What a Failed Puzzle Says About the Future of Destiny

Destiny 2's latest puzzle turned out to be a disappointment, and I can't wait for the next one.

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Jan 14 2019, 6:20pm

'Destiny 2' screenshots courtesy of Bungie

Over 24 hours after the Tuesday reset, Destiny 2’s player base still hadn’t figured out the Niobe Labs puzzle. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. In the ensuing week, not only would Bungie admit to an increasingly frustrated community that they had made a critical error in constructing their elaborate puzzle, but they would also announce that they were ending their relationship with Activision. From the way the two stories overlapped, you could be forgiven for thinking that somehow the Niobe Labs puzzle was some kind of last straw in the unhappy marriage between Bungie and their publisher. In fact, if you look at the kind of puzzle Bungie built, and the connections and deductions it asked of its players, it does seem to typify the tension between Bungie's blue-sky vision for Destiny and the kind of mass-market consumer commodities that Activision is the business of selling.

Destiny 2: Black Armory came out in December, and along with it a series of hidden puzzles that energized and mystified the game’s niche sub-community of puzzle obsessives. The new “Forge” areas released in the DLC were covered in hidden symbols, visible only through the scopes of certain special weapons.

A hidden message inside Destiny 2.
Finding a hidden message in Destiny 2: Black Armory. (screenshots by author)

I’m not an expert on puzzle hunts, ARGs, or escape rooms. But I did tag along with some folks from my regular Destiny 2 playgroup who kind of are, as they worked to solve the third Black Armory mystery. The eventual solution involved a relatively obscure Victor Hugo poem, the melody to Frère Jacques, and the arrangement of gems on the hilt of Charlemagne’s sword Joyeuse.

Even then, there were a few issues with the design of that puzzle. Infamously, one clue hinged on the way cutlery is supposed to be arranged for a seven-course dinner. Since nobody could agree on what that order is, that part of the solution was eventually just brute-forced.

A spreadsheet showing collaborative puzzle solving efforts.
A spreadsheet used to solve the Izanami Forge cypher.

We didn’t get the coveted first solve of the new puzzle, but we came tantalizingly close. And that’s how you fall into a real hole with this stuff. On January 8th, Bungie was going to release a fourth and final puzzle for the Black Armory release cycle. A new area, Niobe Labs; and a new forge activity, Bergusia Forge, which would be unlocked for all players only once someone solved the Niobe puzzle.

Just finding and unlocking the secret mission took the community most of an afternoon. Said secret mission was a series of increasingly challenging combat encounters; in between each fight, another puzzle clue would appear, and only inputting the correct solution (by shooting at hidden symbols in a specific sequence) would advance the mission. The whole thing was on a timer; failing to input the right solution would wipe out the party and force the fireteam to start over again.

The core design issue at the heart of the Black Armory puzzles reared its ugly head here: Most of the solutions weren’t self-verifying. In a well-built puzzle, the right solution is the only thing that will fit, and once you know it, it’s obvious to you that you have it right. Bungie didn’t ensure that in the Black Armory puzzles, but it only really came to a head in Niobe, where the combat portion of the activity acted as a catalyst for frustration.

If you came up with a potential solution to one of the seven levels of the puzzle, you’d need to work through several minutes worth of fighting before you could test your hypothesis. Brute-forcing the puzzle was impossible, but until level six, the clues were either straightforward or solidly designed enough to be self-verifying. Level six is where it really started to unravel.

An obscure puzzle with colored symbols arranged in a loose grid.
The infamous level 6 puzzle.

It looks obscure, but it’s actually a simple clue. Each gem has a numeric value that we knew from an earlier puzzle. Add them up in columns, turn the numbers to letters, and you get the word “BROCELIANDE.”

Brocèliande is a mythical forest in Arthurian legend. Most solvers went googling and latched on to a line from Wikipedia: “While in Brocéliande, Yvain pours water from a spring into a stone, causing a violent storm to erupt.” Water, stones, and storms are all valid symbols that could be part of a solution, so variations on that were tried, unsuccessfully.

One prominent streamer gave up in frustration after ten hours straight live. Meanwhile, we were deep in a sort of mental hole; one friend of mine’s reaction to hearing the news was to blurt out, “Give up? Why would you Give up?” It took someone else on the voice channel a second to respond: “Sleep?”

The actual solution, found hours later: everyone stands on the butterfly symbol (the sigil of a French family in Black Armory’s mythology) and shoots arrows at a forest symbol repeatedly. A forest in France. That’s all the clue was about. The community of solvers chasing the puzzle had next-leveled themselves.

Again, we were missing verification: Plenty of people floated the simpler, correct solution and were shot down on Reddit threads and Twitch streams. Without a solution that could prove itself through actual reasoning, solvers were guessing, and we latched on to the more aesthetically pleasing or likely-seeming solution, which turned out to be wrong.

A long, dark corridor in a prison within Destiny 2

But the reward for solving level six was level seven, with an even more obscure clue (which turned out to be missing some information due to a bug, a fact revealed when Bungie just dropped the missing clue into a forum thread). On Wednesday, Bungie unlocked the new forge and published the missing hint on their website. The puzzle was finally laid to rest. But the air had been sucked out of the challenge: now it was a secret activity to unlock some cosmetic items, and not a race to be the first to unlock something for the whole playerbase.

Niobe Labs turned out to be a failed experiment. It’s a fascinating failure, one that picks at the scab of the tension at the heart of Destiny 2: Is this a money-making AAA shooter loot treadmill, or is it something more? The Activision-Bungie split, another fault line in this question, was announced on the same week the Niobe puzzle came out.

I want Bungie to keep trying things like this. Destiny 2 is at its best when it’s going places a conventional shooter wouldn’t touch. Whether that’s the weird fiction influences of the lore, the puzzles and secrets added with each expansion, or even the Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes-esque communication game at the heart of the new Scourge of the Past raid.

The nagging question, though, is whether enough players share my love for this stuff; something tells me Activision didn’t think so, and I can’t fault them. The one thing I know for certain is that when the next part of Destiny 2’s Annual Pass drops, I’ll be scouring the walls for clues.