Warframe of Mind: The mental health implications of Chains of Harrow

    
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Previously on Warframe of Mind I extolled the virtues of Warframe’s Chains of Harrow mission. It definitely deserved praise: I loved the spooky, intense atmosphere and the Halloween-esque story behind it all. But as I mentioned at the end, there was more to the story than that. Many folks familiar with autism could see this represented in Chains of Harrow. I also saw this, but I also noticed mental health representation as well.

Digital Extremes’ support of mental health charities is no secret; TennoCon 2019’s official charity was the Canadian Mental Health Association, Middlesex. So it shouldn’t surprise me that the studio would incorporate some aspects of the topic in the game. However, I am unsure whether this was done on purpose or was an unintentional side-effect of the atmosphere. With it there, whether intentionally or not, does it stigmatize, or does inclusion help spread awareness? What will players take away from the experience, if they note the connection?

A tie to autism

If you haven’t played through the mission or seen the streams, there will be mild spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

During my first Chains of Harrow playthrough, it was not hard to see the ties to autism. You listen to interactions between Rell and his mother where they discuss how different he is from other kids, how he has difficulty with social interaction, and how he cannot match facial expressions to emotions. These match the common core features of the diagnosis, which are persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interaction. However, it is important to note that Autism is a spectrum with much variation. Austistic folks can be non-verbal or verbal, high- or low-functioning. Other cues could be repetitive motion, atypical nonverbal communication, and holding fast to routine and structure while eschewing change. Rell exhibited repetitive sounds (echolalia) with the rap, tap, tapping that would send chills down your spine.

So yes, with those flashbacks I can see Rell as autistic. However, that is not what I felt was represented in the present-day parts of the mission. From that, I got a portrayal of mental health issues.

Mental health nod

As I experienced it, there are three ways I could take the modern-day parts of the mission, two of which are steeped in mental health. First, you could follow the comments of your guide that the entity is not Rell in the slightest; rather, it is something that took over and either ousted Rell completely or completely dominated and buried him so far down Rell couldn’t get out. Evil things out in the Void messing with this poor operator who couldn’t sleep through the torture? Yes, I can totally see that.

If you discard the idea that the entity messing with you is something entirely different from the Void that took over Rell’s body, you can still get a similar take — just one that is Rell himself. Maybe an entity did mess with him, or maybe just being in the Void all those centuries, but the outcome was dissociative identity disorder instead. Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, DID is about completely separate personalities living within one person. Perhaps Rell is still there, pushed far down in his psyche, and the dominant personality is this Man in the Wall. As symptoms usually develop in response to a traumatic event, this seems pretty fitting as well. I’d call being awake forever in the void traumatic, as the whole ship descending into madness and the death and destruction aboard it. Can you imagine if Rell saw his mother — his one rock and protector that gives him a lifeline — destroyed?

The third possibility is the one that struck me the strongest. I had the distinct impression of schizophrenia when I played through Chains of Harrow. I say this because of a unique perspective I have on one aspect of the mission: the voices and whispers throughout the experience. Those very voices and whispers echoing in your head made doing simple tasks more difficult, a fact you can see over an hour into my first stream.

This phenomenon is not new to me: In my work as a mental health professional we had special training where we used headphones to listen to a long stream of words and sounds from multiple sources that approximated the experience of schizophrenia. Then we had to perform a variety of tasks before being sent off on our own for a time. Let me tell you, the ability to do simple tasks was seriously diminished; it was hampered even more if a person was there giving you external instructions. It was so hard to ignore the voices telling you how bad you were (though there were nice voices as well) or the steady heartbeat that would get louder and louder. You had trouble filtering out your own thoughts.

Chains of Harrow, with its use of a number of sounds and the voices, reminded me of that training more than I thought I’d ever experience in a game. Another support for this theory is that much of what you experience can easily be the projected hallucinations and/or delusions of Rell.

Shining a positive or negative light?

Anytime something atypical is put out there, such as mental health or alternate abilities, there is worry that said representation will reinforce negative stigmas. For instance, if folks took the idea that Rell was autistic and then equated what happened in the mission to what autistic people are like, that would certainly be a bad take. And there are probably some who did exactly that. The same with folks thinking that those suffering from DID or schizophrenia are homicidal maniacs because of the situation, further isolating those with real mental health issues. But we can’t let that fear keep us silent. The problem is silence!

