HEAT VISION

'Destiny' Narrative Leads Detail Latest Expansion: "We're Setting the Stage"

Bungie creative lead Robbie Stevens and narrative designer Nikko Stevens discuss the new seasonal content for the 'Shadowkeep' expansion, how that split from publisher Activision has impacted the studio and if a film or TV series may be in the franchise's future.
Courtesy of Bungie
Bungie creative lead Robbie Stevens and narrative designer Nikko Stevens discuss the new seasonal content for the 'Shadowkeep' expansion, how that split from publisher Activision has impacted the studio and if a film or TV series may be in the franchise's future.

[Spoiler warning: This story contains spoilers for Destiny 2's latest expansion, Shadowkeep, as well as the original Destiny game.]

Last January, Washington-based video game company Bungie, creator of the popular Destiny series, split from publisher Activision, severing a 10-year publishing deal the two companies had inked in 2010. The result of that divorce was Bungie maintaining the exclusive rights to its shooter franchise, which has undergone a number of notable changes over the past year.

Chief among those changes was Bungie's decision to shift to a free-to-play model after years of Destiny being a paid offering. Free-to-play games have grown into the major driving source of revenue in the gaming industry, accounting for 80 percent of total digital game spending in 2019. While the financial prospects of Bungie's full ownership of the Destiny IP have been opened since the company's departure from Activision, the game's creatives have also gained more control of the series' ever-expanding lore.

"We’ve made a pretty big shift as a studio," Bungie creative lead Robbie Stevens tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It allows us more agility and more potential to innovate at a rapid pace."

That includes shifting to a seasonal rollout of content, another growing trend in the gaming industry that is aimed at keeping players engaged with a title long after it initially launches by offering new content and story in incremental periods. "If you look at how we’re trying to construct Destiny now, it’s in some ways like building a seasonal TV show," Stevens says. "What we want to do with our expansions going forward is to set up things that will be reinforced throughout the year."

"Our seasonal model allows us to, every month, propel the story forward in a way that the players are directly impacting and leaving a lasting change in the world," he continues. "You’re going to see more and more of that as time goes on."

Destiny 2's latest expansion is titled Shadowkeep, the fourth additional offering for the game that launched in October with its first chapter, Season of the Undying (a second update, titled Season of Dawn, followed in December). In addition to new maps, weapons, missions and in-game cosmetics, Shadowkeep also advances the underlying narrative of Destiny and deepens its central lore by expanding on events and characters' backstories from previous installments. One of the major reveals was the mysterious alien craft known as the Pyramid, which was first introduced in the original Destiny game and is now a playable area in Shadowkeep that is integral to its plot.

"This is a large cosmic force unlike anything the players have seen before," Stevens says. "It has its own intrinsic power and abilities that we’re just scratching the surface on and what the Darkness [the main antagonistic force in Destiny] actually means. The way the player interacts with the ship begins to slowly pull back the curtain on what these cosmic beings really are."

So, what are they exactly? Stevens is cryptic: "We don’t want to say exactly what they are, it’s going to unfold."

"What they are is being told through the lenses of characters. Even if someone directly references it, they’re given their point of view," says Nikko Stevens, narrative designer. "Moving these throughlines forward, these big touchstone releases like Shadowkeep are going to unfurl those stories."

"We’re actively watching how our community reacts to these things," says Robbie Stevens. "They may start caring about something we didn’t think was that important and we realize we have to spend more time on it."

One such example is the character Saint-14, who was first mentioned by name in the original Destiny and later appeared for the first time in Destiny 2's first expansion, Curse of Osiris, in 2017. "Saint-14 is a character who has been in the lore for a long time but has never really been seen by players," Nikko Stevens says. "One of the things we’re able to do with this deep lore is look back and bring out these characters that players have been hearing about for a really long time and put them in the world right next to you." 

When asked on Saint-14's role moving forward in the story, Nikko is just as tight-lipped with specifics as Robbie: "I don’t want to say too much about him ..."

The duo do concede a few more details, however, when discussing Shadowkeep's cliffhanger ending, which sees the player's character meeting their doppelganger, a physical manifestation of the Darkness. "We’re putting the pieces in place for the future," Robbie Stevens says. "Those moments you’re seeing in Shadowkeep where you see your doppelganger and you’re interacting with the Pyramid ships and it’s speaking to you, we’re setting the stage."

The lore of Destiny can be daunting for newcomers, stacked with various colorful characters, exotic locations and a mythos that continues to expand as the series moves forward. To help players keep track, Bungie catalogs the expansive world-building on its site (there is also an extensive fan-made archive entitled the Ishtar Collective), colloquially referred to as "web lore."

"If you’re a player coming in and you’re not sure what happened last season, something like the web lore is a great introductory way to get you on track for what the season is going to be about," Nikko Stevens says.

"We’re also thinking a lot about what players' own stories are that they’re creating while playing," Robbie Stevens adds. "Destiny is a social game, it’s best played with other people. We try not to talk about everything, for people to own that story."

As the worlds of Hollywood and gaming continue to overlap with projects such as Netflix's recently-launched The Witcher series and upcoming projects like Showtime's Halo and Ubisoft's The Division film in the works, the depth of Destiny's universe and the popularity of the title make it an attractive potential jewel for streamers and studios on the lookout for new content. The prospect of a transmedia adaptation is certainly on Robbie Stevens radar, though, predictably, he is not entirely forthcoming with details.

"Anything is possible," he says. "One of the advantages of Bungie fully owning the Destiny IP is that we have the freedom to make those choices whenever we think the time is right. That’s all I can say about it."

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