Iron Banter: This Week In Destiny 2 – Sympathy For The Emperor

Just about every week brings something new to Destiny 2, whether it’s story beats, new activities, or interesting new combinations of elements that let players devastate each other in the Crucible. Iron Banter is our weekly look at what’s going on in the world of Destiny and a rundown of what’s drawing our attention across the solar system.

We’ve had a couple weeks now to delve into Duality, the first of two new dungeons Bungie previously announced would come to Destiny 2 this year, and like many, I’ve been enjoying getting stepped on by Caiatl for the last week (…not like that). What’s especially impressed me about the new dungeon is how Bungie has deployed it in service of its narrative. We literally jump into the mind of Calus and shoot his personal demons to figure out what his whole deal is. It’s kind of brilliant.

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Now Playing: Let’s Play Destiny 2’s New Dungeon, Duality | Livestream

I’ve been talking extensively about how good Destiny 2’s story has gotten in the last couple of years to just about anyone who will listen (apologies to the games journalists who made the mistake of having a beer with me after a recent in-person preview event). I do it in this column basically every other week. But the Season of the Haunted is setting a new bar for what Bungie’s narrative team has done and continues to do. It’s taking us straight into the internalized trauma of major characters like Crow and Zavala in a way that’s really striking. (Read merrit k over at Fanbyte about how Destiny is somehow at the cutting edge of the conversation on trauma; this season’s writers also recently discussed taking on those topics during a group interview I got to sit in on).

But the season isn’t just bringing that depth to the heroes. It’s also doing so with Calus, the exiled Cabal emperor, in a way that’s explaining his history and detailing his motivations to make him a really compelling target for our shooty sensibilities.

This is something that deserves a closer look, because the attention Bungie is paying to Calus feels indicative of a relatively new approach. We’ve talked a lot about how cool the buildup was to Savathun, big bad of Destiny’s The Witch Queen expansion–it really grounded the game to have a credible threat operating in the world of Destiny for a long time before we finally met it and defeated it. The game felt like it was building toward something and that the actions of characters and villains were tangible and powerful.

What I’m realizing I like even more than being spooked by a Hive god enacting horrors throughout the game for years, though, is how much time we’ve spent lately dealing with villains as characters. We’ve been getting great characterization among the heroes in both the lore and on screen–but Season of the Haunted, and The Witch Queen before it, have centered antagonists in a way that makes them feel like more than just new huge monsters to shoot. All the runway spent leading up to The Witch Queen was excellent, but I’m even more interested in the moments we’ve gotten since then that have let us peer into Savathun’s mind and understand her as more than just a scary force that will probably kill us.

Savathun was spooky as an unseen manipulator, but she’s more interesting as a (somewhat) present character.

A whole lot of Season of the Haunted is about Calus. The former emperor was part of Destiny 2 from just about the beginning, and we’ve spent quite a bit of time with him over the years; there’s a whole lot of Calus lore if you care to go read it, from vanilla Destiny 2, the Leviathan raid and its smaller “raid lairs,” and the Menagerie event that came with the Season of Opulence that followed the Forsaken expansion. But Season of the Haunted is doubling down by making Calus extremely present as we explore the Leviathan and try to undermine whatever plans he seems to have. Duality is an exploration of Calus’s motivations, but the Sever missions each week have us communicating with the emperor, and he’s an ambient presence within the Leviathan when you complete public events or patrols. He’s just always around, and while we might be at odds with him, we’re getting a real sense of not only what he wants and why he wants it, but what makes him who he is.

Duality provides a bunch of looks at past events from Calus’s point of view and gives new insights on a number of his relationships. We find out a lot about Calus’s greatest shame: the fact that his daughter, Caiatl, betrayed him, which he recognizes was his own fault. Destiny had previously shown us that Calus and Caiatl were ideologically opposed, but in Haunted, we find out that even Calus’s enormous love for his daughter couldn’t outshine his jealousy–in his narcissism and massive insecurity, he drove her away through absence and cruelty. He still can’t overcome that narcissism, nor can he fill the void Caiatl’s betray left in him, and that’s what’s driving his actions as the season’s villain. We find out in Duality that Calus wants to “transcend,” according to Eris Morn–he wants to become something else, something better. He’s running from himself, hoping the Witness will finally make him the great man he always believed he should be, without any of the burdens of his past failures.

Having all that insight into a character we’ve previously fought and seem destined to fight again does a huge amount to elevate Destiny beyond the surface-level gameplay of wandering into exotic space locales and shooting whoever’s there. And it seems like an approach that’s sticking, given how much time we’ve spent learning about and investigating Savathun in The Witch Queen expansion. Though the Hive god of cunning was vanquished, the game is still teaching us about her through memetic messages she left behind, and all of that stuff only deepens the sense of antagonism we get from Savathun.

We even saw this approach with Rhulk, the boss of the Vow of the Disciple raid. Rhulk is active throughout the raid, talking to you about what’s going on, and a bunch of additional voiceover in the Preservation mission fleshes out his backstory. Even though we only encountered the character for the span of the raid and only actually saw him in the fight in which we killed him, Bungie still took time to draw him out as a character, and to put that characterization in front of players in a way that’s accessible in the game.

Rhulk kind of came out of nowhere in the Vow of the Disciple raid, but lore and audio logs in the Throne World retroactively helped fill out his character.
Rhulk kind of came out of nowhere in the Vow of the Disciple raid, but lore and audio logs in the Throne World retroactively helped fill out his character.

Duality is a fun dungeon, but I enjoyed exploring it so much more because of the work it does to build out the character of Calus. And his presence is making spending time on the Leviathan very interesting, since you can hear from him during Sever missions and even on patrols. Those moments fill in backstory, but they also seem to be doing a shorter version of ramping us up toward an eventual reveal of what Calus’s whole deal is now. Last week, Calus talked about how he has become one with the Leviathan–he claims that he is literally part of the ship. He also said some gross stuff about how it feels to have us running around inside the giant vessel, shooting things and crawling across the decks.

Calus is very much a part of the Leviathan in a story sense this season, and it’s working wonders to make him an antagonist who feels worthy of our attention. I’m hoping we learn more about his relationship with Ghaul, his betrayer, and what he thinks he’s gaining from the Darkness, and all the ways that the Witness is preying on his pained, broken psyche and flawed personality.

Most of all, though, I hope we eventually get to see Calus, and he’s some kind of fleshy, fungal, half-mechanical Cronenberg nightmare, fused into the bridge of the Leviathan. I have some sympathy for Calus, but ultimately I want to see the kind of awful, disgusting monstrosity his hubris and narcissism has created. Feel free to share your grossest Calus boss fight ideas in the comments below.

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