker, a character who’s meant to send the player on a great journey with an inspiring monologue about the state of the world, but instead only adds to the vague backstory that makes up most of Destiny‘s foundation. The Speaker’s most famous line with which many fans are most familiar is well known because it’s become somewhat of a joke about the game’s lack of backstory: “I could tell you of the great battle centuries ago…” That infamous line continues on a quietly sinister, poetic note. “There are many tales told throughout the City to frighten children. Lately, those tales have stopped. Now…the children are frightened anyway.”
There’s history there, though, even if the Speaker doesn’t elaborate on it. Destiny hides great characters and vignettes in the online Grimoire cards and in the flavor text displayed alongside armor and weapons. Through these little in-game hints, the most devoted fans have pieced together the stories of Guardians that came before the player’s hero character and their many adventures.
The Battle of the Twilight Gap, the power of the Vex simulations, the well-intentioned betrayal for which Petra Venj must atone: all of these exist in the Destiny lore if you know where to look. They can draw out the creative stories in Destiny which make the game’s world a unique and rich experience and bring more context to the gameplay. Perhaps if the Speaker was more talkative, it would be easier to find them…
You climb the stairs to the Speaker’s desk after a mission, your armor stained with oil and blood. You’ve come to look at the stock, to trade and buy out of habit before you drop back into the battlefield or the Crucible, but today the Speaker turns his mask toward you. He asks you if you want to hear the story of the weapon on your back.
You have been nervous about carrying the Thorn lately…
The Thorn hand cannon gives players clues to one of the most story-driven pieces of lore in Destiny, a Western-style tale of corruption and betrayal. The Thorn was once called the Rose and belonged to a Guardian named Dredgen Yor who lived some time before the rebirth of the player character and after the Hive entered the Solar System. Dredgen Yor was “a noble man” who lost himself to sadness and pride, turning the Rose into the Thorn.
His story is bound up with that of Jaren Ward, the bearer of the exotic hand cannon The Last Word. Jaren Ward freed the frontier town of Palamon from a leader who had become a dictator, but Dredgen Yor attacked and destroyed both the town and Ward himself. Ward’s protege, Shin Malpur, eventually defeated Dredgen Yor, leaving the corrupted Thorn without a master.
Pahanin the Hunter
Another of the Thorn’s victims was Pahanin, a Hunter. Dredgen Yor defeated Pahanin some time after Yor became a champion in the Crucible war games using the Thorn. As with the other characters in this cast of gunslingers, the information we have about Pahanin comes from the flavor text on exotic weapons: Pahanin was the creator of Super Good Advice, a machine gun made using smart technology that may have developed a sentience of its own. This wasn’t coincidence. Pahanin created it when he became too terrified to travel alone.
Kabr the Titan
Pahanin had good reason to be afraid. He had witnessed the death of Kabr, a Titan who explored the Vault of Glass. Kabr built himself a set of armor out of the remains of the Vex his fireteam killed there, and became obsessed with the Vex in his attempt to get past the garden’s defenses.
Kabr’s fireteam was not so much killed as erased from existence by the Vex’s time-and reality-warping abilities: “There was no one with me,” Kabr wrote, “but I was not alone.”
His work is the reason that fireteams can now pass through the Vault of Glass Raid. Before he was utterly consumed by the Vex consciousness, he created the Aegis relic shield, “a wound in the Vault” made “from my own Light and from the thinking flesh of the Vex.” Kabr’s work is the reason the shield protects players from also being erased by the Templar.
You come back to the Speaker the next day, out of habit, but also because you are curious. He asks you about the Vault of Glass, about whether you have seen the Templar and the Aegis. And then he tells you a story of a different place outside of time.
“And if you go into the Garden,” the Speaker says, “where the paths seem to end before they begin and the red flowers bloom, you will find more of your forebearers.”
The Black Garden
The Black Garden’s existence was foretold by Pujari, a Warlock who drowned in an ocean on Venus. Before his death, he provided the description of the Black Garden found in the Grimoire: “The Garden grows in both directions. It grows into tomorrow and yesterday. The red flowers bloom forever.”
Pujari also talks about the formation of the Black Garden and the coming of the Vex. The Garden’s origins are a mystery, although it is suggested that it might have something to do with the Traveler: “The Traveler moved across the face of the iron world,” which is “not the beginning, but it is the reason.” In his vision, a flower grows in the shape of a Ghost, linking the Garden with the servants of the Traveler metaphorically, if not literally. Some time after the Garden came to be, the Vex entered. Pujari calls them the gardeners, and they protect the Garden’s dark heart.
