Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 4...

The game Freeblade started off this recent series. The gigantic Imperial Knight robot was the heart of the game. The Knight was a part of the Warhammer 40,000 legacy. It was a unique mix of science fiction storytelling and feudal lineage that created these robots. Before the Emperor of Terra there were nobles that defended humanity from alien threats. They had an army of giant robots that were the equivalent of knights from the legends of King Arthur. They went from battle to battle seeking glory and honor for their kingdom. Just like the knights of old the new giant robots were covered in their particular house colors and were designed to stand out on the battlefield. There were different types of Imperial Knights too, there were Crusaders, Wardens, Paladins and Errants. These all helped distinguish a particular house and gain a reputation throughout the galaxy. When the Emperor of Terra began reuniting all of the human planets in the year 30,000 the Barons and Kings of these various houses joined in the quest and helped the Space Marines conquer and recapture various outposts. The pilots of these machines were nobles, even the one featured in the game Freeblade was royalty and had been raised with the purpose of cementing his family lineage in combat. The Space Marines had their own variation of the single-pilot robot known as the Dreadnought. While it lacked the size and firepower of an Imperial Knight it was still revered by its fellow warriors.



People that don't follow the 40K universe may not be aware that man and machine had been fused together before the Empire and before the Imperial Knights. The engineers and builders of all the great war machines used to conquer space had a base of operations on Mars. This was the home world for the machine cult, the Adeptus Mechanicus. Throughout space there are entire planets dedicated to creating the tanks, robots and space ships used by the Imperium, these are called Forge Worlds. They are highly valued resources in the war against Xenos (aliens) and Chaos. Games Workshop, or rather Citadel has a sister company that builds high-end models for use in Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. This company is called Forge World. But I digress. The Adeptus Mechanicus believe in the Machine God. All machines have a spirit and the greatest machines, the battleships, star ship and enormous Titans have very temperamental spirits. The Adeptus Mechanicus have litanies, incantations and prayers dedicated to the God of the Machines. When they power up something as massive as a Titan they have a ritual that they go through. The belief in the Machine God has become part of Imperial life, even Space Marines are known to say a prayer to the machine god so that their weapons do not jam in combat.

 

The Emperor of Terra is a very Christ-like figure. He sits upon the Golden Throne and led his Primarchs, which were like his Apostles, thousands of years ago. In canon this relationship can be likened to Catholicism. The hierarchy, organization, symbolism and belief in an omnipotent divine being was done on purpose. Space Marines are very much like friars or war priests, while the female warriors, the Adeptus Sororitas, are like nuns. The champions are canonized in death, even regular people can become martyrs for the Empire if they die valiantly and defy the forces of Chaos and the alien. The Empire is symbolized by a two headed eagle, it looks to both the past and future. This symbol appears on the armor, heraldry and vehicles of the Empire. It even appears on the bullets, or rather explosive bolts in the Space Marine bolt gun. As you can imagine with the rise of the Emperor in the year 30,000 there was a sort of chasm that widened between those that followed rule Terra and those that followed rule from Mars. If the Empire were Catholics then the Adeptus Mechanicus were Freemasons, there was nothing that said they were not allowed to practice the beliefs that they wanted. Both groups needed the other in order to help reunite mankind. The Emperor and his organizers knew that they depended on Mars and the various forge worlds that were needed to build the armor and weapons that would be used in the crusades. They came to an agreement and the rulers on Mars were allowed a high level of anonymity in return for their engineers and technology.

 

The Cult Mechanicus dated its lineage back, before the Emperor, before the Royal Houses, back before Mars was colonized and back to the great engineers of Terra (Earth). Its rituals were closely guarded as were its organizations. It was not unlike the Freemasons claiming their heritage went back to the architects that built ancient Egypt. Their symbols and traditions followed a Great Architect, perhaps it was the ones the Christians called God. The Catholic Church were by extension a slightly newer religion but one that had close ties to the same foundations of Freemasonry. This was paralleled in 40K. The Cult Mechanicus kept the gears turning for the Empire just as the Masons claim that they built all the great temples of the ancient world and secretly kept the Pharaohs in power. The neat thing about the Mechanicus and Empire was how they were presented in the art of 40K. The servants carried enormous tomes, like bibles with them, some of the text was written by hand, some by machine, in several cases the scriptures were written in digital code. They also carried torches and thuribles, incense burners at the end of long chains used in Catholic ceremonies to bless altars and holy relics. It was great science fiction imagery based on gothic ceremony, that wasn't seen anywhere else in books, movies or television.

 

The symbol of the Adeptus Mechanicus was a servo skull, half human and half robotic surrounded by a gear. On the larger war machines you may find more heraldry for the Adeptus Mechanicus than the Empire. The practitioners of the Cult Mechanicus, the ones charged with the most important ceremonies of repair and restoration were known as Tech Priests. These characters were mostly machine and carried with them a symbol of the machine god. Instead of carrying a staff with a cross they instead carried a staff with a gear, or wrench and blade. It was both a symbol of the machine god as well as an actual functional tool. The Adeptus Mechanicus have a strong belief that flesh is corruptible and will eventually fail with age, thus as they get older more and more of their human organs are replaced with mechanical parts. Eventually the senior and most experienced engineers are mostly all machine with a number of technical enhancements to their brains and nervous systems. With all of these cybernetic enhancements the Adeptus Mechanicus can actually communicate directly with the machine. They can change code as easily as speaking a native language directly to a machine. They can even send encrypted wireless messages to each other using their mind, which would seem like some sort of telepathy to novices.



