Warframe is a free-to-play third-person shooter sci-fi soloable co-op video game, released in 2013.
It features a baroque far future, a bewildering pile-up of game systems, and lots of weapons. It’s pretty, very popular, and not too predatory. Unless you’re particularly addiction-prone, but then in that case you already know to avoid F2P games.
This article is a primer about the Warframe setting – the universe. It isn’t expansive, since in Warframe, the good lore moves in mysterious ways.
This article has S P O I L E R S about the quest stories in Warframe.
Having them spoiled would be a shame. The plot twist with the amazing “The second dream” quest remains one of my favourites in 40+ years of gaming.
This article was done in early 2019. That places it before Game Update 25 (the Jovian Concord, release of the Wisp warframe), though I’ve added scattered notes since.
The events of the New War and latter will be covered in a second writeup.
The Origin System
In the grim darkness of the far future there is, I am sorry to report, only war.
The game takes place in the Solar System, usually called the “Origin System”. All planets, and various large celestial bodies, have been colonised.
Several were terraformed and given a 1G gravity field. Where that’s not feasible (say, the gas giants) there are huge bases with an adjusted gravity field.
This was presumably done by the Orokin, a now-fallen Human empire.
Planets and planetoids are equipped with orbital stations, called Junctions. These can link with each other using an energy beam called the Solar Rail. The Rail allows for quick travel from junction to junction, as long as your ship can reach a high orbit.
Since moons and planetoids can be visited, the good old “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nougat” mnemonic isn’t sufficient anymore to place planets in order. So, from the Sun :
Mercury doesn’t seem to have been terraformed, given the heat. But it is orbited by numerous large mining bases. Perhaps they mine graphite ?
Venus had large terraformed areas, with Orokin technological remains keeping the heat down. These were colonised using arcologiesAn entire city within a single mega-building. carved into mountains.
One such terraformed area, Orb Vallis, can be visited in-game. It is an odd mix of small mountains and plateaux, with liquid coolant forming rivers and lakes.
There’s an ecology, and there’s a weather of sort. The orbital terraforming equipment has the protected areas go through cycles of warmer or colder temperatures.
Working in Orb Vallis is thus a bit like working in a sub-Arctic facility – say, in Siberia. Keeping all this protective equipment running to make the surface accessible is hard, precise work.
Earth was thoroughly devastated in the distant past. It was so battered that the Orokin had to move their seat of power to the Moon.
However, mutated and adapted lifeforms have been surging back. These seem to be reforming healthy ecosystems, including impressive and hardy forests.
Some animals are genetically engineered animals gone feral. A typical example are kubrows, a sort of oviparous canine/ursine hybrid with a bat face. These are powerful and durable beasts.
The Moon is gone.
There’s a smidgen more data about Earth in the Titania warframe profile.
Mars was terraformed, though it remains an arid, sandy place.
There are deserted inhabitations bored into the sides of gulches. One gets the impression that after the fall of the Orokin, a planetwide rivers circulation system broke from lack of maintenance. And that the natives then adopted a low-tech, arid milieu culture. But it’s impossible to tell.
Said natives were exterminated in recent decades, and their culture destroyed.
There’s a smidgen more data about Mars in the Inaros warframe profile.
Phobos is a moon of Mars. Like Venus, it seems primarily settled through orbital bases.
One of the orbital facilities is a Rail beam that enters the Void, a sort of sinister hyperspace. This might be a reference to DooM, which is set on Phobos and features a gate leading to Hell.
Deimos is the other major moon of Mars. It was almost entirely taken over by the Infestation (see below). To the point where the entire moon might break apart under the strain.
Deimos still holds the small, dysfunctional, immortal Entrati family and their many labss. These Orokin persons led fantastic research into exotic energy sources, which were instrumental in winning the Old War (see below).
Ceres is the largest body in the asteroids belt between Mars and Jupiter.
It may have been a sort of space shipyard, with huge facilities. It seems to have an atmosphere and gravity, but is extremely humid. The rain is constant and heavy.
There too, the climate may be caused by broken terraforming equipment.
