While the general thrust of this blog is comics, and the way that comics can introduce us to philosophy, I have many geeky hobbies. I don’t talk about those hobbies as much, for various reasons, but one of those reasons isn’t because they don’t get the gaze of philosophy turned upon them. There are few things in my life that escape philosophical scrutiny. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard. Case in point, the other night a friend and I were trading quips about which of the various factions in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting are the least morally reprehensible (sadly, it’s probably the Orkz).
I first played 40K back when it was still in its second edition, and wasn’t trying quite so hard to be relentlessly grimdark (despite its relentlessness it still frequently fails at the grimdark, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about). I’ve played numerous other GW products, and while only two have captured my affection in the long term (Man o’ War and Bloodbowl), I do keep coming back to 40K in one form or another. Most recently, the friend who I was having the aforementioned discussion with and I have spent more than a few hours playing Dawn of War 2, and those hours planted the seeds of a Dark Heresy campaign (for those unfamiliar with it, Dark Heresy is one of four roleplaying games set in the Warhammer 40K setting).
What has inspired this post, however, is not Dark Heresy itself, but the most recent addition in the form of Black Crusade (which according to various scuttlebutt is finally streeting this week). In Black Crusade, players take on the role of the forces of Chaos, a rather radical shift from the other three games in the line. I’ve seen comments from some people who have some issue or another with the game’s subject matter. I can’t say I blame them entirely, as many depictions of Chaos in 40K can be summed up as “Fuck yeah, heavy metal! Rape and kill! Yeah!” This is not, of course, universally true, but it is true enough. It is also not what concerns me, as while I can see why people would object to said material, asinine players can reduce most games to this boring level.
What concerns me, and in this case I suppose I should clarify that I mean concern as in, “are of interest,” rather than as in, “cause for,” is the way that the underlying metaphysical assumptions of 40K limit the possibilities of Black Crusade, and in doing so limit my interest in the game. All the Warhammer factions are dicks. This has been established time and time again; yet despite the corruption and dickishness of various factions, 40K operates in a way the indicates that there is objective good, and there is objective evil, and this view is rigorously enforced.
Take, for example, the Imperium of Man. In 40K, the Imperium is most likely going to be our protagonists; the faction may vary, but most of its is the humans who are the “good guys” of the tale. Of course these good guys come from a society that is a mix of a theocracy and a dictatorship, and if you are not ideologically in line with them you are entirely likely to find a galactic jarhead kicking your teeth in, or an inquisitor giving the thumbs up to virus bomb your planet into oblivion. Yes, the Imperium faces some nasty foes; Genestealers, Chaos cultists, the seemingly-egalitarian-but-actually-incredibly-oppressive Tau, Skynet– I mean Nekrons. It’s a long list… of course it doesn’t help that in addition to being a violently repressive government the Imperium is also a big believer in an expansionist policy of manifest destiny and proud supporters of racism.
So even when you factor in the threats presented by other factions in 40K, the Imperium still isn’t a very nice place to live. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t see a problem with attempting to secede from or rebel against this kind of organization, because as a moral entity I’m not buying what they are selling. Yet according to the metaphysics of 40K, what I would be doing is wrong. Certainly, the setting might be willing to acknowledge that my goals are noble, but I am still in fact an evil person, and not just in the opinion of the Imperium. I am in fact objectively wrong; my wrongness runs counter to the very nature of the universe, and as a result of this I am going to become corrupt, fall to Chaos, and have a dick grow out of my forehead.
From my personal point of view, this pretty well sucks, as despite all their rhetoric to the contrary Chaos is just as authoritarian as the Imperium. Sure, Chaos doesn’t mind if you have tentacles (it’ll even help you grow some!), or what many sweaty hours of watching anime leads you to do with those tentacles, but ultimately Chaos is simply the Imperium with more viscera, cholera, and lube. I know more want to have a tentacle up my bum than I want the Emperor’s dead-ass hand up there. My anti-authoritarian butthole is not down with that (especially since no one asked nicely and offered lube or a reach around).
Yes, I realize that 40K is ostensibly about the grimdark where even the good guys aren’t that good, and that by its very title Black Crusade is about being the tentacle puppet of Chaos. My point is that the very metaphysical assumptions, and the way those metaphyiscal assumptions are realized mechanically, particularly in the form of the Corruption mechanic that pops up in the 40K rpgs, rather undermine the idea that there is not a force that is objectively good. These metaphysical assumptions limit storytelling possibilities; in particular the possibility of narrating stories that feature characters who want to overthrow the Imperium. Sure, such an endeavor is likely doomed to grimdark failure. I’m okay with that. The part I don’t like is that there’s seemingly no one for me to participate in that kind of story without my character growing a dick from his forehead.