Finding deeper meaning beneath the virtual surface.
A friend recently invited me to play Destiny 2 with him. He had miraculously found an unattached PlayStation 5 and, in light of its dearth of new content, was loading up the latest and greatest of the previous generation as a substitute. So, I dusted off my copy of the disc and set my tired and groaning PS4 to begin downloading the innumerable updates released since the game first passed certification three years ago.
My history with Destiny 2 stretches back – in what is far from a smooth and uninterrupted line – the full length of those three years. I can mark my tenure partially through the essays I’ve written about it: I wrote about the game’s baroque architecture, its predecessor’s competitive battle modes, its quieter, more reflective moments. I wrote pieces for publications which no longer exist, the criticism, or the platform for it anyway, outlasted by its own media subject. There are few other franchises, let alone single titles, that I’ve devoted as many words and Google Doc tabs to. Few that I’ve worn down as many controller thumbsticks to, whiled away the midnight hours to, contentedly grinding away – at least until I wasn’t.
Because it has been some time, a year at least, since I last opened the game and scrolled Twitter while it took its sweet time booting up. I dropped off after the Forsaken expansion then missed Shadowkeep and a few other releases. I even uninstalled the game to make space in my perpetually overstuffed hard drive. But my friend’s casual invitation was tempting enough to drive me back into Destiny’s glossy gunmetal arms, to gaze up at its gorgeous skyboxes, surrounded by mountains of bric-a-brac collectibles.
And everything is, immediately, so different! So weird and awkwardly fit. Like an old suit, too stretchy in the elbows, tight and constricting in places I may have once been used to but feel seriously chafed by now. Even worse, among all the mothballed musk of the old, jammed into the rafters and crawl spaces, is so, so much new. New missions, new characters, new planets (and newly restricted access to old ones). As much as I’ve moved beyond the game, the game has also moved beyond me.
Nowhere is that more evident than in my characters. Once true avatars, virtual representations of my particular swagger and space-age fashion sense on Destiny’s streets, my characters now seem nearly unrecognizable. My hunter, once blazoned in gold and steel, clad in exotics and sporting hard to find weaponry, now looks patchwork, draped in expired, mismatched duds. She’s the unfortunate recipient of the miscellaneous items nabbed in my occasional abortive dives back into the game, ugly ephemera whose purpose is just to increase my level enough to access new content.
An old clan-mate drops into our session. He’s an OG: someone who’s spent the past few years snugly wrapped within a weekly ritual of raids, strikes and challenges. He immediately shows off some fancy new magic, alluring hallmarks of the current endgame treasure, sure to fade into the ever-expanding pile of loot detritus the minute the next expansion drops. He walks up to me and engages my avatar in an awkward hi-five emote (Destiny’s collectible library of character expressions), picking up my character’s limp hand and slapping it against his own. I know this is a canned animation which can be purchased or randomly won, but in this moment, it feels incredibly fitting. A bold, friendly welcome, full of bravado and showmanship, rained down on the ungainly noob; the guy who dropped out and moved away, only to return unannounced, wearing ill-fitting clothes, shooting at low-level baddies in the wrong zone. It isn’t long before I sign out again, citing some obligation but also eager to escape the discomfort of this situation. What, after all, would we even have to do together in our mutual versions of this game? For him, it’s a familiar, well-trodden neighborhood. For me, it’s a confusing puzzle, its previously familiar paths overlaid with strange new ones which demand additional payment to even gain access.
I want Destiny to want me back. I know its developers do, but I want the game itself to burst open with glittering splendor like the chests that dot its worlds. And at first, it does feel like this is the case. Reams of introductory splash screens overwhelm my return to the game, with promises of grand new adventures, new worlds full of elaborate dungeons, new weapons and new villains to use them on. My sessions are repeatedly interrupted by incongruous cut scenes where old characters monologue against new ones, brand new universe-threatening forces are named and new calls are put out for players to suit up into their favorite avatar and step once again into the glorious fray (for $39.99 plus tax).
But all this amounts, to me, as little more than formless confetti, dirty and crumpled on the ground, left in the wake of a long-vanished parade. Events and storylines barely a year old already float abandoned like vestigial limbs, their item drops providing only useless antiques which no one wants or needs. It’s all evidence of an ever-shifting game, different many times over from the one I remember. Designed this way, certainly, for the players like my old clan-mate who lives, as much as one can, in this world. Players like him, naturally, demand constant change and evolution from the game just as much as in their own lives. But this forced ephemerality is also (selfishly) heartbreaking for players like me, who’ve come back from away, looking for old and familiar footing, for landmarks and memorable images, comfortably hard-coded and unchanging.
It’s just that I don’t appreciate this stark reminder of my own unimportance, Destiny. I don’t vibe with the knowledge that most of the essays I’ve written are for a game that doesn’t exist anymore. This is an industry, after all, with vanishingly little institutional memory. Its publications rarely last, its studios quickly fold if they aren’t swallowed and digested by the same two to three corporate mega-publishers. This pattern finds reflection in the software produced: game systems fall quickly into obsolescence once they are replaced, old games become unplayable if they aren’t lucky enough to be rewrapped in contemporary, often unrecognizable new aesthetics, and sold to us all over again. The only way this industry can stand the old is to package it with the new.
So as unreasonable as it is to expect some familiarity as I clumsily lead my neophyte friend (who is meanwhile experiencing none of these tortured emotions) around Destiny’s unrecognizable new landscapes, I can’t help but mark the passing of the old; of years lost to time, mechanics retired, critical takes absorbed and forgotten. In the time it takes to load another clip into my space rifle, I mourn it all.
Yussef Cole is a writer and a visual artist hailing from the Bronx, NY. He makes images for the screen and also enjoys writing words about the screen’s images.