Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

Warframe and Destiny have a lot in common. They’re structurally very similar games, with the main differences being in the former’s emphasis on movement and the latter’s emphasis on tight gunplay. They also both have stories to tell, but are doing their best to stay out of your way while they sorta-tell them. They’re both doing a sort of osmosis-storytelling, where hints and pieces are meant to come together to form a narrative whole, rather than a linear storyline. In both games, the story is the world you inhabit, and like the real world, the amount of story you get from the world around you depends on how much you’re willing to look for it.

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

Neither game tells its stories very well. Warframe is better in that at least the story in the game can be viewed in the game, and when it does present questlines they’re coherent within themselves. Destiny, at least pre-Taken King, was largely incoherent and finding anything out about the story relied upon spending time reading websites rather than playing the game. Warframe’s tutorial is one of those coherent-within-itself storylines, and it and the first major questline following it both do a fairly good job of introducing the various factions you’re fighting.

You’re first introduced to the Grineer, one of whom is planning on taking you prisoner for some kind of biological experiments, and callously disregards you in general. He’s a pretty reasonable starter villain, though it’s fairly clear he hasn’t thought his plan all the way through. In that first mission, you’re introduced to the Grineer and to Lotus, your eye-in-the-sky, mysterious companion who more or less explains what’s going on and why you’re doing what you’re doing. By the end of the first mission, you’ve got a pretty good reason to fight the Grineer and you’re at least aware that Lotus is trying to help you, though her motivations aren’t exactly clear.

By the end of the tutorial, you’ve also met an arms dealer who is, presumably, how you do your shopping via the game’s market (though the timing of this is awkward), and you’ve rebuilt your own spaceship to get around from planet to planet. You know you’re some kind of warrior, and you’re markedly more powerful than the average soldier you face. Depending on how much you listened to dialogue, you may also have picked up that the Grineer are, for one reason or another, obsessed with genetics and that the Corpus (another major faction) are basically war profiteers who set up conflicts so they can profit off of them, like an evil megacorp.

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

Closing out the major factions is the second major questline, wherein you go to find out about Grineer biological weapons and uncover the Infested, a zerg-like swarm of nasty biological creatures that, well, infest and destroy. You don’t need a lot of motivation to fight these things.

Then we get to the rest of the game’s story. First off, it’s hard to figure out how to even experience it, or in what order. There are questlines on the Market, blueprints that, once completed, unlock a questline for you to do that fills you in on some kind of story or another. Many of these are tied to warframes, so in addition to getting some story you also get to find and build a new frame for yourself. Doing “The Limbo Theorem” gave me a good insight into the original owner of the Limbo warframe, and by association a somewhat better understanding of the concept of the warframe in general, and why I can hop between these biotechnological suits.

There are also deeply hidden quests. One quest I found by scanning a random drone in a mission I was doing, only to later discover that by scanning it I’d unlocked a quest. I have no real idea where this quest is going, or even what it’s about. I haven’t delved into it yet, but I’m intrigued at digging up more (probably literally, the Limbo Theorem involved a lot of excavations).

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

On the other hand, there’s Alad V. Alad V is a boss on Jupiter. Like many bosses, he’s got something of a personality and taunts you (creepily) as you approach him in his boss level. Bosses’ stories tend to be contained to the boss levels on each planet, so you don’t get a lot of lead-in, but you gather relatively quickly that Alad V is some kind of mad scientist and wants to test some kind of new creation on you. You defeat him, like you do, and like many bosses he doesn’t show up again. Except he does. When I logged in for the new event today, I was greeted by a face I didn’t immediately recognize, telling me he was “calling in his favor”.

It was apparently Alad V, that guy I fought on Jupiter, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t know why he’s alive, I don’t know why I’m doing missions for him, I don’t know why I apparently owe him a favor, and I certainly don’t know where to even look for the story I missed in the process. If this event is more story, I’m forced to wonder if there’s more story in events that have already passed, that I know nothing about and may be referenced by future events.

I’m not inherently bothered by this, honestly. I like the idea of a game with history, where events move forward and past events change things but aren’t repeatable. What I don’t like is the game assuming I know what it’s talking about when even a basic check on my completed-mission flags would make it blatantly obvious that I have no clue. If this quest had started with a message from the Lotus telling me that she owes this Alad V guy a favor, and that she needed my help with it, I’d be more on board. There could easily have been an event that explained in great detail why the Lotus owes Alad V a favor, possibly due to player actions during that event, but I don’t need to know that for her request to make sense as a new player.

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

 

Even the existing message followed by a quick flag-check that triggered a message from the Lotus saying “That was confusing, let me try to help, I’m going to upload some dossiers to your Codex for you to look over and make sense of that” would help a lot and make sense, AND drive me to look at my Codex to figure out story stuff I might be missing. Even if the message was jarring, I’d at least be able to quickly and concisely catch up to a point where it did make sense, kind of like a comic book recap.

Instead, I have a guy calling in his favor out of the blue, and the only time I’ve seen this guy is when I was shooting him in the face as he tried to test his death robot on me. I’m not really inclined to give him the time of day, much less do work for him. I’m gamely playing along because it’s an Event, and events have neat missions and cool loot, but I don’t have much of a narrative motivation; indeed, I have the opposite of this. The event’s story revolves around powerful assassins hunting Alad V, and me going to help him with that, and I really don’t know why I’m not on the side of the assassins with this one.

To their credit, the assassins also don’t seem to know why I’m not on their side. Luckily they don’t seem to harbor much ill will towards me for it, more pity than malice.

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

When Warframe tells a coherent story, I’m interested in it and I like following along; it makes me better understand the game’s setting and I find the setting interesting. I just wish I knew how to get it to present its story to me in a more directed, coherent way, or at least how to know what story bits to do next, and where to find them.

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