The main reason I wanted to talk about the campaign separately from the rest of the expansion’s contents is because Bungie’s ability to tell a decent story seems to grow worse and worse with each new piece of content they release.
The story is relatively straightforward. At the end of the previous season, Guardians were invited to Europa. On Europa, they encounter another pyramid, intercept a message from Variks, decide to intervene, and find themselves facing off against darkness-empowered Fallen led by Eramis, a new Kell-of-Kells. My problem is that this description is basically all there is to the story.
However, before I move on, it’s worth noting that Beyond Light’s campaign is better than Shadowkeep. That’s ‘good’ only in a very relative sense, because Shadowkeep’s campaign was a very low bar. The only campaigns that Bungie has released that are actually worse than Shadowkeep, are Curse of Osiris and Warmind.
The Taken King and Forsaken remain highlights in Destiny storytelling, but it’s starting to feel more and more like they were aberrations of some kind, outliers or happy accidents rather than being representative of the narrative quality that Bungie is accidentally capable of. And to explain why Beyond Light’s mediocre campaign is probably all we can – and should – expect from Bungie going forward, I want to talk about 3 things.
Eramis had the potential to be an incredible villain. In the Glassway, a new strike on Europa, she talks about having had to watch her planet die, how helpless she felt, and really gives voice to her frustration with how ‘fallen’ her people are. Her desperation isn’t exactly difficult to understand. The Fallen are broken in virtually every way. Their tribes are scattered. Their leaders are weak, and the powerful ones have been cut down by Guardians. The ones that have been able to make some sort of living for themselves – like Variks – were only able to do so in service to other races. Eramis even talks about how Variks used to torture other Fallen in the Prison of Elders, something Variks himself does not refute.
Then, think also about Destiny 2’s gameplay loop from the time of its launch. Three public events involve Fallen – the ether servitor, the walker tank, and glimmer harvesting. All three represent resources to the Fallen: the first is food – ether servitors gather food for the Fallen; one of Devrim’s voice lines when he tells you to take out a servitor in the EDZ is ‘keep them hungry’. The walker tank event is about weapons and armaments. And the glimmer harvesting is about acquiring material that they can trade or build with.
At every turn, for years, everything that we, as Guardians, have done has been to foil their attempts to rise, even to feed themselves. And we’ve done it all for sport. I can understand stopping the Fallen from arming themselves, especially after Twilight Gap and Skolas, and the overwhelming mountain of evidence that shows what happens when Fallen tribes band together under a powerful, charismatic leader. But glimmer? Food? We stave an entire race of people and call them villains when, in their desperation, they turn to the one source of power that promises to empower them to lift themselves up once more.
Eramis’ motivations are not only remarkably clear, but she’s also justified in her hatred of Guardians. In her desire for the darkness. And then, just when she starts to seem like an interesting character, Bungie takes a shit on everything meaningful about her by saying that her anger is the problem, that the darkness has twisted her, and that she is now some sort of evil. It misses the point entirely – everything that Eramis is, is the result of what we have done to her people. And if there is to be a reckoning, the Guardians have it coming.
Bungie clearly had no real, meaningful idea for how to introduce Guardians to the darkness or how to really write or build a campaign around a potential fall from grace, so they used Eramis as a scapegoat. Darkness isn’t evil, Eramis is. If Eramis hadn’t been an angry rage monster, the darkness would never have been able to twist her desires and ‘corrupt’ her. And then, in a twist of narrative stupidity that I think only Bungie can muster, they go so far as to call Eramis insane.
Eramis was shafted because Bungie needed some sort of in-game excuse to justify Guardians using the darkness. They needed a way to say ‘hey, darkness isn’t bad, Eramis was, if you use the darkness, you’ll be fine. But their execution of that excuse is so utterly dumb, so hopelessly hamfisted, that we might as well have just picked up darkness from a kiosk somewhere and it would have had the same narrative weight.
Here are my many problems with the darkness and the way we decide to turn to it.
At the very beginning of the game, we see Eramis empower one of her followers with darkness. We then run from said follower. When we talk to a plot relevant character, they inform us that light cannot fight Eramis’ power and that we need to use the darkness instead. Immediately, because we have rocks for brains and because Bungie doesn’t understand how to write character motivations, we immediately listen and go munch on some darkness powers. And we do this while ignoring our ghost, who is practically begging us not to do this, just because a character who showed up once, seven years ago, has now reappeared and is telling us to do something.
Excuse me? How? Why? We didn’t even try to use the light. We didn’t ask a single question. We didn’t object even once. We ignored the counsel of probably the only real friend we’ve ever had – our ghost – because plot. There is no opportunity, even once in the campaign, to use the light meaningfully against the darkness. We go to the ziggurat and attune with the darkness because we’re told to. We find a crux and draw on darkness powers because an objective marker tells us to. In the final phase of every boss fight, all agency is taken from us, our supers are replaced with darkness powers instead, and we’re told to fight.
The introduction of darkness should have been a momentous thing. The beginning of Anakin’s journey towards Vader. Instead, we stuck with the linear, garbage experience that we get with Beyond Light.
