INTERVIEW: TOBY FOX OF UNDERTALE

I told Toby Fox to skip questions he didn’t find interesting, and boy did he take me at my word. Frankly, I don’t blame him. When I’ve answered questions about things I’ve created, it was my hunger for recognition that made me sing my finest song. That’s where Toby Fox differs. He doesn’t seem to give a fuck what people think of him. Nonetheless, he took the time to answer my email, and I thank him for that. Now enjoy this (somewhat one-sided) conversation about Undertale, a game I quite enjoyed playing, by a guy who begrudgingly let me interview him. But hey, I did recommend he pull a Ted Kaczynski after all. Nyeh heh heh.

The Existential Gamer: Can you pinpoint the birth of UNDERTALE as an idea, or did it sort of coalesce in your mind over time?

Toby Fox: It originated when I decided to create a battle system in Game Maker. Then I made a game around it.

TEG: I really loved the fact that many of the branches in UNDERTALE‘s story seemed to lead to miniature “voids” where I was forced to contemplate what I’d just experienced without being “improved” in any quantitative way. Do you think that as gamers and people we have become addicted to numbers / money / experience in general?

TF: The addictive quality of “numbers increasing” is what drives a lot of games. But some of the most important things in life can’t be accurately represented by numbers. As for people’s lives, I have no comment.

TEG: The protagonist in UNDERTALE is of ambiguous gender. This is also true of many of the monsters he/she encounters along the way. Was this a design choice, and what role does androgyny play in your vision of the world?

TF: Skip

TEG: Romance was one of the most interesting aspects of the game. In some situations there are sexual undertones in the dialogue, but these quickly give way to absurdity. Why did you choose to include flirting as a mechanism, and what role does sexuality play in a world like Undertale’s, where the storyline centers around the polar opposites of violence and non-violence?

TF: Skip

TEG: If you had to pick someone to spend the rest of your life with, would it be Sans or Papyrus? Why?

TF: Skip

TEG: A book in the Snowdine library reads: “Love, hope, compassion … humans have proven that their souls don’t need these things to exist.” Do you perceive the morality play in UNDERTALE as beyond the duality of “good vs evil”, or are these terms still useful to us as human beings in the 21st century?

TF: Regarding UNDERTALE‘s morality, my opinion is kind of irrelevant. I’d be interested in what you think about it, though.

TEG: What’s the last game you really, really enjoyed playing? Why?

TF: Ghost Trick, because the story was excellent and tied into the gameplay in a novel way. Highly recommended if you like Shu Takumi’s other games.

TEG: What’s the game you’ve played the most over the course of your life? Why?

TF: UNDERTALE, because I had to test it.
Second place: Earthbound, because I was part of an Earthbound fan community and it was a cornerstone of my life. (Editor’s note: Toby has since published a tweet that reads “recently i said in an interview that the game i had played the most ever was earthbound and i just realized IT’S ACTUALLY SMASH BROS MELEE”)

TEG: UNDERTALE doesn’t dig very deeply into the backstory of its protagonist, and there is no mention of his/her parents or life before falling into the hole. Why is that?

TF: Skip

TEG: You composed the entire musical score of UNDERTALE, and I found it to be gorgeous and atmospheric, an integral part of the story-telling. Did you write the pieces specifically for the game, or did they exist before the scenes they score?

TF: Over 90% of the songs were composed for the game. I always wrote the songs before I started programming those parts, besides the credits song. Having music helps me decide how the scene should go.
Here are the songs that were composed for other projects, then absorbed into this one:
– Nyeh Heh Heh
– Bonetrousle
– Heartache
– Another Medium
– Fallen Down
There’s an arrangement of a song from a previous project here, as well. People are well aware of this one.

TEG: Although I wouldn’t place UNDERTALE in the “post-apocalyptic” genre, there is a real feeling of wandering through a world in the aftermath of a cataclysm. Why have video games and art in general become so obsessed with the end of the world, and where would you place humanity on the spectrum from “no end in sight”  to “it’s already happened, dude”?

TF: UHHH??? SKIP???

TEG: What’s next after UNDERTALE? Do you see yourself working more on games, music, or something else entirely?

TF: Beats me.

TEG: Has the success of the game come as a surprise to you? Are you enjoying the attention from the media or is it a bizarre nuisance?

TF: Hmmm… I guess it’s slightly more than I expected. I’m glad I can make a positive difference in so many peoples’ lives, but I hate answering interview questions.

You can buy Undertale here, and hey, it’s all about talking to monsters like me.

IS NO MAN’S SKY AN ACCIDENTAL COLONIALIST UTOPIA?

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear a paper delivered by the philosopher Thom van Dooren (co-authored with the human geographer and social theorist Matthew Kearnes) on the various cultural, political, and scientific entanglements—and ethical quandaries—associated with off-earth mining.[1] The central thrust of their paper seemed to be stressing the various senses in which we are already entangled in a relationship with space—even if we, as a species, were never to leave the Earth’s atmosphere again. Whether it is through light being mined from the sun, physical phenomena moving between the Earth and the surrounding solar system, or from the very way that the possibility of leaving the Earth permeates our cultural imagination, for both van Dooren and Kearnes we are already entangled with and implicated by the fact that there is no absolute barrier or division between the Earth and space.

Van Dooren and Kearnes argued that while the contemporary imagining of space posits an infinite emptiness, it is one that is simultaneously replete with riches that could immensely improve life on Earth or provide us with a means of escape if the Earth becomes too unstable for human life. This notion of space as empty, or as a void, is a product of the various forms of technological mediation that allow us access to it. Especially with the case of visual media like photography, the images we produce of space greatly influence our broader sense of what it is, and further, what can or should be done with and within it. It’s this notion of space as both utterly empty and excessively rich that brought my attention immediately to No Man’s Sky and its odd entanglement with the ethics of our interactions with the alien, extra-terrestrial, and inorganic.

 

For many, No Man’s Sky is an example of a move towards a more progressive game, one that puts aside violence, domination, and conflict, in order to offer an experience that is more open-ended and potentially contemplative. However, while No Man’s Sky is certainly less conflict-oriented than your traditional space-based shooter or RPG, the basic framework for the game is hardly radical. As Julian Feeld wrote here on Outermode, “No Man’s Sky plays on our desires for wealth accumulation, status, and violent domination.”

I’ve personally spent many hours navigating the vastness of No Man’s Sky and found myself truly compelled by the openness of the universe it presents. In some ways, No Man’s Sky reminds me of the kind of play I’d create for myself having completed a game when I was a child. Once I had nothing left to pursue in a game like GoldenEye 007 the levels could be replayed by inserting my own narratives and missions into the fixed game-environments. Similarly, No Man’s Sky presents a template for the player to use their imagination for the co-generating of stories, missions, and longer quests. In so doing, No Man’s Sky presents a universe that is more or less there for the player, rich enough to be engaging, but empty enough to be filled with almost any narrative or player-conception.

The framework of mining, destroying sentinels, and selling goods on an interstellar market is meant to open the player up to a potentially more creative, open-ended, and meditative experience. But that response to the game downplays the question of the role of mining and space exploration—something quite telling in an era where mining and conventional resource accumulation threaten to intensify immense ecological instability. No Man’s Sky seems to offer us the closest approximation of that cultural idea of space as both infinitely empty and utterly rich, as the game’s generative capacities open up a seemingly infinite array of mining scenarios.

But it’s worth raising the possibility that there is something deeply conservative, and perhaps almost frontier-like, in the way that No Man’s Sky offers the player a chance to inhabit a world that is truly there “for you.” No Man’s Sky presents a world of infinite emptiness—the game is virtually a blank canvas for the player’s projections—and finite riches, and then offers you the chance to exploit it—in the process becoming a fantasy with a distinctly colonial tone. One could even wonder whether or not the more overt violence and imperial conflict of contemporary sci-fi games like Destiny, the Mass Effect series, or the Borderlands games is in fact more progressive, at least insofar as it presents a universe that is resistant and often openly hostile to the player; a universe where one isn’t simply free to project their fantasies, but has to pay attention to the political, cultural, and technological entanglements that one finds oneself in.

 

Seen like that, we can link No Man’s Sky to the distinction that the Marxist philosopher Ernst Beck drew between “abstract” and “concrete” utopia. For Beck, utopian visions—for instance, a future where humanity can move freely between the stars—must include conflict if they are to have any concrete status and connection to the lived world. A future where we can explore the stars with little limitation does not, on Beck’s terms, offer anything other than abstract whimsy. However, a utopian artwork that attempts to combine the struggles inherent in any future—though one that doesn’t let go of the possibility of a better existence—is of great importance for Beck.

