Bungie’s Destiny and Iain M. Banks’ The Culture

After a year hiatus, I played through much of Destiny recently. The production design is high-quality good. The writing is maybe good. The presentation is terrible. I’m a fan of the subtle out-of-order storytelling in the Dark Souls series. It seems Destiny tried to do the same, except ignored the subtlety, so every piece of information you’ve been given is made explicit. Being interpretive human beings, when given a piece of information directly, we presume we’re supposed to do something with it. In the Souls/Bloodborne series, you absorb story; in Destiny, it’s forced into you. In another universe, there’s a great mod of Destiny that, like Bladerunner, removes much of the voiceovers and makes the story something that teasingly reveals itself.

Anyway.

It’s clear that much of Bungie’s work takes inspiration from Iain M. Banks. Not just in components (orbitals, varieties of weird alien races, minds, drones, ancient alien stuff, etc.) but in the whole shtick.

As a human being who has filed tax returns in four countries, which is some sort of measure of world-experience, I’ve seen a tiny part of the world, but, having circled it a few times, I am aware of the sense that it is bounded — it has an end. Both Banks’ and Destiny’s universe are very open-ended. The feel of their open-ended is enhanced by the characters and powers-that-be in them feel, by comparison to ourselves, much larger and more far-reaching, yet are themselves are presented as small and powerless in their universe.

Destiny was disturbing bad to play at first. Like, painful. This was a year ago, when I had not yet read any Culture Series books (I know, crazy). Related? Unclear.
Destiny’s inventory acquisition milieu triggers by association the same painfulness as free 2 play nickel & diming games. There’s so much business to take care of – like I pick up a random “coded engram” item, which could be one of a few items, then run an errand to take it to someone whose profession is “Cryptarch” who then Decodes it into an actual item, which has various stats which may make it ambiguously better or worse than the items I currently own. Upgrading the items I own depends on a variety of currencies, some of which I get through drops, some of which I can trade (?) for, some of which require real money, which has an ambiguously-varying exchange rate. Oh sure, there’s a quoted price, but maybe the in-brick-and-mortar-store is different. Between various merchants and mission givers, I sprint, but the distance to each merchant is 1.75x the length a sprint lasts, so I’m always, always, optimizing, always, the shopping experience of the future.

The Culture Series features a post-human(oid) series of species that were raised on separate planets, but over millennia have effectively merged, genetically and culturally. Planets are an inefficient usage of living space, so The Culture’s trillions of citizens live on various spatial super-structures, most famously orbitals, cylindrical features inspired by Larry Niven’s Ringworld whose surface area, at a minimum, runs in the dozens of Earths. The Culture is run by minds or Minds (the capitalization matters somewhat), AIs who use faster-than-light processors, made long ago by the biological parts of The Culture and through a slow version of the singularity self-improved continually and only use 9% or so of their capacity in the day-to-day business of running things and the rest of the time in Infinite Fun Space, a sort of consensual hallucination of post-Euclidean video games not really incomprehensible by mere mortals. Except no one is really mortal any more, as an embarrassing death may be fixed by a backup, and the especially embarrassing ones feature in cocktail party stories, the frustration being that you’ll never know what that version of you was thinking, going for a reckless adventure 100 days away in spacetime from your last backup. Gender may be switched by thinking about it, though still taking a few months for all the parts to swap around, and the most common practice for the (unusual) monogamous heterosexual couples is to impregnate each other then put the fetuses on growth pause as necessary so they may birth at the same time.

The Culture is a utopian, socialist, anarchist society. Banks proposed in an ancillary essay that anarchist qualifier is a necessity due a siege being an impossibility in 3D space, though that I feel is an unneeded justification. The most important premise of The Culture is that it is post-scarcity. Anyone can have anything they want. This is such a monumentally successful achievement that Banks has deemed it impossible to write interesting literature about citizens fully self-involved in The Culture, and his works of fiction only document the interactions between its sections who interact with the great unwashed masses outside. For what is more horrifying for a perfect society than interacting with a society who is not? The biggest problem for a sentient being in The Culture is feeling not important or not useful. The small portion of The Culture’s staff devoted to outside contact is fittingly named Contact, and the quasi-military-fucking-around-with-shit-sketchy-like section is Special Circumstances. But what is everyone else doing?

I think they’re playing Destiny. In Destiny, you’re the protagonist, you’re told you’re special, you’re the first to every interaction with every new enemy! You repaired the machine god that hangs over our city! You discovered the secret of what’s going on on Luna! It’s all been you! And yet, at the same time, the game displays that there’s several other…apparently equal?…also-protagonists — people?…of various ranks running alongside and even though we’re all killing the god ruining Mars we’re still having to do the minutiae of choosing what gun to buy off the guy with the try-hard hood who should be thanking you as a saviour. Are we supposed to ignore these irreconcilable absurdities? If I start monologuing in one of the social areas that All. Is. Not. What. It. Seems. And. I. Think. The. Machines. Are. Trying. To. Make. Us. Feel. Important will I get dragged off? I don’t mean vaudeville walking cane violently, but I mean through a sudden you-may-be-a-winner reward if only you complete this hot new quest that everyone is talking about.

I think a Mind, a machine god we’d make one day, would feel the only ethical solution to making an inevitably inept past-bound human feel useful is to construct a simulation to make them feel so. A depressed flock is, frankly, embarrassing. The other Minds would make fun of you on the FTL message boards. In Destiny, you aren’t just anyone, you’re a Guardian, vaguely someone who is in charge of rescuing/returning humanity to its former glory, after some sort of previous Collapse (capitalized). So what is everyone else doing, exactly? Pretty much everyone you run into is a Guardian, so what’s the rest of the 23-chromosome crowd up to? I presume they’re, at a satellite’s-eye view, having a wicked hedonistic time inside the structure you’ve run across, experimental with various shaders and face paint and teleporting each other’s genitalia inside each other. Casual short-range teleportation appears in both Destiny and The Culture Series, though in the latter it is called displacement. And yet there’s still a viable gun market, with currencies, and you can only carry 9 and it’s kind of a chore dealing with that limit. I suppose The Collapse is a good excuse – There Was Once Good Stuff But Now It Is Broken, and thus we can now revert to a feudalistic economy because it’s all crashed to shit, and apparently it’s impossible to run any sort of game with role-playing elements with any sort of economy resembling anything past the 1300s. Because getting good at economics in any economy past then requires a degree and Excel and python scripts, and I’ve already done enough Eve Online in my life.

I think I’m only able to tolerate Destiny now because it’s implied world and production design is really top-notch great, and its richness of iceberg possibility resonates with The Culture’s whole deal. And also decades of doing level and gun-feel design means that Bungie can make something really fun and slick. And tossing down a grenade while double jumping and ricocheting off a well-placed nodule and charging my fusion rifle to release it into a headshot in just the chink in a boss’s armour does feel rather splendid.

Though, I am still vigilant, squinty sly-eyed, of the parts of the game which try to convince me to keep playing it, because I Am Important To It And It Wants Me To Feel Good. Because, Destiny, if I’m not important, please. Please tell me, I want to help. I know I’m small in this whole thing but please don’t lie to me. I can change, I can do better, I really can. Let me know what I can do. We’re all in this adventure together. Everyone to the future.

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