Why Bungie gets visual storytelling wrong (Destiny)

by Cody Miller @, Music of the Spheres - Never Forgot, Sunday, July 26, 2015, 18:11 (2121 days ago)
edited by Cody Miller, Sunday, July 26, 2015, 18:28

You’re reading a book. How does the book engage you with the story? Not the way the author writes, or the situations and structures of the narrative, but how does the actual medium draw you in? Like everything, the answer is emotions, but the way, and the kind of emotions are specific to text. It appeals to your emotions through imagination, since everything that happens is happening inside of your head, with no real sense of time, chronology, or any sense that it is beyond your control. Your mind can stop, go over details you find important, and focus on particular things. A moment can hang in time or even reverse until you have processed it to your liking.

What about the visual arts? These engage your emotions in a completely different way. They work by simulation. We react immediately and viscerally to things, because the representations seem real. We see it. We hear it. It plays out in real time mimicking the way we perceive the world. The illusion is very convincing. If you stop reading a book for a second, nothing happens, since the book does not depend on the continuous nature of presentation. In fact, very few books are even meant to be finished in one sitting. But pause a film? The illusion breaks down completely.

So your emotional reactions to audiovisual media are intense, spontaneous, and more cathartic. Has a book made you cry? Maybe. Has a film? But has a book ever made you jump out of your seat and scream in fright? That I doubt. What’s on screen comes at you wether you want it to or not. With a book, since it’s all inside your head, you have the final say…

Is it any wonder that the Red Wedding elicited such a visceral and intense response? There were ‘reaction videos’ mere hours after the event, where people filmed other people watching it for the first time. People cried, screamed. These videos were played everywhere, even on Jimmy Fallon. But this is not the first time people are experiencing that event. The book came out many years prior. So why were there not accounts of the reactions of people reading the Red Wedding? There were parody reaction videos for sure, but note that these came after the show, and well, they are parodies. Why is it completely normal to see someone freak out when they see Rob Stark die, but be ridiculous if they do that when they read that he dies? Because visual media elicits emotional responses differently than text. (Also note the language. 'I saw him die'. It wouldn't make sense to say 'I read him die', but that you 'read that he died'. The text itself removes the immediacy of the event.)

For all the talk of how valuable books are, they are simply unable to tap into emotions as completely and as viscerally as visual media. That’s why audiovisual media are the most popular way to tell stories in the modern world, and why huge groups of people connect with them. So yes, Lord of the Rings had devoted followers when it was just a bunch of books, but folks who were engaged with the Lord of the Rings did so in a very different way than those with Star Wars.

Books and text excel at Lore and Legend. The world in the Hobbit and LotR was so big, expansive, detailed, and mysterious. I’m sure a lot of people wanted to be there. Your mind fills it in and wants to know all the details. This appeals to your sense of wonder and curiosity, and you emotionally engage. But did you feel the same way reading about a battle, that you did when you saw Luke blow up the Death Star?

This is why text can build worlds, and make you grapple with ideas, whereas visual works focus on the immediate sensory impact. When you show the specific thing, it becomes ‘real’ and loses that mystique. But you gain the chance to intensely elicit an emotional response. I consider the audiovisual to be superior, since you can still build up your worlds ‘offscreen’ and get much of the benefits of text. Have your cake and eat it too.

Text is best for the unspecific. What exactly did Kabr do? It wouldn’t really make sense to actually see it in its discrete steps. It works as a legend. It works because it’s supposed to prime us for the Vault. It works because our imaginations and minds are turgid, non linear, and unspecific.

The problem of course is that Destiny is an audiovisual work. It had better be working as one in the way it engages us emotionally. It tries. The image of the traveler is at the forefront. But it doesn’t work. People are more attracted to the grimoire than the story the audiovisual tells. Why?

Bungie always used text and lore to emotionally engage. Marathon and Myth did it because, let’s face it, the audiovisual elements of games at that time was crude. So Bungie rightly fell back onto lore and text to make us engage with those games, and it worked. But we’ve moved on, and our games can give us convincing audiovisual stimulus which creates the illusion we need for visceral emotional engagement. So why not do that? Why is the grimoire not a support for the game, instead of the game being a support for the grimoire?

Characters and the Human element are absolutely necessary for engagement in an audiovisual work. Classical music can make you feel something, but can you take an image, that doesn’t represent anything at all and have it work emotionally? No. (This is consequently why music is so special, and works so good in conjunction with images). Images resonate because they represent and stand for something, which means you have to have a relational framework by which to translate visual elements. If you take someone who has never had sight before, give him sight, and show him a horrific image, it would not take emotionally. He doesn’t know what he’s seeing. But take someone who hasn’t heard anything, give him hearing, and play a piece of music designed to be happy, tense, etc, and he will feel that. I know this because we have several experiments that attest to this. If you’ve never had vision before, and know what an object feels like, do you think you could identify the object by sight alone when you are given the ability to see? Empirically, the answer is no.

This is why you need human elements in your visual works. We all have the necessary framework to process images because we’ve been alive and are living in a culture. When we see the ruined airplanes in the cosmodrome, that gives us a reaction, because we know that it represents a decay of civilization, since in our experience airplanes are flying and not growing over with plant life. But to someone who has never seen a plane or a plant for that matter, the image means nothing.

