Destiny 2 interview: Bungie’s Witch Queen and Season of the Lost story plans

Destiny 2 interview: Bungie’s Witch Queen and Season of the Lost story plans
Destiny 2 interview: Bungie’s Witch Queen and Season of the Lost story plans
Destiny 2 – the Witch Queen is coming (pic: Bungie)

GameCentral talks to the senior narrative designer and assistant game Director for Destiny 2 on their ongoing plans for the Light and Dark saga.

Destiny is currently in the final stretch of its journey to The Witch Queen. We are, at this point, deep in the throes of Season of the Lost, the last season before what is quite possibly the most anticipated Destiny expansion of all time.

Looking back on the year Destiny has had since the release of Beyond Light, it’s clear it has been a banner one for the series. Things feel immediate, the game is in a really good spot right now, and the fanbase feels generally content.

One of the game’s biggest improvements has come in the way it delivers its narrative. Destiny 1’s launch campaign left a bad taste in a lot of players’ mouths, but it’s been a long time since 2014. The lore has become denser and full of fascinating pockets and stories but, more importantly, the saga of Light and Dark feels like it’s coming to a crescendo.

Things changed further this year with Season of the Chosen, a new social space and story delivery system that has players interacting with characters, it has made the world and characters feel even more tangible. It’s been the best year for narrative in the Destiny universe and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would disagree.

With that in mind, we sat down with senior narrative designer Nikko Stevens and assistant game director Robbie Stevens to talk about everything narrative. That goes for the story of Season of the Lost, the whole year in retrospect, hints to where the Destiny universe is heading, and a certain Hive god sister… but not that one.

PD: What’s interested me about this year is how you guys are choosing which pockets to go and explore. Destiny has so many pockets of story. Before this, it was, ‘Oh, here’s Quria. We have this Cabal Empress out there in the universe’. Why was it the time to say, ‘Alright, we have to wrap up…’ Or not wrap up but get back to the Dreaming City, as it were?

NS: So, I think one of the reasons for that is we’ve been building this evolving singular story across our seasonal releases, that are punctuated by these annual releases like Beyond Light and Witch Queen coming up. So, this season, Season of the Lost, was built under the mindset of it being a prologue for the Witch Queen and tying in the stories of the past seasons with that transition into this new year of the Witch Queen.

You can kind of see that most evidently in the handoff between Season of the Splicer in Season of the Lost. At the end of Season of the Splicer, we see Osiris is abandoning the city and he’s retreating from this Vex attack that Lakshmi and Osiris have orchestrated on the city. Then at the very beginning of season 15 we pick up with the Vanguard sending us on a mission to apprehend Osiris for his crimes against the City. So, this super close hand-off and linkage is something that we’ve been engineering over the course of these seasons and leading up into Witch Queen.

RS: Yeah, and from the world evolution side, and how we go about choosing where we’re featuring or who we’re talking about, like Nikko is discussing… a lot of it comes down to us analysing the threads we’ve been pulling on for a few years now, since Destiny has been around for over seven years as a game with Destiny 1 and Destiny 2.

So for instance, Caiatl, who you were poking at a little bit earlier, we as a group really wanted to talk about what’s happening with the Cabal and the Red Legion because they are effectively defunct at that point. Them trying to crash the Almighty into the Last City during Season of the Worthy – it’s kind of like the last big gasp in terms of an organised force. The Cabal empire is massive and so we wanted to talk about that. We wanted to show that more.

The same is true for Season of the Lost with Mara and the Dreaming City. We’ve been hinting at Mara’s return for a very, very long time and when we were developing it was like, ‘What is the essential prologue to the Witch Queen? What’re the pieces we need to get us to the point where Savathûn has a Lucent brood, a Light-infused brood?’ How do we get there? We actually felt that Mara Sov was one of the best ways to get us there. It was also a great opportunity to return to the Dreaming City and feature an entire season around that.

The other thing we think a lot about too is, ‘What are the different player fantasies or experiences we’re trying to build for each season?’ So if Season of the Chosen is a little more swords and sandals, ritualistic combat, Season of the Splicer is a little bit more hacking into the Vex network, becoming a splicer. We really wanted to lean on the sci-fi fantasy aspect of the game with Season of the Lost. Go back into that deep well of creative opportunities that go into a place like the Dreaming City and utilising Awoken technology and talking about Awoken culture.

