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Manifest Destiny: Playing the Raid, and why scores make dickheads of us all

October 6, 2014

Destiny raid

“What kind of dickhead would give this game a 6/10?”

I did Destiny’s raid this weekend (if you don’t know: Destiny is a game about space, the raid is a particularly challenging part of the game that can only be attempted after about 40 hours of play and with an organised team of six, and the chances of you getting anything out of the rest of this post are imperceptibly small).

The above quote is what one of our six-man party exclaimed, about two hours into the seven-hour marathon that constituted our assault on the Vault Of Glass, as we approached an enormous expanse of subterranean architecture that stopped us all in our tracks. I laughed really hard – at that moment the ridiculousness of dismissing Destiny with a score, or indeed summarising it at all without a solar system’s worth of caveats and contradictions, struck me as particularly funny.

Of course, I am the dickhead who gave Destiny 4/5 for the Observer, a score I more or less knew was indefensible as I gave it, despite having played the game (including the alpha and beta) for around 30 hours at that point. Here’s a bit from that review:

While the game’s presentation is striding and confident, its attempt to expand the social possibilities of a historically lonely, linear genre can leave the world feeling strangely empty. Players can team up for co-op missions, explore the semi-open world together, or meet strangers purging fallen Earth of unwanted enemies. But the flexible structure enabling this social freedom prevents the game from feeling tightly curated – the lush, colourful landscapes slightly detached from the action they host.

This is basically right – and there’s an argument here about the function of a review, and the idea that a lot of people interested in whether they should spend £50 on Destiny on that initial weekend will never play for 10 hours, let alone 30, which confers a legitimacy on these early verdicts (I say verdict, I tried, awkwardly, to be as circumspect – and yet authoritative – as possible. In 250 words).

Still – it’s not an argument I particularly want to get into, except to acknowledge that I understand why these early reviews exist, and why some of them were 6/10: because Destiny is split between an essential hollowness that borders on insanity, and a mechanical superiority that makes it endlessly playable regardless. The game is consciously designed around a principle of futile repetition – players beating the same bosses over and over only for things to remain the same. It doesn’t have no story, it actually has a sort of structural anti-story, a self-erasing lack of narrative that’s only bearable because we’re all having so much instant, mindless fun.

It’s a problem. Destiny is half-brilliant, on the way to somewhere rather than having arrived. The imperfect integration of its elements allows us to peek in and watch those constituent parts – gameplay, story, Skinner box compulsion – wriggle and contort without ever meshing into a truly viable whole.

And then there’s the Vault Of Glass. I really wanted to write this because, if there’s anything left of the original hopes of what Destiny could be – that truly viable whole – I think it’s found in the Raid.

The Raid is a kind of experience that doesn’t exist in any other game. Expensively produced and marketed games like Destiny are made for mass audiences. The cost of hauling them into existence demands they appeal to as many people as possible (which is almost certainly why Destiny’s story has been neutered into a flat nothing, rather than risk an alienating complexity). And yet the Raid makes incredible demands: that you spend dozens of hours reaching level 26, that you find five other players who’ve done the same, that you collectively commit several more hours (between seven and ten seems average, to finish in single session) to the attempt itself. And then once inside, it demands you work together in a way no other shooter – certainly none that hope to attract the gaming everybody – ever has. It demands hours of trial and error, of effective communication, of repeated wipes, of optimistic restarts. And it demands throughout that you aim steady and move fast, because this is still a shooter, among the finest.

It’s not a perfect experience. Actually it’s hard to say what it is. It’s fascinating. And it is new – yes, traditional MMOs have been doing raids for years which, from a top-line perspective, demand very similar things, but shifting these demands and this experience into a console shooter changes them in a way that makes them substantially different.

What does all this mean? It doesn’t fix Destiny, which might anyway be unfixable and, at the same time, in need of no fixing. It wouldn’t change my score – I’d still give it 4/5, though this time I’d feel like less of a dickhead doing it. And it doesn’t really tell us where Destiny is going – it will expand and change, and any forthright predictions we make about it now will only make dickheads of us all in time. But do play the Raid – find friends, earn your levels, and experience something that none of you ever has before.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Andrew Merrington permalink
    October 8, 2014 10:46 am

    A most cogent summary of the strengths and weaknesses of Destiny. 8/10.

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