There are cloud cities in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, heavily shielded against the temperature, gravity, electromagnetic megastorms, etc.. One imagines that they can move to avoid the continent-sized hurricanes.
As with many Orokin facilities, these bases are meant to wantonly pilfer resources. Particularly the liquid metals in lower layers of the gas giant.
This moon of Jupiter (one of 79, as per the 2018 count) is an ice ball. It is primarily notable due to enormous space battles having taken place nearby.
The ice of Europa is thus littered with huge starship wrecks, and heavily-armed reclamation/wreck-stripping crews.
When working, these set up temporary networks of heat generators. These create a bubble where the crew can operate in a standard armour suit, rather than an even bulkier and costlier vacuum suit.
Most activity takes place within the rings, where a mess of orbital stations and starships can be found.
Saturn used to be important for space traffic. Perhaps the rings make it easy to mine fuel or a similar resource.
Uranus is now an ocean planet. The liquid doesn’t seem to be the methane/ammonia mix thought to exist on Uranus now. Orokin terraforming presumably took place.
Uranus does have aquatic flora and fauna. The oceans are thus likely water, or something close to it.
There are orbital stations, but there also are deep-sea ocean labs. The ones seen in the game were repurposed for genetic research.
Another ice planet, with conditions broadly similar to Europa. Neptune has a significant industrial base. It is apparently a desirable location to build cutting-edge robo-factories.
Eris is a dwarf planet, and the conditions there may have been similar to Europa. In recent years, it was overrun by the Infestation. Orbital facilities and warships were overtaken, and survivors were forced to evacuate.
Reckless schemer Alad V attempted to weapon this Infestation strain, only to be taken over. This resulted in Infestation attacks against other planet, but Tenno forces (see below) put an end to that.
The planetoid Sedna seems to primarily be an arsenal, weapons research and warship-building planet.
It is controlled by the Grineer (see below) commanded by the towering Kela De Thayme. This gigantic cybernetic eccentric spends a lot of time organising televised, rigged bloodsport competitions to maintain discipline among Grineer throughout the Origin System.
(So the revised planets order mnemonic would be something like My Very Educated Mother Prefers Doggedly Calling Jesus Every Sunday Until No Liturgy Even Stands, which doesn’t seem practical).
The Void is a sort of hyperspace – another dimensionOther realms of existence that are not our universe allowing for faster travel.
It is a strange place, and there are strong hints than the Void is an entity as well as a space. Being in the Void requires specific protections to avoid being warped, mutated and having one’s sanity shattered.
There are Rail stations that still allow for reaching outposts within the Void. These Orokin space bases/ships are a tempting target to recover lost Orokin tech. However, they have special security measures, including a Neural Sentry system that will likely brainwash those without a specially-protected mind.
There’s some sort of evil… “magic”, for lack of a better word, within the Void. Harnessed by Entrati research, this energy is behind many of the more horrific and inexplicable phenomena in the Origin System. The “evil magic” sometimes manifests as a sinister, elusive doppelgängerEerily exact double of a person. Often supernatural and evil. of the person observing it.
We All Lift Together is a work song of the clandestine union of industrial cyborg workers in Fortuna, on Venus.
It’s an awesome song, and the video provides extensive visuals for a Venus underground city.
The Orokin were the main, and perhaps only, power in Humanity’s far future. This mighty civilisation was an aristocracy, and seemed on the decadent side.
Its principal castes apparently went as follow :
The Orokin proper were a small aristocracy. These had an internal hierarchy with subcastes, the highest being the Sectari. They often use Latin terminology.
Their highest authority was apparently a body called the Executors, rigidly enforcing the Seven Principles.
Orokin were genetically enhanced, and increasingly perfect as subcastes went up. Computers and genetically engineered servants were programmed to respond to these enhancements. For instance, only a Sectarus could issue the largest-scale commands.
The Orokin really liked gold, marble-like materials, tall arches, rampant exploitation, power and treachery. Their architecture tended to be cathedral-like displays of wealth and power.
