Destiny 2 is Somehow on the Cutting Edge of Trauma Conversations

Season of the Haunted takes Destiny 2's narrative themes to darker places.

How do you deal with shame? How do you deal with the little voice that says you’re a failure, that you’re not good enough, that you’re a bad person? I never expected a game like Destiny 2 to ask these questions, but here we are in week two of Season of the Haunted. Somehow, the looter shooter is not only asking them, but also dealing with them in surprisingly novel ways. Spoilers ahead for Season of the Haunted so far — you’ve been warned.

Ghost Busting

This season of Destiny 2 sees the return of the Leviathan, the massive flagship of the deposed Cabal Emperor Calus. Back in the early days of the game, he was a mysterious figure who invited Guardians to partake in challenges aboard the Leviathan for his entertainment, rewarding them with gifts for their valor. Since then, the character has become more and more mysterious, and last season revealed that he was in touch with the Witness, the Voice in the Darkness that’s now evidently the new Big Bad of the Destiny franchise.

Appropriately, the Leviathan has changed too — it’s now infected with egregore fungus and populated by Nightmares, psychic projections that were previously found on the Moon in the Shadowkeep expansion. In that campaign, players helped the Darkness researcher and ex-Guardian Eris Morn overcome the trauma of losing her friends in an ill-fated attack on the Hive. Now, the Nightmares are back, and Eris is helping others deal with them.

Crucially, Destiny 2‘s Nightmares are not literal spirits. They’re supernatural phenomena that appear to taunt and sometimes even attack those they haunt, but they’re formed from personal trauma and history. The arc of Season of the Haunted seems to be helping several characters face their Nightmares, and we started with fan-favorite Crow.

Most Guardians don’t know their past — when they’re revived and turned into Guardians, their memories don’t come with them. Crow, however, didn’t have much of a choice. In his past life, he was Uldren Sov, the Prince of the Reef and brother to Queen Mara Sov, a reckless adventurer always looking to prove himself. In the Forsaken campaign, Uldren Sov was manipulated into creating a race of zombies called the Scorn and killing the Hunter Vanguard Cayde-6, triggering a series of events that ended in the Guardian executing him for his crimes.

So people knew who Crow was, even if he didn’t — he had to wear a mask for much of his early time in the Tower to avoid being attacked in the street. When he finally discovered the truth about his past in the Season of the Lost through the Witch Queen Savathun, it deeply affected him. Crow is a quiet, kind person who’s shown more empathy towards the enemies of humanity than maybe any other character in Destiny history, so learning that he used to be a guy who killed one of the most beloved Guardians ever really threw him. Now, in Season of the Haunted, he finally has to face his Nightmare — the man he used to be, Uldren Sov.

This is Destiny, which after all is a game about shooting stuff. So, you might imagine that the solution here is to simply start blasting. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, Crow has to face the taunts and insinuations of his Nightmare while the Guardian battles Scorn. In their first attempt, Crow simply tries to reject Uldren, screaming and flailing. He fails.

Destiny 2

Shared Wisdom

Other Destiny characters try to deal with their Nightmares in similar ways. In one piece of lore, Ikora Rey encounters a Nightmare that looks like the dead Cayde-6, and attempts to deny its existence. “You are nothing more than a memory,” Ikora tells it. “You are not him.” But this intellectual, rational response doesn’t work. The Nightmare continues to needle her, and provokes her to the point that she decides to leave the Leviathan.

If you’ve been in any kind of therapy over the last couple of decades, you might recognize this approach as a cognitive-behavioral one. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and, to a lesser extent, its spin-off dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), are all about noticing maladaptive thinking patterns and calling them out for what they are.

For instance, if you believe that everyone hates you, CBT encourages you to rationally examine the evidence for this belief. After doing so, you may find that there is none, and that may help you deal with those feelings, by simply learning to treat them as feelings rather than facts. In other words, you tell the Nightmare that it isn’t real.

But there are limits to this approach, as discussed in an eye-opening piece by Sasha Chapin. CBT might be a useful tool for some people, but it doesn’t really address why those thoughts are there in the first place. It’s about getting to a place of tolerance, of being able to function. And that’s important, but it isn’t the whole picture. What if, instead of simply trying to fight or reject the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, we tried talking to them?

Chapin goes on to describe his experiences with a therapist who uses sub-mind techniques in which the patient attempts to communicate with the rejected, scorned parts of themselves. These might seem kind of woo and out there to people used to more grounded therapies, but they seem to have had a powerful effect on Chapin. “Instead of identifying with my unpleasant thoughts/feelings (this is me and I hate it, I suck) or fighting them (this isn’t me and I reject it),” he writes, “I now try to understand them as emanations of parts of me, which I then engage with in a spirit of open-hearted curiosity.”

In Destiny 2, Crow’s tried both identifying with Uldren Sov and rejecting him. Neither worked. But in the second attempt at facing his Nightmare, he tries something different. Coached by Eris, he tries talking to him.

Destiny 2

From Nightmare to Memory

Once again, the Guardian fights the Scorn. Once again, Crow faces the Nightmare of Uldren Sov. He doesn’t cower, he doesn’t yell. He tells him that he’s thought of Uldren as a villain he wanted nothing to do with, he admits that he’s scared that he might hurt his friends or that people might hurt him because of who he used to be. He says that we all have parts we’d rather pretend didn’t exist, but that acknowledging them can make us stronger. He reaches out to the Nightmare and transforms it into something new — a Memory.

In a brilliant flash of light, Uldren Sov goes from a hunched, mocking, ragged phantom to an upright, calm figure, much closer to how he actually appeared in life. “I’ll always be balancing on the edge of something terrible,” Crow says, “but now I have someone to pull me back.”

“Who?” The Memory asks.

“You,” Crow tells it, and I am not too proud to admit that the game had me crying at this point.

“I can learn from your mistakes,” Crow says.

“My triumphs too,” Uldren adds.

In a conversation with Crow after the mission, he appears with a renewed confidence and sense of self. “This is what the Traveler chose me for,” he tells the Guardian, “To remake something dead and gone… into something beautiful. To learn how to forge something new from what we were.”

It’s like Crow can breathe again. Chapin’s work with integrating rejected aspects of his self seems to have had similar effects. “A healthy inner space was created between me and the dirty kid in my mind. That person wasn’t identical to me, I was not my history,” he says. “Simultaneously, though, I didn’t need to reject that person, either. This act of acceptance triggered a whole-body relaxation. It was like opening up a lens: unclenching let more light into the machine.”

Destiny 2 doesn’t need to do this kind of thing — plenty of players don’t pay much attention to the story at all. But the game’s narrative team is taking it in directions nobody could have seen coming, diving into topics like trauma with a nuance that few games, even those explicitly designed to address these issues, come even close to.

When popular conversations around mental and emotional health seem permanently stuck at a level of “awareness” and simply reducing pain to a baseline that allows you to function at work, it’s wild that a game built around shooting monsters is willing to go there. And if the reactions I’ve seen to Crow’s journey are anything to go on, a lot of people are glad that it is.