I didn’t see this coming.
So my mate Ntacman came on a few weeks ago and said that I had to try some game right sodding now. I asked what it was and he replied “Its this awesome game, been around for a year or two now, called Warframe”
I answered, “Sure, I heard about that on Extra Credits, lets take a look.”. I figured I would have a mediocre third person shooter with some light platforming, but what the hell, I had been working on my list for a while and was itching for something with the visceral feel that this generation seems to be hellbent on. Anyway, I downloaded the game, loaded it up and got my first Warframe. Out of the 3 given I chose Excalibur. In reality, Warframe was really what I expected, a mediocre third person shooter with some light platforming, puzzle solving and RPG elements. Eventually I had played enough of the game that I decided it was worth diving into the mechanics and narrative (my favourite part of a new game is going online and really looking at all the under-the-hood stuff, sorting through mechanics, figuring out the story, etc).
What I found was a sparse plotline. Nobody seemed to have a solid grasp on what was happening in this game, so I decided to just play and see what I found. The game was in Beta anyway, chances are nobody got around to jotting down the story. Oh! Before I start. I am going to spoil this game completely for you for 2 reasons. First, you aren’t going to get any of this information by just slogging through the game on autopilot, that’s why I’m writing an essay on environmental narrative with this game as the center point. Secondly, since this is an essay about narrative I simply can’t get away with slapping [REDACTED] on everything that ruins the plot. Now, if you are like me and consider the narrative to be one of the most important elements of a game, I strongly recommend you go, get Warframe, PST Nosrac and he will gladly rush you through the grindy bits so that you can slowly stroll through each level and really look at the scenery. Otherwise, I’m going to spoil the hell out of this thing. So, you know, buckle up.
First thing I noticed about Warframe was the exposition dump. It was virtually nonexistent. I actually had to look it up. I thought I was too busy learning the platforming stuff (which is hard to get the hang of, you should watch me go at 2D Mario some time, its pathetic, I’m stuck on world 2-4 of New Super Mario Bros. Wii) to notice what was going on. I was wrong, there was absolutely no exposition. You are woken up by an entity known only as “Lotus”, given a brief tutorial concerning how to move, jump and shoot, then left to your own devices. I made it through the first world with absolutely no exposition whatsoever. As you can imagine, I was confused. Imagine playing through Mario and getting to world 2-1 (dear mom, Warframe and Mario both use a unique level system, there are several worlds and each world has a number of missions, marked (for example) as world 1-1 for level 1, 1-2 for level 2, etc until you move onto a new planet where it starts as 2-1) without seeing hide nor hair of Peach or Bowser. Imagine then that Nintendo made you figure out the story by just jumping on Goombas and looking at the background with absolutely no textual indicators other than “kill this guy”. That is what Warframe has done.
On the surface, you have 3 enemy factions: the Grineer, the Corpus and the Infested. If you look at the damage types you can see that certain weapons do more damage against cloned flesh or electronics but it gives you no indication concerning what enemies are clones and what enemies are mechanical. Now, this is where most people go online and google “what is cloned flesh Warframe”. In fact, that’s what I did. The interwebs revealed that the Grineer are a clone race, more adept at repairing broken things than creating new things. So I logged back in to the game and realize something. The Grineer levels all look like they are on the verge of collapse, most of the equipment is duct taped together and there are spare parts lying all over the floor. This is a disorganized race of fixers. Most of these guys get by using found equipment and recycling the functional parts of broken stuff. You can tell they’re clones because they regularly drop crafting mats that revolve around augmenting or repairing DNA and neural structures, neurodes, organic polymers, etc. You soon learn, if you progress to Earth, that the Grineer are the only race that actually has a homeworld. You discover that Earth has been ecologically destroyed and is no longer suitable for habitation. In fact, though each world has custom tile sets (meaning that the randomly generated rooms are taken from a pool of features only available to that planet) not one of the Earth outdoor zones has a blue sky.
So now we know the Grineer are a clone race that comes from Earth, we can tell via the skyline of Earth that the atmosphere is all sorts of messed up and that whatever hit Earth did so good a job that the atmosphere no longer consists of oxygen and nitrogen. We also know whatever hit earth did so good a job that the only hope humanity had for survival included scrambling a barely functional fleet together out of broken parts and taking to the sky. Finally, we know that even fleeing wasn’t good enough, there wasn’t enough genetic diversity left to repopulate, so humanity had to survive by cloning themselves to the point that our genome started to decay.
