The most memorable image from Codex Titanicus. www.games-workshop.com

In Praise of Fallen Titans

A fan rendering of one of the more recent conceptualizations of a Warhound Titan. It still looks good, and maybe more “realistic,” but it lacks the feral intensity of the original design. http://radojavor.deviantart.com/gallery/8651787#/doy9pf

I’m going to file this under the “engines” category; but the truth is that I ought to make a new category labeled “reasons I am a giant dork” as this is just the first in what is likely to become a multi-part paean to giant robots and to the bleak battlefields of my imagination through which they stride.

By way of introduction let me remind you of the state of pop culture giant robots during my pre-teen years of the late 1980s. The Transformers had already peaked and, despite the surprising quality of the 1986 movie, lacked the depth necessary to keep my attention. Luckily, I was rescued by my first (and only) satisfying anime experience in Robotech and my first (of a string) of miniature wargames in Battletech. Ideally, someone with boobs would have intervened and persuaded me to last more than a week at freshmen football practice; but such was not to be, and so I filled the gap created by the absence of a lovely thirteen year old soulmate with the differential tonnage and heat sink capacity of a Marauder and a Battlemaster. It was fine while it lasted and I dominated a planet or two in the Inner Sphere and fell a little bit in love with the alien ace, Mirya. But there was something missing. It was all too clean. For all the violence and horror no one actually seemed to be that upset. It was like the giant robots were knocking down movie sets rather than real skyscrapers. It lacked . . . gravitas. I was unsatisfied.

White Dwarf is the official magazine of Games Workshop and Warhammer 40K. You can appreciate the intense and explicit inspiration derived from the aesthetics of Heavy Metal in the 1987 issue . . . I’m not sure where the inspiration comes from in 2012.

Enter Adeptus Titanicus (and shortly thereafter Codex Titanicus), a miniature wargame set in the universe that would later come to be hocked in Games Workshop stores in Midwestern malls as Warhammer 40K. If you’ve only come to that universe in the last decade or so you’ve met something as sterile as the Battletech of the 1980s. But back in the day it was something else entirely. It was a dynamic world more interested in evoking the visuals of Heavy Metal magazine than a coherent narrative; a space that felt compatible with the millenarian visions of the Reagan and Thather administrations, and that couldn’t have had any soundtrack other than that produced by heroin fueled punks. Despite the robots and laser guns, it was far more fantasy than science fiction and thus the need to wage war with giant robots instead of just nuking things from space seemed entirely reasonable. I mean, your opponent was as likely to be an actual demon as it was an alien – and if the game designers (who were almost certainly drunk and working with Rock & Rule on in the background) said you had to kill a demon with a chainsaw the size of an apartment building, well, who was I to argue? The 40K universe of 2012 is almost entirely male and its tired narratives invariably revolve around post-human steroid crazed frat boys suppressing massive homoerotic urges by shooting each other with giant penises – sorry, I mean giant “boltguns.” The 40K universe of 1990 included the story of a male demon-hunter and his courtesan-assassin who almost succumbed to demonic decadence after watching a group of buildings on a hell planet having sex. Yes, you read that right, the buildings were having sex. Both of these universes are the product of stunted violent adolescent imaginations – but one comes from sexy, psychedelic, free-wheeling visions that assumed the end of the world and were eager for the change and freedom that would ensue, and the other are tedious neo-conservative visions of empire in which literally endless violence disguises impotence and misogyny. In the early days of 40K, people still understood that Judge Dredd wasn’t an action hero, he was a parody.

I’m wandering a little – my point is that the giant robots of Adeptus Titanicus weren’t just giant robots, not just Titans of the Adeptus Mechanicus . . . they were delivery vehicles for a world that couldn’t have been further from central Ohio. They carried payloads assembled in Britain out of mohawks and pornography, and their engines were fueled by nihilism and anti-authoritarianism. Once it got between the crosshairs of their plasma cannons, my poor twelve year old brain never a stood a chance.

The most memorable image from Codex Titanicus. www.games-workshop.com

I still remember the image that broke me. I dug though my whole basement to find the crumbling book that contained it – and its vicious intensity hadn’t diminished one bit in twenty years. In the foreground it shows a ruined transport vehicle and a smoking and heavily muscled mechanic with whom the reader is supposed to identify. He is looking up and over his shoulder at the central figure in the composition – a massive Warhound Titan leering with an expression that is anything but mechanical and inert. In an instant we see a boy and his dog, a man and his machine. This may be a world of violence and misery and filth and hopelessness – but even here there is a promise that loyalty of the Lord of Flies variety, of the sort that might have been practiced by brutal blood-brothers in some futuristic Kipling tale, equates with survival, or at least a glorious end. Fix me, promises the machine, and I will protect you.