The Mechanicus have gone to war in defense of Terra, Mars and the Forge World for thousands of years. Often times they do so alongside of a Space Marine or Imperial Army. The weapons they use are more esoteric and experimental than those wielded by the human armies. The Mechanicus are not worried about trying untested weaponry in a firefight. Since they are more machine than man the worries of radiation and malfunctions that would kill a normal person are considered acceptable variables. You can easily spot the differences between the followers of the Emperor and those of the Machine God. Space Marines wear power armor in battle whereas the Mechanicus usually wear robes, even in combat. The Space Marine is given biological enhancements with drugs, implants and gene therapy. The Mechanicus is enhanced with machine parts. Both are extremely strong and capable fighters. While the Space Marines are fighting to keep humanity safe, they sometimes do so to honor their own chapter as well. The Empire has zero tolerance for alien and demon alike. The Mechanicus are more concerned with finding and recovering unknown technology. Whether it is demon or alien in origin the Mechanicus have a lot that they can learn from everything. Each new thing brings them one step closer to knowing the Machine God. The Empire would normally destroy or lock away anything recovered from a battle. They would definitely keep these things hidden from the Mechanicus.



Thanks to their arrangement however it is difficult to keep the Empire and Mechanicus apart when alien technology is found. The Mechanicus are on the front lines, they have trained battle-hardened Space Marines into becoming engineers. These Space Marines are able to perform complex repairs on the front line, their power armor enhanced with extra servitor arms and tools. The more complex equipment is usually attended to by Engineseers. The sculptors at Citadel were able to capture the intricate details of the Mechanicus from the art of the game. The senior Techpriests no longer looked human when compared to the other models used by the Empire. It was great visual storytelling and again, an aesthetic that was not really used in any other science fiction world. The Adeptus Mechanicus really came to the forefront of Warhammer 40K in the late '80s thanks to the introduction of the Titans. Their story and influence in 40K canon would grow over the next 30 years. They had a few models released here and there through the '90s and early '00s and never fell out of favor with hobbyists. They were finally granted their own official units, rules and organizational guide for use in 40K these past two years. Yet this chapter in the history of Games Workshop would never have been written had it not been for a rival game studio. We'll look at this on the next blog.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 3...

In the previous blog I mentioned that the Imperial Knight was the largest single-pilot robot in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Well, this was true for the human armies but what about the aliens? The Tau had some large robots (the ones that looked like Japanese mecha) but so too did the Eldar (remember the space elves?). One of their larger robots was called the Wraith Knight. It also had a single pilot that was connected neurologically to the robot and was much taller and more powerful than the Imperial Knight. Because of its size this robot was a different class from the Imperial Knight. It was considered a Titan.



In the 40K universe the titans were the largest robots used in battle. Believe it or not the Imperial Knight was not as big as the smallest Titan. The Imperial Knight was much larger than a Space Marine or a Dreadnought. It was bigger than even the super-heavy tanks used by the Imperial Army. Seeing one walking towards the front line was enough to cause fear of most enemies on the battlefield. Even large Chaos engines of destruction and Ork Squiggoths would find the Imperial Knight formidable. Yet some of the small and mid-size Titans made the Imperial Knight less imposing and even the Space Marines armies seem insignificant. Just look at how massive the foot was for a Reaver Titan compared to a Space Marine. The marine was well over seven-feet tall yet was no taller than a "toe" on the Reaver.

 

In canon the smallest two Titans employed by the Imperium were the Warhound and the Reaver. Like the Imperial Knight they were used where firepower was necessary and where flexibility was crucial. They had to be able to perform functions that no tank unit could in an area that was too tight for aircraft as well. The Titans were not necessarily as slow and cumbersome as people assumed. With the right crew they could navigate narrow streets, target and strafe opponents without stopping and even bring down buildings around them if they could not hold a position. Depending on the situation they could be equipped with an assortment of weapons, from long range artillery and anti-aircraft missiles, to closer range force claws and plasma cannons . A giant robot may seem like an easy target on the battlefield but they were often protected by invisible force fields. A smaller variation of this shield could be generated by the Imperial Knight. The shield would absorb the energy from explosives, lasers and plasma blasts and deflect it around the frame.

 

While they were considered "small" they still required a crew to move, function and remain operational. This was where the differences between the Imperial Knight and the Titans really came into play. An Imperial Knight had a crew waiting for it to return from battle in order to perform the necessary repairs and weapon replacements. The pilot was pretty much on his own in the battlefield. A Titan required a crew to operate both on and off the battlefield. Perhaps there was a pilot or two manning the movement and weaponry, but there were countless other servitors taking care of the mechanics in real time. Think of a servitor as a sort of zombie mechanic. They were servants retrofitted with tools, welding torches and wrenches instead of arms and hands. They were strong, loyal and programmed only to perform their duties. In this case a servitor would keep the Titan running on the battlefield while performing all of the maintenance on the fly. A servitor did the things that the R-type Droids did in the Star Wars universe.

