Deep Rock Galactic: The Intricacies of Storytelling
We constantly strive for context and meaning in our own world, and this desire seeps its way into the games that we play as well. Even if it is not provided for us, we are unconsciously compelled to seek it out. Therein lies a crucial part of crucial part of storytelling that one may overlook if they are shepherded down a narrow, predetermined path as is common in most story-driven games. It is only through the absence of this path that we may be able to fully appreciate the finer details of the world around us and what happens within it. These details form an integral aspect of a game’s storytelling capability, and when they’re done well, will capture the imagination akin to how a well-done plotline can.
Deep Rock Galactic is a four-player co-op FPS, the debut title of Danish studio Ghost Ship Games. Players take on the role of dwarven space miners on the payroll of the eponymous mining company and tasked with the extraction of valuable resources from beneath the surface of Hoxxes IV. From their orbital platform high above the planet, the dwarves select their mission and deployed down into fully destructible, procedurally-generated cave networks of varied size & complexity with various objectives to complete within. Hampering them in their work lie a series of hazards that include, but are not limited to: little light, cramped spaces, sheer drops, flame vents, smoldering rock, earthquakes, exploding plants, sandstorms, ice storms, lightning-arcing crystals, poisonous fungus, sticky goo, ionizing radiation, acid-spitting flies, and a race of extremely hostile arachnoid aliens known as the Glyphid. Braving all of this and completing the objectives usually leads to a final, desperate sprint back to a randomly determined extraction point with a horde of angry spiders in tow before a five-minute cut off point. When they reach the pod, it takes off and returns to the space rig, wherein another mission may be chosen.
And that’s the lot of it.
There is no traditional story mode in Deep Rock Galactic. The closest thing there is lies at the very start & very end. You are welcomed as a new employee of D.R.G & walked through a simple mission in order to be cleared for further work in the form of an Assignment: a series of designated missions with unique rewards for completing them. You progressively unlock more mission types and regions of the planet and are fully welcomed aboard upon completing the whole series. This is the most one gets of a firm narrative until a dwarf manages to reach level 25, which requires a substantial amount of gameplay to achieve. These bookends are all the structured narrative to be had.
But it is not all the narrative.
Stone to Steel to Stars
Deep Rock Galactic manages to tell its story via the world you play in rather than through a structured journey. It all stems out from the obvious: dwarves have achieved space travel and are now a galactic power. How long they have been capable of this is never stated, but certain details help hone it down. First, they’ve reached a point in advancement past our own, able to construct large, sophisticated orbital structures above planets other than their own. It is also within the capacity of a private company instead of a national government; both feats beyond our current capabilities. You may also observe several PSA screens across the station which read “Space Rig 17”, implying that there exists at least 16 other rigs akin to it. These tidbits all tell that space habitation is extensive and routine; it is nothing new and seen as an extension of terrestrial dwarven civilization. Speaking of civilizations, very few are mentioned within the context of the game. One can gleam that other races – namely elves and humans – exist and are known to the dwarves, gleamed through a couple of cosmetics descriptions and a brand of non-alcoholic, “buzzkill” beer called “Leaf Lover’s”. But there’s a deafening silence on the matter otherwise; one never sees or hears from someone who isn’t a dwarf. It speaks to an insular instinct amongst the dwarven race; more interested in what’s theirs over what’s others. That is, unless what you have is particularly valuable to them…
The namesake company of the game (which shall be referred to as D.R.G from herein) manages to relay aspects of the world to the players. D.R.G is a mining company first and foremost, and the most basic premise of the game is that they have hired the player characters to extract resources from Hoxxes IV, a planet that ‘their competitors’ are not willing to work on due to the world’s intense hostility. This alone demonstrates that there exists a lively capitalist spirit in future dwarven society, one that you witness at its most extreme via your employers. The zeal demonstrated by D.R.G in their pursuit of Hoxxes’ wealth is nothing short of extraordinary. They exhibit an intensive possessiveness of the planet, seeing it as property with which they may do whatever they please. This is in spite of the fact that Hoxxes already possesses native life of its own; life that has inhabited the planet for countless millennia and has evolved to survive in its bizarre biosphere. But to D.R.G, they are treated as pests to exterminate, perhaps even specimens to be experimented on. As part of which, the dwarves come equipped with a myriad of weapons that, while extremely effective, cause pause for thought on the grounds of morality. Flamethrowers, neurotoxic gas, mines, hollow-point ammunition, poisoned bullets, clustered and incendiary explosives – all banned by international law in our world due to the inordinate suffering they cause – are fair game for the dwarves. No mention is made to similar treaties in-game, but at the very least, one can tell that no mercy is bequeathed upon the aliens of Hoxxes. In every mission, they’re the principal enemy whom are to be ruthlessly and quickly dispatched, and on some they are the primary target. The dwarves may be dispatched for the express reason of killing a certain type of Glyphid called Dreadnoughts, before they grow large enough to interfere in company operations. On other occasions, they may be sent to collect Glyphid eggs from nests, with their contact at Mission Control insisting “Don’t ask why.” In both scenarios, alongside every other, the Glyphid and other native life are granted no quarter as D.R.G descends on their home, which as far as the dwarves are concerned, is their honeypot now.
