Anthem has launched and while players will spend the bulk of their time flying around in power armor and blowing things up, there's also some deep lore and characters behind the action. BioWare are responsible for critically acclaimed titles like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, which are all renowned for the quality of their writing and complex, nonlinear narrative design. As such, it was important that Anthem upheld that storytelling tradition.
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ON THE RADAR: ANTHEM
Over the next two weeks, GamesRadar is delivering all of the information that you could ever need to know about Anthem. The On The Radar: Anthem hub is where you will find all of our in-depth and exclusive coverage of BioWare's latest.
Anthem players will take on the role of Freelancers, scrappy guns for hire who work together to protect humanity from the chaos that unfolds beyond the walls of its cities. Using armored exoskeletons called javelins, which grant superheroic movement and combat abilities, Freelancers are uniquely qualified to take on the unpredictable horrors of the game’s hostile alien world.
The setting for Anthem’s first era of storytelling is a warm, verdant region called Bastion. This is where Fort Tarsis, the fortified city the Freelancers call home, is located. But it’s not the only place humankind dwells on this hellish, albeit beautiful, alien planet. (A news item on the official Mass Effect website seems to suggest that the world of Anthem is called Mirrus. However, this could just as easily be the name of an as-yet-unrevealed villain. But I digress.) To the north of Bastion, in the mountains, lies Stralheim. That place is home to the Dominion, “a ferocious militaristic society” rightly feared by the people of Fort Tarsis.
I called up Cathleen Rootsaert and Jay Watamaniuk, two of Anthem’s writers, to learn more about Bastion, Fort Tarsis, and everything that’s out to destroy them in BioWare’s latest blockbuster.
Introducing The Legion of Dawn
“Once upon a time, humanity was under the thumb of this very powerful group. And this woman, Helena Tarsis, was able to gather everyone together under her banner and overthrow them,” says Jay Watamaniuk, one of the lead writers on Anthem. He’s careful not to reveal the name of the enemy faction, but the forces under Helena Tarsis’ command were called the Legion of Dawn. It’s worth noting that these events occurred roughly five hundred years before the start of the game.
“One of the chief tools that was developed at that time was the first-ever javelin suit,” he adds. “Using a variety of innovations and technologies that they had at their disposal, and a little secret underground labwork by the Arcanists, they were able to put together a suit that – while maybe it didn’t level the playing field – at least gave humanity a fighting chance against this group. And so she’s sort of revered as this hero because she was able to gather everyone under her, and able to overthrow this oppressive group that had been keeping humanity down and using humanity as tools.”
“The Dominion,” lead writer Cathleen Rootsaert tells us, “are also heirs to General Tarsis. It was after General Tarsis died that the Legion of Dawn split into its three sub-factions – the Freelancers, the Sentinels, and the Dominion.” All three of these factions are human, and all tied to the history of the Legion of Dawn. But we shouldn’t assume they’re the only examples of human society in Anthem’s lore.
Exploring The Anthem of Creation
The titular elephant in the room, of course, is something called the Anthem of Creation.
Central to the game’s story is the ancient machinery left behind by the “gods” who have forsaken this world. Those mysterious gods are known as the Shapers, and their relics are the primary force of change and even violence in Anthem’s open-world environments. Most powerful of all Shaper artifacts is the Anthem of Creation – a technology with the capacity for two things: to create, and to destroy.
“The Anthem and the Shapers exist together,” Rootsaert tells me. “It’s probably safe to say that the people of this world don’t necessarily know which came first – which is the chicken and which is the egg. The unfinished world of Anthem was the Shapers trying to work with the Anthem of Creation, and the Anthem will not be contained. It will not be shackled by the Shapers; the Shapers couldn’t bend it to their will. Now, whatever the creation of that situation was remains lost to time.”
“People see these gigantic machines strewn about the jungle,” Watamaniuk says, “and they know there’s these underground tunnels; there’s all these strange things and weird metallic objects. Sometimes they’re half-working, sometimes they’re completely dead, and sometimes they come to life. And what the association is between these vast, incredibly dangerous machines and the Anthem – people are still trying to work that out: Is there a connection? What is that connection? And how do we try to survive in a world with these two giant forces?”
