The strangely Christian meta narrative of the Destiny games

Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m going all literary analysis on you today.

So I’ve been getting into the games Destiny and Destiny 2. These are multiplayer online shooters where you shoot aliens and collect loot. Pretty straightforward and pretty fun (and often, just downright pretty.)

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Destiny 2 concept art: Nessus

But the game also hints at a deeper backstory that it doesn’t explain super well, unless you’re willing to spend hours piecing together tidbits scattered throughout the games. So I’ve been watching lore videos on YouTube, where other people take all those tidbits and string them together into a cohesive story.

I’ve been increasingly delighted with the meta-narrative of Destiny.

Like most science fiction, the story operates from a humanist worldview: mankind can become gods if we just put aside our differences and work hard enough. But then the metaplot comes into play, and it’s decidedly not humanist. In fact, it swings decidedly Christian. I wonder if the writers at Bungie realize what they hath wrought and its significance.

The big picture story goes like this. There is this alien-machine god-thing called the Traveler that looks like a small white moon. It’s power is called Light. It shows up in our solar system, grants humans the Light, and terraforms the inner planets and the various moons of the gas giants. Humans go live on these planets. Humans also develop longer lives, better tech, etc, and go into a Golden Age.

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Destiny concept art

This doesn’t last, of course. There’s an evil force called the Darkness that chases the Traveler from place to place. Its weapons are four alien races that serve it, but all who crave the Light–or hate it. They stomp humanity, destroy their colonies, and ruin Earth.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Traveler actually battles the Darkness one on one. The game is very vague about this point, and the lore videos have multiple theories about what exactly happened. Point is, the Traveler won, but it was wounded and stopped terraforming and things.

Instead, it sent out these tiny robots made of Light called Ghosts. Each Ghost resurrects a single person, basically a zombie (or revenant, since they have their soul) powered by Light. They became known as Guardians. If one of these guardians is killed, they can be resurrected so long as their Ghost is unharmed. If their Ghost dies, no more resurrections for them, it’s lights out.

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Destiny warlock by TDSpiral

See the metaphor going on, here? It’s super interesting. Almost a Holy Ghost thing.

Now, it’s not a perfect metaphor. In real life, the God is the source of all Light, and He was not only before the Darkness, he already defeated it. The Darkness itself has a name and a face. Once known as the Light Bearer, he has become the Enemy, and his sin was pride. “I will become like the Most High!”

Jesus battled the Darkness and overcame it, being wounded on our behalf. In Destiny terms, the Last City in the shadow of the Traveler might as well be built at the foot of the Cross, because the symbolism is so similar.

Now, it’s really too bad that Destiny clings to its humanist philosophy. In its lore, the Traveler gives Light without making any demands of humanity. No devotion to righteousness, no forsaking sin and Darkness. In real life, there are two sides, and we have to pick one. If that was the case in Destiny, then the battle between Light and Darkness would go beyond meta-narrative and become the personal struggle of every Guardian. The story of the Warlords–guardians who abused their power–would become even more vile.

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If such a choosing of sides was possible, then redemption would also be possible for the four alien races who serve the Darkness, however unwittingly. It would be possible for them to abandon Darkness and serve the Light, too, thus becoming very interesting allies.

But Destiny keeps things very Tao, with Light and Darkness equally matched and no ultimate victory is possible. Mankind doesn’t have to seek righteousness and abandon sin in order to receive power. (Which, the more you think about it, is so strange. Why aren’t Guardians forced to pick sides? There are in-game stories of Guardians who joined the Darkness, so maybe, in a way, that choice is still there, just buried out of sight.)

So, that’s Destiny’s meta-narrative, a lot of Christian ideas underlying a humanist story. And it’s funny, because if you make the game more humanist (the Light is ours because humanity is awesome), then the battle between Light and Darkness falls apart, with no real difference between them. If you make the game more Christian, with the Light actually having conditions and everyone being forced to pick sides, then the story becomes much more profound.

Maybe that’s one reason the story is intentionally left vague, scattered throughout the game in hints and tidbits. Breadcrumbs for those to see who can. I’m continually shocked at the Christian terminology these lore gamers use to describe these concepts.