The moral character of D.R.G is also evident in their actions towards the dwarves themselves. Whilst not outright malevolent, one may observe a certain avarice in their interactions with employees. In example, the dwarves may run low on ammunition & supplies during a mission and require more. D.R.G is capable of rapidly deploying a supply pod which can burrow through the ground and arrive in a precise location with supplies for all the dwarves. But D.R.G will only ever do so once the dwarves have collected a sufficient amount of Nitra, a harvestable red crystal found in the caves. Otherwise they will be left out to languish, even if their situation is dire. It’s never explicitly stated why this is a company policy, but it carries negative implication for D.R.G; that they will only supply their employees with potentially life-saving supplies if they make it worth their while. Another disquieting example appears near the conclusion of missions wherein the dwarves must return to the drop pod for extraction. When the drop pod arrives, it will call back the dwarves’ M.U.L.E: an unmanned droid where the party stores their collected goods. The drop pod will depart the caves once the M.U.L.E and dwarves get on board. But two aspects of this process warrant attention: the fact that the dwarves are not allowed into the drop pod if the M.U.L.E hasn’t docked (the only exception being if the M.U.L.E hasn’t arrived by fifteen seconds prior to launch), and the fact that the pod will leave the dwarves behind if they do not reach it within five minutes. Both these facts contribute to D.R.G’s image as being greedy and materialistic; unwilling to leave valued cargo but content to abandon living employees if said cargo is sufficiently threatened. All of this is discerned not through any action on the game’s part, but is capable of being casually observed in the world in which the players inhabit. It is shown, rather than told.
The final and most intimate element of storytelling in-game are the dwarves themselves. As before, little is stated about the characters you play. Once again, the details lie just below the surface. The game starts with the dwarves joining the company as ‘Greenbeards’ and working their way up the ladder through the missions they complete. From this, one may discern that the dwarves just made a career change. Even though what career they’re departing is also never directly stated, there exists a clue in a less-than-obvious place. When browsing the accessories shop to customize the dwarves’ appearances, there’s a beret hat one may equip whose description reads “A reminder of your service.” Berets are typically associated with military outfits such as the U.S Green Berets, which leads to the conclusion that the dwarves are former soldiers or even retired special forces operators.
This notion is reinforced by their familiarity and aptitude with military-grade weaponry. The ability to effectively wield a minigun or automatic turret sentries typically elude the wider population. There’s also the fact that, despite working beneath the surface of an incredibly hostile alien world for a morally-dubious corporation more interested in the riches of the world than the wellbeing of its employees, the dwarves are remarkably calm. Their banter sounds like that which one may have with their own co-workers in real life:
“Goddammit, there’s a pebble in my boot.”
“When we get back, it’s sandwich time.”
“That guy at Mission Control…he really has a cozy job!”
“Move your tin ass over here and hurry, please!”
If you read this without context, would you think it the idle chatter of intergalactic dwarven space miners on a planet full of alien spiders? This tranquility in the face of danger is a defining characteristic of the dwarves, one that is further demonstrated in a curious quirk of theirs. When on a mission, and one presses the reload button when their weapon is already fully loaded, their character will instead play with it. They may twirl it in the air, spin a spare tank of fuel for their flamethrower, spin the barrels of their minigun, balance a bullet on its tip, etc. The fact that they do this conveys a confident and calm state-of-mind; someone in a dire life-or-death situation fearing for their life would not think to see if they can twirl their revolver around their finger. Such casual & playful acts help paint the dwarves’ personalities in an unspoken way; they feel little danger, and are fully expecting to make it back for cold ones.
Taken all together, one can begin to see a tapestry of narrative woven all throughout the world of Deep Rock Galactic. It’s a world far past our own, wherein the stars themselves are the limit of ambition. To reach up towards them is a great peril, but what may be found there is beyond the grasp of the earthbound. Such promise will draw forth only the most daring of companies and individuals; those willing to eschew near any boundary for their chance at a better life. And in their ranks stand our former men-at-arms; their service long behind them, but the fighting spirit still burns bright within them. They’re not ready to lay in leisure just yet…They’ve got checks to cash.
The full power of storytelling can only be wielded if one utilizes all its aspects. When used well, it may become unnecessary to tell much of anything. Deep Rock Galactic is a game that tells little but can still say a lot. Its deceptively simple premise conceals a deeper narrative that goes largely unspoken. Perhaps therein is its greatest strength; its low-key tone implies that it is simply par for the course within the context of its universe. It’s all background noise to the daily routines of working men, one of whom has gotta go down that tunnel full of hissing noises first, so who’s it gonna be?
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