Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Grimdark?

This particular thread is one of the more useful discussions on the aesthetic trends in 40K that I've seen in a while, going beyond level of detail, phwoar factor and producer ranking. It's at BoLS believe it or not, on a more or less ephemeral post.

One of the arguments corresponds to that idea that D&D is now its own set of reference points, which came up again with the nods to past fiction in fifth edition. A couple more:
Technical precision and intricate detail are nice, but those old minis had attitude; they projected a mood and a tone that permeated the entire range and let you know exactly what kind of game you were playing.
[A]lso there is the whole problem of designing things to appeal to kids. What kids actually want is things that have been designed to appeal to imaginative cool adults! Kids find ideas fascinating if they are obviously that bit too dark, complex and strange to really have been designed for them.
Patrick at False Machine has some related questions, and especially nos. 2, 4, 5, 15 and 16, but they're all worth a mull, not least for actually having been formed and asked.

And he wrote this post on sculpture more generally. On GW minis historically he says:
It is possible that a combination of the limited means of lead casting and the, kind of, artistic 'moment' of the times meant that early citadel miniatures were better sculptures in this way. Less perfect as pictured things, and maybe not as skilled. But they occupied space and held mass in a different way and in that sense, were more pure sculptures because they did that thing that only sculpture can do.
And they were made of lead, which weighs differently in the hand. And people might say why does it matter if the shape is better and I would reply why wouldn't it. It is a tactile form. it is a haptic form. The weight is part of what it is. It's not just what the material can do it is also what the material is.

If you want a sense of the truth of that, and from scratch, you could try Oldhammer, and orlygg's posts on the older 'Eavy Metal pages are a quick, cheap start, if less interactive.

Personally, I think it's also about assembly, and the range of options in a kit. I think we could propose a simple rule: all else being equal, the more poseable a miniature, the more formless any given finished effect, and maybe the more gormless in appearance. That last could be a death knell for the so-called 'angels of death', and fellow hard-cases.

Why? Because scope for poseability implies leftover freedom, space that to a degree someone other than the sculptor has to mitigate. This pragmatic blend in the name of choice conveys a less pure vision. If everything is possible, does anything carry weight?

Unlike Parmenides, Beethoven apparently viewed weight as something positive. Since the German word schwer means both 'difficult' and 'heavy', Beethoven's 'difficult resolution' may be construed as a 'heavy' or 'weighty resolution'. The weighty resolution is at one with the voice of Fate ('Es muss sein!'); necessity, weight, and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy, and only what is heavy has value.
This is a conviction born of Beethoven's music, and although we cannot ignore the possibility (or even probability) that it owes its origins more to Beethoven's commentators than to Beethoven himself, we all more or less share it: we believe that the greatness of man stems from the fact that he bears his fate as Atlas bore the heavens on his shoulders.

We may be wrong. But any such belief would be presumably be key to an appreciation of the aesthetics of a grim, dark future of burdened humankind. A slow counteraction or nullification of the grimdark with this kind of lightness could be crucial to any decline in the aesthetics of 40K, and possibly, with the change in materials and kits in the past 20 years or so, and maybe the rapid releases in the past couple, also to a decline for GW.


jason bright said...

I'd like to think we (GW minis) are currently in a sort of awkward adolescent phase, having new and improved (detailed) forms but lacking the knowledge of really how to put them to the best use.

You may be onto something as far as your argument that poseable freedom ruins or prevents the impact of the whole as a sculptural figure but I do not think it is quite so black-and-white. I think even small limitations imposed by the sculptors onto the variety of ways we are able to assemble our figures could make a big difference to their final look and feel. Just may take some pretty intense foresight. But the newer 3D digital design process has to be good for something...

SinSynn said...

Someone on the BoLS thread threw me back in time by mentioning Heavy Metal magazine.
That mag had such an influence on me back in the day, and featured some truly amazing artists...

...Memories...light the corner of my mind...

TJ Atwell said...

Maybe I am different, but I am an artist and I was drawn to GW's models back in the lead days, where things were Grimdark and as I have gotten older over the last 20+ years, I am of the opinion that the models look better, offer better representations of the things I saw in my mind (compare the terribel, yes terrible, EPIC titans and look at what we have today). If the ability to pose the model or sharp lines and clean design are something that dampen the original artist, but unlock the ability of the end user to create with those parts, the things he sees in his mind when he reads the stories and novels, then I say I side with the newer products. That is my take. I like where things are going right now.

Von said...

My comment ran too long and involved too much thinking aloud and use of examples, so I posted it here instead.

Knight of Infinite Resignation said...

it was me that brought up Heavy Metal magazine Sinsynn. I wonder if there are any on Scribd...

Porky said...

@ jason bright - The idea this is something we're still growing into is a very fair one I think. I'd imagine the designers at GW became aware of the issue long before now, and have probably thought about it and discussed it heavily. It may be they are getting better at that intense foresight too, at better defining the compromise, getting a more focused vision, but keeping at least a sense of a high degree of freedom.

@ SinSynn - It's a good thing the memories live on. Remembering is part of keeping the movers and shakers honest, and there's a lot of knowledgeable and experienced people in this field able - potentially at least - to do so. Looking back over the past few years, now may be a good hour.