The stigmas and stereotypes live and grow in ignorance and silence. Those are already there; many people’s fears have been founded on not knowing. With inclusion and representation, you are breaking down the barriers of silence and ignorance. Perhaps only those with some experience in the matters — be it personal professional, or from family — really see that aspect coming through and relate to it, like my noticing schizophrenic elements. And maybe this leads to conversation and research for those who aren’t as familiar. Tasteful portrayals and representation can have a net positive effect. And I think Chains of Harrow was well done: It never professed to be something, but it laid out clues. And throughout, you get to feel some empathy for Rell and his experiences.

I still don’t know whether the ties to mental health were intentional on Digital Extremes’ part or not, but I appreciate that it has been able to spark a conversation. More awareness is always a good thing.

Pick a ‘Frame, any ‘Frame! The Warframe galaxy is in danger, Tenno, and Space Mom needs help to combat it. Are you in the right Warframe of Mind to join in? MJ Guthrie has enlisted; she suits up in her favorite ‘Frames biweekly to fight the good fight, blasting the Grineer and Infected into smithereens.
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EmberStar

I can only speak for myself. But I never interpreted it as “Rell is X, so all people with X are like Rell.” Aside from being a fictional character, he’s trapped in one of the most nightmarish situations imaginable, and far outside the bounds of anything “normal.” He’s been alive for centuries, if not thousands of years. And unlike the other Tenno, he’s been conscious the entire time. And apparently fighting to hold back… something that he believes was a threat to everyone. Whether that something was just in his head or is a real entity that exists in the Void isn’t made clear in this story.

And the thing is, at least from my point of view – we’re clearly meant to empathize with Rell. Even when the shadow avatar that might / might not be him is hunting you through the dark, he’s not played as a villain. You’re not fighting to destroy him – the mission contact makes it clear that you’re trying to *rescue* him, to try to help him. (At least as much as you can help him now.)

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Louie

I had no idea this game actually, you know… had a story. I might have to look into giving it a shot reading and hearing some of this.

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kvlt_vonnegut

The story is one of the best things about it! For a game that went live with like 4 hallways and 3 suits Warframe’s lore is incredibly dank. It takes a fair amount of playtime to really get to it though, fair warning, but its an investment that pays off imo.

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memitim

Upon it’s initial release it didn’t, unless you count “you are a robot space ninja and some bad doods need chopping up” as a story, but the devs have been developing the Dark Sector universe for a very very long time, literally decades at this point, in the background. It takes a long time to get going and at first I didn’t care about the story at all but the second dream questline completely sucked me in, chains of harrow is even further in but from reading this it sounds like it’s worth it.

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kvlt_vonnegut

I found Chains to be a particularly empathetic portrayal. My own reading is that Wally is an expression or avatar of the Void extrinsic to Rell himself, since TMITW continues to be a dick to the Tenno after Rell is granted his rest. I worked for some time with autistic clients on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum – usually with the dual-diagnosis (DD) population – and the care DE put into Rell’s portrayal really does shine through. The sequences with his mother – the teaching cards, and especially his line that “touch is LOUD” – speaks to the effort and research that went into it. It’s an unequivocally positive representation imo.

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Danny Smith

Most people i know, myself included to a lesser extent have soured on Warframe as a whole as it leant into the battlepass sort of retention traps that put off people as well as locking in others but nobody would disagree that when the story goes, once or twice a year, it goes to a level Bungie has never been able to pull off with Destiny. There is a reason years later its an unspoken agreement that you do NOT spoil the Second Dream questline. And that wasn’t agreed upon, its so good everyone does it on basic principle that the reveals are so good you need to go in blind.

In CoH’s case the basic story is a very 70’s era X Men kind of story about “what if a ship of people were given super powers but one of them had severe learning disabilities and could not control them like the others and that caught the attention of something”. But longterm however “The Man in the Wall” is the sort of character i think Blizzard, Bioware or any other company who used to be known for their stories wish they could conjure up. He is intimidating but comes off as cocky not threatening. Like he has read ahead of you, knows the spoilers and is smugly waiting for your reactions as you catch up to the horrible things he knows are coming.

We still have little on him but that makes the brief flashes of when he does something all the more shaking because they are subtle and you can literally miss that he is doing stuff like hanging around on your ship watching you like he did Rell as his new obsession. All. The. Time.

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EmberStar

“Hey kiddo! Did you miss me?”