The process of creating a video game that players can connect with is complicated. Like really complicated. You’ve got audio syncs, a thousand different story ideas, environment management, online connection support, localization, activities, sandbox balancing, and—well, you get the idea. There’s a lot that goes into what makes a game memorable, more than just the story you experience. But what if I told you that the stories you’ve experienced within some of your favorite games originally were planned differently? Or that the narrative you loved so much was actually content from a previous brainstorming session that didn’t originally make it into the game? What if I told you that this happens all the time in games?
An excellent example of “the story you thought you knew” is Season of the Haunted, which was born from some old scrap notes created when planning an Exotic mission for the Beyond Light expansion called Presage. Season of the Haunted was one that tore at the heartstrings of developers and players alike. It was a story that connected millions of players from around the world through the power of authentic human experience. Players shared their own stories of guilt, loss, and healing. They shared their favorite moments. They shared their vulnerability, and it was beautiful. Now take all that and think one simple thing: ‘90s horror classic Event Horizon.
We’ll get there in a bit.
Here to explore the journey from those old scrap notes to an incredible new experience are a few members from our narrative team, Robert Brookes and Nikko Stevens, both of whom are senior narrative designers.
“It was such an odd experience,” Brookes recalls, reflecting on what was originally being planned for the Presage mission. “I’d only been at Bungie for like... two weeks, I think? It may have been a month, but it felt like I had just walked through the door before my first brainstorming meeting for the Exotic mission.”
He continues, saying, “We were talking about [placing the mission on] a derelict ship because there was some old concept art of a ship being lost around the rings of Saturn and it kind of felt like an old Navy spaceship, but there wasn’t really a foundation for what it was going to be or who was going to be the enemy. We had talked about possibly involving the Cabal, but I remember someone said that we should do some kind of spooky ghost ship.” Brookes laughs, adding, “So my mind immediately went ‘oh, my god,’ and I just started scribbling ideas about the 1997 sci-fi horror flick Event Horizon and then held it up for the rest of the group to see. I remember asking if anybody had seen that movie and it was so funny to see the looks on their faces when the dots were connecting in their minds.”
Stevens adds when talking about the rabbit hole that is the Egregore, a strange fungus that is associated with the Darkness and found throughout the Presage mission, saying, “When we were working on Presage, the Egregore was a sort of by-product of us looking at what assets were available for a spooky ghost ship experience, and what assets we had that would align with each other. I had pointed out Drifter’s contained fungus plant on his ship, funnily enough, named the Derelict. After some world art tests, it was decided that we could utilize that plant asset to give our haunted ship, the Glykon, an overgrown and rundown feel. This stemmed from the phrase we all anchored our ideas with when referring to the Glykon, ‘It came back wrong.’”
Once the idea took root, it didn’t take long for the narrative team, particularly Brookes and Stevens, to get cracking on ideas, particularly when the sci-fi fandom love started flowing. “The basic idea was for a ship to go somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be and come back wicked wrong,” recalls Brookes. “It’s a classic TV trope, but a classic for a good reason.”
According to Stevens, “Once we’d committed to using that plant asset, I began work on building out what it actually was, based on lore surrounding the Drifter’s exploits, and the core concepts of the Darkness that we would be explaining more over the course of the next year or two of content releases. From there, the Egregore became that connective Darkness network we all know and love. It was really the idea of a collective consciousness, stemming from how the Darkness functions, and the cult-like aspects of Calus’s followers that led me to the name Egregore in the first place.”
He continues, adding about the development of Presage: “With the idea of the Egregore in place, we knew that it had to be a big part of the Leviathan returning, and that festered into the wonderful spore colony you see aboard the Leviathan today! This also allowed us to flesh out how the Egregore functioned and talk more about its connections to death and memory, based on the ideas that were planted in Presage.”
Brookes remembers fondly, “I remember thinking, ‘Hold up, what if our version of ghosts centered around trauma and unsolved business?’ And I’m looking at Shadowkeep and the shared thread of trauma there, and this massive lightbulb just went off. Ideas started spinning about what sort of Nightmares would await, who would be on Calus’s ship, and what would Guardians face while there? What sort of Nightmares haunt Calus himself?”