@ TJ Atwell - I'm not suggesting poseability is a bad thing from the individual modeller's perspective, in the sense of immediate value for that person's hobby. I also appreciate the greater freedom of experimentation and expression the more multi-part kits give us, and part of what first got us old-timers excited, and still drives us to actually do that, could have been the greater specificity of the individual mini back then and the greater difficulty in conversion - seeing that good art, presumed to be finished but for the paint job, but finding it so difficult to make new ourselves.

On the subject of representations, there's also the issue of subjective preference, that what one person likes or can be persuaded to like is not the same for another. If GW thinks a particular trend is worth pursuing or a cue worth using, there are bound to be like-minded people, just as others could have different ideas. Look at the division in the reception of recent releases.

But none of that is the point I'm making. I'm suggesting that beyond the immediate gain there may be less immediate consequences that become visible only taking a longer view, consequences that could be undermining the hobby by diminishing its essence. It may be that poseability runs partly counter to the nature of 40K, or rather the nature that gets the best reaction from modellers as a whole, including all players that use kits just to play their armies. It may be that greater poseability boosts interest in the minis, setting and game - and sales - in the short term, but stifles this in the long term, that the creative constraints that focus our energies are less than they were and hold the interest less intensely or for a shorter time, especially in the case of relative newcomers. If so, it may be that the base now is just not feeling it collectively to the same degree the base back then did, and does still, with even the sculptors and other creative parties involved potentially losing focus as that formlessness grows. A mass slide, very slowly, into a general ennui. Time will tell, as new evidence in whatever direction appears.

Moving off topic just a little, it may also be that the effort needed to mitigate isn't available when so many minis are needed for a typical force, if distractions are rising and attention spans falling; that the vision is lost somewhere on a worktop of pieces, offsetting the empowerment.

What we want and what may be on balance best for us, and the hobby, aren't necessarily the same thing.

@ Von - I'll get to you, mister.

@ Knight of Infinite Resignation - Maybe they'll be republished and find a new market as well as part of the old, especially if there's a growing consensus or awareness they have a played a key role in later developments. Rather like Wizards of the Coast republishing a lot of the early D&D materials before fifth edition. On more or less the same subject, Lum suggests here that GW could republish the old Chaos sourcebooks and benefit. Depending on how you look at it - bearing in mind the possible impact on innovation - it's a win-win, or win-draw, and no worse than a win-loss, which so much might be anyway.

Patrick Stuart said...

That was interesting. Regarding poseability, once you invent it, how do you know use it?

@TJAtwell, I utterly disagree about the old epic titans. They were some of the most original forms the company has produced, a lot of the new ForgeWorld 20mm titans are just large scale replecations of those originals.

Von said...

Original and terrible aren't mutually exclusive, Patrick. ;)

GW has produced quite a few designs which don't look good if they're scaled up and crisply cast (Lord of Skulls, anyone?) and quite a few which probably weren't that great to begin with. I can understand being attached to the models of yesteryear, even claiming that the spirit in which they were produced was more whimsical or satirical or intelligent or what have you, but to these eyes a lot of them are clumsy little lead blobs, awkward and lumpen and feeling somehow unfinished.

Porky said...

@ Patrick - If I'm understanding right, that you're asking how we know how to use it once it's been invented, and assuming that's not rhetorical, I'd answer by saying we might not know at first, or even ever, but need time with it or a flash of inspiration for insight into its potential. We might never see very much. It may always be too early to say what a thing can really do - how do we know for sure till we do it? For example, in the case of D&D, even after 40 years and for all that's been done and is being done, it could well be true we're still pottering around the edges of something fuller, what later generations say may feel was more essential to the technology.

I'll cover titans lower down.

@ Von - In defence of old minis generally, they reflect ideas, technologies and tastes as they were, and specific motivations and expectations, a given contract. I think we judge them less than fairly if not by the limits of their day but ours, and without the full context. The problem with that is, it's hard to re-establish what those limits were, and things like purpose say aren't always recorded. And depending on how far that's true, we may even be wasting our time worrying about it. As per the comment to SinSynn, we may also need to remember better.

@ TJ, Patrick and Von - On titans specifically, I think in retrospect, seeing the classic reaver and lucius-pattern warhound scaled up, that part of the subtle elegance of the originals is simply in making the most of the 6mm scale, not working against it - that the unhappy likely consequences of the rather unlikely science-fantastical mass of these machines combined with the apparent motive technology are masked by the small physical size.

In the case of the 28mm versions, while the body may be more, let's say, realistically proportioned and detailed, at the same time the mass seems suddenly excessive, and may actually have been increased relatively in the case of the reaver, making them feel oddly disconnected even from the surrounding 40K miniaturescape, not only in height, but possibly in some cases in conception. For me the 28mmised knight paladin does a better job of reworking for the alternative scale, and maybe reimagining, thinking about how the surfaces and spaces needed to change.

