Games Workshop needs to take 40K back to its roots- it’s stupid, ridiculous, mocking roots; let me tell you why.
40K used to be fun.
I don’t mean that in a whiney “waaaaaah geedubya ruined my game” sort of way. I mean it in a more literal sense, in that the 40K universe used to have humor as a central aspect of it and was often downright goofy. Your Space Marine could get eaten by a giant clam. Your hero could die from having a snotling teleported into their brain. You could legally field a unit named Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau. It wasn’t something you were supposed to take seriously, because the game wasn’t serious- it was a parody.
This parody element of the game was critical to understanding the Imperium and the 40K universe at large- none of it really made sense, because it was never really supposed to make sense. The Imperium weren’t the good guys, because there were no good guys- everyone was bad and wrong, and everything was grim and edgy and over-the-top, because the world was designed to be a joke aimed at fascist authoritarian governments. The Imperium’s heavy-handed tactics and absurd waste weren’t “doing what was necessary,” they were the obvious bumblings of a regime that was both evil and stupid. Blowing up an entire planet because someone pronounced the name of one of the Holy Martyrs wrong is something that is written as a joke about how ridiculous and unreasonable the Imperium is, not a lesson in the necessities of good governance.
The problem is, parody (even gonzo parody) can easily be taken the wrong way, and people can sometimes look at it as sincere adoration. As the setting evolved, it slowly became less absurd and the Imperium morphed from being a comedic portrayal of fascism to just… fascism. Which would be fine, except for a couple things: first, that they are still being portrayed as the heroes (albeit no longer ironically) and second, that actual fascists are on the rise in our world. When you have people giving completely-sincere sieg heils in the world around you, I think it makes uncritical portrayals of fascism in a game a lot more… questionable, to say the very least.
But the answer here isn’t to “fix” the Imperium; I don’t think we need to add more nuance or realism to the game, because that’s not what 40K excels at. The Warhammer 40K universe succeeds because it is silly and overblown. Ask anyone who doesn’t participate in the hobby what they know about it: giant men with rocket-cannons, exploding planets, traveling through Hell to deliver the mail, and everyone is fighting everyone constantly all the time. None of that is subtle; none of it is nuanced. The game is renowned for its absurd spectacle, and even coined the term “grimdark” to describe the ridiculous extremes that the narrative often goes to. 40K without exaggeration and parody is just badly-written Dune, and it can be so much more than that.
We can speculate as to the reasons why this shift occurred- people got acclimated to the absurd aspects, or grew genuine emotional attachments to a world that once was just humorous, or the subtler commentary was lost on younger players that accepted it at face value, or whatever other thing you might believe occurred. But Games Workshop has clearly leaned into this more-serious and sincere version of the game, because in the latest editions the parodical aspects are all but gone. The Space Marines are heroes rather than genocidists. The Imperium are the good guys rather than deluded failures. Virtually all of the jokes, and references, and strangeness have been cut out of the game, depriving it of one of its most central aspects.
Now, we can’t force Games Workshop to change any of this- no letter-writing campaign or change.org petition is going to reverse things. But we can work to restore these elements of parody as players- and the company, being dutifully-interested in catering to whatever the players like most, will thus also follow in their official materials. So what’s the path?
So the first and easiest way is to support the existing parodical parts of the game. Gaunt’s Ghosts still knows how silly the Imperium is, and how shitty, and so do a handful of others. When GW reaches out to ask you what you like about the game, make sure you put these front and center. Despite what I said earlier, there are still humorous and parodical aspects to the game, such as Regimental Standard or any of the comics posted through the Community website.
Second, emphasize the parody elements in discussions and devalue the serious ones. Don’t treat the Imperium like heroes or good guys when you’re talking about them, and make sure people remember that the castrated space monks will probably murder every single one of the civilians that they “saved” for consorting with the enemy. Games Workshops’ properties have a place in the broad public consciousness, but a lot of that comes from the presentation from the player side, not from the company side; if we change how players present and talk about the game, it changes what the game is, in the minds of most people.
Third, emphasize the silliness in your own army. If you play Orks or Nurgle you are already succeeding at this without even needing to try, but other factions can as well. When you write your fluff (either literally or in your own head), make sure it is absurd in a way that fits with the 40K universe. Don’t make your Imperial Guard regiment storied heroes of a great battle, have them be the desperate and struggling remains of a bureaucratic fuckup. Make your Chaos or Necrons be Saturday morning cartoon-level cackling bad guys with dumb names and dumber plans. Turn your Eldar into the absolute snootiest exclusionary motherfuckers that the world has ever seen. Be the absurdity you want to see in the world. Games Workshop can write all of the dark-and-serious fluff that it wants, but if what people see is absurd, Brazil-esque incompetent authoritarians when they go to a tournament, that’s what the game becomes about.
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