In the expanses of Dark Frontiers, players find themselves ensnared in a web of lore that spans ancient myths, cosmic battles, and untold secrets. The story's architect plays a pivotal role in shaping the immersive narrative that captivates players' imaginations. Far beyond mere background stories, the lore crafted by the Dark Frontiers Story Writer, Torben Hutchings, weaves together complex histories, cultures, and mysteries, offering players not just a game to play, but a world to live in.

Today, we're taking you behind the scenes for a conversation with Torben. This interview aims to shed light on the creative processes, the intricacies of world-building, and the passion for storytelling that drives the creation of Dark Frontiers' rich, narrative-driven universe. Get ready to uncover the secrets and the artistry that make the lore of Dark Frontiers as compelling as its gameplay.

Can you share a bit about your background as a writer and how you got into writing for games?

My initial forays into the world of writing came while I was at university in Scotland, when I picked up the hobby of tabletop roleplaying games. This was not so much scripted writing so much as the creation of characters and challenges based on the setting and what I knew of the desires of individual players in games that I was running.

I later expanded this skill for use in other areas, as I continued to seek out new work as a freelance linguist after my studies had finished, this included live action roleplay systems and eventually computer games.

What inspired you to become a story/lore writer, particularly in the gaming industry?

I have always had a deep appreciation of the power of a good narrative and the way narratives feature in our daily lives and in the books and films we use to escape it. We as individuals are defined by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as well as the stories that we enjoy in the media.

The more I appreciated that fact, the more I felt the urge to write stories of my own as a way to express and explore concepts and opinions and share them with a wider audience. Some of this would be expressed in plots written for simple roleplaying games, other ideas such as scenes, dilemmas and other narrative concepts would be written down in short passages on my computer for me to pick up and expand on later.

Writing plots for computer games was actually an easy lateral move for me due to the increased linearity of coded plots and binary player choices, compared to the dynamic storytelling of traditional role playing, which operates in the theatre of the mind.

Are there any specific authors, games, or other media that have influenced your writing style and approach?

One of my greatest inspirations has always been the late, great sir Terry Pratchett, whose early works of comedic fantasy were masterpieces in subverting classic fantasy tropes, while his later works used the same subversions to draw comparisons to real life struggles and concepts.

It was his work that made me understand that tropes are only clichés when the writer falls into the trap of using them as guidelines rather than as the tools they are.

Other inspirations include dystopian games such as Shadowrun (the system and the computer games) and Deus Ex, sci-fi epics such as Kevin J. Anderson’s “The Saga of the Seven Suns”, and also classic “Space Opera” films such as the original Star Wars. Many of these use classic tropes and narratives (especially Star Wars), but their appeal lies in how they can tell old stories in new ways.

How do you approach understanding the overall game world before diving into writing its story and lore?

Obviously the first port of call is to ask the developers what kind of game they are hoping to create, both to get an idea for their vision, but also to understand the extent of the intended player influence.

Plot narratives that would work for a set piece game with pre-defined quests, arenas and a more or less static setting (e.g. World of Warcraft) may prove entirely inadequate for living world games in which the players might expect to have a significant impact (political or physical) on the setting over the course of the game’s existence (e.g. EVE Online).

It is much easier to weave the overarching lore into the detailed narrative of a static game than a living world. For example: If the “Pan-galactic Alliance” owns hundreds of planets, then the pomp and arrogance of their NPCs will appear justified. But if player action results in them only owning two, then the dialogue will seem farcical at best and jarring at worst.

Beyond that I generally try to examine some of the concept art, music (if any) and general themes that the developers want to explore and use that to set the tone of the stories I write.

What techniques do you use to immerse yourself in the game's setting and atmosphere?

The simplest technique involves examining in-game footage and artwork to get a “feel” of what playing the game would be like. To remain in the right kind of headspace, I tend to play soundscape compilations from YouTube, consisting of anything from the whirring of starship systems and radio chatter to howling wind and distant blaster fire.

“Ambient” soundtracks with futuristic dystopian themes are also a good way to get the feel of a setting that is simultaneously relatable and recognisable, but also eerily distant and alien.

How do you collaborate with game developers and designers to ensure that the story seamlessly integrates with the gameplay mechanics?

Most of my interactions are with the game designers as they lay out the game and feed me the parameters for the things I am describing. More often than not, a quest will be needed that has a particular “meta” goal in mind. That goal might be to provide a tutorial or to otherwise introduce the player to new areas or game mechanics. The challenge then is to find a narrative reason for the player to need to do this.

Often as not, the rule “Less is more” applies. Excessively complicated justifications for actions only draw attention to the need to justify them. Given some basic information, players will often fill in the blanks themselves, and discrepancies can even be subverted by having NPCs grumble about the “illogical” demands from management, provided this isn’t overused..

The same rule applies to item descriptions or lore. Keeping descriptions short and simple helps maintain suspension of disbelief. Too much descriptive text will bore the players and increase the risk of a contradiction that might annoy more hard-core science nerds.

Shorter snippets of lore, distributed in item descriptions and quests, keep the game progressing smoothly and seamlessly and let the players pick up on overarching themes themselves without feeling lectured.

In what ways do you contribute to the development of characters and locations within Dark Frontiers?

