If you’re keyed into the Warframe community, you have an endless source of content to discuss, whether that’s speculating about upcoming content or going back and rehashing the little details of older campaign moments. If you’re outside of Warframe, however, it’s all incomprehensible.
But there’s one story twist in Warframe that deserves a spotlight, even for those who aren’t interested in the entire game. The Second Dream is a wildly clever story that grapples with the real-world challenges of developing a living online game and uses them as a starting point for an incredible moment in the game’s narrative.
[Spoiler warning: this article contains major spoilers for Warframe’s quest The Second Dream]
What makes a twist?
The best twists are not the ones that change the basic reality of a situation (i.e. “it was all a dream”), but rather reshape the existing narrative in subtle, interesting ways. It’s why people still discuss BioShock or Silent Hill 2. Both games had twists that forced the player to put everything that happened before into a new context.
But Warframe isn’t a traditional game, with an immediately accessible campaign. It’s a living online game that’s been slowly built up over the years. It took me a hundred hours to reach The Second Dream quest, because I took a convoluted, Family Circus-style path to get there, and repeatedly doubled back to help friends with early-game content. Even a dedicated player aiming straight for this quest might spend 20 or 30 getting to it.
There are bits in that 20 or 30 hours that are genuinely great and are worth the ride in their own right. But a large chunk of that time is spent listening to the Lotus, your NPC guide and space mom, give some simple instructions for basic tasks before you ninja flip and murder a ton of dudes.
And that’s why the ultimate reveal is so damned effective. The Second Dream quest manages to take the entire batch of content up to that point and work it into the twist itself.
Who’s behind the Warframe?
Up until the Second Dream, the nature of a Warframe isn’t really questioned. The suits of armor are tools, just like the guns I equip. Other characters refer to me as “Tenno,” which I assume is just another name for a Warframe. The larger framing around the universe itself barely matters.
Or at least that’s what I used to think.
Throughout my missions, I find the ruins of an empire built by a people called the Orokin. I find out, over time, that the Orokin lived in what was essentially space Rome, mixed with a healthy dose of Warhammer 40k’s Imperium. They tried to expand, sometimes violently, after mining our star system to near exhaustion.
The empire launched residential ships into the Void, a mysterious realm that connects space, hoping that the ships would land on the “other side” and find new systems to colonize ... but the ships were lost.
They also created the Sentients, a race of AI creatures who could also head to new systems and start building fresh foundations for the empire. Surprising absolutely no one, that failed too. The AI ended up rebelling, and the Orokin empire crumbled.
These story quests become denser as the game goes on, showing up more frequently between stretches of murdering and pillaging lots of space capitalists.
In one quest, I find out that the Lotus, the mysterious guide who’s been encouraging me, is a Sentient. She betrayed her people in order to protect the Tenno, the warrior caste of characters who are controlled by players. Her father, Hunhow, is leader of the Sentients, and he shows up with a scary sidekick: the Stalker, a creature that looks like a warped and ruined Warframe. The Stalker also happens to be bent on my destruction.
Which, I gotta be honest, doesn’t seem optimal.
Apparently Hunhow learned how to eliminate the Tenno and their Warframes. With the Tenno out of the way, the Sentients would complete their goal of taking over the system.
For the first time in Warframe, I feel vulnerable. This isn’t a power fantasy anymore. There’s suddenly a legitimate threat against me, and I don’t fully understand what to do about it. The Stalker is more than my equal; I have to pull out everything I can just to survive his assaults. Actually winning a fight against them to the point where I would be left alone seems impossible.
The quality of Warframe also ramps up considerably at this point. The combat is the same, but quests become more complex, the new voice actors are doing incredible work, and the environments are more elaborate. That jumpy, flippy, wildly fun gameplay is being put to a purpose now, and I’m moving through environments and encountering characters that matter in a way they didn’t before. Now there is a story that changes the game’s stakes, and I’m afraid of what that means for my survival.
Lotus finally, reluctantly, reveals some of the information she’s been hiding from me. She hid the key to protecting the Tenno on the moon. And then she hid the moon, which is only unveiled to me now. I have to find the Tenno’s power if I’m to fight back in an effective way.
But instead of a weapon, I find a pod. Inside the pod is a child. Then my Warframe breaks, and my UI is scrambled. My perspective suddenly shifts, and the other shoe drops in dramatic fashion.
I am the child. I have met myself.
From here on out, I am able to play as the Operator, the child who controls the Warframe. I am, in many ways, more vulnerable now. I am deeply afraid for the Lotus and Teshin, companions I’ve grown to genuinely like throughout these quests. The world is still a dangerous place, and I haven’t saved the system. I also now have a very real body in the world, and that body can be destroyed.
The inhuman, distant design of the Warframes makes sense now. Lotus’s detachment, and the fact that I felt like I was going through a shallow world without much higher thought or focus, makes sense now.
I have gotten other friends into Warframe, and I relish being on voice chat with them when they reach The Second Dream. Their reaction is always a shouted “WHAT?!”, followed by more incredulous, amazed yelling.
The Tenno were all children aboard a residential ship launched into the Void. The Zariman Ten-Zero didn’t survive the voyage; it was caught between dimensions. While the adults went mad from the Void energies, the children survived, and were eventually found and recovered. “Tenno” is a shorthand for the Zariman’s designation; we had never started as a noble warrior caste at all.
These children had powerful, uncontrollable energies, and it took a high ranking Orokin named Margulis to plead for us not to be destroyed. Margulis was a mother figure who sang to us, even as our powers lashed out and blinded her, before we learned to control them. She taught us how to dream and, from there, we could control the Warframes.
The Orokin empire executed Margulis, and the Tenno fell asleep for thousands of years. Finally, we awoke, the Lotus found us, and we started the game.
We are, all of us, lost children. And we are suddenly learning what we are for. The players, up until this point, weren’t the only ones ignorant of the greater meaning of the work they were doing. The characters they were controlling were just as lost. But now, after this mission, both sides of that equation are seeing clearly. And the result is fear.
It’s a fantastic, perfectly executed twist. The action and narrative continues to escalate from there, improving even further for quests like The War Within. However, I don’t think anything will top The Second Dream’s reveal for me. It made the previous hundred hours worth it for me, and made me want to try a hundred more.