I think it’s a good lesson for us Christian writers. Tell a good story and don’t be afraid to pull in delicious metaphor about the struggle between good and evil. It rings true for everyone.

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Destiny 2 concept art: shard of the Traveler

 

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Products or quality entertainment: what are we creating?

Ah, Dean Wesley Smith, so much food for thought while challenging paradigms.

Anyway, he pointed out in a recent blog post that writers get really fixated on creating a product. We want to crank out books like bottle caps on a conveyor belt. More is better, we’re told. Make it a great product so customers will keep coming back.

Then I read an interesting thread on the Writer’s Cafe on kboards. People were talking about the low quality of these books being cranked out. Particularly the short stories or secret series prologues that are given out as bait for getting people to subscribe to mailing lists. They’re referred to as reader magnets.

One person said:

Most readers don’t want free or cheap books so much as they want entertaining books. Most of these reader magnets are marketing tools that offer little appeal to the reader.

Value is such a nebulous term as to be almost meaningless, but I think the shortest answer is this: the reader magnet should be your absolute best work. What I see, instead, is authors giving readers a blah free story, then wonder why readers don’t come back for more (often accompanied by a proclamation lamenting “freebie hoarders”).

Sturgeon’s law states that 90% of everything is crap (tongue in cheek, of course), but I’d suspect that rate is more like 99% for the reader magnets I see. Your magnet has to be a pro-quality product that you could charge money for, and I don’t see that with most of them. If we are being honest, most of them are written because some person on a forum or book said we needed one, and it was just a little thing to tick off on the massive to do list. This is generally not a recipe for compelling fiction.

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Between that little discussion about good quality books, and Dean’s observation about how authors fixate on product over story, it’s given me a lot to think about. Do I want to be an author who cranks out Products? Or do I want to be an author who takes care to craft a really engaging, entertaining story that is a fun, fantastic escape?

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Baby dragons, by Sandara. Quality art from a quality artist.

As a reader, I respect the heck out of my own readers. I want to give them a great experience when they crack one of my books. It’s why I took down the Spacetime books. If I couldn’t stand to read them, what reader would? They weren’t a good experience.

So, what do you think? Would you rather read a Product? Or a book that an author had worked very hard to make Quality Entertainment?

Response to DWS: Dangers of not trusting the creative voice

A few days ago, Dean Wesley Smith, a career writer who has written hundreds of books, wrote a blog post about how to be creative while writing. Namely, how it works and how to destroy it.


Outlining… Absolutely the quickest way to make sure the creative voice won’t even show up. Why should it bother? Your critical voice has already figured out what the book will be, so the creative voice just goes off and pouts, leaving you the hard work of writing from critical voice. And having no fun.

Knowing Your Ending… This, to the creative voice, is exactly like you picking up a book, flipping to the last pages, reading the ending, then thinking the book will be interesting to read. This comes from fear, brought on by the critical voice being afraid of “wasting” your time and so on. You know, stuff parents said to you in the real world. If you need to figure out the ending because of fear, you will lose your creative voice almost instantly and the project will lose excitement and mostly just die.

Writing is Hard Work… No creative voice wants to show up with that belief system. That is all a myth and remember, the creative voice is like a two-year-old in nature. It doesn’t want to do anything it is forced to do. So when you keep repeating over and over to make your ego feel better that writing is hard work to be suffered over, your creative voice says screw that and leaves. And then writing from critical voice does become hard work and your books are dull.

….

Solution:

1… Stop caring so much about the final product, just do the best you can.

2… Write one draft, clean with cycling in creative voice, and release with a promise to yourself you won’t touch it again.

3… Have fun. Make writing fun again. Make it play.

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I know a lot of writers dislike Dean Wesley Smith because he comes off as so opinionated. But you know what? He’s 67 and he’s been at this writer thing for longer than I’ve been alive. For longer than most of my friends, even. Not to mention that he and his wife self publish all their own books and have for years. He’s done things that none of my newbie author friends have ever thought of (like selling signed paperbacks to the voracious book market on eBay.)

There are basically two kinds of writers. Those who outline everything, and those who “write by the seat of their pants”, that is, those who rely exclusively on the “creative voice” DWS mentions above.

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What happens when an artist has fun. Big Bad Wolf by Ninjatic

When I started writing, I always found that outlining killed my inspiration. I’ve since found methods of outlining that kind of work, but they still give rise to stories that are … well, only passable. I mean, they were okay, but they weren’t my best work. I had the idea that the stories could have risen to amazing heights, but … that takes a genius place in my brain, and I can’t hit that genius place while coldly outlining.

This has always quietly baffled me. When I was writing fanfiction, at most, the only outlining I would do was to write a list of “cool stuff I wanted to happen” so I didn’t forget to put it in. And I cranked out some storylines that were pure genius. Even now, years later, people still track me down to tell me how much they loved my old fanfics.

Then I started writing books for publication, which I dutifully outlined. And they just … weren’t as good. The sparkle wasn’t there, somehow. So I went back to fanfics, just writing with no outline, only a brief list of things I wanted to happen. And the genius returned.

So … I don’t know if DWS’s advice up there applies to everyone. But for me, writing with very little outline, just following the conflicts and the characters’ reactions to them, is where the sparkle and the genius lies. I’m going to toss out the outline for my next book and just write into the dark. I know my characters and their arcs, and I know my bad guys and what they’re trying to do. Beyond that, I think I’m capable of setting them loose and watching the feathers fly. If I can do it with fanfics, I can do it with original characters, too.

Book review: Discipl-ish by Mike Duran

I was supposed to review this book at launch, but I was kind of off on my sort-of-terrible vacation at the time.

Discipl-ish by Mike Duran is a memoir of his rocky life, first as an altar boy in a Catholic church, then as a delinquent teen, then as a young man who accepted Christ and had pastorhood thrust upon him way too early.

Over the course of trying to run a church, he made mistakes, fell into bad company, and eventually enabled a whirlwind of spiritual abuse that made me physically ill to read about. I had to keep putting the book down because it upset me so deeply.

Eventually, Mike’s pastorate was stripped from him and the church dissolved. This is where most memoirs of this kind follow the person into a journey away from Christianity and how much “happier” they are with no religion at all. Mike, fortunately, doesn’t do that. He clings to Jesus, works through forgiveness, and lets go of the negative emotions that usually consume people who walk away from the faith.

After he moves on into other jobs and picks up writing, he chronicles helping people far more than he did as a pastor, much more one on one. Throughout the book, he wrestles with questions like, can people from other religions be saved? Can it be possible to hold two opposing theological positions at the same time, like Calvinism and Arminianism? Is it possible to find peace with paradox?

His roots as a horror writer also stem from his religious background, which is fascinating to read, too. I was reminded constantly of Stephen King’s semi-memoir, On Writing, in which some of the same elements appear (drugs, a fascination with the occult, etc.).

The book is a gripping read. It’s like sitting down with a friend over coffee and listening as they tell you a fantastically interesting story. Once they finish, you look down and your coffee is cold because you were listening so intently. I pretty much devoured the whole book in a few days because Mike’s storytelling is so compelling.

I’m not really into memoirs, but this is a good one.

I received an advanced reader copy of this book. My review and thoughts are my own.

It was the best of vacations, it was the worst of vacations

We’d been planning a trip to the beach in San Diego for six months. We meticulously saved up for it, planned everything, and were going to have a great time.

Monday morning, the day of our trip, my husband woke up and said, “I just had the weirdest dream.”

He dreamed that he was in his college dorm, getting ready to go home. But he looked down and realized that the floor was covered in hair trimmings, like from a barber shop. Then he realized the floor was wet, too. Behind his computer, on the floor, was a crack in the wall with water pouring through. So he was trying to save his computer from the water, and things were getting worse and worse. In the dream, he said, “God, make this stop!” And everything went back to normal. No water. No dirty floor.

I said, “Huh, that is a weird dream.”

And we went on our merry way, packing the kids and the luggage into the car and taking off on the six hour drive from Tucson to San Diego.

Just outside of Yuma, our air conditioning condenser died and took the power steering with it.

