It’s not a great secret that I’m a fan of the game Warframe, published by Digital Extremes. I haven’t played it very much, but I’ve been stuck listening to “We All Lift Together”, a song created to promote a large addition to the game, and as a result I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been playing Warframe on-and-off since it was in beta, and while I don’t consider it my favorite game, I think it has some of the best (if not the outright best) storytelling in a game with a single linear storyline, despite being very minimalist in how it develops that story.
The way that it pulls this off is by managing to tell a story that combines deep psychology and mythical elements on a very fundamental level to make a narrative so compelling that player choices, generally absent except in the most superficial forms, are irrelevant.
There are practical considerations of this as well–much of the story takes place as flashbacks or responses to critical incidents–but this would be frustrating to the audience were it not tied to strong principles of storytelling.
Understanding Psycho-Mythic Storytelling
Psycho-mythic storytelling ties into Jungian notions of the subconscious and other elements of the human psyche, which is derived from while simultaneously informing stories that have emerged across the entire range of human society and experiences.
It is important to realize that many of these elements are archetypal; that is, that they do not have any single manifestation that can be pointed to as a source. Nonetheless, many of these factors are still universal.
As I work through examples of these events across Warframe’s storyline, I will introduce these as needed, however, an understanding of Jungian dichotomies is important.
Jungian dichotomies draw from the fundamental notion of paired elements (e.g. order and chaos, masculine and feminine, known and unknown) being represented both within and as an extension of all things.
Balance between the two extremes in a dichotomy reflects a more reasonable approach to the universe, one which is likely to meet with objective reality in such a manner that produces positive outcomes.
For instance, considering the very most basic of the possible responses, you have the conflict between known and unknown.
The known, generally, is not exciting. While there may be some contentment in the present, at some point the known gets boring; change is a natural state, and to remain in the known is to embrace stagnation.
However, the intrusion of the unknown is a terrible thing, because it represents the risk of loss, or more accurately the possibility that the subjective self will be harmed in some way.
The unknown is also the source of anything better than what is currently had, however. This makes it desirable; one who is able to frame an encounter with the unknown in such a way that they are able to approach it to their advantage is going to wind up having success in their endeavors, and their prize will be either what they desire or something that transcends that which they originally wanted.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, from which the Hero’s Journey is derived, draws upon this relationship with the unknown: the Hero must find it within themselves to find a subjectively greater future by entering the unknown and confronting it. You can find more in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Amazon affiliate link).
Much of what I am applying to Warframe is also based on the mythological analyses modeled by Jordan Peterson in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link). I’ve been listening to it on-and-off for the past few weeks, and I’ve been finding it incredibly interesting.
Tiers of Cosmogony
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I also want to talk about cosmogonic tiers.
There is a distinction in cosmogony based on the “depth” of experiences, and we can see this in classical myth as well. The concept of cosmogony centers around the idea that everything started as chaos, and then became more structured and ordered as things go along. Each generation overthrows its predecessors in a heroic revolution, although this eventually stops when we reach the current generation–the one in which humanity resides.
This can be distilled into tiers and generations. There’s not always a clear descent between generations (i.e. two generations may fit one cosmogonic tier in some places), but these figures can be generalized by category.
A good example from this comes from Greek myth, where we see Chaos, which is the first entity in existence.
At this point existence is beyond comprehension, and beyond anything that is relevant to our audience, and it is only through filtering down to further levels of experience that we reach anything that has relevance in human life.
Chaos’ cohorts and children (some of the distinctions here are blurred based on the telling) represent universal entities: Gaia, land; Tartarus, the underworld; Eros, the sexual drive; and so forth. These are primordial deities–they exist before the world that is known does.
These are personified entities (and, in some cases, Chaos is as well), but they are not directly interfaced with the human world. To humanity they are alien, and even when personified their motivations and drives are not necessarily comprehensible.
From this initial generation come the Titans, a second generation of the divine. These figures now have their own clear families, and by extension a clear role in the universe. More heavily personified, they are portrayed as the creators of humankind, but are themselves still more defined by their differences than their similarities.
