Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Light and Dark, Past and Future

Black versus white...good against evil...these are old themes often used in western storytelling.  In truth though bright light can be just as blinding as complete darkness.  Enter Destiny, the product of 500 million dollars and over half a decade of work from Bungie Studio's development team of 300+ employees.  How the heads of this company or the publisher, Activision, failed to see the meager results of this massive endeavor is beyond my comprehension;  Eight hours of single player gameplay, only one usable vehicle type, limited character customization, mechanically bog standard FPS enemies/guns, and lots of endgame grinding.  Then there is the complete lack of storytelling.  The groundwork for an interesting premise was there, the writers simply failed to capitalize on it in an interesting way.  Perhaps the greatest blind spot of all though is the fact that Destiny has been out long before it's September 2014 street date, albeit in slightly different forms.

Numenera was a kickstarter by Monte Cook.  If you never heard of him, he's the guy behind Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and Pathfinder...so, much like Bungie, one of the most successful game designers out there.  His crowdfunding attempt was the most fortunate table-top RPG project to date, managing to bring in over half a million dollars.  I know this is several orders of magnitude less than what Destiny got, but it's a lot of cash for what basically amounts to a textbook with some pretty artwork inside.  The game Numenera is set in the "Ninth World," a science-fantasy post-apocalypse wherein the vestiges of humanity live in the shadow of ruins built by far more advanced (but long dead) cultures.  Players can choose from three classes Glave, Jack and Nano.  Basically fighter, rogue and wizard in generic fantasy terms.  Starting to sound familiar?...like in a Titan, Hunter and Warlock kind of way?  Then there's the game mechanics which are d20 at its blandest, and the setting which seems to be based around the assumption that players will spend most of their time killing weird things to get weird loot.  I guess as much should be expected given the guy's background.  Again though it shares a lot with Destiny in that the wonder of the universe is squandered in lieu of generic gameplay.  In Numenera players go on adventures just like Dungeons and Dragons.  Meanwhile, in Destiny players get in firefights just like every other FPS.  You'd think with all that advanced tech left over someone would reinvent long-range artillery instead of firing hand-cannons (named in refrence to John Wayne films) like it's the wild west.

I've heard criticisms made against Destiny's art direction.  In particular words like "unispired," "shallow" and "generic" come up a lot, but "sterile" is the word that I think best describes it.  The nomenclature suffers from this too with names like "The Traveler," "The Darkness," "The Hive," "The Fallen," "The Speaker," "Guardians" and "Ghosts" it feels like someone just thumbed through an English dictionary and copied down some nouns they liked.  Exercise a little creativity Bungie!  Here, let me show a couple of simple examples from various Science Fiction media:
  • Vaygr (an anagram of the Russian word for "Viking") from the Video game Homeword 2.
  • Cylons (a derivation of the first reliably dated event in Athenian history) from the TV series Battlestar Galactica. 
  • Landsraad (the old spelling for Landsr├ąd which in several Scandinavian languages means "Land Council") from the movie Dune.
  • Shing (a Chinese name meaning "Victory") from the Hainish Cycle of novels by Ursula K. LeGuin. 
The last one in particular bears further discussion.  The Shing are mentioned in several stories in the Hainish Cycle.  They are though to be alien invaders that came from beyond the boarders of the League of Worlds and systematically reduced humanity to a pre-industrial state.  However, in one novel, City of Illusion, it's revealed that the Shing are just humans gifted with an unique ability.  Back before the collapse of the League of Worlds there was a form of communication called "mindspeech."  It could be universally understood and, better still, no one could willfully deceive another while engaged in mindspeech...except for the Shing.  They alone possessed the ability to "mind-lie," and while never numerous they were able to sow discord and strife.  The Shing never bloodied their own hands  though or even those of the "toolmen" that directly severed them as infiltrators.  Reverence for life was at the foundation of their order and as such they would prey on the fears, ignorance and paranoia of the people they slowly conquered, driving League of Worlds to corruption, tribalism and civil war without drawing attention to themselves.  It's powerful stuff that despite being written over 40 years ago is still relevant to the world today.  What better way to weaken foes than by using their own weapons against them?  At the very least I hope it presents things in a new light.  Destiny has been done before...and in a lot of ways it has been done better.

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