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Justice and Vengeance in Destiny 2: Forsaken

I find a subtle genius to the nature of tragedy. Hidden under the shadow of its distress is a gift of renewal; in loss a chance for fresh perspective. Bungie tried its best to impart this lesson in Destiny 2’s original story campaign, but ultimately failed. Although showing signs of improvement over its predecessor, the journey of loss and reclamation it tries to deliver amounts to nothing more than an excuse for spectacle. A lack of clear motivation and no real sense of consequence drains Destiny 2’s initial campaign of color, causing it to blend onto the black and white pages of the video game history books. The game’s other modes and main allure of chasing rare and powerful items were enough to hold interest for a few months, but slowly the problems bubbled up. With a player base simultaneously zombified from the gear grind and outraged toward the apparent development apathy, the community had seemingly fell comatose and came close to the brink of never reawakening.

And then came a gunshot.   

Uldren Sov, brother of Mara Sov, both Betrayer and Prince of his people, stands over the lifeless body of Cayde-6. His barrel smoking.   

Destiny 2: Forsaken begins with a much needed gut punch. The expansion’s opening mission is a catastrophe as a pivotal leader and friend lay dead at the bottom of a chasmic facility known as the Prison of Elders. The bad guys are released and we as Guardians (the role you assume as a player) are quite literally starting at rock bottom—an appropriate place for what is to come. While my adventures with Forsaken’s numerous and welcome additions are far from concluded, what remains clear is that this is my favorite story within the franchise thus far.

My zeal had now turned into something more; as justice became vengeance, assuredly madness must follow.

Akin to the spaghetti westerns of yesteryears, Forsaken weaves a personal tale of revenge—you play the part of the vigilante on the hunt for the desperado. It’s all good fun on the surface. You journey to the solar system’s equivalent of the wild west, the Tangled Shore, and are tasked with collecting bounties on the heads’ of Uldren Sov’s elite group of eight henchmen, known as the Barons, clearing the way to Uldren himself. In the beginning everything seems clear; Cayde’s death was in cold-blood and is worth rectifying. Watching it play out evoked anger in me—an anger I’d previously only experienced from raid whipes.  But as I neared the end, I began to ask myself something I truly did not expect: would I find justice in the bullet I planned to put in the murderous Prince?

This self-doubt was a mere whimper during my first few takedowns. The Rider, Mindbender, Trickster, and Hangman were easy bounties to collect as their banter during each duel only fueled my disdain for them. Then came the hunt for the Rifleman; the Baron responsible for killing Sundance (Cayde’s Ghost, which is a companion that allows Guardians to resurrect after sustaining fatal wounds). Bringing him down would be more satisfying than any prior victory as here was the first true responsible hand besides Uldren’s. I tracked him deep into a cave, knowing all too well the dark and narrow tunnels would lead me into an open forum perfect for his dirty style of play. Besting him wasn’t easy, but in the end my speed overcame his guile and he fell. My zeal had now turned into something more; as justice became vengeance, assuredly madness must follow. And the game obliged. I prepared my gear for executing the sixth target: The Mad Bomber.

Review of his dossier had placed the emphasis on his callous mania over his skill with volatile incendiaries, giving the impression that within the digital realm of my playtime, we’d all be better off with him dead. What I didn’t expect is that this conflict would amplify my initial whimper of conscience. Set against the backdrop of the gunfire and grenades his howled mockeries urged me onward, his perceived lunacy its own cautionary tale. But as the fight began turning in my favor, the deranged speech became edifying. His view of Cayde was my view of him—unworthy of mercy. Assuredly, I thought, this was a misplaced judgement on his part and so I did not relent. I cut him down and in the dying words of this madman I found my epiphany:

Cayde murder Eliksni. Think you different, think you hero? Joke at you.

At times, anger can be an emotion that stems from a deep desire to correct a wrong. To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s natural and oft legitimate to have anger towards injustice. Clearly our response to opening events should be to remedy them. Cayde-6’s murder was an attack not only on a leader of the Vanguard, but his death alters the psyche of all Guardians; we can be killed, with no chance of our bestowed Ghosts bringing us back. I realize the gravitas of that statement will be lost on those who haven’t played the game, but trust me, watching one of our leaders die who we’ve become attached to over the past four years of being immersed in this world, had some serious weight. Consequently, we’ve been tasked with navigating the murky aftermath and bringing clarity, not to the initial sentiments of wrath towards the perpetrator, but rather the form of the fashioned response. Therein lies the difference between justice and vengeance.   

After hunting and ending all eight Barons across the Tangled Shore, I faced Uldren Sov atop an ancient watchtower and brought him to heel. As if to come full circle, I now stood over him with my gun drawn and trained. The camera frames in such a way as to harken back to Cayde’s death at his hand. The screen goes black.

And then came a gunshot.  

At the end of Destiny 2: Forsaken’s campaign, the developers make your choice for you. You take a life for a life. This is vengeance. Right before you the pull the trigger, Sov utters the words that, at least for me, give this story poignancy: “Funny. The line between Light and Dark is so very thin. Do you know what side you’re on?” It is our rational use of will to rightly order anger and wrath towards a greater good that defines whether we wield it for the light or for the darkness.  

I wish I had the choice to capture Sov rather than end his life. I wish I had the same choice over his Barons; to end a cycle, to look beyond and claim mercy for the trouble of my labors. Justice and mercy are intimately linked in that together they bring balance rather than more discourse. This is not to say that mercy comes with lack of punishment, but rather a promise of chance—a chance to reconcile, a chance for the guilty to make their own choice to set things right. Anger and wrath become deadly sins when we cling to them in hubris thinking we are beyond forgiveness of self or others.   

We bring the fruits of our journeys back with us be they sweet or rotten. The ending of Forsaken’s excellent campaign is a somber one. Cayde is gone and in our brashness we have seemingly unleashed a greater threat to be dealt with in future chapters; calamity breeds calamity until someone sees the truth. It would be more interesting in my opinion to give player’s some agency in how their story unfolds, even if it is just a single last choice to spare a life. Maybe next time Bungie will let us make peace out of tragedy rather than take the well worn path of vengeance back home. We are Guardians after all.

A born and raised Appalachian, Elliott is a software engineer by day and wannabe game designer by night. A WVU alumni, he co-founded Parable Game Studios in 2016 with a mission to create small and meaningful digital experiences and to use game design as a teaching mechanism for youth in his area. When not working or playing video games, he enjoys running, strumming the guitar, and reading. Elliott is also a big fan of Star Wars puns.

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