Bungie is half-hearted when it comes to putting narrative control in the guardian’s hands.
As you begin Destiny 2 with your newly designed guardian (or your character model from Destiny, should you so wish), you are quickly launched into tumultuous and promising action. Set upon an exciting course of events, you work your way through a campaign which shows great improvement over its predecessor, albeit with significant flaws of its own. And from the beginning of this campaign, up until its somewhat disappointing end and beyond, your guardian doesn’t utter a single word.
When you take damage or meet your temporary end, your guardian will emit a pained grunt. But other than that, the lack of voice for player characters is somewhat surprising given that the first installment in the franchise had occasional voice acting. Through this change, Bungie seems to be making a decision regarding player voice, and one’s relationship to their guardian. In this narrative structure, the player is a silent protagonist. Without delving into the history of the silent protagonist, it’s a narrative design that has been employed in games time and time again, to varied success and critical response. I’m not here to comment on the objective strengths or weaknesses of the structure itself; rather, I wish to look critically at the use of a silent protagonist in Destiny 2, and the specific failings of Bungie’s execution.
Playing a silent protagonist in this case allows a player to project themself onto their self-tailored guardian and roleplay as they see fit; other characters do, obviously, speak to advance the narrative and to develop their multi-dimensional, generally interesting characters. They do so, as they dole out missions and remark on the events of the story and the solar system, in a conversational manner rather than one that is declarative or imperative. They’re not telling you what to do as much as they’re giving you a set of instructions framed in such a way that begs a response. And instead of your character replying, or remaining silent (which would be a rather uncomfortable interaction), this dialogue is quickly matched by your constant companion, Ghost.
Your Ghost is an NPC in its own right. In the franchise’s lore, the Ghosts are sentient AI connected to the Traveler, the enigmatic being/machine/god that casts its shadow over the Last City on Earth. Each guardian is accompanied by a Ghost, which uses the Traveler’s power to resurrect the guardian when they perish.
The Ghost accompanying the player’s guardian in Destiny 2 has its own distinct personality; a witty, fourth-wall breaking, dry character, your Ghost brings a great deal of value to the game’s story and helps to develop the player’s knowledge of the Destiny universe. But the Ghost’s interactions with the game’s world limit the player’s ability to characterize their guardian how they see fit. The ways in which your Ghost responds to both Cayde, the snarky fan favorite robot, and to your actions in the world are simultaneously signs of good writing (and voice acting by Nolan North) and of Bungie’s cursory commitment to a player’s experience as a silent protagonist.
As you roam the various planets and moons of Destiny 2, your Ghost will pitch in and comment over comms to inform each area’s central character of your actions. Public events, patrols, quests; virtually any step you take towards progress for your guardian will involve your Ghost’s commentary. There is a certain semblance of autonomy that a player can have as they speed around on sparrows (Destiny 2’s answer to high speed land transportation), appreciating Bungie’s gorgeous skyboxes and well-designed environments. And I am certainly not one to argue against exploration for exploration or beauty’s sake; I loved No Man’s Sky prior to its “content updates,” when the game was entirely about exploring the unknown. But as Destiny 2 frames it, any “important,” action you take is a decision encouraged or even chosen by the Ghost. Though it may be responding to a player’s actions in the game, the dialogue tells a different story, where your Ghost is, to some degree, in charge.
In choosing to have your companion be so reactive and responsive to the world, and to stimulus from other characters, Bungie has removed a great deal of what can make the silent protagonist structure effective. Rather than allowing the player to use their character as somewhat of a blank slate in terms of characterization, or to fill in silence with their own thoughts and feelings about the events of the world, Bungie has the well-characterized, omnipresent Ghost fill this silence. Now, some of the game’s mechanics might help to inform this strange relationship between the guardian and their Ghost. There are effectively two types of interactions that a player has with NPCs in Destiny 2: over the comms, and in-person either in a social space or at a specific point that acts as a region’s hub.
Text based responses that keep choice, or a convincing spectre of choice, in the player’s hands can be powerful when playing as a silent protagonist. Often employed by RPGs, this strategy does seem a bit out of place for Destiny 2, and Bungie seems to agree, leaving these face to face interactions one-sided but in a way that is more satisfying than having an NPC spout lore to you for 45 seconds over your comms system. Simply put, the interactions work. They leave room for characterization while helping a player to learn about the world. And unlike the comms-based statements made by NPCs, these in-person remarks are not written with wording or tone that seems to necessitate a response.
Yet this form of conversation, while pleasant, is at odds with the other, arguably more common form of dialogue in the game. The Ghost’s perpetual presence, coupled with its distinct personality and responsiveness to the player’s actions, makes it a force that is confusingly dominant in a narrative space meant to be filled by the player.
Now, there are certainly larger philosophical questions about guardians and ghosts that lie down this path. What is the true relationship of the Guardian to the light and to the Traveler? Are the Ghosts just pawns of the Traveler? And are guardians pawns of the Traveler, or even pawns of the Ghosts? But all of these questions demand deeper knowledge of the universe, and a great deal more space, to take at face value.
Bungie needs to either commit to the silent protagonist structure, or to fill in some of what becomes the Ghost’s narrative space with quality voice acting for the player’s guardian. I feel that there is a great deal of potential for exploration of the Ghost-guardian dynamic, even if it were in a “buddy-cop” sense, and with the impressive voice talent already present in the franchise, Bungie certainly has the capacity to fix this aspect of the game, given the precedent that the franchise’s first game created. Destiny 2’s campaign may have been an improvement, but there’s a great deal of work still to be done to make the stories in the Traveler’s universe as captivating as they could be.