[Spoiler warning: Contains several details about the Presage mission in Destiny 2. Go play it first, earn your Exotic, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be here.]
Guardians respond to distress signals; they don’t send them.
Yet here you are. Slowly approaching a derelict ship in the dead of space after receiving a distress signal … from a Guardian. The closer you get to the hull, the more an unfamiliar feeling slithers into your impenetrable armor. What is it? Hesitation? Maybe fear?
You're a Guardian – a bastion of Light, vanquisher of gods, armed to the teeth and prepared for any challenge.
But from the moment you set foot on the dimly lit ramp and the silence envelops you, you know that the wrongness of this ship is something new. Sure, there’s always the chance that whatever lies in the bowels of this drifting tomb poses no threat; but with every step you take away from your ship, you wonder if you’re in over your helmet.
Ignore that thought for as long as you can.
Definitely ignore it when the walls of the room you're in start to move.
You’ve got this.
The Pyramid ships have left their mark, and everyone – Humans, Exo, Awoken, Eliksni, Cabal; even the Hive – will do whatever it takes to save themselves. Of those who seek the Darkness, some will find a latent power within, able to be harnessed like the Light. Others, however, will find themselves bent by a mysterious voice lurking in the Darkness itself.
But power comes in many forms, and in Season of the Chosen, players were introduced to a captivating new adversary who offered the Vanguard an alliance with the mighty Cabal empire. However, betrayed by her distaste for compromise, Caiatl, empress of the Cabal, overplayed her hand and ignited a conflict between the two factions.
While this conflict would take center stage during the Season, Bungie knew it was important to acknowledge that the Darkness story didn't end just because the Cabal and the Vanguard don’t get along.
In a universe as large and as intricate as Destiny, there are always multiple stories unfolding. Sometimes these stories are small, unassuming, and shrouded on the fringes of space. In these cases, it falls on players to investigate, because – well, let’s face it, it would be a real shame if while everyone was staring at Cabal drop pods, something horrendous happened in the shadows.
And so, to the shadows we go.
‘THE SHIP CAME BACK WRONG’
Robbie Stevens, creative lead on Season of the Chosen, spoke about where the seeds of the mission were planted, “We identified early on that even though the Hive and the Darkness are being used as reasons for why Caiatl is trying to ally with the Vanguard, we weren't really telling the story of the Darkness anymore.” Once they realized that, he and a team at Bungie grabbed hold of that Darkness story thread and started to pull.
Feature Lead and Senior Designer Matt Hand remembers the team talking about the massive implications that came from the arrival of the Darkness. They were very aware that they had barely scratched the surface. “For us,” said Hand, “there was a big elephant in a tutu, tap dancing, and a big neon sign pointing to the fact that all these planets just disappeared. So, we asked ourselves, what can we do with that? Because there’s a story that can be told here.”
The brainstorming session that followed turned into a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle situation. With a free-flowing conversation about how the Darkness story could be expressed in a small Seasonal mission, a derelict ship was mentioned as a possible destination. Then someone on the call uttered the question, “What if the ship came back wrong?”
This was all it took. It was like a sci-fi horror quest was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and all it took were those words to finish the thought. “What ship? Wrong how?” Every question that came up had multiple inspired answers informed by the decades of horror-film fandom shared by the team.
Hand remembers Nikko Stevens, senior narrative designer on Presage, struggling to contain his excitement about the idea. “I could just tell Nikko wanted to get the hell out so he could start writing. There were so many possibilities, and they all came out like a flood. Nikko’s brain almost exploded, my jaw was on the floor, and everyone on the team was feeding off the energy.”
What resulted is a story about a failed communion, a voice within the Darkness, and the price Calus paid for indulging in his wounded pride. The evidence of what happened during the Glykon’s final voyage would be preserved within its battered and overgrown halls. There it would float, waiting for someone to answer a distress signal – the only clue players would have as to the fate of the ship’s captain.
“I think 'What if the ship came back wrong?’ was the statement that really got the ball rolling,” said Nikko Stevens. "It's the undercurrent of the mission and you, as the Guardian, come in after the fact and see the aftermath of this horrible decision that Calus made. All the elements of that decision slowly unravel – bits and pieces of what exactly happened, who was responsible, and why were they doing it.”
Within the first 15 minutes of the brainstorming session, the team knew exactly where they wanted to go, and before they knew it, help started to come in from all over the studio.
