Saturday, 2 January 2016

Damocles: Mont'ka Part 3 - Biased Storytelling And The Intertwined Universe (Warhammer 40,000 War Zone Review, 7th Edition)

So here we are, finally capping off the look at Mont'ka, right after finishing up with the rules and lore. In past reviews we usually reserve a third part to truly discuss where things went wrong, how presentation and narrative failed to convey the true power of the work. That's going to be true again here, but it's also going to touch upon a few subjects relating to War Zone books in particular. While they might have tackled a few previous big story arcs, this was one of the few non-Forge World releases to try and turn a crusade into a big blockbuster event. We had a running story across multiple volumes, a counter-attack which had been decades in the making and a vicious war between an aging empire and a ruthless new power. However, as is often the case, it really seems like the writers focused upon emulating the big bombastic elements rather than the bits which gave the books real meaning. In this particular case, we have one particular failure which hangs over the whole story: Mu'gulath Bay itself.

The entire campaign is being fought to reclaim a world occupied by the Tau Empire, but what does that really mean within the story itself? We know that it was a major Imperial world at one point and that it's intended to be the part of a new Sept, but where is the focus upon this? Most of those details you'd only know from reading past books or additional sources, and Mont'ka seems to largely gloss over its value. While we certainly get a few momentary scenes of showing Shadowsun and other tau characters overlooking the world's reconstruction, but we're offered little beyond them. The book never takes the time to really emphasize Mu'gulath Bay's true value or even establish its character, giving it meaning to each side in the war. To be blunt, it jumped into events without establishing a true history or giving the reader true reason to be invested in the fate of this world.

Let's focus upon a few Imperial Armour examples to see how they handled it. The Vraks books began by spending several pages developing the rise in power of the Ecclesiarchy in that sector of space, of a growing peasant's crusade and the threat it poses. It took the time to establish the main figures behind that, but when it came to Vraks itself, it turned the world into a symbol. Vraks, a giant munitions dump intended to help hold the Cadian Gate, was now a powder keg. It showed how the balance in power could tip from the Imperium's grasp and established the very nature of its wards against Chaos. It made the sudden turn and its occupation all the more tragic, and its inhospitable environment built up the atmosphere of a place intended for nothing but the grinding wheels of war. 

Even relatively minor events or worlds such as Betalis III have a massive amount of time spent upon establishing its worth to each side. While little more than a frozen mining world left to be colonised by settlers treated little better than slaves, the fact it was so readily discarded and forgotten, and the plight of its population brought the world to life. This history, combined with its surprising value to the eldar of Mymeara established it as a battleground worth becoming invested in.

Hell, to be fair, let's even look beyond Forge World to a more home grown example: Medusa V. We had the same thing emerging again, with the world's history and unique quirks being emphasised by the writers. Its slowly unraveling stability, the distorting nature of reality about it thanks to the Warp, the link its name had to the homeworld of the Iron Hands and its broken cities all helped to give it character. While it might be overshadowed by other events these days sadly, at the time each region and battlefield had an identity of their own thanks to the visuals, descriptions, events writers penned out from multiple perspectives.

The above examples are the short versions, but then take all that into account and consider what we know about Mu'gulath Bay by comparison. It was once a major Imperial Hive World and it's to be the hub of a new Sept, but that's it. The writing doesn't convey any real meaning within the story, and instead the readers are just told it's somewhere valuable and that's why it's being fought over. At the end of the day, this sadly just turns it into a rather bland and meaningless battlefield with a name tacked on, and without any established history or human culture the world feels soulless. Even accepting that however, work could have still been done with the environments themselves, with a vast wealth of contrasting combat zones on offer. This is a world of human ruins and shining alien cities, of deserts and fledgling new fauna adapted to suit its new population. It's a near perfect set up to show the old war fought there, and the world the Tau Empire is trying to build, but even this is never used. Beyond the artwork, there's no effort put into fleshing out any truly dynamic, vivid environments and the best the readers are given is page after page of vague ruin or unremarkable desert. As such, the world is not only soulless, bereft history and offering no real investment for the characters let alone the reader, but it's also faceless, lacking any theme or distinguished landmarks.

Now, this might seem like an odd thing to harp on and more than a few of you are probably already rolling your eyes at this, but it really is critical to the story. It's a flaw which runs deep within the tale itself and, ultimately, it removes one of the biggest factors which could have been used to really give each side something to work with. There's no point where the book seems to truly acknowledge each faction has deep ties to this world, and made physically made their mark for better or worse. Save for a passing mention in Aun'Va's final moments, we never see any thoughts or general opinions reflecting upon the scars left by the world's previous owners. We never see Pask or Khan's thoughts as they look upon a world which has been terraformed to suit alien life, arguably defiled from an Imperial viewpoint. There's no connection here at all and no time spent building upon the location as a place worth fighting for, or using opinionated narration to really show the perspectives of both sides.

