Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Problem of the Space Marine

When we are first told of the Space Marines, we are given the normal spiel of how they are genetically altered, heavily-armored warriors that are recruited from feral worlds where only the toughest men survive. We are also told they are essentially sci-fi knights, their armor being the equivalent of full plate, and their emphasis on duty taken straight from the chivalric myths. They are the spear tip of the major invasions, as well as retaking lost worlds. Yet, there is on thing about them that has bugged me for some time in the mythology of the game:

They suffer from Superman Syndrome.

Superman Syndrome occurs when you have a character that is simply too strong, and as such, is not given much character, which makes the Space Marines a tabula rasa upon which the player gets to import his own personality upon his preferred Chapter.

While I've read plenty of the stories put out by the Black Library, most of the Space Marine stories are archetypal. The most character I've seen in a Chapter is probably the Iron Snakes, yet the principal character in the book is just a typical marine. Even in the Soul Drinker's books, the one thing that could be said of them as a Chapter is that they are unbelievably stupid early on. Mutations occur, and they come to the conclusion that they're gifts from the Emperor? What about that psycho-conditioning and training that warns them of the temptations and evil of Chaos? Guess they slept in class. Those Ultramarines books with Uriel aren't bad, but I can't think of any real traits of his beyond the normal marine drivel.

Really, Gabriel Angelos is easily the best marine character in 40k. The man has to deal with receiving visions of the Astronomicon, be solely responsible for the destruction of his home world, learn that his Chapter has ancient ties and deals with the Eldar, and eventually that his Chapter Master is sworn to Abaddon, and his company is deemed heretics. He eventually kills the Chapter Master, and takes his place. Pretty much the most interesting thing I've ever seen in 40k stories.

How do we cure the Superman Syndrome rampant in these stories?

Now, I didn't like the Superman character until the Kingdom Come story. In it, Superman retires because of some crazy shit that happens:

Lois Lane is killed by the Joker.
Superman calls for a trial.
Some new super heroes, all kids, kill the Joker because of the public outcry that he should be executed immediately.
Superman, outraged, quits the Justice League, effectively dissolving it.
The JL scatters, and the new heroes have no moral compass, nor governing body of elders.
Then Revelations begins after a man has visions of the End.

This story is so good I can't bring myself to spoil the rest, but it's the only thing I've ever read that makes me like Superman.

Superman has the power to do whatever he wants to, but should he exercise that power?

The next issue comes with how to apply this kind of story telling to the Space Marines. In-fighting between Chapters and Guard regiments aren't uncommon, so one application of this story style could come from authority over a sector gets transferred to some noble of the Imperium because of some accident involving the Space Marines of the area. Essentially, they get kicked out, then have to decide on what their next course of action is: defy duty and the Imperium, or try to resettle elsewhere among the stars? I think one of the most interesting things to do with type of story would be to question what the stringency of morality is for the Space Marines, especially, or not so especially, for Chapter X. All marines take oaths, but to what extent should they be kept, specifically in the case of a usurpation of power and what can be considered a betrayal by the leaders of the Imperium?

Some will notice that this is somewhat similar to what the Soul Drinkers go through, but you really don't feel any kind of conflict of duty over freedom.

So, the question that needs to be addressed for a good Space Marine story is this: With the military capacity of a Chapter, should they exercise their power over all around them, and when confronted with the tyranny and oppression of the Imperium, will duty or defiance prevail? For this to work, you need more thoughtful Space Marines, ones that are responsible for sectors of space, and take governance as seriously as their duties as marines.

So, I'm going to consider this, and maybe generate some creative writing in an attempt to display some actual human characteristics in the superhuman fighters. We need to find some way to relate to these God-like beings, and only by generating legitimate conflict in the characters and players of the 40k universe can we possibly begin to...I don't know...relate or care about them?

That's my interesting notion for the day, Ishamael

If anyone wants to see content outside of 40k, I started a blog on the side to write about other things outside of the Warhammer IP. These include topics like "what is the RPG genre," the game Terraria, a review of the new Conan movie, and most recently content about gender and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.


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