There’s a lot of pieces at play, right? It’s not just the characters, it’s also the world. It’s also the major plot points. It’s also all the threads we’ve had that existed in the game in the past. We try to think about all of them and how we can put them all together and create amazing content for our players and our guardians.

PD: During Season of the Chosen, there was obviously a huge shift in the storytelling mechanism of Destiny. We started interacting with the characters more. We started to get weekly story updates. I remember in a This Week at Bungie post, it was mentioned that Season of the Hunt was designed with a different mindset, and that’s why you can still see Crow in the Tangled Shore despite him leaving at the end of the season. How was that new system implemented, and why was it such a hard shift between the first season of the year and the second?

RS: Let me talk about the game design side and I’ll let Nikko talk about the character narrative side a little bit more. So, what happened between the end of what we call Year 3, which was starting with Shadowkeep, ended with Season of Arrivals. Now we’re in what we call the last season of Year Four, which started with Beyond Light and is now ending with Season of Lost. In both of these years, the thing that they have in common is we moved to a model we’re creating that we’re calling ‘a single evolving world’ that we’ve discussed a few times.

During the year of Shadowkeep, all the seasons that took place there, that was our first experiment in terms of trying to find how we could tie seasons together in interesting ways. That’s why you saw Saint 14 return in Season of Dawn and he heralds the return of Trials at the beginning of season 10, for instance. Osiris also returned from the Infinite Forest during that time, as one example.

We did a couple of experiments during that year and we saw a lot of great results, both from the team working on it but mainly from our players directly interacting with the game and seeing it changing and evolving. And what we learned from the year of developments for Year Three was that we can actually spend a lot more effort and energy on creating weekly story beats that actively make people want to return to the game and make the world feel a lot less static, honestly. Make the world feel like there’s always something new going on, just like an episodic TV show in many ways.

So, what you see in Year Four, basically with Season of the Hunt, we were starting to try to codify our model a little bit more, and we’re working on all this content at the same time so you’re kind of seeing the first experiments with that with Uldren. But then what we really learned between Season of Arrivals and Season of the Hunt was that we needed a very clear place the team could always return to and could act as a seasonal anchor and a narrative platform that we could evolve the world in our game and our characters more easily, season over season.

Really, that’s a different way of saying, ‘Hey, we wanted to spend more creative energy on a thing we understood better so we could tell better stories and build better gameplay’. So, that resulted in things like the H.E.L.M. that you saw released in Season of the Chosen. That’s where you see us starting to also experiment with an evolving narrative within our activities and things like Presage.

Kind of what the question is pulling at here, for me, is, especially with Chosen and Splicer and especially Splicer to Lost, you’re seeing the culmination of a couple of years of experimentation for us of how we actually should build our seasons and how we can create great opportunities for our team to build awesome narrative moments that can unfold, kind of like an episodic show. This is a little long-winded. Kind of got a little deep there. Nikko, you wanna talk about how we think about the characters and how we’re positioning them on the board?

NR: Yeah, so, when we first came into Shadowkeep and we started to work our way towards Beyond Light… Destiny is this super vast and broad universe and there’s so much to pull from, so we knew that we had an endpoint in mind and we wanted to make sure that we could focus players and focus characters towards that point.

So, a lot of Season of the Undying, Dawn, Worthy, and Arrivals [the four seasons in the Shadowkeep Year 3 – GC] were taking that broad array of stories and characters and funnelling them into a focused approach to this story of the Light and the Dark saga. Then over the year of Beyond Light with Hunt, Chosen, and Splicer you got to see a lot of the systemic implementations that Robbie was talking about, like the H.E.L.M. and all of these things come in and allow us to have a more centralised point to support that story. So, in terms of the characters, it allowed us to bring Uldren back and have not only a reason to bring him back but also use him as a vehicle for the story in order to drive that focus.

You get to see him and Osiris as central characters, bringing the rest of our cast together and moving the story along, so that by the time we hit something like Season of Arrivals or the time we hit Season of the Lost this year, you have this huge focal point that a lot of these storylines have been converging on for months and months and months. And then that’s just going to blow up and get even bigger when Witch Queen hits.