No Man’s Sky’s capacity to show us an existence where our entanglement with space is not taken for granted—where our existence within any one planetary horizon is always acknowledged with respect to a greater horizon of space—and where one can move with immense freedom between planets and systems, gives the game an immensely utopian character. However, at times the openness of the game suggest that it might be one of Beck’s abstract utopia: an artistic vision of a future existence that is devoid of the conflicts that would give it a more concrete connection to our world.

But then perhaps that backdrop of space mining does anchor the game within all-too-familiar present struggles—by creating internal conflict even as it minimizes the external kind. The notion of an escape from Earth, or of a possible future of space exploration, has enormous purchase in contemporary culture. For that reason, rather than being simply a traditional game mechanic for luring in players to a slightly unconventional game, the mining aspect of No Man’s Sky is perhaps more radical than it first seems. In offering us the chance not only to visit alien worlds but to immediately exploit them for their resources, the game is a reminder that any future space-utopia that we might be dreaming of now will come at a cost—and a cost that is not easy to tally or evaluate.

[1] The conference in question was: geo- (the earth and the earth sciences in humanities inquiry), held in Perth, Western Australia. An abridged version of their paper can be found here.

INTERVIEW: PAWEL MIECHOWSKI OF THIS WAR OF MINE & 11 BIT STUDIOS

This War of Mine is not a fun game, but that’s hardly a criticism. The haunting war simulator puts you in charge of a small group of civilian survivors caught up in war. There are no epic battles to be fought here, just those for basic nutrition, medical supplies and heating. It’s a dark, realistic account of the side of war that gaming frequently ignores: that of those caught in the crossfire. In our review, Myles Starr worried about whether a game was the best medium for such a weighty topic, but Pawel Miechowski, Senior Writer at 11bit Studios, is having none of it. In this interview he makes a compelling argument that gaming has finally come of age. Then he goes and tells me about a browser-based fart game.

The Existential Gamer: Where did the idea for This War of Mine come from?

Pawel Miechowski: It was actually one guy. My older brother Grzegorz (CEO at 11 bit; we’ve been working on games together for ages) came up with this idea. He’s interested in history and at that time he was reading articles on what regular people do in war in order to survive. We were brainstorming and he told us some shocking stories about civilians in war and that it could be a thrilling topic for a game. And we all instantly agreed – let’s do that! A serious idea for a mature game. That’s how it began.

TEG: The game is set in a non-specific European war. How did you come to this design decision, and did you model the game after any specific conflicts?

PM: We did not want to point at any specific conflict to stay away from political connotations. The message was intended to be universal. And it worked. For Israeli people – it was about them, for Palestinians – about them, and so on. Not surprisingly, if you’re a person caught in a war, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Polish, Italian or Swedish – you just want to survive and protect the ones you love. The origins of conflict are irrelevant, what matters is your suffering. However, we did the research – we were looking for memoirs and stories from people who survived different wars, and within these memoirs and interviews we searched for particular events that stuck in the person’s mind, using these to understand how civilians perceived war. So for example, the siege of Sarajevo has been very well documented and one can find plenty of stories. We know a lot of family stories ourselves, because we’re from Warsaw – the city that was heavily destroyed and everybody has a grandma or grandpa who survived war and knew it personally. My grandmother survived German Nazi invasion and then Russian Soviet invasion. She ate pigweed when she and her whole family were starving. Anyway, we were looking for stories from Kosovo, Aleppo in Syria, Libya, the siege of Monrovia in Liberia in the early 2000s. But I think Sarajevo and Warsaw were the most important inspirations.

TEG: What was your process in determining incentives and penalties related to specific “moral” and “immoral” actions in the game? Did you have any internal debates on the team about morality?

PM: One of the design pillars was to create an environment in which the game is not giving you moral answers, instead inviting you as the player to do what feels right, and then be presented with the result of your deed. That way you judge for yourself whether you’ve done the right or wrong thing. Any choice can be punishing because that’s how it looks during war. You are going to sacrifice yourself or others. So there are no incentives and penalties “by design” but rather a moral compass that shows you consequences of the deeds without a moral thesis given to you directly.

 

TEG: The game tackles depression and mental illness, still a rarity in games. Do you think people tend to undervalue mental health in these sorts of desperate situations (in comparison to basic physical needs)?

PM: It’s a really tough question. I believe people know war is a nightmare but those of us who haven’t (luckily) experienced war, we can only attempt to imagine what the experience is like, and we’d be very naive to assume that we’d be tough survivors or even war heroes. For a human being, war is the hardest of tests, and it’s devastating for one’s mental health. Yet, people somehow survive wars and they’re capable of beautiful things, one example being how strangers risked their lives to help each other in Sarajevo.

TEG: I imagine creating This War of Mine was a difficult endeavour. What were the psychological effects of the development cycles, and how did you take “time off” from the work?

PM: Working on a title that speaks about depression, starvation and death is, in general, a somewhat emotionally exhausting experience. On the other hand, we’ve received thousands of supportive e-mails and kind words about TWoM from different people all around the world. That’s very inspiring and it motivates us to continue working on further projects. Generally, we got incredibly positive feedback and acknowledgement for creating an eye-opening experience. That’s very rewarding!

TEG: This War of Mine depicts war from a specifically civilian perspective. Do you enjoy playing games that glorify war and wartime heroics?

PM: Yes, I do – I liked the old Medal of Honor series where you played as a super-soldier against hordes of Nazis. However, I’m against the statement that games should remain power fantasies. When I’m in a certain mood I watch action shoot-outs, like in Rambo or Schwarzenegger films, but from time to time, something inside me pushes me to watch war dramas like The Pianist or Schindler’s List, and I cry like a baby when the film ends. That’s catharsis for me. And I firmly believe games can do the same – games can be adrenaline-pumped action and they can deliver that for you when you feel like playing such action, but games can also tackle serious topics or comment on reality and the human condition via properly structured gameplay.

TEG: Who is your favorite writer when it comes to depicting war, and why?

PM: Not sure if it’s my favorite one, but this book struck me hard lately: Ota Pavel’s Smierc Pieknych Saren. I couldn’t find an English translation, but literally it means ‘Death of Beautiful Deers’. He was a Czech writer describing his experiences during World War II when he lived with his parents in a small village in the Czech Republic under German Nazi rule. They tried to live normally but in that cruel world it was not possible. I hope it’s available in English. Also Uprising 44 by Norman Davies is painfully, brutally true when depicting war, but it’s a historical book so as you might guess there are plenty of real stories and photos from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It shows the horror as it was.

 

TEG: Have you, or any of the development team, experienced war or its effects first hand? If so, how did those experiences shape the game?

PM: Luckily, none of us experienced war and I hope we never will. But we know people who did like Emir, our friend from Bosnia, now living in France, and all our grandmothers and grandfathers who survived German invasion and Soviet invasion later. I know stories from my grandma, and for her the most memorable moments were the non-rational ones, the most emotional ones – that’s how people remember war and that’s what we tried to depict in TWoM.

TEG: How did you go about doing research for the game?

PM: Well, we began with war stories from family members. We read interviews with people on Amnesty International and watched hundreds of interviews on famacollection.org where you can access the incredibly well-documented story of the siege of Sarajevo. Keep in mind we were not looking for the history of conflicts (as political background is completely irrelevant in this case) but for personal accounts of events that marked people – examples of challenges, feelings, sacrifices – which we used as the basis to create specific events in the game.

TEG: What is the funniest thing that happened during the development of This War of Mine?

PM: Games often behave weirdly during development. One day, in a prototype version of This War of Mine, rats got upscaled until they were as large as humans, and rainbow colored. It looked like an LSD-fueled trip rather than a depiction of war-torn city.

TEG: This War of Mine is often dark, bleak and depressing. Did you have any debates among the designers and developers about whether the game need to be ‘fun’?

PM: We knew from the very beginning it was not going to be fun. Typical ‘fun’ was out of the question. We knew we had to approach the topic with a proper respect and make it compelling, engaging experience rather than fun and enjoyable one.

TEG: Do you believe violence is a necessary component of the human psyche, and do you think the world will evolve out of warfare?

