Alex: I’ve set up the Xbox One here in a conference room at A.V. Club HQ, so that Ryan and I will have a large screen on which to play. I bust out Destiny from its package and quickly scan the booklet as I boot up the console. This was poor planning on my part. First, an update to the system’s software takes about an hour, so it’s still going when Ryan arrives. Then, I try to fire up Destiny, failing to consider the amount of time that’s apparently required to install the game, even though we’re playing it from a disc.
On the plus side, this gives Ryan time to explain the game to me. He’s pretty vague on the details of the story. Something about an interstellar traveler who comes to a post-apocalyptic Earth, where those of us in the last free city help to fight aliens attempting to destroy us. Yadda yadda—some British guy talking at you a lot. [Eh, close enough for Destiny. —ed.] This vagueness is my first clue that the solo side of Destiny is pretty incidental to Ryan. He wants to get me up to par on multiplayer, the mode that he and most other FPS players, I’m starting to realize, consider the true value of games like this. Not many people (that he knows of, anyway) play Call Of Duty or Destiny for the built-in story. No, it’s for the fun of competitive play. It suddenly clicks with me why so many people who love sports also love playing first-person shooters. There’s a similar appeal at work.
I ask Ryan how he intends to teach me and gauge my progress. He’s very clear: The hell with the narrative side of Destiny—he wants to get me into multiplayer competition. The more he explains it, the more reasonable it seems. After all, it’s the best way to measure my progress going forward. We can track my stats, and by measuring my kill-to-death ratio, he’ll be able to see my (hopefully) gradual improvement. This sounds exciting. It’ll be like I’m bringing him home weekly report cards! As a severely nerdy overachiever in school, he is finally speaking my language.
Speaking of speaking my language, holy cow is the minutiae of Destiny a wormhole of specialized knowledge. I’ve always equated fantasy sports leagues with Dungeons & Dragons, for the simple reason that they both require an enjoyment of statistics and highly regimented rules. It turns out, Destiny has more types of unlockable armor than you can shake a Golden Gun at. It takes a solid half-hour for Ryan to walk me through the basics of the game, from the mechanics of the controller to the vast amount of rewards, gear, and accouterments to be gained from fighting aliens. After realizing there’s more than seven different kinds of armor for your forearm alone, I resolve to take a closer look at it later. Besides, I don’t need to memorize all that stuff, do I?
We both agree the best thing to do today, then, would be for me to quickly run through the tutorial level, and then go straight into a multiplayer match, so Ryan can watch me and get a sense of where I’m at, skill-wise. I find I’m looking forward to giving him a chance to see me in action, at least in all the ways other than actually firing a weapon. I manage to get through the tutorial level with barely a single death; maybe this won’t be as hard as I thought! Fire up the multiplayer competition!
Ryan: I assumed I’d need to teach my nephew in the ways of three-point turns and parallel parking during his first hands-on driving lesson, but it didn’t occur to me that he’d need a more elementary education. But after he awkwardly fumbled with the steering wheel and slammed on the brake and the accelerator with both feet, I realized I’d need to strip every action involved in driving a car down to the basics.
It’s easy to take complex physical skills learned long ago for granted. Once you’ve repeated a task enough that you no longer consciously think about it, you often forget that you didn’t absorb that knowledge through osmosis. This was something I was reminded of again while instructing Alex in our initial Shooter Tutor session. I’ve been playing first-person shooters for two decades, almost as long as I’ve been driving a car, so holding down the left trigger on the controller to aim down sights or tapping the X button to reload during downtime are things I do on instinct.
That’s a ponderous way of saying that Alex—in the parlance of his new peers—is a total first-person shooter noob. And as such, I had to start him in shooter kindergarten. When he booted up Destiny as a newly revived Guardian on a post-apocalyptic Earth, he looked like Bambi trying to jog on a frozen pond. His aim was off and his movement was all herky jerky. His blue-skinned avatar stopped dead in her tracks like she wore cement shoes when firing at enemies. Worst of all, he didn’t even know to aim down the gun’s sights, which is essential to nearly every FPS of the last decade.
I watched as Alex died at the hands of a low-level underling in the first tutorial level and realized I should probably lower my expectations. Prior to our session, I consulted with my long-time online shooter buddy and came up with some baseline goals I hoped Alex might reach over the next few weeks—most involving mild success in multiplayer, which I personally consider the most essential part of the experience of playing a game like Destiny.
I wanted him to aim for a 1-to-1 kill-to-death ratio in a match of competitive multiplayer, considered the informal baseline for a moderately skilled player—one kill, one death. That changed after watching Alex eat dirt early and often in a half-game of multiplayer. I think he went zero-for-eight, often dying to a barrage of enemy fire before he could turn around to face them. I’m not even sure he landed a single bullet in five minutes.
Should I throw Alex into the lion’s den of Destiny’s appropriately named Crucible multiplayer mode at all? I want to make him better, not totally crush his shooter spirits into oblivion. I’ll re-evaluate after our next session.
Alex: It’s funny; Ryan seems a little alarmed after I complete my first multiplayer match. I’m getting the impression he thought I was perhaps underselling my incompetence in first-person shooters. It seems clear now, after having been swiftly eviscerated eight times in a row by other people who don’t even bother making a challenge of it, that he was woefully mistaken. Any momentary satisfaction I felt at completing the tutorial level has been swiftly demolished. Let me re-state that emphasis: I was feeling pretty satisfied and confident because I had finished the tutorial. It didn’t really sink in until my brutal multiplayer experience that I was proud because I had gotten through the equivalent of someone realizing that not only could they make Mario run and jump, but if they bumped certain bricks, they received size-increasing mushrooms.
As a means of showing me what it’s supposed to look like when you play Destiny, Ryan takes the controls, signs himself in, and demonstrates what an actual deathmatch encounter should look like. His character is a fairly high-level Hunter, with gadgets and advanced armor and weaponry aplenty. My tutor does pretty well, although not as well as he would have liked, judging from the swearing.
Then, it’s time for my homework assignment. Since I have barely finished the tutorial, multiplayer is out of the question. It’s not even unlocked yet, for my character. (Named “SqueakyScarab88,” if you’re wondering, because I wasn’t paying close enough attention while setting up my account, and that’s the name I got randomly assigned.) As a result, my assignment this week is simple: advance in the game, so that multiplayer opens up for me. As I leave, Ryan also suggests to practice running and shooting at the same time, something I’ve mentioned before as being particularly beyond my ken.
He reminds me several times of some basics: Keep an eye on the map; keep moving while aiming, so as not to continue being the sitting duck I always am; re-load whenever possible; learn the maps of areas you visit. Each one of these sounds very doable alone. Together—especially when dropped into the middle of a firefight—it feels impossible. At present, doing all these things at once feels like trying to tap-dance while juggling knives and calculating my taxes—and also looking at a damn map.
This is going to be a rough week.