[24 July 2014]
I’ve been thinking about dancing in video games and not in the Dance Central, “you are the dancer” sense. I’m talking about games where dancing is far from (at least as far as I can tell) the central interest of the game. I’m talking about the Destiny beta, a weird place where you are the universe’s savior and also its interstellar b-boy. Dancing is seemingly a light hearted and minor action in the game, but it is an important illustration of how difficult it is to maintain a game’s thematic tone.
Intellectually, I had made peace with the fact Destiny was basically an MMO before playing it. However, I don’t think that I accepted it on an emotional level until I actually jumped in and saw a bunch of people doing this:
I’m not the video game equivalent of the dad from Footloose. There’s nothing wrong with busting the odd move in a game. I probably spent an embarrassing amount of time doing that in Saints Row: The Third. One of my favorite videos is the normally stoic Adam Jensen cutting loose:
The video is hilarious because it’s subversive. It takes what is by all other indications a tonally serious game and adds some levity to it. It does so in a way that expands the meta-narrative around the game. There’s no “dance” command for Jensen, but futz with the controls and lay some music over it, and you have a bit of player-driven lore that can just as easily be ignored by the folks who want to uphold the game’s serious tone.
By its very nature, Destiny doesn’t afford that option. There’s an explicit dance button mapped to the controller, and you’ll see plenty of other players fade in and out of your game making liberal use of it. You’ll probably test it out yourself. I know I tried to get to obscure and inappropriate places on the map just to boogie down. It was fun, but jarring.
The game primes you with a very straight-faced sci-fi story; a sweeping orchestra underscores a group of astronauts making first contact with alien technology. The giant orb that they find on Mars apparently held the keys to a new technology that ushered in what is literally referred to as “a golden era of humanity.” Peace, health, and space exploration flourished until a great evil known only as the Darkness cast its shadow on earth. As a Guardian, you are the light that stands against this encroaching threat.
The opening cutscene and some of the other story beats harken back to Halo in terms of their earnestness. For a moment, you understand what Destiny may mean: you are a hero tasked to rebuild humanity’s greatness. You hear the stories about how the children of earth live in fear. You set your jaw and grip the controller tighter, knowing that this burden you shoulder may be your end. Then you glance to the left and see a dude doing the robot on top of a shopkeep’s table. You realize that the destiny you face is one also shared by a bunch of people that might as well be named Leroy Jenkins.
I’m not criticizing Bungie for injecting levity into their game. Halo had its fair share of humor: grunts with funny voices, David Cross as a soldier for comic relief, and the occasional winking one liner by Master Chief helped give the game texture. Multiplayer matches and goofy achievements also acted as a foil to the authored story. However, the two versions of the Halo universe were kept distinct. In the single-player campaign was basically a Christ story that made some interesting commentary on religious zealotry and personal sacrifice. Those who wanted to see Master Chief let loose had only to turn slightly to the side to seeRed vs. Blue, an entire series about taking the in game tools and using them to depict hilarious situations. Those that didn’t want that tone found little of it if. They just stuck to the authored story.
So why the drive to forcibly combine these competing tonal impulses that have lived in loosely connected harmony? My cynical side assumes that it’s just bowing to MMO tradition. For whatever reason, having dumb dances is a mandatory feature in on-line games of a certain size and scale and it’s just another checkbox. More optimistically, I also see this as a bold attempt by Bungie to integrate their love of pretentious sci-fi lore with their fondness for silly goofs and sight gags. It’s a task that I don’t envy and one that seems harder than fighting the Darkness while learning how to Dougie.