PM: Hmmmm… this is a very philosophical question. For those who believe in dual nature of things, evil is as necessary as good and so violence may be necessary component of the human psyche (or humankind in general) and overcoming one’s own nature and cutting off violence from one’s psyche is the key of being. I think the human race always needs a challenge, always needs a problem to be solved, but I’m certain war doesn’t need to be that challenge. We have cancer to heal and stars to reach.

 

TEG: What is the stupidest game you’ve ever enjoyed?

PM: Once there was a Flash game where you had a machine that simulated farts. It was called Fart-O-Mat 2000 or something. [Ed.: Fart-O-Mat perhaps?] For 10 minutes it was hilarious, but then I’d farted all the magic away.

TEG: What is the most important lesson you learned from creating This War of Mine?

PM: The lesson we took away from it is that games have grown up. From now on, we as the entire community (gamers, creators, YouTube video creators, journalists) are ready to accept games as a mature form of storytelling, capable of tackling all kind of topics like books or movies. The only limitation is the gameplay – if it’s good, you can pretty much talk about anything in games.

TEG: When do you think the world will end, and for what reason?

PM: We’re all part of the same consciousness. If it stops being conscious one day, everything will stop. On the other hand, theoretically, time is just a dimension – maybe the world will never end, because it never even started, and has always been. Seems like a good start for a beer conversation!

TEG: Any new projects on the horizon?

PM: Yes, we’re already developing a game, temporarily called Industrial. I wouldn’t pay attention to the title – we’ll change it. The important thing is that it’s going to be a much bigger project that TWoM. On the one hand, it’s not that serious a game (it’s got fantasy elements) but it does utilize what we’ve learnt from TWoM‘s development to offer emotional depth for mature gamers expecting complex creations. A lot of work is yet to be done, but I’m obsessed with this vision. We’ll deliver something amazing – that’s a promise!

Go and buy yourself Pawel Miechowski’s war, a real one, with all the ugly bits left in.

WARHAMMER 40,000 IS PREDICTING THE PRESENT

Tabletop toy soldier game Warhammer 40,000 is the apogee of the ’80s. It was born in the ’80s, forged in the ’80s, is both the paradigm and ultimate parody of the ’80s. It is a fictional setting defined by punk rock and totalitarianism, bloodless tradition pitched against cataclysmic revolution, ecological eschatology, working-class disempowerment, machinist technological innovation married to a clerical (in both senses) hatred of pure reason – and of course war, omnipresent war, senseless, inescapable, eternal war. It is a future where everyone wears massive shoulderpads.

In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there is only the ’80s, unending and unchallenged. But after thirty years frozen at the same moment in fiction, things have changed in the 41st Millennium. The doomsday clock, stuck forever on the precipice of annihilation, has finally ticked over, through armageddon and into the unknown. Living in the United Kingdom I find a strange and discomforting poetry in this. Since 2015 my country has been spasming as shock after shock tears at the social, political, and commentariat consensus that has defined our culture since Thatcher, Reagonomics, and the thaw of the Soviet regimes. The blanket of Western self-assurance that settled in the ’80s seemed so deep and heavy that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was brave enough to call it the End of History. But here we are in 2017, two years into a seemingly endless sequence of unprecedented challenges to the status quo, vomiting up a new future from the base of our shuddering ribs. The clock is ticking.

The more I looked, the more consonance I found. Events in our reality are foreshadowed or repeated in Warhammer 40,000 with ever greater regularity, despite the fact that Games Workshop have an 18-month publishing lead time. Call it fancy on my part. Call it clinical pareidolia. Call this whole article a fever dream, and me the protagonist of a Lovecraft story contacted by entities from the Immaterium and mistaking their messages for my own thoughts. Somehow Warhammer 40,000 is predicting the present.

Let’s return to the root: the ’80s, the birth of the Western political consensus and Warhammer 40,000 – and the ascendance of Games Workshop as a business Imperium.

“The doomsday clock, stuck forever on the precipice of annihilation, has finally ticked over, through armageddon and into the unknown.”
The retailer opened its first store in London in 1975 and rapidly expanded to other premises, fuelled by a UK distribution license for TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons. Beginning as a general purpose hobby retailer, Workshop published more and more of its own products, casting miniatures through the Citadel Miniatures subsidiary and producing original and licensed board games, roleplaying games and the gaming magazine White Dwarf. In 1983 Games Workshop published the first of its core miniature wargames, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, a generic ruleset for massed infantry combat using fantasy miniatures. In 1987 its science-fiction sequel Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader would follow.

From the ’70s to the ’90s Games Workshop became ever more oriented around its own intellectual properties, gradually phasing out all other company’s products from their shelves until a Games Workshop shop had become a Games Workshop hobby centre. Games Workshop had become a vertically aligned company, managing all aspects of their business from the production of miniatures through to retail, distribution, lifestyle marketing through their White Dwarf magazine, merchandise and tie-in novelisations. It had also achieved the remarkable feat of transforming the niche miniatures wargaming hobby – previously the pursuit of history buffs – into a widespread pastime, with dedicated stores on almost every British high street and stockists around the world. It would not be until Fantasy Flight Games’ 2012 X-Wing miniatures game that another company came close to achieving their market penetration. Games Workshop created the contemporary miniature gaming market and continue to dominate it.

 

It is hard to pick a single moment at which Games Workshop ‘arrived’ as the cultural force it is today, and perhaps there is no single fulcrum on which the history of the company pivots, but Rogue Trader is surely a contender. Primarily written by Rick Priestley, the original game is a strange hybrid of miniature wargame and RPG, overstuffed with rules and a very different animal to the mass-battle game that exists today. But in this book the germinal ideas were planted that would grow into a multi-million dollar IP: here we met The Imperium of Man, the Dark Millennium, The Grim Darkness of the Far Future. Warhammer 40,000’s setting has been explored in millions of pages of fiction, sagas of heroism, treachery and insanity ranging across a galaxy of conflict and unreason. Something about that setting was – is – irresistible to thousands of imaginations.

“Warhammer 40,000’s setting has been explored in millions of pages of fiction, sagas of heroism, treachery and insanity ranging across a galaxy of conflict and unreason.”
The game was timely, too, capturing a zeitgeist that I (a proto-millennial born the same year Warhammer 40,000 was released) can only guess at or infer from the facts that remain: in 1987 UK unemployment was just beginning to fall below 3,000,000, the UK’s major opposition party Labour was being split by a breakaway faction known as the Social Democratic Party and would lose the year’s election, British Airways was privatised, the long burning civil conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ continued in Northern Ireland, having sex in a public place would land you a different court charge if you were straight or gay, race riots ran through the industrial city Leeds, the AIDS epidemic was killing a person a day, iconic British car firm Aston Martin was consumed by the American Ford, £50 billion was wiped off the London stock exchange by Black Monday, the economy was growing at the fastest rate since 1963, construction of the channel tunnel connecting the UK to Europe began, and Rick Astley released ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. It was an era that was divided, unequal, unstable, profitable, innovative, caught in the teeth of tradition and modernity, filled with both suspicion and celebration of the government and fond of neon and piercings. Borrowing heavily from both the canon and contemporary New Wave science fiction magazines like Heavy Metal and 2000AD, Warhammer 40,000 was a cosmos that could answer our own.

The Britain that existed in the 1980s and the political consensus that formed around it was built around two pillars: neoliberal economic theory and the gravestone of the postwar consensus. After World War Two, faced with a demolished economy and a determination to build and claim the rewards of peace, Western nations produced a variety of forms of government we could call Social Democratic Capitalism. Employing various methods and to various degrees they used the profits of capitalism to invest in common goods, such as education, infrastructure and healthcare, improving the wellbeing of their citizens and the productivity of their economy. Empowered labour movements safeguarded these gains. By the 1970s various factors, particularly a sudden spike in the cost of Middle-Eastern oil, drove many developed economies into a sudden crisis and destroyed the legitimacy of the postwar consensus. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservative party won the 1979 election on the promise they would end this crisis. Their goal was to force through economic reform under a new doctrine: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism strove to deregulate businesses, freeing them from administration and bureaucracy, and reduce the role of the state in providing public services (the state, it was asserted, having an anti-competitive advantage and delivering a worse result than private enterprises). It also brought the state into conflict with organised labour as unions resisted the closure of state-owned industries and reductions in their rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective); ultimately, the neoliberal state would be victorious.

