How Destiny 2 Created and is Solving its Villain Problem

The game's enemies are becoming more interesting and complex, but that comes with its own issues

Destiny 2 has a problem. On the one hand, it is a game about shooting stuff and making things go boom. On the other, it’s increasingly a story about humanizing its various enemy factions. You might shrug and chalk it up to the infamous “ludonarrative dissonance,” but Bungie’s writers and designers clearly aren’t willing to do so. With Destiny 2‘s narrative sort of painting Bungie into a corner when it comes to challenging players with hordes of opponents, here’s how the game is evolving to adapt to the increasingly complex story.

Rogues’ Gallery

There are several different enemy factions in Destiny 2. We can group these into three categories: ontologically evil, misunderstood or in genuine conflict with humanity, and amoral killing machines. When Destiny 2 first launched, its factions were pretty well-distributed across these categories. You had the Cabal, militaristic space rhinos who were trying to steal the Light from humanity and slaughtered thousands in the process; the Fallen, the abandoned children of the Traveler who slaughtered thousands and were also maybe baby-eaters; the Vex, remorseless Borg-like machines seeking to remake the universe into a giant supercomputer; the Hive, death-worshipping nihilists who worship giant worms; and the Taken, soulless husks of living creatures possessed by the Darkness.

But over the course of expansions and seasonal content, Destiny 2 shook things up a little. First, we got the addition of the Scorn in Forsaken — essentially zombie Fallen created by a magic wish dragon in a real monkey’s paw move after Uldren Sov (now Crow) wished to save the life of a dying Eliksni.

Then, in Shadowkeep, the game picked up on the thread of the Hive from a Destiny 1 text called “The Books of Sorrow.” It’s kind of tucked away in lore in Shadowkeep, but we learn that there are splinter factions within the Hive, some of whom show loyalty to their families and even sacrifice themselves for them. Two expansions later, with the recent Witch QueenDestiny 2 went even further — and, spoilers for that expansion — revealed that the Hive were tricked into allying themselves with the Darkness and operating a literal pyramid scheme in order to stay alive.

Destiny 2 Villain

Seasons of Change — Destiny 2 Villains

It’s been the seasonal stories, though, that have done the most to change player perceptions of Destiny 2‘s villains. In 2021’s Season of the Chosen, humanity brokered a shaky alliance with Caiatl, the new Empress of the Cabal after the Hive destroyed her homeworld. At first, it was unclear how this would work out, but by Season of Risen, Guardians were working with Cabal to fight the Hive, and as of Season of the Haunted, Caiatl is practically a main character.

Then there was Season of the Splicer, which focused on the Fallen and dealt with the logistical and ethical issues that arose when an alien species known to humanity primarily as baby-eaters and marauders became refugees seeking shelter in the Last City. Admittedly, humanity wasn’t at its best — the Vex cast an “endless night” over the city that seemed to inspire paranoia and a particularly loudmouthed leader of the city was openly calling for genocide at one point — but we got through it and now there are Eliksni just hanging out in the Tower. Plus, there’s lore of them working with Guardians and Cabal together on high-stakes missions.

These stories delving into the psyches and experiences of Destiny 2‘s enemies have made for some of the most compelling and memorable narratives in the game’s history. But they stand in contrast to the actual experience of playing the game, which is about — as the design team have described it on several occasions — “killing monsters.” That’s left some players in an odd position. Sure, some don’t care about the story at all — but for those of us who do, we can only bracket blasting waves of Fallen and Cabal in our minds for so long.

destiny 2 villain

Asset Generation is a Nightmare

Destiny 2’s narrative, then, has written the game into an odd place. We’re encouraged to empathize with many of our foes, given windows into their motivations and beliefs. There’s still the Vex, Taken, and Scorn who are as close to “zombie” fodder as Destiny 2 gets. But the models, audio effects, and other assets generated for enemies like the Fallen and Cabal represent countless hours of work, and shelving them would significantly reduce the variety of enemies the player encounters. So what’s the solution? Is the game suddenly going to shift into a completely different style of play? Of course not, which means that designers have to get creative.

In Season of the Haunted, Destiny 2 is revisiting a type of enemy introduced in the Shadowkeep expansion — Nightmares. These are psychic ghosts given form, typically representing named foes that Guardians have battled in the past. Nightmare foes are some of the main antagonists of Season of the Haunted, and in-narrative aren’t really living creatures at all, but rather echoes of already-deceased combatants. But the season took it a step further in a voice line that some players might miss. In one piece of dialogue, Empress Caiatl informs the Vanguard that the Cabal Loyalists who make up the remainder of the season’s foes are quick-grown clones, effectively brainless soldiers. (There’s a bit of confusion here, though, as her father and big bad Calus notes that many Loyalists have been with him since his exile prior to the events of Destiny 2 — so maybe she’s misinformed, only partially-correct, or lying.)

These are little touches, and in-game the difference between shooting a Nightmare Cabal and a regular one is minimal — the difference between fighting a normal Cabal Legionary and an unthinking clone nonexistent. But these are decisions produced through a negotiation between the material realities of generating assets for a modern video game and the shifting desires of narrative storytelling.

There’s Always a Bigger Fish

Much of Destiny 2‘s approach to antagonists over the past couple of years has been to humanize them, often by depicting them as at the mercy of bigger forces. Uldren Sov was manipulated by an ancient wish-dragon. Ghaul was a hero to his people, even if he was inwardly a corrupt and cruel leader. The Hive were always semi-tragic villains, having fallen victim to a cosmic logic they could not escape from. Even the Hive Worm Gods could be seen in this light, being forced by the Witness and his Discipline into participating in their twisted schemes. This kind of approach is great for drama, since it leaves the door open for exciting reveals and tense alliances. But it also means continually passing the buck onto the real enemy, and learning over and over that our foes were actually just misunderstood can ring hollow after a while.

Right now, the prime antagonist of Destiny 2 appears to be the Witness — the Megamind-looking Voice in the Darkness. But it remains to be seen if even it can really be called a villain. After all, the Shadowkeep lore books in which it was first introduced depict it as a kind of cosmic principle of winnowing in contrast to the Gardener’s principle of complexity.

For players who are into this kind of thing, it’s an exciting time in Destiny 2. For those who aren’t, perhaps this is all merely a distraction from the game’s core action. But Bungie is clearly thinking about it, and for now, they’re carrying out the balancing act of catering to both groups — without the typical video game safety nets of cheap moral choices or picking sides.