Finally, how do we know that the Grineer genome is decaying? Look at the materials that drop off of enemies. What is the second most abundant material to drop off of Grineer worlds? Rubedo. The word “Rubedo” is derived from Rubidium, 37th element on the periodic table. What is the most common use for rubidium? You ever have an X-ray? You know that gross liquid they have you drink to make your organs glow? The active ingredient in that disgusting concoction is Rubidium. Rubedo is so popular a material amongst Grineer because they require regular medical treatment to maintain their accelerated rate of cellular decay (I know my wife will be reading this, to grossly oversimplify, every single one of those Quasimodo look alikes has cancer).
Onto the second race, the Corpus. Now, at the beginning of every boss level you get a brief exposition on why you are out to kill the guy, after all, the Tenno (the race that you play as) are galactic balancers, so you need a reason (even if it is half-cocked) to go after any specific objective. Skip to Jackal. Lotus, during the exposition prior to the fight, explains that Jackal Is a proxy. This in itself is interesting until you realize that there are absolutely no commanders on Corpus vessels, only crewman ranks. One can easily reason that the Corpus you encounter are simply there to maintain the automata that control the ship. How is this indicated? Not through exposition but through gameplay. Never once does Lotus say “the corpus here are all mechanical puppets” but you find evidence of this everywhere. While Infested and Grineer often drop organic materials, the Corpus only drop circuits, alloys and remote control devices. On top of that, look at Corpus tile sets. The Corpus couldn’t have come from earth because all of their stuff is in pristine order, you won’t even find a wire out of place (unless, of course, it got there via your own handiwork). While Grineer levels are filled with destructable landmarks (like broken air ducts that you have to crawl through and damaged fans used to indicate a hidden passage) all Corpus tile sets are completely free of blemishes. No, these guys are coming from somewhere else, and chances are they aren’t even risking their own bodies. Where the Grineer clearly have living quarters, spacious rooms with lockers, all of the Corpus locker rooms consist of a few containers and crewman bodies hanging from coat racks and a terminal. Chances are nobody is sleeping or eating on a Corpus ship. Yes, the crewman class corpus are clearly organic, but scanner data reveals that the Tenno control warframes remotely, so why rule out the Corpus using proxy flesh?
What else can we tell from Corpus environments? First, they aren’t really travelers. Most Grineer maps feature a cockpit or bridge while most Corpus bases seem to be set into a mountain somewhere. Second, they clearly fetish-ize their technology as most of their tile sets don’t contain open wires. They probably don’t know how their stuff works seeing as how all of their locks are based off of Grineer technology (it even says Grineer Combination Lock on the security screen). They are obsessed with appearing to be the smarter species but are rarely more insightful than the Grineer. Also, look at their methods, where the Grineer were all about killing the Tenno, the Corpus are more concerned with capture, going so far as to indicate that most of their mechanical models were harvested straight from dead Warframes.
Lets move on to the Infested. First of all, they have no maps of their own, they only show up in invasions. Secondly, instead of finding purely infested maps, you always find normal maps that have been covered with infested spores. Thirdly, with the exception of the ancients, every Infested enemy (including Lephantis) bears a clear resemblance to a pre-existing Corpus, Grineer or Tenno unit.
So, what can we take from this? Firstly, I feel the use of floor and wall corruption was intended to draw parallels to the Zerg. The Zerg are often mistaken as biological equivalent of Borg but I disagree with that statement. Firstly, the Borg are basically robot zombies, they use the bodies of their victims as raw building material, whereas most Zerg victims wind up food, with only their genetic structure and general form being reused. So, why do I say the Infested are Zerglike and not Borglike? Even though you can clearly see Corpus heads and Grineer shoulder pads on most Infested, both of those armors are strong against slash damage, while Infested are weaker wholesale against slash damage. They aren’t actually wearing their victims armors, merely recreating a facsimile. The Infested are also clearly an intelligent race. Note the fact that they have leaders and that the leaders speak (even if its through some weird psychic thing). Also, note that the stuff on the walls and floor move. If it was a mere byproduct of infested biology there wouldn’t be enough wind to cause that swaying. Whatever the final purpose, the Infested have found a way to use their waste material for construction and environmental control.
