[Meta Gaming] Vintage Years For Grimdark

In a comment thread on the House of Paincakes, resident genius Mr. Cedric Ballbusch staked out the idea that it was a terrible, terrible mistake on the part of Games Workshop to set its space fantasy dakkafest at the end of the titular forty-first millennium. Easy enough to say with the benefit of hindsight, says I, but at the time I don’t think a) Messrs Priestly, Stillman, Halliwell et al were expecting the game to last for twenty-six years and counting, and b) they could have done things any differently.

Perhaps some context will help.

I was born in 1985; the same year that, for the first time since its launch, Doctor Who was deemed too shite for public broadcast, and the same year that The Sisters of Mercy sold out the Royal Albert Hall. It took another couple of years for the other great loves of my life to materialise – Hark was born in 1986 (obligatory mushy stuff here) and, in 1987, the aforementioned Sisters released Floodland and Games Workshop launched this funny thing called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader.

While I don’t think there’s an explicit link between these latter two concepts, you have to understand that in the third term of Thatcher’s Britain, living with the rattling madwoman-in-the-attic spasms of the Cold War’s final years and under the dusty toxic shadow of Chernobyl, a definite sense of fin de siecle seems to have hung in the air, which the two products under the microscope here illustrate beautifully. While not the literal turn of a century in the same sense that the Decadence of the 1890s was, there’s a definite sense of closure, shutting down, boarding up the old shop windows and getting ready to call it a day. How else does one explain the brief fashionable flourish of gothic rock, a prevailing cultural mindset in which the Sisters can nab three Top Ten hits in a year?

The associations between the Games Workshop of the 1980s and the seemingly-invincible Iron Lady have been well documented (here and also here). Everywhere North of Watford and west of, say, Oxfordshire, there’s a sense of hard times, watching the skies, wondering if the rising waters or the falling bombs are going to kill us first. It’s no accident that The Sisters Of Mercy emerged from Yorkshire and no accident at all that 1987 saw them metamorphose into a synth-driven brooding engine, dropping out three singles around three themes – personal revenge elevated to pompous epic, geopolitical economics reduced to a semi-plausible adventure of loss and betrayal, and a seething, sexy, fuck-it-all-let’s-have-a-dance-in-the-ruins post-industrial foot-tapper. What else are you going to do in all those empty mills? Floodland is a personal breakdown wedded to a political quagmire, the one serving as metaphor for the other; it’s unrelentingly, gloriously doom-laden and yet there’s three songs which are basically elaborate sex metaphors and one about soaring away on an amphetamine-fuelled high. Steve Sutherland said at the time:

Dying on record is a dicey business, especially when it’s world destruction that dogs your every waking minute because there’s nowhere to go artistically – the bomb doesn’t get worse, it’s just there. Facing up to that, Floodland is a triumph of sorts, neither optimistic enough to suggest there’s a Noah’s Ark nor pessimistic enough to accuse us all of navigating like a ship of fools. It simply says rust never sleeps and this is what it sounds like.

I’m of the opinion that Warhammer 40,000, with its looming fin de grande siecle feel, is tapping into that same sense that there’s nowhere left to go but that we might as well have fun while we’re waiting for the bombs to start falling. The sense that there may soon be nowhere else to go, that our leader is simply not going to go away any time soon, that everything is falling apart but we keep it together because what else is there? That’s Thatcher’s Britain writ large. That’s the vision at the heart of Floodland. That’s the essence of 40K right there.

How could they not set it when they did? The ol’ China (Mieville, of course) never spoke truer words than “when you sit down to write, society is in the chair with you”, and the society of the mid-to-late-Eighties was one in which, for a brief moment, Mr. Eldritch and his drum machine were right on the cultural button.

It couldn’t last, of course. 40K’s black humour and smirk in the face of oblivion would be exaggerated and distorted as we moved toward the actual end of the millennium and realised that the end of the world has still failed to arrive on time.

The process started, I think, in 1993. Doctor Who‘s thirtieth anniversary, ‘celebrated’ with the cack-awful ‘Dimensions In Time’, a special which – sweet, nourishing irony! – crossed-over with the very programme in favour of which Who was cancelled. (Incidentally, if you think goth music and 40K are depressing, watch EastEnders for a month. Especially at Christmas.) The Sisters released their last single, and have since lurched along on permanent strike, touring every couple of years, trotting out a few new songs every time, but refusing to release either Jack or Shit.

Meanwhile, 40K received its Tom Kirby Big Box Game treatment (although this is where I came in, so I can’t be too hard on it). The words on the front of the box? IN THE GRIM DARKNESS OF THE FAR FUTURE THERE IS ONLY WAR. ‘Grim Darkness’ has become ‘grimdark’ since then, said with a sneer, in much the same way as “I still like The Sisters Of Mercy!” has become perfect shorthand for being sad, out of touch, trapped in one’s own memories. 40K wallows in its own pomposity, cranking its own release cycle like mad, subsequent Codices acting as ever-bigger giants, turning full circle back to random tables, Vortex grenades and psychic powers on cards (y’know, those things from… 1993’s second edition); forever ramping up the thread of an apocalypse it’ll never have the balls to see through.

