Sunday, June 5, 2011

Musings on the upcoming Space Marine

(pic found via Google. Its not mine.)
 Warhammer 40,000. A universe stepped in war, with 15 factions at war with each other until the death. It’s a bleak world, where civiliaztions crumple and all progress comes to a halt. The passion of hate, pain and conflict fuel eternal entities from the “other side” that destroy and twist “this side” of reality wherever they touch it. Peace and Rationality are swept away as they neither motivate races to greater heights of heroism nor do they generate rival entities. In short, as this war for survival struggles on, the forces of Chaos will grow eternally stronger. However, there are no rival non-chaos entities generated, by the nature of the warp. Therefore, all realspace life is doomed. At some point, the fight to survive will give the enemy the stregnth they need to break reality. However, the choice to not fight results in no different a fate. 

This is the world I was drawn to, that on a macro level is only drawn in the darkest colors highlighted by the brightest streaks of heroism and valor. In a world where the commoners serve only to fuel fire, and fascism is humanities only hope, where the Eldar’s only hope is a beneficial extinction, there can only be excellent story-telling. This IP that GW has created has the potential to exceed anything that White Wolf has ever generated. For example, look only at the story of humanity. They expand to the zenith of a massive empire and create technological marvels never before or since seen. Then their technology turns on them, as as millions are slaughtered and planets bake humanity ekes out a narrow win. In the chaos that ensues afterwards only one man can unite humanity, which he does. This fascist government is perpetuated as a religious cult. Now humanties only hope is the paranoid Inquisition, who hopes to keep the enemy at bay by keeping everyone united with single purpose to support the military. Add in people conditioned, born, lobotomized, or otherwise enslaved to the military  and you’ve got a huge setting for epic stories. And that only encompasses 8 factions (space marines, blood angels, space wolves, black templar, imperial guard, witchhunters, sisters of battle, grey knights). 

It makes me very happy inside that 40k made the jump from tabletop to PC. For all their faults as RTS games, the DoW series introduced a great many to the universe, and gave the rest of us a chance to see crazy sights: Necrons reassembling, Chaos Marines summoning Daemons, etc. However, the series had a problem: it suffered from improper storytelling. The Space Marines were the heroes of the universe, backing up the hapless Imperial Guard. The Tau were sharing the equity of communism with whoever they could, and the evil Chaos forces, Necrons and Orks were out to take over the universe. While this makes for an easy story, it does not do the 40k Universe justice. At no point is it pointed out that chaos is a natural offshoot of the human expression of strong emotion, that orks were just following their biological programming, that the necrons are slaves to star gods, or that space marines are used to wipe out those who don’t fall in lock-step with imperial dogma. In short, Lazy walked in and handed moral placards to every race and a simplistic story was born.  

Much like White Wolf’s IP, one of the defining features of the 40k universe is there is no clear-cut protagonists and antagonists. There is no noble race, there is no “just war.” The leaders of every faction plot, scheme and maneuver for power among themselves as well as against other factions. Those who are subordinate either perpetuate the errors of those in charge (the military) or are used and discarded without a blink (the civilan populace). Every race has a dark flaw, whether it be mind-controlling the other castes, or struggling to preserve one’s soul from being swallowed by Chaos. And everyone is fighting a war of survival against everyone else. This is the backdrop against which individual heros are painted, what causes the few noble of heart to shine so brightly. This universe is epic, and dark. No story is simple, the truth is both complex and conveluted. 

            The trailers for Space Marine, the upcoming game by THQ, cause me some degree of concern. It appears that there is a risk that the simplistic morality of the DoW games has shown up again in this game too. Once again you are playing a Space Marine (heaven forbid a game involves playing one of those step-child Xenos), who is out to save a forge world from the onslought of Orks. And also to beat-up some Chaos forces that show up to, for good measure. While certainly this event-outline could be the basis of an excellent story,  the material released so far appears to lean towards the simple side of the story-telling spectrum. Worse, the interviews all push this game as a “kill things and see lots of gore” type of game. Seriously, watch it. That is not ok, 40k-lite or 40k-arcade do not do justice to the mythos. If you want lots of story-less killing and blood, play Painkiller, Quake, Doom, you get the idea. 
For a game to be solid it must create a variety of reactions in the player. A game that simply involves creating a greater and greater wash of blood around your protagonist will flop. If greater and greater, or different stimuli are not thrown at the player, eventually they will go numb. Seeing 15 gallons of blood shoot in the air right now after being subjected to 12 gallons doing the same for the last 4 hours will not create a “wow-effect” in the players mind. It might be fun for the first hour, but after that itll be put on the shelf with the rest of the B-grade games. Only time will tell, but I am concerned about both how Space Marine will treat its source material, as well as what effect its reception will have on further translations of the 40k Mythos.

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