The third generation, the traditional Greek gods as we would know them, represent archetypal figures. They have a particular divine domain, but otherwise they are human in motivation and depiction. They obey the rules which apply to humanity (albeit frequently with special privileges; these rules often apply only to their interactions with each other) and face consequences when they fail to do so.
The gods serve as representations of tradition and upright action.
It is in the fourth or later generations that we see mortals and demigods appear. These figures are defined by their vulnerability; where the earlier cosmogonic forces develop from existing outside the world to eventually become a mere part of it.
Onward to Warframe
The psycho-mythic nature of Warframe’s narrative contributes to its emotional power. It takes place in a universe where the players take on the role of the heroic individual–one born into the fourth generation of the cosmogony in the same place that humans would fall in the Greek mythosphere–but one which relies on symbolism and psychological establishment of the cosmogony that unfolds.
The reason why I define this as psycho-mythic, instead of simply psychological or symbolic storytelling, is that it relies both on the more modern storytelling methods and approaches while also building heavily (and not unintentionally) on the mythology of ancient times.
The layering of the cosmogonic process is a key part of this: the players’ characters (collectively known as the Tenno) are children of the old age, but living after its fall.
Children of the Unknown
The Tenno fit the role as the heroic individuals of the mythical saga very well; they are a sort of Horus figure (Peterson elaborates on this mythical type in his book Maps of Meaning) who must bear a sacrifice of themselves to make the world whole.
This sacrifice is not literal death, but it does entail suffering and pain. The Tenno are children who have known nothing but war, and while they have deific powers, they are also exiles.
Hunted by the Orokin, their own society playing the role of mythic progenitors, due to the threat that they posed, the Tenno are awakened by their protector, the Lotus, in the current time of the game.
They are hunted and hounded by forces that are generally their inferiors: as representations of the fourth-generation heroic individual (i.e. a cosmically significant figure that has been personified enough to lack a deific cosmological significance and instead adopt personal motives) they face the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested factions within the game, each of which represent monstrous figures that are themselves the product of the Orokin but also the inferiors of the Tenno.
The hallmark of the Tenno, however, is also their outward identity, the Warframe.
The Warframe as Protective Father
One step up the generational chain from the Tenno is the warframe. In-universe, the warframes were created for the Tenno, but when the Tenno awaken the warframes are out of their control–at least, most of them are.
Each warframe is based on a theme, and these themes often tie into great symbols. While they are not innately sentient (with the exception of the Excalibur Umbra, which was created by fusing an Orokin with the infestation that spawns every warframe), they are the first experience that the player has with the Tenno, and are defined by their impersonal relationship with the universe.
This is not to imply that the warframe has no personality unto itself, but rather that it has a role in the third generation of the cosmogonic structure. Each of the individual warframes is an example of something that has a deific role in the universe: the Excalibur represents mastery of the blade, the Volt represents power over lightning, and the Loki represents trickery and deception.
Each warframe plays a deific role, rather than a personal one, and while they are merely tools to an end they are simultaneously idols to concepts that play an important role in the life of the Tenno and in the universe of Warframe, assuming the role of protector gods among primitive civilizations that have begun to spring up in the ashes of the Orokin world.
In this sense, the warframe serves as a sort of archetypal father, who in a psychological sense is often thought of as a bringer of order.
The Titanic Lotus
It is the Lotus who searches for and awakens the warframe and the Tenno, however.
To draw a parallel to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, it is Osiris’ wife who finds the parts of Osiris after he is murdered by Set and reassembles them, giving birth to the mythical figure Horus, who is a fourth-generation cosmogonic figure representing humankind.
The Lotus fills this void in the psycho-mythic framework of Warframe; she is the one who awakens the Tenno, and also plays a key role in mentoring them and directing them toward solving the problems with their universe.
However, the Lotus’ origins are shrouded in mystery, and as the world is revealed through the storyline of the game it is clear that she is not necessarily who she seems.
