When Rebecca Ford became the creative director of MMO sci-fi shooter Warframe in 2022, the former community director was faced with what she called “tough choices” concerning the game’s future - choices that would lead to Whispers in the Walls, the game’s next expansion.
“The stakes were high - the stakes were grilled,” she quipped as she spoke to TechRadar Gaming about her plans for Warframe’s future. “The New War [expansion] had just ended, and then I got a job change to figure out what happens next. We’d spent a year plus experimenting and fleshing out past promises and ideas, [so] where to go next became a really critical question… I wanted to make sure that the next chapter was just as weird, but also a natural and obvious progression for Warframe.”
Whispers in the Walls begins in what Ford calls “a basement” where there are “literal skeletons in the closet”. In Whispers, players explore a laboratory belonging to Albrecht Entrati, a power-hungry scientist whose work with the Void sparked the entire Warframe saga - a narrative curiously reminiscent of some of the best horror games.
Rather than look outwards, however, Ford and her team decided to look to Warframe’s past to find the narrative seam they were looking for. “There has never been a bigger mystery than The Man in the Wall,” said Ford, referring to one of the game’s most mysterious elements. For the uninitiated, The Man in the Wall is an Eldritch horror from the void dimension where the game’s titular Warframes draw their power. It’s Ford’s intention to take this antagonist and “package it in something that only makes it more mysterious.”
“I really want to push what Albrecht left behind as a narrative angle,” continued Ford. “We were going back and forth [in development]. Should he have a spaceship or should he have a basement? After the basement conversation was pushed further, we realized how natural and how compelling that could be for the player because it encapsulates the thesis [of the game] which is to go deeper into what you already know: push, excavate.”
Into the unknown
Whispers in the Walls is, according to Ford, about “the pursuit of knowledge and its consequences [and how] you will often find that some people’s quest for knowledge and greatness [can] doom a civilization.”
This idea of hubris, however, is, for Ford and her team, very much tied up in the occult. “[It all started when] our former creative director Steve [Sinclair] was listening to audiobooks about the occult… and he fell in love with the voice [of the narrator] and said: ‘that guy has to be our Albrecht Entrati’.” This led Sinclair to write a collection of “morose Eldritch journal entries” for Albrecht which, read by the voice actor from the podcast, would eventually set the groundwork for Whispers in the Walls.
“We’re pushing this idea of Albercht as this broken man,” continued Ford. “This is thematically key to most occult Lovecraftian horror... I hope players fall in love with Albrecht as much as I have over the years because he is very special to me. The way we struck that chord [for Albrecht’s existing role in the story] is something I really wanted to go deeper into.”
Speaking on how she wanted players to react to the new update, Ford stated that her “dream reaction for the community is that they feel part of a mystery… [they will], I hope, feel chilled, uncertain and unsettled. I want them to question if everything they’ve earned in game is going to be enough to face off against what’s coming. How does a sniper rifle face off against an Eldritch horror?”
A kingdom of isolation
In the tradition of the best RPGs, and the best occult fiction, Ford’s aim for the expansion is for it to focus on tangible human emotions. “This is an exploration of loneliness”, she says, adding “what is it to explore loneliness and what happens when something’s left alone?”
Elaborating on this point, Ford spoke more about the literary inspirations behind Whispers in the Walls. “I have always loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein - that is loneliness incarnate. [In the book,] Dr. Frankenstein has created [a] monster and left it in the world alone.” Ford was keen to draw parallels between Dr. Frankenstein and Albrecht Entrati, seeing The Man in The Wall as Entrati’s own monster.
“I wanted it to feel like Frankenstein's laboratory”, continued Ford. “I wanted it to feel as though a man was here, working alone on things that shamed him, things that ostracized him, things that made him into a pariah - that is the space. But, also, there is a great layer of horror to it because we know what happened here. The temporal angle and the Victorian laboratory angle are going to coalesce in a very shocking way.”
When it comes to players experiencing Entrati’s lab, Ford made it clear that “I want the player to feel that they’ve been through the wringer. They’re going to be the hero of sorts for this particular arc… I want the player to feel like they’re ready, but also horribly under-prepared… I really feel that we’re just getting started.”
For Ford and co., Warframe’s latest chapter marks not only the culmination of what “we have learned over 10 years of running a game as a service”, but also a turning point in the sci-fi shooter’s ongoing legacy. By harnessing themes of occult horror and loneliness, the team intends to plumb the “deepest lore” available, offering an expansion that simultaneously moves forward while looking back. It’s a tall order, but Ford remains optimistic: “Hopefully players can fall in love with Warframe again, or for the first time.”
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.
Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.