Sunday, 9 June 2019

So close and yet so far: the story of Mutant Chronicles

I mentioned back in December that, after incautiously writing one too many posts about Warhammer, I'd taken up miniature painting. In order to feed my growing miniature habit, I took to scouring ebay for cheap miniature bundles. And that's where I came across Mutant Chronicles.

I'd never heard of Mutant Chronicles before, but I quite liked the figures, whose cartoonish sculpts were perfectly suited to my limited painting abilities. So I looked into it a bit further... and was mildly astonished by what I found. Those of you who are already familiar with the Mutant Chronicles franchise should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

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So: back in 1982, the Swedish RPG company Target Games produced a fantasy RPG called Drakar och Demoner, which I'd kinda heard of. In 1991 they published the famous Gnostic horror RPG Kult, which impressed me enormously when I read the English edition back in 1999 or thereabouts. What I hadn't known was that in 1984 they also released a Gamma World style post-apocalyptic RPG called Mutant, which morphed over the course of four editions into a dystopian post-apocalyptic horror SF RPG called Mutant Chronicles, which shared some setting elements with Kult, and was published in 1993. This game took off like a rocket, and was swiftly followed by the miniatures boardgames Siege of the Citadel (1993), Blood Berets (1993), and Fury of the Clansmen (1994), the collectable card games Doomtrooper (1995) and Dark Eden (1997), a computer game (Doom Troopers, 1995), and a miniatures wargame (Warzone, 1996). The success of Mutant Chronicles was so great that Target rebooted Drakar och Demoner in 1994, giving it a more fantasy-horror themed setting to match the Mutant Chronicles tone, and in 1997 launched a tie-in fantasy miniatures wargame, Chronopia. 

Here's the pitch: megacorporations take over the world. Then they colonise the solar system. Then they strip-mine Earth of all its resources, evacuate everyone they think will be useful, and leave everyone else to choke in the smog. Then they accidentally awaken some Evil Space Demons who have escaped into their gameline from Kult. The demons take over all their computers and nearly kill everyone, but the corporations manage to shove them back inside their box with the help of some magical space Catholics called The Brotherhood. Then they spend hundreds of years fighting each other in a state of enforced technological stagnation, because everyone knows that computers are the tools of the Space Demons, while the poisoned ruins of Earth are gradually repopulated by an assortment of post-apocalyptic weirdos. Then the Space Demons break back out again, and a variety of ultra-macho ethnic stereotypes - Scottish berserkers, Japanese samurai, efficiency-obsessed Germans, and Americans in cowboy hats - must unite to save humanity from the mutant zombie horror-monsters of the Dark Legion.

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It all looks like this. All the time.
Flush with cash from the success of Mutant Chronicles, Target Games rapidly expanded their operations into the US, UK, and Ireland. They bought out the miniature company Heartbreaker Hobbies and Games in 1997, and for six years - 1993 to 1998 - they were a serious competitor to Games Workshop. GW had Warhammer: Target had Chronopia. GW had 40K: Target had Warzone. GW had Heroquest: Target had Siege of the Citadel. But as so often happens when a company expands too fast, Target didn't have the financial reserves needed to soak up losses and reverses, and waning sales in 1998 led almost instantly to bankruptcy in 1999. Luckily for them, in amidst all the Mutant Chronicles excitement, Target had also produced a modest little turn-based historical strategy computer game called Svea Rike (1997): and when the remnants of Target Games reformed as Paradox, its first project was an expanded version of Svea Rike called Europa Universalis (2000). The rest is history, and today Paradox has carved out a strong and apparently much more sustainable niche as a creator of such acclaimed grand strategy computer games as Crusader Kings 2 (2012), Europa Universalis 4 (2013), and Stellaris (2016).