By 1987 this new world order was all but established: many people were living in its afterbirth, a society wracked by the forcible reconstruction it had undergone in the past two decades. Its crowning achievement – what would prompt Francis Fukuyama to declare the End of History – came in 1989, with the beginning of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a process that would continue until 1992. Here was a concrete sign that the new Western consensus was the most powerful political, economic and social force on earth. There would be no more conflict – no more discussion – the reality that had been created in the 1980s was here to stay, forever.

“Games Workshop had declared itself the dominant force in the UK games market.”
That period included a flagship year for Games Workshop, too, as in 1991 manager Tom Kirby led a management buyout of the company from owner Bryan Ansell. Kirby realigned the company around its two main IPs, removing competitors’ products from its shelves and dropping licensed games. Stores were renovated from traditional chaotic nerd-holes into bright, family facing temples to the brand. Games Workshop had declared itself the dominant force in the UK games market. This brought to a close Games Workshop’s long early period of wild inventiveness, during which it had produced Dungeons and Dragons modules, boardgames about trolls trying to find their missing legs, a short-lived heavy metal record label, and the seminal sourcebooks that continue to define the fiction of both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 to this day: the two Realm of Chaos books Slave to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned, and Rogue Trader itself. Games Workshop had emerged in the form we would recognise today. As is often the case, what happens to the business of Games Workshop is reflected in the 41st Millenium. Though many significant details of the fiction remained to be filled in, the central premise was fixed as it had been in 1987:

“For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium to whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, and for whom blood is drunk and flesh eaten. Human blood and human flesh – the stuff of which the Imperium is made.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. This is the tale of these times. It is a universe you can live today if you dare – for this is a dark and terrible era where you will find little comfort or hope. If you want to take part in the adventure then prepare yourself now. Forget the power of technology, science and common humanity. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods.

But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed…”

A philosophy or ideology has become truly dominant when it has devoured its opponent. In the UK this occurred in the emergence of the New Labour movement of the early ’90s. The British Labour party had not won an election since the 1970s, and inevitable internecine strife had resulted in breakaway movements and soul-searching within the party. New Labour was a powerful political force that emerge from this turmoil. Their electoral strategy began with an internal party purge as they ousted Old Labour candidates to take their place as potential MPs and reformed party rules to consolidate power towards the parliamentary party and to minimise the influence of trade unions and the party membership base. Tony Blair was elected to leadership of the party in 1994. Powered by political nouse and backed by the Murdoch media empire, in 1997 he took the party into government. New Labour was young, energetic, savvy, and neoliberal. Though they committed to spending more on public infrastructure than the Conservatives, they continued the push torwards an agenda that deregulated business and reduced the state. Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would later claim that Tony Blair was her greatest success. If the opposition was no longer fighting against neoliberalism, how could it ever change?

 

The modern version of the Warhammer 40,000 universe crystallized in the second edition of the game in 1993. Ideas and facts that had spread like briars through White Dwarf magazine and supplement books were simmered down into the gothic, baroque core we find today. The dominant facts of the setting would become established throughout the lifetime of the edition. Like all great IPs Warhammer 40,000 is as much a feeling as it is a set of fictional facts, and those facts that have stuck are the ones that feed back into that central, apocalyptic vision. They have gradually filled in, occasionally been contradicted, sometimes been casually dropped. But from 1993 onwards one thing has been fixed: the timeline cannot advance beyond the year 999M40 (40,999AD) because, as befits all good doomsday clocks, the stroke of midnight is armageddon. The ’80s never ends: the tabernacle is unbreakable and everlasting. In 1994 the company went public and the old Games Workshop was finally put to rest.

Despite many shocks and many moments that must give Fukuyama hot blushes as he reflects on his presumptuous pronouncement, neoliberalism is still the dominant economic theory in the world today. It has been so successful it has all but killed our dreams of a possible alternative: in 2009 the late Mark Fisher published the nonfiction Capitalist Realism, analyzing the abundance of dystopian fiction and paucity of visionary science fiction: we live in a time where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of neoliberal capitalism. Warhammer 40,000 was born like a psychic starscream at the apex of the ’80s, the mindchild of intelligent, thwarted hairy Midlanders whose communities were devastated by the decade, a product of the riotous counter-cultural invention it made possible and necessary. In 1994 Tony Blair and Tom Kirby stop the clock, trap their universes in stasis fields and freeze them on the cusp before they can transform into something new. History ends in reality – history ends in Warhammer 40,000.

There have always been tremors. Any ideology that pretends it is universal and unchallengeable will warp and tear as it rubs up against the rocky face of reality. The Black Monday financial crash of 1987 was one clear sign that neoliberalism would not always succeed on its own terms; more to the point, that neoliberalism could not protect its adherents from the crises it made them blind to.

Kirby’s vertical alignment of Games Workshop was successful because the product was so damn brilliant. I cannot express the mind-blasting excitement I felt as a seven year-old boy, my nose pressed against the window of the Games Workshop on Short Wyre Street in Colchester, watching the circular glass shelves in the window display rotate to show off those incomparable little avatars, lead dragons, plastic tanks, scarab-limbed aliens. The imagery that accompanied it was equally inexplicable: maximalist, extravagant, intense.

 

This was the fundamental product Kirby was selling: dreams. Games Workshop had retail outlets in countries around the world, creative geniuses like sculptor Bryan Nelson and artist John Blanche bringing out new product, control over their own production facilities. In the UK they had outcompeted many independent hobby stores, while in the US they were signing leases on prominent mall locations. There were no comparable competitors. A company in the ’90s could easily assume they had arrived at the perfect business model.

Like most retailers that flourished in the ’90s, internet retail kicked Games Workshop in the teeth, hard. Games Workshop was slow to develop its own websales portal, and by the time it had a solution independent e-retailers – who undercut Workshop – had already established themselves. This began an on-and-off terms-of-service war with distributors as Games Workshop attempted to reclaim lost ground on the e-commerce market. They were powerless to stop the resale of second-hand miniatures through eBay, and when small independent miniature makers suddenly saw the market for their niche products expand, a new wave of competitor games emerged. Specialist manufacturers making after-market parts to modify Workshop’s miniatures proliferated, and Workshop would discover that their archetypal designs did not give them trade mark protection against these companies. American mall culture collapsed as customers turned online, turning Games Workshop’s well positioned storefronts into costly white elephants. On it went.

Yet Workshop’s profits were shielded from this harsh reality by the acquisition of a license to produce wargames based on the Lord of the Rings movies. The films were a global phenomenon and the license was an excellent fit for Workshop, allowing them to produce a distinctive line of miniatures which could appeal to a new audience who might not be reached by Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. It was a bubble that popped in 2005 as the mania for the movie series at last dropped off. But during that period, hidden from its own vulnerability to market conditions, Workshop developed a reputation for being aloof from its customers. Kirby had taken the company to greatness by slaughtering the sacred cows of the old management, eliminating everything outside his single vision – and the company profited, right up until it didn’t.

“Kirby had taken the company to greatness by slaughtering the sacred cows of the old management, eliminating everything outside his single vision – and the company profited, right up until it didn’t.”
Throughout the Conservative government of the ’80s and then the Labour government of the ’90s and ’00s, Britain had – still has – unresolved structural economic problems. Our housing supply is low, raising the cost of living which in turn reduces consumer demand, and increases personal debts. Our economy is imbalanced in favour of the South East, with many regions lacking private enterprise investment. Some former public services (such as railways and energy) that have since been privatized are now unaffordably expensive for poorer citizens, or lack coverage in commercially unprofitable areas. Infrastructural investment (in roads, railways and telecoms) has been hampered by a lack of public funds and protective land laws, reducing the productivity of British business. The New Labour government did not, for the most part, solve these problems, but attempted to bypass them. They focused on promoting the enormous London banking sector, continuing the neoliberal deregulation of finance markets begun under the Conservatives, and using tax revenues from this to provide in-work benefits for low-paid workers, council-tax benefits for people unable to afford their housing, and moving state businesses (particularly administration) into areas without private investment. The long term vulnerability of this economy was papered over by a temporary windfall.

This folly was revealed during the global financial collapse of 2008 when – to abbreviate a very long and intricate story – after decades with no-one outside the sector paying attention, banks suddenly discovered that investments on which they had risked vast sums of other people’s money were utterly worthless. Billions upon billions of pounds of state money were poured into suddenly-indebted banks to save them from bankruptcy (and the knock on collapse of the entire economy.) By 2010 Labour was out of government and the Conservatives (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) were in.

