The Cultural Significance of Warhammer 40k

One of the most influential media properties of all time.

Warhammer 40K Space Marine
Warhammer 40K

There’s a lot of cool stuff in modern media that’s become popular today thanks to nerd culture. The beloved Marvel films started out as comic books. Dungeons & Dragons has been referenced in shows like Stranger Things and given rise to the popular YouTube series Critical Role. Even video games have grown into a titan of industry, with U.S video game content generating $35.4 billion in revenue in 2019. While it may have not been from humble beginnings, these mediums have become ingrained into the pop culture that many of us know and love today. As with the previously mentioned D&D, it’s amazing how this vacuum of nerdisms can be turned into profit.

One other profound example of this is Warhammer 40k. Produced by the British manufacturer Games Workshop, it’s a miniature wargame set in the far future that has become the most popular game of its kind. The game itself is an interesting cross section of influences, having been inspired by many different projects and growing to be a source of inspiration for many different things that we know and love today.

The science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert has a lot in common with the setting of Warhammer 40K. A minor subplot in the book – the construction of AI robots is strictly forbidden due to a genocidal war in humanity’s past – is directly translated into the backstory of the Imperium of Man in 40K. Both fictional empires are very much alike, featuring a vast galaxy-spanning feudal empire. Both universes are able to travel through space thanks to human mutants called Navigators, and even the deadly Sisters of Silence from 40K are very much like the Bene Gesserit in Dune.

Warhammer 40000
Warhammer 40000

Warhammer 40K also has roots in another important science fiction novel: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. An interesting, fictionalized perspective on how space warfare may be conducted in a hypothetical future, there are many more additional influential comparisons. Some of these are minor, with both universes referring to Earth as Terra, while others are major: both human societies are a military dominated political system, power armoured soldiers are the elite of these groups, and they combat against an alien swarm with a hive mind.

Even staples of Lovecraftian horror have found their way into the game’s universe. Warhammer 40k features a deep and terrifying cosmos that sees humanity as insects, gods of a chaotic nature, aliens beyond the comprehension of humans, and cultists who have all but lost their mind, things which are very much key aspects of the writings of HP Lovecraft.

And then there is the board game itself. The setting of the post-apocalyptic future of Warhammer 40k is so grim and so dark that it pretty much coined the term “grimdark”. Originally inspired by the tagline of the board game – “in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war” – it was defined as fiction “where nobody is honourable and Might is Right” in the book Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Adam Roberts. Outside of 40k, which has a huge number of novels dedicated to the game’s backstory, this subgenre of fiction went on to inspire other works of fiction, most notably Game of Thrones with its brutal and depressing nature.

Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3
Game of Thrones

Like Stranger Things referencing D&D, some television shows have also made nods towards Games Workshop. Though not necessarily 40K related, Will Smith’s son in Netflix’s Enemy of the State can be found looking at some interesting reading material. In the summer of 2019, Games Workshop and Big Light Productions announced that a live action TV series was being developed, helmed by Frank Spotnitz – best known for his work on sci fi classics like The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle – following Gregor Eisenhorn, an inquisitor from just one of the many book series in 40K.

Even video games have found some inspiration from this tabletop game. The 40K franchise has released many different titles that were received with varying degrees of success. These included games like Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, a third person shooter/hack ‘n’ slash where the player takes control of an Ultramarine, or the Dawn of War games, where the player can control the factions of the universe in a real time strategy game. As for other games, it could be argued that the Space Marines went on to inspire the Brotherhood of Steel in the Fallout franchise. Another game franchise which is debatably inspired by 40k is Starcraft, with both games featuring a technologically advanced human empire going to war against an overwhelming alien threat.

The Gears of War games have stark similarities that can’t be coincidental: overpowered, human tanks battling for survival against a horrible alien force, all the while governed by a tyrannical system. The similarities are so similar that it can even become confusing. The Gears which make up the brunt of the GoW franchise share a lot of similarities with the Space Marines: buffed out super humans in thick power armour who mean the difference between humanity’s survival and extinction. Though the Space Marines wield assault rifles and chainswords, the Gears have cut out the middleman and stuck chainsaws onto their guns.

Much like any carefully nurtured piece of nerd culture, Warhammer 40K has grown beyond its original setting. It serves as an interesting case study in how many different inspirations can form into a completely new story, and how that can go on to influence other projects in the future. It’s more than just a hobby. It’s a multifaceted industry which has influenced pieces of literature and media in the modern landscape. Despite the dark nature of its story, Warhammer 40K acts as a love letter to the entertaining aspects of science fiction.

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