 

An Imperial Knight was instead piloted by a single individual, he was reliant on his crew only after the battle. The Imperial Knight pilot faced the same challenges that a Dreadnought pilot had. Both types of robotic armor depended on outside crews to aide them, repair them and deploy them because they were not physically capable of doing anything themselves. It was a sad existence when you think about it. To the pilots however it was their duty to the Empire. It was an honor to serve as a mechanized warrior, fighting alongside or as a member of the brave Space Marines. There was a precedent for this, for placing yourself in the heart of a machine. It was a tradition that went back to the year 30,000. The Emperor of Terra had a Golden Throne created by the greatest adepts and scientists from Earth and Mars. The Golden Throne was able to harness his psychic energy and create portals to other planets. He could send his Space Marines almost anywhere in space with this fantastic invention.



The Emperor was betrayed by his Warmaster Horus and had to fight against him. The Chaos Gods had granted Horus amazing powers which made him a perfect rival to the Emperor. The Emperor killed Horus but was left near death in the fight. He was placed on the Golden Throne and it was turned into a life support system. Instead of tapping into his psychic power it was tapping into the living energy of thousands of powerful psykers, flown in every day from all over the galaxy. Their life force would be depleted in a few hours but combined they would keep the Emperor in a state of suspended animation, or rather slow decay. The Emperor would become fused with the machine for the next 10,000 years. At least one of the Dreadnoughts in 40K canon, Bjorn the Fell-Handed, was a member of the Space Wolves and was alive during the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy. Imagine the type of mental fortitude that it takes to become attached to a machine for most of your existence. There is a special model and rules created for Bjorn in case the players of the tabletop system want to use the Dreadnought in a campaign.

 

But I digress... I can talk about how awesome the giant robots were in 40K but you do not really appreciate the scale of the Titans until you see them compared to the single-unit types. A Space Marine is much larger than an Imperial Guard soldier, yet they are not as large as an Ogryn. An Ogryn is not as large as a Space Marine in Centurion Armor, nor are they as large as a Dreadnought. The Dreadnought is huge and powerful but is only a fraction as big as an Imperial Knight. This is where things start to fall into perspective.



At 50-feet-tall the Imperial Knight is dwarfed by the Titans. Remember that the Warhound and Reaver were small and mid-size Titans. The largest Titans, like the Warlord MKIII for example, were very similar to walking battleships. They had a command, carried a crew, support, radar and artillery. With the cases of the biggest, they could even carry and entire regiment of Space Marines into battle.

 

When a Titan goes to war it literally changes the shape of the battlefield. A Titan is a force of nature, like a tornado or hurricane, it is absolutely unstoppable. Entire cities are turned to rubble, forests are burned to the ground and hills are flattened in their wake. Only another Titan or squadron of Titans can offer a suitable challenge. They are absolute symbols of power and can inspire an army to victory and cause the enemy to shrivel in fear.



There are Titans in 40K canon that are so obscenely huge that they are almost impossible to imagine. The Warlord Titans are awe-inspiring but they are not the largest class of Titans. At the far end of the spectrum there is a class known as the Warmonger and Imperator. These Titans are walking skyscrapers. In each leg they carry a unit of Space Marines and on their back is a full headquarters contained within a fortress. They were critical during the Great Crusades, lead by the Emperor of Terra himself. Titans helped establish the dominion of the Emperor, and took entire sectors of the galaxy back from alien invaders. They faded in number but their stories grew into legend. A few die-hard tabletop gaming fans around the world have scratch-built their own titans to the exacting specifications set up by the 40K canon.



Remember that in 40K the forces of Chaos can corrupt and turn machines into hybrids of demon and robots. The same applies to the Titans. There have been legends of chaotic titans which sprout horns, spit blood instead of plasma and have mechanical tails that slash of their own free will. The crews and pilots on the chaos titans are usually "digested " by the Titan if they do not become fused and part of the nervous and sensory systems. Fans have also scratch-built their own Chaos "Emperor" Titans that are every bit as impressive as the Imperator.



The Titan is the ultimate set piece. Whether we are talking about a tabletop game or a video game. It is very hard to ignore the giant robot, the literal elephant in the room. The Titan has been central to a few PC and console games based on Warhammer 40K. One of the best uses of the robot was in the title Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine. The game by Relic Entertainment features a Warlord class Titan known as the Invictus. In the game players got to run in around the Titan as it rested in an Imperial Hangar. Its weapons were needed to destroy a dimensional bridge being used by Chaos. The player actually got to run on its shoulders, shooting down opponents while it moved into firing position. It was one of the great moments in the history of video games. It was something that a tabletop fan like myself never thought that they would see in any video game.



What was fantastic about the 40K universe was how the scale would continue to grow and grow. The most massive of Titans was never big enough, there was always a threat more imposing, more dangerous. War was everywhere and even with these colossal robots the survival of humanity was never guaranteed. In many ways the soul of humanity had already been transferred to the machines. It was done before the first Dreadnought was built, it was even done before the Golden Throne was created. In the next blog we will look at those former humans that are guided by the Machine God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 2...