New Labour had thoroughly overtaken the Labour party’s internal apparatus, and done everything it could to exclude Old Labour and the general labour membership from influencing the direction of the party. The justifications were many – Old Labour had lost for the duration of the ’80s and only the New Labour of the ’90s had saved the party from oblivion, New Labour’s policy of triangulating their policies based on what think-tanks said the public wanted was preferable to taking ideas from the membership, Old Labour’s old-fashioned Socialist ideas were so hugely unpopular they would be political suicide, and so on. Yet even with a rigour-mortis hold on the party’s apparatus, New Labour found themselves with nothing to say and no effective voice for their opposition. They favoured neoliberal economics, and it was global, neoliberal deregulation of the banking sector that precipitated the financial crash. The Conservatives of course had supported the same policies even while in opposition, but had the advantage that they were not holding the hand grenade when it exploded. Thus it was that Labour watched impotently from the sidelines while the Coalition government enacted the next stage of neoliberal governance: austerity.

“UK workers have seen the longest continuous real-terms reduction in living standards since the Napoleonic wars.”
Austerity economics is simply the rapid reduction of state spending – on direct benefits or public services – accompanied by tax breaks for businesses to prevent bankruptcies and encourage investment. The logic is that, if the state is heavily indebted, it must reduce its outgoings to pay down the debt and thus reduce its interest payment burden. It is also a convenient excuse to accelerate the long-term goal of neoliberalism – the minimisation of the state in favour of the private sector – and it has side-effects: reducing state spending also squeezes consumer confidence as public sector and low-wage workers have less money to spend; while reducing taxation on private businesses does not necessarily encourage them to invest more in the country if their customer base have low wages, little disposable income and high personal debt. The results to date have not been impressive: UK workers have seen the longest continuous real-terms reduction in living standards since the Napoleonic wars, the UK has the worst and slowest-growing economy of any developed nation, the national debt is higher than it was in 2010, and public services face recruitment crises as low wages and bad conditions deter both new and experienced staff – though the deficit (between annual tax income and annual state expenditure) has at least been reduced.

Games Workshop went through a similar cost-cutting spree. Suddenly faced with the reality of unprofitable stores and an unfit-for-purpose web presence, Workshop severed leases and began reducing staffing until many stores ran on a single employee. Workshop focused more than ever on satisfying its shareholders, and while this is not strictly a bad idea – sensible shareholders who understand long-term growth and stable returns should provide a CEO with solid recommendations for the structure of their business – it came at the expense of the company’s relationship with its long-term customers. Just as Labour became further isolated from new ideas, Tom Kirby became a figurehead for an insular, inwards looking Games Workshop. Their official web forum closed in 2006, shutting off the company from the ruckus of a critical fanbase. They withdrew support for their fan-facing Games Day conventions outside the UK, stopped organised play events in 2010 and changed to an almost hostile footing with independent retailers. This came during a period of escalating prices for the core product and continued dissatisfaction with the quality of the game, while the market continued to diversify around Games Workshop. A quote from the 2013-2014 annual report shows an attitude fans were already well acquainted with: “We do no demographic research, we have no focus groups, we do not ask the market what it wants. These things are otiose in a niche.” Workshop’s revenues increased and yet profitability remained volatile and typically low. They were giving an answer, but it was the wrong one.

This was exactly the state of the UK Labour party. It was drawing conclusions about how to handle the economic crisis facing the UK (and political crisis facing the party) from a handbook more than two decades old, in perfect isolation from its supporter base. Even the left-wing commentariat provided by the Guardian and (now defunct) Independent newspapers could not suggest an economic or electoral strategy other than to mimic the Conservative austerity policy, but do it more gently. This strategic inertia and isolation would be met with a grand rebuttal at the 2015 general election, when Labour, presenting a neoliberal manifesto that would continue austerity (albeit in a less extreme form), lost badly. They shed seats to both the Conservatives and – more tellingly – to the Scottish Nationalist Party, who won by characterising Scottish Labour as Conservatives in Socialist clothing.

Games Workshop’s crisis of legitimacy also came in 2015 with the disastrous launch of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. In many ways Age of Sigmar was a smart answer to a thorny problem. The venerable Warhammer Fantasy Battle game had become increasingly unprofitable. The model range was expansive and included some lines that were close to generic competitors (such as the medieval-French Bretonnians), the rules were exceedingly complex which made teaching new players very difficult, but most tellingly the cost in time and money for a potential player to create an army and enter the game was hundreds of pounds and dozens of hours. The setting, The Old World, was nowhere near as successful as its science-fiction cousin, and relatively limited – it was a Tolkienesque reimagining of earth populated with fantasy races and almost no blank space left on the map. Age of Sigmar was a relaunch of the game with a new setting, new rules, and a streamlined model range.

 

It was a disaster. Workshop’s marketing policy was obtuse, refusing to communicate with the many independent hobby blogs that covered their products, not even permitting their own stores and stockists to disclose the nature of a product before it launched. In the months prior a series of supplement rulebooks and tie-in fiction brought about the end of the Old World, and players were excited for a new and improved version of their nuanced mass-combat game. What they got was entirely different and immeasurably simpler, to the extent that the new 264 page core book contained only 4 pages of rules. This surprise alone would be a challenge for some gamers. But Workshop had misread their market so spectacularly, so entirely, that even as they launched their flagship title they were drilling holes through the keel. The new game launched without a points system.

Allow me a digression in this already vast essay. Points are a balancing system used in almost all wargames. Each model or unit costs a certain number of points, and players have a fixed budget they can spend composing their army. Points stand as a proxy for the utility of a unit, and so two players with armies of the same points value should expect their armies to be evenly matched. In tournaments this ensures games are a fair test of skill. In pick-up games it supports the social contract between strangers. Players will tend to say that a points system exists to balance the game, but its other function is to provide clarity: to make it clear to the participants whether the collection of miniatures they have brought to the table will provide one or two or four hours of play, and whether their armies will produce a thrilling game with everything to play for, or a tedious and one-sided slaughter. To launch a miniature wargame without a points system is an act of hubris so baffling Oedipus himself would hand you his broach pin. I do not know who was responsible for this crippling design decision, but I would very much like to know what they were drinking. Suffice to say it was not popular and the game sold poorly.

Tom Kirby stepped back from his post as CEO Games Workshop at the start of 2015, taking up the post of chairman of the board of directors. He remains the company’s largest shareholder – whether he is the power behind the throne or a relatively silent partner I cannot guess. But Age of Sigmar can be seen as a final hurrah for a period of insular, technocratic governance of the company, of which Kirby was the figurehead. It was a rapid, spiralling plane fire of a launch that came only two months after New Labour’s similarly disastrous, committee-designed electoral offering. Though New Labour would not accept it (and Tom Kirby might dispute it), new ideas and new leadership were desperately required.

“Age of Sigmar was a rapid, spiralling plane fire of a launch that came only two months after New Labour’s similarly disastrous, committee-designed electoral offering.”
One major change had come through under the final years of Kirby’s management. Although it was impossible to tell where they would eventually lead, new events were occurring at the end of the 41st Millennium. Previous attempts to update the plot – particularly the massive Eye of Terror global participation campaign, in which players from across the world submitted game results to affect the outcome of a calamitous war – had been retconned from existence. There was a trepidation in Games Workshop about any change that risked dissipating the lightning they had bottled in the ’80s. But supplement books were introducing new, more catastrophic battlegrounds across the Imperium of Man, and after Kirby’s departure these increased in frequency and importance. The best-selling Horus Heresy tie-in novels had already expanded on the mythic lore of the Imperium’s early history, and new books used this reservoir of references to ratchet the stakes yet higher. As 2015 rolled into 2016, ancient adversaries would re-emerge from the darkest places of the galaxy and challenge mankind as never before. After nearly thirty years without alteration, things were beginning to happen in the galaxy of the far future – very bad things indeed.

