When someone first starts playing a long-running video game, a ritual begins. Friends who’ve spent considerably more time with the game immediately start asking “Have you gotten to [part that is so iconic as to have become revered]?” You reply “No” repeatedly, but that only builds anticipation. Will the moment live up to expectations, or will it fall flat in the face of unattainable hype? Not long after I started playing Warframe, my friends did exactly this with a quest called “The Second Dream.” I can now confirm that it is, indeed, completely bonkers.
“The Second Dream” is a main story quest that takes a while to unlock. You’ve got to make your way through a solid chunk of the game’s star chart of levels and quests before you can undertake it. I’ve been playing the game at a relatively leisurely pace—working my way through the star chart but also stopping to farm for Warframe parts on occasion—and it didn’t become an option until I’d been playing for nearly 70 hours. This is significant because “The Second Dream” ties together narrative revelations and the sudden introduction of new gameplay systems, systems I had just assumed weren’t in Warframe, because who suddenly reveals they were there all along at the 70-hour mark?
Here’s the basic setup: In Warframe, you’re a member of a long-dormant warrior race known as the Tenno. Throughout the game, you’ve been shepherded between quests by Lotus, a mysterious and remote figure who helped rescue you from certain doom when you first woke up and sloughed out of the pod you’d spent the past incalculable number of years in. In the quest right before “The Second Dream,” you finally find out who Lotus is: a member of an artificial race called the Sentients who, in a former life, was tasked with destroying the Tenno. She could have succeeded but ultimately refused, instead hiding them away until the point at which Warframe starts.
In “The Second Dream,” Lotus’ plan hits a bit of a snag. Her father, a Sentient named Hunhow, figures out how Lotus saved the Tenno and seeks to undo it all. He teams up with a mysterious figure (Warframe has a lot of those) named the Shadow Stalker to pull the plug on the source of the Tenno’s power: the goddamn moon. This is wild because, prior to this point, everyone has acted as though the moon is gone. It’s nowhere to be found on the star chart—until this mission, when it suddenly appears. Turns out, Lotus warped the moon into an extradimensional realm called The Void in order to hide the Tenno from other Sentients. So you end up stalking the Shadow Stalker into The Void.
OK, that’s all the jargony lore stuff out of the way. For now. On the moon, you find a big pod. Inside that pod is a smaller pod. Inside the smaller pod is a person clad in a jumpsuit and a helmet. When they begin to move of their own accord, your Warframe suddenly stops and slumps to the ground. However, this mysterious figure (told you there are a lot of them) is weak, and so they crawl into the arms of your Warframe, which then returns to life and lifts them up. The Shadow Stalker comes for you both, but hesitates. He’s a Warframe-ass looking dude, so it’s easy to infer that he’s probably not entirely sold on the idea of finishing off his own kind.
You flee the moon and return to your ship, still cradling the jump suit-clad figure. Lotus urges you to carry them to a compartment of your ship that has not previously been operational. There, you once again encounter the Shadow Stalker, who’s feeling a bit more murder-y this time. You fight, he wins. He then monologues at you, confirming what I (and I’m guessing, most other players) had already figured out by this point: You are not you.
“No self, no sense, no death,” he says to your Warframe, what you’ve known as your body for the entire game. “Just a metal puppet, dangling on Tenno strings. Only the Tenno’s death will end your despair.”
Then Shadow Stalker stabs the fuck out of you. It’s gnarly! He proceeds to close in on your noodly new pal, asking them if they’d questioned whether or not they were also “one of these wretched things.” But as he chokes the life out of them, you come to and yank part of the sword out of your chest. Shadow Stalker flees, and you resume slumping. Then somebody else shows up: It’s Lotus, in the flesh, for the first time in the entire game. She carries your friend to a pod on your ship and gently places them into it. They proceed to remove their helmet, and then...
Warframe introduces the character creator, allowing you to select a face, hairstyle, markings, and all that good stuff. After 70 hours. Because the person you rescued is you, the Operator of your Warframe, previously sealed away on the moon in The Void. Through a series of dialogue choices, Lotus walks you through recalling the origin of the Tenno: Long ago, a ship botched a jump into The Void, and when it returned, the only survivors were kids. They gained terrifying powers, but they couldn’t control them. Ultimately, a researcher put them into a dreaming state and created technology that would allow them to remotely channel their powers into surrogate bodies. Warframes. Just like that, orphaned kids became war machines.
All of this plays out with surprising tenderness in interactions between your Warframe, Lotus, and your real body, which makes sense: Lotus spared the Tenno because she realized what they were. Prior to this point, she’s effectively acted as your Space Mom, and this is why.
As I created my character, it was a triumphant moment, but it was also sobering: No matter which options I chose, I came away with somebody who looked young but haunted—with a kind of vacant stare that repeatedly sought the ground instead of trying to make eye contact.
Here’s what I settled on:
In hindsight, I feel like he has a regrettable Hayden-Christensen-as-Anakin-Skywalker (circa the “I don’t like sand” scene) energy about him, which sort of fits the theme, but also feels like a product of very limited options. The moment that unlocks Warframe’s character creator is wild, but the character creator itself, uh, could be better.
While talking to Lotus, you also pick a personal backstory that dictates which of several new progression trees you unlock, which, again, the game has not previously telegraphed the existence of. This gets to the heart of what makes the whole twist so impressive: It’s married to gameplay systems, with revelations about who you are and what you were punctuated by the sudden emergence of new systems that feel truly earned and personal—an impressive feat in a massively multiplayer game where millions of other players are also the “main” character.
I still wish the character creator was better, though.