So, almost a year on after Games Workshop spectacularly blew it up the Old World of Warhammer is back. The tabletop version may be officially dead but the world itself has been pulled from the grave by the digital necromancy of the Total War series.
Warhammer: Total War is a game I’ve been excited about for a little over a decade. As a student I was a big fan of the Total War series and recall expounding the idea of a fantasy version based on the Warhammer world to my (undoubtedly disinterested) friends and housemates. A digital format would allow me to indulge in the mass battles and complex campaigns to which I’ve aspired without the abstraction of the to-hit tables and dense rulebooks that come with tabletop games. It allows the introduction of characters like Kholek Suneater, without the need for it to be sculpted from a metric ton of resin. It also frees me from the need to paint hundreds of models, allowing me to focus on the creative conversions and detailed painting that I enjoy most.
Please note that this is not me trying to claim credit for the idea, unless of course you are an employee of Sega and want to send me a big, fat cheque. Furthermore, having played little in the way of computer games in recent years I’m probably not the best person to attempt to review one now, so instead I’ll philosophise in my usual rambling fashion about Warhammer instead.
As it stands the game includes five races; the Empire, Vampire Counts, Dwarves, Greenskins and Chaos (available as a downloadable add-on), plus a sixth race to be added for free later – probably Bretonia. The developers have also stated that, by the end of the trilogy, the game will feature all the major races. Exactly what this means however remains unclear. Is it safe to assume that if a faction had models in the tabletop game it will feature in the digital incarnation? It seems sensible to conclude that High Elves are a major race and Keislev is not but what about Beastmen, or followers of individual Chaos gods? I’d be being facetious if I suggested that Chaos Dwarves might make it in but whilst the Bretonian line has been cleared from Games Workshop’s stock over in the digital world some pretty broad hints have been dropped that the Knights of the Lady will soon be a playable race. Does that mean we can look forward to Tomb Kings in the future as well?
It’s all very exciting but here’s the interesting thing – Warhammer is dead. The word is repeated everywhere, on every forum online, in every gaming establishment and convention where the dice-loving public gather to bitch and moan. Games Workshop brought us a series of (impressively well produced) books that together make up the End Times, during which they effectively took off and nuked the entire world they’d spent over three decades creating from orbit. Rumour has it that the game wasn’t making any money, that it was creatively dead and that it just didn’t contain enough Space Marines to be viable. In many ways I was part of the problem, always dreaming about starting a Warhammer army yet never really getting round to it – then complaining when they took away something I wasn’t using anyway.
For those of you thinking ‘what about Warhammer Online? Surely we’ve been here before’ let me say three things. Firstly Warhammer Online was an MMO and thus appealed to its players in a very different way to a strategy game like Warhammer: Total War, Warhammer or Age of Sigmar. Secondly, it was released long before the End Times and so its significance as a window on the Old World was considerably less. Thirdly I never played it and don’t want to make too much of a fool of myself making assertions about it that I can’t substantiate.
Let me define my position here. I’m generally opposed to tabletop games advancing the storyline. This is a setting in which people can and should create their own stories, not a series of novels or a computer game in which a characters advance along a journey (literal or metaphorical) and the world changes around them. The well-argued and highly recomended piece written at the launch of Age of Sigmar over at Ex Profundis argues that Tolkien would have saved the world, with Sigmar recovering at home surrounded by wellwishers, whilst Moorcock would have blown the whole thing up. I would have told both of them to back the hell off and stick to stories, not settings, where they belong. I love seeing the world change through a series of novels, love reading the history that leads up to the ‘present day’ in a war-gaming setting, but find progression beyond that to be generally a pointless, self-indulgent exercise. Bored of seeing the Emperor sitting on the Golden Throne for the last thirty years? Still waiting for Abaddon to make it out of the Cadian Gate or the Orks to win at Armageddon? Then pick up a book or watch a film. Asking for a setting like the Old World or the Imperium to change radically is like saying ‘The Mona Lisa is alright but I’ve been looking at it for years now and I don’t think it’s changed a bit!’
Having said all that the Old World was nothing like the Mona Lisa, but rather a roughly cut-and-pasted version, the off-cuts of better artists stuck together with poster-paint and PVA. Much of it was lifted directly from real world history with other influences crudely stitched on, from pulp horror Egyptians to knock-off hobbits. Depending on who was writing it at the time it was either gritty and driven by the actions of flawed mortals or mythic and driven by the actions of flawed gods. It was also generally extremely convoluted and relied heavily on every outcome being reached only through a series of highly improbable steps. You can’t blame them for wanting to rebuild with something new rather than just papering over the cracks. It may have done the business back in the 80’s but it was hardly a world befitting of a company of Games Workshop’s stature. When they put a match to it I wasn’t sorry to see it going. I certainly did not want it to go all ‘there-and-back-again’ with Chaos packed off back to the northern wastes, the status-quo re-established and the peoples of good and order celebrating whilst their destructive neighbours plotted in their dens and swore their revenge.