While we are here, lets look at the Orokin Derelicts. Its pretty easy to see what happened here. Clearly the Infested got loose somehow and freed the beast on the inhabitants. The derelicts have clearly been under infested control for some time now. The Orokin Derelicts present with what appears to be a fully functional ecosystem based around the technocyte virus. While the Infested are clearly this universe’s version of zombies, (I really need to get to the racial archetype essay) the Infested also have something clearly different going on. Yes, when allowed to grow unchecked, the Tyrant virus from Resident Evil will infect plants, the Technocyte virus appears to present it’s own. Notice the plant life in the Tower missions, then go back to the Derelict missions. Notice that the plant life in the derelicts dont come from the same places as the Orokin plants. Also, upon fighting Lephantis, notice his vocal stabs. Most bosses talk about destruction and genocide while Phorid and Lephantis (the 2 Infestation bosses) all talk about coexistence, even going so far as to show confusion concerning the offensive posed by the other lifeforms. I’m not saying that the Infested are the good guys, I merely posit that they are more akin to the wildlife that the Orokin wiped out than they are akin to the zombie plague that we all instinctively jump to.
Okay, I know I haven’t gotten to the point of this essay yet, but trust me, I just need to talk about a few more things. Notice the tower missions. I can’t really draw parallels with the Endless Defense tower missions but lets look at the rest of the tower missions. These are the very last bastions of the Orokin, possessing technology we couldn’t even imagine. The first thing I noticed about the Tower missions is that the technocyte virus is even present here in the void. Next time you do a tower mission take a quick look at your surroundings. Technocyte spores are everywhere, yes, they are a bit more silver in coloration than before, but clearly the virus is starting to take hold now that we have broken the seal keeping the place clean. In fact, when you are moving towards extraction, you will notice that the plants are starting to die, the lights are growing dimmer. I personally took this to symbolize the fall of paradise. We were extinguishing some of the last bastions of a civilization that once united the galaxy, all over some phat loot.
Now, lets zoom back out. Look at the invasion missions, the ones that have you siding with the Corpus or Grineer against one of the 2 remaining factions. Look closely at the tile sets. When you side with the Grineer the tile set almost always starts in a Grineer room and ends in a Corpus room. Whereas the other side (siding with the Corpus) takes place almost exclusively on Corpus tilesets. There is even a force field in the middle when you side with the Grineer symbolizing the place where you are no longer in Grineer territory. Clearly the Grineer are a more aggressive race than the Corpus. While the expanded universe clearly places the Corpus as the remnants of Earth’s megacorps, it is also clear that the Grineer are the aggressors of most of these one-off brawls with the Corpus.
Now, why is any of this important? Those of you who remember Dear Esther, Proteus or Gone Home remember the controversy surrounding those games. The “real game” debate is still raging in the deepest pits of 4chan and the loftiest columns in Game Informer. While we aren’t here to debate what a real game is (though we may one week), I would like to ask a simple question. Would something like Warframe exist in it’s current form if we didn’t explore environmentally driven narrative? If we just shut up about telling a story and worried about making the biggest and best monsters to kill, would this uncut diamond be with us now? Would we have this complicated and nuanced view of the Warframe universe? Sure we would have Warframe. Warframe came out before a lot of these experimental “walking simulators” that the CoDheads complain about. So why the big deal? Well, Warframe proves indubitably that you don’t need a high-minded, pretentious product with weak gameplay to have an enriching experience. We don’t have to choose between a narrative piece and a “real game”. We have officially gotten to the point where we can tell a Final Fantasy quality story in a game that plays like CoD with ninjas.
Want to know what the best part of it all is? We didn’t have to give anything up. Digital Extremes, whether by intent or by accident, managed to make a rich story of betrayal and personal growth in a world ravaged by a great war. Not only that but they managed to do it without telling us that’s what was going on. They didn’t put any ham-handed references in, no long preachy exposition, they merely put a game out there as a fun, grindy, testosterone packed gunfest and let the fans figure out what was really going on.
Warframe proves that gamers aren’t stupid. We don’t need a big sign saying “Asians made this” to get a point across. We don’t need hours of explanation to clarify that this isn’t just a gun slog. The story of the Tenno is rich, deep, and only takes a slightly trained eye to spot.
So, how did they do this? Actually, this part is kind of funny if you think about it. We’ve been discussing for years how to cram fun into a narrative driven game and Digital Extremes just kind of did it without saying anything. Tuns out gamers don’t need cutscenes to know that a story is happening. Instead of marketing Warframe as a rich narrative they just kind of slapped it in there and expected gamers to figure it out themselves. Now, I’m no professional. I’m sure that more work went into merging the two into an organic and natural feeling experience than I could possibly state in 10 minutes. What I will do is give the big pointers that I noticed.
