Destiny 2’s Season of the Haunted lives up to its name. Set largely in a new location, the Derelict Leviathan, the season has given the game a distinctive, sci-fi-horror atmosphere as part of both its gameplay and its story. What players experienced aboard the Leviathan is a bigger, more involved version of what Bungie first created in one of its very best levels. The Exotic mission Presage sent players to a ghost ship and told a story of madness and murder–and now we’ve seen what it prophesied.
The ideas that would become Presage and, later, Season of the Haunted were born when Bungie was figuring out what story it wanted to tell with an Exotic mission in 2021’s Season of the Chosen. The team had been throwing around the idea of revisiting the concept of Nightmares–manifestations of memories and trauma, first introduced in the Shadowkeep expansion, that coalesce into powerful enemies players actually have to fight.
During a group interview near the start of the season that included several Bungie developers who worked on Season of the Haunted, senior narrative designer Robert Brookes explained that as the writing team was riffing on possible ideas, one derived from a particular horror movie broke loose.
“Back when we were concepting Season of the Chosen, there was an Exotic mission, and the idea was for a derelict ship, just a ghost ship, a ship that was lost,” Brookes said. “And we started tossing around ideas. At one point, I was writing down my notes and someone mentioned Nightmares, it might have been [senior narrative designer Nikko Stevens]. He was like, ‘What if the ship’s literally haunted,’ and I was starting to write it down, and I go down this rabbit hole, like ‘Nightmares, Calus, Calus’s trauma, Calus’s trauma with Nightmares, oh my god, Event Horizon!’ And I just held the notebook up and I’m like, ‘Who has seen Event Horizon? We need to do that with this ship.’ Nikko took that and made Presage and just this beautiful, horrible mess.”
Event Horizon is a 1997 sci-fi horror film directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) and staring Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park). Set in a future filled with space travel, it centers on Fishburne and his crew, a rescue team sent to investigate a derelict ship called the Event Horizon. Neill plays the scientist who invented the Event Horizon’s “gravity drive” engine system, which opens a black hole to allow the ship to travel instantly from one point in space to another. The team discovers not only that the Event Horizon’s crew is missing, but that the ship is seemingly haunted. It soon becomes apparent that the ship’s venture through the black hole took it into another dimension, which changed the Event Horizon and drove its crew mad.
Players familiar with Presage will immediately see the similarities–it takes place on a ship called the Glykon Volatus and is seemingly empty when the player finds it. The story they uncover there is about twisted experiments by the exiled Cabal emperor, Calus, and some of his loyalist forces. Calus wanted to commune with the Witness, Destiny’s ultimate villain. Just before the release of the Beyond Light expansion, the Witness used its strange power, the Darkness, to make several of Destiny 2’s planets disappear, leaving only void-like anomalies behind. Calus sent the Glykon into the anomaly left after Mars disappeared, but when the ship emerged, as the developers explained, it came back wrong–and so did the people aboard.
The seeds of the season
The gist of the Event Horizon story made it into Presage, but there wasn’t room in the mission for all of Brookes and Stevens’ ideas. That changed, however, when developers started working on concepts for Season of the Haunted.
“We didn’t get to do the Nightmares stuff and the Calus stuff that we were originally spitballing because it was just too much. It was just too many things all at once…” Brookes said. “That’s been in the back of both Nikko’s and my mind for this whole time between, and once we heard that we were going to bring back the Leviathan, I immediately lept on [Season of the Hunt creative lead Tom Farnsworth] like a screaming monkey and was like ‘Nightmares!'”
Brookes said that, as soon as the idea of the Leviathan was floated, he and Stevens immediately thought of the Event Horizon-inspired ideas they’d been playing with for Presage.
“Sometimes in game dev, you have an idea that you want to execute on and you can’t quite get all the way there, whether it be scope or resources or, you know, whatever,” Stevens said. “But you still build something wonderful out of what you can make. And all the leftover scraps that you couldn’t fully realize before, we hold onto those things like squirrels packing them away in our trees. And eventually, when there’s an opportunity to use them–like here, when Tom came to us and was like, ‘We’re thinking about maybe Calus, maybe the Leviathan, what do you guys think?’ Exactly like Robert said, we immediately leapt on this idea and took all those grains of things that we weren’t able to polish up before and worked them into the Leviathan. So a lot of those ideas carried over, for sure, or were inspired by things we’d done previously that we now were able to flesh out more.”
In Event Horizon, the past traumas of characters manifest as visions and hallucinations while aboard the derelict, tormenting and terrifying them. Season of the Haunted goes in a very similar direction, with several major characters are forced to face their own traumas in the form of Nightmares. When he and Stevens pitched the idea to Farnsworth and the other departments working on Season of the Hautned, he said, “Every single one of us was a perfectly aligned machine. We all knew what we wanted and it was the exact same thing.”
