Sep 29, 2021 - Technology

How Bungie gave "Destiny 2" a can't miss weekly storyline

Screenshot of space warriors wielding guns
Screenshot: Bungie

In its seventh year, the writers of hit sci-fi war game "Destiny 2" have implemented— and mastered —the ability to tell players an interesting, episodic story that advances week by week.

Why it matters: Storytelling in games is often an afterthought, but two of the game’s lead writers tell Axios that one of their keys to success has been the narrative team’s work with the rest of the game’s creators.

  • “It's very much a collaborative effort,” senior narrative lead Julia Nardin said, citing brainstorming sessions with the franchise and design teams as well as “the rest of creative leadership.”

Between the lines: Bungie maps its seasons out in yearlong chunks, deciding which characters and story arcs will play out across the year’s four seasons.

  • Seasons are ascribed themes, such as Season of the Splicer’s “hacker fantasy,” or the current Season of the Lost’s focus on mysticism as well as narrative themes of broken familial trust, according to Bungie senior narrative designer Nikko Stevens.
  • The writers point to “Destiny 2”’s 13th season, which ran from February through May, as the one in which they nailed an episodic model that Nardin likens to "tuning in to a TV show every week.”
  • That so-called Season of the Chosen kicked off with a peace treaty, led to an assassination attempt and then a big climax, all offered through a mix of playable activities, audio files and text documents that were doled out to players week by week.

The two seasons since Chosen have followed a similar cadence.

  • “I think we've got it down to a science, and we're really confident and comfortable with the way that we're handling things,” Nardin said.
  • But, she notes, “while we have a formula that's working well for us, that doesn't mean we won't switch it up to keep things fresh.”
Screenshot of a helmeted Destiny hero. Subtitles show him reconsidering the word he uses to refer to an alien faction
"Destiny 2" player ally Saint-14, recently rethinking how he describes the many aliens he's fought. Screenshot: Bungie

Bungie’s successful implementation of weekly storytelling in “Destiny 2” has been accompanied by a more complex in-game worldview, one in which some members of enemy alien species have proved friendly, and the actions of the player and their allies have been called out.

  • “What we've tried to do is show that not all of the enemies are bad and not everyone in the Last City is good,” Nardin said, referring to the player’s base of operations.
  • An example of these changes: the enemy faction “The Fallen” is now often referred to as “The Eliksni,” the word it uses for itself. That's happened as players have been shown the Eliksni’s perspective of the game’s ongoing conflict and even encountered Eliksni war refugees.

Bungie is one of the few game studios whose leadership is visibly political and overtly inclusive, but the writers focused more on in-game reasons for this evolution.

  • The war between the game’s hero factions and computer-controlled enemies had started as an us vs. them, Stevens said.
  • “Everything is very black and white and the sense was like, ‘We're being attacked, we’re defending ourselves. That's a very easy thing to convey. But as conflicts go on, you kind of start to hit these ruts of nuance where decisions need to be made about things that aren't so cut and dry.”
  • “We were definitely having conversations about, ‘how can we do this universe justice and paint with all the colors in the palette that we've created over the last six or seven years,’” Nardin said.

What’s next: The writing team is well into working on next year’s batch of seasons.

  • While each season is locked in as it begins, player feedback can impact future ones.
  • The character Crow was showcased more in this year’s later seasons because fans responded to him well in November 2020’s Season of the Hunt.
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