Destiny's new cooperative challenge mode is called "The Prison of Elders". It's a fitting name: Thanks to the way checkpoints work, it really can leave you feeling imprisoned.
The Prison is a new game mode introduced in the newest Destiny expansion, House of Wolves. The gist: You make a team of three and make your way through five increasingly difficult rounds in an enclosed arena. They take on waves of Hive, Cabal, Fallen or Vex enemies. Sometimes a boss will turn up; other times, you'll simply have three waves of enemies to clear out. Sometimes you have to go stand in various areas and defuse bombs, or take down a powerful target enemy before it can reach a series of checkpoints. Make through all five rounds, and you'll be rewarded with a treasure room and the chance at some really good gear.
There is, however, a problem with how the Prison of Elders is set up, and it's a problem with no clear solution. See, the Prison of Elders doesn't allow you to save your checkpoint, step away from the game, and pick up back where you left off. There are checkpoints in the sense that if your team is wiped out, you restart the current round but don't have to start from the beginning. But if you go to orbit (or turn the game off) and try to come back, you'll find that you can't. You'll have to start from the beginning. (As with most things Destiny, there's already a workaround of sorts that at least allows a player to go to orbit and re-join before the final round, though it still requires the remaining team members to stick around and hold the checkpoint.)
The Prison of Elders comes in four difficulty levels: Level 28, level 32, level 34, and level 35. The challenge and corresponding time commitment increase significantly with each new level of difficulty. Level 28 is no problem — you can let the game automatically match you with strangers and you shouldn't have any real trouble blowing through all five rounds in less than an hour. Level 32 can be tricky, but is doable. You'll have to bring your own team, but skilled players should be able to get through it in around an hour — less if they have already done it and know what's coming next.
Level 34 is where things get hairy. 34 is the new level cap, meaning that only max-level characters can play the level 34 prison without taking a significant damage penalty, and the high-level modifiers can make things immensely difficult. Level 35, meanwhile, is currently the hardest PvE activity that exists in Destiny — even max-level players are fighting one level below the enemies, meaning that they do less damage and take more damage than normal. The final boss at level 35 can take many hours to finally defeat, and that's on top of the time it takes to get to him.
One can imagine, then, how the no-saved-checkpoints thing becomes an issue as the difficulty gets higher. If you spend two hours fighting your way to a boss, only to find yourself stuck and exhausted on the boss fight itself, it's awful knowing that you can't take a break or come back to it the next day without needing to do the whole damned thing all over again.
Here's a shitty story: Last week, I teamed up with two friends to take on the level 34 Prison. They were both at 34, I was level 33, and we figured hey, the preceding week wasn't too bad, so this should be fine. We fought our way through level after level, squeaking by a few of the challenges by the skin of our teeth.
We eventually reached the final boss — a big robot named Qodron who is apparently a "Vex Chronovore." (He eats time! Mmmm. Time.) This fight was HARD. Extremely hard. I don't need to go into particulars — suffice to say that even once we figured out what we had to do, it remained one of the most difficult challenges I've ever undertaken in Destiny. We wiped again and again and again before finally figuring out what might be a workable strategy. It had taken us an hour or two to get through the first four rounds, but we easily spent just as long banging our heads against that final battle.
Before we knew it, it was past 1AM. All three of us had to get up the next day for work, but none of us wanted to admit defeat. I remember commenting about how trapped I felt: We'd worked so hard just to get to this point, and I couldn't believe that if we decided to stop now, we'd have to do the whole thing all over again.
Finally, at around 1.30am, I threw in the towel. I was exhausted after too many hours of Destiny. We'd come close a couple of times, but those heartbreaking near-victories just made things worse. It was the polar opposite of that heartwarming story of victory and teamwork I shared last week. I didn't care that I was giving up all the progress we'd made; I was done.
My two level 34 teammates were considering going to an LFG site to find a third level 34 to help them finish, but I was calling it a night. I left our chat and went to orbit… only to realise too late that I was still our group leader and had accidentally pulled my two teammates out with me. There was no going back. Just like that, my careless screw-up cost all three of us an entire night's progress.
I was mortified. I still am. I apologised profusely, face in my hands, unable to believe that I'd made such an amateur-hour mistake. I had already been bummed that my non-level-34ness had contributed to our inability to beat the boss, and now my inattention had cost my teammates any chance of making it to the level 34 treasure room that night.
Later they told me it was ok, since they both really needed to go to sleep anyway, but I could tell it wasn't. I imagined how I would feel were the shoe on the other foot — I'd be pissed. All because the Prison of Elders doesn't let you go to bed and keep your progress.
There's a reason the Prison doesn't let you hang on to your checkpoints, of course. The Prison of Elders's big "treasure room" comes at the end, after you've beaten all five levels. If players could quit and load back in at the boss, people would stop fighting through all five rounds. Instead, they'd get one character up to the final checkpoint, then everyone would take turns swapping in their other two alt characters. They'd save the checkpoint on all three, then quickly beat the boss three times for three times the reward.
Destiny's raids let you hang on to checkpoints, and there are certainly people who use that fact to swap in their alts and maximise the rewards they get each week. (I've done it too.) I understand why Bungie would prefer players to work through the entire Prison each week, but if making a game more player-friendly also opens the door to exploitation by hardcore players, I'd almost always rather see developers go the player-friendly route anyway.
Over at the Destiny subreddit, players have been coming up with creative possible solutions to the Prison's checkpointing problem. Some suggest giving players a non-transferrable "key" item for each round they complete that lets only that character pick up where they left off. Others propose giving lower-level rewards for each round cleared, which would give an incentive for playing through the whole thing.
I don't know which ideas would be workable and which wouldn't, but it's hard to read through that thread without coming away thinking that there must be ways Bungie could address this problem without opening the Prison of Elders up to wholesale exploitation.
For the most part, those of us who have embraced Destiny over the past nine months have learned how to fit the game into our lives. We know where we can pause, when we can safely step away to use the john or check on the baby or grab some food. We know how long most things will take us, and we know we can leave a raid in progress and come back later to finish it. The game is certainly demanding of one's time, but if you know how to divide it up, it's manageable.
The Prison of Elders, at the moment, falls just outside of manageable. As Bungie has demonstrated with so much of the generally terrific House of Wolves expansion, they're clearly listening to their players. Hopefully they're listening on this one too.