There was a sort of middle class, of unclear status. They may have been the lowest rungs of Orokin nobility (such as the Ingenus subcaste) or commoners granted good living conditions.
Soldiers and labourers
These apparently were cheap, disposable, brief-lived clones. Their minds were deliberately diminished, and they were genetically compelled to obey Orokin nobility.
Settlers of the Zariman
Having recklessly exploited the Origin System, the Orokin sought to expand to other solar systems.
The key step was to find ways to travel fast enough. This research led to the discovery of a sort of living hyperspace called the Void.
One attempt to travel through the Void was made. The enormous Zariman Ten-Zero (or “Ten-Oh”) experimental ship was to cross the Void to colonise the Tau solar system. It would also extend the Solar Rail to Tau.
The commoners aboard weren’t volunteers. There were rebellions and sabotages – including sabotaging the hydroponics so there’d be no food and the ship would be forced to turn back. But the Orokin nobles seemed fanatical about colonisation, and pushed forward no matter what. There is an implication that the Origin System was doomed, with the Sun on a path to go nova earlier than it should.
Furthermore, the jump into the Void was a catastrophe, and Void energy manifested aboard. All the adults aboard were Void mutated and became some sort of rage zombie.
An unclear number of children survived by barricading themselves in their classroom. Some of them were then contacted by a mysterious, sinister Void entity they called the Man In The Wall. It offered them Void energies giving them the power to survive. But this proved horribly dangerous and difficult to control.
The Orokin then instead developed a class of highly adaptable, intelligent machines called the Sentients. These could be shipped to the Tau System through the Void. Then they would activate, be able to endure any conditions within the Tau system, and start the terraforming process.
The Orokin suspected that the powerful Sentients might turn against them. There was thus a built-in flaw, where exposure to the Void would kill them. Therefore, the Sentients couldn’t return to the Origin System.
The Sentients indeed rebelled. And the flaw didn’t work as well as planned. It partially disabled Sentients, but the Void didn’t outright kill them.
The Old War
The Orokin could field a formidable clone military – but the Sentients could take over Orokin technology. The Orokin therefore needed to develop a different tech.
The solution that was found involved :
- Weapons based on low-tech principles, such as firearms, bows and melee weapons.
- Advanced suits of power armourStrength-enhancing body armour, like Iron Man’s, though that alone wasn’t sufficient.
- Infecting elite soldier/servants with a strange Infestation, and locking them within the power armours. A person with this specific form of Infestation made the suit uncontrollable by the Sentients.
A first generation of hulking power armours with an infested corpse locked inside was called the Necramechs. These were developed on Deimos by the Entrati family. But though Necramechs were fearsome war machines, they lacked speed, flexibility and stealth capabilities.
A refined version of this power armour + infested person combo — this time using a live infestee — was called a Warframe. The warframes did prove mighty on the battlefield, and presumably turned the tides of the Old War. However…
The infected servants had been tortured and brainwashed – and warped by the disease. Seething with hatred against the Orokin, they too turned against the masters.
Rise and rebellion of the Tenno
The Void-infused children of the Zariman Ten-Oh had been locked away as an embarrassment. They were called devils, rejects and abominations.
But an Orokin scientist named Margulis doggedly studied them. She lived with them despite the awful risks – and taught them to use their energies. As she kept refusing orders to stop this, Margulis was executed.
After the Warframes’ rebellion, her research resurfaced.
All or most of the Ten-Oh children could project their consciousness into the mind of a Warframe, a process called Transference. This wasn’t a hostile takeover. Most Warframes wanted this, as a Ten-Oh youth taking control brought them relief from their constant suffering.
The young mutants doing Transference were kept in secret suspended animation facilities. They possessed their Warframe partner(s) over interplanetary distances, and made them even more powerful. The Tenno eventually won the war against the Sentients.
(This is a variation on the animé trope of “only these ill-adjusted teenagers can control the super-robots that can save the world”. Though it’s not played up, since the game originally had little narrative.)
Fall of the Orokin
Predictably, the Tenno eventually rebelled against the Orokin.
During the big victory ceremony, the assembled Tenno war heroes turned against the assembled Orokin aristocrats. There were barely any survivors among the upper castes.
