Over the past seven years, Destiny has seen a fairly vast evolution, with its shooter gameplay encompassing a whole host of different experiences. But that has led to a lot of disparity. There are the complex, iconic, endlessly replayable endgame raids on one end of the spectrum, and the simpler, more by-the-numbers one-off campaign missions at the other. Across its lifetime, Destiny 2 has evolved to offer more and more missions and activities that bring those two experiences closer together, and with the upcoming major expansion, The Witch Queen, Bungie is looking to make more of the Destiny 2 experience feel like it is definitively, quintessentially “Destiny.”
That’s according to Joe Blackburn, who formerly worked as Destiny 2’s raid design lead and recently stepped into the role of game director. For Blackburn and the rest of Bungie, a major goal going into Destiny 2’s next year of content is finding more ways to blur the line that separates the game’s toughest, most intricate content, from the more casual, more approachable baseline campaign missions–to make more of the game feel like the sort of thing you can only find in Destiny 2.
“There’s a suite of content that we feel like is definitively Destiny,” Blackburn said in an interview with GameSpot. “There’s stuff like Presage, there’s stuff like dungeons and raids up there. All of that stuff feels like stuff that you could only find in Destiny. And every time we do something, there are articles written about it, and people say, ‘You gotta complete this game. Look how cool this thing is.’ And then you get into Destiny, and you’re like, ‘Where’s the stuff that I saw people playing on Twitch? Where’s this?’ And instead you’re playing a much more linear sort of classic shooter-style campaign.
“I think even over the last year, we’ve started to really creep into that,” he said. “When you look at things like Expunge, when you look at things like in Season 15, the Ascendant weekly missions, they’re pretty weird. They’re pretty dungeon-like, they’re pretty secret-like, in a bunch of their executions. The stuff this season is like a metroidvania game, which is pretty cool to be in mainline Destiny. We want to keep blurring that line so that eventually, when you’re playing through the campaigns, it feels like we’re stepping you into this content. And even in the early stuff, in the Witch Queen campaign and these missions we talked about, we said, ‘Hey, this is going to be the definitive Destiny campaign.'”
“We want to keep blurring that line so that eventually, when you’re playing through the campaigns, it feels like we’re stepping you into this content.”
The Witch Queen is set to throw some major wrenches into the Destiny 2 works. Like past expansions, it’ll launch with a series of campaign missions that take you through the expansion’s story, and which, traditionally, are easy and straightforward enough to be played alone. But as detailed in Bungie’s recent Witch Queen showcase event, that campaign is seeing some changes from past expansions. For one thing, it’ll include a “Legendary” difficulty setting that will up the stakes, giving players a tougher challenge if they want it. For another, it’ll include Hive Guardians–enemy characters who have the same sorts of sci-fi superpowers as players.
Blackburn said the inclusion of Hive Guardians is going to create some serious changes in the way combat flows for players, akin to new major enemies added in the previous expansion, Beyond Light. When that new content dropped, it contained two new enemy types: the Vex Wyvern and the Fallen Brig. Both were small additions, but Bungie found they created big changes in the flow of battles in which they were present, Blackburn said, forcing players to prioritize taking out the new units and adjusting their strategies to deal with the new foes.
The way those units shook up battles was successful, so when it came to The Witch Queen, it was those kinds of experiences the developer wanted to expand on, Blackburn said.
“We want to invest in combatant changes where, anytime you have one of these in an encounter, it feels different,” he said of adding Hive Guardians to the mix. “And so it started pulling at this fantasy of like, okay, what’s it like to fight someone that feels like you? How powerful are they? I think, to give you some Destiny parallels in what we talk about, a Hive Guardian feels like a miniboss. It feels like a Champion. It feels like something that you would never want to fight a full room of. That would be incredibly overwhelming, so we start you off fighting one, maybe later in the campaign, you have to fight two at once, something you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this feels like a lot.’ But really, we want that emotional experience. Once you see one of those Guardians transmat in, you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is my number one priority here.’ And you’re going to get to see it do a suite of Guardian moves that you’re like, ‘Yep. Okay. I’ve had that happen to me in the Crucible before, I know what to do here.'”
That emotional experience of facing a Hive Guardian is a big change for Destiny 2 players, and something Bungie wanted to lean into, Destiny general manager Justin Truman added.