Much of the story honestly seemed like the writers wanted to avoid as much baggage as possible, or almost anything which might get in the way of explosions. At almost every turn we have turning points or character rivalries brushed aside in favour of seeing another Leman Russ explode, and this hits the world's population especially hard. How hard? So hard it breaks the most basic premise of the Tau Empire and jackknifes headlong into character assassination central. Here's the only mention we're given of what's happened to the sizable human population they forcibly integrated into the Empire, and see if you can spot what's wrong -

"No thought or effort had been given [by the Imperial crusade] to freeing the former Imperial citizens trapped in labour domes on the planet or shipped to far off mining colonies."

Yeah, the Tau Empire is using humans inducted into their domain as slave labour, and only as slave labour. The book makes it clear humans aren't being re-educated, aren't being adjusted for within the Empire, and these camps aren't there to keep dissidents under control. Nope, instead if you're born with pink or brown rather than blue skin, apparently you're a slave for life. Just to remind people: The driving concept, the defining theme of the entire goddamn Greater Good, is unity under a single banner no matter the race. Those serving the Greater Good are encouraged to induct species and encourage them to support their beliefs no matter the cause, to have them serve as a cog within the Empire willingly and unite all species under heaven. Every single last book - pro and anti tau alike - has all supported this fact, and shown a myriad of races are now serving the Empire. The dark side of this stems from the suggestion of mind control, of possible cultural annihilation in favour of the way way of life, or the fact some are forcibly made to join the Empire. This single sentence? It's Necron-Blood Angel alliance levels of getting things wrong. Anyone who has even read the blurb on this faction's damn codex would instantly know this is wrong, let alone paid writers and editors who are supposed to be developing this setting.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that this was inches from being an act of sheer brilliance. If, rather than shoving it to one side, the authors had spent even just one or two pages focusing upon the labour camps it could have elevated this book entirely. Imagine for a moment that these weren't forced slavery camps but actual re-education centres kept for dissidents or the worst elements of the planet. Imagine they were places the tau had constructed to ease the most difficult elements of the population into accepting their rule. Perhaps have them involve labour, yes, but make it clear that their end goal was eventual integration in the long term. With that in mind, perhaps have the Imperium actively attack or raid a few of those facilities, seeking dissidents or locals who might provide them information on how to help them fight against the Empire. This would involve the people there rather than just two armies, but more importantly it would give the big names on each side something to work with.

For starters, consider what the Imperium might think upon seeing these places or gaining information from there. If anyone defecting spoke of atrocities or brain-washing efforts via machinery, the Imperium would be taking a more hard-line approach. It would excuse their forces annihilating everything in their path and performing an even more genocidal campaign than usual, wiping out any humans they came across. It could work to leave someone like Khan disgusted at the Tau Empire's duplicity, and perhaps even weaken the previous respect he or other commanders might have felt for them. In the case of Shrike, or perhaps even Imperial Guard heroes such as Pask, it might have even encouraged a new approach to attacking tau worlds. Knowing that they could so utterly alter the minds of humans, perhaps defiling them in their own eyes, would finally establish them as more than just a minor threat to the Imperium. It would make them a truly subversive force, something capable of warping the will of Imperial citizens in a manner akin to Chaos or similar threats; something which might cause them to treat non-combatants as corrupted bystanders worthy only of the Emperor's mercy.

Then consider how the Tau Empire might see the Imperium's response to raiding re-education centres or wiping out citizens wholesale. While it would need to be left somewhat ambiguous, it could be suggested that the "brain-washing" processes were simply a way of imparting basic knowledge. Perhaps delivering information about the ideology behind the Greater Good, the tau lexicon or even basic industrial skills which could help build new cities or the terraforming process. Seeing Imperial forces targeting those facilities and butchering defectors en mass would seem like a horrific atrocity to the Fire Caste, and you could have Shadowsun or Longstrike reacting in disgust. Perhaps it could help prove to them that humanity's government could not be negotiated with, and that they would casually annihilate any who might step out of line or try to follow a new path. Basic knowledge in many regards, yes, but it would be a chance for the tau to see this first hand and have a direct experience to work off of.

