[7-10 minute read]
As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”
This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.
Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge, on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film. The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.
The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)
Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.
This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.
This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.
With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.
Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)
The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.
Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.
The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)
In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:
Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)
The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal. Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.
This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”
As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.
While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.
 Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother
 For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.
 The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.
Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.