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Destiny 2’s dev team talks crafting the narrative, dungeon challenges & more

Destiny 2’s latest season, Season of the Deep, has done quite a bit of heavy lifting following the lukewarm reception of Lightfall. The season has unveiled some massive story beats, giving players insight into the history of the series’ main antagonist, the Witness, while also offering brand new underwater environments, the almost rogue-like Deep Dives, and the lore-laden Ghosts of the Deep dungeon.

To dive deeper into the season, and hopefully learn about what lies ahead, I was invited to join a Q&A session with a few Bungie developers. This session included senior narrative designers Nikko Stevens and Robert Brookes, design lead Brian Frank, and senior design lead Tom Farnsworth.

The roundtable with the developers focused primarily on Season of the Deep including the seasonal story, the Ghosts of the Deep dungeon, and Deep Dives, though it did lean into some broader topics of conversation like enemy factions and motivations, how the team approaches design, and much more. To say the 90 minutes was packed would be an understatement. It was brimming with information and I left the call trusting that the team has their eyes on the prize.

The biggest part of the Q&A session, and the element that had the most questions, was that of narrative.Players have come to expect that the seasons following an expansion’s release are a fresh start and a build up to the next expansion, but the narrative team has chosen another path with Lightfall and what comes next. Robert spoke of a bridge between Lightfall, the seasons, and eventually the Final Shape.

“You finish Lightfall and then there’s the fallout from all that,” Robert said. “All the deconstruction of the events that happen, the characters’ reaction to the things that occur, and a much more slowburn story.” For the narrative team, Season of Defiance and Season of the Deep was an opportunity to dig deeper into what happened in Lightfall while Seasons 22 and 23 are the classic ramp up to The Final Shape.

The Lightfall seasons are set up to have a clear handoff between each one, with narrative progression from season to season. Robert notes that The Final Shape and what comes next will be intimately connected through its story.

When it comes to crafting these stories, the writers’ room at Bungie is an “ultra-collaborative” environment with different groups coming together. Developers working on cinematics, the NPC animation team, basically anyone that touches the narrative content can hear the scripts, offer feedback, and give their own ideas.

When it came to planning out Season of the Deep, the team knew they were going to Titan. They also knew Sloane, the Leviathan, and the Hive were on Titan the last time players saw it. The writers also knew Savathun was going to be involved and Oryx had his Dreadnaught near Saturn. All of these elements are floating around their head as they start crafting the story.

Part of the challenge then is to connect these ideas together while staying true to what’s come before. Anyone who’s spent even a minute reading Destiny 2’s in-game lore tabs or watching My name is Byf know that the lore is dense. For this reason, the writers tap into the well of knowledge of Kimberly Brooks, Bungie’s in-house historian.

For Robert, his process involves digging into the deep lore surrounding the stories, destinations, and ideas that the team will explore. This way Robert doesn’t miss something that was written ten years ago and that everything remains consistent. “I will select the stuff that is most directly relevant to what we’re doing or has the most connective tissue going inwards and then I start building the stories I’m going to write based on what’s already there,” Robert said. “Then I’ll start creating something new from the inside of the pre-existing lore that we’ve already established.”

Season of the Deep has given players a lot of answers to the origins of the Witness, mainly through the eyes of an entity called Ahsa. Nikko took a moment to answer a question regarding Ahsa’s knowledge of the Witness. While it sounds like more is yet to come, Nikko says that Ahsa is a proto-worm. Like how the Hive used to be the Krill, the Hive worms used to be something else before they were offered the Darkness and sword logic by the Witness. She’s a proto-worm that turned away from the offer and fled Fundament. Interestingly, it’s pointed out that because Ahsa has been in Sol, she saw the events of the Collapse take place and what the plan was before the Traveler pushed everyone back.

This line of conversation naturally led to talking about Savathun and her motivations. Robert touched a little more on Savathun’s motivations for visiting Titan during the Red War. She was experimenting with the Light during the start of Destiny 2, which is what the Savathun’s Song strike was about and which had rippling effects throughout The Witch Queen.

It’s not explicitly stated but Robert suggests Savathun and Ahsa may have had an interaction. This is likely why Ahsa understands that Savathun needs to come back in order for us to get to where we need to go. Robert capped off this thought by noting that Oryx’s body is below the oceans on Titan and that Savathun has plans within plans, and asks, “What use would she have for a navigator?”

Nikko also tried his best to set expectations about Savathun’s involvement in the upcoming story without revealing too much. “Savathun will be a part of the story moving forward but she will not have as prevalent a role as she had in Witch Queen,” Nikko said. “In this instance, Savathun is a piece of the story rather than having the entirety of the story revolve around her.” It sounds like she won’t be the primary focus for several seasons and will instead be more akin to another one of the ensemble of characters.

The development process is a constantly shifting beast, and while the narrative team might know the general shape of the outcome, the path to get there changes over time. “We always knew this was coming down to a confrontation between the Traveler and the Darkness,” Robert said. “All those concepts that we’ve introduced, we knew it was going in that direction, and hewing out those finer details happens the closer you get to that project.”

Brian echoed the sentiment of creating something with the knowledge that it could be utilized later to reach that end goal. “We have learned that it’s best to create deadends that have locked doors, and we don’t know what’s beyond them,” Brian said. “Create a horizon that you could imagine going beyond so we have those opportunities later to return to when we have more insight into where we want to go and how people have reacted to what we’ve done.” An example Brian gives is of Calus, who was created to be an enduring character, and though the end might not have been known back in 2017, it was left open for the teams to explore.

