After skirting around the subject, the next Warhammer 40K video game needs to delve into the true horror of this tabletop universe.
I don’t mean Genestealers — though the idea of getting infected and, four generations later, popping out a many-limbed murderbeast is a little harrowing. I also don’t mean the Nephilim, an alien race who swept across several human worlds and “preached a message of spiritual salvation and eventual heavenly reward,” then fed on the psychic energy of their devotees. Hey, nobody said Warhammer 40K was subtle.
No, I’m talking about Dreadnoughts, which, despite resembling some kind of stomping battle robot, are much, much worse. Utilized both by the vast human empire and the forces that oppose it in Warhammer 40K, Dreadnoughts are a way of ensuring wounded soldiers — in particular, humanity’s most venerated and effective warriors — can continue to fight.
If you’re blissfully unaware of 40K’s almost comically grim universe, you might be thinking it’s something along the lines of in Avatar. Maybe the Space Marine in question is temporarily enclosed in some pod, controlling one of these walking tanks. The Ork legions are being ripped to shreds, but to Sam Worthington it’s just another glorious day in the corps.
You’re half right. The Dreadnoughts are under Space Marine control and there’s a pod involved, but there’s nothing temporary about their situation. A wounded Marine, one who’s judged to be worth preserving, is sealed within a Dreadnought. Their body — or whatever is left of it — is hooked into a cybernetic support system, left to atrophy due to lack of use.
They’re still capable of communicating via a synthesized voice, but there’s no way to remove the “organic component.” And as the Imperium of Mankind’s heavy hitters, they’re typically left dormant and awakened only when they’re needed. It’s a pretty disturbing life, if you can call it that.
It’s this nightmare that begs to be explored in a game. Dreadnoughts have figured into a handful of games, from Space Crusade to Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector and beyond. The former is based on a kid-friendly board game, so it’s understandable it doesn’t explain the Chaos Dreadnought’s true origins. In the latter, you tend to see Dreadnoughts as walking tanks, nothing more.
So it’s about time a Warhammer 40K game put the player inside one of these Dreadnoughts, these clunking terrors. Just imagine a survival horror game where survival is the horror and where death is all but unobtainable. And all the while you’ve got Space Marines revering you, begging you for your wisdom.
Time jumps are sometimes frowned on in fiction, but that’s all a Dreadnought has — waking up, wading into combat if they’re lucky, then being shut off until they’re next needed. That’s not to say all Dreadnoughts actively seek death — far from it. Space Marines are genetically and physically modified and are indoctrinated to regard mankind’s undying (though possibly unaware) Emperor as their God. In theory, this conditioning carries on through to the Dreadnought stage, leading them to embrace their condition.
But what if they don’t? What if all that additional Dreadnought circuitry is filtering its occupant’s thoughts and stifling the ability to express their true feelings? One common gripe about Fallout 4 is that the dialogue prompts don’t match what your character actually says. Now imagine how frustrating it would be to have your words warped by the onboard Mind Impulse Unit.
“Please, let me die…” would become “Glory to the Imperium!” and so on. Given how much firepower a Dreadnought has as its disposal, you can bet there are safeguards in place. Or for contrast, flip between an Imperium Dreadnought and a Chaos Dreadnought. Chaos Marines, unlike their Imperium counterparts, dread the prospect of becoming a Dreadnought.
Putting the player in a mechanical behemoth might risk dialing back the challenge, but that’s assuming you can control the Dreadnought with ease. BE-A Walker also puts you in charge of a giant, stomping murder machine but adopts an almost QWOP-style approach to movement. This, in turn, tempers the sense of power you’d otherwise have. Every step would feel like wading through mud.
Or why not make the Dreadnought the secondary character in a Warhammer 40K game? Space Marines feature heavily in the franchise, but it’s regular, unaltered humans that make up the bulk of the Imperium’s forces. And as such, they’re marginally more likely to doubt the Imperium’s fascist propaganda.
So why not cast the player as a human soldier, current or retired, who stumbles across a rogue Dreadnought? Assuming it doesn’t gun you down on sight, it would lead to some soul-searching ethical dilemmas. With the occupant begging you to end its life, would you comply? Would you allow the Space Marines to capture and “repair” it? Or would you be judged a heretic for having helped it elude its pursuers?
Ultimately, whether it’s a case of sealing the player in the suffocating confines of a Dreadnought’s armor or making them a passive observer of its torment, these walking tombs deserve to be explored.