On Destiny’s Vault of Glass

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Looking back at my “Notes on Destiny” post, I sound pretty negative about the whole thing. I appreciate the craftspersonship of the game, but I seem to find it ultimately forgettable. That over two months later I am still playing Destiny on a near-daily basis would seem to suggest I was too harsh on the game and need to re-evaluate some of what I said. Specifically, I think I failed to appreciate just how much the game opens up after you hit level 20, just how involved that slow grind is for materials and equipment that gradually crack your level cap from 20 up to 30 (I’m currently at 28). It’s so slow and every time you just get to the next level, it’s really quite satisfying.

I also failed to appreciate the casualness of this grind. Destiny is paced more like Jetpack Joyride than Borderlands. It’s not meant to be an endless, grinding commitment. It’s meant to be something you do for a little bit each day. The daily and weekly challenges are exactly how casual mobile games (games more interested in regular play than uninterrupted play) keep a player coming back. Destiny is (for the most part) a casual shooter and it fulfils that role superbly. The subtly of how it does this is something I failed to really appreciate until I realised I was playing it for like 30 minutes a day, every day.

There is also the obtuseness of its systems which I called out as quite annoying in my Notes. How the Light system works to get you from 20 to 30 is never explained well in the game. Neither is the fact that different colour shields are susceptible to different elemental weapons explained. Playing with friends in recent weeks have shown me more depth in both the moment-to-moment play and the overarching grind that I had not noticed for dozens of hours of play. This still annoys me, but I also think it is deliberate. I think it is going for a pre-internet schoolyard dissemination of information thing, where your friend heard from a friend about how to find MissingNo in Pokemon. It’s obtuseness means you learn primarily from those other players you occasionally share the spaces with. There’s this real nice, personal passing of knowledge from one player to the next that makes the obtuseness worth it.

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This is demonstrated perfectly through the game’s raid, The Vault of Glass, which I finally experienced for the first time last night. It was such a wonderful experience, utterly unlike anything else I’d done in the game. The challenges were different, the strategies required were different, the environment was different, the type of attention demanded of the player is different, the whole way I related to the game and other players was different.

The Vault of Glass requires you to find a team of six players (you must find the people manually; there is no random matchmaking here), and together you venture down into an entirely distinct part of the Venus map you can’t get to otherwise. A series of obscure puzzles-cum-boss-battles block your passage where you need to do very specific things (keep three parts of the map occupied at once; not be seen by this enemy type; kill that enemy type particularly fast, etc), but importantly, the game never tells you what to do at any given time. Obscure messages appear about rituals being started or whatever, but that’s it. It’s obscure the way Spelunky is obscure: overwhelming, confusing, and intimidating. This obscurity and obtuseness in mission objectives alone makes the raid stand out from the rest of the game.

In our squad of six, three of us had never done Vault of Glass before, one had done it once, and two had done it quite a few times. Very early on one of those two became an ad-hoc leader, explaining how to approach each stage. We’d have these great moments where we’d all stand or sit together on a ledge, and he’d explain what we were about to do. I can’t imagine trying to do this without such a guide. Having such a player to help us through was so rewarding, to feel like you are part of a team with a clear hierarchy like that.

The environment itself deserves applause. You start the raid on the surface of Venus, in an area you wander past all the time, and you open this safe and start venturing down and down and down into the planet. There’s gaping black chasms and narrow little crawl spaces. Vast labyrinths and heavy metal shrines. It feels distinctly like you are travelling down into some other place you have never been before. It sounds like a silly analogy probably, but it just constantly reminded me of watching The Fellowship of the Ring as the fellowship march through Moria. Our leader and more competent players would be Gandalf and Aragon at the front of the narrow path, leading us more confused little level 27 and level 28 Hobbits through the darkness.

In later challenges, half the fireteam are sent to a different place from the other three. The three that remain have to defend a pillar to keep a stargate open so the other three can go get an item, kill some things, and then return. Those on the outside tend to go radio silent and you just hear the short bursts of commands of those three who are in the other dimension. It’s such a strange feeling in a multiplayer co-op game: being so detached from what they are doing. For there to be two distinct squads, and not just more of you shooting at more of them. Maybe this would feel less distinct to anyone who has done raids in an MMO before but here, with twice as many people as a normal Destiny strike, that feeling of being part of a larger struggle was really satisfying.

Importantly, Peter Dinklage doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t ruin moments with terribly delivered exposition or obscure lure or telling you to go read something on Bungie dot com. It helped me realise just how evocative and interesting Destiny‘s world is when it doesn’t have an overlay of terrible story that makes you cringe at every noun.

The Vault of Glass felt not just unlike any other moment of Destiny, but really unique in my experience of videogames. When we finished it, three hours after we started, I was buzzing. Just absolutely buzzing. Being part of such a large team to fight our way through something so unforgiving and challenging and confronting together. That feeling that we all did it together. Now I want to go back and do it again with people who have never done it before, and pass on that knowledge I have learned. If there’s one thing Destiny has mastered, it is making you feel like you are learning, and like you could help other people learn.

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