The story of these titans just made them that much better. These weren’t the cold robot vehicles of Battletech, their computer brains didn’t speak in a robot voice like the one on Star Trek. Each titan contained a primal synthetic intelligence, a “machine spirit,” that was ministered to by tech-priests who dressed like medieval monks and who were as likely to use incense and incantations as wrenches and motor oil. This machine spirit was not a rational conversant interlocutor who would obediently load the missile launcher at its captain’s discretion. Each machine spirit was modeled after a ferocious apex predator – each titan literally contained the soul of a blood-thirsty lion that wanted to hunt and destroy its enemies. At their launch these titans weren’t anointed with champagne – but with blood. They might endure for hundreds or thousands of years during which time the machine intelligence would only grow more wild and willful. The pilots (called princeps) did not operate the titans with steering wheels and buttons, but via Matrix-like Mind-Impulse-Units that caused their conscious minds to fuse directly with the rabid machine spirit. Control wasn’t an operations exercise, but a constant personality struggle between man and machine which, at the end of a conflict, left the boundaries between the two forever obscured. Pages were spent explaining the dubious operation of titans with various levels of sub-command (e.g., guns operated by officers known as moderati) and entire internal crews as might be found aboard a battleship. But it was all hand-waving – the only narrative that mattered was the story of a princeps and his blood-thirsty machine pitting their skill and might against all comers. This had nothing to do with dice rolls or game balance. The gamers who thought this was about maxing out weapon loadouts missed the point entirely. This was the story of a boy and his dog. That’s why the Warhound Titan model, despite being the least powerful in games terms, is the most beloved.

About a month ago the Warhound Titan that had leered down from above my fireplace for the past four years inexplicably jumped to its doom.

All of which is an elaborate prelude to the kind of dubious coincidence that my superstitious brain loves to latch onto as the evidence of the supernatural. Nearly nine years ago when my marriage fell apart I more or less locked myself in my basement in Connecticut and built a Warhound titan – well, a scale model painted in red and gold. Strangely, I never named it. I did bring it to Michigan with me and it lorded over my mantelpiece for the last four years. Then, a little less than a month ago it took a suicidal dive off said mantel. No breeze, no earthquake . . . I was in another room, but as far as I can tell, it just took a dive, without provocation, after four years. Sure, the obvious explanation is that the epoxy holding together an ankle joint failed – but that’s a soulless explanation. The better one relates to the fact that at about the same time I got Betty, my beautiful, dangerous, 470 horsepower gas guzzling Challenger. Everyone knows that a little plastic model can’t carry around a soul. Everyone knows that even if it could, there’s no way that it could pass that soul on to a Beast made of steel and leather and rubber. But what is reality other than the stories we believe? Maybe when Betty growls when we get cut off, maybe when her tires claw at the pavement and hiss out the demand to be let off her leash to run and to hunt and to bathe in blood . . . maybe that’s all just in my head. But, maybe, just maybe, somewhere between the silicon chips that monitor fuel injection and the solid-state hard drive of the navigation system there’s room for the machine spirit of something ancient and angry which promises glory and reluctant loyalty to a worthy princeps.

I could certainly put my titan back together. I could mix up some new epoxy and touch up the nicked paint. But I think that I’m going to put away the pieces instead. I don’t think there’s a soul in there any longer. I think the machine spirit found a new home. Now it’s just a question of what the boy and his dog are going to get up to.

The author giving his new car her first bath. She just growled.

Comments
19 Responses to “In Praise of Fallen Titans”
  1. Dubael says:

    Run wild! Run Free! Leave the Authority to fume in futility at one lane bridges in the countryside! Take that anima that has grown with you and explore the world as you never have. Remember that behind the benign aspect of the highway lurks the battlefield for not just a world but the very souls we have harboured and nurtured. That ‘imaginary’ friend, as our parents called them, is alive and well and restless in its new skin.

  2. I applaud your sentiment even if I find it a tad sociopathic. That’ not a disrespect, sociopathy is the complete disregard for the opinions of the majority. We all need it and the greatest change springs from those who disregard the status quo. Even I who applaud your statement found myself wondering at the cost of the titan figure that you’d so easily set aside because I am as caught in the pull of the majority as most. If more gamers saw the value in that anarchy and the ever questing pull of an unquenched soul 40k would be a far richer game than we play nowadays. Driven as it is today by the desire to fill the void in the hearts of corporate business men.
    Unfortunately the state of 40k is the direct result of the inevitable cultural shift that occurs with age. Everyone eventually trades their wild hedonistic youth for the security, both physical and financial of their adult hood. Just as the hippies of yesteryear morphed into the corporate tycoons that dominate the business world today Games Workshop has morphed from being the rebel to being the establishment. Ironically as I write this I just got an email about “new finecast” products. The inevitable push of consumerism as it tries to drown reason and passion with the need to fill the void inside us. If there is something greater that has rekindled a passion in you. Some missing part of yourself that dwells without you, then hold it. It’s a rare thing to find something so fulfilling in this world. A rare thing indeed.