One other point that ties in loosely. The lucius-pattern warhound and newest warlord seem to represent another factor that could be working against that residual core nature of 40K, in their case specifically as a move away from a baroque almost biker-meets-biomechanical form to a more modern - meaning turn of the 21st-century - and more nautical feel. The lucius-pattern warhound's carapace, and even head, could be seen as more of a hull - and look at the resemblance to the AT-AT too - while the upper weapons on the warlord seem more like naval guns, and the armour precision-machined rather than hammered and rivetted.

In line with what was said in the BoLS thread, in the ongoing development of the designs there seems to be a move away from niche and distinctly adult ideas. It may be that the mainstream has forced out those things, or the designers aren't looking hard enough, or aren't allowed to follow up. Maybe culture in general is more childish these days? Less exploratory, unpolished and non-popular, or mature individual or small-scale pursuit.

Patrick Stuart said...

My comment was insane becasue I was drunk and it was late. I intended to type 'Once you invent poseability how do you not use it?' But your answer was better than the question deserved anyway.

bombasticus said...

Oh, Porky, I missed you!

Kleist on puppets, children at their kriegspiel. Even at their most bathetic the leaden figures must be able to dance -- otherwise it's just Dragontooth gelman sculpts, sad smudges like Bacon portraits only made of metal instead of meat.

Porky said...

@ Patrick - A new theory of questions could grow from that seed...

@ bombasticus - It's good to be back too, especially when the discussion is this absorbing. Excellent call on Kleist and On the Marionette Theatre. It's online too, at Southern Cross Review, here.

Von said...

Of course they're of their time and manifestations of their constraints - it's as trite an observation as pointing out that they look a bit crap if one came in with the more crisp lines and more defined forms of the 1990s. My judgments are as contextually defined as the artefacts I judge, after all.

I think you're right about the Titans. 6mm hides a multitude of - not sins, as such, or if they are, they're sins of omission. At that scale the obligation to connote an infantryman's fictional character is an absurdity - it's all you can do to make the Ork distinct from the Human and the Beastman and the Eldar - and even the largest models in that scale are presumably embedded in/borne of an understanding that we're just showing where the Titan is and what the Titan is armed with. We have enormous complicated illustrations to show what the Titan actually looks like.

Once you hit 28mm there seems to be this obligation to have the miniature serve as both playing piece and work of art, as both denotation and connotation of the game concept it represents, to which I've become rather used over the years. Perhaps that's short-sighted of me.

And... while I want to agree in ref. the turn from baroque, let's look at the earliest Rhino chassis for something which, to my eyes at least, already exemplifies the turn to the naval. If there is a trend, and I agree that there is when we compare the curvy-shelled Titans of old to the blocky walking battleships of the Epic 40,000 range and now Forge World, it began when Rogue Trader saw its first plastic vehicle.

Perhaps we've been on the road to ruin all along.

Porky said...

It was really only as trite an observation as talk of lumpen nature and blobs. This is an old discussion now and the admittedly anecdotal sense I for one have of a rising dismissal of Epic scale with similar if less eloquent descriptions, if real, could well be the result of a fairly constant modal age in the player base, ever more likely to be people who've grown up on that idea of playing piece also as work of art (because also clear selling point..?) and known the Epic minis only through their remaking for FW; people quite possibly people born even in this millennium, with the titans and smaller potentially something their parents played with: the work of another generation, and uncool.

The development of that description on the other hand, in your point about the understanding that the mini shows only where the titan is and what it's armed with, is a very useful one, and ties in with the idea of a contract, that playing at 6mm suggests all parties acknowledge the trade-off, a broader visible sweep for the relegation of yet more nuance to the mind's eye.

Re the rhino, I'm seeing it now too. Very interesting. Maybe we could map 40K's conceptual history almost as a bell curve, or a more intricate fluctuation of ideas within a similar form, that it began low and long with all kinds of inspirations, including the very generic and the more traditional gaming genres, that over the lifetime of Rogue Trader the fusion gained in pungence, and maybe peaked through early to mid-Epic and along the line of Confrontation, Necromunda and Inquisitor, before dropping off again as creators, player base and wider cultural context moved ever on. The rhino and later things like the second edition imperial guard could be echoes of the earlier feeds, and things like Brian Nelson's Orks and the necrons in late second a hint also of where things were headed. As the curve drops off the generic could then creep back in, with the titans moving to naval and the ever more frequent claims of nods to Saturday morning cartoons.

If that sense, and if so, very much a road to ruin, but also insofar as any new thing contains the seeds of its own destruction. The satire risked being taken at face value, or a counter-revolution from the corporate, and the medley or grab bag of ideas was vulnerable to dilution. Could going public be one critical point and the fading of a pre-millennial tension another?

Von said...

That idea of the bell curve is spot on, I think; the issue with anything so closely tied to a vision of apocalypse is that the continued deferral of apocalypse sooner or later becomes unsustainable. 40K loses its sense of imminent doom when you realise that you can't go forward, and the only space that's left to create new product and make the range sustainable is in the past. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, and the Space Marines have always had Centurions.

It's only natural that there'd be some diversity of influence and depiction creeping in there - but you're right in that it's something of a dissolution.

Mind you, I don't know what WFB's excuse might happen to be.