This is why we have characters. They contextualize the feelings about events and setting, and display their reaction to such events. Mad Max looks grim, but what if all of the characters were, instead of dirty and despondent, were happy and having the time of their lives? Wow, I guess the apocalypse is pretty awesome then! This is why your characters make the setting, not the other way around. The setting only makes sense when you know how those living in it respond to it. That tells you what kind of world it is.

This is why having characters who think and respond and act like a real person would is so critical. Even if you have never seen or heard anything about Mad Max, you know just by watching the film that it’s a world after a nuclear war where water and oil are precious. The film doesn’t need to say that at all, because you get that by what the characters do! But Destiny, completely bludgeons you with a guy telling you about the traveler and the darkness and all that. Did Halo have an opening narration saying “Humanity is at war with the covenant, blah blah blah?” Nope, you went straight into the action, but it was easy to piece together based on what you were seeing the characters doing. We know Humanity is losing, we just got our ass kicked and had to crash land on Halo! This is why the opening title crawl to ODST is stupid; it actually DID that despite perhaps having the best potential characters with which to tell all that. Games benefit MOST from show don't tell, because we have complete access to the world via interaction!

So Destiny shows you all this really interesting stuff, but gives you very little in the way of context to place it. The events in Destiny’s backstory are like, huge civilization changing events. The people in that world are going to have views and feelings about that no? So why don’t they at all?

And so we get to the biggest problem with Destiny: it’s not really ABOUT anything. When nobody in your world has even the slightest hint of feeling about it, I can only conclude that the work isn’t really about anything. None of the characters really stand for or represent anything, so what ideas are actually presented in the work? The characters all have jobs and stuff, but nobody places those jobs relationally. Having one guy interpret the will of the speaker has some pretty heavy implications, but nobody cares so apparently it means nothing and stands for nothing. All you needed was to show people eager to hear what the speaker has to say. He comes out, makes a speech to eager onlookers, then talks to you. Simple. That would tell you everything you need to know about how he is viewed. So when Brother Vance tells us Osiris thinks he's a fraud, it means nothing, because we don't see anybody believing him in the first place!

Even the most basic stories are about the growth of the hero via the hero’s journey. Destiny seems rife with setup for that. The unlikely hero, resurrected into a foreign world, learns the ways of being a guardian and fights off evil. Sounds good right? Except that’s not realized in the game at all! Your character DOES learn new skills via the mechanics, but that is not realized at all in the game narrative. Nobody trains or teaches you or even comments on it at all. The evil is just this ‘thing’, and doesn’t really stand for anything either because it doesn’t affect anyone in the game. It fails on even that level.

The aboutness of a story is exactly why we engage at all! The main and supporting characters stand for something, which is why we respond. Cal stood for inner corruption hidden by a facade. Jack of a rich and wonderful spirit. So what was Titanic about? That being rich in spirit is most important, and no wealth can hide or make up for that lack. Gee, kind of like an opulent, decadent ship that at the end of the day couldn’t actually float. It’s a metaphor guys! But what if Jack was just another rich asshole? Wouldn’t that be a really different movie?

So, I ask you guys, what is Destiny actually about?

You might say that we do get context through character motivations and feelings in the grimoire, and you do. But remember the point above. Text primes you differently in terms of emotion, and the grimoire functions as world building. But all that stuff is basically off limits. Do you know why? Because when you put it into the game, it will immediately fail at its job of world building and mystery precisely because it now goes from the unspecific, imagination driven land of text, to the specific, reaction driven world of the audiovisual. Why do you think Darth Vader went from being completely awe inspiring and transfixing in the original trilogy, to just lame in the prequels? Because in the Original Trilogy, he was the last Jedi who hunted down and murdered all the rest. The most powerful. That Legend hangs over you whenever you see him. But when you actually see that legend happen? It becomes concrete. Specific. It no longer hangs over him, but collapses down like a quantum wave.

But because visual storytelling is built upon specific sights and sounds, it has no place for legend other than to color the things you don’t see. But if Destiny has nothing to say, it all has nothing to color and so we fall back on the text for emotional engagement. But this throws out the raison d'être of visual media in the first place! So why not get Tolkien’s estate to write a series of Destiny books, make LotR in space, and call it a day?

But the focus of everything in Destiny so far has been the Legend. This is clear from the marketing, and it’s clear from the fact that the Legend is the only interesting thing about this universe given the completely mishandled state of the narrative in game. But Legends are incompatible with the actual content of audiovisual narratives. because when you see it, it’s no longer a legend but a specific thing… it’s just what happened. It’s why games like Lunar 2 that take place hundreds of years after the first, and have the legends of the original characters part of the fabric of the game, ultimately fail. Those legends sound ridiculous, because I was there. I actually did it…

Destiny is never going to suddenly become about something just because the characters now talk to each other in the first mission and have a bit of a misunderstanding. The fact Bungie is using that to assure us is indicative of the bar being so low initially. The characters need to say, do, and believe things. They need to stand for something.

At the end of the day Destiny is just a game, and the fun comes from the moment to moment shooting. But, even that is improved, even just somewhat, if we know why were are shooting. As Cyber once said, “Sometimes I wish Bungie would just say they don’t care about the storytelling and just leave it at that”.

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