With a decade of experience in creating sci-fi environments for gamers across the world thanks to the Halo series, Bungie set their sights on even grander, more distant shores with Destiny. This time, however, they had to contend with creating a wider variety of maps and levels to match the multitude of species (human or otherwise) that you encounter in the game. In addition, there was the unique problem of having to create a number of open world environments that were both of a size that you can explore without getting lost and visually distinct. Ultimately, Destiny’s environments proved to be an important, if perhaps a bit overlooked, aspect of the game, especially as the DLCs became more and more fleshed out.
Take, for instance, the Moon. Compared to all the other planets and astronomical objects in our solar system, it’s hardly exotic, leaving little to the imagination. For all intents and purposes, it’s effectively just a giant rock that orbits around our planet, with none of the mysticism of Mars or the perilous atmosphere of Venus. In Destiny, however, the Moon is the staging point from which the Hive strike at the remnants of humanity on Earth, turning one of the most comforting sights in our night sky into a bastion of terror. Of course, it would be a relatively simple process to design the Moon as this heavily fortified alien base with roving bands of Hive who are busy plundering the remnants of human colonies on the surface, but what’s the fun in that?
No, an ancient species of aliens who wield technology that is advanced enough that it seems like magic to us wouldn’t have traditional bases, according to Bungie, they would hollow out the Moon and turn it into a place that looks as corrupted as they are. Structures that look as ancient as the Moon itself, bottomless craters that have some unknown purpose, and an occasional door covered in runes that look like it’s designed to keep something locked away rather than to prevent intruders from breaking in are all things that Bungie put on the Moon to create this menacing feeling that perhaps the Hive are not as mindless as they may initially appear. And in the Moon’s skybox, our pale blue dot of a planet, looking rather helpless as you try to stop the Hive before they can take the birthplace of humanity.
Similarly, the Vex have overrun Venus, but in typical Bungie style, they aren’t this generic, mindless alien species whose sole purpose is to kill the player character. The Vex too have effectively turned our own planets against us, this time erecting mysterious portals and even more ancient looking statues of their champions from the past, present, and future, along with massive structures that occasionally float above the ground. Of course, mysterious alien structures that are similar to the Vex’s are hardly a new concept in games, but it can be argued that Destiny’s portrayal of Vex architecture alone is enough to inspire the most curious among us to actively hunt down in-game collectibles for the sake of wanting to find out more.
It’s not just the aliens of Destiny that are mysterious, however. If you have seen Destiny’s Rise of Iron DLC, then you may be familiar with the SIVA complex that appears at the end of the main questline. Originally a human invention, SIVA turned an otherwise secure facility into this overgrown mass of red … stuff that is eerily reminiscent of nature reclaiming land that people have abandoned, which raises a question about just what was humanity capable of during its Golden Age. While other games certainly have respectable level design on their own, they just don’t evoke the same sense of wonder that Destiny does, or at least not to the same degree, which is likely one of the reasons why the game didn’t really see much criticism for its art style.
Naturally, it is still a bit too early to say whether or not Destiny will ultimately impact the level design of future games, but it would be safe to assume that its sequel will continue the Bungie tradition of subtly rethinking what aliens and their creations should look like. Perhaps games like Anthem will expand on the methods that make Destiny’s aliens such enigmas, but until then, Destiny has proven that it is quite capable of quietly shifting the bar for sci-fi environments, and it is up to other developers to follow along.