  3. Euan Smith says:

    Thanks for the reminder that 40k used to be about Moorcock rather than more cock. I’m enthused by the inclusion of Allies in the current edition as it allows for a move away from the dull xenophobic monotony that has long had the setting in a death grip.

    Misogyny is still present, of course. The fact that most of the few female figures tend to be porno-models clad in bondage gear, and, of course, that crap about the Grey Knights bathing in the blood of the Sisters of Battle.

    Here’s hoping that your new Warhound finds the ability to grow legs, sprout guns and rampage off across the Badlands in search of your heart’s desire.

    • Bjorn says:

      I took a job a the local GW store a number of years ago when i was in my mid-20s and New England still had Games Workshop stores — all are now shut down, and Holyoke 131 was one of the first to go. blah blah independent retaliers, but the fact is that GW-US got cheap and abruptly screwed their fanbase. While I worked there, though, it was a huge turning point in my life.

      See, i had been in a bad rut for awhile — clinging to the friends of mine who never moved on after college, spending a lot of time with my alcoholic roommate who did everything he could to sabotage me (including trying, successfully in the worst possible instance, to date all my exes). It was then when i started playing 40K, giving me an outlet that took me to new groups of people and better quality of interactions — alcoholic roommate spouted some BS about how any game with randomization was not fun, because you could lose by luck instead of by skill, so while an ardent RPG player, he would never stoop to minis gaming. GW effectively gave me an outlet.

      then, i went through a terrible portion of time — the end of which saw significant turmoil in my life, and a lot of bad decisions. the following summer came to me unemployed until school started again, with a new roommate-couple who never paid bills on time or left their room, and another one who blamed his belated lapse into depression on everyone else. Meanwhile, i had just started dating this great woman, who bought me food over the summer since all my savings went into the bills my roommates screwed me out of.

      I had an interview at the GW store, and while it didn’t kick in until the fall, the new job was again GW saving me. This time, though, it came with a difference.

      The lovely lady from before, now my wife of four years, sleeping in next to me on this Saturday now-afternoon, moved in to help with rent, and the hermits moved out. We worked in the same mall, and i had a day-job as an English teacher, so the only time we got to spend together was minis-related. she’d stop by on break, or come in with me on a day that she didn’t work, or we’d paint together on a night off. depressed roommate nearly got us evicted because he spent all his money on pizza and video games, but we had plenty of time together.

      The only problem with this scenario was that, no matter how much i tried, this game took so much of my life with it and yet it was inaccessible to my significant other. I had been charmed and entranced by the greek-myth-esque story of the Primarchs and the war for Terra, the brief hints of Commoragh, the bravery of the first Deathwing, and the tragedy of some of the failures of great figures, such as Magnus and Ahriman. my painting was nothing special. V — my wife — was an artist, and loved the painting aspect of the game, but cared little for the fluff and nothing for the actual game. As time has gone on, and the 40k universe teeters between being an interesting, compelling world and a 15-year-old boy’s wet dream, it has lost most of what would bring many female gamers to the table in the same way that the comic book industry has.

      40k saved my sanity and marked the growing-up i did in my life. But while V is quite willing to paint daemonettes, and vaguely assemble a collection of Sisters of Battle minis (to be equipped with chaos backpacks and greenstuffed out of their nun-bobs), she becomes less willing to engage with the fluff the more she reads. War is a heroic topic and setting, but the greatest war movies have complicated plots that involve people being human despite their responsibilities. 40k has genetic supersoldiers and xenophobia. women are virtually uninvolved — besides the joke that is the current incarnation of the Sisters, the bondage-themed deathcult assassins, and the uglified birdlike new daemonettes, there’s nothing explicitly feminine in the entire world. Eldar are blended together, but in a way that loses distinction instead of accentuating it.

      As immature and 80s as it sounded, building-sex on a daemon planet is better than the unnecessary and inexplicable butchering of Sisters to anoint the armor of the Grey Knights. Over-the-top ridiculous, true, but that’s the appeal — better that than needlessly misogynist in the mane of gritty grimdark. Every example of the latter makes it that much more impossible to share my hobby with a majority of my friends and loved ones. Despite having saved me the better part of a decade ago, the modern GW has done wonders to complicate my life rather than make it better, by sinking into a different kind of immaturity than its relatively innocent predecessors.