Sounds incredible? And it was! Just... a little too incredible (and big) for an Exotic mission, which is why the idea stayed on the cutting room floor, waiting to inspire something even greater. “Even though Nightmares were not originally part of Presage, the concepts that allowed us to connect them and Season of the Haunted seamlessly to the happenings of Presage were all seeded in the Exotic mission itself,” says Stevens.
Thinking back on how this experience could be created, the team discussed what it would sound like. What it would look like. Stevens adds, “This came from a conversation I had with Kareem Shuman and Adam Croft from our audio team about the possibility of bringing back old voice lines and using them in a disembodied context, like voices or memories of the dead were speaking to you through this connection to the Crown of Sorrow, and the Darkness. This is something that had never been done before, and we had to figure out what the process was for dredging up old recordings from their WAV graves and zombifying them without breaking anything else in the game or driving other development teams to madness.”
This is one of those video game things that seems very easy to do. Something someone might imagine is as simple as, “just ctrl-copy/paste the line over,” but there are considerations to be had! Would the player understand this ghostly voice, both with how it sounds and what we are trying to convey? Was there enough narrative runway to explain where these voices were coming from and why? Would localizing the English recordings into other languages be ten or more times the work? What would it sound like when these voices are communicating with you? Which characters would we meet across this perceived veil? Cayde? Uldren? Someone... or something else? These are all things the team had to contend with. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Stevens adds, “So, once we reached Season of the Haunted, the Narrative team came together and, between Robert Brookes and me, we immediately linked all these concepts together and to the Nightmares. It all just made sense and worked to prop up several of the stories we'd be telling over the remaining Seasons of the year. So, we collected all the Nightmare assets we had and began constructing a story about internal trauma and overcoming it in a sort of inverse of how the characters aboard the Glykon had faced their own demons but failed to overcome them.”
But back to film and its power over the imagination: Event Horizon was a major inspiration. In that movie, a rescue crew investigates a spaceship that disappeared into a black hole and came back... different. This wasn’t the only film they drew inspiration from during the ideation stage. “Stevens and I compare Presage to the first Alien movie: small and self-contained,” says Brookes. “Season of the Haunted, however, was larger. Larger location, larger threats, and a narrative that was... well, moving somewhere also larger. If Presage was the first Alien movie, with its small cast and claustrophobic environment, Season of the Haunted was Aliens, where everything was bigger. And like the Alien franchise, Season of the Haunted’s ‘alien experience’ needed to feel more human. Just like with the first two Alien films, there's a family dynamic with the cast, and that really felt like it informed the decisions we made about moving forward with Nightmares and what it means to come face to face with the ghosts of trauma’s past.”
A personal favorite storyline of mine from Season of the Haunted was that of Crow. I related to it deeply, reconciling who I was in the past growing up homeless, scared, and angry, to how I’ve evolved into the person I am today. The person I’ve been allowed to become thanks to the safety I’ve been able to create through the years, similar to that of Crow and his past self as Uldren. “Oh yeah, we always knew we were going to have Crow be one of the focuses,” recalls Brookes. “We knew his story was going to be intertwined with Uldren’s. We just knew it had to happen.”
And can we just take a moment here, please, to appreciate how stunning Brandon O’Neill’s performance as Crow and Uldren was during Season of the Haunted? According to both Brookes and Stevens, O’Neill knew exactly what he wanted to do when stepping into the booth and was able to nail it on his first take. “He just knew the assignment perfectly and delivered everything we wanted and so much more through and through,” remembers Brookes. “He could just switch from Crow to Uldren on a dime. It was so impressive to see.”
O’Neill definitely nailed it. You could feel his character’s pain through each gritted voice line, through each sob as he wept on the floor throughout his journey. But he wasn’t the only character at play here.
According to Brookes, there were quite a few paths the team thought about taking. At one point, it was discussed whether or not Ikora should be one of the characters haunted by memories of Cayde-6, but the stars never quite aligned for that. It was an obvious choice, but the resources and scheduling simply weren't there. “Would it have been cool for Cayde-6 to come back again?” asks Brookes. “Of course, but there was just no way we could have done it in the time we had.”
