The Emperor of Mankind, Rogue Trader era
I read an article recently on Bell of Lost Souls that really got me thinking. The original is here.
As a relatively old bastard myself, I have similar pre-GW memories, only mine were more Steve Jackson’s Car Wars than Battletech. I did play Battletech briefly. I remember being really paranoid my mechs would overheat all the time and so I tricked them out with bazillions of heat sinks.
Anyway, we’ve all heard this sort of thing before (although not usually so eloquently). The Warhammer 40,000 universe has changed. At the beginning it was mad, and satirical, and hyper-masculine and violent but at least self-aware. I particularly like when he says “In the early days of 40K, people still understood that Judge Dredd wasn’t an action hero, he was a parody.” That says it all really.
Now the hyper-masculinity is po-faced and serious (sorry, I mean “grimdark”) and the Orks are, I think, the only real link to the old spirit. Which is why aspects of them seem a little out of place and annoying to some gamers I talk to today. Even the current Orks though are darker, more serious incarnations of their former selves. As someone in the comments on the coxcomb piece said, GW today goes for suspension of disbelief over satire. Which in my opinion is foolish given that the very premise they are putting forward, that advanced futuristic empires fly halfway across the galaxy in giant space churches to get out and hit each other with chainsaws (to paraphrase Something Awful’s Zack) is ridiculous.
So all this got me thinking. The original 40k universe was explosively protean and shattered sci-fi wargaming (maybe even wargaming in general) with its energy and insanity. It was informed by politically satirical British fantasy and comics, among other things. What would a similar game be like today? Could it even happen? I don’t think it has happened since. As great as many of today’s competitors are, they are all playing firmly by the established rules compared to the boldness of Rogue Trader in its time.
Tetsuo is a pretty good metaphor for the chaotic creativity of late 20th century anime
I think about fifteen or twenty years ago, a similar game could have emerged inspired by anime. This is because in the late 80s/early 90s, Japanese anime experienced a creative boom wherein the creators made whatever they hell they wanted, unrestricted by genre and convention. Creativity was the aim. It was seen as the hallmark of the medium, what separated it from ordinary film. I’m talking about the era of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis, Fist of the North Star, Urotsukidoji and Ninja Scroll.
Unfortunately it’s generally agreed that that era has passed, and anime and gaming in Japan has now firmly established and solidified into clones and re-hashes. The opportunity is gone to capture the energy. Sure, Infinity and Anima Tactics are inspired by anime, but it’s modern anime, not the nutso stuff I listed above.
I actually think Infinity is the most exciting game there is right now. It is inspired by anime but not just anime. Like the writers of Rogue Trader, the writers of Infinity take their influences where they can get them and mash them up expertly. That said though, it still seems a little pale and bloodless somehow.
I can’t honestly think of any exciting movement in fantasy or sci-fi today where the hallmark is pure punk creativity. We seem to me to be in one of those lull periods, where we’re all plodding along and the last great beacon of creative inspiration in wargaming (40k) is fading, a totalitarian shadow of its former self. It’s almost an eerie echo of the story of the Imperium of Man.
The internet is flooded with fan fiction. Japan is insular and content to repeat sequels and licenses. The Brits have China Mieville I suppose but he’s so dense and self-satisfied. Could there ever be another Rogue Trader? I doubt it. Even if a creative movement emerged, there’s no guarantee it could be successfully harnessed into a game again.
Am I wrong? Someone please tell me I’m wrong.