In the chaos, one of the few Sectarus caste survivors allied with labourer/soldier clones, the Grineer. She had found specimens who had developed an independent personality. The Grineer rebelled along with this Sectarus, attempting to conquer the Origin System and particularly Earth.
The old, small middle class (and perhaps the lower rungs of Orokin nobility) fled and hid in disarray. But over time they rallied. They formed technocratic megacorporations, collectively called the Corpus. This alliance rebuilt part of its power, though much had been lost during the years of chaos.
Another in-game cinematic offers a view of Cetus. It is located on Earth. This colony exploits ancient Orokin ruins, from before mankind mostly left the planet.
Cetus seems to correspond to the dried bed of the Sea of Azov.
The Grineer cloning process is even worse than it was under the Orokin. But it is their only means of reproduction. Grineer are thus commonly “born” with a limited lifespan, poor intelligence, poor temper and a collection of physical defects.
It gets worse as time passes and the Grineers are copies of copies of copies of copies etc. spat out by their flesh factories.
Physical defects are brute-force-corrected using cheap bionic implants. Say, to replace a malformed arm with a robotic one. This is faster, easier and cheaper than medical solutions. Especially for a mass-produced not-quite-a-person who won’t live long. Prostheses replacing the feet and lower legs seem particularly common.
A limited number of Grineers are mutants. These are clearly persons with independent thought, a working intellect, a personality, etc.. The mainstream Grineer, who detest everything that isn’t them, especially loathe these.
The Grineer (continued)
The Grineer are allegedly governed by two Orokin high-caste survivors, the Twin Queens. This is generally believed to be propaganda – but they do exist.
There’s an implication that one Queen is Bilsa, the rogue Sectarus survivor, and that she cloned herself to have a non-Grineer person to talk to.
The Queens retains the secrets of Orokin immortality, which seems to use Void energies. Over time, they even began fielding Void-augmented Grineer officers, though the augmentations tend to damage their loyalty conditioning.
Like the Tenno, Void-augmented Grineer leaders (who are called a “lich”) have special powers and are practically unkillable. However, the Tenno eventually acquired from Deimos’ House of Entrati a method to “decrypt” the Void energies of liches, which can eventually prevent a lich from returning from death.
The Grineer agenda is big on conquering Earth, which they dominate. But this is running into bitter opposition by hardened natives, the remains of mighty Sentient war machines, genetically-engineered predators, spreading super-flora, religious factions who believe Earth to be sacred, etc..
They are also trying to get Clem.
The Corpus is a set of companies that are big on engineering, and double as cults worshipping financial profit. They have a capitalistic system of shareholders, investors, and thoroughly exploited workers.
The Corpus militaries are the main rivals of the Grineer for the domination of the Origin System.
They use energy weapons, and a slew of combat robots. Many such robots have a bipedal design vaguely reminiscent of flightless birds. Others look a bit like panthers, and there are many flying drones with vaguely animal-like aesthetics.
There’s an implication that most Corpus staff seen in the field are actually android proxies.
The Corpus seem to be descendants of tech-oriented castes back during the Orokin days. They have a strong interest in reclaiming Orokin technology, lost during the Fall as the Corpus’ ancestors fled the Grineer.
The Corpus was founded by a ruthless entrepreneur named Parvos Granum during the Orokin era. His original goal was to find ways, through ruse and hard work, to become wealthy and rise above his condition as a member of the endlessly poor and dominated servant caste. This might mirror the rise of the bourgeoisie in an aristocratic society during European history.
Granum edicted several commandments as he created the Corpus culture. Many of those were about constant work, but over the generations one of his tenets — essentially “greed is good” — eclipsed the others.
The Infestation seems to have struck the Orokin Empire in its waning days, contributing to its fall.
It is carried by spores, and can :
- Merge everything it infests into some sort of hivemind.
- Infest robots or even simple machines as well as living beings.
- Spread very quickly.
- Mutate the appearance of what it infests over time, be it flesh or hard metal. This works even on huge scales, such as the Infestation “overwriting” a small-city-sized orbital station.
