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Warframe’s The New War is a long-awaited quest to save Space Mom

The New War is now live

Warframe - a Sentient AI wearing the familiar female human face of the Lotus is surrounded by allies. In the foreground, a child kneels in despair. Image: Digital Extremes

Warframe’s The New War quest is here on all platforms, and it is the end of a storyline that has been running for years. It’s one of the wildest narratives in all of gaming, so much so that players have carefully protected the wild twist in The Second Dream quest that sets up the events of this long-awaited expansion.

If you take a glance at Warframe, you may not see its depth. The game stars futuristic space ninjas mowing through waves of terrifying alien forces and space capitalists. But once you get past the surreal aesthetics and the faceless, voiceless protagonists, it’s easy to get into the flow of things. Just when new players find their feet, Warframe pulls the rug back out from under them with a compelling, personal, and deeply human story. The New War finally brings that story to a close, and sets up the next era of adventures.

Polygon spoke with Rebecca Ford, live operations and community director with Digital Extremes. She is also the voice of the Lotus, fondly known as Space Mom by the Warframe community.

[Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers for The Second Dream.]

As the voice of the Lotus, I imagine this was pretty emotional for you to go through and record voiceover for.

Rebecca Ford: Oh yeah. I think the first time I read through the script — without spoiling anything — I definitely was crying by the end. The opportunity to be able to read the script and then even make a suggestion or two was really pleasant for me, because we were able to kind of see the journey that this character has gone through and come to a place where everyone involved felt we were doing the right things for the right reason.

Warframe - The Lotus from Warframe Image: Digital Extremes

The Lotus and her relationship with the operator has been a central pillar of Warframe. We’re resolving parts of that and moving on to new things. Was there trepidation about wrapping this chapter? Or was it a relief to get over the cliffhanger and onto new things?

This depends on who you ask, and you’re asking me, so you’re only getting my answer. From my point of view, we made The Second Dream in 2015. The game wasn’t even two years old. We were like, “Oh really? We’re doing story content? Sweet, let’s go.” We didn’t really know where we were going, per se, we just knew what emotions we felt we were capable of pulling off. And then The Second Dream went better than we could have hoped. And we went, “OK, it’s time to go all in on something human in this very ridiculous world.” Well, no. Not ridiculous. I love the art. It’s very ...

It reminds me a lot of Warhammer 40,000 in scope, and scale. And just like... the amount of bodies being thrown into the meat grinder.

Yeah! So, like, how do you get mummy and daddy involved in the body grinder? Well, we had to tell it in a way that’s distinctly Warframe. And frankly, now that we’re at the point where this story is going to effectively reach its conclusion, let’s say with The New War — we know we’ve set ourselves up for a very interesting next step.

When it comes to online games — and I think this is a problem a lot of developers are dealing with — how do you link the new content to the old stuff without it being an increasingly unsteady Jenga tower?

There are business terms like vertical integration or horizontal integration. And like, when you’re a game as a service, you kind of have to do both. Otherwise, you either become the suburbs, a suburban nightmare, where it’s just horizontal growth everywhere, or your vertical growth can’t support its own weight.

We’re in this really weird... we’ll say “predicament.” But we have this really fortunate scenario, where everything we’ve done, sprawl-wise, actually has formed like a peak in The New War, where your Railjack matters, the open worlds matter, everything established in Deimos matters, which is convenient.

Originally, Deimos was going to come after The New War — or not at all — but we had to release something last year with COVID lockdowns, and The New War was a year out. Now it can be what it is, today. This would be a very different quest if it was released in January 2020.

Warframe - the Xaku Warframe poses on the infested planet of Deimos Image: Digital Extremes

There are characters who aren’t a Tenno or the Operator — Tenshin, Kahl-175, and so on. Have you guys been surprised at how much people love the supporting cast and even the enemies of this game? The folks who are like, “Oh, I’m here for the Corpus, I’m the #1 Corpus fan.”