2016 is the year of Brexit. That story is still being written, but this much is known. A political crisis within the Conservative party – between the two tendencies to either remain or leave the European union – was allowed to play out as a national drama. The Prime Minister attempted to bring the Leave heel to bear by offering the nation a referendum to decide whether Britain should remain or depart from the EU. Against all expectation, the Leave vote won. For the political and commentariat mainstream, left utterly bewildered by the referendum result, it was a total condemnation of their incompetence. For the British economy it may yet be the harbinger of total ruin. For the Conservative party it was a Kafka-esque farce, as those who had championed the Leave campaign had no intention of winning it, only of positioning themselves as people’s champions for a later leadership bid and gather support of true Leave supporters within the party ranks; after their “victory” they all sheepishly stepped away from a now-vacant leadership post, leaving the governance of the party and execution of Brexit to people who had campaigned against it. For the British progressive left it arrived like a gutpunch. It was the loudest the electorate had spoken in several decades, and whatever they had intended to say, one message was clear: they did not like business as usual, and to hell with the consequences. The ground was shifting beneath the status quo – what would be destroyed in the coming earthquake?

“It was the loudest the electorate had spoken in several decades, and whatever they had intended to say, one message was clear: they did not like business as usual, and to hell with the consequences.”
In January of 2017, Game Workshop released the first book of the Gathering Storm trilogy, Fall of Cadia. This was a retread of the events previously fought out by fans in the 2003 Eye of Terror Campaign, but instead of ending in a stalemate (and ultimately being wiped from fictional history) this time it ended in a dark and terrible victory. Warhammer 40,000 borrows (steals) heartily from Christian mythology and especially from Milton, so without getting bogged down in the made up names of the setting, in Fall of Cadia Satan kills the angels guarding the gates of hell and then melts them to the ground. It was the surest sign that a truly epic war would burn through the Imperium of Man – a certain sign that a new edition of the game was imminent – and that just perhaps, as with Warhammer’s transition to Age of Sigmar, the world of Warhammer 40,000 was about to end.

Now I must talk about renewal. It is unfair – though not necessarily untrue – to attribute all of the following to Tom Kirby relinquishing his role as CEO the Games Workshop. But it was after he left this masthead post that the company began, bit by bit, to turn the tiller on their vast ship. To pick a starting point, the late 2015 release of the Betrayal at Calth boardgame brought with it plastic miniatures to represent the Horus Heresy era (the year 30,000 in the fictional timeline), a long-demanded fan request. June 2016 saw the release of the General’s Handbook for Age of Sigmar, bringing points into the game for the first time – it was rewarded with a rapid spike in sales. A new Warhammer 40,000 army, Genestealer Cults, revisited a beloved model range not touched since the ’80s. 2016 also saw Games Workshop return to supporting tournament events, launch a community website with hobby tips, tournament reports and sneak peaks (the first time they had produced such content online in over a decade), and return to social media. They revised their terms to third-party stockists making them more favourable and less protectionist of their own web store. They published FAQs, finally answering rules questions after years of a fire-and-forget policy for their publications. New ‘Start Collecting’ boxes broke one of Tom Kirby’s cast-iron (and deeply unpopular) rules, “a premium product at a premium price,” offering bundled miniatures at a discount, and new boardgames and starter sets that repackaged existing miniatures at a discount continued this trend. The new strategy was to give the customer what they wanted – and after several tremulous years, profits and share prices began to rise.

In March 2017 Games Workshop released Rise of the Primarch, third book in the Gathering Storm trilogy (the second book, Fracture of Biel Tan, is interesting and relevant but Emperor help me this article is 5,000 words already and we don’t have the time.) If Fall of Cadia saw Satan kick down the doors of hell, in Rise of the Primarch we see the resurrection of Christ. Christ in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is Roboute Guilliman, a genetically-engineered superman who has been locked in stasis on the point of death for 10,000 years, a lost scion from the Imperium’s brief and forever irretrievable golden age when the Emperor forged a secular paradise of scientific progress and humanist emancipation. As the Imperium of Man faces an existential crisis that threatens to shatter the fabric of reality, a living demigod walks the stars once more, a messiah too good for the fallen world.

British leftists must now know the punchline I have been building towards throughout this article. After the disaster of the 2015 election I joined the Labour party, realising that the one small lever I would have over my country’s future would be casting a vote for the next leader of the opposition – the next figurehead around whom policies would accrete, whose political bloc would form the kernel of a new opposition. I had few hopes and a single goal: to elect someone, anyone, who could put a stop to business-as-usual. Conservative Neoliberalism would be the ruin of my nation, and neoliberalism-light would be the graveyard of the Labour party.

 

Jeremy Corbyn stepped straight out of the 1970s and onto the leadership ballot. His policies were simple and old-fashioned: democratic capitalist socialism, an end to austerity, investment in public services and national infrastructure and taxation on the wealthy. It would take New Labour and the mainstream commentariat 18 months to realise what his supporters – and there were soon many of us – could immediately see: that if not the man himself, at least his politics were incredibly, radically popular. Around 100,000 new members joined the Labour Party in the months between his candidacy and the leadership election. From there it would rise above the 400,000 mark, a figure not seen since Blair’s 1997 election win.

The political mainstream reviled Corbyn – as did the New Labour wing of the party. He, and by extension the policy bloc he represented, faced a second party leadership challenge, accompanied by continuous negative and inaccurate coverage in the press (the London School of Economics found that 75% of newspaper coverage of the Labour leader either distorted or failed to represent his views accurately). I would be remiss not to mention the dismal results of the Brexit referendum, where Corbyn could not convince strongholds of Labour voters throughout the north-east of England to vote to remain in the EU. There was always the claim that his policies might appeal to a hardcore of old-fashioned socialists, admittedly a large hard core, but that this was a bizarre outlier far removed from the national mood. By the time a snap election was called in April of 2017, Labour trailed in the polls by 24 points, a sign of almost certain defeat. Corbyn remained popular with his supporter base – indeed I find the messianic light in which he is sometimes cast deeply troubling – but could he, and the social democratic manifesto he put forwards, possibly represent electoral future?

“It would take New Labour and the mainstream commentariat 18 months to realise what his supporters – and there were soon many of us – could immediately see: that if not the man himself, at least his politics were incredibly, radically popular.”
The fate of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Games Workshop PLC and the British national destiny have become chaotically encoiled. On 5th of March 2017 Games Workshop releases Rise of the Primarch and in 999M40 Roboute Guilliman stirs from a hundred centuries of torpor to witness the final act of the millennium. Prime Minister Theresa May calls a snap election on the 18th of April 2017 and Games Workshop follows this on the 29th of April by announcing a new 8th edition of their flagship game line. Time has run out on the dark millennium, filled to its final moments with revolution and revelation. The final barrier – the stroke of midnight – cannot be deferred. Games Workshop must abandon the holy works written in the ’80s and deified in the ’90s. The Imperium must stand or fall. Corbyn’s Labour movement must enter the crucible of election and claim their right to exist from the neoliberal consensus, breathe fire into the dream of a new future, or else melt into oblivion. The election results are called on the 8th of June – the new edition of Warhammer 40,000 launches on the 17th.

The future rushes in. 8th edition is a sell-out success with exciting models, an overhaul of rules largely unchanged since 1998, and an exciting new plot, an elegant harmonisation of the contemporary and the classic of the kind that has propelled the Marvel Cinematic Universe to box office dominance. The galaxy of the 42nd Millenium is divided in two by a metaphysical rift; on one side a resurgent Imperium lead by Guilliman wages a galactic crusade of liberation; on the far side, human worlds are trapped in unreachable darkness. The election returns the strangest victory for Labour: enough seats to humiliate and destabilise the Conservative party, robbing them of their majority, and yet not enough to claim the UK Parliament for themselves. They have unmistakably arrived, and everyone who doubted them, from New Labour MPs to newspaper editorials to their opponents at the ballot, look like egg-soaked imbeciles – and yet they haven’t won. Everything is in flux. The neoliberal consensus, like the postwar consensus before it, is losing the mindless bestial inertia that kept it kicking long after it should have rightly died.

 

I cannot unsee these patterns. A sane conclusion would be that, like Otis Eugene Ray and his schizophrenic Time Cube, I am fabricating causality when all I can read is the random heat of my dying brain. But the patterns will not go away. We stand on the precipice of millennium. We’re standing in a nonstop disco playing ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials and ‘Her Name is Rio’ by Duran Duran, trapped in a decade that never ended, with the unholy light of the future shining in through the fire escape doors, irradiating Jeremy Corbyn like a nuclear messiah, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher transfixed as if in the beam of Peter Venkman’s proton pack. Eight-foot-tall power-armored Space Marines are kicking down the walls and outside in the howling warp gale Tzeentch, the Great Deceiver and Changer of the Ways, is laughing, laughing, laughing, a mad God drunk on sheer raw panic and Rabelaisian confusion. Somehow, some fucking how, narrative supplements published by a toy-soldier manufacturer from Nottingham are a better predictor of Britain’s future than electoral polling data, newspaper editorials, the commentariat, our entire, professional political class. They’re more accurate than the fucking bookies.

