If any one, central failing can be seen as the root of Destiny 2’s many, individual problems over the last year, then the blame lies with a lost sense of possibility. Whether we Guardians have bemoaned the reduced scope for personalised, RPG character-tinkering, or the severely limited strategic options within the restrictive Crucible PvP meta, or even just the disappointing, reskinned nature of many of Destiny’s once-spectacular cosmetic armour ornaments, the overall sense is that the long-term Destiny 2 experience has delivered less than its predecessor in all areas. Its gameplay has been narrower and more prescribed, and its journey has provided fewer ways to explore and express.
But the sense of limitation hasn’t only affected Destiny 2’s tangible systems. It has shattered the overall feel of its world, and the experience of being a Guardian within it. For all that Destiny’s initially oblique storytelling and ongoing reliance on mystery-box background lore found it detractors in the early days, its growing sense of grand, cosmic intrigue and ancient, ominous myth eventually became one of its greatest strengths. It was Star Wars meets Lovecraft meets Norse legend. And it was brilliant, and really, really important.
Becoming legend, in a world of mythology
It reminded us of the scale of things. It reminded us that however powerful we became, we could still be blindsided by seismic new narrative mystery and gameplay-driven enigmas, from anywhere, at any time. And, as riddles and secrets were patched in unannounced, and unravelled by the community as ominous, galactic urban myths, blindsided we were. Frequently. When gameplay and loot met lore and world-building like this, the effect was intoxicating. Tonally, it was a fantastic environment in which to build a game about personal growth and exploration.
And in Destiny 2, we lost that too. The beautiful, terrible sweep of a monolithic, half-glimpsed Hell-universe was replaced by a simplified, ‘My First Big Book of Monsters’ junior adaptation, related via a suffocating barrage of relentlessly whacky banter. Good Lord, the banter.
But then this happened:
The Whisper of the Worm Exotic sniper rifle mission, as we now know, is an almost literal rabbit-hole of unravelling, branching mysteries, which starts with an anomalous enemy appearance in the open-world patrol space, and eventually leads to weeks of questing toward brand new, high-level loot (with major lore implications, for both the immediate story, and the future events teased during the end of the Destiny 2 campaign). It does so by way of one of the most cryptic, atmospheric, and exciting missions ever designed for a Destiny game.
Into the great unknown
Descending into the Whisper’s ancient, black ruins with my Fireteam for the first time, I got back a feeling that no game since the first Destiny has ever given me. Not since the legendary Vault of Glass raid.
“We’re descending into Hades”, I thought, “No-one has seen any of this before, and no-one knows how deep this hole goes."
Because that’s the thing. Even now with multiple runs under our belts, there’s still the possibility that there’s more to know. The Destiny community think we have it all cracked, but no-one’s sure. Destiny 2 has, for the first time, given us the full Destiny experience beyond guns and boss fights. It’s got us questioning things again. We’re looking for clues everywhere. Reddit is in tinfoil-hat meltdown regarding possible new Vex portals, and ludicrous, theoretical methods of opening them. Destiny 2 has, like its predecessor so often did, revealed a small crack in the ground, and allowed us to chisel away until we broke through to a whole hidden underworld casually ensconced beneath.
When Destiny does this stuff, it’s like tugging at a loose thread of a sweater and watching it unravel the fabric of reality as you knew it. It’s like digging a flower bed and finding a complete fucking dragon skeleton buried in the garden of a suburban bungalow. And for a long time, this stuff has felt anathema to Destiny 2's outlook.
The really exciting thing here – especially as we go into year two with Destiny 2: Forsaken – is the indication it gives us of where Bungie’s head is at during this vital transition. For the last few months, we’ve seen Exotic gear tweaked and upgraded to deliver more extravagant power, and we’ve had our latent abilities tuned to make us faster and more dynamic. But it’s never been entirely clear whether these isolated, sporadic changes really represented a Bungie getting back in touch with the first game as a whole, or simply throwing Reddit-demanded scraps to dissolve internet salt. Deciphering the overarching philosophy of a design team is more complicated and less tangible process than can be summed up in patch-notes. But now, with Whisper of the Worm, I feel like original-Destiny Bungie is back at the wheel.
In fact, rather wonderfully, given the theme of grandiose mystery hidden in plain sight, a quick backward Twitter search reveals that raid team Lead Joe Gorath obliquely teased the coming of the Whisper a week before it arrived.
Aspirational content is my passion. For me, weapons like Outbreak Prime and The Dark Edge of Insanity aren’t just power fantasies.They are moon rocks. They are the proof that you’ve stepped foot in fantastic places that most of the world will only see in a YouTube clip.July 13, 2018
Within a sequel that has, alas, become defined by its refusal of specialness, by a drive for homogenised experience - which has denied greatness and complexity out of an apparent fear of elitism or inaccessibility - that tweet is a massive declaration of intent. It is also a statement that cuts right to the heart of what kept Destiny’s audience playing for hundreds upon hundreds of hours for three solid years. It is a statement which apparently reveals that, after seeming not to for the best part of a year, Bungie still gets it.
Looking back, but moving forward
And, with Forsaken coming in just over a month, it’s surely a statement of intent. It has to be. And I say that not just as a hopeful invocation, but also a mild warning. With Whisper of the Worm, whether it wanted it or not, Bungie has raised the bar and set a new standard. Or rather, it has reinstated an old standard. And with so many of us now so thoroughly, openly reconnected with ‘that D1 feeling’, long-since diminished, there’s no way back. Bungie has to continue to deliver on this level. Especially after teasing Forsaken’s Dreaming City the way it has been.
The series’ first ‘endgame destination’ patrol space, the city is billed as part open-world exploration venue, part huge, environmental puzzle. We’ve been told that it will house Forsaken’s Raid, but also exhibit its spirit throughout, with mysteries, secrets, and surprises hidden within its very fabric, for solo Guardians and Fireteams to solve over the long-term. As such, the Whisper quest feels more like a preview than an isolated nod. It’s hard not to notice Destiny 2 reconnecting to its lost sense of mystery and arcanery just as its next expansion prepares a stage upon which to conceptually evolve that. And if it’s going to be a real sequel, Destiny 2 has to evolve what was great about Destiny. It cannot simply revert to emulate it.
I may be looking for signs that don’t exist, of course. I might, in my hope, be putting two and two together and getting a eldritch abomination from beyond time and space. But the fact that - like Destiny players always have - I’m again looking for possibilities, is a very promising sign. After a year of teaching me that there are no secrets, no hidden monsters under the bed, or unseen wonders in the stars - after using words like ‘legendary’, ‘mythic’, and ‘exotic’ while paying no real heed to what they really mean - Destiny 2 has finally given me reason to go exploring again. Now Bungie just needs to meet me halfway upon my travels, with some moon rocks for the mantlepiece.