For Paradox today, Mutant Chronicles probably seems like an embarrassing episode from their corporate adolescence. The games still have a fanbase, but subsequent efforts to revive them have been dogged by failure and misfortune. Excelsior Games relaunched Chronopia in 2002 and Warzone in 2004, but both games swiftly folded. Then Fantasy Flight Games tried to relaunch Warzone again in 2008 as a 'collectable miniatures game' featuring 54mm prepainted miniatures, which went down like a lead balloon. Prodos Games relaunched it again in 2013 as Warzone Resurrection, which stumbled along for a few years before getting mired in legal disputes and finally ceasing production for good in 2018. The 2008 Mutant Chronicles movie, which somehow featured both Ron Perlman (!) and John Malkovich (!!!), ended up with a rating of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. Mophidius held a kickstarter in 2014 to launch a third edition of the RPG: the sourcebooks promised in the kickstarter were dutifully produced between 2015 and 2017, but the game seems to have been pretty much dead on arrival, and Mophidius is now selling off their remaining stock at steep discounts. A  2016 kickstarter for a 2nd edition of the Siege of the Citadel boardgame raised $600,000: it was supposed to ship in 2017, but has been plagued by fulfilment issues, and most backers still haven't received their games. And yet, despite these repeated disappointments, the franchise just refuses to die. It's as though Warhammer 40,000 had a weird little brother who was (a) undead and (b) Swedish.

Mutant Chronicles is supposedly set more than a thousand years in the future, but the truth is that this is a franchise in which it is forever 1996. It's absolutely crammed with everything that teenage boys thought was cool in the mid-1990s: ninjas, samurai, cyborgs, zombies, Scottish highlanders (Rob Roy and Braveheart came out in 1995), corporate assassins, spec. ops. commandos, mutants, giant swords, giant guns, holy warriors, Judge Dredd, the Terminator, John Rambo, and Mad Max. This is a world where everyone thinks it's totally reasonable to refer to your elite super-soldiers as Doomtroopers, and where the average pauldron is at least twice the size of its wearer's head. No-one could accuse it of being subtle, but I do understand the appeal: the sheer wild-eyed enthusiasm of it all is infectious. The fact that I actually was a teenage boy in 1996 probably also helps.

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Huge chunks of Mutant Chronicles were clearly ripped off from 40K. The pivotal event in history of both settings is a duel between the magical messiah of the Space Catholics (Cardinal Durand / The Emperor) and the evil warlord of the Space Demons (Algeroth / Horus). In both, a space-age civilisation discovers cosmic evils that force them into a state of technological stagnation. Humanity's best hope against the space demons is an order of sacred warriors with Roman Catholic Gothic aesthetics and lots of power armour. The space demons are split into different factions, led by entities who embody the forces of corruption (Ilian / Slaanesh), destruction (Algeroth / Khorne), pestilence (Demnogonis / Nurgle), deceit (Semai / Tzeench), and insanity (Muawijhe / chaos in general). The settings are characerised by black-and-grey morality, and dominated by oppressive societies riddled with heretical cults that secretly serve the space demons. There are chainswords. There are mutants. And there are some truly enormous shoulderpads.

I feel that it would be somewhat hypocritical to complain about this, given the extent of 40K's own debts to earlier SF media like Nemesis the Warlock and Dune. But the similarities between the two also call attention to their differences. 40K, for better or worse, has changed a lot over the years: 40K in 1987 was very different to 40K in 1996, and hugely different to 40K in 2019. But Mutant Chronicles still seems to be as 90s-tastic today as it was back in the actual 1990s, still trading on memories of endless summer holidays spent listening to Slayer and reading 2000AD. 

Like 40K, Mutant Chronicles trades heavily on the strength of its imagery. Does it make much sense for girls with chainswords and power-armoured dudes in Pickelhauben to team up against frothing Scottish Highlanders and WW1 trench infantry IN SPAAACE? Not really, but it sure looks cool when they do! It features a lot of good, iconic designs, especially of armoured infantry, and I'm sure that much of the franchise's longevity is based on the sheer affection that many old Warzone players clearly feel for their squads of Imperial Trenchers, or Venusian Rangers, or Lutheran Fusiliers. But while its range of imagery is wide, it isn't deep. It draws on many different sources of iconography - feudal Japan, WW1 Europe, the Vietnam War - but at the end of the day, it's still mostly just Macho Men and Macho Women with Guns. It's fun and vivid and pulpy, but everything feels a bit two-dimensional, with no attempt to present, say, the Mishima Mega-Corporation as anything other than a heap of early 1990s Japanese stereotypes, or the Dark Legion as anything more than a gibbering horde of space demons who want to murder everything just because they can. The sense that I sometimes get with the best 40K stuff - that all this really means something, and that what we're seeing is just the protruding edge of something far bigger and older and sadder - never really comes across, at least to me.

