Warhammer 40,000 is a universe of unparalleled scale. It’s a place where genetically modified super soldiers called Space Marines fight in bloody trenches against fearsome aliens. Above them, semi-sentient war machines the size of New York City blocks grapple with interdimensional demons. As you can imagine, that sort of narrative brinkmanship ultimately makes things difficult for video game developers.
How do game developers make the player feel at risk, for instance, without also making them feel weak? How do they amp up the tension without making things so grim and dark that players simply don’t want to play any more? For developer Fatshark, makers of the upcoming cooperative shooter Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, job one was calling in an expert — author Dan Abnett.
Abnett is no stranger to writing for video games. He served as the co-writer on the critically acclaimed Alien: Isolation. But he’s also well regarded within the 40K fandom as the universe’s greatest novelist. He has authored scores of books in the setting, among them seminal works that dial the clock back 10 millennia to lay the foundations of the universe. His two most enduring characters, Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn and Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, stand apart for being particularly human. When it comes to telling the story of the common man — or at least for what passes for a common man in the year 40,000 — Abnett is pretty much the expert.
“We made a decision quite early on not to go with [...] any type of Space Marine,” said Anders De Geer, game director on Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, referring to the genetically engineered super soldiers that commonly take center stage. “We wanted to portray the world from a slightly different angle, and so who better than Dan.”
“The reader, I think, derives a great deal more from identifying with and relating to a human character caught up in this enormous universe,” Abnett said. “And, to my delight, that’s exactly what they’ve done with this game. They’ve not gone for the obvious Space Marine angle, and that you end up participating as a human [...] I think is really exciting in terms of the sort of how vulnerable you are.”
In Darktide, players will begin the game as a prisoner conscripted into the warband of an elite Inquisitor, a special agent with absolute authority granted by the Emperor of Mankind. Their task will be to uncover evidence of Chaos infiltration in the hive city of Tertium, a massive spire the size of a continent and the home to billions of human laborers. On any other world, the solution to a Chaos infiltration would be a massed assault by a detachment of Space Marines or, barring that, an orbital bombardment that would turn the surface of the planet into a sheet of glass. But the Inquisitor, in this instance, is attempting a far more surgical approach.
“They don’t want to lose this hive,” Abnett said, since it functions as an industrial world churning out the weapons of war needed for battles elsewhere in the universe. “They want to see if they can they can secure it. So what we’ve got as a dynamic for driving the entire game forward is an Inquisitor character who is investigating the hive. He is essentially sending his warband, his teams of investigators, into the hive to find out everything they can, to purge the taint of Chaos wherever they can find it; but to also draw out information and add things together so that they can try and actually uproot this thing and get rid of it without having to take the entire hive down.”
The warband that players get assigned to is, essentially, a unit of Imperial Guards. These are the common foot soldiers of the armies of mankind, deployed by the millions as cannon fodder to fortify worlds under siege. These aren’t super soldiers, but they’re not pushovers either. Some, like the Cadians, have been trained since birth to fight and win against humanity’s most powerful foes. Abnett says that the agents of Chaos inside the Tertium hive definitely quality.
“There is [...] that sense of fragility and mortality,” Abnett said, “which is the Imperial Guard in a nutshell; the idea that they they’re not indomitable, transhuman creatures that can walk through a hail of fire in their ceramite armor and survive everything. That gives you a sort of life expectancy that is very, particularly short if you don’t work as a team. If these things get you, they’re going to get you and they’re going to get you good.”
But what about those lasguns? Imperial Guardsmen have, in the lore of 40K, traditionally fielded only the most inferior weapons. When not outright defective, these tiny peashooters are serially incapable of denting the forces of Chaos’ thick, chitinous hides. Turns out Abnett has thought that aspect of the Guard through as well.
“Lasguns feature a lot in things like the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels,” Abnett said, “and I always write about them as if they are the 40K equivalent or analogue of modern battlefield assault weapons. These are military grade, they’re powerful, they are not for civilian use. And I think the game has really captured that well.”
Fatshark says they’ve worked directly with Games Workshop, poring through the company’s line of miniatures to determine how soldiers service and fire these weapons.
“That has been a long journey,” de Geer said with a sigh. “Looking at the plastic miniatures, they are often also quite old. And so we have been like, ‘What do you use these small dots on the plastic thing for, and how do you [aim down] iron sights with a lasgun?’ We did a lot of concept work, sent that back and forth. We haven’t added shapes that sort of break the plastic models at all, but we rather included everything that we needed and used shapes that are already on the plastic miniatures.”
“A lasrifle is actually a very effective jack-of-all-trades weapon,” Abnett continued. “It’s the basic sort of survival tool of the universe. But there comes a point where it actually appears to be sort of a peashooter because of the scale at which things get to, and I think that’s a very, very cool thing about this universe indeed.”
Expect Warhammer 40,000: Darktide to arrive for Windows PC and Xbox Series X sometime in 2021.