Making my way through the Cosmodrome in Old Russia, weaving through maps I can now navigate blindfolded, placing bullets between the eyes of Dregs who's patterns I now know by heart, waiting for an event that I know will occur in approximately six minutes, I finally stop and ask myself: Why am I still playing Destiny?
For the record, that question I posed to myself at 2 a.m. this morning did not bear any of the snark or negativity it may seem to have attached to it in basic black and white. Nor was I speaking to the fact that I had been playing for a good four hours by that point and, hey, shouldn't I be heading to bed soon?
I asked myself why I was still playing Destiny for the same reason I might ask myself why I like ketchup but can barely stand mustard. Or why I enjoy a show like The X-Files but can't seem to get into Grimm or Supernatural. I was genuinely curious what keeps bringing me back to a game that critics deemed “'Aight” and many players seem to actively hate.
This is especially curious behavior for me since Destiny is a shooter with strong multiplayer hooks, two things I simply don't tend to go all out for these days. I wrote a few years back about how I felt like I was saying goodbye to multiplayer gaming and, almost by extension, first-person shooters. Most shooters tend to lean more heavily on the multiplayer side of the equation and, whether I was trying to outshoot HeadHunter316 or team up with a bunch of folks to keep zombies out of our hideout, nothing could hold my attention for more than a week or two.
I tend to enjoy more narrative-driven games these days, which is why I was more than happy to sink a dozen hours into something like BioShock Infinite. It gave me a great experience and, unlike Call of Duty or Battlefield, I couldn't blow through its story in a couple of afternoons. More importantly, it gave me a world and a story that were worth my time and attention, making me actually want to reside in that floating city of Columbia for more than five hours.
Most shooters, however, don't follow that pattern, so I no longer felt like I was getting my money's worth out of the annual FPS crowd. Like I said, they'd keep me occupied for a few evenings, then I'd be ready to move onto something more substantial.
What I'm getting at here is: What makes Destiny different from those other games I no longer play? Its narrative was short and thin as a strand of hair. That just leaves the multiplayer, which is broken down to a few team events or PvP that only boasts a handful of modes. By all accounts, Destiny should fall into that category of shooters that no longer hold my interest. So again I ask, why am I still playing it?
I've given it a lot of thought, and I've come up with a handful of factors that I think provide an explanation. I'll start off with the biggest: Destiny is an old pair of sweatpants. It's comfort food. It's that episode of X-Files I still put on in the background when I can't figure out what else I want to watch.
The dialed-in shooting is a huge part of what makes it so comforting, because I'm almost never fighting with my character, baffled why a gun or a double-jump won't behave the way it's supposed to. The game feels so good that the controller disappears in my hands, allowing me to, in turn, sort of disappear into the game.
I'm also a huge fan of big open worlds and exploration and, for all of Destiny's fault, the maps are built really, really well. I'm not sure folks have taken the time to really appreciate the amount of detail and work that had to go into each of those environments; environments I've now explored to the point of memorization. There's a certain gratification that comes with learning a map like that, knowing exactly where the bad guys are and, in turn, turning them to ash in rapid succession as if you have some sort of precognitive ability in regards to their behaviors. A bit of randomness will pop up from time to time but, for the most part, the basic Destiny experience is a math problem I've become very familiar with these past four months, and it's one I apparently haven't grown tired of solving.
There's also the fact that Destiny is social...ish. I'd like the ability to opt into a social chat channel or at least a chat log in public spaces but, for the most part, I actually prefer to play my shooters solo. Not much content in Destiny actually requires cooperative play, either, so I'm free to pop in and out of groups whenever the mood strikes me, then easily slip back into my single player experience. Multiplayer is there for the occasion I want to feel grossly inferior to my peers, and the Strike lists allow me to tackle most of those cooperative modes without having to bother asking people if they want to go kill a cyclops living under the moon's surface.
Having communal hub maps also turns out to be right up my alley. Even playing an MMO, I tend to steer clear of teaming up with others. That doesn't mean I'm a total loner, though. I still like to see other people run past from time to time, or maybe drop in and help out during a firefight before once again gong our separate ways. Destiny manages that nicely, giving me the chance to be left the hell alone without ever really being alone.
Finally, there's that reward loop that's equal parts infuriating and addictive. You're constantly picking up gear in Destiny and, even though the vast majority of it becomes useless to you at higher levels, everything can be broken down into components you'll likely need in order to upgrade other gear later on. The maps are also crawling with randomly spawning treasure chests and plants or rocks just begging to be picked up. That kind of mundane resource gathering and crafting turns out to be a huge hook for me, a big part of why I loved Fantasy Life so much on the 3DS and why I still explore Destiny's maps like a gold rush prospector, greedily claiming every shiny resource I can get my hands on.
It still sucks to spend a huge amount of resources on a mysterious Engram and feel cheated with gear you can't even wear from time to time, or to put in a hell of a lot of effort for a gun that it turns out you're not too fond of but, really, those negatives seem to make me even more driven to find the next positive. Maybe the next one will be that helmet I've always wanted, or lead me to the hand cannon of my dreams. Yeah, the next one. Or maybe the one after that.
Clearly, there's something special going on in Destiny, or otherwise we wouldn't all still be talking about it. Positive or negative, we're still discussing it. On a more personal level, I have to question what's in the Kool-Aid, because Destiny has done something few games—shooters or otherwise—have managed to do to me in a very long time: It keeps bringing me back for more. Destiny has become my favorite blanket; the one that's made out of just the right material and manages to warm me up to just the right degree. It's familiar, it's comfortable and, for now at least, I'm happy to keep wrapping up in it from time to time.