Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Destiny is its mystery. So many questions waiting to be answered. We spoke to Bungie’s head of art Dave Dunn about that mystery: how is it made? And what does Bungie sacrifice in order to create it?
The awe that Halo inspired in players was hardly a mistake, but accidents often happen. Accidents that result in a complete shift in focus; that transform and redefine the direction of a project in development.
For Halo it was as simple as a single strip on the horizon.
“We learned an interesting lesson way back on the first Halo,” explains Bungie’s Dave Dunn. “Just putting a little strip that went up and over made people really believe they were on that ring.”
The sense of place — the inherent strangeness — compounded. No exposition needed. Just an image, a first person perspective. An unseen virtual neck stretching backwards towards the sky.
“We’ve invest a lot into this,” says Dave. “You make people ask questions. That’s where the mystery comes from.”
Bungie’s latest video game, Destiny, is all about those questions and reinventing that sense of mystery.
A strangely shaped object in the distance. It curves and stretches above the ruins of human architecture, it’s clearly alien. Where did it come from? Why is it here? What is its purpose?
Below that weird skyscraper, a tattered factory, with a faded logo representing some unknown company. What is this company? What does that company make? What role will they play in the story of Destiny as it unfolds?
“Oh, the colony ships!” Laughs Dunn. “The story behind that is awesome.”
Jesse van Dijk is a lead concept artist at Bungie. He is looking at images of what will become some sort of colony ship in Destiny. It doesn’t quite work for him; for some reason it doesn’t ‘pop’. So he gets to work. He invents something a little bit crazy and sets about convincing the Art Director that these strange shapes are important to Destiny.
“Most concept artists would have stopped there,” says Dunn.
But Van Dijk didn’t stop. Despite being a concept artist by trade he learned some modelling, he started adding animations. He began working backwards, thinking intensely about the ship he had designed. How does it work? How would something like this launch? Before he knew it, Van Dijk’s colony ship had developed its own sense of place and history.
This is how Bungie makes video games.
“We set out to do this from the very, very beginning,” explains Dave. “It’s about world building. You want to make your world mysterious so that people will want to explore.”
Now, about that faded logo.
“You’ll see a lot of this kind of thing in Destiny,” says Dave.
Destiny has an Art Director obsessed with graphic design. You might recall that Destiny’s E3 walk through was dotted with invented brands stamped on old buildings. A few concept artists and Art Director Christopher Barrett have a thing for old-fashioned swiss design. This was the result.
“They’re basically going through and branding every destination in relation to what corporation was there, what did they do? What are they doing now?”
And according to Dave Dunn, the deeper the team goes, the more questions gamers will ask — it’s that mystery thing again. “People will be wearing the names of these companies on t-shirts,” he laughs.
As the Head of Art, Dave Dunn has been at Bungie for over 16 years, and currently oversees nine different art teams. He has some stories.
Like the time one of Bungie’s mission designers, who studied to be an actual rocket scientist at MIT, sat down with the writers and spent a day trying to work out the precise speed at which the Halo rings would have to turn to be plausible in the game’s fiction.
“I was just like, ‘what are you guys doing’,” laughs Dave.
Or the line Dave regularly tries to impress upon new artists and designers coming to work at Bungie: “you may think you’re just working on a boulder but if you have to think about that boulder!”
Again, this is how Bungie creates video games.
“It takes time,” admits Dave, “and it takes commitment.”
I ask: for every question that could possibly be asked about Halo or Destiny, would there be some sort of answer to that question?
“There would be an answer somewhere,” he says. “Someone would have thought about the answer to that question.”
And that’s how mysteries are made.