“That’s kind of what motivates the Dominion,” says Rootsaert.
Discovering the Heart of Rage
At the start of the game’s main story, you will begin as a new recruit among the Freelancers, but your first in-game mission is a vital moment in the history of Anthem lore.
This event finds the Freelancers investigating dangers caused by the Anthem – at a site called the Heart of Rage. Here, someone has been tampering with the Anthem of Creation in an effort to control it. But the inscrutable alien tech has a will of its own, and the investigation proves disastrous. Countless Freelancers perish. The Anthem gives birth to a technological cataclysm, which, Rootsaert says, “continues to eat the world around it and churn and become bigger.”
The Freelancers’ failure at the Heart of Rage presents an opportunity for the story’s apparent villain, a gifted Dominion commander referred to as the Monitor. “The Monitor feels that he has developed a way to control the Anthem of Creation,” says Rootsaert.
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If he’s successful, Watamaniuk says, the Dominion’s “expansionist empire will become unstoppable. And so they’re willing to do whatever to try and get even the slightest control of that particular force.” Technically, the antagonist is but one of any number of “monitors” who have developed some measure of affinity for the Anthem, but the capital-m Monitor of the game’s critical-path story is a fearsome, one-of-a-kind individual.
“The Monitor is comparable to a general or field marshal,” Watamaniuk explains. “He has troops under his command, he has resources, and what he does is sort of up to him.” The average citizen of the Dominion, in other words, is not in a position to tell the Monitor no. “He’s probably given a task of some sort, like a military objective. And those troops come in a variety of forms. They’ve got your typical folks running around with guns; he’s got special troops under his command. He has all these resources, he has a task, and so he sets out to accomplish it in any way he can.”
However, the Monitor’s not in charge of the Dominion – hinting that there may be another, potentially larger threat holding his leash. (Anthem is, after all, a game meant to tell a story over a span of years. The base campaign’s only the beginning.)
The enemies of Anthem
Out in the wilds of Bastion, of course, there are more immediate concerns than the Dominion. Shaper tech and all its progeny are an ever-present job hazard for Freelancers exploring the open world. There are creatures that exist in the natural world – which evolved to live on Anthem’s alien planet – and then there are those that have been violently mutated by the Anthem.
“We have elemental beings, and we have chimera,” says Rootsaert. “The Ash Titan, for example, is an elemental. It’s born out of a cataclysm. But something like the fire skorpions or the ice wolves – those are chimera. Those are animals that exist in the world of Anthem, like the grabbits, but they have been altered by a Shaper event.”
The insectlike Scar are something else entirely. “I want to be careful about what I state, because there’s obviously some discovery that happens in the game,” Watamaniuk tells us. “But they are certainly a product of this world. On the surface, they are relentless scavengers. They will come in like locusts and swoop everything up, and turn it into their own hives and tunnels. They are not particularly understandable from a human point of view. They are not human, and we’re not sure what motivates them past making more of themselves. They have an incredibly weird alienness to them.”
“They operate more as a hivemind than a hierarchy,” says Rootsaert.
“They act with purpose,” Watamaniuk adds. “They can have plans; they’re not animals by any means, in terms of intelligence. They’re a threat because they are very difficult to deal with. Step on one Scar, and there’s gonna be ten more that pop up to take its place.”
Life inside Fort Tarsis
Within the walls of Fort Tarsis, Freelancers will interface with the politics and woes of Anthem’s world on a more intimate, sometimes quotidian scale. By talking to non-player characters and developing optional (platonic) relationships with them – what BioWare calls “loyalty conversations,” internally – players can unlock new story content they wouldn’t otherwise see. Rootsaert offers the example of a baker and a merchant; maybe they begin in a place of conflict, or tension, but the player could convince them to go into business together for their mutual benefit. Or, to the contrary, a Freelancer might simply decide one of them should leave Fort Tarsis and set up shop elsewhere.