Caiatl’s involvement, however, was a no-brainer due to her Very Complicated™ relationship with her father, Calus. That relationship eventually led to the inspiration behind the Duality dungeon, which allowed the Narrative team to fully explore the tangled history between this particular father and daughter duo.
Thinking back on some player reactions to Calus and Caiatl, Brookes loved seeing the reactions to Calus and the justifications people made for his behavior. “Seeing people say that they don’t think he’s such a bad guy and that he’s selling a lie of who he is and giving you the reasons for his way of life... it was intense,” reflects Brookes. “And I get it. It’s easy to make excuses for him and buy into his lies, but then you get to see him from Caiatl’s perspective and realize that, no, maybe he’s not right. He literally had someone butcher her dog because she liked it more than him. He's just a total sociopathic narcissist.”
I could see the wonder in Brookes’ eyes during this interview. The journey into the past of Presage and the creation of Season of the Haunted, the complexity of player reactions, and the rich history of the Destiny universe all swirl behind his eyes as he recalls the path of creation. It’s that wild look of creative passion that made me unable to suppress a smile of pride for the Narrative team and all of the teams here at Bungie. Everyone has their own idea of what game creation looks like, or is, but it’s nearly impossible to fully grasp the sheer love and drive developers have when crafting the experiences that are ruminating in their heads, because there aren’t many feelings like it. You can’t fake that sort of dedication and love of storytelling. That love is one of many puzzle pieces that make the teams here at Bungie so magical (in my eyes).
So how did Zavala come into play? A little chaotically, to be honest. Brookes confesses, “There was a non-canonical lore tab that slipped into the game quite some time ago, I think during the Forsaken expansion. It teased the idea that Zavala had a relationship with someone. It was never really explored and sort of passed off like fanfiction, even though it came from us here, but I knew that I loved this idea. The only caveat was, in the context of Nightmares, losing someone you love is always centered around tragedy like, ‘the baddies killed the love of your life, oh no!’” Brookes continues, “I didn’t want Zavala to be John Wick-ing his way through the Destiny universe. But then Julia Nardin, our senior narrative lead at the time, came in with the thought that a couple’s relationship rarely survives the death of a child because it’s such a traumatic experience. It’s a personal experience, one that makes people crumble at the very weight of it. To have the love of Zavala’s life survive all of the chaos her family underwent and to pursue her own path of healing was the more powerful route. Thus, leaving Zavala behind and unable to reconcile the loss of his son and the woman who held his heart.”
This was also a big reason why the team added those then-mysterious knitting needles in his office. It wasn’t a hobby. It was a piece of his heart at the root of sentimentality. He’s a complex man, and Season of the Haunted explored that in a rare way for the Titan Vanguard.
This particular narrative pulled at a lot of our players’ heartstrings. It did for us too, but for Brookes, it was a little more personal, because he was struggling with a loss of his own. His team was nothing short of supportive and understanding, allowing him to step away from the subject matter or choose to work on something that ended up helping him without sacrificing his health and mental safety. “When we were working on Season of the Haunted, my mom passed away unexpectedly,” he shares. “Right as we were closing out the Season, she passed. For those three months, I went into this weird grief cycle where I was compartmentalizing three different fantasy characters and shaping what their own grief looked and felt like. I felt their pain and then immediately jumped into my own grief right as we were preparing to wrap up. It was such an odd coincidence to be working on such a complex project like this and then to be smacked with it in real life.”
He shares that it did end up becoming helpful in a way. Almost cathartic. “I had to work through three different people’s ways of dealing with grief after internalizing where they failed to move on. And I really do think that this helped prepare me a little for this loss because I experienced that trauma alongside those characters as a narrative designer and a player. It was a lot. That year was heavy for so many, but I really feel that Season of the Haunted let me safely explore that part of my own story more deeply.”
