The fantasy universes of games often have the advantage of feeling familiar before you’re even done with the character creation screen–plonk elves and wizards and orcs down in an approximation of medieval times and we’re good to go. Then, once we’re submerged in the water and comfortably backstroking, they can start showing off their unique twists on that formula. Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy setting is a perfect example of that: it looks as Tolkien as anything but then you find it’s got Elric’s cosmology and Blackadder’s sense of humor and a heavy metal album cover’s sense of subtlety.
In creating their sci-fi universe, Warhammer 40,000, Games Workshop pulled off the same trick a second time. Partly they did it by throwing elves and wizards and orcs in too–renamed Eldar and psykers and, um, Orks–but also by borrowing from popular sci-fi with a magpie’s eye, taking from Aliens and Dune and 2000AD comics like Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock. Among those borrowings are the Space Marines, which superficially fit the stereotype every designer who has read Starship Troopers puts in their games. At first glance they could just as easily be their equivalents from Halo or StarCraft or Doom: gruff men whose main job qualification is looking good in power armor and having jawlines you could chop wood with. But Warhammer 40,000 has been around for 28 years and, through multiple tabletop games, video games, novels, comics, audio dramas, and one terrible direct-to-DVD movie, accrued a rich background for every element of its setting, including the manly men of the Imperial Space Marines.
And every element of that background is weird as all get-out.
They shall know no fear, and also eat brains
Each Space Marine of the Adeptus Astartes has been genetically engineered and then modified further with surgery and hypnosis to be a post-human badass. They’ve each got a bit of DNA in them that, without going too deep into the backstory, comes from someone who is on the borderline of being a god and is certainly worshiped as one. They’re not so much soldiers as fanatical ubermensch warrior monks organized into themed chapters with names like Blood Angels or Imperial Fists, and to ordinary folk they’re barely human.
The religious fervor regular people of the 41st millennium associate these eight-foot tall supermen with occasionally comes across in the video games. In third-person action game Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, Captain Titus walks down a corridor full of injured Imperial Guard who regard him with religious awe. “I got to see a Space Marine before the end,” one mutters. Their leader, an imposing woman named Second Lieutenant Mira, doesn’t even come up to the meaty slab of his neck.
(Space Marines' height proved a tricky thing for games with FMV. Strategy game Final Liberation: Epic 40,000, recently re-released on GOG.com, looks like it has the actor playing a Marine in its gloriously cheesy live-action cutscenes standing on a box behind the ordinary human Commissar to get the scale about right.)
It’s not just height and holiness that makes the Space Marines different. Each one has up to 19 new organs implanted into their tree-trunk bodies. If you’ve ever seen the episode of Invader Zim where he tries to pass as an Earthling by ramming bits of people’s guts inside himself it’s basically that: “More organs means more human!” They have a secondary heart, replacement ears, an extra kidney, ribs fused together into a bulletproof mass, “multi-lungs” that allow them to breathe in low-oxygen atmospheres and underwater–and these are just the start. Each chapter of Marines has different options from the pick-and-mix of new biological flavors, like the Betcher’s Gland, which enables them to spit a blinding contact poison that’s acidic enough to eat through metal, given time. Tragically, none of the video games have made use of that.
Oddest of all, a Marine’s omophagea implant connects their brain and stomach so they can absorb genetic memories from living things they consume. It’s the reason every second chapter has the word “blood” in its name and half the rest are called Soul Drinkers, Flesh Tearers, or just straight-up Flesh Eaters. In the novel Courage and Honour by Graham McNeill a Marine eats the brain of an alien Tau to gain the ability to pilot their skimmers past sentry towers, though he’s not partial to the “oily taste and rubbery texture.” None of the video games about Marines have let me gain skills through cannibalism. There’s a unique hook for an RPG going unused here.
The galaxy’s toughest psychopaths
According to the first edition of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop wargame Space Marine cadets are “specially selected from amongst the galaxy’s toughest psychopaths.” Each chapter has a world they recruit from, choosing the young men who are best at killing and whisking them away. Those planets are never civilized places, they’re feral murderworlds. The Space Wolves chapter recruit from Fenris, where literally everyone is a viking, and when they fly down and scoop up injured combatants who performed admirably in battle those warriors think they’re being taken to Valhalla and a life of fighting among the stars, which is broadly true. Other chapters select kids from street gangs or warrior tribes but as it says right there in the rulebook: they’re all psychopaths.
This is sort of reflected in Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine by the way Titus gets his health back. While he has a regenerating shield just like Master Chief the health underneath that doesn’t return–unless he executes his enemies. Titus feels better after gorily dispatching bad guys, stomping their heads into the ground or bisecting them with his chainsword. (Space Marines are guys who look at a chainsaw and think, “That should be balanced for parrying.”) Their bloodthirstiness is sometimes their downfall, and the Dawn Of War real-time strategy games regularly depict this, with their Blood Raven chapter of Marines easily tempted into joining murdercults of the Chaos Blood God, Khorne, when they’re not being manipulated into attacking potential allies because they’ll happily kill anyone who looks different.
According to the Codex Space Marines (3rd edition) they’re are kept in line by a strict timeline of daily rituals that begins with morning prayer at 4 AM and continues through a full schedule of firing rites, battle practice, and tactical indoctrination before ending with free time–a period that lasts for 15 minutes and is considered optional. When they’re not flying across the galaxy to fight Orks, the Space Marines live strict monastic lives that are highly ritualized to keep them in line. According to Ian Watson’s novel Space Marine these rituals includes testing the cadets by stripping them naked and branding their buttocks, in case the homoerotic subtext of these celibate orders of manly men living their entire lives together went past you. Somewhere out there I’m convinced there’s a Space Marine battlecruiser called the Tom Of Finland.
That religious lifestyle comes with some odd superstitions. In the 41st millennium apparently we revert to a belief that technology is alive, possessed by “machine spirits” who can be placated through maintenance rituals using sacred oils. That’s why in the Space Hulk games the Marines respond to weapon jams with prayers, and call hitting a gun to make it work again “administering the holy sacrament.” In Dawn Of War II: Retribution the techmarine has the ability to bless vehicles so they perform better, and whether he’s simply taking remote control of them or using a latent psychic ability to inspire actual machine spirits is left up to the player to decide.
More Warhammer games than ever are being made right now, and as usual most of them focus on the easy sell of the Space Marines. (I’d like to see their female counterparts the Sisters Of Battle get their own game; the war nuns have only shown up in a Dawn Of War expansion so far.) If we’re going to have another dozen video games about the Space Marines it would be great to see more of those games engage with the fiction Games Workshop have built up around them, deeply strange as it is, rather than use them as generic spacemen with big guns. At least let them eat the occasional brain, that’s all I’m asking.