Fifty-six hours later, I'm still playing "Destiny." And I still don't know why.
That's quite a chunk of time to surrender to any game — let alone one I've exasperatedly quit just as much as I've enjoyed.
I thought "The Dark Below," the recent expansion to Bungie's massively online sci-fi shooter, would help me understand why I've stuck with the game so long past the point where I'd shelve others permanently.
It did, but not the way I anticipated. "The Dark Below" truly is "Destiny" in a nutshell: Fun shooting for now, a joyless lifestyle forever. But the expansion spoils the escapist bargain that is video games in its own way.
In my review, I said "Destiny" stretched and unsheathed the basic feedback loop of shooters more than almost any game before it. On the surface, sure, it innovated: It introduced planetary hub worlds where you could meet other players and abruptly dance with them. It seamlessly integrated your single-player progress with that of competitive multiplayer. It birthed a bad Peter Dinklage performance.
And yet, "Destiny" just felt like a whole lot of shooting. For all the magnificently arranged vistas of a Russian cosmodrome or Mars' copper atmosphere, for all the pitch-perfect musical scoring — hell, for how punchy and mechanically sound the shooting actually was — the game is void and infinite as space itself.
"Destiny" opened my eyes to the mundane kinetic machinery of endlessly pointing a reticle at things and pressing "boom." It made me put down the controller and ask, "What am I doing?" "What am I getting?" "Why am I still playing?" Then it made me pick the controller back up, and repeat the cycle.
There are two reasons "Destiny" did this and not, say, "Call of Duty" or "Halo." The first is Bungie's barren story, set in a bright new universe of placeholder nouns with no gravitational pull whatsoever. You're a Guardian who needs Light to defeat The Darkness. No, it's not a lot to get swept up in.
The second reason is "Destiny's" progression curve. I doubt the tallest, steepest crater on the Moon is so difficult to climb. And that's where "The Dark Below" comes in.
The expansion finds a mysterious Guardian with runny eye makeup, Eris Morn, recruiting you to eliminate the Hive god Crota. But that's not the real story of "The Dark Below." It's the ease with which Bungie tampers with "Destiny's" progression curve — and, if you're trying to scale that curve, your life.
Before the expansion, I spent maybe six hours stuck at level 27, patrolling the same Mars canyon for Relic Iron a hundred times over and making the Daily Heroic Story as much a part of my morning routine as walking my dog. But showing up day after day to collect my allowance of ascendant materials, doing all the other piddling crap "Destiny" asked — it meant nothing. My progress bar moved maybe an inch forward.
Then "The Dark Below" dropped, and after two hours, I hit level 29.
Don't get me wrong: It was fun getting there. I had a blast with the new story missions, which evolve past "Destiny's" "hide here and pump a thousand bullets into this guy" formula and really bake some tension into the action. Fighting Sardon, Fist of Crota is a run-and-gun frenzy, and the strike Will of Crota pits your fireteam against a small army of Hive and a superpowered Wizard named Omnigul (yes, Omni-gul) inside the least open battleground in the game.
Bungie even brought back the Blade of Crota, the weapon that made for maybe the most fun sequence in "Destiny," through a new event that randomly pops up when you're patrolling Earth or the Moon. It's an obvious gambit for player goodwill, but it works.
"The Dark Below" culminates in a new raid, Crota's End, that sends you and your friends deep into the Moon to kill Crota himself. Because "Destiny" doesn't use matchmaking for raids, and because my friends have better things to do, I have to skip the raid — just like I did the last one, Vault of Glass.
The thing is, though, "The Dark Below" made me glad I skipped that first raid — and the several hours of restarts and frustrations it likely would have entailed.
With the expansion lifting the level cap from 30 to 32, and with "Destiny's" peculiar choice to bind late-game progress to raid gear, I bought and found new armor that let me do in minutes what I could only have done after hours of gritting and dying and swearing my way through Vault of Glass. I felt like a cheater, a line-cutter.
Then I wondered how players who did do all that felt. How they felt when "The Dark Below" made obsolete all their hard-fought progress. How they felt when the only purpose of their efforts left standing was fun — if they even had any.
Then I realized: Fun is all you can value in "Destiny." Once, I'd push further into the game, trudging for that next round of Relic Iron or grinding out those last bounty kills. After "The Dark Below," after seeing how futile the climb can be, I'm less inclined to keep going — not until I'm ready to have fun again.