At first, the Lotus is associated with Margulis, an Orokin woman who raised the Tenno after they encountered the void (both of these are first generational figures in the cosmogony), but it is later revealed that she is actually a Sentient, one of the creations of the Orokin.
The Sentients have a clear parallel to the Titans of Greek mythology; the first gods to have been purified and complicated to the extent that they can represent natural forces, rather than abstract spheres of existence, the Titans are often portrayed as rebelling against or usurping their precursors, only to be usurped in turn by the third-generation deities.
When the Sentients turn against their creators, the Orokin, the warframes are created to destroy them; the warframes skip to the third cosmogonic generation but it is the Lotus, a second-generation figure, who preserves them from both her fellow Sentients and the Orokin themselves, mimicking the myth of Zeus being given to Amalthea for safekeeping. The fact that both the Lotus and Amalthea are feminine figures is important in a Jungian psychoanalysis; the archetypal father can bring order but also tyranny, while the archetypal mother brings promise but also risk.
The Orokin and the Void
The Tenno gain their power from the Void, a sort of ur-chaos. The Void is an extradimensional space, one that requires special means to access.
The Void is the palace of the Orokin, the grand civilization that spawned the Tenno (again, we see the generational nature of mythology resurfacing), though they were unable to reach it without significant sacrifices and even for their technologically advanced civilization it was something of an outlier; when they fell, so did their dwellings in the Void, which exist in the current day of the game as either derelicts or uninhabited, but still active, stations.
The Void serves as a primordial first-generation figure in the cosmogony of Warframe; many ancient myths involve a later generation’s members returning to the originator of the world and slaying it, making its corpse into their home.
The Orokin serve as additional manifestations of this first level. Along with the Void, they are the ultimate progenitors of the Tenno, originally children who were lost in the Void following a failed expedition to that extra-dimensional space.
The fact that the Tenno, who ultimately are responsible in part for the eventual Orokin conquest of the Void, are able to draw power and shelter from the Void has mythic significance; it is common for a great heroic figure to slay a great threat and make use of its remains for sustenance, shelter, or both.
The Universe in Balance
The conflict that unfolds in Warframe is one of bringing the universe into balance. The Tenno, reawakened and representing humanity, face both other fourth-generation forces, like the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested and the Sentients.
The struggle against other “mortal” forces is not uncommon in mythology, and is a defining trait of some of the early mythic heroes like Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh: their foes are not necessarily divine in nature, and they vanquish them using mortal might and cunning.
In this way, the Tenno are able to fight the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested with their own might. As joint members of the natural world, they are on the same playing field, though the Tenno as part-divine by nature of their connection to the primordial first-generation entity of the Void are at a distinct advantage, and as epic protagonists are therefore going to succeed in almost every challenge (even if doing so requires them to come to apotheosis first, something seen in the Second Dream and other storyline missions in Warframe).
It is worth noting that the Tenno is not automatically awoken fully to their abilities at the start of the game, but must instead acquire them during the storyline as they grow in knowledge of their true nature. Up until they achieve this divine apotheosis, it seems that the primary conflict is strictly between them and their worldly antagonists.
As the story progresses, the risks and dangers increase with it. The Tenno are not able to face the Sentients alone. While their warframes provide them with some divine power, the warframes are themselves very much natural; they have power drawn from the Void, but it has been distantly removed and is revealed to have always come from the energy flowing from the Tenno to a warframe, rather than being an intrinsic property of the warframe itself.
In the most recent story update, the Tenno encounters Ballas, an Orokin traitor who sided with the Sentients, but has been corrupted by them. He gives the Tenno a boon, a weapon with which to slay the Sentients, before the scene ends.
Warframe’s compelling story draws its weight from being designed with psychological and mythical archetypes that make every character and element more significant than it seems at first glance.
This powerful storytelling method means that although it has relatively little dialogue compared to many other games and almost no player choices, it manages to tell a story that is part of an epic cycle and put the player at the helm of a character who they can sympathize with.
The ensuing connection to the Hero’s Journey means that the player wants to do the same thing that their avatar does, without requiring coercion or massively branching narratives from the writing team.