There’s a block of text that serves as the boilerplate context for novels set in the fictional universe of Warhammer 40K. It reads as follows.
It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that He may never truly die.
Yet even in His deathless state, the Emperor continues His eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst His soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the Tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants — and far, far worse.
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
It’s always seemed very obvious to me that the laughing gods are the audience. As in Cabin in the Woods, we as the audience, as the consumers, are cast as divine beings, in recognition of the fact that everything we experience is all for our gratification. Really all I want to do today is think about how 40K emphasises that point – and especially how it does it across different media. I’ve recently got back into the Warhammer novels, see, which prompted me to reinstall Dark Crusade, and – anyway, it’s a whole thing.
Let’s start at the beginning. Warhammer 40,000 is a science fiction tabletop wargame. As suggested by the boilerplate above, it’s styled as a sort of dark Catholic sci-fi total war scenario, with all the Latinate names and the Inquisition and so on. It’s been running since the late 80s, and hosts a number of successful spin-offs, including various novels (collectively known as the Black Library) and video games. One of those video games is Dawn of War, first released in 2004, with three expansions releasing in 2005, 2006, and 2008. It’s the second expansion that we’re concerned with today. Dawn of War: Dark Crusade plays like a cross between Age of Empires and Risk, where players move around the globe and battle in different territories – that is, each territory hosts an Age of Empires-style map where players can hash out their differences. It’s a similar setup to Star Wars: Empire at War, if you ever played that.
And strategy games in general tend to face some pretty standard narrative problems, right. They often struggle to tell their story through gameplay – as we see above, there’s often a bunch of frontloading via text or voiceover at the start of each mission. The narrative vocabulary of gameplay is limited to the game’s key strategic maneuvers, such as attacking, defending, or resource control, and it’s mostly very literal – you don’t really see symbolism or metaphor in strategy games. Strategy games also often struggle to develop strong characters, owing to their top-down focus on the movement of resources and flow of battle, on competing types of soldiers with their different strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think it’s surprising that the Age of Empires franchise, including spinoffs like Age of Mythology, tended to build around well-known historical or mythical narratives, with existing, well-established characters, such as Joan of Arc or Odysseus.
I know it sounds like these are being offered up as criticisms of the strategy genre – and to be clear, these aspects often are at the heart of the genre’s poor storytelling. However, in Dark Crusade, those same aspects feed into the game’s themes in a pretty interesting way. In the Black Library books, we get an insight into the psychology of different characters. We become familiar with their internal monologue, with their values and desires. Even when the writing’s not great (and it’s often not great), we come close to these people and experience the dehumanization of the 40K universe from their point of view. In Dark Crusade, we experience that dehumanization in the opposite way. Instead of showing us the scars of one individual person, we are brought up into the sky, seeing soldiers only in terms of their strategic value.
Dark Crusade, like most strategy games, is built around an elaborate form of rock paper scissors. You can build a range of units, each of which exists in a nexus of relative strength and weakness. The Space Marine Land Speeder is effective against infantry, but it doesn’t do as well against the Eldar Fire Dragon squads, which are heavy infantry (not infantry) and highly effective against vehicles. Those in turn might be countered by a Tau Fire Warrior Team, which are heavy infantry effective against other heavy infantry. And on it goes. In each instance, a unit’s value is determined not by its heart or personality, but by its position within that nexus and within the broader machinery of the level at large. If an opponent has lots of infantry, your unit’s value is determined by its effectiveness against infantry. Further, every produced instance of a unit is identical, using the same model with the exact same stats. Every basic Space Marine squad has the same HP, the same damage, the same weaknesses. There are no preferences or individual quirks – they are carbon copies, images of a repeating pattern, parts of a machine that have no inherent value outside of the system in which they’re embedded. That’s the nature of a strategy video game, but it also says something about the threat posed to our individuality by the machinery of war.
We’ve been writing for nearly 18 months now on theologians from the 20th century, and one of the common threads through their writing is this cluster of war, machinery, and the end of our humanity. We saw it in the Catholic Romano Guardini (Guardini: Technology vs the Human), and more recently with the Russian Orthodox Berdyaev (Berdyaev: On Choice and the New). Their fear of this cluster can easily be associated with the horrors of the Second World War – which very much seems like the creative font of 40K’s nightmare vision. The Space Marines are sci-fi fascists, obsessed with racial purity and eugenics – they’re essentially space Nazis. The 40K universe depicts an intergalactic total war doctrine, a Gothic extension of the Second World War, where the value of a life is determined exclusively by its place in the war machine. And Dark Crusade, as a strategy game, I think is best-placed to articulate what that machine looks like. It smooths out the individual or personal in favour of the consistent, the mechanical, the programmatic. The only framework of meaning is one’s capacity for violence, and even that exists not as a feature of the individual, but as a characteristic of their class. Dark Crusade is a game about the vanishing of the human – a total war scenario, an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods.