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Unchaining the Horror of Harrow in Warframe

The community reaction to the announcement that I was the new writer on Warframe kind-of blew my hair back: a deluge of messages pumping me for lore, wanting to know what was going to happen next, what I had planned. The enthusiasm for the game is one of the best things about working on it, but to be hit with a wave of emotion like that… I knew I had my work cut out for me.

So, what’s it been like? Well, each company and project is different. The Warframe crew have had a few years to settle into their rhythm and learn what their community wants. Harrow was a good chance to understand that myself, and to adapt to the way Digital Extremes do things. They had just come off Octavia’s Anthem, which added yet another fresh element to the game (music composition) and had garnered Warframe a fresh round of newly-excited players jumping into the game on Xbox One. Four years into the lifespan of a game, that’s seriously impressive. No pressure.

Warframe Harrow Expansion Screenshot

Harrow began with the design of the Warframe first. When some elements are already fixed in place there’s an opportunity to let the story tell itself to us, to a degree; a place is provided to build out from by asking the right questions about what is already decided upon. So I looked at the aesthetic and objectives of the Harrow design and tallied up what it was telling me.

It was pretty dark.

The Dark Ages, plague doctors, Hieronymus Bosch, hellscapes, miasma, illness, mortality, pain, suffering, penance, a Hell both literal and psychological, the early work of Clive Barker, and films like “Event Horizon.” The concept that stuck out for me was penance. It fit the judgmental, imposing, priestly feel of the new Warframe. But what part does a specific Warframe play in penance? And for whom?

Warframe Harrow Expansion Screenshot

It started with following the trail backwards from the ‘frame: the Warframes are bonded to the Tenno. Penance has to do with an evil act committed in the past. The darkest point in Tenno history was the Zariman. The Zariman story has a strong “The Lord of the Flies” feel to it. Something nasty went down there and we’ve never really gotten into it. Seemed like a good opportunity to tell a human story, embedded in untold history and a kind of literal and psychological darkness.

A horror chapter was new for Warframe, but once the pieces were in place it was a very natural fit. What Harrow was about (people, damage, sacrifice and atonement) came first, and the horror flowed from that.

The three of us worked together and broke the story. Steve Sinclair, our creative director, did most of the heavy lifting on writing this one while I got to work on building the Ostron race, culture and language for the Plains of Eidolon open-world expansion. Ryan Mole, our narrative designer, and myself then kicked Steve’s work around, edited it, cut as much as we could until we wound up with a finished quest that we felt had a lot of heat to it, told us a bit more about the past of both the Tenno and the Red Veil, and cracked open a door to something dark coming down the road.

Warframe Harrow Expansion Screenshot

Writing for Warframe is little like writing an action-film-as-tone poem: It’s a lot about feeling in many ways. Heart and heat, classic themes. We tell just enough to make things work, but not so much that it slows things down. This is, not coincidentally, the best way to do worldbuilding: morsel-by-morsel, allowing the player’s familiarity with a place to build up over time, much as it would in real life. Dumping The Silmarillion on someone by way of ‘hello’ is a sure-fire way to turn them off pretty much immediately.

I started out in publishing, writing novels, so my instincts still pull me toward a desire to evoke depth and texture where appropriate, but the trick here is to do it via what Rudy Rucker called eyeball kicks: maximum evocation with minimum wordage. A few well-chosen words – or images, or sounds – that explode images in a person’s mind. Economy.

Warframe Harrow Expansion Screenshot

It’s good for me, as a writer, and it’s good for the game. I’ve played Warframe since beta. Being here now feels like coming home, and with the game going open-world it’s the best time to be here. I’ve never had more fun on a project than I’m having right now. And it’s only going to get better.