In the previous blog I mentioned that the sculptors working at Games Workshop create some fantastic miniatures for the Warhammer 40,000 system. Specifically these sculptors, sometimes freelancers, work for Citadel, the studio responsible for making the paints, models and tool kits for Games Workshop. Citadel is owned and operated by GW but have the responsibility of all the hobby elements that go into the system. In 40K the sculptors have to create vehicles and machines that reflect the aesthetics of each race. From human to alien, each species has a certain look, a certain style. The designers at GW help put together the back story and origin of each species. The sculptors at Citadel help translate the paintings and illustrations of the artists into three dimensional figures. The work that they do is beyond exceptional, they are awe-inspiring. For example in 40K there are aliens called the Eldar. Think of them like space elves. They are tall, slender and have weapons, armor and vehicles that are sleek. The lines on their war gear are smooth and flowing, inspired in many regards by the beauty of nature. Their weaponry is run on an exotic crystal fusion. By comparison the humans have weapons that we could imagine are forged from iron and steel and are run on diesel fuel. Take a look at the single-pilot walkers that the Eldar and Imperial Guard use in combat. Both machines are prime examples of science fiction storytelling. They have mounted weapons on a robotic frame with two legs but one seems to be half the weight and able to glide across the battlefield while the other stomps around like a clumsy wind-up toy.



These aesthetic choices are by design and help reinforce the species that make up 40K. The Eldar are very proud of themselves and think that all of the other aliens are primitive and crude. The word that they have for humans is Mon-kei. Some of the aliens that they speak of certainly fit the bill. The Orks for example have heavy, cumbersome weapons that double as clubs for the savage greenskins. They manage to cobble together weapons, artillery and spacecraft using whatever crude material they have on hand. In a way they are engineering savants. Their work is not pretty but it gets the job done. On the other side of the cosmos are the Tau. The gray-skinned aliens are very advanced and are trying to bring peace throughout the cosmos, by conquest of course! The technology they exploit is neither fluid like the Eldar or gothic like the humans but instead something completely different. I would compare the design aesthetic applied to the Tau like mecha designs featured in Japanese anime. Not surprising is how well it balances out the technology exploited by the other aliens. These things are especially obvious when you look at the robotic armor that the races can field. Space Marines have Power Armor, Terminator Armor and other forms of armor and battle suits that they can wear. They are not the only ones that benefit from this type of armor.

 

The Tau have a fast and powerful suit called the Crisis Battlesuit. By comparison the Orks have a crude, but equally lethal, robot they can pilot called the Killa Kan. Even though the subject matter of a future that was eternally at war was quite grim the game designers always found a way to put some humor in the system. It's easy to see the differences in alien technology when you compare the weapons side-by-side. When GW was designing the 40K system they learned early on that every alien race needed some sort of counterpart to a particular troop type or weapon. If an alien had a single-person speeder then humans and other species ended up with their own variation on that speeder. If an alien had a tank or transport then humans and other creatures had their own version as well. This sense of balance went from small handheld weapons and armor all the way up to gunships and space craft. The 40K universe always had a great sense of scale. The volumes written and drawn about the universe gave audiences an idea that there were countless other planets and stories waiting to be discovered. When it came to war there were giant robots that made human soldiers seem inconsequential. The artists and sculptors working on the gigantic models never forgot to reflect the technology behind each species. Take a look at the enormous Ork Stompa and Tau Riptide. They were not far removed from their smaller robotic suit counterparts.

 

Robotic suits of armor were the backbone of the Space Marine armies. I mentioned that there were more than one set of power armor that a unit could wear. There was a reason for these different types of armors and as you can imagine the bigger ones were designed for more dangerous encounters. The sculptors at Citadel had been refining the armor designs for almost three decades. These are easily some of the best miniature figures you will ever see. The detail applied to each piece is amazing. When you see them side-by-side you can only imagine that the team spent countless hours not only creating these models, but they had to turn around and create a balance for each of the alien races as well. Of the single-pilot suits of armor the largest is the Imperial Knight. This was the armor featured in the game Freeblade. This suit of armor was at a scale to combat the enormous robots like the Riptide and Stompa.



What made the robots used by humanity, and specifically by the Space Marines, different than those piloted by the aliens was the neural interface. Pilots of the Imperial Knight actually became a part of the machine. Their brains and life support systems were tied into the robot during a process called the "Becoming." The consciousness remained with the robot for centuries if not for thousands of years. Only in death would the service to the Imperium end. At which point the robot would be taken apart, reassembled and a new pilot be selected. The robotic host was a tradition that went back to the early days of 40K. The Space Marines were long-lived and super resilient yet even the greatest Space Marine eventually succumbed to injury. Rather than "retire" those warriors and lose much valued military knowledge and experience the best underwent something similar to the Becoming. Those marines were interred in Dreadnought Armor. Their life support systems were connected to the machine and they would be able to fight on for centuries more.



A collection of servitors, or robotic servants would attend to the Dreadnought when not in battle. A Dreadnought was treated like a holy relic. The servitors cared for the mechanical and organic parts with incantations, litanies and sacred oils. The robots received the same care that a nun would give a leper in the slums of poor countries. In many instances the warrior within would sleep for decades at a time until his services were needed once more. One of the great examples of the importance of a Dreadnought in the universe was explored in the comic book Damnation Crusade. A portion of the story is told from the point of view of Tankred, a member of the Black Templars. It's one of the best examples of the sacrifice that the Space Marines make in order to keep humanity alive against the cruel aliens and twisted demons of Chaos. It was great science fiction storytelling and went over amazingly well in the game system.



