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How Destiny 2 unexpectedly became a game about dealing with trauma

When Destiny 2’s Season of the Haunted first kicked off, it seemed like it would pit players against Calus, a villain who had been stalking the game since its release in 2017 and wielding a new and frightening power – with in other words, another relatively typical villain waiting for players to come and shoot her. However, what Destiny 2’s characters have actually battled are their own personal demons.

The stalwart superheroes of Bungie’s MMO shooter are the “Haunted” referenced in the season’s title, and the story that unfolds each week was a surprisingly emotional and honest tale of coping with personal trauma. As merritt k noted at Fanbyte, a shooter about killing giant aliens somehow picks up conversations about mental and emotional health – and does an admirable job of dealing with these difficult issues.

The premise of Season of the Haunted is actually an outgrowth of the Shadowkeep expansion, in which players faced ghostly enemies called Nightmares. While nightmares look like red ghostly ghosts, they are actually the manifestations of memories and regrets. In Season of the Haunted, Nightmares are armed against the game’s characters, forcing them to face those regrets head-on. After Bungie established the direction of the season, according to lead narrative designer Robert Brookes, taking a sensitive approach to themes became an important part of the process of building its narrative.

“We didn’t start the season with the goal of tackling mental health as an issue,” Brookes said during a group interview that included several Bungie developers who worked on Season of the Haunted. “But once we realized what we wanted to do – like, ‘Okay, every character in our main cast will face Nightmares’ – we realized we wanted to attack them in the same way Shadowkeep did, which was [Shadowkeep main character] Not only does Eris banish her nightmares and make them go away, but she comes to terms with the loss of her fireteam.”

The Shadowkeep expansion launched in 2019 and largely involved its main character, Eris Morn, working through the survivors' guilt over the loss of their friends.
The Shadowkeep expansion launched in 2019 and largely involved its main character, Eris Morn, working through the survivors’ guilt over the loss of their friends.

“Being able to use the language that Shadowkeep had already developed for us, and then take that and expand on it, allowed us to develop a story that felt like a natural place to feel the ideas of things related to mental health. ‘Cause how do you get past the nightmares? It’s by accepting them… So I think it was just a natural growth of what we wanted to do.

The Season of the Haunted has so far focused on two main characters, Crow and Zavala, both of whom have been important parts of the game’s overarching narrative for well over a year. Crow’s story is all about his past regrets – although he’s now an immortal Warden, in his past life he was Uldren Sov, a villain who murdered Cayde-6, one of Destiny’s most popular characters. When humans are resurrected to become Wardens, they forget their past lives, so Crow is a different man than Uldren. But earlier this year, Uldren’s memories were restored to Crow, and he has since wrestled with the fear that he might slip back into the same dark places Uldren once occupied.

Zavala, meanwhile, has been the stoic leader of the Guardians since the original Destiny launched in 2014, but lately that role, as well as the losses he’s suffered along the way, has weighed heavily on him. Season of the Haunted fleshed out Zavala’s character more than ever, telling the story of Safiyah, the Vanguard commander’s wife, and Hakim, his son. After his son was killed in a mugging, Zavala and Safiyah broke up, and he has mourned her ever since, desperate to be worthy of her forgiveness and unwilling to grant anything to himself.

Both characters have dealt with their baggage in the stories that play out in this season with the help of the player and other characters. The fact that Destiny 2’s strongest heroes cannot overcome these issues alone was central to the stories Bungie tells.

“The truest stories always touch on parts of life, reality, and the kind of cultural or global zeitgeist that everyone is experiencing,” said Senior Narrative Designer Nikko Stevens. “Things like shame and doubt or sadness are feelings that everyone has and often go untalked about. Emotional vulnerability is often associated with the stigma of weakness, which is kind of ridiculous. So we wanted to make sure. The way we tackled these challenges wasn’t just clever tactics or brute force or any new power you unlocked. We wanted these things to come from within, and we wanted them to come from the people around us as well, these characters.

“There are those usual tropes in fiction where characters just overcome their shortcomings through sheer willpower or have a defining moment that allows them to excel at something they couldn’t do before,” he continued. “In Destiny, our themes are about camaraderie, support, and hope. So we wanted to use those ideas through our characters and show that even some of the strongest people in the universe, with all their might and might, can’t defeat their own personal demons themselves. They need help, just like everyone else. That was the main drive in Sever [the weekly mission episode telling the season’s story]. We as a team…all the designers, all the artists, right down to the audio and music and dialogue, we were all very much united in this idea of ​​showing that these are challenges that need to be met through understanding and support. and not by bravery and violence.”

Brookes also said that the process of writing Destiny 2’s characters to process their grief and pain helped him personally as he faced his own grief and pain.

“When we were working on the season, I didn’t expect it to be some sort of personal journey,” he said. “But when we got to the end of the season’s development, I very unexpectedly lost my mother. And after spending three months processing the grief and their varied emotional journeys of three different characters and then having to go through my own, just as I was about to finish – that moment almost felt like a surprise bonus mission that I didn’t ask for to put it superficially. But I also feel like exploring these three different approaches to trauma has helped me prepare for my own journey as well. And it’s made this a very personal season for me, too made because my mom was always pushing me to get this job and get what I’ve got on.”

Season of the Haunted's Sever Missions are traditional shooter levels, but they represent players helping Destiny 2 characters as they struggle with their trauma.
Season of the Haunted’s Sever Missions are traditional shooter levels, but they represent players helping Destiny 2 characters as they struggle with their trauma.

While Bungie may not have gone into Season of the Haunted to originally address mental health issues, Destiny 2’s story is consistent with the studio’s recent approach to the issue in general. Back in 2021, Bungie added a page to its website dedicated to mental health resources, with in-game loading screen messages directing players to the site.

Reactions on social media suggest that there are definitely Destiny 2 players that Season of the Haunted will resonate with. Brookes said he thinks games can be useful in dealing with difficult issues like grief and trauma and offer players another way to engage with those feelings.

“Mental health is an important thing in general, not just for storytelling and for acceptance by a general audience, but also just at Bungie,” Brookes said. “And we wanted to do justice to this topic. That was our first big, really driving goal when we knew it was something we wanted to tackle. And it’s also a universal experience – everyone has suffered something that lingers with them.

“…Mental health is a topic that not everyone likes to talk about. As such, games can sometimes be used as a medium to explore these things in a safer and novel way, giving you a bit of distance between what you’re feeling and what the characters on screen are feeling. And we wanted to kind of explore that in a way that’s realistic and nuanced and not easy to solve, and make our characters feel like they’re people who are actually dealing with these types of fights.”

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