Hell, if you really wanted to push things further, you could have Farsight having a very different reaction to learning about these machines. Perhaps they are inventions introduced long after his forces succeeded from the Empire, and that he is highly suspicious of them. He could even think the humans might be right about the brain-washing processes or that they could be used to enforce subliminal messaging. Perhaps, as a result, he could see it as an attempt by the Aun to try to force races into compliance via subterfuge rather than the worthiness of their cause. It would be a chance to keep the tau factions at odds with one another even as the battles progressed, and remind the reader that the two are hardly at peace with one another.

It honestly shouldn't be this hard to come up with ways to make real use of these plot points.  At the very least I would hope these writers, paid by Games Workshop to make use of their rich lore, could outdo the ramblings of a sleep-deprived blogger still hungover from yesterday's celebrations.

It's moments like this brief mention of humans which really highlights the problems with the book. The writers aren't concerned with biased storytelling or even subjective terms, instead what they're sticking to is "this is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you either accept this or you're wrong." So, what we end up with is them picking and choosing the bits they like the most. We end up with the Imperial Guard being able to do nothing but die in droves with no tactical variety between units, unstoppable waves of Fire Caste units, relentless shilling about how awesome Farsight is and mass character assassination of the Ethereal Caste. This is not only incredibly narrow minded and problematic for the factions involved, but it causes issues for the setting as a whole. Warhammer 40,000 is supposed to be built upon the idea that "everything is canon and nothing is canon", but when one single opinion steamrolls over everything, the magic of that concept is destroyed.

It's always been the case that everything, from the codices to novels are relatively subjective. While certain events and facts are set in stone, they're pillars holding up the setting as a whole allowing writers to weave and alter details about them. So, while someone couldn't claim that Cadia doesn't exist, the Emperor was an ork or there was never an Eldar Empire, how certain events or factions are used should be open to interpretation. Chaos, above all others, has seen a resurgence thanks to this subjective writing of late. After being treated all too often as the ultimate evil in far too many stories, some novels are now focusing upon its benefits and even introducing sympathetic members of the Traitor Legions. While ultimately still monsters they're no longer being treated exclusively as the ultimate evil, at least in the case of their human followers anyway. Equally, to focus upon the Tau Empire for a second, they can be used both as a force of true evil or a shining new hope depending upon the writer. To cement one single idea as fact is returning to the worst trends of the Fifth Edition, and you might as well be counting down until someone pulls another "Spiritual Liege" moment.

Some are going to argue that setting more details in stone, setting more ideas and basic concepts as irrefutable truth will allow for bigger and broader stories. I have already seen many discussing how having definitive set facts for the universe as a whole, a single defining opinion, might encourage more ongoing campaigns like this. However, is that really true? Even just going from this lone example, there's little real reason to suggest this might be accurate. In fact, it might even be having completely the opposite effect. The entire campaign, from beginning to end, is largely self-contained. While it did flow smoothly from one book to the next, it never truly branched out to take full advantage of the universe as a whole. 

Beyond fleeting mentions, and a brief cameo appearance of a Tyranid Hive Fleet, we never saw the threats the Imperium was so focused upon conquering that they were willing to turn a blind eye to the tau. We never saw the Impact the tau invasions were having upon other Imperial worlds, even those reliant upon influxes of fresh resources. Even the big event, the Thirteenth Black Crusade, was bushed under the rug as there was no mention of the Cadians thoughts on fighting on a distant planet while their homeworld was under threat. The closest we truly get to a few mentions of ongoing plotlines are those which, in all honesty, have yet to truly start. The only big one which kept showing up for the Imperial side was the threat the Red Corsairs posed to Chigoris, and even that was largely put down to a side note.

Even when it came to events and subjects directly in line with the book itself, the plots were ignored. Farsight's discovery of the Ethereals' corrupt and manipulative nature (and let's not open up that can of worms again) is not addressed beyond briefly being alluded to during a single conversation. Shrike's promotion to Chapter Master, a rushed event from the prior book, carried no weight here. Even on the rare occasions he showed up, Shrike showed no more authority or responsibility than he had as a Captain; and even the fact his initial campaign as Chapter Master ended in disaster is not even suggested to have resonated with him in any way. Events within Mont'ka itself end up having the same treatment, with Aun'Va's death, Shadowsun's new found respect for Farsight and the Imperium's final act of revenge having no impact. This is further emphasised with a conclusion which effectively sets everything back to square one on every front to preserve the status quo, and ultimately it's this which proves to be the book's greatest failing.

