At long last famed Halo developer Bungie has unveiled their bold, ambitious, decade-long plan beginning with Destiny. Since Destiny was officially announced and detailed there has been little insight or further explanation of characters or the game's plot. Thanks to GDC 2013, that's beginning to change.
It may be a long time before Bungie talks at length about the story or scale of their "mythic science fiction" adventure, but at least fans now have more details about the playable races and classes at their disposal. And unsurprisingly, they offer a sign of something both familiar and new to fans of Bungie's last franchise.
Anyone familiar with Bungie knows that cinematic storytelling and directed narrative is sort of 'their thing,' so making the move to a varied, open-ended and non-linear experience is a major change of pace. Creating a hero or heroine that is strong enough to carry a story for the ages is a key ingredient, but Bungie fans were expecting a strong and compelling story long before the studio revealed the mysterious figures and fiction at work in Destiny.
According to studio writer Joseph Staten, the inspiration for the newest adventure comes from the same place as their previous projects, and walks hand in hand with the bigger, more inviting, and player-focused strategy being taken in every aspect of the game. Staten explains in an interview with Eurogamer that writing this type of game may not be as easy as a Halo project, but the philosophy is still 'gameplay first':
"As long as you as a writer remain flexible and don't try to put too many rules on the process up front, your really fun job is to make everything possible. So if Chris comes to me with an image of the Traveller, or if he comes to me with an image of a guy with a soul ripping out of his head, or space zombies or robots, it's been a real pleasure just to assimilate all of those ideas loosely and try to create a world where it's less about the constraints and the rules and more about, what's possible?
"If I were writing a Halo game, what I would do is, typically, I would sit down and write a linear script that looked a lot like a film. I would just bang it out. Here's what the story is going to be. Here's what the characters are. We'd make a story. We'd talk about backstory. In this world, we spent a lot more time just doing what I think people would do in a television show, which is, we've got this plot card, and that is, like, space zombies invade the moon, or whatever it is, and that's an awesome idea. Let's just put that there. And then let's come up with other ones. And then let's start moving them around and stay flexible and then f***ing play the game so we know it's going to be fun, and then, let's finally tighten the screws and shoot it."
How that approach to creating story and plot translates to the player's experience isn't clear just yet, but the idea has been seen in series like The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, and any number of open-world RPGs over the past few years. How well is Bungie going to fare in that same genre? As Staten sees it, they've managed to find a happy medium thus far:
"The simple answer is, we still believe in a great narrative cinematic story. We want your character, whatever character you are, a female robot warlock or a male human titan, whoever you are, you're going to be the star of that cinematic story.
"But there are many many other activities that cross the divide between story and multiplayer in this world of Destiny, and your character is going to go through all of them. So, whatever character you are in story is the same character you are in all these other activities, including competitive multiplayer.
"And so, our hope is that it will feel like a consistent experience. Your legend will take you through all these different activities. Some are more narrative driven. Some aren't. Some are just more emergent. But you're a consistent character across all of those. That's the key. That's where that consistent experience comes from."
Creating an epic adventure story begins and ends with the proper hero, and unsurprisingly, Bungie is doing their best to give players the tools to make any hero they see fit. From race to clothing, tattoos and hairstyles, customization is the key. The studio detailed their starting character classes at GDC 2013, a first sign of how science-fiction and fantasy will be blended in Destiny's universe.
Players will first have the chance to choose their playable race: Human, as one of the remnants of humanity surviving under the shadow of the massive 'Traveler'; Awoken, a mystical, ethereal take on humanity that Staten refers to as a type of "space elf"; and finally, one of the Exo, a savage, vicious fighter that lives for battle (with shades of Master Chief and the Terminator).
Once race is chosen, one of the three character classes of Titan, Hunter or Warlock must also be decided upon. Calling on tropes of the 'space marine,' gunslinger and wizard, respectively, each represents a very different approach to both gameplay and art design. A fact made exceedingly clear by the variety of armor plating, cloth, and weaponry visible in the latest concept artwork.
The emphasis and ambition in customization and player choice is surprising, as the studio's previous hero, Halo's Master Chief was a straightforward space marine limiting player control to weaponry and combat strategy; also providing a baseline from which all players had to specialize. In singleplayer that meant an easier task of balancing difficulty, and in multiplayer, removed perks and over-powered veterans.
That's clearly not the case given Destiny's player classes, but the developer isn't going to be adopting every pillar of role-playing games. As Bungie art director Chris Barrett explains, choosing a hero, race, and character class at the game's outset was the team's first chance to remove obstacles from the player's path:
"When we were talking about how that process would work and the choices the players would have, we knew if we gave somebody a choice and then betrayed that choice later down the road, that would be bad. We wanted players to just go on gut. What do they like the look of? What sounds cool to them? And not betray that in any way. We don't want to make something where a character plays very differently, or isn't what they thought what they were getting. That tied in to that process. We want to give people whatever they want to play in that world and not have any negative side effects."
Staten explains further:
"Making it up front and quick and largely emotional, and nothing that's going to, later down the line, make you feel like you made the wrong choice. You're going to make this gut emotional choice: 'I'm going to look at that robot and I'm going to look at that more exotic space elf and I'm going to look at that human and I like... robot.' It's like, bam. I'm going to be a robot. And there's nothing about being a robot that's going to play any different from the other two."
Removing perks or hindrances from each race is a decision that may disappoint hardcore RPG fans, but it's not hard to understand the decision. Developers are constantly criticizing the old strategy of funneling a player down a single path, only to restart the game when they realize they've made the wrong choice, and Bungie's mass market appeal requires even more drastic methods of prevention.
For now, it would seem the developer has their hands full delivering on Destiny's potential on both current and next-gen consoles, not to mention completing what looks to be the studio's largest franchise in their history. Just to give themselves a challenge, they've also charged themselves with delivering an experience that makes an always-on internet connection worthwhile to consumers.
We've still got our own questions about Destiny that likely won't be put to rest until release, but for now, there's more than enough reason to be excited for what Bungie has in store. What do you think of the decision to remove perks based on race? Is it a shift away from older RPGs that you're happy to see the team make, or a cause for concern? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Destiny is without a launch date, but expected to release on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 (so far).
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.