Firstly, don’t assume your players are stupid. Most of us have years of training in environmental awareness acquired through a career of interactive visual media. The statement that no useful skills are learned through gaming is simply false. Gamers are some of the best in field when it comes to pattern recognition. We’ve been figuring out complicated puzzles via the studying of graphical patterns for years. You don’t need to write the warnings on the wall using blood in order to get our attention. Anyone who played Majora’s Mask knew there was something seriously wrong with Clock Town long before the ground started shaking. Don’t be afraid to be subtle. If you are trying to show that a culture is poor in natural resources, crates composed entirely of poorly sealed scrap metal goes just as far as waves of foes using planks of wood as weapons and probably looks more believable in your superfuture environment than having a glowing billyclub block a lightsaber (I’m looking at you, Bioware).
Secondly, use stark contrasts. I know this sounds antithetical to point 1 but it isn’t. Notice the way that Digital Extremes went about alerting us that the Grineer were on the offensive: big ass bright blue forcefield in the middle of the map signifying the end of Grineer territory and the beginning of Corpus. You don’t need big signs saying “Robotnik wuz here”, all you need is something quick and dirty signifying your point. Kingdom hearts did it using Keyholes. When you see a keyhole your mind automatically goes to either “lock”, “passage”, “door” or “secret” and the human mind automatically signifies all of these words as threshold events. Its the same reason why you always forget what you’re doing as soon as you enter the room, your mind sees doors and locks as the ending of one event and the starting of another. Square Enix used this imagery to signify Sora’s status as the only known Keymaster, unlocking the secret arcana of his spiritual heritage. You want your narrative benchmarks to stand out in relation to the rest of the level. Bright colors in a normally drab environment, destructible vents, messages written in blood on the wall, these are all good options but you don’t even need to go that far. You could easily tell what zero hour of your outbreak looked like via the creative placement of bent metal or a coherent pattern of zombie slime on the walls and floor.
Thirdly, (because three is my favourite number) don’t be cheap with the signifiers. Let’s look at Warcraft (not WoW, just the pre-MMO stuff). You start the first level and what do you see? Knights, churches to an nondescript god of light and gleaming silver armor matched up against green leather bound barbarians using stone tools. The first thing that struck me was the sense of western imperialism. I actually felt sorry for the orcs at first until Warcraft went into detail about all the necromancy and the demon worship that the orcs used. Blizzard continued to master their environments through Warcraft 3. this is where we really started to see them haul it on map design. The orcs were no longer slavering monsters, the humans were still beacons of truth and justice but you could see the imperialist overtones much clearer than you could in previous installments. Furthermore, look at the 2 new factions, Night Elves and Undead. You didn’t need a pamphlet to know that the blackish purple stuff growing all over the place wasn’t healthy. Blizzard wanted to show that there was nothing wholesome about the Undead and while they did that just fine with the cutscenes and text, they really drove it home with the environment. There was nothing alive in the regions controlled by the Scourge. In fact, anything that touched the blight besides undead units took negatives to their abilities as life drained from them.
This was starkly contrasted by the Night Elves. Everything the elves touched became more lively and bright by comparison, trees inhabited by their sprits grew greener and fuller, they never fell from over harvesting. The elves were creatures of peace and symbiosis, they were every bit as advanced as the humans but did it without damaging their homelands. Now, Blizzard went on to abandon this concept of environmental storytelling in WoW. Yes, we have phasing and evolving worlds, but since Lich King WoW hasn’t really gone that far to tell their story through anything but scripted events. Take for example Felwood, which came out in Vanilla WoW. This was the place where Illidan first met The Lich King’s Death Knight (I refuse to acknowledge Post-Frostmourne Arthas as the same spiritual entity that served as prince of Lordaeron, as far as I’m concerned, Arthas Menethil died in Stratholme). You could just see the residual of that battle everywhere, the very mountainside was dying as necromantic and demonic energies slugged it out in that spreading filth mound. Compare that to Mt. Hyjal. If it wasnt for the 5 story tall Ragnaros popping up and prosing (prose-ing, however its spelled, Jesse coined that term) for 10 minutes I never would have figured it as anything other than a zone where elementals were trying to open a disco.
So there’s my bit on environmental storytelling. I have to thank Digital Extremes for doing such an excellent job and providing me with such wonderful fodder with which to discuss the concept. When I first planned this essay I was going to use Resident Evil and Silent Hill as my examples but I soon book-shelved the idea because horror is such a niche and I wanted a more general purpose example. I hope you guys don’t mind me deconstructing your game. It was simply too good to ignore. Tune in next week for a discussion on character design.