It’s funny you mentioned Warhammer 40K, because it does give me the same vibe — when people are super loyal to a Warhammer army, like they love their Chaos armies or their little rat people and all that stuff. I don’t think we expected that early on. In Warframe, our protagonists were silent. You had cool robotic space cyborg looking things that don’t say a word and still don’t say a word. All you had for flavor was Corpus, Infested, and Grineer, so players created a mythology that we didn’t expect. But we knew it meant something, so let’s push it further. Let’s recast this; let’s give them speaking voices and personality.

Oh, for sure. I imagine it’s a collaborative process at times with characters like Clem.

Yeah, the Clem story was an integration of a community meme into the game in a way that made sense.

As we head into The New War, the narrative has gotten a lot more complex. There’s talk of philosophy and choices, which is a big departure from the early days where it was “go shoot gun and do flip.” How are the world-building elements of Warframe designed, especially as it gets more complex and things are dovetailing into The New War?

I had the privilege of replaying our early quests last week and the week before. As I went back, and looking at all of the elements established there, it took me everything not to just turn around in my chair, like, “How did we set this all up?” The intentional world-building to make The New War work has been so deliberate. Our story doesn’t have as much exposition as other games — and that’s not a fault, I love to listen to some good exposition — but the actions that occur in Warframe leading up to The New War are so precise in establishing the conclusion to this arc, from the moment in Chains of Harrow when you hear a certain voice, to the betrayal in The Sacrifice.

So I replayed them all, and they make more sense to me now that I’ve finished The New War and went back. So the world-building has been deliberate and consistent, and the elements in The New War should make sense because everything is there.

Warframe - a close up of Natah, the former Lotus, as a Sentient AI Image: Digital Extremes

As a team, how do you decide what to pull, what should stay, which events are limited time, etc.? What is the decision-making process behind that?

Those are probably the hardest decisions we make. What we did with Orphix Venom was, we knew the event had introduced a really important concept, which is that Sentients have the ability to repel Warframes and break Transference. We thought, “OK, we have that working — can we permanently integrate this into Railjack?” Which we succeeded at, so a player who engages with Railjack can play that whenever they want.

Scarlet Spear was an event that had huge lore production elements, custom areas, Erra as a character. And if you weren’t there, you can’t play it, and that’s really hard for us — to stick with that decision. The only reason Scarlet Spear isn’t around right now is we aren’t comfortable that we can give it the permanent attention it needs as a sustained content choice. Which is unfortunate, because it ended up being something great. But realistically, we’re not a huge team. [Maintaining Scarlet Spear] needs to be something that someone solves in the new year. So the decision is made by the virtue of a Mr. Spock quote — the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Moving away from the technical side of things, you’ve been playing the Lotus for years now. Space Mom holds a special place in a lot of players’ hearts. There are people whose hearts are gonna get broken no matter how this story turns out. What is it like to be part of this story and see the Lotus have this effect on players?

It’s weird ... It’s fun. It’s ... I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t ever feel like I’m truly 100% internalizing this experience I’m living, because it feels like one of those things where if I touch it, it’ll disappear. I’ve never really fully internalized the reality of the system I find myself in. Where I work, I play a character, I interact with our players as me, but sometimes they see me as someone else. And I’m very careful not to stare too far into that side of my life, because I am afraid of it. I’m afraid what will happen if I let it get too close.

But at the end of the day I feel like, as a creative person with a creative team that is capable of things, I’m just lucky to be a part of it. I’m lucky that the experiences we’ve had together have been positive enough that I can contribute in the way I do with the team, with story development, with added touches — which I’m sure we’ll have some fun talking about after the quest is out.

And ultimately, I would never be able to express what it’s all meant to me. And at the end of The New War, when all this is said and done, I don’t know how I’m gonna feel and how I’m gonna react. I don’t know what players will think, really. I don’t know what they’re gonna think. I really don’t.

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