Well, I write them for starters! Joking aside, while the designers will provide models for characters, I tend to be the one creating new ones. Questgivers and regular NPCs will often not need much characterisation beyond their core purpose and an archetype, as simple characters can shine through in spite of what might be quite limited space for dialogue. More important characters in lore need to be much more three dimensional and nuanced.

Locations tend to be more give-and-take, with some stories being adapted to suit locations presented by the designers, while other locations may be designed specifically to serve as a backdrop for core missions that I have written.

How do you create a storyline that keeps players engaged and invested in the game world?

The trick to keeping players engaged is to make sure that there is always something new to discover or learn about a world… and of course that those things are interesting. One of the early things I envisaged with DF was for the world to be something of a mysterious enigma, with only a limited amount of plot revealed beforehand. Missions and snippets of lore would then allow the player to unravel what the history of the moon was.

As the game has developed, some of this atmosphere of mystery was lifted in favour of something slightly more light-hearted, so while there are still mysteries to unravel, a lot more of the storyline revolves around the current corporations and their interactions and their antagonistic attitude towards each other.

All of these should always be regarded as a supplement to the enjoyment of the gameplay itself. It is far more rewarding to discover something that will directly impact your gaming experience, be it the unlocking of a new weapon, mastering a crafting recipe or taking down a boss for the first time. Revelations about the plot simply provide depth and context to the tangible rewards of a challenge overcome.

Can you discuss your approach to world-building in the context of Dark Frontiers?

When I began work on the Dark Frontiers project, the game was in its very early form, and lore was largely non-existent. My role then was to flesh out the lore in broad strokes, designing something closer to a historic timeline rather than detailed character plots and story arcs. There were several rewrites along the way, as some of the broader plot elements were reimagined by the developers to better suit their vision.

I would then start to write standalone passages of character storyline that helped shape the tone and themes of the broader narrative and provided a reference for the developers to comment and give feedback on the direction I was taking the plot in.

This feedback worked both ways, as writing the passages would lead me to questions that I would need answered, from technical questions like “Is the lunar surface a near vacuum in this world? What kind of space suits are used on the surface?” to broader design questions such as “What scope is there for underground levels? Will sections of the game be instanced?”

Is there a specific aspect of Dark Frontiers’ story or lore that you are particularly proud of?

I am quite proud of the crafting tree and the amount of research it took to write up narratively plausible production processes from resources to finished products, not to mention the stories behind the item designs.

I spent far longer than I would like to admit on various wikipedia articles regarding everything from lasers to nuclear fusion reactors in order to make sure I was using the right terminology. I think I struck the right balance between plausible science and science fiction… while still not needing the players to mine every element on the periodic table.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Dark Frontiers lore and what makes it interesting/unique in your opinion?

Dark Frontiers takes place in an alternate universe and on a moon that has been cut off from its planet. The colonisation of the moon in this timeline was not done as a collective endeavour for all humankind, but as a project of corporate contracting and expansion. This means that everything the player encounters is somehow a construct of corporate endeavour acting in an environment that is almost completely unrestrained by the laws and moral limits of the home planet. Part of what I enjoyed was describing a world that was shaped by all the corporate excesses, failures and quirks that we know from our daily lives, but writ large in the stars.

How did the planet depicted in Dark Frontiers become the way it is, full of alien life and plant life?

Originally Luna was supposed to have been terraformed (or perhaps “xenoformed” is the right word) by the accidental activation of gravity generators and hidden containment facilities by a huge electromagnetic pulse originating in the home planet.

As the fundamental background of the world changed, and the home planet was deemed to have been destroyed, the terra/xenoforming event instead became a cataclysmic event in which the planet’s destruction resulted in the moon being bombarded with the remains, permanently changing the surface, but also breaking open long-hidden facilities containing all kinds of flora and fauna. This combination of events resulted in the localised biozones seen in the game, as well as the small remaining outpost of humanity located on the far side of the moon, where they were shielded from much of the disaster.

How do the players appear on Luna? Is there any reason they are fighting to survive in such a hostile environment?

Human technology is very advanced when the home planet is destroyed, and as a result, a lot of people live on spaceships and space stations orbiting the planet, many of which survive the initial blast.

The players are some of those survivors. Escaping their ships before they were crushed by the debris from the exploding planet, their escape pods piloted them to the only safe place within range, the far side of the moon. To prevent thirst, starvation and boredom, the escape pods put the passengers into cryo-sleep until they are either recovered or energy reserves drop too low. This helps to explain the time lapse after the explosion.

As they emerge on Luna, they become the new inhabitants of a mostly automated colony that is now entirely cut off from any outside support.

It is now up to them to survive in this new world in which society, subsistence and the very ground they tread on have been drastically transformed by the cataclysmic event.

The unique allure of Dark Frontiers lies in its alternate universe—a moon shaped by corporate excesses, unrestrained by the moral limits of the home planet. Torben's meticulous approach to world-building, blending scientific accuracy with imaginative storytelling, ensures that players not only play a game but inhabit a world transformed by the cataclysmic events that define Dark Frontiers.

Keen on experiencing this world? You can already try out a small section of the game - the PVP Arena right now! Sign up here.