“I sent out a Bat-Signal,” said Hand. “’We need to spook up the ship!’ And people all over the studio offered to join us for quick sessions. Test overdelivered, Audio overdelivered, World Art and Lighting overdelivered – everyone overdelivered. It was just a great experience all around.”
Beyond the drive to create good games, the team’s passion for horror shines through here. “That's the type of stuff that gets us out of bed in morning in the morning,” said Robbie Stevens.
EVERYONE STAY TOGETHER
There’s something very basic and compelling about sci-fi-horror that the team tapped into. It was as if they had spent a large portion of their lives preparing for this. Countless combined hours among them spent consuming content that inspired their work. You got the impression that everyone who worked on Presage (maybe everyone at Bungie) watched movies like Alien and Event Horizon more than once. A lot more than once.
“I love any chance where we can put spooky things into the game. It’s my favorite thing,” said Eve Astra, senior artist at Bungie, who worked on several of unsettling areas of the mission – including the final room. “I was so worried about our Teen rating! Throughout the process of working on that final room, I probably sent more than 10 emails to the team as it got progressively more and more nasty. I’m adding tentacles sprouting out of this character’s face, and was like, ‘Can we still ship this? Is this still Teen!?’”
Stories like this cropped up all over the place, and the following interaction seemed to be incredibly common:
Person 1: Hey, check out this thing I added to the ship.
Person 2: Wait, can we even do that?
Senior Audio Designer Jennie LaBonte remembers first seeing one of the rooms that had a bunch of dead Scorn in it and thinking, “OK, we're actually doing this.”
Even though she’s a huge horror fan already, LaBonte and another audio designer watched The Descent to get into the right headspace. They wanted to get a feel for a confined atmosphere where sound could be coming from any direction and how that would cause your imagination to run wild.
“The team played with lines of dialogue you hear while exploring – like it's in your mind,” LaBonte said. “I think those are really cool moments for players to wonder if they actually heard something or are being messed with. Like, ‘Is it in your head? Is anyone else hearing this? Is someone watching me? Wait, who did I just hear!? What's going on!?’ Just an additional layer of uncertainty and confusion.”
Though epic space terror was always the goal; the first draft of the mission wasn't exactly horrifying ... yet.
When they first started working on Presage, LaBonte and Senior Audio Designer Zach Thomas played through the mission to find areas that could use jump scares. Whenever they found a good spot, they recorded a temporary sound to mark it for later.
“We both recorded ‘Boo’s.’ Like literal ‘Boo. Boo!’ Just slightly different versions. Then throughout the mission, it would be a really creepy moment and then you’d hear one of us say the word ‘Boo.’ It stayed in for quite a while and I really wish we'd left some in as Easter eggs.”
"It's funny,” said Robbie Stevens. “When you're in the early version of these levels, the lights aren't off, right? And you're running around and you aren’t 100% sure where this thing is going to land. Then I remember the first time I saw the plants; they had actually consumed an entire room and killed a couple Cabal units. The Cabal were suspended in the air with these spikes through them. I remember seeing that for the first time and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is going to work.’”
Everyone on the team had faith in each other and that this would eventually culminate into a singular experience. But at this point, it took a little bit of imagination. That same imagination cooked up some incredible set pieces that almost didn’t make it into the game due to their complexity.
“The trash compactor is one of my favorite things,” said Senior Artist Todd Juno. “It required coordination between the artists, effects artists, the designers, and a bunch of other people to get the timing and everything right. There's a lot of technical trickery in there, because you don't want players to get pushed through a wall, so there's a lot of stuff that goes into making it feel like you're getting squished.”
Astra, who also worked on the trash compactor sequence, was worried that it was going to get cut because of how complicated it was to build. She was overjoyed when she found out it was staying in and got messaged to refine the art. “Once the audio was added, and the screen shaking, and everything when it’s closing – oh my gosh, that was really fun.”
More than a few people had to combine their powers to make this work, and because of how much the subject matter resonated with the team – like Hand mentioned – everyone overdelivered.
It’s a good thing too, the team would have been crushed if all that work was for nothing.
THIS IS FINE
In keeping with the horror genre, some of the most intense portions are near the end of the mission. In fact, it's safe to say that the final two areas will leave quite the impression on anyone who manages to brave the dark halls that precede them.