“We’ve had, I feel like, years in the lore and in the storytelling of just the idea of the Fallen, the Cabal, even in their own way, the Hive, just being kind of terrified of the idea of one of these immortal Guardians dropping in and wrecking house,” Truman said. “And we wanted to turn that around and be like, ‘What happens if you’re the one feeling that level of terror that [Fallen] Captains have felt since way back in the Cosmodrome?'”
Apart from the foes you’ll face, The Witch Queen expansion is going to bring some new ideas to the forefront of Destiny 2. The tagline Bungie is using in its marketing, “Survive the Truth,” gives some idea of what you’ll be facing–you’ll be heading to a new location, the throne world of the eponymous queen, Savathun, in order to uncover the mystery of just how these mortal enemies of humanity gained access to its greatest power.
Blackburn has described the expansion as taking inspiration from TV shows such as the first season of True Detective. It takes place in a swampy, bayou-like location, where players will work to unlock clues and discover what’s really going on with the Hive Guardians. In practical terms, Bungie wants The Witch Queen to convey something of a detective story feel as you explore the throne world.
“What happens if you’re the one feeling that level of terror that [Fallen] Captains have felt since way back in the Cosmodrome?”
“One of the things that Bungie is really great about and taught me about, and teaches a bunch of people when they come on, is what we call experiential design,” Blackburn explained. “We always start with an experience. What do you want this to feel like? We want it to feel like you’re at a day at Dollywood, or we want it to feel like you’re lost in the mall, or something. And so when we started thinking about Witch Queen, we started thinking about a bunch of inspirations, and one of the first things that we do, that’s really hard to get everyone aligned on, is like, ‘Hey, what is our experience statement? What is everything that we’re doing? Try to create this evocative feeling.’ That, for us, where we ended up landing with it was feeling like, ‘detective,’ right? And so it’s really this paranormal mystery and once you start thinking about that, True Detective really starts coming to mind, like this is the sort of moody landscape we want. And we go through a bunch of iterations on how ‘detective-y,’ how weird and fantasy.”
“We really want this to be mostly moody and tone-y and inspiring,” he continued. “And we don’t want to go all the way to making you feel like you’re in a ‘detective mode’ like in Batman: Arkham Asylum or something, or you’re like, ‘I don’t know, everything’s dead and I’m searching for clues.’ And so this is really a sort of an action first stab at that. And so it’s been really interesting to sort of weave that line with, how can we get a bunch of these total experiences we wanted and still keep it where you always feel like you’re pushing forward and trying to solve that mystery.”
Uncovering secrets has always been a big part of the Destiny experience, so working to solve the mystery of Savathun feels like a natural extension of that. But as Blackburn and Truman made clear, this won’t be like some of the larger alternate reality game-type mysteries that have popped up in Destiny 2 before. Some of those mysteries, such as the massive and intricate Corridors of Time in 2020, had a huge portion of the Destiny community working with math and cyphers to uncover its secrets, but The Witch Queen will strike a different balance.
Bungie is trying to make progressing through the story and uncovering clues enticing for individual players–but as time goes on, it sounds like the mystery will take on the feel of some of those larger, community-grabbing secrets.
“For the core experience, we want you to be able to feel like you’re the one pulling at the threads here and constantly giving you that feeling that, ‘Oh, I’m smarter than you probably think that I am,'” Blackburn said. “That’s the player fantasy behind all of this. I love when Tomb Raider makes me feel super smart. And I’m like, ‘I know I’m probably not smart, but, man, did that puzzle make me feel like I really cracked it.'”
“We definitely aren’t going to make it so you have to solve a community ARG to unlock the next mission,” Truman added. “But I do feel like what we’ve seen over and over again is the Destiny community loves discovering secrets. And so, we wanted to get that emotion, that feeling of being smart, and how do we put that as front-and-center thematically in your experiences, as you’re exploring what on earth Savathun has done.”
The way all of those elements will inform The Witch Queen remains to be seen, but Bungie’s vision for the future of Destiny 2 sounds like it’s rooted in a strong focus on the game’s best elements, and the parts that players have found compelling for so many years. The Witch Queen appears to be another evolution for Destiny 2, one that will continue to push the game toward its ultimate, final shape. The Witch Queen is slated to launch on February 22 for PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Stadia.