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Everyone just keep shooting, OK?
What I think that the contrasting fates of Warzone and 40K demonstrate are that imagery, energy, and machismo can only get you so far, even in the world of SF wargames. I don't think for a moment that most fans of 40K like it for the ideas, but the fact that it has ideas must surely be connected to its ongoing survival and success. The familiar techno-Gothic iconography of 40K means things: it communicates something complex and powerful about the spiritual kinship between dehumanising systems of advanced technology and archaic systems of violence and control. It's flexible enough that it can be used to tell all kinds of different stories from all kinds of ideological perspectives, from anarchistic satires about the awfulness of imperialism to quasi-Fascist parables about the need for strong leaders and the dangers of tolerating dissent, and as such it's been able to continue connecting with new waves of gamers, artists, and designers for more than thirty years. I think you'd struggle to do anything of the sort with Warzone, which only really seems to be set up to tell stories about how one bunch of dudes shot another bunch of dudes and looked really awesome while they were doing it, and which never seems to have been able to attract a new audience to make up for the decline of its original fanbase in the late 1990s.

They do look really awesome, though. And that turns out to be able to get you a really long way. Just not, it would seem, quite far enough.

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25 comments:

  1. I recall trying to look into Mutant Chronicles without actually taking the plunge and buying a rulebook. It did seem rather rigid compared with Warhammer 40k. The idea of national identities warped into corporations was sort of interesting in a cyberpunk way, but I rather doubt anyone's done much to expand on that beyond 'Here's an excuse for uhlans riding robot horses'.

    There doesn't seem to be much capacity for creating your own Space Marine Chapter/Elder Craftworld/Imperial Guard Regiment/&c. Would the lack of DIY creative elements account for its slow growth?

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    1. Well, some level of customisation is built into the miniature wargaming hobby. I've given all my Warzone miniatures custom colour schemes, and converted one of them, and if I cared more about the lore I'm sure I could come up with some story about how *these* Bauhaus Blitzers are from such-and-such a colony on Venus, or whatever. But the setting is certainly much smaller and shallower than 40K, which contains enough space for just about any kind of dark science-fantasy weirdness that one could imagine. It's certainly hard to imagine the Mutant Chronicles setting giving rise to the kind of stuff you'd find in 28 magazine, for example.

      It's a pity, because I think an alternative 40K from a continental European perspective, Hussars and Lutherans and all, could be a fascinating thing to see. Despite its Germanic trappings, Warhammer is very, very British at heart. Warzone hints at something like this, mostly via its imagery, but it never really seems to do very much with it...

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    2. As you say, it shouldn't be too difficult to come up with something for your own regiment. Though a little cursory work on Google hasn't turned up much evidence of this on a shallow trawl.

      A continental European 40k does sound fascinating. The place of the Catholic Church as the great enemy of Protestant Britain post-Reformation lodges in my mind at this stage; certainly a continental 40k might look very different from the established 'Catholic Space Nazis' and address the vast hierarchy of the Ecclesiarchy differently.

      (By way of contrast, this throws up the image of what the 40k armies of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc might look like...)

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    3. Mhm. In particular, I suspect that the Gothic aesthetics would mean something rather different from a continental perspective. A lot of the aesthetic logic of 40K comes from the fact that, in Britain, Gothic architecture simultaneously evokes medieval Catholicism *and* Victorian industrial imperialism. After all, it wasn't so long ago that Britain really *was* the seat of a crazy all-conquering military-industrial empire with a necrophiliac death fetish and a tendency to cover everything in outsized Gothic architecture.

