A while ago, I read something that confirmed a suspicion I’ve held for a long time: video games are great for people who deal with chronic pain. It was relieving to learn that I wasn’t doing anything unhealthy or wrong; I was managing my own pain the best I could, and I wasn’t alone in doing it.
A physical therapist, back when I could afford one of those, told me that people experiencing the kinds of pain levels I do end up devoting around 95% of their attention to pain, and dealing with it either requires medication, physical therapy, or a way to get our mind off things. The great beauty of video games is that, because they require action, they occupy more of your brainspace, which means you can focus on them for a while, and not on the swirling, shifting mess of pain throughout your body’s muscles. Games are a wonderful escape.
Unfortunately, action is a double-edged sword. While it’s great for diverting attention away from pain, it can have the unhappy side effect of exacerbating pain too. I talked about this at length in my Dark Souls and Disability piece; if you want to understand more about my illness or what it’s like to live in my skin, that’s a great place to start. The short version is that, hey, some games, especially those with a lot of repetitive interactions or high-stress gameplay, put a great deal of strain that my chronic pain and chronic fatigue issues can’t handle.
I don’t play many competitive games anymore. I used to love it; I put over 100 hours into Battlefield: Bad Company 2 back in the day, and I could routinely show up in the top 3 players of every 32-player match. As my health got worse, I stopped playing competitive games, but I still enjoyed the social elements of online games; since my health isn’t getting medical attention and I can’t afford good food, I’m spending a lot of time indoors. Most of my friends are online, and it’s fun to hop into games with them. Makes things less lonely.
One of the biggest blessings in games over the past few years has been the advent of online, service-based, co-op games. Previously, I really only had access to games like Halo, which are awesome in co-op, but you can replay the entire game in a single sitting with friends. Kinda hard to play that stuff daily. Enter Warframe.
Warframe is a free to play game where you, a space ninja, travel around the solar system through missions with randomly-ordered rooms, on a quest to collect all the cool space ninja outfits and weapons you can find. Each space ninja outfit, the titular “Warframe,” is like a hero in a hero shooter. There’s Trinity, for instance, who can heal her friends and give them energy to fuel their abilities. I really like Frost, who can create a big dome of ice that’s useful for protecting targets. Everyone has a favorite frame; my buddy Cameron loves running Nova, for instance, because of her immense potential as a glass cannon. But for me, my absolute favorite frame is one that’s perfectly balanced between awesome design and tremendous power.
Her name is Ember.
She’s such a cool design, built like a powerful warrior with a mohawk. Her powerset is based around fire. You can throw fireballs, coat enemies in something that makes them take more heat damage, leave a huge well of flame on the ground, or cast “world on fire,” an ability that targets everyone around you within a specified range, one at a time, setting them on fire briefly. Add on the Firequake augment, which guarantees knockdown on any enemy it hits, and you get one of my favorite abilities in a video game ever… or, well… it was.
The beauty of an online, service-based game is that there’s always something to do, always something new to try. That’s what makes them fun. You can’t simply exhaust all the content there is, because the developers are always adding to the game. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to develop mastery over gameplay you enjoy, and if you find something you really like doing, the developers can change it on a whim, robbing you of the thing you enjoy and replacing it with an inferior version.
Ember is the original damage caster frame, offering low survivability in exchange for high offense. Her ultimate, World on Fire, is unmatched in terms of widespread lethality — while many Warframes specialize in certain mission types, Ember’s specialty is “anything under level 30”. By simply bullet jumping through levels with World on Fire active, enemies become a non-factor, making Ember a ubiquitous pick across most of the Star Chart. Like a mobile Resonating Quake, this monopoly on kills can leave squadmates struggling to keep up, in an attempt to see the enemy before they melt. These changes increase lethality at higher levels, while addressing the ability’s huge range.
World on Fire will continue working similarly to how it does now, but with changing effects over time. The gradually increasing energy cost should encourage most players to toggle the ability when needed, instead of the current “set and forget” approach. Players who can afford to run the ability at max charge may need to get more up close and personal, but the increased damage should help Ember out against higher level enemies. World on Fire is still very capable of clearing rooms and sweeping hallways, but should now be applied more deliberately!
This is one of the most saddening design changes I have ever read.