Luckily following Season of the Haunted with Season, Season of Plunder was a nice palette cleanser. We went from intense trauma to being able to chase pirates with Drifter. Auntie Eris helps us deal with our problems, while Uncle Drifter wants to set the world on fire and maybe grab an adventure or two on the way. It’s called balance.
Both Stevens and Brookes reflected on the process and how it’s not always this elegant trail and there’s a deeper process to make an idea fathomable and tangible. “Once we get an idea that has traction and leadership is onboard, the next part is making sure that the game hasn’t moved past the moment you’re trying to create when telling an evolving story. There are storyline threads that have ended, and revisiting moments like that can feel forced or like they’ve come too late. Our job, as Narrative, is to think about how to conceptualize this growing history and how we can make it ‘cool’ and relevant to the current story. It should be an additional adventure, not a distraction.”
On that note, Stevens adds that the connections made to the game’s histories may not always be obvious, but they are there. “While the connection between the Glykon and the Leviathan is pretty obvious, did you know that the Glykon is actually a Red Legion ship that was stolen from a shipyard on Nessus? It’s true! Check the lore.” Brookes added, “We had a string of meetings where we would sit down with Ashley Flanagan, our historian, and just shout obscure character names to see what stuck to the wall.”
“Also,” Stevens continued, “did you know that the visual you saw in the Lightfall trailer—showing Calus’s majestic yolkless wrinkles—was pulled from a description in the lore attached to the Presage mission? It’s in the first chapter of the 'Captain’s Log' lore book. There are so many little clues and details in the lore that become inspirations for content you experience later on in gameplay or cinematics. Sometimes these come from music, activities, weapons, or art already in the game, and sometimes the lore comes first.”
The path of storytelling is never simple, but even those moments with the largest impact came from the smallest kernels of creativity. According to Stevens, “When all those elements come together, you get to see a small idea, like what Calus could look like, or how the Crown of Sorrow functions, expand into Season-forging concepts, such as they did in Season of the Haunted. The Crown of Sorrow, for example, went from being a cursed object that breaks its wearer to a vessel of power for the Vanguard to tame our most painful thoughts. The Egregore went from a physical display of corrupted Darkness, to… still that, but also a connective network of experience made manifest in our reality. These ideas got deeper, they changed, they grew… like a fungus. See? Full circle moment.”
Speaking of full circle, the technical side of the cutting room floor can get daunting sometimes. “Checking 900 obscure lore tabs that could be referenced,” Brookes offers as an example, is just one of the many ways that even reusing older concepts is never lazy or simple. “To validate a moment for a franchise like Destiny,” Brookes explains, “you need to make sure everything fits. Does the idea make sense? Is it safe for global players with aspects like the translation of names in different languages or unintentional references to real-world events? Ideas are amazing, but if they aren’t doable in a safe way, or in a way that does a game justice, then it just won’t work. That’s part of the job. How to make an idea work. How to make it make sense.”
As Brookes puts it, the Narrative team is determined that nothing goes to waste. “We like to use the whole carcass,” says Brookes on why the cutting room floor isn’t where ideas go to die. “I have an entire folder on my computer of unused concept art and prototype ideas. And whenever we go into a brainstorming meeting, I always pull that up to be like, ‘What weird idea can we try to make a reality today?’” He adds, “That’s actually how we got the Harvester in Season of the Haunted. Eve Astra, one of our senior world artists, came up with that design originally for Festival of the Lost. Never let anything go to waste, and you’ll never run out of new ideas.”
This is just one of the many ways that the cutting room floor has inspired some of our own strongest narratives, but you never know what else has been inspired by something like a terrifying ‘90s horror flick. Or a meme. Or just an oddball idea that comes out of nowhere. The challenge is honing that and crafting it in a way that players can feel and cherish. Each puzzle piece creates a blueprint for the future of what a game can be, and even shifts how we see past experiences. It’s about balance, vulnerability, and never shying away from throwing even the wildest ideas at the proverbial wall. Because when you have a good team, those seemingly off-the-wall ideas can transform into something truly great. And trust me, you have no idea what’s coming, but keep this little inside look in mind as we race towards Lightfall and beyond.