The writers or editors involved clearly wanted to have big changes take place or develop a massive storyline. With so many opportunities or dangling threads ready to be snatched they opted to take advantage of several at once, initiating several bold plot developments along the way. However, while they wanted to play about with certain ideas and events, they didn't want to actually deal with the consequences or details established by other authors. As a result, the storyline becomes a pointless, self-contained outing which fails to live up to half of its potential and fails to truly further the overall story. It fails to connect with any part of the setting, just ignoring plot relevant events and bulldozing its way through the canon until the writers get what they want. If we were to end up with more of these stories, the end result would be less of the freedom on offer now and a broad setting than several wildly spread out and utterly disconnected story arcs.

The only remaining thing to really be said is that this honestly could have, and should have, been a better story. It wouldn't have been hard to truly push for something truly monumental here, and this storyline did have the potential to finally offer fans the developing narrative they wanted. Instead, it's sadly just a disappointment. If they were to tackle this again, the writing team would need to stop and take a good, long hard look at the flaws within this first storyline. They would need to stop and truly examine what went wrong and actually take into account Forge World's own successes before taking another stab at it. Without that reflection, without that analysis, I could honestly see this sort of campaign series doing far more harm than good in the long run.


  1. I'm surprised there aren't any comments yet, so I guess I'll start off by saying that this book and the new Tau book has thinking that this isn't really the Tau Empire anymore, it's just another Imperium that going through their own Great Crusade and before they're struck by presumably "The Shadowsun Heresy" or whoever it's going to be that turns evil.

    Think about it, the Tau show up, demand you join them, if you don't you are eradicated (or enslaved), and if you do then you are forced into some form of specialized servitude, not too much different than what humans did with the Xenos they came across, or the abhumans.

    Secondly, I have to agree with you that the world was so completely underutilized. I suppose if they tried to do anything with it though it would just involve more Tau Dues Ex Machina's, like that hand-held earthquake maker or their scanners being able to scan an area (and by that I mean a country sized area) and just instantly know everything about it.

    I'm glad you also brought up a big problem I have with how the lore is presented. I think it's all fine to lie to the player in one army book, and tell a different story in another. As an example I'll use the Blood Angels/Necron BFF battle that everyone loves bringing up. In the Blood Angels book, they say that they teamed up to fight the Tyranids then the Necrons left out of respect for the Blood Angels, whereas in the Necron book the only reason the Silent King was on the planet in the first place was to fight the Tyranids. When they were dead there's no more reason for him to stay. Now while I think that should have been told better (for example, have the Blood Angels claim they forced the Necrons to leave once the Tyranids were dealt with, and to be fair a later novel changed this so that the Necrons screw over the Blood Angels), I actually support the Codices telling conflicting information like that, because it helps with the whole "everything is canon, not everything is true" idea that 40k is supposed to go for and you can use it to avoid a lot of Mary Sue syndrome.

    As another example, I recently read the Farsight Enclaves lore, it sucked so hard, but if it was just Farsight's propaganda about himself, or one of his followers making propaganda for Farsight when he was gone, you'd have a great reason as to why he's portrayed as the best creature that has ever graced the galaxy.

    Finally, if there's one thing Mont'ka succeeded more than anything else, it was at making me really kind of hate the Tau, and I genuinely don't want to, but for some reason every book wants to portray them as this awesome unstoppable force, ignoring any and all logic and reason (even some of the ones I thought were half-decent, like the Taros Campaign, end up getting really stupid). Out of curiosity I went through Mont'ka and counted how many times the word "perfect" or one of its variations was used. It was used 21 times in the main story, 18 of which were to describe how perfect the Tau army was and how perfectly they were doing in the war, 1 of which was used to mention how Pask used to know how to position his tanks to take less damage from enemy weapons (something he apparently forgot later) and the last 2 were to describe how good the Vindicare was in the past and could/should have been for this mission.
    I suppose it's only fitting that one of the battlefield random charts has a result called "Perfect Conditions".

    1. That really is half the problem in a nutshell. So much of the Tau Empire's canon has been re-written or altered to put them entirely in line with the Emperor's plan, when there's really no reason for them to repeat those same mistakes. Up until a few years ago, the very idea of censoring all knowledge of the Warp or pulling the stunts found here would have seemed ridiculous, and yet bit by bit they've chipped away at things so they can repeat humanity's mistakes. They're now freely using highly intelligent AI, bereft of all the previous safeguards lore established for them. They're blocking all knowledge of the Warp, despite having multiple highly psychic species under their dominion, and even defectors from the Inquisition siding with them AKA the kind of people who should tell them this is a REALLY bad idea when it comes to their military. Even the good stuff has started to bring up problems, like showing places integrated into the Empire having their culture supplanted entirely. It's getting more ridiculous with every passing book, and I honestly have to wonder if there's one writer who is bent upon sticking with this depiction above all others. I mean, Phil Kelly wrote the abominable Farsight Enclaves apparently, but i'm sure he can't have THAT much power over people.