Destiny 2 season 15 season of the lost
Destiny 2’s storytelling has come a long way (pic: Bungie)

PD: One thing that fascinates me about the way Destiny tells its stories… you know, I’ve been a lore guy since Destiny 1. It had all these interesting elements. But once we hit Shadowkeep, it felt like we were really hitting an immediate direction: this story of Light and Dark and this upcoming fight. Was that a conscious decision to start to get the wheels turning? It feels like we are really headed somewhere, whereas, say, Destiny 1’s launch, what the Light and Dark were and that relationship was very vague.

RS: Yeah, I mean we intentionally wanted to kind of… to use a phrase here, we wanted to make sure that the best story moments happening in the game are hands on guns, hand on sticks, right? Like they’re happening in front of you, you’re interacting directly with the characters.

I think in terms of the Light and Dark saga – I mean yes, there is a concentrated effort for us to be like, ‘This has been one of the core components of the game’. We should be moving the story along. We think it’s the best thing for the game for us to go deeper into this story and actually discuss it and interact with it more because that’s also going to open us up to more possibilities in the future, once we get through the Light and Dark saga, right?

But a big part of it for us was, ‘How do we get the story out of those lore cards’, right? We talked about all these amazing moments, all these motivations, all these things that make you understand our characters better and allow you to emotionally, especially, connect with the characters in different ways. That wasn’t front and centre in the game, especially seasonal content, for a long time.

So beyond the, ‘How can we tell a better holistic story?’, that was the other major effort we are trying to interact with. How do we build more personal characters? How to have characters that help us converge on individual plot points and story points so it feels a lot more than just a game or a singular world where you’re a nameless Guardian. Like, you are hand-in-hand with Osiris and Saint-14 here in Season of the Lost.

NS: Yeah, so to touch on Robbie’s point about bringing stories out of the lore and lifting them from the lore cards and making sure that they’re front and centre in the game – I think that you can see that a lot, season over season and annual release over annual release.

If you think about the Almighty crashing towards the City, that might have been something where you read about it in lore and Rasputin was acting on his own or whatever, but instead you get to be part of that story. You get to direct Rasputin’s fury at the Almighty, you know?

Or more recently, this peace treaty between Caiatl and Zavala being talked about in a lore book somewhere – It’s front and centre, in a cinematic, right in your face.

Then we have all these systems that are providing connective tissue to those big moments, right? The radio and character interactions that you’re seeing out in the world.

One thing about just general storytelling stuff is when you’re working with a medium, or you’re working with a specific story like Destiny, or you know, any other type of story – talking about Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or whatever, you always want to think, ‘What is the thing that makes this uniquely a Destiny story?’ And I think that one thing we’ve done very well, season over season, is to say, ‘What makes this a Destiny story?’

It’s about paracausality. That idea of the Light and Dark being able to affect reality, your choices mattering and changing the direction that the world is headed in. Those things are all uniquely Destiny aspects that we are leaning on and bolstering to tell that story and kind of bring it to players in the forefront.

PD: Yeah, 100%. I think one thing that really stood out for me this season or not even just this season, this whole year, has been interacting with characters. Obviously, they’ve been around for a long time and they’ve shown up in cut scenes, but just that feeling of going to the Tower each week and then having one of them talk to you and be like, ‘Oh hey, this story moved and this happened over the last week’. It feels like we are really in step with the timeline. I mean, I assume that’s all intentional. That feeling that we’re kind of existing almost on a time-to-time basis with the universe.

NS: Yeah. I was going to say that Destiny has kind of always been on a loosely one-to-one time scale, I would say. And so, to touch on what you were saying, yeah, it’s a very meaningful choice to have it unfold in a way where you, as the character, feel like things are progressing in real-time. And you know, you have this very episodic feel, so I’ve logged in this week, what’s changed?

I want to go see all of the evolution of the story, which character is going to show up now, how is the dialogue going to shift in the Astral Alignment activity for the Season of the Lost? Those things progressing week over week, I think it’s given the player base this… it’s almost like watching episodes of a TV show. I mean, I look at Reddit every Tuesday, and I just see what everybody else is talking about the new episode of this week and it puts a smile on my face.

