In the Grim Darkness of the far Future, Pants will be one size fits all

20 Sep

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.


Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Geekery, Philosophy


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6 responses to “In the Grim Darkness of the far Future, Pants will be one size fits all

  1. Bleeyargh

    September 20, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    I dunno. It doesn’t seem to be good-and-evil so much as order-and-disorder, with a weak identification of order as an absolute– more, as you say, our-order against their-order in some cases. The Orks have one kind of order (the big guy wins– they’re the ultimate thugs or capitalists). The Imperium has one kind of order (keep society in one structure, and allow no deviation– there’s a reason why they have an Inquisition, as they are most like the Catholic church in days gone by). Chaos isn’t lack of structure, but the natural result of decay of values that stems from change– at least, from an authoritarian religion’s POV. The Necrons and Chaos both show that sin is forever, and it has inescapable consequences. You either pay through a loss of identity (as we imagine that Soviets did) or through a loss of security (as, say, Yugoslavia’s elements did). The Tau are like democrats of a certain stripe– egalitarian, so long as you agree with the clearly defined values. They’ve got the well-meaning, self-deceptive qualities of the GOP. The Eldar are those formerly powerful types that you don’t quite get, but you’re fairly certain are on their way out. Moral authority without clout. If anything, when you add the Dark Eldar into the mix, you get to see the future of the Empire (whether Roman, or American, or British)– a cycle of schism and decay that makes you eat yourself.

    In any case, Corruption can mean evil, but it can also mean spoilage of purity.

    • Josh Benton

      September 21, 2011 at 12:14 am

      The Genestealers, at least in the form of the Tyranids as a whole, I’m going to have to disagree on. We don’t know enough about why they do what they do. They just show up, eat shit/reduce shit to bioslurry, rinse, repeat. In that respect they’re more like the ultimate society of conspicuous consumption. Maybe one day they’ll finally tell us why the Tyranids are eating dudes, and it will turn out they are the least morally reprehensible faction of the grimdark future. I would find this amusing.

      I’m also a bit hesitant to separate order and disorder (not that the Imperium is very orderly) from good and evil, simply because the two are generally equated in the tropes that 40K draws rather heavily from, and that seems to be where the metaphysics of the setting go. While Kevin and I disagree on this one, I’ve seen no evidence that I could rebel against the Imperium, and even should I avoid consorting with the ruinous powers, avoid the forehead dickage. I don’t think 40K allows for much in the way of gray area, which for me undermines certain elements of the grimdark, and how even the good guys aren’t all that good (since metaphysically speaking, at least, they are). In certain respects I’m willing to accept that. However, I think it’s a lost opportunity, particularly since that, rather than, “We have tentacles!” is the kind of narrative I’m interested in telling. It’s still entirely possible I would enjoy Black Crusade, or at least some elements of the game. It isn’t my intention to bash the game, particularly not before I’ve read and played it. Which I realize you’re not accusing me, but it’s possible someone, at some point, might. Rather, I just wanted an excuse to indulge in a bit of metaphysical musing, and talk about something I’ve always perceived 40K as lacking.

  2. Bleeyargh

    September 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Genestealers, humourously, are a “melting pot” that takes and transforms.

  3. Bleeyargh

    September 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    The genestealers and the tyranids as a whole are not the same beasts, that’s for sure (even if they travel under the same banner). Genestealers enter a society under the radar, take genome samples, etc., and breed inappropriately. For all of their combat-heavy power, their big strength from a roleplaying perspective is the strength of the coyote. Their approach is quite different from the mainstream Tyranid, but you’ll note that the species group as a whole has changed its form since its introduction, explicitly through genetic fiddling. Conspicuous consumption is absolutely an element, but melting pot is most certainly also one– even if they take it a little differently than the Tau might.

    I concur that the game mechanics of Dark Heresy do not favour rebellion, but this is hardly surprising when you consider the theme. If you look at Rogue Trader and its supplements, it’s quite a different kettle of fish. Plenty of grey.

    I don’t necessarily adhere to the idea that swallowing the Skinner-like punishment mechanics drains the value of rebellion. As in almost every historical conflict, it’s hard to leave one side of a two-side conflict without ultimately joining the other one. Inventing side three might be noble, but it usually ends in a rather quick spanking.

    • Josh Benton

      September 22, 2011 at 6:35 pm

      Genestealers, and the genestealer cults, were significantly more interesting before they got rolled into being part of the Tyranid. Sadly, the only place they still show up is in some of the various ancillary fiction, not all of which is anywhere near good. I suppose the Tyranids can be read somewhat as a melting pot in the vein of Bullworth‘s, “Everyone should fuck everyone until we’re all the same color.” They’re just more with the eating and melting you into slurry than they are with the humping.

      It isn’t just the game mechanics of Dark Heresy, though; it’s the metaphysics that the universe of 40K operates on, and which were around well before the rpg was introduced. As I mentioned in the original post, I’m perfectly willing to accept that an actual attempt at rebellion is doomed to failure; 40K is a setting in which gods and monsters are quite real, and the Imperium is happy to send its soldiers to their deaths by the millions or even billions. That’s not really something you can beat. The option to at least try to do so without growing a dick out your head because you’re in metaphysical error would be nice.


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