      It really is a case of someone just loving one depiction of the Tau Empire and pushing that as much as possible these days. I mean, we have them beating seven kinds of hell out of the Imperial Guard here, but the Ethereals are set up to be corrupt, decadent and insanely incompetent. Part of me wonders if that's why Aun'Shi seems to have been conveniently forgotten in recent years, or just why Aun'Va pulled a complete 180, going from militant space Ghandi to Mr Burns overnight. It might not even be so bad were it not, as pointed out by both of us, set up to be just one possible variation on events, but this has long gone past being a joke with the tau.

      Honestly, I actually have to agree with you in many regards. The Taros Campaign was a big problem in terms of having the Fire Caste so easily win over the Imperium, and dialing up the incompetence of humanity until they can't even guard basic freight convoys, give the right ammo to an Imperial Assassin, and the astartes just stay in orbit with their thumbs up their backsides for most of the campaign. Personally, i'll defend Kauyon as (while the tau did win and it was biased towards them) it at least established Shadowsun had a major advantage there and was prepared for their attack, having learned from her previous battles. Honestly, if this keeps going, they're going to surpass the worst moments of the Ultramarines in terms of their sheer ridiculousness.

    2. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Phil Kelly wrote the Farsight Enclaves, since for some reason he has an extremely hard time depicting anything besides one-sided fights (even when he redid the First War for Armageddon, pretty much all of the Imperial losses happen offscreen).

      Maybe Phil's the one doing it because nobody else cares to? I'm not too sure, I do know that when Jeremy Vetock wrote the 6th edition Tau he at least didn't make the Ethereal's into Saturday morning cartoon villains (I wonder what he's doing now), and speaking of them, I've got a big problem with the Ethereal's in general. Every previous Codex had me convinced that the Ethereal's were in some way important to the evolution and unity of the Tau. Any Tau who spoke to them was convinced they were in the right, and so were any aliens who were made to "properly" communicate with them, so what happened? Shouldn't the Tau Empire be at least slightly harmed if it all of a sudden didn't have any Ethereal's to guide/unify it? In this edition (and in the terrible Farsight Enclaves) the Tau are doing fantastically wherever there AREN'T any Ethereal's, so they've gone from a necessary evil, to an outright detriment to the Tau Empire.

      What sucked for me most about the Taros Campaign (aside from how laughably bad the Imperium was on the defensive and the ridiculous K/D ratio the Tau rack up, both of those are a given considering they almost always happen when the Tau are involved) is hypothetically you could not have picked a better Imperial Guard force to take on the Tau than the Elysian Drop Shock Troopers, as they completely counter the Tau's usual defences, but in the book they're used once and then never used again, despite being extremely effective at their job. Second most disappointing was seeing an Eversor infiltrate the Tau compound, and then get taken out in a way that would have made the Mont'ka book proud, as the assassin somehow finds it extremely hard to kill one lone Ethereal right in front of him (the Ethereal scrambling away and the assassin taking his sweet time as if it was a bad slasher movie and forgetting he had a pistol), and he is killed by Tau reinforcements, despite being in close proximity to them (and thus they should be dead before they can even fire), after all, if there's one thing Eversor assassins are known for it's being slow, weak, and easy to kill right?

      Most of the problems I have with Kauyon are relatively little things like "Where do the Tau keep getting these reinforcements from at this particular moment?" Which doesn't really bother me anymore since you can ask that question about pretty nearly any battle the Tau have fought (for people without any kind of teleportation they sure appear out of nowhere in great numbers a lot). Sure there's plenty of moments where I was raising my eyebrows at something that was going on, but there wasn't enough in there for me to get really annoyed at since at least most of the Tau's victories required some thought (besides some random excusable ones they win offscreen) and the Tau were set up so that their naivety would come back to bite them.

      You know what else could have saved Mont'ka though? Use the Tau's naivety again, and have them get reinforcements, not from Farsight with his ships appearing out of nowhere (I'd still like to know how he arrived at the planet so quick), but from some faction like the Dark Eldar or Chaos Space Marines (or really any Xenos faction we haven't seen much of). They could be easily convinced to fight beside the Tau (and would make good opponents for the Imperium) with the idea of betraying the Tau later in some shape or form.