Each legion had its own unique Dreadnoughts, they were honored members and brought into battle an assortment of heavy weapons. The weapons they used, the literal arms on each robot, could be replaced depending on the battle. They had robotic hands that could tear open tank armor, flame throwers that could burn down buildings and plasma cannons that could blow holes through the biggest opponent. The idea of man and machine unified was something that made the science fiction in the world dark and foreboding. This technology was not exclusive to the Space Marines but had a variation in the alien races as well. The most interesting combinations of living tissue and robot came in the forms of the Chaos engines of destruction. The forces of chaos could turn man into beast and heroes into demons. Those that were previously pilots and crews on tanks and artillery became fused with the machines. Not thanks to technology but the magic of the warp, that part of the galaxy that exists beyond our concepts of time and space. Bones became forged into the structure of the machines and blood replaced oil in the infernal contraptions. Skin was stretched across the joins like some macabre hide. Just look at how more intense the Chaos Defiler looks when compared to the already enormous Dreadnought.



The more powerful the demon the more powerful the living weapon they would become. Some of the larger machine and creature hybrids dwarfed the mighty Dreadnought. Just take a look at the Soul Grinder. The multi-legged robot was far more than a Defiler and yet not quite a demon prince but instead something in between. The forces of Chaos rewarded their champions with awesome powers. Some became larger and more grotesque monsters, some were given weapons with magical properties. Other machinations of chaos were metal birds that could take on any assault jet. The larger weapons of chaos had a purpose, they were a counterpart for the most powerful artillery in an army. Citadel did a fantastic job bringing these creations to life. The designs created by the studio went on to influence other miniature gaming systems and even video game development as well. Several of these monsters-turned-vehicles began popping up in Games Workshop video games.

 

For years the Dreadnought was considered the most valuable single-pilot robot in canon. The Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines made great use of these machines. Just a handful of the robots could change the course of a battle. Yet as the system grew over the past 30 years the threats became bigger and stronger. Thanks to aliens that became more aggressive and dangerous it was not enough for a Dreadnought to take on the most powerful opponents. Games Workshop began creating more powerful armor for the Space Marines. The Terminator Armor was the best for a long time, then the studio introduced Centurion Armor as well. Gray Knights even had access to a gigantic walking frame so that they could face demon princes in hand-to-hand combat. Yet these bigger and better armor choices were not always enough for the biggest enemies in the 40K universe. This would become the task of an even larger robot. The Imperial Knight, the star of the mobile game Freeblade, would become the most powerful single-pilot robot in the ranks of the Imperial Army. The best part of this robot, aside from its awe-inspiring design, was that it was created so that it could freely move between armies. It did not have to adopt the livery of any particular army. Instead it was a freelance robot that had its own legacy recorded on its own armor. It could have its own insignia and even custom weapon choices to wear in battle. Then it was free to move to another sector of space where it was needed by a different legion.

 

The Imperial Knight was a force to be reckoned with. The forces of Chaos and the different races learned to feel the mechanical giant in battle. Yet when it came to the history of Warhammer 40,000 it turned out that the Imperial Knight was not at the top of the robotic food chain. If you can believe it there were robots even bigger helping keep the torch burning bright for humanity. The next blog will feature these colossal machines.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Building a gaming legacy, the Games Workshop series, part 1...

The mobile game Freeblade that I had talked about earlier on this blog really got me thinking about Games Workshop and all the fantastic systems they've released through the years. I decided I should make my next blog series about those games and how they were translated to PC, console or mobile games or deserve to be translated. I also wanted to talk a little bit about the ups and downs of Games Workshop, how they have evolved or haven't and why the hobby community is still a strong draw. Before we get into all of that we need to explore the world of Warhammer 40,000 (40K for short). This was the universe featured in Freeblade. Many of my readers might already be familiar with that universe and others may not. So I'm going to point out some things that I really enjoy in the sic-fi epic. The thing that many people recognize about 40K are the Space Marines. In the far future these are genetically enhanced super soldiers that are one of the defenders of humanity. These soldiers have gone through mental and physical changes are are far more than average people when they undergo their transformation. Most Space Marines are over seven feet tall and have denser bones, organ implants and musculature that is superhuman. Part of the Space Marine ritual and by extension the entire 40K universe is how much spirituality and science fiction are mixed into canon. The Space Marines were created by the Emperor of Terra (Earth) around the year 30,000. He created many chapters but half turned to evil, seduced by the forces of Chaos and the rest remained loyal and defended Terra during the Horus Heresy.

 

Now fast forward 10,000 years and humanity is still scraping out an existence throughout the cosmos thanks to the protection of the Space Marines. Yet the entire process of creating a Space Marine, as well as the weapons and munitions they use are considered sacred. In some cases the bravest and longest-serving leaders may actually get to use ancient weapons in battle, these relics are as potent now as they were 10,000 years prior. In many instances good and evil are constantly scouring the universe for lost technology and other relics that they can use to change the tide of battle. Even the armor that a Space Marine uses can be passed down through the generations. The types of armor that they wear actually depends on their rank, position and battle. The traditional Space Marine that most people imagine, with large shoulder pads and a jet pack, is called "Power Armor." There are many other types of armor in the universe. The First Company, made up of the most experienced Space Marines from a chapter get to wear Terminator Armor, this is reserved for the most dangerous assignment or inhospitable planets or while boarding alien vessels. There are Chaplains, who keep the faith in the Emperor of Terra burning bright in the Companies, as well as Librarians who are the psychic members of the Space Marine forces. There are also heroes and Captains, each with their own armor and weapons.