It may have been an Orokin or Sentient super-weapon, and seems to have ties with the Void. One line about the giant monster Lephandis implies that the Infestation was weaponised during the Old War.
The Infestation was apparently suppressed after or during the fall of the Orokin. However, during the game era, irresponsible Grineer bio-weapon research allows for a return of the Infestation. This is a major threat to the Origin System.
A particularly large and powerful Infestation monster claimed (telepathically ?) that assimilation by the Infestation was the path to immortality. And indeed, some Infested creatures called Ancients are hypothesised to date back to the Old War, if not further.
The factions aren’t monolithic. For instance, some mutant Grineers are pacifists. They just wish to defect so they can live in peace.
Examples of other factions seen in the game include :
- Artificial Intelligences (“Cephalons”), possibly built back during the Orokin days by digitising the consciousness of a prisoner. These have their own agenda and beliefs, and their high access to information often make them influential and with a network of contractors.
- A subset of Corpus corporations, the Perrin Sequence, that believes that a more responsible capitalism is a better path to prosperity.
- A religious organisation, the New Loka, which believes that Earth is sacred. It seeks to return a healed humanity to a healed Earth.
- Clandestine unions of workers kept in debt slavery by the Corpus. These workers are often forced to sell limbs and organs to pay their debts. These are replaced by cybernetics making them better workers, but of course the company store bills them for these…
- What remains of Sentient invaders in the Origin System. The most spectacular are animal-like giant war machines called the Eidolon.
- An activist pirate radio station called Nightwave. Crusading radio personality Nora Night offers gifts to those listeners who act against the unethical activities she has discovered. This makes her a powerful player, as her program is quite popular among the Tenno.
- A returned Parvos Granum, who emerged from a sort of limbo where he had taken refuge millennia ago. He is highly sceptical of what the Corpus has become, and has started carving out his own power base. Granum is assisted by a piratical space fleet crewed by combat robots and Corpus proxies, as well as an all-women cult of nearly unkillable cyborg officers.
This 1:30mn bit is cryptic for non-Warframe players. But it shows the Infested Deimos landscape, Infestation creatures, necramechs (the golden-skull-faced humanoid heavy mechas), various warframes in action, stuff like that. So that’s a fair bit of Warframe aesthetics.
The Space Mother watches over the psychic cyborg space ninja
During the Old War, a Sentient infiltrator took over the central Tenno facility on the Moon. She was the deciding factor in having the Tenno rebel against their Orokin masters.
However, the Void damage in travelling to the Origin System had warped her. She now considered the Tenno to be her adoptive children. The Sentient absorbed in some fashion the personality of Margulis, the dead Orokin scientist, who had had a motherly role toward the outcast Zariman Ten-Oh survivors.
This entity called herself The Lotus. She pretended to be a Human cyborg and hacker.
The Lotus worked tirelessly to protect the Tenno after the Fall, even though her orders had been to destroy them all. She also manipulated them in an ethically suspect attempt to preserve their sanity, hiding their true nature from them.
Over time The Lotus developed a network of alliances, hidden bases, contacts, ways to covertly activate the Solar Rail, stealthy small spaceships, recovered Orokin tech, etc..
The super-soldiers return
There was also an emphasis on recovering old Warframes. These had been placed in suspended animation after the Old War, and finding one was a treasure. Analysing recovered Warframes allowed for producing new copies, including an infected clone of the original.
At the end of the Old War, The Lotus shifted the entire Moon into the Void to hide and protect it. This changed little for Transference purposes, and kept Tenno operators safe even if their enemies managed to destroy their current Warframe.
Beyond gathering resources and intelligence, the Tenno also work as mercenaries. Even the Grineer and the Corpus will hire them. They and the Tenno may be enemies, but pragmatism says that when you can hire a mighty Tenno space ninja to strike at your foes and turn the battle, you do so.
(For more detail about the Tenno, see our Callsign Hammerfall character profile.)
Source of Character: Warframe as of early 2019.
Writeup completed on the 28th of February, 2019.