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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Exclusive: Behind the Art and Atmosphere of 'Destiny'

Destiny, the live-service sci-fi shooter from Bungie—makers of games like Halo, Myth, Marathon, and the criminally underrated Oni—is having a moment. This week is the franchise's seventh birthday, and the announcement of Destiny 2's upcoming expansion, The Witch Queen, was met largely with praise from old-school Destiny fans and New Lights alike. But a franchise that's been around for this long doesn't just appear fully-formed. Its visual language and design have evolved over the years along with its story and its players, and WIRED spoke to the game's art team to learn how.

First of all, let's back up a bit. For those who don't play, Destiny is a sci-fi "looter shooter," where part of the goal of playing is to level up your character, take on more challenging combatants and puzzles, and, of course, get better loot in the process—usually in the form of armor and weapons. The story of the franchise can be convoluted at times, to the point where game developer and speaker Rami Ismail wrote a 50+ tweet thread recapping the entire story. (He also turned it into a YouTube video, if you'd prefer to catch up that way.) And, full disclosure, I've made no secret about exactly how much I play Destiny 2.

But part of having such a long-running story—to the point where, at some points, players weren't really sure where it was going to go next—is that the game's writers, artists, and developers have the flexibility to take you to places both slightly familiar, like the postapocalyptic overgrown wilderness of Old Russia or the European Dead Zone or the partially terraformed landscape of the Jovian moon Io, to the foreign and mysterious, like the gleaming but cursed Dreaming City and the always dark, always dangerous Ascendant Plane. Each of these destinations has to be fully fleshed out before they can be turned into places you can go in-game.

The art team at Bungie that brings those places to life just shared several pieces of never-seen-before concept art for Destiny and Destiny 2 in a blog post. They also gave WIRED early access to the artwork, including original designs for player characters that reveal a more sleek, futuristic approach to what Guardian armor would have looked like, and a very familiar-looking character labeled "Rogue," which looks a lot like a Hunter.

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We also see art for destinations like a Cabal facility in the European Dead Zone, a decaying engineering facility slowly being reclaimed by nature, and a destination that looks like Nessus, terraformed into cubes and rectangular pillars by the Vex. We even see a Vex-controlled subway system, complete with a train whose locomotive looks like a giant Vex Goblin head. (I asked the Bungie art team if we'll ever see a Vex train, and they declined to comment. It's OK, I get it; you're keeping your options open.)

So much of Destiny's art philosophy and visual language has changed over time, and I asked the art team how they managed to stay true to the roots of the game and the overall feel that drew people into the world over so many years.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

WIRED: Specifically, what does your team work on? We see lots of concept art of characters and places, but do you all also work on weapons, armor, ships, and vehicles?

Shiek Wang, art director at Bungie: Yes, yes, and yes! Anything that requires some visual representation in the game, the art team is responsible for. This also includes but is not limited to VFX, animation, lighting, UI, and skyboxes. All of these come together to help build a cohesive visual experience for the player.

WIRED: The look and feel of Destiny 2 have evolved significantly over the years. So much of the art that’s driven the game has created a wonderful sense of scale and depth to worlds that are just familiar enough but feel futuristic and alien to players eager to explore them. With The Witch Queen, Lightfall, and eventually The Final Shape, what challenges do you see in creating that visual language that’ll keep players excited for the places they’ll eventually visit?

Michael Zak, art director: The earlier years of Destiny’s artistic development were focused on establishing the ground rules for the universe. We wanted to build out a coherent world that mixed both fantasy and sci-fi themes, and offered a broad possibility space for the kinds of visuals that made sense there. While the majority of the world was lost to the passage of time and the encroachment of nature, we still wanted it to be beautiful and feel like a place worth spending time in and caring about. Likewise, we endeavored to establish clear thematic identities for our player Guardian classes, and enemy combatant factions. In more recent releases and into the future, we are leaning harder into more specific themes, as we find it fun to be able to do “our take” on familiar but different genres. We hope that these deeper, more specific thematic dives will keep things fresh for the players.

WIRED: Speaking of that visual language, how do you see it having evolved over time? Some of the earliest concept art for Destiny 2 leaned in on the kind of “barely holding together” energy of the spaces that players were going to explore, but also had a kind of well-loved, slightly dirty vibe, while places we’ve been able to explore since like The Dreaming City (especially now in Season of the Lost) are brighter and more enchanting. Without telling us too much, where do you think that language is headed?

Zak: It’s really important to us that the world of Destiny can offer incredible variety in terms of mood, tone, color palette, etc., but it all still makes sense and feels coherent. So it’s less about evolving the entire suite of content in a single direction over time, and more about constantly curating the broader set of places and characters to be dynamic and interesting.

WIRED: A common refrain I hear from other Destiny players is that the entire atmosphere of the game kind of feels “bleak, but with moments of optimism.” Would you guys agree that’s the case? If not (and I’m assuming not!) how would you describe the overarching design philosophy when you’re fleshing out potential destinations, armor sets, ships, and weapons for the game? Is there more to that vibe that players often miss that you wish we would pay more attention to?