Chaos Reigns. Hail the Primarch Corbyn.

Update 12th July 2017: This article originally claimed that Tom Kirby left Games Workshop in 2015, but has been amended to reflect the fact that he simply stepped down as CEO and remains chairman of the board of directors and a significant shareholder.

MEDITATION AND MOBLINS: WHAT ZELDA HAS TO TEACH US ABOUT MINDFULNESS

It’s not often that you go into a videogame and come out having had a meditative experience, but then it’s probably fair to say that Breath of the Wild isn’t really your usual sort of game. It’s not totally unique in lending itself to a more mindful approach to gameplay (after all, Dark Souls is basically videogame yoga) but it does encourage players to do something that all too few modern videogames do: live in the present.

If you’ve never meditated before, you probably imagine that it’s all about clearing your mind of thoughts – essentially trying to think nothing at all. To an extent that’s true, but meditation is often also about bringing one’s awareness into the present, setting aside worries about the past or future to focus instead on the sounds, sensations, and experiences of right now. And so is the new Zelda.

The main quests don’t matter

OK, sure, technically you’re in Hyrule to storm the castle and kill Ganon. That’s pretty much Link’s whole deal. But that’s not what Breath of the Wild is really about. Even in the game’s opening hours – the closest it ever gets to handholding and steering you down a quest line – the average player is likely to spend most of their time exploring the Plateau, experimenting with novel ways to hurl boulders at Bokoblins, foraging for food, and every now and then just straight-up chasing butterflies for a while.

“Breath of the Wild encourages us to be less one-track.”
This is only heightened when you leave the Plateau and head out into the wider world. Even if you follow the game’s instructions and head east towards Kakariko Village, it’ll probably be at least a couple of hours before you get there and trigger the next step in the plot. That’s two hours where all the game asks you to do is meander towards a goal, seeing what happens along the way.

All of a sudden, your gameplay is no longer driven by objectives and quests, by a checklist of things to do (sure, the game has a literal quest check list, but it’s more for reference than to tell you what to do). No Zelda game has had so few main quest elements – or placed such little emphasis on them – and instead players are free to explore, dropping in and out of the story as and when it suits them.

Compare that to day-to-day life. Most of what you do is probably driven by overarching goals like having a successful career, fulfilling relationships, or a Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool of money. And as motivating as those big goals are, they’re just as limiting, holding us back from trying new things, even making us feel guilty for ‘wasting our time’ when we’re not actively pursuing them. By contrast, Breath of the Wild encourages us to be less one-track, and reminds us how much more is out there to do.

Everything is impermanent

Nothing you own will last forever, and that goes doubly true for that amazing Great Flamesword you just collected in a Shrine treasure chest. Zelda has embraced the Buddhist notion of impermanence wholeheartedly by forcing players to adapt to the fact that everything they find – with the exception of clothing – will eventually break apart and be rendered useless. Swapping weapons in and out becomes a regular feature of play sessions, encouraging you to pick the right gear for the right fight every time.

But the aggressive gear breakdown rate also teaches you to make the most of the weapons you do find. Instead of racking up an inventory bustling with items you never use, you’ll likely make the most of just about every sword, shield, and bow you collect – especially with the restrictive inventory capacity of the early game. You’ll learn to appreciate the pros and cons of every loot drop – even the mop – as you test their limits.

“Breath of the Wild doesn’t need a reward system because it’s so confident in its own gameplay as the reward.”
But more than that, the shift to impermanent gear – together with the lack of an XP system – fundamentally alters the reward system of the game. Most modern games teach you to do things in exchange for rewards, essentially asking you to exchange playtime and effort for new loot. While Zelda essentially does the same – with treasure chests, Rupees, and loot frequently handed out after puzzles or quests – the impermanence of them all means they rarely serve as much motivation, and never last long enough to act as a reminder of your past.

Every time I throw myself at a tough Shrine puzzle to try and reach that last chest, it’s rarely for the sake of the contents – probably a weapon I can’t carry right now anyway – but for the act of solving the puzzle itself. I complete side quests because I enjoy doing them, not for the paltry gift at the end. I fight through tough mobs not for a treasure chest or loot but the sheer satisfaction of fighting, struggling, and winning. Breath of the Wild doesn’t need a reward system because it’s so confident in its own gameplay as the reward.

Almost everything we do in life, being it going to work, hitting the gym, or learning a language, is geared towards some sort of goal or outcome. It’s partly because of those goals that it’s so difficult to stop planning for the future and just focus on what’s happening to us right now. Mindfulness tries to teach us to simply act, to engage with what we’re doing on its own terms. So does Zelda.

You’re never going to level up

Not having an XP or levelling system isn’t novel in a Zelda game, but it is novel in a major open-world title. It’s hard to imagine Ubisoft building a Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed that didn’t gate certain abilities or items behind just how many bad guys you’d eviscerated or towers you’d climbed. From their humble origins in roleplaying games, experience points have infiltrated just about every genre, and no matter what you’re playing, gameplay is driven by the steady tick of numbers, slowly building to eventually allow you to do new things and visit new places. As a player, you’re left constantly thinking about what’s next: the next level, the next unlock, the next power.

 

“When there’s more to unlock, what you have right now will never feel like enough.”
Breath of the Wild goes the other way. Within a few hours, players have every main ability in the game at their disposal. There are no levels, no experience points, no grind. You’re never left waiting for your next power, because you have them all right now. You might worry that you lose that anticipation and enjoyment, but instead it frees you to enjoy the tools already at your disposal: to use them, experiment with them, to actually, literally play with them.

When the game does reveal a few upgrades, they’re a welcome surprise rather than an overdue reward. By the time you know about the upgrades you’ll probably be close to claiming them already, and even once you have them they don’t give you radical new powers – just a few new combinations to explore, new ways to use the same tools.

When there’s more to unlock, what you have right now will never feel like enough. In Breath of the Wild though, it always feels like more than you need. There’s nothing to look forward to, nothing to make you feel inadequate as you are now. You can do everything, right now, so you can just get on with enjoying doing it.

It ditches the percentage

Here’s another open world staple eschewed by Zelda: the completion tracker, usually measured in some sort of overall percentage score. Games these days are rarely content to just let us play until we’re done – they want to tell us exactly how much we’ve accomplished, and how much is left to do, encouraging the sort of compulsive behavior that drives people towards 100% completion. Everything you do ticks you slightly closer to that elusive hundred, so that even the game’s biggest, best, and most fulfilling moments can be handily reduced to a nice, clean number.

While Breath of the Wild does give you some sense of your progress (though only hidden away on the loading screen), it pointedly doesn’t tell you how much is left. You can know how many Shrines you’ve completed, but not how many there are over all. How many Koroks you’ve found, but never how many are left. Your progress is your own, and you can finish the game and head for Ganon whenever you’d like, without the game ever offering a passive-aggressive reminder of all the corners of the map you’ve left unexplored, the secrets you were never devoted enough to find.

It’s a small change, but it’s one more way in which the game removes that impulse to grind, to complete everything even when you don’t want to any more. You can simply play as you want to, achieve what you want to, and finish when you’re done – not when the game says you are.

It wants you to stop and stare

One of the highest compliments I can pay Breath of the Wild is that it gives me the same specific joy I got from Firewatch – but has managed to do so again and again for 60 hours and counting.

Hyrule is the sort of needy game world that simply demands you pay attention to it. I’ve tried – really, really tried – to follow main quests, but it’s just impossible to do so without getting side-tracked by Shrines to solve, enemies to fight, and really cool rocks to just stop and look at for a bit. It helps that as vast as it is, this is clearly a meticulously crafted world. Go climb just about any mountain – go ahead, I’ll wait – and take a look around from the peak. I can all but guarantee that not only will you enjoy a stunning view, but you’ll almost certainly see something – a Shrine, a Korok, some other secret – that would be almost impossible to see from anywhere else.

“Go climb just about any mountain – go ahead, I’ll wait.”
In my time with Zelda, I’ve spent hours exploring coastlines, diving up and down mountains, chasing deer, collecting butterflies, and more. Sometimes I’ll be rewarded with a Shrine or some loot, sometimes not. But it doesn’t really matter. Hyrule begs to be explored, and along the way it’ll stop you in your tracks with a golden sunset, a lightning storm in the distance, a dragon rolling along the horizon, or something else I probably haven’t even found yet.