 

There are countless Space Marine chapters in the Imperium. One of the greatest things that Games Workshop did was create rules and encourage players of the 40K system to create their own chapters. These can be related to existing chapters and may identify with their own goals and methods. Prior to the Horus Heresy there were almost two dozen founding chapters. After the heresy they were broken up because the chapters were so powerful that any one could be considered a serious threat to humanity, especially if the leaders became seduced by Chaos. By breaking apart the chapters and forcing them to create sub-chapters it created a sort of checks and balances for all of the units. Some of the most famous founding chapters remained post-heresy and Games Workshop does create special models and rules for these groups. The Ultramarines, which are featured in the great console game Space Marine by Relic Entertainment, are very popular and reminiscent of ancient Roman legions. The Black Templars were stubborn and refused to "downsize" when the Imperial Fists were disbanded and the second founding was created. So that they would not break the treaties of the other Space Marines they decided to launch a crusade against all the threats of the Imperium and take the battle to the stars. In this way they could remain united, hold a higher concentration of actual members in one place and at one time and answer little to administrations.

 

The Grey Knights are made up of powerful psychics or "psykers" and are the military wing of the Inquisition. They are the elite squadron when it comes to fighting demons and the forces of Chaos. In the 10,000 years since they were founded they have never lost a member through corruption. They have access to some ancient weaponry that would be the envy of other chapters. Their weapons however are designed to take out demons rather than aliens. The Dark Angels by comparison were the first chapter created by the Emperor and have been fighting for redemption ever since the heresy. Some of their own became traitors during the war and caused the entire chapter to become suspect. Because of this they have spent the past 10,000 years hunting down the traitor chapters and atoning for their sins. Something that makes the universe of 40K so unique is how each chapter guards its secrets and how little they may know about each other. Few people in the Imperium even know about the Grey Knights for example, they are a secret army in the fight against demonic possession. They are spoken of in legend but never seen, even by other Space Marine chapters. Some chapters look down on mutants, psykers or abhumans and would never associate with them or fill their ranks with them. While in other cases a chapter may be tolerant of mutants because they remain loyal warriors. And in very rare cases some chapters have fought alongside aliens against mutual enemies, usually the forces of Chaos. When playing the game it really helps to understand the psychology of each chapter and find out what makes them tick. Of course the other great thing is getting into the science fiction part of the hobby and building an army of unique-looking warriors.

 

Every army in the Imperium has its own collection of weapons and war gear. Some are even exclusive to a certain chapter. The scale and aesthetics of each race, whether human or alien, is unique in their own ways. This is something that the sculptors working at Games Workshop know very well. They are able to sculpt weapons and war gear for different sizes of humanoid and alien races while making everything look plausible. For example in 40K the Imperial Guard are the human-sized soldiers. They have access to the greatest artillery in the future. Enormous tanks, high speed fighters and fortifications that could withstand thousands of years worth of conflict. While they are not as big and powerful as the more popular Space Marines, they do have their own strengths with regards to the weapons they yield and the vehicles they can take into battle. You don't really realize how much larger the Space Marines are until you put them next to an Imperial Guard soldier. Even outside of the Power Armor the Space Marine stands much larger than an average person. But even a Space Marine is not the biggest humanoid in the universe. In 40K there are space ogres, known as Ogryn. These men are considered "abhumans." Most mutants or abhumans exist on the outskirts of society. Those that don't kill themselves, or are turned into slaves end up in prison or work as beasts of burden. Ogryn are the exception. They are big, strong and tough and love to fight. They are very dumb however and require a strong leader. In battle they are extremely resilient to the elements and weapons. They can easily shrug off attacks that would kill a normal human and seriously wound even a Space Marine. This makes them dangerous warriors and perfect human shields for the Imperial Guard.

 

The weapons and technology, the alien races and backstory behind Warhammer 40K are unique among every other science fiction game out there. It actually holds up very well against the biggest movies and television shows over the past half century as well. Of course for those that want some amazing weapons they probably won't find anything better than those featured in 40K. From the small but powerful las-pistol of an Imperial Guard infantryman to the transmission-sized Ripper Gun of the Ogryn, the hand-held weapons of the future are awe-inspiring. But these things are nothing compared to the weapons of war that all of the races bring into battle. When you add giant robots into the mix things get much more interesting. The next entry will look at the robots that serve the Imperium and those of the enemy.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Laura, the new leading lady of Street Fighter V or more fanservice?

We cannot separate the over-sexualization of the female Street Fighter character designs from reality. Capcom has done a fine job of pandering to the mostly male demographic with the changes made to the female characters in the Street Fighter series. Yet to put all the blame squarely on Capcom would mean ignoring the society that we live in. Capcom creates characters that reflect society, the good and the bad aspects of it. If they are creating female characters and presenting them as objects of desire then they are following the trends. SNK does this, Sega does this, Namco does this, Microsoft does this, just about every studio that makes a fighting game is guilty of following the trend. Sex sells and when it comes to female athletes it is the most important thing to sell. The design behind Laura Matsuda, the new Brazilian fighter in Street Fighter V certainly caught onto the trends.


