Destiny and Bad Avocados
Last September, after several years of development, a protracted curtain lift, and 500 million dollars in production costs, Bungie finally released Destiny. This marked the first franchise launch for the popular Bellevue, WA developer since the original Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. Despite its strange inability to communicate what the game actually was prior to its release, the studio’s impressive pedigree and passionate fan base fueled a massive hype machine that dominated the gaming conversation in 2014. Following the holiday 2013 launch of the then-next generation consoles, Triple-A titles were predictably sparse in the first half of 2014, and all eyes were on Bungie’s “next big thing” to push the industry convincingly into the new generation.
Despite insurmountable expectations by fans and tepid critical reviews, it only took the game one day to earn back the 500 million dollars in sales.
Destiny’s success as a commercial product isn’t up for debate - the game has been wildly successful. By the numbers, it’s the biggest new franchise launch in the history of the industry, selling over 11 million copies in its first year on the market. Gaming news sites like IGN and Polygon are still writing about Destiny because articles about Destiny get clicks, period. The hype machine remains alive and well, and with today’s release of the game’s “The Taken King” expansion, it shows no signs of slowing down.
I remember firing up the public beta late one night in mid-July on my roommate’s projector. As a lifelong PlayStation gamer deprived of 14 years of Bungie’s acclaimed shooters, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew about the game was what I’d heard, and what I’d heard was…well, vague. Something about Halo meets Borderlands meets Mass Effect. I squeezed the controller in anticipation.
The opening cinematic awed me with its grand visuals, gorgeous orchestration, and gentle, tired narration. Surrounded by darkness and staring at the giant screen in front of me, I was completely engulfed in this universe. It wasn’t a fictional universe, either - all of it seemed so genuine. I felt the joy of the golden era ushered in by the Traveler and I winced at the pain brought on by the darkness. In three minutes, I had experienced such a roller coaster of emotions that no combination of emojis could accurately express what I’d felt. It was simple, yet epic - creating the perfect backdrop for an engaging story.
But then I tasted it. The bad avocado.
Now, here’s the thing about making good guacamole: it doesn’t really matter what recipe you use. Some use lemon, some use lime. Some use onions, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers - all are fair game. Seasonings? Take your pick. All of these things can vary. But - and here’s the important bit - you can’t make good guacamole with bad avocados. It simply isn’t possible. You can try, as I have tried, and as my father has tried, and as my father’s fathers have tried, but generations upon generations of Harrisons armed to the teeth with anecdotes of failed attempts can assure you: if you allow a single milky avocado into your otherwise perfect, 3-Michelin-Star, 50-avocado masterpiece of a dip, you will rue the day. The taste will be off-putting. The texture will be inconsistent and grotesque. These are unfortunate consequences, to be sure, but nothing is worse than staring at that giant bowl of guacamole and sputtering to yourself between sobs, “If only I had left out that suspicious-looking oaf of an avocado, I would have an extraordinarily delicious dip. And friends.”
Why is this so deflating? No one would mourn bad guacamole if only bad avocados had been used to make it. No, this would merely be the expected, all-bad output of the all-bad input. Bad guacamole is only mourned when good avocados are wasted on it. These fallen avocados are unnecessary and preventable tragedies in a long line of twisted culinary adventures, the inevitable next of which, of course, is the desperate attempt to salvage the tainted avocado mash with an all-out assault of seasonings and extra ingredients. This misguided course of action is most probably fueled by the “denial” stage of grief, which attempts to distort the most fundamental and immutable tenant of the craft: you can’t make good guacamole with bad avocados.
Destiny is brimming with great avocados. Firing doesn’t just feel good - it feels correct. The music is dramatic and satisfying, consistently praising the player for their heroism. The visuals are deeply colorful and rendered without a hitch. Perhaps most impressive of all is the rock-solid architectural backbone of the game - even during the beta, I never experienced any technical issues whatsoever. The game actually worked at launch, which, hilariously, is rare these days. Bungie deserves credit for excellence in all of these areas and more. In several ways, the game is an absolute achievement.
I also don’t like it.
During the game’s alpha, Peter Dinklage’s performance as the player’s floating companion, “Ghost,” was heavily criticized by players. This led Bungie to significantly alter Dinklage’s voice for the beta, and the change was kept for the game’s subsequent retail release. The damage had already been done, however, as the performance had managed to generate memes that ratified the harsh criticism. The whole episode was rather puzzling, because anyone who was familiar with Dinklage knew that he was an excellent actor. Why was the voice work so flat and uninspired? Most people, including myself, assumed that it must have had something to do with Dinklage’s lack of experience in games. It’s possible that he simply didn’t understand the medium, and therefore couldn’t perform the role well.
Almost a year after Destiny’s release, news that Nolan North of Uncharted fame would replace Peter Dinklage as Ghost in the massive “Destiny 2.0” update made headlines. North, having worked on hundreds of games in his career, was the antithesis of Dinklage; surely he would be able to breathe new life into the character and finally put an end to the mediocrity.
The day before the update launched, Polygon posted a video that offered a back-to-back comparison of both performances:
To my surprise, I couldn’t detect any sort of improvement whatsoever. The voice was different, but it certainly wasn’t better. How could two talented and well-respected actors flounder so thoroughly in their attempts to bring this character to life? As I began to reconsider my criticism of Peter Dinklage’s performance, the answer became clear:
You can’t make good guacamole with bad avocados.
Dinklage and North are master chefs in their own right, but their significant skill and experience cannot mask the taste of Ghost’s abysmal dialogue. Interesting dialogue is colored by the personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and backgrounds of contributing characters, and is almost impossible to write in the absence of any one of these traits. Ghost, however, lacks all of these traits. Touting an excessively vague origin and the grinding personality of a talking information kiosk, the character himself - regardless of who is cast in the role - is a bad avocado. Unfortunately, given the relatively large amount of screen time and VO that Ghost receives, this is the avocado with which most of the narrative guacamole is made.
In its introduction, Destiny weaves a compelling tapestry through the establishment of its fictional universe and lore. Although this tapestry is undoubtedly teeming with interesting threads, the unfortunate choice of Ghost as the needle leaves them largely unexplored, or even frayed, significantly diminishing the storytelling potential of the franchise. As a player whose character is somewhat of a cipher, it is imperative that the other characters with whom I interact be substantial enough to shoulder the weight of the narrative, but no such characters are to be found in Destiny. Ghost is not an isolated incident - he’s the most glaringly obvious example in a large line of underdeveloped characters, all of whom ultimately stifle the potential for great stories held by Destiny’s fantastic lore.
This is why the story of Destiny, or lack thereof, is worth mourning - not because of the bad avocados, but because of the great ones.
For me, this resulted in somewhat of a chain reaction. Uninterested in the characters, I became unconvinced by the story. Unconvinced by the story, I became disenchanted with the mechanics and the motivations behind them. After purchasing the game at retail, I stopped playing before I even reached the level cap. While much of the gaming community enjoyed Destiny for what it was, I wasn’t able to look past what it could have been.
I had taken one bite of the guacamole, and suddenly I’d lost my appetite.