PD: Yeah, and in tow with that, I know some games, for seasonal content will have a big dump of content at the beginning and then fizzle out. Destiny seems to be keeping things paced out. How do you make sure there is enough week to week? How do you go, ‘Oh, week three is going to be this, week five is going to be this, and then maybe we’ll have an off week and then week seven will be this? What’s the process of plotting that story out?

RS: So, in the same way as a movie or a TV show, we do the same sort of story break down of all the things happening across the season. And so, the main thing we do is we try to have the season have a pretty clear beginning and end and then the middle – sometimes we try to have a middle beat, but sometimes it’s a little more flexible or it might be a couple beats in the middle because that’s just the best thing for the story.

But once we have all those things on the board, we also have to think about other things in the game. We have to think about, ‘Hey, when are we running our holiday events like Festival of the Lost or Guardian Games? When are we potentially going live with Grandmaster Nightfall rotations or potentially another content beat that we’re dropping?’

The thing about Destiny is it’s a giant game, and people come to it for many reasons. Narrative is definitely on the forefront now, as a reason for a bunch of people starting to engage more and get interested in it. But also, there are people who want to come back to play Trials on the weekend and that’s their main pull. It’s logging on with their friends and going through Trials. And so, we try to kind of consider all the aspects of a season when we’re actually putting together our content calendar.

The other thing here too is that we also try to think about… a big part of Destiny is pursuit, which is kind of the backbone of our game in many ways. We are an action MMO. We have an RPG backbone. So the other thing that we try to think about is, a lot of the things you do in types of seasonal activity content in order to get your rewards we also feel is very important to that seasonal journey, and for you to feel like you’re building your character for that release. So, that also kind of goes into how we think about the story as well and when’s the right time to unlock new story beats alongside your little journey within the content.

NS: On the system side, if you look at Season of the Lost and you look at the way that the upgrades for your Wayfinder’s Compass are layered out in that upgrade pane, you’ll notice that you’re led into this progression chain that allows you to slowly feel like you’re becoming a Wayfinder, that you are learning the art of wayfinding.

As you venture into the Shattered Realm more and more you learn how to use that compass and how to navigate that area more effectively. Over the course of the season and over the course of time, you as a player should feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve mastered this ability now and I’ve learned this ancient art from the Awoken’. So, that’s one side of it.

Then the story side of it is we talked a little bit earlier about how you have these tentpole moments, like cinematics and these character interactions and things like that that are kind of like the big punchy moments of the season and have those beats. So, we place those first normally; not necessarily that we know exactly what it’s going to be, but we know something like, ‘oh, we want a character interaction here, it should probably be something themed around this because this is happening in that moment of the season’… I know I’m being very vague, sorry.

In between those moments, we want to build out this connective tissue so that I feel like you don’t go a week without seeing a cut scene and then say, ‘Oh, wait, what was happening?’ Instead of that, you’re going to have radio messages that are coming in. You’re going to have characters that are constantly updating you on what’s going on in the activity dialogue, and kind of pushing that story forward in between those big tentpole moments as connective tissue.

So it’s like Robbie was saying, it’s across the board, we’re thinking about, ‘Where do we put these big moments? How do we link them together? And how does all of that play in the same sandbox with gameplay changes and system changes?’ It’s all hand-in-hand.

Destiny 2 Season of the Lost screenshot
Season of the Lost is just one part of the story (pic: Bungie)

PD: Totally, and like… going into something more specific – As we head into Witch Queen… not Savathûn, but Xivu Arath has been creeping forward bit by bit this year. It felt like before Beyond Light she was the forgotten sister of the trio of Hive gods of Oryx and Savathûn. She turned up in Season of the Hunt through Wrathborns and she’s covertly a big part of Season of the Lost. I assume as we move forward, she’ll become even more present. There’s only so much you can talk about obviously, but her growing presence in the Destiny universe is interesting to me.

NS: Yeah. Robert, is there anything you want to say?

PD: I guess, to frame that more of a question you can answer, what was that process of bringing her to the forefront a little bit more, so players get a little bit more understanding and appreciate her?

RS: Yeah, we can definitely talk about that a little bit. One of our themes for Season of the Lost is actually family. You see it with Uldren, right, who has been risen from the dead and Mara Sov. ‘Okay, is their family connection still the same if he doesn’t have his memories? What does that mean? What is that going to say for the story?’