The End Times were a good thing for Warhammer. It was the pruning it desperately needed, the infusion of new ideas and creativity that encouraged fresh growth coming alongside the forest fire that burned away the old and the stagnant. I enjoyed every moment, right up to the end where it all actually ended.
In Age of Sigmar the cracks are still there and bigger than ever with the tortuous narratives of old replaced by a lot of handwaving. It’s not even the case that everything in these realms is actually that original. Instead of borrowing from the real world it borrows from Warhammer.
The article at Ex Profudis asks “What good is an apocalypse without a post- apocalypse? …what is the point of an apocalypse if there is nothing left afterwards? This was the main question I had upon reading about Age of Sigmar. Why destroy everything? Surely there should be something left, a few hundred years in the future – to provide familiar elements and give a sense of narrative continuity: the ruins of Altdorf strangled by poisonous forest; an Elven child’s doll from Ulthuan washing up on daemon-scarred shores”.
During the End Times this was pretty much what I was expecting. The Old World would be changed, not so much that it was rendered unrecognisable, but enough to refresh it. I was fairly certain that the final battle would end in a draw, the portal collapsing in a cataclysmic explosion as the Chaos Gods withdrew in order to continue toying with the world. In the aftermath Chaos warbands would continue to rampage around the countryside, many Empire cities would burn – or turn into something similar to Mordheim, and the Elves would seek to re-establish themselves with many unable to accept their new king. Finecast characters would have gone out in blaze of glory and the ruined Bretonia would be ready for a reboot more complex than just ripping off the conservative romantic clichés of medieval feudalism. The world would be smaller with lots of the previously underdeveloped regions ripe for exploration. The Lizardmen – which people often complained were geographically too remote to make sense as protagonists in the majority of Warhammer battles – could bring their floating pyramids to drift sedately through the sky over the Empire. With Chaos still merrily setting fire to the countryside and much of their previous infrastructure lost, the forces of civilisation would be in need of any help they could get and, with a crack of thunder, Sigmar’s golden supermen could have descended from on-high to provide it.
Alternatively Nagash could have created a vast host of morghasts and used them to push Chaos back through the polar gate, using it to access the realms beyond and continue to expand his empire out into the stars. Then again perhaps that’s just because I think an undead emperor commanding legions of super-warriors to fight the servants of Chaos in space is quite a nifty idea for a setting…
The world would be ripe for new ideas but not so much as to alienate and divide the player base to the extent that the actual release of Age of Sigmar did. A game like AoS could still have been released, with Warhammer lingering in the background to be marketed to veteran players. At the time of the Old World’s destruction – still less than a year ago – the range of games produced by Games Workshop was very much in decline. Only 40k and Warhammer remained, with the Hobbit resting its head uncomfortably on the executioners block (the sort of image that would be produced if George R.R. Martin was allowed to re-write Lord of the Rings). In that culture it seemed unlikely that Warhammer could survive alongside Age of Sigmar. A mere few months later however Specialist Games was relaunched (although the name remains one euphemistic step away from ‘adult entertainment’). By keeping the Warhammer world we could have had our cake and eaten it, with both flavours of wargame existing to compliment each other, and a changed but recognisable world remaining to appeal to old-timers and newcomers drawn in by Warhammer: Total War alike. Plus, regardless of how hard-nosed and businesslike Games Workshop may be, no-one wants to launch their new golden (armoured) boys into the teeth of a hurricane of grousing.
In 40k the End Times have already happened. Of course there remains an abiding sense of impending, galaxy-wide apocalypse which characterises the setting (and plenty of doomsaying that threatens an End Times style destruction ahead) but the really big showdown happened ten millennia ago in the Horus Heresy. That is the point when the Imperium stopped being an expanding nation and turned into a bastion, when mankind stopped being a defining force in the galaxy and entered an age of inevitable decline that has defined it ever since. The Heresy has also spawned a hugely successful spin off game and series of books, which exists in partnership with 40k. I honestly expected something similar would happen with Warhammer, with Age of Sigmar becoming the ‘modern’ version and the Old World the Heresy-era equivalent.
Even after a year the background to Age of Sigmar still seems too strained and too abstract to be compelling, even when it manages to escape the marketing men’s hyperbole. Not that this should suggest that good stories can’t be pulled from the material – Godless by David Guymer is a cheap and highly entertaining way of disproving that – but the realms remain too big, the wars too infinite and everlasting, and the human perspective too distant to conjure the sense of hope that the setting aspires to.