In the penultimate room of the mission, the final boss (lovingly referred to as Freddy Krueger due to the boiler room he inhabits), gave the team an interesting challenge. “The original idea was that you go into the boiler room and get chased by the boss,” said Juno. “There were traps to force players into tighter areas, but because there are certain things hard-coded with the boss, he didn’t play well with the layout. It felt impossible to get the right feel.”
So, like Ripley taping two guns together, the team improvised. What resulted is an upstairs/downstairs encounter that allows the player to freely move around upstairs but then enter a confined, high-pressure space downstairs … multiple times.
“We’ve built raids where you might be split across areas,” said Robbie Stevens. “Some strike bosses have a very small amount of that, but nothing truly like this. You actually have to drop down into the boiler room. And then once the boiler room turns back on, you have to quickly scramble out.”
Juno, who iterated a lot on this space, said that he pushed everything to the maximum. “I brought the ceiling down as low as I could,” he said. “There are certain thresholds we have to work with, and that's as low as I could bring it, and as big as I could make the boss. Like if like if I moved this one pipe just a little bit lower it would break the pathfinding.”
When Audio got to see the encounter, they loved it but also ran into an issue involving the pipes. “I know a challenge Zach [Thomas] had was making the audio sound appropriate,” said LaBonte. “Because everything is on fire in that room. The boss is on fire. The Scorn are on fire and have fire attacks. And then it's like, ‘Oh and now the entire room is about to catch fire.’ Trying to make that read was really tricky. He did a great job of having the pipes sound like they're heating up in such a confined space with all of the other fire elements going on.”
Once you’ve mastered not being on fire and are ready to spend zero more minutes in a boiler room, there’s only one more area to explore.
The good news: It’s the last room.
The bad news: It’s the more-than-10-emails-about-our-Teen-rating room.
Robbie Stevens recalled how he was inspired by an unsettling moment at the end of the film, Annihilation. (Vague spoilers for Annihilation coming up. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) Seeing something foreign destroy the humanity from someone was terrifying. Now transpose that within the Destiny universe and have the target of that destruction be a Guardian. “As a creative lead, I latched onto that and then said to Matt and Nikko, ‘Hey, build to this moment.’”
Yeah, the final room had a lot of heavy lifting to do. It had to land that moment, ratchet up the horror even more, introduce players to the captain of the ship, and present them with a reward: The Dead Man’s Tale Exotic Scout Rifle.
Astra remembers talking with Art Director Jason Sussman about Annihilation and drawing on it for inspiration. “I was like, ‘What if we have these plants growing out of the Guardian?’ And ideas just started bouncing back and forth.”
While working on compositions, Astra faced a challenge of making it immediately clear to the player that there was a Guardian in this incredibly dark room, and that he was holding something the player needed to pick up. But Astra landed on an inspired choice that became the final resting place of the Glykon’s mysterious captain.
“It was really hard,” said Astra. “So, I thought, ‘What if he's strung up in the middle of the room? Where you could really see him.’ As soon as I got him there and added a little movement, so he actually started swaying in the vines, I was like, ‘Oh, this is really scary.’”
Oh, the things Guardians will do for an Exotic Scout Rifle.
On paper, the worldbuilding done in Presage is incredibly dense and asks more questions than it answers – the magic of a good mystery.
Where is Calus now? Has he made contact with the Darkness … or maybe something else entirely? Was this his only attempt? What is the Entity and does its existence change our understanding of the Darkness? What are these plants? What does the Drifter know about them? Could what happened on this ship happen anywhere? Could it happen in the Last City?
All these questions arise from a single mission while a completely different branch of Destiny’s story unfolds throughout the rest of the Season.
Nikko Stevens touched on something that resonated and felt like it might be the crux of what makes missions like this so special.
“Small stories, like what happened between Crow and Spider in Season of the Hunt,” he said. “You could say that these may not really matter. Not in the grand scheme of things, right? But you should know who the people in this universe are. If you don't know who you're fighting for, then it – at least for me – destabilizes the reason you’re doing these missions.”
And so, the team at Bungie presented players with an innocuous distress signal – one like many others. One that introduced you to a Guardian you’ve never met, who was struck down by a foe you’ve never faced, in a small corner of the universe you didn’t know existed.
Thanks for carrying your bravery into the places that need it most.