Here’s the thing: most frames require a lot of really active interaction to play well. Like, hey, if you want to play Valkyrie, Rhino, or Excalibur, you’re going to spend a lot of time clicking furiously with your mouse or tapping on your keyboard to make the most of their abilities. I love Valkyrie so much, but I can’t play her well these days. If you want to play a less active frame, you’ve got options like Hydroid, who isn’t really that fun to play — you can turn into a slow-moving puddle or summon a really small field of tentacles that does hardly any damage — or Nekros, who… well, same thing. A lot of the less active frames aren’t really that fun to use, or, like Limbo, can be straight-up infuriating to your teammates (Limbo’s whole deal is banishing players to another dimension, making it a pain in the ass to loot things, and in a looter shooter, this isn’t fun; I love the frame, but I hate making my teammates feel bad).
So along comes Ember, with World on Fire, a really nice offensive ability that isn’t great at damage on higher levels, but can help slow down crowds a bit through the power of Firequake. With an absurd range, she’s really good at thinning crowds. Not as great for burst damage as Nova, not as immensely powerful as Banshee, she still made Warframe really, really dang fun to play.
And more importantly, out of all the frames I played, nobody was as disability-friendly as Ember.
Ember gained a reputation as the “AFK-frame.” The friend who introduced me to her did so by calling her that. You could max out World on Fire, toss in Firequake and max out your energy capacity, press the button in a defense mission, and sit back and watch the fireworks. Or, heck, you could alt tab, browse reddit for a few hours, and still come away with 300+ kills, occasionally hopping back in to top up on energy.
That’s obviously a problem for able-bodied players; game design is the art of motivating players to take action, and Ember was really good for motivating players to do… well, literally nothing.
But me, I like playing Warframe. I like being active. There’s just only so much button-pressing I can do in a day. For an active player like me, World on Fire was great; I’d do my best to keep her topped up on energy, the thinned-crowds meant I never had to be super super super precise with my movements or result to panic-smashing my weapon triggers or ability to survive. She was, in every way, the perfect frame for someone with chronic pain and chronic fatigue problems.
She let me feel useful.
With the nerf, Ember becomes a much, much more active frame. You have to rove around the map constantly, because you have to seek out energy way more, and because your range is awful now — seriously, visually it looks like I’m maybe casting at sub-10 meters, which isn’t great in a game where you can cover like 30–40 meters in a single leap.
Ember was fun. She was relaxing to listen to (seriously, just turn on WOF and let the soothing explosions take you away). She was useful. She was fun. She’s much less so now. I still play her because, like I said, it’s fun to listen to her, but the magic is gone. I came back to Warframe for a bit to pick up some primes that had released since I stopped playing, and because I’m excited to try out ship to ship combat, but the thrill just isn’t there these days.
I replayed some Halo with a friend the other day. It’s not service-based, and it’s only two player, but you know what? Nobody’s added anything new to Halo in 16 years. Nobody’s changed anything. No one ever stepped in and went “you know what? The pistol is too powerful, we’re nerfing it.” If I want to play that stupid, overpowered, godlike, wonderful, amazing pistol, I can do it any day of the week. It’s fun as hell.
I get why the changes to Ember happened, but it’s a harder game for me to play now. It’s a game I feel less useful in. I’ve never found another frame I really clicked with. Ember was perfect for me. She was a frame that worked. Warframe isn’t a game I can block the pain out with; it’s a game I have to play despite the way it exacerbates my pain, unless I want to play frames I simply do not enjoy. The only fire and forget offensive frame now is Octavia, and like… sorry, I don’t like her. I don’t like her design, I don’t like her ability, and I hate listening to her drone’s music. She’s one of the only frames I didn’t bother to track down because she just isn’t the frame for me.
I actually bought a few big Warframe bundles over the years. Out of all the games I chose to spend money on, Warframe was one of the ones I was always happy to put my money towards. Now? I bought some platinum when it was super cheap, but the enthusiasm is gone. I think I’m done spending money on Warframe. I’m less likely to come back for more. I loved supporting Digital Extremes in the past, but I mean, what’s the point of playing a game when the designers make it harder to enjoy?
I know I’m just one guy, but it was nice playing a game that felt like there was something for everybody. Now there’s something for everybody but me.