Women are paid less in general than men for the same amount of work in the business world. The divide becomes much more noticeable for female athletes. For example Abby Wambach, forward for the USA Women's National Soccer Team makes far less than her male counterparts. She has an incredible record in league, international and World Cup play yet her annual earnings, including endorsements and sponsorships are less than even the big name retired male peers. Despite her accomplishments and abilities she is marginalized in the sports community. She does not turn up in much advertising, she does not get asked to appear in movies or television cameos. She doesn't even warrant an interview on the sports networks. At the same time retired NBA and NFL athletes have a steady stream of work in commercials and as commentators and are expected to make more than Wambach annually. As she retires chances are that she will fade away unlike the male athletes from the same generation. She was not the first to have this broad divide come to light. Women have to fight for respect at every turn. Earlier this year Sports Illustrated announced the Sportsperson of the year was tennis star Serena Williams. They took an online poll and people voted for the horse American Pharaoh to win the honor. Was it trollish behavior from the online crowd? Possibly. Was it sexist, racist or misogynist to pick a horse over a black woman? Quite possible as well. The news that people were upset about the decision made headlines around the world. Women have to walk a fine line between being taken seriously as athletes and at the same time being marketable through attractiveness. This is especially noticeable in the fighting community. One of the first things that people noticed in the design of Laura were her looks, and aside from her breasts it was her hair that stuck out.


Laura Matsuda wore a half head of tight braids or cornrows. Most female fighters wore their hair in full braids during competition. This way it stayed out of their eyes. Unlike using a headband these braids couldn't easily fall apart even in a grapple. The half-head of braids was made popular in part by pro fighter Ronda Rousey. She would often wear her hair this way during media events and premiers. The hair itself can be seen as a part of the trend of having to be an attractive female athlete in order to be marketable. Do you remember the media outlets doing interviews on the stylists of any other fighter or boxer, male or female? We now know that stylist Abraham Esparza helped create Rousey's trademark style only because the sports outlets decided this was important. Ronda still has to contend with the standards that society has on beauty. She still has to deal with people calling her fat. Serena Williams and her sister have been called ugly and mannish because they were extremely muscular. By comparison the Russian Maria Sharapova was easier to market, easier to build a brand around and feature as a mode because she fit the western ideal of beauty. She was blonde, thin and not as muscular as the Williams sisters. It did not matter if she was not as highly ranked a player or if she didn't have as many championships as either sister. Great looking fighters could be marketed. It didn't matter if Rousey had a judo record that earned a gold medal in the Pan American Games, a Silver in the World Championships and the Bronze in the Olympics. Or that her professional MMA career was 12-1, a prior women's champ for the UFC. The focus from many outlets was her appearance and even her sexual appetite more than her in-ring ability.


In Street Fighter V Laura Matsuda has a very attractive design however that is in contrast to her striking moves, traps and grappling takedowns. She has speed and power that almost put her on par with the bruiser Abel from Street Fighter IV. This might be a seen as a turn-off for some players. Even in the ring women have to be marketed as strong and sexy. Michelle Waterson is nicknamed "the Karate Hottie" and the Japanese fighter Rin Nakai is advertised as strength and beauty by the UFC. Is referring to women like this macho posturing? Is mixed martial arts is the most alpha-male of sports? Do men get intimidated by alpha-females in competition? If so do they believe that women belong in the ring as ring girls rather than fighters? Women walk the line and always have to look their best. Whether it's during training, a press conference or even weigh-in. They have to be made up and look presentable. Men do not have to deal with the double standard. They can be ugly or slovenly if they want. They can show up in torn pants with a 5 o'clock shadow to an interview and nobody cares. They can even act inappropriate to the reporter if they want to. Remember when Quentin "Rampage" Jackson dry humped a female reporter on air? Or when he did the same thing to a Japanese reporter overseas? Would you expect or even accept this behavior from a pro baseball or basketball player? Would female fighters be called sluts if they behaved in the same way? Or were male fighters somehow a part of a different crowd? Were they allowed to be as sexually dominant as they wanted because they were fulfilling some sort of contract with our primitive desires?


It is hard to be a professional female athlete in any discipline and much more for a fighter. Ronda is just one example of female fighters having to fit a certain mold, but lets look at somebody from Laura's part of the world and see if the same thing applies. Kyra Gracie, daughter of Rorion Gracie and a member of the legendary Gracie clan is a proud Brazilian. Like her family members she is expected to excel in jujitsu. It is not luck or genetic engineering that makes Kyra or her family members great. It is lots of hard work, practice and a system that has been refined by almost a century. The Gracie family was participating in international bouts and no-holds barred matches since the start of the 20th century. This was well before the term mixed martial arts was even coined. The Japanese champion Mitsuyo "Count Kouma" Maeda helped introduce jujitsu to Brazil. He had a hand in teaching the Gracie family the art and exposed an entire nation to it's effectiveness. Kyra represents a third-generation practitioner. She does very well in local and national tournaments. She fights in both gi, wearing the traditional uniform as well as non-gi contests where opponents wear tight-fitting rash guards. She had no plans on transitioning to MMA because the life-span of those fighters, and earning power, is much shorter. When it came to actual fighting Kyra did not sex up her uniform at all. Like other female fighters she wore something that was functional if not modest. Yet this did not mean that she was not presented as a sexual being to audiences.