Also, Xivu Arath is actually Savathûn’s sister. She’s also one of Savathûn’s family members. And now what you’re seeing is there’s a pretty big rift between Xivu Arath and Savathûn. So, we are definitely, intentionally looking at characters like Xivu Arath and other characters who are kind of on the dark side of things a little bit more. We’re trying to find the right ways to position them to help build the roster of villains or other characters that we expect Guardians to attack and ultimately takedown at some point, or maybe not.

I mean, the reason I’m being super vague here is, we understand roughly what we’re doing with Xivu Arath but also, to Nikko’s point, we have some tentpoles for major characters over the next couple of years, but those tentpoles can change. They can morph, they can evolve depending on how our development goes.

But what you’re describing is very intentional. It was very much like, okay, ‘This is one of her sisters, this is someone who cares, who would care a lot about Savathûn starting to change in some of these ways and is explicitly trying to stop her at this point from whatever her schemes are doing right now’. We thought that family connection was extremely important to not only… that first part is kind of like the gameplay, why players care. The second part is why should they care about the characters? And that’s the thing that’s going to evolve more in-season.

NS: Yeah, Xivu Arath started to pop up in the game. She was around a little bit in the Forsaken days, here and there, but she really started to pop up and be more prominent back in Season of the Hunt. Now in Season of the Lost, like Robbie was saying, we are playing with these themes of family and trust and one of the reasons why Savathûn has come to us at the beginning of the season, or come to Mara really, is because Xivu has just been hunting her relentlessly since Season of the Hunt.

And if anybody wants to dig back in lore a little bit, take a look at some of those conversations with Osiris and how he refers to her and the types of things he’s asking us to do – it might be a little enlightening. And then also in Season of the Lost, pay special attention to enemy nameplates, especially like mini-bosses and stuff. You’re going to see Xivu Arath’s name all over the place, and you’re going to get some clues and some hints of what might be to come.

PD: For sure. Sorry, I know you probably came in here expecting to dodge questions about Savathûn but I swerved and started asking a lot about Xivu Arath. I’m always someone out in the tertiary of the lore.

RS: We are glad you notice! We put a lot of time and energy into this stuff, to leave all these breadcrumbs.

PD: So I guess wrapping up, linking to family in a way, the broader theme of the year has been about pooling our allies. We have a weird truce with Caiatl, we have Mithrax and now the Queen is back. I assume, with the Light and Dark saga coming to an end, that was all conscious. Making sure all our cards were aligned, and will that theme change going forward?

RS: Yeah. The thing I’ll say on this without really spoiling anything, and more just kind of a thought process for us, is we are very intentionally trying to think about where we’re positioning our characters, what they care about, what they’re motivated by, what they’re trying to do inside of our universe.

That is one of the bigger changes from a single evolving world too, right? Where it feels far more intentional and that everything is building towards something, even if it’s just an individual character trying to build towards something. Mara in Season of the Lost, trying to save her lost coven of witches; Caiatl trying to reclaim the Cabal Empire in Season of the Chosen; Mithrax trying to save his people in the House of Light in Splicer. They’re all trying to build out these alliances and these other characters that we’re going to continue to talk to and use in different ways.

You’re going to see that extend deeply into the next year of Destiny with the Witch Queen and beyond. You’re going to continue to see us position… we like to basically discuss it as position the chess pieces on the Light and Dark chessboard that we’re dealing with now. I probably shouldn’t talk much more than that.

NS: Yeah, and I would say this year of Seasons and Beyond Light, it’s been a lot about loss and rolling with the punches and getting kicked while you’re down. But one of the themes that kind of rings through all of that is this idea of hope. If you look at Season of the Chosen, there’s this very tense engagement going on, but there’s hope in the idea that maybe our enemies aren’t so different than we are. Maybe there is something between us that we can share.

Season of the Splicer is kind of the same idea, where all of this xenophobia and this sort of hatred that’s building up in the City is overcome by this hope of an alliance with the House of Light and unifying our people. So, that undercurrent of hope is a strong thing that we try and make sure flows through the entire year as well. Because no matter how dark things get, there’s always some hope out there, some light to chase.

PD: That’s what Destiny has always been about to me, so I appreciate it.

By Patrick Dane

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