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Canadian Wildfires, Ghost of Tsushima, and Miyazaki: Soulframe is more than the sum of its parts

Hard hitting blows and questions both for the Warframe-succeeding MMORPG whose influences range far and wide.

Custom header with Soulframe, Ghosts of Tsushima, and Mononoke
Image credit: VG247

Do you ever get the impression that video games use the ongoing environmental disaster we've been going through as window dressing – a justification for having a tornado rage in the background of a level, or why a blazing fire has suddenly broken out mid-mission? It's dire enough to see governments paying lip service to the issue, but aside from some genuine attempts from indie devs, there's not much to dig your teeth into. If only there was a game – perhaps even one influenced by Ghost of Tsushima and Souls games – that really dug into the whole situation.

"I shouldn't have said anything. Now when I rip it off, everyone is gonna know (laugh)! You can't help but notice it, can't you? The camera is very similar. We had more thrash on the way that you lock on, the way the camera works, and the way that combat pacing – how punishing or not it is. Ghost just blew me away."

Enter Soulframe - an upcoming MMORPG from Warframe developer Digital Extremes. The game got its first gameplay demonstration last weekend, in which the developers showed off a game that's obviously got this topic at its heart. Not as the trim on the car, but the (hopefully electric) engine powering it. I was able to sit down with director Steve Sinclair prior to the showcase in London Ontario, to dive into Soulframe. While it's early days, he proved more than happy to expand on his personal desire to tackle the subject matter sincerely.

One line echoed throughout the weekend by Sinclair was the belief that we live in "an anxious and angry culture", which – according to him was a big motivator towards tackling these themes. "When we first set out to make this game I wanted it to be, not therapy, but a place that you can go and get a very different emotional experience. We love the grimdark games that we've played before, but we want to tell something different."

To achieve this, the team looked to the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Most notably, the film maker's famous works broaching the relationship between industrialisation and nature. According to Sinclair, this battle between comfort and industrialisation versus exploitation and waste is crucial to the, well, soul of Soulframe.

So, how exactly do you make a game that veers away from anger and other modern frustrations, but also allow for kicking folks into chasms and setting them alight with ancestor-powered fire swords? It's this disconnect that has been the bane of several other games with similar goals.

Princess Mononoke screenshot
See anything similar? | Image credit: Miyazaki

Through the lens of Miyazaki, who doesn't shy at all from conflict between nature and industrial man in works like Princess Mononoke, the concept becomes clear. Sinclair, visibiliy energetic when discussing the topic, believes that the secret sauce lies in approaching the subject without outright demonising any side of the arguement. He points to the Ode, the armoured fellas we see the main character cutting through and ultimately foiling at the end of the demonstration, as a key example of this approach and a direct link to our real-world problems.

"The Ode perspective is like, 'what's the problem? We're comfortable, and this is our problem now!' The quality of human lives has never been better, and who's paid the price? It has been humans that are not in that same spot, but it has also been the environment, nature, also our psyche with this anxious and angry culture we're in."

Sinclair continues, pointing to the demonstration's final boss: "When Dior is saying 'you want us to go hungry again?' That's the arguement between the agricultural existence of humanity, which is trapped by agriculture. Then there's a roaming kind of existence before that where they had a lot more free time, a lot more peace, a lot less children, and they hadn't trapped themselves by grain cultivation. I really find this all fascinating."

There's an obvious bit of background context to all this that's impossible not to connect to Soulframe. The developer – Digital Extremes – happens to be Canadian. It's no secret that the country has seen its fair share of ecological disasters with the current wildfires and the Keystone XL pipeline. Sinclair states that, to him, the situation is personally important, and confirms that a recent rise in wildfires and other ecological disasters has influenced the game.

"I just finished reading an amazing book by a Canadian author called Fire Weather, which is talking about the sources of increased wildfires and Fort McMurray that was destroyed, the California wildfires, the fire tornados in Australia. This game is very personal for me, and these issues are bleeding into the things that you're seeing in the demo."

Soulframe nature concept art
Look at all that green! | Image credit: Digital Extremes

There's a very real chance that you've read this and rolled your eyes a bit. Not because you don't necessarily care about this stuff, but because there's a very real risk of self-righteousness that comes with this sentiment in creative works. Sinclair tackled this concern head on, believing that Digital Extremes' approach avoids a pitfall other developers have fallen headfirst into.

"I think where those games may have failed – maybe – is they get too preachy about it. A good essay is going to balance the arguement. So that's what I hope to do. Obviously, when you're hugging deer and stuff we're choosing a side! (laugh) But I hope that the tension is interesting and thought-provoking."

Soulframe is due to launch on PC. There is no release date for the project at the momnet.

(This interview was conducted at Tennocon 2023, via a trip that was paid for by Digital Extremes.)

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