What should have happened, by the way, was that at every point in the story when we’re required to commune with the darkness, we should have been given two button prompts instead of one. First button prompt: attune to/commune with the darkness. Second button prompt: turn away and embrace the light. At the very end, when we’re frozen and helpless, staring down Eramis, when we hear that voice telling us to look within, there should have been two button prompts: reach for the darkness, or beseech the traveller.
Ultimately, we still unlock the darkness subclass. Ultimately, we still beat the campaign in the same way. But how we do it should matter – whether we choose to stand by the light, or whether we choose to give in wholesale to the dark. To do the former should have resulted in small dialogue changes: relief from everyone that when tempted with the quick and easy path, we chose the light instead. To do the latter should have also resulted in small dialogue changes: we did what we had to in order to beat Eramis, but was it the right choice even though it was necessary?
It’s still the same story, still the same campaign, still the same ending, but it would have lent meaning to both light and dark and to our role as being able to wield and choose between the two. For years, Bungie has been touting Gambit in the lore as a way to separate Guardians who are likely to be tempted by the dark from those who are strong enough to walk the line between the two. What happened in Beyond Light? Did the narrative team forget that they wrote all of that?
Perhaps by accident, Variks and Eramis mirror somewhat our relationship with Cayde, lending a bit of a twist to Beyond Light’s story that was never really explored. Cayde was our friend, who died as a result of actions that Variks took. And here we are, on Europa, challenging Varik’s friend, whose death we cause by our own, very deliberate actions.
I really think that after the Glassway, Variks should have sided with Eramis. Think about her for a moment. She was about to empower her people. Lift them up so no one would ever call them ‘fallen’ again. Then a god-slaying lunatic shows up, kills two of her friends, lays waste to hundreds (if not thousands) of her troops, and seems to be drawing ever closer to single-handedly disrupting her plans. Of course she got desperate. Desperate enough to turn to the Vex. Because, like I said earlier, we made her that way.
The difference between her and Variks is one of faith and philosophy. I won’t pretend to understand Variks, but his and Eramis’ purposes were allied once. They wanted to make a home for the Fallen, they simply disagreed on how. Variks believed that their future lay in embracing their past, in keeping faith with the Great Machine. Eramis believed that faith in the Great Machine was misplaced; it abandoned them before and it would do so once again. In darkness, they would find strength and a new purpose and a way forward. Eramis sought power and was not wrong to seek it. Variks should have seen that, and should have responded to it.
Hell, Variks should have been urging us to use the light just to show Eramis that light was stronger. To use the light instead of the dark and to demonstrate that the Great Machine was stronger. He should have tried to win her over. Ultimately, Beyond Light’s campaign could have been about the only real difference light and dark being about the choices we make – both tools, both capable of great good and great evil, determined only by the hands of the wielders.
If done correctly, it would have been a remarkable contrast: Variks, on one hand, pushing us towards the light because he needs to believe as much as Eramis does that the Traveler is stronger than the darkness. And the Exo Stranger on the other hand, scarred by her dark future, fearful and perhaps as desperate as Eramis herself, convinced that wielding the darkness is the only way to beat it.
That would really have been something.
Instead, we get a half-arsed, go here, shoot this thing, use this new shiny power, kill this big Fallen because it’s bad, kind of storytelling because, at this point it seems like this is all that Bungie is capable of.
When the art teams are involved, there’s a lot of incredible, incidental storytelling that takes place
For all that the narrative is largely rubbish, it’s also worth noting that the other teams involved in bringing the darkness to life have done a truly stellar job. The first thing that struck me about Stasis was about how different it felt. On all classes, but on the Titan in particular, Stasis feels wild. Raw. Not a more refined power that is channeled, in the way of the light, but more like something that is unleashed to devastating effect. Letting rip with my Titan’s super feels like bringing chaos itself down onto the battlefield in a way that the light-given powers simply don’t. They’re weapons, honed, targeted, precise, in a way. Stasis is like dropping a nuke in a barn.
There are small things like this to the darkness that I absolutely love, that give the powers themselves a personality and character that the the story and the actual characters are so desperately lacking.
So, to sum this up …
There are other problems with the campaign but I can’t be bothered to talk about them simply because I’m tired of Bungie pulling the same nonsense over and over and over again.
Like I said at the very beginning, Beyond Light’s campaign is better than Shadowkeep. But that does not mean it’s good. It is, at best, acceptable. And I think it is also time for us – well, me, anyway – to accept that Bungie simply isn’t capable of creating a sci-fi epic. They can barely manage Halo-quality storytelling anymore; there’s no way in hell Destiny will ever become the next Star Wars or Mass Effect. Hell, at this point, Destiny is never even going to be the next Halo.
Bungie is capable only of doing quick, average, straightforward stories that involve conflict between a good guy and a bad guy and, at this point, there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest they will never be capable of more. If you’re buying Beyond Light for the story, for the epic introduction of the darkness, you’re likely to be disappointed. There are no meaningful characters here, no meaningful interactions, no real explorations of anything related to the light or the dark. There is a bad guy, you need to kill the bad guy, and you’ll get the a new shiny tool to do your killing with. If that’s enough, Beyond Light is a ton of fun, because Bungie continues to be good at the things that they always have been – weapons and armour design, gunplay, team-based activities, things to do that are fun with friends.
But if story is important to you, look elsewhere. Because no matter how low you set the narrative bar, Bungie will inevitably fail to meet it.