Christopher Barrett, game director: We described the original art direction and tone of Destiny in the following way:

80 Percent Beautiful but Mysterious.

  • The world of Destiny is not depressing, macabre, boring, cruel, or squalid.
  • Nature ascendant over humanity creates a beautiful but lost world to explore
  • Familiar objects and themes can be juxtaposed in ways that are surprising and mysterious.
  • Fantastic Space: Space is full of majesty and wonder, amazing things, and beautiful visuals. It is not an empty airless vacuum of nothingness.
  • Places are memorable: The world is beckoning to our players with mystery and wonder, inviting exploration and promising treasure beyond imagination.
  • Possibility invokes curiosity. I see a place and I am enticed to explore it or I can perceive an entrance to possibility there.
  • Places are rich that you want to visit time and time again.

10 Percent Bright and Hopeful.

  • Hopeful is driven through the theme of the City, player fiction, and player motivation.

10 Percent Dark and Scary.

  • The exception can take the player into uncomfortable spaces for short periods of time.

WIRED: The early guardian designs [above] look much more rounded and smooth from a sci-fi perspective, and a little less the kind of rugged, cobbled-together, and hard-edged armor aesthetic that we have in the game now. What influenced the decision to drop the more form-fitting sci-fi powered armor style in favor of the more rough-around-the-edges designs we have in-game now, similar to the "rogue" concept, which looks a LOT like a Destiny 2 Hunter?

Wang: We were really inspired by a lot of anime armor designs back then and it wasn’t until Jaime Jones and Ryan Demita helped us bring a lot of these languages together in a way that we could call our own. The intention was to always have it feel like a blend of science fiction and fantasy with a bit of age to bring that relatability home. These early explorations leaned too far into one area and not enough in another. The more artists we threw at the problem allowed us to bring in new fresh perspectives and takes that eventually helped us refine the look and feel of the guardians.

WIRED: The early "hive troop" piece [above] looks like at some point the Hive was supposed to be a little less chitinous and insect-like, and originally more human-looking, even wearing clothing like cloaks—what killed that design idea?

Wang: As ideas continue to get refined, we started to understand what separated the combatants apart from each other. Fallen were the alien pirate spiders, Vex were time-traveling mercenary robots, Cabal were the space empirical alien pachyderms, and Hive were the space zombies. Given that the Fallen started to fill that more insect-like category, we pushed the Hive to be more calcified space zombies. Almost all of the choices were weighed against each race just so we are being clear about which visual levers to pull to make them divergent.

WIRED: Tell me a little about the "infinite discovery" piece [top of the article]—we see a person, ostensibly human, in a spacesuit with really interesting robotic looking fingers—was that just a concept in terms of like, the galaxy being at your fingertips, or was this a look that was at some point planned for the game?

Wang: We were so early in development here that we were just tossing out what it meant to be Destiny. This one was imagining what it would be like if near future humans discovered pocket universes and how that would feel. Could it ever play into a theme in Destiny? It never materialized in the same way but we have done many-dimensional bending realms in Destiny 2 that have blown past beyond what this image even implies.

WIRED: When you see the way your designs have been interpreted in the game world, and you see players riding their sparrows across landscapes you designed, do you feel like it’s been faithfully represented? What are some of the challenges that go into bringing concept art to the actual game design table and working with the developers to make your work “real” in the game?

Dorje Bellbrook, principal artist: The environment art team on Destiny is made up of incredibly talented and technically capable artists. My concept art for Hive and Vex environments and the Cosmodrome were suggestions and explorations that I hoped could inspire artistic solutions. In the end however, the environment artists were the ones who had to view the project from all angles and polish the landscapes with their world-class attention to detail. I feel proud to have had some input in the art direction of Destiny, but I know that it was the production artists who really made it sing.

WIRED: And just for fun: What are some of the toughest design jobs you guys have had to work on in the game that you don’t think players know about?

Wang: I don’t think people know how close player faces were to being cut in the original Destiny. It was very much a passion project between a few individuals to stand that up and make it happen. Because it didn't offer any sort of direct gameplay, we had to prove that it could work or it would not make it. The winter before the year of the alpha/beta release was the critical moment in which we had to prove that it was worthwhile for us to keep spending personnel time on. Luckily with a tremendous amount of effort from very talented and passionate artists/tech artists we were able to pull it off in the winter build and demonstrate its possibility. I’m very proud of the facial features we did in D1, but up until that build, it was a very nerve-wracking effort of a lot of time spent and shaky grounds!  

Bungie has said that Year 7 of the Destiny franchise will bring more surprises, as well as Bungie 30th anniversary celebration in Destiny 2. In the next few years, we'll see what Bungie called “the conclusion to the Light and the Darkness saga,” or really, the conclusion of the ten-year story so far that's driven the game forward. They've also said that conclusion is by no means the end of the Destiny saga, and we only have new places to go from here. We'll have to see whether or not any of these old concepts are reprised in the future. 

After all, game artists and developers love to go back into the archives, find amazing projects created earlier in a game's development or inspiring concept art, and then bring it back to the table for future expansions of a game or story beats that haven't been written yet. You never know, someday Destiny's next major story expansion could include sci-fi power armor, human-like Hive, or a Vex subway train.

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