Some of the biggest questions about Anthem, BioWare's shared-world sci-fi shooter, revolve around its story. Few details about the scenario of the studio's first new IP in 10 years--which takes place on a strange planet that's home to huge creatures and players who wear Iron Man-like super suits called Javelins--have been made public. Ahead of The Game Awards 2018 (during which we learned about upcoming Anthem demos), Anthem director John Warner and lead producer Mike Gamble briefed the press about what we can expect to see from the story of the game and how BioWare's well-loved approach to storytelling will play a role.
Anthem takes place on a world whose name BioWare hasn't revealed, which is the home of a force called the Anthem of Creation. The Anthem is pretty nebulous as well--"It's not explainable through technology or even human understanding," Gamble told GameSpot--but it's a ridiculously powerful force for both creation and destruction, and it makes the world a pretty dangerous place.
The Anthem of Creation is mostly intangible, like gravity, Gamble explained. The force was used in the past by some kind of precursor race, called the Shapers, which used it to literally make the game's world. For some reason, they quit about halfway through and disappeared, although they left behind their tools for the humans of the world to find.
Nobody quite knows how to use it, but Shaper technology has been scavenged and retrofitted to create other things, such as Javelins. Loose Shaper tech also interacts with the Anthem at random intervals to create Shaper Storms in the world, which, as Gamble put it, "tear the fabric of reality"--and new stuff might pop out of those tears, changing the world of Anthem at any time. Giant creatures and even other peoples, like the insectile and vicious Scars you'll fight in the game, are the kinds of things that come through tears.
The chaos of the Anthem of Creation has created a volatile world where civilization has been somewhat strained, and people largely live in walled cities and semi-safe locations. The danger of the Anthem has also limited the development of technology and automation. There are no factories in Anthem; most everything is made by hand.
Most of the game takes place in Fort Tarsis, a frontier town and your base of operations, and Bastion, the region around it. You play as a Freelancer, basically a heroic adventurer willing to head out into the dangerous non-walled city area in your Javelin to complete jobs, fight bad guys, save civilians, and destroy Shaper artifacts that are causing a ruckus. Freelancers used to be part of the Legion of Dawn, a bigger order of heroes led by General Tarsis (for whom the fort is named), before it weakened and splintered into different groups, like Freelancers and the Sentinels, which are basically Javelin-wearing cops who protect cities.
Humans haven't been able to figure out the Anthem of Creation, but that doesn't mean they're not trying. As revealed in BioWare's trailer at The Game Awards 2018, the primary villain at the game's release, a spooky guy called the Monitor, is hoping to take control of the force. He's one of the leaders of the Dominion, another splinter group of the Legion of Dawn, which favors peace and stability through authoritarian control. The Monitor thinks he can end a lot of suffering by taking control of the Anthem, and he seems willing to dish out a ton of additional suffering, Thanos-style, in order to make his dream a reality.
As Warner explained it, there's Anthem's main plot, which will have an ending when the game releases in February. But the setting also allows for the developers to add new stories to the game as well.
"I really want people to look at our story through two lenses," Warner said. "One is the story of the struggle against the Monitor and the Dominion, and then there's the story of the world conflict, and this is why I love this world," Warner said. "I love this setting because it is a setting of endless adventure and it is a conflict that will never be resolved. Some Freelancer someday will not find the off switch and turn off the Anthem of Creation."
A BioWare Approach To A Shared World
When it comes to BioWare stories, players have a lot of expectations. The studio is best known for games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, all of which are RPGs where player choices can have serious effects on how their tales unfold. Anthem will also have some of these choices, although they'll be much less impactful than the universe-rocking decisions you made in Mass Effect. Instead, you'll largely see your impact on the game world reflected in Fort Tarsis.
When it comes to how Anthem will tell its tale, you'll have two different kinds of experiences. Out in the world, flying in your Javelin, the story will largely be told through gameplay as you and your friends blast enemies and complete objectives. You'll be supported by the non-player members of your Freelancer team, including a Cipher, who uses the Anthem of Creation to power technology that can communicate with you over long distances.
"When you're on a mission, generally, whether you're by yourself or with your friends, you won't be stopping to pick up lot of collectibles," Gamble explained. "We don't really push those missions. The reason is, if you and I are playing and you know, we're facing challenge together, we don't want you going off and reading a codex entry or looking for collectibles while I'm getting my ass handed to me."
You can, however, go look for those things in free play mode, which allows you to explore the world of Anthem alone or with friends, but without specific missions to keep you busy, he said.
"So free play, you're not tethered to anyone unless you want to be and you can go explore," Gamble explained. "There's landmarks to be found. There's environmental storytelling in there. There's collectibles, as with all kind of open world-style games, there's codex entries that you will collect in the world. So it's all that kind of stuff."
The majority of the rest of the story will take place in Tarsis. The rest of the world of Anthem might be shared with other players, but Fort Tarsis is more a single-player location. You'll spend time there talking to other characters, taking on missions, collecting things, and generally getting Anthem's story when it's not coming over your radio or requiring you to blow up a giant creature.
And since you'll be interacting with people in Tarsis, that's where you'll see your effects on the story. But they might be as small as how someone treats you, Gamble said.
"To set expectations, it's not like half of Tarsis blows up or half of Tarsis doesn't blow up," he said. "In a place where it's a frontier town and you have a lot of people who are just kind of mulling about doing their own thing, your actions will have an impact on certain people and what they say. But you're not, you know, the great hope of Tarsis and what you decide won't affect the fates of the entire town or something like that. But it will change and you will see it change.
"Case in point, when you start the game, Tarsis is more of a ghost town. There's not much going on, it's kind of run down, they're already under threat of attack all the time. You as a hero start to change that to turn that around, and then by the end of the game, if you've done a certain amount of stuff, you'll see Tarsis evolving that way."
The Hero's Journey (For A Lot Of Heroes)
Though the press briefing only scratched the surface, Anthem seems to have plenty of lore. There are multiple factions players will deal with, including the Sentinels, the more spiritual Arcanists, and the clandestine secret agents of the Corvus, as well as the characters that represent them. There's also a lot of history and lore to uncover, much of which isn't spelled out--like the identity of the Shapers and what their deal might be.
Gamble and Warner said most of the story in Anthem is more forward-looking, though, and focused on the player and their Freelancer team as they venture into the world. As Warner put it, the focus of the storytelling approach in Anthem is on the monomyth, or hero's journey, as described by Joseph Campbell. Of course, it's tougher to tell that story in a shared world, where every player is the star of their own hero's journey.
"I think that telling the hero's journey without the chosen one, giving you the agency to be the hero, means we have to set things up in a way that will allow you the freedom to tell your own heroic story, that will allow you to identify an associate with the things that are important to you, whether that's factions in the world or even how you equipment and personalize your Javelin," Warner said. "I think all of those things kind of fold into it, and then it's our job of course as writers to tell a story of heroic proportions that involves mythic elements. But it's really setting the table, and hopefully we've set the table well enough where you'll feel things that resonate with you and keep you coming back."