The Fort is also home to a delicate kaleidoscope of different cultures and factions, some of which share an uneasy relationship. “The Freelancers lack formal organization,” says Watamaniuk. “There are rankings, but it’s based on honorifics and experience. The Freelancers’ chief job is to go outside the safety of the walls and into the world itself, and deal with problems out there. Whereas the Sentinels’ job is: We built this fort. We built great walls. We are going to protect this island of civilization in this sea of chaos. Over the years, there is sort of this friction that’s developed – never mind the original Legion of Dawn and the split into these three factions – between the more recent, sort of practical versions of these two groups.”
On the one hand, he says, “you’ve got the more formal and more disciplined Sentinels. And then you’ve got the Freelancers, who are seen as these shoot-from-the-hip troublemakers who have to go out and deal with things that the Sentinels aren’t equipped to deal with.”
A clandestine faction called Corvus, the Anthem equivalent of the CIA or MI6, works in the shadows of Fort Tarsis and elsewhere to forward some unknown agenda. “They pull in whoever they need to get their job done,” Rootsaert says. “Because they are politically motivated, they’re not so much going out and killing Titans or whatever; they’re laser-focused on the Dominion, especially with their return. We meet a member of Corvus, Tassyn – but she doesn’t reveal herself to us as a member of Corvus right off the bat.”
Tassyn, Rootsaert continues, serves as a catalyst for the Freelancer’s story. “We don’t get to know her super well. But the player has a chance to question Tassyn and ask her why she’s so closed off. There’s sort of a delicate dance that the Freelancer and Tassyn do, and either you can get her to come out of her shell a bit, or you can go down the road where she’s just not pleased with you at all.”
Another major character from the critical-path story is Faye, a “cypher” who can telepathically commune with Freelancers and – in extremely rare cases – the Anthem of Creation itself.
“In the very first mission, going into the Heart of Rage, Faye is there as your cypher,” says Rootsaert. “And she hears the Anthem of Creation. Cyphers are the only ones that are tuned into the Anthem enough – because they are altered by the world – that they can hear the Anthem. They hear it like a tickle, and it becomes like catnip or like heroin to them.” Once a cypher has heard the Anthem, they become desperate to hear it again.
“So Faye’s journey is about being conflicted, wanting to go back in and hear the Anthem of Creation again – and, at the same time, the cyphers that were along on that first mission were on the other end of all those Freelancers dying,” Rootsaert says. While they were trying to keep their minds together and guide their teams, people were dying, and the cyphers were just barely holding onto reality. That was a horrific situation. But at the same time, Faye is driven to repeat it and complete it. Her journey over the course of the story is very much about coming to terms with this drive, and what it means for her as a human being and as a partner on a team.”
Haluk, another principal character haunted by the great losses at the Heart of Rage, also plays a key role in the Freelancer’s player-driven story.
“He starts out as the hotshot Freelancer that everybody looks up to, but then he goes into this horrible dark place, and you have a falling out with him,” says Rootsaert. “His drive is about needing to finish what he started. But is he capable, anymore, of doing that? He’s kind of bitter – how does he climb out of that bitterness enough to be successful, while Tassyn is pulling the strings and upping the stakes all the time? Not to mention the Monitor.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time developing Fort Tarsis as its own kind of character,” Watamaniuk says, “because it’s like a small town, really, where there’s a lot of stories going. This is a world that is based around the uncertainty of what their next problem is that they have to deal with. And it happens to be a big one: the Dominion coming in and wanting to try and use the Anthem for their own means.
“But this is just one chapter in a story of us trying to survive in this world. Humans are not the top of the food chain in this world at all; there are so many forces that surround us, wanting to snuff us out. This is just the latest the thing that’s gonna kill us, so let’s deal with that today,” Watamaniuk tells us, adding: “We don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.”
Anthem FAQ: Is Anthem single player, is Anthem open world, and more questions answered ahead of the game's release for PC, PS4 and Xbox One on on 22 February, 2019.