At the time, it made perfect sense. Now? I don’t know. All the things I love have turned into zombies. I’ve spoken of my love for ‘dead’ things before, things which aren’t going to be fucked around with in order to produce a new iteration for the sake of paying the bills, and yet I can’t quite put down Doctor Who, or The Sisters Of Mercy, or indeed 40K.

I’m still selling my Necrons, though. And I still type things in Caslon Antique.

8 thoughts on “[Meta Gaming] Vintage Years For Grimdark

  1. Great read Von. I agree that it couldn’t have been any other way with 40k, and I disagree with Cedric. As you implied, the problem is not that they short-sightedly fixed their universe in time so that longevity was difficult to achieve, but the opposite: longevity should never have been expected, and probably wasn’t. 40k is old and, despite the illusion of renewal provided by edition changes, has never gone away. Look how successful Doctor Who is now, because it went away long enough to be welcomed back.

    Oh, hey, I went and saw The World’s End at the movies, and although I’d heard of the Sisters of Mercy before, I’d never heard them, and I went and listened afterwards. They’re pretty good aren’t they? The movie really resonated with me too, even though I’m a bit younger than those characters (but not as young as you, it turns out). They really captured the feel of youth gone sour, and the yearning to go back and do it again that seems a malaise of our entire culture.


    1. My thoughts on the new Doctor Who are… convoluted, of the “this is what happens when fanboys inherit the Earth and go mad with BAFTAs” variety. I don’t hate it, but it’s turned into something in which I can’t muster the energy to be interested, and that makes me sad.

      As for The World’s End… yeah, that one definitely resonated. On a personal, as well as a cultural level. Plus it’s hilarious.


  2. I’m pretty much in agreement too. I’d go slightly further than James though I think, and say that maybe no game should be officially supported for 25 years, breaks or not, or even played as written for a fraction of that time.

    That 40K is still kept officially alive, with any given current edition played intensively, could arguably be seen as a monumental failure, and if so not just on the part of GW, but also on the part of the player base supporting this with their time and money. It’s fairly clear that thinking we want something doesn’t necessarily mean we do, and wanting a thing definitely doesn’t mean needing it.

    Maybe we should think of games less as ways of life or ends in themselves and more as experiments, comments on a personal or cultural understanding at a given moment in time, as a means of expressing, communicating or learning, a step in a fuller process.


    1. It’s funny, as to me 6th ed 40k and 8th fantasy come across as a ‘last hurrah’ for GW. Where do they go after every book has a nice hard cover book and all factions have supplements? Do they invalidate hundreds of dollars worth of books just to squeeze another drop out of the already juiced orange? It’d be nice to see some experimentation going on- a relaunch of specialist games with support for a year. If the game is doing alright, they’ll keep it on. If not, back to the drawing board.

      One of the reasons (I feel) both big games are still alive is that hardly anyone else (Just mantic, if I recall) does a large-scale battle wargame.

      In short, we need more ‘laughing in the face of the apocalypse’ type stuff, ala Fallout 3- Humanity has largely been wiped out via nuclear war and the survivors are trying to rebuild, but rebuild it right this time around.

      @Von: Also, Von how goes your NaNo?


      1. A smidge over 3000 words done. Lost momentum a bit as I hit go-out-and-work days, but I’m going to pick it up again on Wednesday morning instead of blogging.

        The answer to your Workshop question is ‘yes, same as ever’. Once all the books (or even most of the books) are updated, the cycle will turn anew, and on the second or third spin, a new core edition will be born, itself to be invalidated by a radical redesign in the next: unless, of course, the third time proves the charm, and the axle snaps off before eighth/ninth edition has gone the way of fourth/fifth and sixth/seventh before it.

        The trouble with specialist games is that most of them required a far smaller number of models to play, and thus generated fewer sales. If you bought one of every Blood Bowl team, for example, that’s still one large 40K army’s worth of models (256, assuming full rosters for 16 teams) and no big ‘spensive high-cost low-value kits like transport vehicles – and I don’t think many people did that. I would imagine most people bought the boxed game and a team or two that they liked; significantly less than having to buy half a dozen regiment kits, a couple of heroes and a monster/war engine or three for their chosen army. I don’t know that that’d generate the volume of sales that GW wants to see from a new product, and possibly needs to see if it’s to survive as anything other than a creative accountancy firm that occasionally produces impractical gaming pieces.

        The ‘gateway game’ argument doesn’t hold much water with me either: once you’ve ruled out the games that are in different scales (Epic, Warmaster), the ones with models that don’t feed into battle games (Necromunda and Gorkamorka had specialist factions disconnected from 40K, and weird bases in the latter case, while Blood Bowl had football players, not fantasy battle soldiers), and the ones that have both drawbacks (Man-O-War and Battlefleet Gothic), you’re left with… Mordheim. And even that doesn’t tie into every WFB army – mostly the ones operating within or around the Empire.


  3. TheDude and I often discuss that Al (of Ministry) has good albums when he is pissed off about the government. We also discussed that Eldritch couldn’t make anything good unless someone else was miserable. Maybe there’s a corollary?


    1. Unless he’s directly making someone else miserable by doing so? Possibly. I suspect a lot of Sisters fans would weep if he put out an industrial-ish record in line with the current live sound though, judging by the amount of kvetching that goes on.


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