Sunday, 24 May 2015
Warhammer: The End Times Was A Failure From The Start
... Yeah, i'm sure that title's going to ruffle a few feathers.
Effectively serving as a second attempt at a massive, game-changing Chaos invasion, The End Times served as a finale to entire Fantasy universe. It's been extremely divisive, with some calling it a full blown grand finale which was fitting of the setting, and others describing it as "Chaos happens, everyone dies." I'll admit i've yet to read it the whole way through, so i'm not going to comment upon the story's effectiveness or general quality. Instead this is going to talk about one dominating problem with the whole idea of The End Times: It was an ending.
Whenever anyone talks about Warhammer settings, Fantasy or Science Fiction, there are two major points brought up (well, three, but one isn't over-saturated with space marines). The first is that the settings are static, with the status quo remaining utterly unchanging and there being no evolution or attempt by writers to promote galaxy wide change. The second is that both are mired in the final years of their timeline, with Games Workshop unwilling or unable to look past what appears to be Chaos victorious for both sides, save for a few brief timelines or events.
The thing is though, when people complain about the setting's problems, what they want is to see things develop and progress, with stories showing what happens next. They want to see heroes rise, heroes die and the time line move onward, to have campaigns, wars and conflicts to have impact, changing the world. The End Times didn't offer, this what it offered was the complete opposite. It killed off all this potential, rapidly ended a myriad of stories in a very short span of time and brought everything to a close. It didn't offer new story opportunities, it slammed the book shut on future tales. In fact, it actually rendered just about everything prior to it moot as a result.
A dark ending can work in many tales, and we've seen many a Black Library story conclude on an especially grim note. Even the biggest battles are so often phyrric and the setting of Fantasy is fairly infamous for having no good guy. Much like George R. R. Martin's opus A Song of Ice and Fire, everyone seems to lose as much as they win at every turn. Looking from this angle it could be argued that a final defeat could have been the right move, but that also only works when you view it purely as being a story. Instead it's what it's always been: A game. An interactive form of media which player directly invest themselves in, playing out events and fighting one another to try and influence the outcome of events.
Games Workshop itself has repeatedly tried to argue that players are "forging the narrative" when they play this game. We have seen multiple scenarios in the past pressed upon players that they are fighting for the survival of their faction, fighting to ensure that they emerge victorious somehow or even just make enough wins to walk away alive. Entire campaign maps have been built for small communities, from forming bandit kingdoms to trying to conquer Lustria, taking the land location by location and altering a small story as the result of that. Certainly, it's been criticised many times that the company has all too often ignored this and not let it truly impact upon the events. Yet despite this some were presented in such a way they could effect small communities or how bands of players saw the world. Then The End Times comes along and basically slams down the fact none of this ever mattered.
Chaos wins and that's that. The players are given no option to voice their opinion, change the outcome of these events or even shift how certain ones play out. It's the writers boat they're stuck in, and with no control over the setting they're just along for the ride. All those battles they fought, all those campaigns they played, the many wars, crusades, conflicts, skirmishes, prophecies and legends? They all meant nothing here. They were just swept aside and the phyrric sacrifices and battles of the more heroic factions meant squat at the end of the day. After ten years of storytelling, it sadly just boils down to the single most predictable outcome possible, and that actually becoming invested in the setting is pointless. What is now the incentive to ever become involved in any of this when the outcome is that Chaos is just going to ultimately win and everything will be destroyed? What's the point in becoming invested when you're given no chance to change what happens at all, and a bunch of people just kill off your entire faction with no chance for you to voice any objections? There's none.
However, while the above problems highlight some of the biggest problems behind The End Times, the damnably sad thing is that there was always an easy alternative to this. What alternative is that? Don't make it an event or an ending. Make it instead into an era. Just as Warhammer 40,000 has its M31 and M41 eras, likewise Fantasy could have easily featured the same points. Imagine for a moment a setting where Chaos is dominant, the Old World scattered and fragmented, many societies and civilizations reduced to shadowed remnants. The High Elves are desperately fighting to enact some vital gambit to hold their homeland, nature has been driven so insane that the Wood Elves have become tainted with savagery, and the Dwarf Kingdoms have withdrawn to ancient depths none previously dared travel. You could push to show what such a world could be like, how all those previous dreaded conflicts, events and nightmares being unleashed could result in, and perhaps push for even bigger ideas.
Even if they declared a reality where Chaos has all but totally won to be an alternate continuity, it could potentially lead to an entirely new line to promote the franchise. New models and armies could spring up, but unlike The End Times they wouldn't be fleeting creations for a short lived setting. Authors could be freed from the status quo to experiment with new ideas, the corruption and death of heroes, but with actual consequences and lengthy story driven impact to the tale. Not just ideas which were interesting but the authors had not intention of ever finishing off, such as a certain person becoming an Elector Count. Again, it would be a new line of thought to experiment and continue the story, not to throttle the existing one to death in order to promote new sales. How do I know this would have worked, and would have been possible though? Because, like so many things, where the company failed the fandom supplied.
Look up at some point a fanfiction by the name of The Shape of the Nightmare to Come and its sequel The Age of Dusk. While set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and based upon some older canon, it does the exact thing The End Times attempted but does it better. We see a new galaxy take shape after Cadia and Terra fall, we see the ascendant Tau Empire enter a full scale war against the Necron Lords. How the Imperium fragments into petty kingdoms is shown, rather than just effectively ceasing to exist, and the eldar themselves follow multiple paths in this time, from Ynnead's gambit to Biel-Tan striking out on its own. Plus it approached the subject in a far more in-universe atmospheric way and managed to create a dark tale without invoking so much of the apathy and cynicism some felt towards The End Times.
The overall point is that there really shouldn't have been The End Times. There should have instead been something like The Age of Ruin, or a new chapter in the story showing how things would develop. Writing a conclusion like this? That was never going to be the right choice, never for a tabletop setting of any kind.