Part of digging into your past to create new threads is understanding what has worked and what hasn’t. When it comes to lessons learned during Lightfall, the team has formed a greater understanding of pacing. Matching the narrative and gameplay pacing can be challenging as the “needs of narrative and the needs of gameplay can be at [odds] at times,” Nikko said.

For Robert, though he wasn’t a part of the Lightfall narrative team, he sees an opportunity to have more overlap between seasons and to bring what has worked for the seasonal models to the storytelling of expansions. “My intention is to bring the way the seasonal storytelling is handled and the way we handle characters interactions and reveals and the amount of payoff we have in every seasonal story to carry that forward into The Final Shape,” said Robert. He wants there to be a progression of payoffs, discoveries, and interesting revelations mixed with strong character beats.

“I think bringing what’s been really successful in the seasonal model into expansions has been really important to me; making sure that we learn from both our mistakes and our successes,” Robert said “I think that’s going to put us into a really good space going into what we do after Final Shape.”

Experimentation is also a part of this learning process. For those that have experienced the Veil Containment missions, they’ll already be familiar with one of Robert’s ideas. He notes that there weren’t a lot of opportunities to have quiet moments to listen to the story, so having this place where he can deliver exposition without messing with the pacing of gameplay was important.

Additionally, the team has to walk a thin line with delivering story to its players. It has to be comprehensible to a young playerbase while still being interesting to an older audience. “I think it’s a tricky balance to walk and that we’ve had more successes than failures on that blows my mind,” Robert said.

The conversation was steered into questions surrounding the Ghosts of the Deep dungeon. Players have been thoroughly enjoying the mechanics of the dungeon, the loot, as well as the revelations of the final boss room. But players are also running headfirst into troubles with the boss shields, specifically when soloing.

Brian offered a bit of insight into the decision behind including a shield, noting that it was initially proposed as another mechanic. Thematically, the breaking of the boss shield matches the breaking of Hive Guardian’s shields, stopping their Supers. It was difficult to tell, but it seems as though Brian is aware of trying to keep the shield strong enough so players recognize this but also not overtuning it.

“Solo and solo flawless are going to be among the most challenging achievements in Destiny,” Brain said. “We really wanted to preserve the aspiration or that accomplishment.” The raid and dungeon team didn’t want Ghosts of the Deep to be as equally hard alone as with a fireteam, but they also didn’t want it to be exactly three times as hard.

This questioning of dungeon difficulty also reached Brian’s ears on the release of Duality. The dungeon introduced some of the more raid-like mechanics players have seen in dungeons and some no doubt struggled. However, the team is glad that there are varying degrees of challenge and mechanic-heavy dungeons, giving players of various preferences something to enjoy. Additionally, after Duality, the team made a decision to move away from the teleportation mechanic due to its buggy nature and the difficulty in trying to resolve it.

The conversation naturally steered back toward the reveal of Oryx’s body in the Ghosts of the Deep dungeon. The panel discussed how the narrative team and dungeon team worked together to bring Oryx back in a logical way and how the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

“I have a wall of Post-It notes of things I want to do one day,” Robert explained. “Oryx’s body was one of the notes on my wall and the second we were going back to Titan I was like, ‘I wonder if I can…’ and then as soon as I knew the dungeon was going to be under the Arcology I was just like crashing through a window just being like ‘We have to do it! Body! Right here!’.”

“Oryx is such a beloved piece of Destiny history, so the opportunity to continue that story and tell it in a sensible fashion that lined up with everything else we were doing so perfectly, it couldn’t have been a better overlap of possibilities.” Robert continued. “And that’s like when we were talking about the long view on things. You have to leave yourself open to these things where it’s like we never would have necessarily planned to have this moment in this season in this way, but all the stars aligned where it was the exact right moment and all the resources were perfect, the story lined up and everything that could have made this succeed did, and we just had to roll with it.”

The underwater sections in Ghosts of the Deep and Deep Dives gives players a pause between the battles and an opportunity to explore the world of Destiny 2 in a new way. As it turns out, the water sections proved to be a multi-disciplinary addition.

Because enemies wouldn’t attack players in the water, the designers needed a reason for players to return to combat. Enter the timer, a way to force players to leave the water and get back to the action. This led to the designers knocking on the narrative team’s door and requesting an in-universe justification for why the player couldn’t stay in the water for long.

The air bubbles played into this aspect of risk-reward, letting players stay in the water exploring while still maintaining the danger. At first, the air bubbles in Ghosts of the Deep led players directly to where they needed to go, but Brian didn’t think it felt like a dungeon so red herrings were included.

Every season the team has an activity they try to iterate on. For Deep Dives, a lot of work was done weaving together mechanics to create something akin to a rogue-like version of the popular Menagerie activity from Season of Opulence.

Bungie was able to develop some new tech processes that allowed the team to utilize elements in a way they haven’t been able to previously. Things like the unique encounter setups, Ahsa buffs, and the progression of the different levels occurring in one activity are thanks to this new tech.

But that’s not to say there weren’t other development challenges. Building buffs turned out to be a lot of work. Tom notes that they didn’t want players to feel like they were missing out by picking one over the other. It was also challenging trying to create buffs that were appealing when faced with the choice of just more Super generation.

Though no promises were made about iterating on Deep Dive in future seasons, Tom did say the team is listening to feedback from the community and is aware of what they like and dislike.

Though I had just listened to and chatted with these four Bungie developers for an hour and a half, I could have listened to them talk design and writing philosophy for much longer. To echo what I said in the introduction, I get the sense that the team leading this charge into The Final Shape is taking every opportunity it can to craft something truly great. There are more revelations to come, including a Destiny 2 showcase on August 22.

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