      There is something missing from the current embodiment, perhaps an effect of the wrong writers or the wrong understanding of audience, but it’s only gotten worse lately. Much like in the 6th ed book, the game itself stand on the edge of a great leap forward, but is threatened to be dragged down the wrong path…

      • Jabbakahut says:

        Great comment. I’m happy to here other emotional connections to this universe. I thought it was silly that I’ve sat on the hobby for the last few years wanting to move on, but I want to lament what it once meant to me. Normally I would be inclined to box up the hobby for a few years, as most people who are in they hobby 20+ years occasionally do… But I suppose it might be time to just ebay away.

  4. Joe says:

    So does that mean I can have the Warhound Titan. I will give it an amazing soul and place in my home.

    Joe

  5. Bhodi Li says:

    Great article. I grew up in the same world as you, Robotech/Macross/Battletech sucking my life away for years. I remember those old boxes, but no one I knew at the time was playing 40k. And you’re right, it was all about post-punk anarchy.

  6. Brent says:

    Thank you for that.

    You successfully tapped into emotions I’d felt in the late eighties and early nineties – when Rogue Trader was new, and characterful, and toppled everything that had come before it. Those were amazing times for the hobby…

    …and while I love where we’re at now, I’m always – always! – on a nostalgia kick of some kind. That’s how much I was effected. Or should that be infected?

    *shrugs*

    Good stuff!

  7. David Draper says:

    Fantastic writing. Thanks for posting it.

  8. Meigeall says:

    Very well written. The emotion and nostalgia come through very clearly.

    I am one of those poor souls that fell into the 40k hobby after its taming, and finding that Clash-fueled original universe is darn hard and absolutely worth the search.

  9. Alaric says:

    Excellent article man. Enjoyed it. Unfortunately(?) I was distracted by the almighty vagina at that point and thus missed out entirely. I’ve tried to get my hands on the antiques but in middle of nowhere Canada that’s tuff. Thanks for a glimpse into the past. I read heavy metal but mainly for the titties and the odd story so I think I may have an inkling of what I missed out on.

    Only thing I disagree with is not re assembling the Titan. You spent the money and effort why not put it back together and set it to killing again, you owe it to yourself, soul or not. What do I know tho I’m just a faceless product of the Internet.

  10. Tess says:

    Nicely written, makes me miss the counter culture style in the game. Good bye mohawk an hello buisness suit!

  11. Gruubii says:

    For goodness sake either put the warhound back together, and let it soak it’s claws in the blood of the Emperor’s enemies, or pass ti along to the next soul with the will to command the beast within its resin shell. Also, yes, the satire and craziness of the 40k universe is part of what makes it great and terrible. I am also interested what book has the story on the hell world you mentioned?

  12. Scott says:

    I can only mirror what many others gave said, a great article on a great hobby that has been enchanting our lives for decades. I think that when we are young, feeling the thrill of visceral combat proxied through little plastic soldiers is a kind of mental bond a lot of war gamers share, or did. As GW waxes and wanes to one target market or another, we see more and more WAAC players and codex grey armies, no soul, no love, no emotion just plastic and glue staring blankly up at you while their owner paws a copy of the codex like its a worn out issue of hustler. For years when I was younger the whole allure of this game was the fluff, and the things you could do with it, when building your army. Maybe I am just getting older, but it feels like among the younger players these days a lot of the hobby and personal side of the game has evaporated. I hope 6th editions emphasis on mies en scene will bring back a little more persnonality to the hobby as it currently stands.

    Cheers

    -Scott

  13. Jack says:

    That was a really great read man thanks. You really evoked a heartfelt feeling of nostalgia, and I’m glad for you that you feel such a machine-spirit connection with Betty!

    Your article has kindled in me a desire to bring the spirit of that picture and how I envisaged the Games Workshop universes when I was a kid back into my gaming, so thankyou.

    I’m probably a few years younger than you, but my first forays into 40K were books we picked up by accident on car boot sales looking for Warhammer gear. I didn’t have a clue that they were all outdated versions at the time, and they gave me such a different perspective on the 40K and Warhammer universes than all the people I met at school who played the games who had no idea these treasure troves of lore existed.

    You’ve inspired me to take up my tools and paint brushes again to my katana weilding Space Marines, who I’d somewhat back benched due to the general ridicule and scoffs they seemed to attract from almost every gamer I met. They’re more beautiful with more personality and soul than most of the human beings I’ve ever seen on the opposite side of the battlefield in my wargaming time.

    As a last note, I think something that exemplifies this downturn in imagery and feel in 40K for my generation is the new Necrons. I haven’t been able to afford the new Codex yet to pore over it’s lore, so I really could be talking out of my arse, but the old Necrons terrified me; they’d come out of nowhere and were souless machines that killed with no explanation, or any need for one. I thought that was really quite chilling and cool. I’d love to know someone else’s opinion on the topic who’s read the new book!

  14. Jabbakahut says:

    Wow, I identify so much. It makes me sad, I can’t say I haven’t felt that it’s time to put it to an end, it’s a different thing now.

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