Gav Thorpe (of Black Library fame) recently noted that for a long time “the idea of being able to translate the appeal of Space Marines into the fantasy setting had been something of an ambition, if not a specific objective.” The Warhammer universe was crying out for something to make it unique amongst its Fantasy peers and the introduction of the Stormcasts would have done that in spades –few things being so instantly recognisable as part of the Games Workshop brand as Space Marines. In principle then I have no issue with the Stormcasts, although once again I find the manner in which they were introduced rather contrived, with too much shown openly and too little mystery to fuel the imagination.
So people were upset by the destruction of the Old World. The vehemence of customer dissatisfaction seems to have caught Games Workshop off guard. People were – and still are – angry that the world they had grown to love had been so ruthlessly put to the sword. In some ways it all smacks of unbelievable levels of entitlement. Why should I kick up a fuss about changes being made to the story of a fantasy world when around the world a very real End Times are in progress? When real wars and famines slaughter millions what does the fate of a fictitious elf or two matter? When the jungles of Indonesia burn who cares that the jungles of Lustria do likewise? Surely we would be better served diverting our rage away from Games Workshop and pointing it at the governments and corporations around the globe who continue to put personal profits over the wellbeing of the environment? Or are we so divorced from reality that we would prefer to bury our heads in fantasy lands than face the sea of hungry faces at our doorstep?
Yet that misses the point. In fact it’s as lazy as criticising Tolkien’s writing simply because one is a devout socialist. It buys into a brutal work ethic that assigns value based purely on effort, where achieving a goal is less important than demonstrating that one worked hard to do it. Escapism is demeaned, as if only the lazy do not labour constantly. Let’s put the sackcloth and ashes aside for a moment before we find ourselves accepting the accusation that every fantasy fan is already familiar with – that we should have grown out of it by now. Rest and escapism is not a sin, and real life is hard enough without seeing the world we love blown to smithereens just because the current employees of the company that created it are bored of maintaining it.
It is precisely because the world is so often grim and dark that we need a little light, a little hope. I might prefer a Joe Abercrombie anti-hero struggling in the mud to a jolly rural farmboy who turns out to be a prince (or the son of a Jedi) but I’d be sounding damn stupid if I claimed that Lord of the Rings would have been better if Sauron had triumphed and the book had ended with a orc’s jackboot stamping on a hobbit’s face forever.
People have been telling each other stories for as long as we’ve existed as a species. Those myths have often become the cornerstone of whole cultures, only to wither or evolve into new forms as those cultures were swept aside by history. The cultures may have vanished overnight but their stories did not. Imagine the horror of a tribal group who were told by their elders “we’ve thought about it and decided that all the gods and ancestors are dead now”. Suddenly those super-fans burning their armies on YouTube don’t seem so crazy after all. Fans of the Horus Heresy will know how Lorgar, the Emperor’s own super-fan, reacted when slighted by the subject of his devotion.
A question I’ve seen posed a lot in the last year is: “Games Workshop killed Warhammer, how can we ever trust them again?” I would ask why we were trusting them in the first place, and why that trust has now been violated. This isn’t about jobs or the environment, not even about overzealous legal teams and sky high prices. This is about the fans outsourcing the source of their enjoyment to another, allowing a commercial entity to take custody of their imaginations and then getting upset when it was demolished in order to balance the books.
The fact is that we humans are social creatures. Our memories and experiences are intrinsically linked to those of the group. I may revel in what I perceive to be my independence but, at an unconscious level, it matters to me that so many of my peers believe the Warhammer world I knew is dead.
And yet, in spite of what I joked in the first blog I wrote about this, Warhammer has never been destroyed, your army books and models have remained safe and sound, the rules and background did not crumble into dust on the 4th of July 2015 and no-one from Games Workshop has forced you at gunpoint to purchase Space Marines. Some might even suggest that, through Warhammer: Total War the Old World is now more real than ever before, although I would argue that something that’s been imagined over years will always be more real to the imaginer than something that’s merely shown. Nonetheless it’s harder to swallow the idea that iconic locations like Hel Fenn and Blackfire Pass have been consumed by a tidal wave of daemons when you can deploy your armies and march around it in a manner far more vivid than anything that was possible before.
The question then; does Warhammer: Total War replace Warhammer? And the answer; of course not, how could it? There’s no craftsmanship here that leads to the creation of a collection of models, none of the satisfaction of seeing an army growing through honest effort, none of the relaxation that hours of painting brings. What it does do is remind us that Warhammer is only dead if we want it to be. Just because a company decides to stop producing a range of books and re-labels a few models doesn’t mean you have to stop imagining. It’s not up to the developers at Total War to keep Warhammer alive. It’s up to you.
Artwork by Janice Duke. Click on them (I implore you!) to see the impressive full scale images.
Grimgor Ironhide and the Empire Captain by my mate Sam, check out more of his Warhammer models here.