Recently I've been thinking about cheese, and not the cow stuff. Cheese as in taking advantage of a game's weird AI behaviour or a level glitch to bypass the 'correct' way of doing things. Surely we're all guilty of cheesing it up, whether for laughs or more mercenary reasons, but one game has finally managed to... well, make a game out of it.
I'm talking about the billion-dollar investment that is Activision and Bungie's Destiny, the slick sci-fi MMOFPS hybrid. I have a lot of friends who love Destiny, by which I mean it's pretty much the only game they regularly play and talk about. For a couple of weeks it was the same for me, but I've cut off the addiction before ending up with three level 32 characters (more people than you'd believe). And it is a universe that reeks of cheddar.
Here's the thing about serious Destiny players. They almost hate the game. There's some sort of resentment. And they cheese en masse. Don't be fooled by last week's patch that fixed known exploits, it's only part of a cycle that will see more cheeses discovered and exploited ruthlessly. All my mates talk about is cheesing. All the subreddit and forum talk is about cheesing. But why this game in particular?
First, a story. One pre-patch night a group of six friends were running Crota's End, the game's ultimate endgame content - a Raid that's difficult even for the highest level of player. This hardy bunch, however, had a series of cheeses that let them go through almost every section with the minimum of effort and scoop up all that lovely loot.
The first chest spawns right at the start of the Raid - one time out of five. So the group waited for one player to check if it was there and, if it wasn't, they all suicided. Rinse and repeat until the chest spawns. The next section, intended to be a tough arena fight near a bridge, was rendered trivial by players climbing outside of the scenery and sniping the toughest enemies before they could respond.
At the end of this masterclass stood Crota. At this point a member of the group insisted there had been too much cheese, and they should beat Crota 'legit.' Perhaps that would salve a few consciences. The team tried to beat Crota legit, and failed. Again and again and again. Everyone logs off after two hours of trying, wishing they'd stayed true to the cheese.
One comes back on. Sees another. They go back in. And do the mega cheese on Crota, bagging all that lovely loot.
The cheese for Crota is interesting because it's physical - once the party's facing him for the fight, the leader pulls out their ethernet cable. Crota freezes. The leader rejoins and Crota stays frozen while everyone wails on him. Kojima would love it, to be fair, but this ain't Metal Gear Solid.
It's a little sad to see this ultimate Raid boss, Bungie's showstopper, hunched and stuck in position while a bunch of gnats merrily shoot away. I spoke to a friend about this feeling and he typed exactly the following into gchat:
It's sad, you look over at uber hard dude. Stuck on one knee.
BUT I DID GET SWORDBREAKER
Best PVP SHOTTY
It feels like Destiny has driven certain of its players mad. It's hard not to be swept along, because it is a co-op game that happens to have a singleplayer mode, so you always end up in groups where someone wants to cheese something. The 'weird s***' is that in Destiny you want the ultimate loot to do the Raid. That's the goal. But everyone cheeses the Raids. So what's the loot for?
More to the point why play a game - an entertainment - if all you do is cheese?
I have a few theories. The first is pure and simple: paucity of content. There's a lot of 'stuff' in Destiny, but the core of the game is six Strikes and two Raids - when you reach a certain level, this is all you'll be playing. Cheesers are always high-level players, so it's not beyond the realms of possibility that many are just bored.
My second theory is that cheesers feel they're 'beating' the game. Conquering this world's rules by going outside of them. This is understandable, almost the same impulse behind mastering a game like Disgaea, where min-maxing characters to ludicrous extents is the ultimate endgame.
In this context it's worth pointing out that cheesing isn't necessarily easy, fast, or fun. You're often squatting in a corner of the map where enemies can't hit you, chipping away for ages at health bars. Some cheeses are outright frustrating, dependent on perfect FPS platforming. You could argue in some cases you'd be better trying to do it legit. But then the loot pop feels so good, that split-second of surprise and the satisfaction of knowing you somehow fooled the game.
This is the real meat - why does that loot pop feel so good, especially when it's cheesed? I think it's because Destiny is built on a rather cynical structure which is all about perpetual rewards. It uses timers, too - keeping up with the Joneses involves doing the weekly Strike, the weekly Raid, the daily events, and checking in on weekends to visit Xur.
In a way this model is free-to-play without the IAPs. You pay a premium upfront cost and premium prices for expansions, and the game's systems then work like a slightly more benevolent F2P overlord, creating artificial bottlenecks and offering rewards for accomplishments that involve frequent logins. Hell, to do a Raid you need six people that can commit at least six hours within a one-week timeframe. In truth you can only 'grind' Destiny if you grind according to Bungie's calendar.
Point being: Destiny is a game that doesn't respect the player's time. Players do respond to Destiny's system on a reflex level, the simple part of our brains that loves being rewarded can't resist such things. But it's like a hamster wheel. And the problem is that humans are smarter than hamsters.
I wonder if our higher faculties grow to resent and, perhaps unconsciously, battle against this slack-jawed love of a perpetual bait-and-switch. Cheesing is one way to feel like you're breaking free of this structure, even if that means sacrificing the reason you were playing in the first place.
I received an email one Tuesday morning on a Destiny round-robin list. It basically said "Me and X cheesed Crota before breakfast, so we don't need to do it again this week." These are people who love Destiny. But the game's own structure makes cheesing too efficient to ignore.
Which got me thinking about the final part to this puzzle. There's something slightly... off about the cheeses being discovered in Destiny, and Bungie's glacial speed at fixing them. Who knows, right? But when I saw that first Crota exploit, the chest at the start of the Raid that can be gamed by mass suicide, I paused. Bungie know everything there is to know about FPS games and how people play them. Its QA department alone must have noticed what was possible in this scenario with a Destiny obsessive's mindset. I refuse to believe a designer wouldn't have realised what placing a chest there meant. And yet there it is.
It almost makes you wonder if there are wheels within wheels. Consider Bungie's jokey tone with its cheesing community in this update, which isn't remarkable in itself, but comes in the context of a message that basically gives cheesers a week's notice to fill their boots before a patch. What if Destiny's cheeses aren't oversights, but pressure valves?
What if Bungie understands that a structure like this frustrates the obsessives, and so resolves to give them a few cheesy options in expansions and updates - which mean that the hardcore keep playing, and gathering loot, long after they might have given up? These players stay invested. Then after a month or so of each exploit being 'available', the loopholes are closed and players have to find the new ones. Oh look, they already have. And note how gaming sites love to report on Destiny's cheeses - an excuse to cover a popular game again and again. Is it impossible to imagine, in a world where Microsoft demands Swery come up with 'internet memes' for his games, that Activision and Bungie are the ones really playing the metagame?
Perhaps I'm crazy. But never underestimate what video game developers know about you and your playing habits. It will forever remain a mystery, but it would be amazing if Destiny's cheeses are the real endgame: serving to both satiate the media maw and satisfy the ego of its most demanding players. A true metagame.
I don't really believe that. It's an unproveable hunch. All I know is I love playing Destiny moment-to-moment: Bungie is an outstanding developer, and despite all the cheeses this is one of the best shooters I've ever played. But every so often I do ponder the miserly structure that squats atop the joy, doles out treats grudgingly, and dictates when I should play - and the methods that, somehow, exist in-game to mitigate that feeling. And something stinks.