Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Bascinet Problem

A prominent Oldhammerer who goes by Tiny Basement just asked a fascinating question: why did GW ditch the beakie in favor of the 1.9th ed armor I'll call the "micronator" since it reminds me of nothing so much as a compressed terminator. He was himself responding to a very nice post on Oldenhammer in Toronto that pointed out the relationship between Warhammer 40K and Star Wars. What I write here is a response to these, and in imitation of Tiny Basement's lead I shall suggest that you read their posts before you take in my response. It will all make more sense that way.

Why do GW's Space Marines look like Stormtroopers? by Tiny Basement

I have no clear answer as to why GW went from what I felt was a more interesting design to the current one. Zhu Bajiee's speculation, which you can read in the comments on Tiny Basement, makes an interesting case for how the change might have begun, but I don't think it's a full explanation as both designs existed side by side for several years after. It may be as simple as focus group testing, since the change happened at about the time GW was becoming more corporate.

I said before I can't really answer the question. But a lack of any real knowledge has never stopped me before. Please do pardon me as I follow a lovely brunette child and a white rabbit that seem to be in an awful hurry  . . .

There are two dominant cola beverages in the United States. The difference in their respective popularity may be advertising. It may be chance. But might it be a difference in formulation? Pepsi is apparently much the sweeter of the two. (I will make no official pronouncements as I no longer drink either and consider both far too sticky.) As I understand it, Pepsi rather consistently wins blind taste tests. They make much hay of this and used to feature the "Pepsi Challenge" quite prominently in their adds. In spite of which Coke has unerringly retained the no. 1 spot.

This could be the result of a slight seniority to the Atlantan product. Better advertising could possibly explain it. But to be frank, we've all had both. Both are available virtually throughout the world. Both have more or less complete worldwide market saturation. If Pepsi were the clear superior, as the taste testing would suggest it to be, it should have pulled ahead at some point. The best conclusion is that there is something wrong with the test. Somehow it doesn't give a true impression of how we will react to a beverage.

One explanation I have heard advanced works like this: Pepsi tastes better at first sip, since it's sweeter. But about halfway through a glass a great many people find it too cloying and a lot of people actually find Coke more drinkable over the long term precisely because it's a little less sweet.

What has this to do with space marines, you ask? Glad you asked! That rabbit seems to be jumping down a speculative hole and the girl is following after. Perhaps we can learn something there too . . .

What would have happened if the same company owned both Coke and Pepsi and felt some need to pick one? Maybe the forces of the early 90s said "we need to standardize and aim at a younger demographic if we're going to sell more stuff. This complex mishmash of too many different miniatures doesn't work for kids. Let's get together a focus group and see which works better so we can settle on one design." Did this happen? No idea. Pure speculation. But it could have. We know GW was simplifying and shooting at a younger audience at about the right time.

So you have your focus group and decide which design is better. The Mk. 7 is more instantly pleasing. It looks more familiar, more human, more menacing. I know my teenage self was drawn to it more quickly. Loved the Mk. 7 from day one. It looked like terminators. (Which I also loved right off.) The bascinet faced beakies were a little . . . weird. A little alien. In short, they were distinctive in a way that the later variants are not. That comes with both benefits and costs. The costs are all short term focus group findable. The benefits take a little longer to appreciate. It's easy to like something you already know. It's also easy to trade it in on something else. It takes a little longer to love the unfamiliar. There's a reason the word "strange" carries the baggage that it does. But once you do . . . ?

And now it's time for a tangent to the real reason I'm writing this tome. It's all well and good to see why GW might have preferred the micronator to the beak, but why do I think they really did make a mistake? Can any real argument be made about something that's essentially an aesthetic question? The following passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood is sometimes put forward as the origin of the "good artists borrow, great artists steal" meme, and perhaps sheds some small light on the question. In attempting to evaluate the quality of poetry he suggested: 
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
The above is a damn fine description of why I find "Oldhammer" wholly superior to "Newhammer." Bascinets are pretty damn far from storm troopers. Star Wars robs many sources and melds them into one coherent narrative. There's some Medieval, some Arthur, several samaurai peaking out of a Hidden Fortress, a little Asimov, probably some Heinlein, a touch of Flash Gordon, and a dash of Joseph Campbell. Rogue Trader also draws inspiration from myriad sources. Aside from Star Wars you can see Mad Max, Logan's Run, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and many many other sources besides. They cover a range spreading from the Yucatan to Hollywood and back across the Atlantic to England's own tomb brasses and ship burials. As GW has rewritten their universe they've lost both some of the beautiful diversity of the original and I believe also some of the coherence. Where the first story felt complex and organic like the world itself the new one feels more contrived. Norsemen and Mayans largely gave way to more slick Hollywood. Rich, but slightly frayed tapestries and tense, almost primitive sketches were replaced with glossy Madison Avenue 8x10s made superficially grim and medieval with the addition of stone skulls and parchment scrolls. 

In his analysis, Sullivan credits the moral ambiguity of 40K with some of its appeal, likening 40K to to Star Wars without the fairy tale. I think he's dead on here. The original story was presented as a series of pastiches rather than as a single coherent narrative. Rogue Trader gave us the official "Imperial" story, but the Imperium is clearly corrupt and not quite to be trusted. Later articles in White Dwarf and later books like Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned hinted that maybe Rogue Trader left out a few little details here and there to make it seem like the Emperor was the living embodiment of good and light when in reality his corpse was beginning to smell like week old fish.

On paper, a story with a dozen authors none of whom is canon should be a confused mess. In reality, that's just history. Or even better, scripture. Which is to say that a story can be a confused mess and still entirely convincing. Reality tends to work like that. The 40K universe was complex with many authors telling many tales and leaving the reader to decide which is true. There's a device in fiction called the "unreliable narrator." Maybe, just maybe that applies here. In later editions efforts have been made to "correct" that "defect." As a result a surprisingly nuanced history has become a confused story by committee that simultaneously loses both coherence and depth. The need for a single official storyline obliged deletion and alteration of many threads in a complex organic whole that grew almost as much as it was written. 

Yes. I am an Oldhammerer. The current edition of the legendary original may well be a perfectly decent game. It may play better. It may be simpler. It may be clearer. And I care absolutely none. The original was a better piece of art and the real world is richer for its continued existence.


  1. Good write up - very interesting


  2. Very much overdue, but thanks for your post. Very intriguing.

  3. Thank you Mr. Basement. The path you lead us down has many twists and turns, but it has been an interesting one. In no way would I consider the question closed, and in the end, it is largely aesthetic. So no matter what I might think, there is no definitive answer. But at least I have a solid excuse for my preferences. ;-)