17 October, 2014

Why I Quit Destiny and You Should Too

Or Why I Wanted to Get the Bungie Off My Back

After hitting level 20 for the second time, I realized something about Destiny: This game can go suck a lemon.

Despite all of the minds and the money behind it, Destiny is a mindless slog with no point and seemingly no end. It is somehow the apex and the nadir of all of gaming history. And, most importantly, it's a game that basically asks its players to act like junkies to make it work. There's a reason Jeff Gerstmann is already nominating this as  2014's Most Disappointing Game of the Year.

Meet your new dealer.
My basic problem is how Destiny handles it's loot system. "Loot," for those of you who do not know, is what the game gives you for completing certain tasks. Kill a guy? Maybe you'll get some loot. Finish a dungeon? Maybe you'll get some more loot. And so on. The game revolves around it. A lot of games do. World of Warcraft is a billion dollar industry built around it. The Borderlands series has entire algorithms built in support of loot. More recently, the critical hit Diablo III was based around the game dropping loot at your feet. Loot hunts can work. My problem is not that Destiny has loot, it is how it treats its loot system and, in turn, how it treats its players.

I've heard terms like hitting the “pleasure center” of the brain and “serotonin bump.” It's a conversation that doesn't sit very far from other terms like “loot lust” and another favorite neologism “binge watching.” Whether these people meant it or not, they've described the mechanisms of chemical addiction. That was the exact moment that I realized that I need to quit Destiny. I needed to get clean.

The biology of addiction is a funny thing. There's a lot of holier-than-thou pontificating that say that addiction isn't a disease and that it's "a choice." These people, you understand, are assholes. While we all have choices in our lives and sometimes we really wiff them (like buying a hundred dollar version of a Bungie game, for example), the fact is that addiction has real chemical effects on the brain. On a certain level, you aren't making choices, you're responding to evolutionary triggers. 

While I won't bore you with the details (nor do I remember most of them), the long and short of it is, if you have the right genetics and the right behaviors, after a certain point your brain will be unable to distinguish between healthy behaviors that it should reward and detrimental behaviors.

And, like I said, it's a funny thing. This isn't a bad thing. Your brain is engineered to work this way for a reason. Your lizard brain, when you, say, eat something or have sex or run away from a predator, the pleasure center of your brain gives you a bump. It's biology's little way of saying “Hey, good work, buddy. We didn't get eaten by a leopard today Here's a little something special.”

Pictured: Destiny players collecting
precious "Light."
What I've just described is the exact mechanic that Destiny needs to make the game work. It doesn't reward you emotionally or intellectually. It doesn't tell a stimulating story, it doesn't pluck at your heart strings. It depends entirely upon you cranking away at the same levels over and over again in the vain hope of scoring a proper high-- or in this case, some sweet Legendaries. Except that the Legendaries never come. Ever, meaning that Destiny is a drug, it's a bad drug.

When Destiny came out, I heard a quote, I'm pretty sure it was from Leigh Alexander (but I can't for the life of me find it on twitter), which was that the game doesn't have a heart*. She's right. Destiny has not heart. Most theaters of operation do not have hearts. It's a movie set. A false backdrop. The only thing that grips you is this fake reward loop that they've half-baked into the game. Once you see how hollow and sad that is, the only thing you're left with is hulking, anodyne work of art. Destiny has all of the life shooting gallery in an empty burn ward.

I'm also reminded of a scene in The Simpsons episode "Homer's Enemy." In the scene Martin shows off his fancy model of a nuclear power plant. Mr. Burns is not impressed.
Behold, the power plant of the future, today!

Yuck. Too cold and sterile. Where's the heart?

But it really generates power. It, it's lighting this room right now.

He turns a knob, dimming the auditorium lights.

You lose. Get off my property.

Destiny could have used some racing stripes.
But I think about other games? Aren't they all inherently empty? Are not all games just “games?” No they aren't. What are you, dense?

When I quit Destiny, I shifted my focus back to the first game I picked up for my PS4: The Last of Us. Without going into a review in a review, I'll say that it's awesome and leave it at that (but also it has just about the best stealth system of this generation). It's a very different game than Destiny and it is going after different goals, but, just as a game, The Last of Us is so much more rewarding.

What makes The Last of Us different? Well, first off, it just is, damnit**.

More substantially, it's a real experience, one punctuated by great characters, a fully realized world, and great game play. While Destiny shares the same kind of tight character control and wonderful art direction, it game falls short because none of it fits together. Instead it relies on the most base, thoughtless nature of its player. A coma patient could have as much energy invested in Destiny as I do. The same can't be said about The Last of Us because, well, that sequence where you're Ellie in the town is really hard and I'd like to see a coma patient pull that one off on Hard!

Goddamn that game is good.

But, anyways. . .

If you enjoy chasing the dragon on your next gen console of choice, I'm glad for you. I'm glad somebody is having fun around around. As for me, I have things to do. Important things to do. Things like reading, writing, socializing, and maybe, just maybe, abusing actual, real life drugs, ones that actually fucking work. I want more than what Destiny provides. Or maybe I'm just looking for something that doesn't think of me as a mark. Whatever the case may be, I am reminded of a quote from The Wire, that other great epic on the drug war, that sums up my feelings:
“You cannot lose if you do not play.”

*She cites Fallout: New Vegas as a game that, if messy, had heart out the whazoo, and goddamnit I want to play that game right now.

**Come this year's crop of Game of the Year awards I doubt Destiny will collect anywhere near the amount of accolades that The Last of Us did. If it does then there is no God and we deserve all of the calamities we having coming to us.

James Kislingbury writes, podcasts, and is 20 days clean from Destiny.