The Vex themselves have the ability to control reality and time, and to influence the perception of other beings. In a conversation between researchers Maya Sundaresh and Chioma Esi, who are hard at work studying Vex architecture on Venus, we find out that a captured Vex mind has created a simulation of reality inside itself, perfectly replicating its surroundings, including the scientists. The difference between the reality and the simulation is so trivial as to blur the two, making the scientists wonder whether they exist in the real world or in one of a thousand possible simulations. In the end, four researchers use copies of their own Vex-created selves to explore the Vex network, sending human hope and fear into the digital space.
After the story of your mechanical enemies, the Speaker asks if you know how the Exos, your robotic allies, came into being. You’re taken aback.
The canonical birth of the Exos took place using the Deep Stone Crypt, a subroutine which “seeded” the first Exos’ consciousness. Its name is now remembered on a Titan sash on which is painted a picture of a tower that looks a lot like the digital confluxes built by the Vex. The Deep Stone Crypt is also mentioned in the Grimoire as a legend recorded by a Ghost. It tells of a tower the Exos see in their dreams, guarded by everyone they ever met. Whether they want to or not, they have to fight their way through this army of familiar faces: “We kill them all. I think because we were made to kill and this is the part of us that thinks about nothing else.”
In the list of intelligent machines in the Destiny universe, the warminds exist alongside the Exos and the Vex. These artificial intelligences were built as coordinators during the Golden Age, the time during which humanity spread out across the Solar System, and can be found on Earth and on Mars. The warmind Rasputin was the first entity to discover that the Darkness had entered the solar system and went into hibernation when he found that there was no defense against its onslaught.
Then there are the stories of the strange creatures of the galaxy, extinct or mysterious. The Speaker tells you of two you have already encountered during your adventures…
Ahamkara were dragons in the classic sense. Wise, reptilian beasts slain by humans in an effort as grandiose as it was tragic. Their only presence in Destiny now is in the Ahamkara set of armor, but the flavor text gives them a voice: they address the Guardians that wear their armor as “oh reader” or “oh bearer,” and talk of the Great Hunt that, after “great deliberation” among the Guardians, rendered them extinct.
Little is known about the Nine except that Xur serves as the emissary between them and the Tower, bringing powerful weapons and armor with him. The Grimoire presents contradictory, speculative ideas about the Nine, suggesting that they might be anything from human colonists on Jupiter’s moons to Ghosts to alien “leviathan intelligences,” to a pure manifestation of “a viral language.”
You start coming to the Speaker for stories even when you don’t need to make any purchases in his section of the Tower. He tells you about heroes of the present and of the past. You’ve explored the Black Garden and killed Hive prince Crota now, you’ve fought Skolas, and heard Petra Venj’s story from her own lips…
The emissary from the Reef to the Guardians is Petra Venj, a warrior woman whose role isn’t to her liking. Her place as a vendor for visiting Guardians is actually a punishment: in a skirmish between the Reef and the Fallen, she called down an airstrike on Earth that killed not only a group of Fallen, but also three strike teams of Guardians and their Ghosts. She still doesn’t understand why the Guardians attacked the Fallen when they did, exposing themselves to the airstrike.
Even before that momentous decision, Petra had tragedy in her life: she lost members of her fireteam, Awoken she called sisters, at a battle in a space station called Amethyst.
Before Guardians were allowed into the Reef, Petra pleaded the Queen of the Reef to be allowed to go back to her home and live among the other Awoken. In the House of Wolves expansion, she can be found in the Vestian Outpost, having received her wish.
So Many More Stories
There are so many other stories too: the quintessential Titan Wei Ning, tragic Eris and her fire team, and Cayde-6’s restlessness and Ikora Rey’s solitude, although these are a little more apparent, a bit less hidden. Looking out over the city, you see the world as a stranger place than it was before, less trustworthy. Thinking guns and machine minds and places set outside of time all influence your journey. How can you be sure you’re the same person as when you started?
Destiny is filled with odd poetry: “An egg but I’m not sure if the broth inside is warm still, or if it’s gone to rot, or if the warmth comes from the struggles of the tiny winged zygote or the bleed from the wound or the thoughts of something thinking very hard.” This gives the game its unique flavor, as long as the player looks for it in the Grimoire or in flavor text. While it would be preferable if these stories were easier to find, more important to the players’ behavior, there are so many to uncover. There are more, too: the Twilight Gap isn’t just an evocative name for a Crucible map.
In this way, Destiny presents a unique world that includes both simple shooter gameplay and a world that invites philosophical questions and convoluted, mythical stories. Sometimes they’re hard to find, but an investigation into the Grimoire brings more great stories to light than would first appear.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.