“What the fuck even IS a Warframe?” someone once asked me. It might have been my mum, because that’s the sort of thing she asked. At the time I gave a pretty vague answer, something like “biomechanical suits controlled telepathically by kids”, which isn’t really a good answer. It’s true, but it’s still a shitty answer. Even today, “what is a Warframe?” is still a stupidly annoying question to answer. But we’re going to try anyway.
So before the Second Dream, it was assumed that Warframes were people. The majority of characters look like they are suits, containing humans inside them, so that’s kinda bleedin’ obvious. The term “Operator” given to players somewhat made sense as you are operating a suit of part organic, part mechanical armour. This explained why female Warframes had breasts and hips and why male Warframes were physically larger and more robust. If there was a person inside the suit, they’d need to be squeezed in there somehow! This is somewhat doable in the Warframe universe, although this seems nigh impractical with the shape of some frames and might require a lot of tucking tail and stuff like that. Alad V (back when he was experimenting with the Infestation) showed he was capable of briefly mind-controlling Warframes by attaching a collar to their necks, so the Warframes being people seems doable.
The quest The New Strange though somewhat hinted otherwise, as it contained a Rogue Chroma who was clearly insane and got sick and tired of things so he went on a rampage. All the while Lotus claimed she couldn’t reach its Operator. It could have been safe to assume though that the Chroma had just gone mad and Lotus couldn’t get into the insane monster’s head.
The Second Dream revealed that no, you’re NOT a person in a suit. You’re a child who telepathically controls the Warframe. Since the reveal was that there’s no one inside the suit, it doesn’t matter that they were stabbed through the shoulder. It’s a meat puppet that you, the Tenno Operator, controls from a distance. Either from a chair on the moon or a chair in your ship. This also somewhat explained the weird designs, the fact that Warframes didn’t seem to bleed much and why Alad V, who literally made a pet dog out of Warframe parts, was utterly clueless when he’d dissect these frames. This also explains why no one ever seemed to really die. You’d just grab a new Warframe and start over. Assuming the shock of being telepathically connected to your Warframe when it’s killed also doesn’t kill you too.
The War Within further cemented the idea that Warframes were just meaty machines. The Twin Queens do give us more of a clue what they are made of though, calling them “Infested Puppets”. Among other mean names. It had always been obvious that the Orokin had experimented on the Infested, the Tenno and the Warframes themselves, but now we knew part of the recipe to make a Warframe, even if they were only hunks of flesh that the Tenno channeled their powers into because they were too lazy to get out of their chairs. The War Within also gave proof that Warframes can speak, or rather that the Tenno can speak through them. How? I’m not sure. Probably the same utterly insecure transmissions that everyone else uses to chat with us.
Then the Sacrifice comes around and flips everything on its head.
Warframes ARE people.
So it turns out that Warframes are made from people who have been given a specific, nasty strain of the Infestation called Helminth. And of course, the Orokin being Orokin, they decide to jump straight to human trials on their elite guards, the Dax. OF COURSE this doesn’t fucking work. Sure, these Warframes are kinda human and still maintain some of their intelligence but we’ve all seen what the Infestation does to literally everything, so the poor fuckers all go mad.
But rather than, you know, try and cure them or anything, the Orokin basically torture the poor Dax-turned-infested-monsters and make everything worse. They’re uncontrollable, powerful monsters. That the Orokin throw at the Sentients anyway because they’re desperate and don’t give a shit about ethics.
It turns out though (as described in the entry for Rhino Prime in the in-game Codex) that the Tenno have the innate ability to calm down Warframes, to the point that they become compliant putty in the Tenno’s hands. Once tamed (and made pretty with some nice Orokin gold), they became the powerful creatures that we control today.
“What about Umbra though! He does his own thing!”
Ah, that’s a good point. Except Umbra was created the way he was on purpose. The reason Umbra is now a Warframe is actually a punishment by Ballas for Umbra snitching on him. Umbra is insane and crazy and angry just like every other Warframe-to-be was. Ballas actually gave Umbra specific, awful memories to make sure that he was crazy and angry, the memory of murdering his own son. But unlike normal Warframes, he never got the chance to be in contact with a Tenno, someone to take away Umbra’s pain and tell him that he’s not a monster, that it was all Ballas’s fault.
You see, Umbra isn’t the first Warframe. He’s an early one, a very early Warframe, but he is definitely not the first, because Ballas mentions throughout the sacrifice that he knows how to make a Warframe and he knows what he’s doing to Umbra. Most of the Warframes that came before Umbra probably ended up as Primes, willingly undergoing the transformation from Dax to Warframe. Umbra’s unwillingness and fury, combined with the fact that he never made peace with himself, drove him off the edge.
There is one more question to be answered though. What about modern day Warframes? Because we build Warframes out of a Chassis, System and Neuroptics.
Well, eventually you’re going to run out of Dax soldiers. While you could feasibly just use people snatched off the street, that seems like a waste as well, especially when the Orokin are basically just throwing bodies at Sentients. So it’s most likely that, at some point, the Orokin decided to cut the middle man out completely. Literally. Rather than going through the process of breaking and turning a Dax Soldier, they probably created blank slates (kinda like Grineer clones) that they could then mold and manipulate into Warframes, creating set ‘recipes’ for each type of Warframe. And these basic, soulless Warframes are what we wake up with today.
Of course, that might not be the entire truth, but as far as I can tell, that’s what we know so far…