Words can’t describe the terror at that rest stop. We got in the car, which started just fine. But as soon as Ryan turned the wheel, the car lurched and died. Having worked on cars before, it took him ten seconds to realize that the dead power steering was trying to draw too much power and making the car die. So he revved the engine and we blasted out of the rest stop. Once we got up to speed, the steering handled … all right … but the car was making a funny helicopter noise.

I was all for turning around, going home, and canceling the trip. But Ryan insisted that the car would get us there, so we grimly pressed on.

With no AC.

Through the desert. In May. During a heatwave.

I was unaware that between Yuma and El Centro lies a strange wasteland called the Dunes.

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It’s only a couple of miles long, but in the growing heat inside the car, it might as well have been the Sahara.

We kept the windows down, drank iced water and sodas, and grimly counted the miles until the mountains between the desert and San Diego. We knew that although the desert was 102 degrees, San Diego was 70, so there would eventually be a cooldown if we could just get there.

Long story short, we did get there. The car handled just fine over the mountains, and the higher we climbed, the more beautifully cool the air became. Descending the last pass into the marine air was a wonderful experience.

We checked into our hotel without a hitch, although the car wanted to lurch and die any time we turned into a parking space at low power. We hauled our stuff into our room (which was very nice, and they upgraded us to a nicer room at no charge), and Ryan set about hunting for a mechanic who could fix the car in one day.

After the heat of the desert, San Diego was almost too cold for us. The kids got into their beds, just because they could, and played gameboys. Hey, it was vacation, after all.

Ryan found a mechanic six minutes away, and first thing the next morning, fought the car down there. The air condenser and the power steering are on the same belt in our car, so when one breaks, it has a good chance of taking out the other. They fixed it, and thankfully, the crazy high price tag came with financing.

That took a whole day. The kids and I explored the area around the hotel in the meantime.

There was a very pretty vacant lot nearby that was full of wildflowers. The kids were enthralled.

The next day, we had the car back, and it ran beautifully. So we went to the beach.

You know, we had VACATION like we had planned. It was very pleasant and the kids got soaked, but hey, that’s what you do at the beach.

The drive home was no big deal with air conditioning. Oh, air conditioning, you blessed machine! And it was even hotter outside, with a  high wind. And we passed a fiercely burning fire in Yuma.

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But we made it home unscathed, and very tired of vacation.

So, it was a nice vacation … and it was a horrible vacation, depending on how you look at it. Most weirdly, it followed Ryan’s dream exactly. I think that was the freakiest thing of all.

Rejection isn’t so bad

Well, my urban fantasy book that was on submission with a small press got an official rejection. They cited issues that I was aware of and was planning to fix in another draft, anyway.

In a way, I’m hugely relieved. The longer I waited to hear back from the publisher, the more I realized how much control I was relinquishing. I couldn’t pick my own cover artist. I couldn’t set price promotions. I’ve been indie so long, going under the yoke of a publisher was just too hard for me. Maybe I’m too much of a rebel.

Anyway, one of the issues they cited was the worldbuilding. It was flabby and didn’t make sense.

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In my previous post, I talked about the fanfic series I’m turning into original fiction. (Hey, if Cinder, Mortal Instruments, the Vorkosigan Saga, the Temeraire books, and Firebird all started life as fanfiction … I can do it, too!)

Anyway, my husband latched onto it, and we’ve been doing spectacular amounts of worldbuilding. He asked me, “What about the metaplot?” So we’ve been building that. We’ve actually built back across world borders into the urban fantasy universe, explaining the villains there, and how they’re going to interact with the characters in both series. Our going idea is to write, say, five books in each series, and then have one book that has the big Cosmic Crossover event and finishes up both storylines.

It’s crazy ambitious, but I’ve written far more bonkers things before.

Anyway, all this worldbuilding definitely fixes the issues the publisher has. I’m going to have to rewrite the entire book, I think, but I’ve done it before.

My biggest problem is that all my friends tend to read and write fairytale fantasy romance featuring female protagonists. I’m going to have to fish around to find a male audience who will follow male characters being awesome and not having much romance. I think my action movie history is showing.