In 2009 Steven Porfiri was accused of never having played a video game before by someone on a GameFAQs message board, and the insult has haunted him ever since. Now, as the Senior Games Writer for Merry-Go-Round Magazine, he’s finally been given a platform to prove that not only has he been playing video games, he writes about them as well. I Played a Game Once is an inside look into what he is playing, and how it has any bearing whatsoever on our current moment. It’s basically like Carrie Bradshaw’s column but with more discussions about save-scumming.
When I was but a teenager, in-between listening to Linkin Park and brooding I would more often than not play video games. As the title of this column suggests, this happened on at least more than one occasion, and sometimes when I’d play, my younger brother would watch. He, as the younger brother, had at least a passing interest in the things I was interested in, and was as emotionally invested in retrieving all the pieces to the Thievious Racconus in SLY COOPER or figuring out the Templar conspiracy in ASSASSIN’S CREED 2 as I was. But I like to explore and my brother likes to move, so he would eventually move on to the next thing while I was trying to find the runes on the side of the Palazzo Pitti.
As I’ve desperately tried to put forth, I like games where I feel like I am the protagonist of a story that takes place in a fully-realized world. I like to take my time, explore, and see what I can find in the game world. I like single-player games with stories that I affect, or at least have the pretense of affecting.But as the United States approaches one whole year of locking ourselves away in our homes and apartments with nothing but our thoughts I wondered if there was an aspect of gaming that I was missing out on. In the opening ceremony of this year’s BlizzCon there was a somewhat moving tribute to the community that Blizzard players have developed, what that community means and has meant to them, and how it’s embedded in the games they play. I say “they” because I don’t really consider myself a Blizzard player. But in the last week I’ve really been experimenting with online games and trying to see what draws people to them and keeps them coming back to these worlds.
One of my best friends has been a Bungie Boy probably since the first Halo game, and I have many memories alternating between him flattening me with a Ghost and patiently explaining that even though the assault rifle is fully automatic, it’s better to shoot in controlled bursts. As part of his gaming evolution he’s gotten very into DESTINY 2, more so since the pandemic hit.
I’ve tried to get into it as well in the past, but every time I did I felt like half the game was evaluating statistics and crunching numbers. Which set of guns and mods would make the numbers go higher, which set of armor would give me the optimal spread of Intellect, Discipline, Mobility, etc. to make me an unstoppable Guardian of light, and what shaders could I use to make the ensuing mish-mash of armor parts the most aesthetically pleasing? None of this was anything I wanted to actively think about when I could be hucking exploding knives at aliens, so I eventually bounced off the game. Even when it was free to play, which meant that on PC I had access to PvP modes and could actually progress through some of the initial missions, I still felt like there wasn’t anything keeping me coming back except for the desire to check off a few bounties every day.
But, determined to get to the bottom of it, I purchased the season pass and got access to this season’s content. With the help of my friend I was guided through missions that he had already completed, while being given in-depth explanations for the game’s mechanics and backstory. The lore of DESTINY and DESTINY 2 is notoriously dense. While we played he kept recommending a video that would explain everything, the only issue was that the video was roughly four hours long. I didn’t have time for all of that, so from what I could glean from the cinematics, the latest threat to humanity (Who hasn’t seemed to have expanded outside one city? Destiny came out in 2014, I feel like there should at least be some suburbs at this point) is in the form of two different factions. One was a member of the Roman cosplaying Cabal, who were looking to put together a war council to crush some other faction, and a member of The Fallen (Cyberpunk bug people) that has managed to unlock the secrets of wielding Darkness, which is just ice powers known as Stasis.
This division between plotlines seems to be at the core of the way the DESTINY 2 game loop operates, which is what intrigued me the most. Every season there were a couple different calamities unfolding, which in the world of DESTINY meant opportunities for sick loot. My friend acknowledges that DESTINY 2 is a “looter-shooter” and that one of the gameplay rewards for coming in and grinding at various activities is the opportunity for new guns and armor pieces. I explained to him that that aspect of the game, fretting over what combo of armor pieces I should have and whether I should focus on one element more that another, was one of the things that prevented me from really getting into DESTINY. Well, that and the fact that to actually participate you needed to be paying for an internet connection in one way or another or purchase the expansion that came out at various intervals during the year.
His advice was something that I hadn’t quite considered, which was “Get new and stronger thing, put on or equip new and stronger thing.” This was a wildly simple maxim that easily ironed out a majority of the personal qualms I’d had with the game. Just put on thing! Use thing! It’s that simple!
Of course there is also the issue of inventory management, and his advice was simply “If it’s blue, say adieu.” Well, that wasn’t really it, but it was “Get rid of blue things if they’re not as strong as things you just got and the other things are purple.” This color-centric attitude referred to the rarity of each item, with blue being common, purple being rare, and yellow being the most rare. Each color also has certain attributes to it in terms of the way it can be powered up and modified. For my purposes this meant that it wasn’t worth it to power up a blue item when a purple item or yellow item would go way higher, so trash it if it’s taking up space.
The mixing and matching of armor and weapons, I was told, was an end-game worry, a bridge that I’d cross when I came to it, if I ever came to it.
And like that, a weight was lifted.
I felt that I now had the capacity to enjoy the game despite maintaining half a brain cell’s worth of whatever the hell was going on in the world around me. Freed from the arithmetical burden, I was able to complete tasks and levels, go into strikes, play Crucible matches, all with reckless abandon. But I didn’t want to forget the reason I was playing DESTINY again, which was to make that hot, hot content. And in order to make that content, I had to figure out what, after endgame content, made DESTINY 2 so appealing that my friend had put an amount of hours that he was loath to tell me into the game.
My question answered itself without my asking it. While I was trying to beef my power level through the quests available in the main “story,” my friend was summoned away. He said that he had a raid scheduled with some other friends, and he would be back once it was done. As I carried on I felt I understood that it was this sense of community that brought him back to the game so often, being almost duty-bound to help out his chosen clan when they needed him.
I also needed him, as it turned out. During the time in which my friend was with his own clan, I ended up dying about 20 times in a row to a dungeon boss with an affinity for spawning multiple enemies while taking potshots at me. It wasn’t until he returned and made his own way through that I ended up beating the boss with extremely minimal effort. I guess it pays to have friends.
So I guess one of the things that DESTINY 2 offers, especially in These Trying Times, is a sense of routine along with a sense of social connection. Merry-Go-Round has written before about how the game kind of feels like a job that you do for fun after you come from your job, and how that sense of extra drudgery can put people off to it. But the time of Corona is an interesting time to look into online gaming, I think, as more people are cut off from each other and the things that used to make their world normal. Logging in, checking bounties, running raids, getting in matches, ticking your Light Level ever higher, it’s a combination of play and daily tasks that can give the days locked in and locked down more normalcy and meaning.
As someone who hasn’t gotten into any of the endgame content, I’ve found myself engaged with DESTINY 2, and very interested in what else the game has in store for me. I’m nowhere near as advanced as someone who has gotten to that point, and I think that’s why the game still holds a lot of allure for me. It is, if nothing else, a VERY well-thought-out world and still features elements of a single-player campaign that have things for me to explore and uncover, which is what I want in a game to begin with.
Were I to get through as much as I can and finish the game’s missions, I don’t know if I’d be so inclined to keep playing. I suppose then the challenge becomes “find friends,” otherwise I throw myself at the mercy of matchmaking. But if the service DESTINY 2 provides is maintaining social ties during an international trauma, then it might not be so bad to see what loot I can scrounge up.