It’s not just the big picture stuff either. It’s there in the crunch of Link’s boots in the snow, the scurry of squirrels up trees, the gentle sway of the grass in the breeze. There’s a perception that meditation should be conducted in silence, but that’s not quite right. A core meditative technique is appreciating the sounds and smells around us, engaging with our senses right now in a way that we rarely do in day-to-day life. In Hyrule, Nintendo has finally delivered a virtual world that rewards us for doing exactly that.

So go ahead. Turn off the mini-map, forget about the quests, and stop worrying about gear. Just head out into the great unknown, see what you find, and stop and smell the roses along the way.

ARK AND MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

 

My foray into Ark: Survival Evolved began like most of my other PC endeavors; un-optimized and incredibly disappointing. The ROG laptop (sporting a GTX 660m) that once brought me optimal joy, had dwindled in competence over the last couple years as graphical demands reached new highs and my Chase banking account, unprecedented lows.

 

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered that an XBOX ONE port of the dino-centric survival game was rapidly approaching an early access release. But, as it happens, this story isn’t about me. It is the story of one man’s descent into madness; a once noble King dethroned. In an effort to protect his real identity, we’ll call him “Moses.”

 

I first told Moses about Ark about a month before the game’s release. We had grown tired of yelling at one another while playing Destiny: The Taken King, and all my other gamer friends (grown men ages 27 – 48) were chomping at the bit for a new shared-world experience. A survival title like Ark piqued their interest, as many of them are what some might call “casuals”, daring not dip their toes in the liquid cooled, PC waters.

 

I spent a whole month overselling the game in the hopes that when it dropped I would finally have friends to play with. Believe this: Ark is a game not meant to be played alone. You can, but it would be the equivalent of jerry-rigging a Dead-Rising-style bladed contraption and attempting to use it as a stool. The tiniest mosquito can prove to be an unbeatable foe when the only weapon at your disposal is a piddling handful of twigs. But I digress.

 

On the night of its release, as the digital clock on my cable box struck 9pm, we entered into a sacred pact with Ark: Survival Evolved, swearing to it our undying allegiance (and dozens of hours of our adult lives). We were excited. We were impatient. And most of all, we were happy.

 

Moses, a man who’s download speeds are not to be trifled with, was one of the first to enter the game.
“Kind of underwhelmed,” he typed into the dark abyss that was our group chat.
“Graphics are terrible. Dying a lot.”

 

Worried that the learning curve might be too steep for my other friends, I scrambled to utter reassurances that everything would make sense once we we had all joined forces. If I wanted any chance in hell at riding a velociraptor into glorious battle, I had to lead my clan straight and true.

 

“Stay on the beach!” I typed. “We’ll craft a fire and use it as a beacon to find one another!”
As I said this, my bald hulking caveman, who I of course named “Jack Reacher,” was just gaining consciousness on a small beach strip. Over the course of an hour, one by one, each of our friends found their way to a small thatch hut; a warm fire crackled on the sand outside.

 

“We need more thatch,” Moses remarked, quickly assuming a leadership role within the tribe. His earlier concerns about the game seemed to have completely vanished.

 

“There’s a guy named ‘Throbbin Williams’ building his hut just up the river, and I don’t like it one bit,” he said as his character placed a sturdy roof over our heads.

 

We all agreed that if we wanted any chance at surviving the night, we would have to assign chores and keep our efficiency at a competitive level. That’s how families did it, and that’s what we were now: a family. And so we communicated. We watched out for one another. And most of all, we were happy… right up until the point a character named “Grognak the Barbarian” demolished our meager thatch wall and slaughtered us all in a matter of seconds.

 

The prospect of respawning without a shred of worldly possesions left most of us with a heavy heart. But not Moses. No, he was determined to find a better base location, craft more efficient weapons, and establish a steady supply of resources so as to attain something even greater: Steel pikes.

 

The base grew alongside our morale. Our humble tribe worked happily and peacefully together, and things were good. We befriended a group of French people who had a similar-sized base established in the resource-rich vicinity. Our mutual hatred of Throbbin Williams and his band of rapists and murderers brought us together. Significant milestones were achieved: Our first steel tools. Our first set of leather armor. Our first ridable dinosaur.

 

In an ultimate twist of irony, over the weeks I had grown to become one of the more casual presences on Ark‘s island. A “real-life” relationship had gradually taken precedence over the concerns of our Ark tribe because I was finding it difficult to explain to my girlfriend that I couldn’t go out that night due to my prior obligation of harvesting tintoberries.

 

When I did return to the island, things had begun to change. The once peaceful French had ridden into our camp on a Tyrannosaurus Rex and waged all-out war in the dead of night. One of our tribesmen, we’ll call him “Jeff,” had a penchant for logging in, “borrowing” other tribesmen’s coveted dinosaurs, getting them summarily killed, and silently logging out. Dinosaurs were no longer given names. They grew to be labeled “So-and-So’s Stego.” Tensions were clearly on the rise. This is one of the major issues with Ark: it takes so long to create anything substantial within the game that once you do so, it’s difficult not to become wildly paranoid that it will all be taken away.

 

Amidst these growing concerns, Moses nonetheless ruled with a stern but fair hand, and it was not long before our tribe became one of the major nations on the server. We had learned how to play by the game’s rules now, and the results were increasingly terrifying. I’ll never forget standing on a mountain next to Moses, quietly farming for berries and stone.

 

“Shit, I’m hungry,” he said, his voice completely devoid of passion.
“There’s plenty of food back at base,” I replied.
“I don’t eat food anymore,” he said, before hurling his body off the cliff. “I just kill myself and respawn at the base.”
I felt as if I was witnessing Neo learning to harness the power of the Matrix. And I was scared.

 

But Throbbin Williams wasn’t. When he finally came for us, he did so in broad daylight, quietly drifting upriver on a floating fortress. While we had been arguing about who took who’s Steel Pike, Throbbin had been building his mobile fortress, biding his time. Watching. Waiting.

 

We stood on our lookout tower, us few, helpless as Throbbin and his men rode in on sabertooth tigers. It wasn’t long before they had breached the outer wall and then our main door, gaining access to our hard-earned inner-sanctum. As my screen turned to black, my last vision was one of Moses battling an army by himself on a nearby hillside. Noble till the end.

 

“That’s it. I’m done,” his shaky voice echoed into my headset. Another friend chimed in, “If only there was a way we could play on our own server…”
“Well, you can, but you need a second XBOX to set up a dedicated server,” I lamented. Surely no one of sound mind would purchase a second gaming console just to accomplish this.

 

The next day a picture of two XBOX’s, side by side, popped up in our group chat. With renewed vigor, Moses explained to us that as an Admin he was going to be able to tweak all the properties of the server. Faster crafting, more forgiving health meters, and most importantly… no Throbbin.

 

We rushed back into the island immediately. The promise of only artificially-intelligent threats brought with it a sense of freedom and comfort. Although our beginnings were humble, the stakes seemed more negotiable and morale grew high once more.

 

But something was missing. Without the threat of other players, everyone was free to wander off into the wilderness alone. Sure they would be eaten, but could always respawn in the safety of their beds. Moses began constructing a colossal fortress in the freezing mountains, only gracing us with his presence every so often, flying in on a giant eagle to cast his imperial gaze upon us. He was amassing a vast well of power, both physical and spiritual.

 

As time went on, we heard less and less from Moses. When he did speak, it was in brief sentences which mostly pertained to his virtual achievements. Occasionally a picture would show up in our group chat of a towering Brontosaurus, complete with a mobile base atop its back. We were impressed, perhaps even jealous, but life had pulled most of us away from the game for one reason or another. The amount of time in between my play sessions became greater and greater, and its grip began to loosen. Late at night as I booted up my XBOX to watch something on Netflix, I would often see Moses in my friends list, “playing Ark: Survival Evolved.”

 

I often wondered what he was doing in there: a lonely king atop a barren mountain in total control, an army of eagles spread out before him. But a subject-less Kingdom is not worth ruling, lest ye aspire to madness.

 

Luckily, Elder Scrolls Online went on sale over the Christmas Holiday, allowing Moses to abandon the island for good. But on a clear day, if you climb to the highest peak of Ark‘s massive island, you can still hear the cries of the great eagles and their fearless leader, Moses

 

Written by Jake Siegel

 

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