As Stevens and Brookes noted, the main idea was that both the Glykon and the Leviathan entered these strange anomalies and came back wrong. Brookes mentioned a few other movies with the same sort of vibe that also served as inspirations, including the 1990 movies Flatliners and Jacob’s Ladder. In Flatliners, a group of medical students use their training to briefly stop their own hearts to trigger near-death experiences, and quickly find themselves haunted by venturing into the world beyond life. In Jacob’s Ladder, a Vietnam veteran has a near-death experience during the war and finds himself beset by horrific visions in the aftermath.
Playing a horror movie
With Presage, Bungie really tapped into a horror-movie feeling in Destiny 2. The mission was surprisingly creepy as players explored the empty, darkened ship, stumbling into the dead bodies of the crew. That’s a feeling that seems like it’d be tough to capture in a first-person shooter in which you play an immortal superhero who wields space magic.
Season of the Haunted hits some of those same vibes as well, channeling both the feel of Presage and other horror games. The spooky feelings are mostly conveyed in the season’s many Sever missions, which represent its major story beats. In the first few of these, players faced an unkillable enemy that chases them around with a pair of axes like a slasher villain. The first time you encounter that enemy, you don’t realize you can’t kill it; discovering that it’s immune to your attacks leads to a desperate scramble to escape.
The encounter turns into something straight out of a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Alien: Isolation–your weapons are useless and your only option is to run. There are a few tight places where you can hide from the creature, using hidden pathways like vents to give it the slip. The situation becomes all the more harrowing because you need to activate a series of control panels in the area in order to open the door that will allow you to escape, requiring you to run for the objectives with the monster dogging your heels.
“It’s actually really hard to create an experience that’s gonna make players feel fear, because they’re already just playing a game, so you kind of have to go against that already,” art director Rob Adams said. “It’s fantasy. They have all these powers, and… you’ve got to pull some of the power away from the player. But it usually comes down to trying to create a more confined space where the player feels like, if something happens, they’re not going to be able to get away very easily. Because that’s one of the things that makes you feel safe all the time, is thinking, ‘Oh, I can sprint. I can get on my sparrow. I can triple jump away from something. I can do my Super.’ But as soon as the player thinks, ‘If something happens, I might not be able to get away,’ then you have a big advantage in making them feel scared.”
“That also speaks to how many of our disciplines have to come together and make you feel scared,” he continued. “We really need audio and we need lighting and we need our tech design, and the narrative and the art and the encounter design. All these things, and like five other things I’m forgetting. They’ve all got to work together at the same time to do this. And so when we’re able to do it successfully, I think it works really well. But it just takes a lot of folks cooperating really carefully to pull it off.”
Honing the scares
Both Presage and the Sever missions feel like steps forward for Destiny’s uses of horror. But they’re not the first, as Farnsworth mentioned–Bungie has created spooky moments in the past, going back to the original Destiny. Moments with the Hive that took place on the moon often took advantage of darkness, tight quarters, and screaming monsters to create scares. The Crota’s End raid relied heavily on an atmosphere of dread. And there was the slasher movie moment of the Zero Hour mission, in which players dropped into a maze-like area in the Old Tower and were chased by a ridiculously fast machine covered in blades called TR3-VR (pronounced “Trevor”) that tore through its tight corridors to find them.
“I think it all goes back to, like, we’re a power fantasy–what are the ways in which we can kind of pull some of that power away from the players, and really constrain what they can do as a Guardian? The disempowerment is really where the fear comes from in our game,” he said. “But we need to do it in ways that players still have a chance. So like with TR3-VR, you just had to know the pattern to be able to escape the giant murder death crawler that they had built. And I think in Season of the Haunted, what we’re doing is we’re trying to bring players up to the Power level [required] so they can engage with these activities, but still have them feel pretty challenging, kind of a sweet spot of challenge, and we don’t want these moments of disempowerment to take over the entirety of the activity; that would probably be tiring. So we’re just putting them in targeted locations where we know we can really support that. Because ultimately, we want you to go into Sever, and be able to use your powers and shoot your guns and experience a really cool story. And every once in a while, when you least expect, to interject a little bit of that tension and horror into the activities.”
Farnsworth said he thought that even the marketing is essential to making the horror experience work, since it’s not what Bungie usually does with the game. Trailers and even the introductory mission for the season prime the audience to know the scares are coming and to accept that kind of experience.
“You have to invite people in to be scared, you have to set people up for it, so they can be part of it as a player, which is another thing that we definitely set a path for,” he said.
Season of the Haunted ends on August 26, and while it put a big focus on its spookier aspects, it also put a lot of time into exploring trauma, tragedy, and mental health among its characters. We don’t yet know where the story of Destiny 2 is headed in Season 18, but with Bungie putting a greater emphasis on character development and exploring a variety of genre trappings, there are a lot of possibilities for the future of the game.
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