 

Kyra did some modeling outside of the ring to help make her more visible to non-MMA, non-jujitsu fans. By appearing in some very revealing shoots was she pandering to her fans? Certainly, but she was keenly aware of what she was doing. The Brazilian was using sex to sell her image, she was building her brand more so than she was building the Gracie brand. If large companies could exploit women in their advertising then what would happen if the women were in control of the image? Athletes like Rin Nakai, Ronda Rousey, Michelle Waterson and even the Williams sisters knew that they were not getting paid as well as their male counterparts. They also knew that their life in pro sports would not last forever. They needed to make as much money as they could by using any avenue they could. This is the sad truth of female athletes. Many female athletes have to do things that are not expected of male counterparts. Also, like the previously aforementioned sports figures, Kyra was doing these shoots of her own free will. She was not coerced into appearing topless, or pants-less in her pictures. She did this because she knew the images would sell and she would gain a lot of new followers. These followers would bring with them their money and make the sponsors happy. Did the sex do anything to diminish her presence in the ring? Nope! Also she did not actually fight with her boobs hanging out of her top.

Designers at every studio need to ask themselves if the characters they are creating go above and beyond the sexy tropes and stereotypes, or are they just reflecting what society expects a female fighter to be. SNK, Namco, Sega, Capcom, Midway and the other studios have created many fantastic female characters for over 25 years without resorting to pandering. They created female fighters that were empowered and attractive. Yet they also created many that were sexy for the sake of being sexy. This is something that drives me especially crazy about Capcom. At their best they can create characters that cross multiple genres, that appeal to a broad range of demographics. Yet in recent years they haven't quite been able to hit the mark that the previous teams did. The icons created in Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha and even Street Fighter EX had a lot more staying power. They accomplished this without the use of 3D graphics, without overly-sexual female characters.


So how does Laura stack up? She has some of the most imaginative moves in recent memory. Her grapples and takedowns, which can be mixed up with solid strikes and combos are a refreshing addition to the franchise. They break up the monotony of Ryu's fireball attacks or the stiff power moves of Zangief. They are even somewhat believable to perform. What the character didn't need was the special attacks focused around electricity. I understand it was a nod to Blanka but are all Brazilians really doubling as car batteries? Not only that, her super moves have her bouncing around the screen like a pinball. The Street Fighter IV and V teams really enjoy breaking the 4th wall but now the moves are really starting to lose their charm. Purpose-wise she is a positive of a representation of Brazil. I could do without the feathered-costume samba dancers on her stage, or the giant world cup trophy in the background (instead of the Jesus statue atop Rio De Janeiro). We get it Capcom, this is Brazil, you don't have to be so ham-fisted about it. With that said Laura is doing much more for the people of South America than Blanka ever did. The pairing of rash guard shorts under her pants just to show off her butt was sophomoric, and her too revealing top was lazy design. Her color selection of green and yellow was however perfect, especially when combined with the black ankle sleeves for contrast. Bright primary colors were usually assigned to each character and green wasn't really assigned to anybody in Street Fighter V. The colors did the double duty of mirroring the colors from the Brazilian national flag.


 

Laura was not the first minority character, or mixed ethnicity character to pull off this look. That honor would belong to Cobra from Spiritonin's Capoeira Fighter 3. Cobra was fast, flexible and very dangerous. She had some amazing strikes and brutal takedowns as well. She was a villain in the game yet at the same time fiercely proud of her nation. A good chunk of her costume, including the rash guard and ankle sleeves predates the look of Laura. Did I think Laura was derivative? No, I think it was coincidence in the design.

Do I think Laura works in the Street Fighter universe? I say yes. The game could always use more diversity with regards to ethnicity and diverse styles of fighting. I think characters like Laura belong especially when these are positive figures rather than stereotypical tropes. She certainly has more going for her than F.A.N.G. I could do less without the close ups on her butt or the gratuitous cleavage close ups during her intro or special animations. These don't do anything to make the game better or make audiences appreciate the character any more or less. She is very similar to Rashid in that she is a good design but does not actually achieve greatness. To be fair she is slightly more unique than Rashid for the move selection assigned to her and even for her creative hair style. Her moves, minus the electricity are more grounded and less fantastic than the sci-fi wind attacks of Rashid. I think that the character has much better design and purpose than her brother Sean, who was yet another "shotoclone" introduced in Street Fighter III.

 

Something that Capcom has to explain is why Laura is much lighter than her brother. I understand that they are siblings and sometimes there is a range in how dark or fair skinned a brother or sister can be. But this difference is very noticeable. It is okay to assume that they may be step-siblings but if they are truly brother and sister then why make her much lighter? I get the same feeling for Laura that I got for Vanessa Lewis. The studio is intentionally making her lighter just to appeal to the Asian market and of course Western ideal of beauty. Let's hope that is not the case. Laura is a good character and I hope to see her more in the future. I'd like to hear your take on this character and whether or not you think women fighters tend to be objectified more in games.