      Graham Greene: Inquisitors and Assassins (obviously).

      Hilaire Belloc: Salt-of-the-earth Imperial Guard led by heroes of the Ecclesiarchy.

      Evelyn Waugh: A detachment of Imperial Knights with extremely detailed heraldry.

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    4. The Victorian-Medieval connection is quite sound, and hadn't as such occurred to me before. Without giving too many personal details away, I've dwelt in Britain all my life and so I'm willing to get a little more granular about, for instance, Gothic revival in architecture - but this is still pretty broadly right by my judgement. Probably especially right for Games Workshop creators in the 1980s reading 2000 AD.

      'I never know the old Hive Helsreach, before the WAAAAAGH...'

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    5. I hope you realise that I'm going to need to do a whole post on famous authors and their Warhammer armies now.

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    6. I'm sorry, but now you've got me imagining the Inklings huddled over painting tables set up in the Bird and Baby; Tolkien is explaining at length that "the chap with the pronounced pauldrons is called a Space Wolf, but he's betrothed to that princess from, err, what they call a Craft World" - at which point C.S. Lewis grumbles over his difficulty drybrushing the legs on his "Death Fauns" - and Tolkien interjects "For the last time, Clive, they're not fauns but beastmen - and abhumans haven't been canonical for who knows how many editions!" Charles Williams merely chuckles and keeps working on his Dark Eldar.

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  2. This setting sounds brilliantly terrible - something in me is drawn to it the same way it is to 1990s action movies, and maybe this is actually a more honest 40k universe too?

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    1. I think it's an honest reflection of what 40K often is in practise, as opposed to what it's supposed to be in theory: a rather comically macho universe about ludicrously swole dudes spending ten thousand years punching each other FOR THE EMPRAH! But 40K means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it would be reductive to say that's all it *ever* is. As I've suggested here, if that was all there was to it, it probably wouldn't have outlived the 90s.

      But Mutant Chronicles certainly is very honest about what it is, and that's one of the things I find attractive about it. All the false profundity has been torn out of it to make room for EVEN BIGGER HANDGUNS.

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    2. I always had the feeling the Warhammer universes were not originally meant to be too serious - Abaddon? Khazilid? - but have grown into some super-serious fandoms, I agree that means there must be more meat to it. I think MC's honesty appeals to the kid in me who was a GW fan.

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    3. Early Warhammer was often comic, but the comedy often had a satiric purpose. (Mag'Uruk Thraka, the Black Planet of Birmingham, etc.) Like the media that inspired it - Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock - the ideas were serious, or at least heartfelt, even when the fiction wasn't. It's changed a lot since then, and many things which were originally meant as comedy are now treated super-seriously. But I do think it always had substance as well as style, and that's part of what has allowed it to survive when so many competitors have fallen by the wayside.

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  3. Wait, the Doom Troopers people are Paradox? Holy crap.

    I stumbled upon the roleplaying game in early 00s, was wildly impressed that the obscure as heck Megadrive game was a part of a roleplaying games franchise (roleplaying being my freshest discovery at the time) and looooved the megacorporations and the demons so much I cooked a little campaign then and there, which we later successfully played.

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  4. I had Siege of the Citadel as a kid (in fact, it may still be buried in a closet somewhere), and we had fun with it like we did with the Milton-Bradley HeroQuest and Battle Masters. I recently found a number of the original books (core rules, Algeroth, Ilian, and Capitol) at various semi-local FLGS, but haven't worked my way through them yet.

    The movie is hilariously bad, but I watched it anyway because I'm a Ron Perlman fanboy. The lead actor is the same guy who plays Miller on The Expanse.

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  5. I remember, oddly, the backstory fascinating me the most. Perhaps I was just vulnerable to purple prose at that age (definitely). Discovering an evil citadel on the solar system's hidden tenth planet "Nero." What's not to love? I wonder where those rulebooks went??

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  6. Thank you for this awesome post! I am going to link folks here this week on my blog/podcast.

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    1. Glad you liked it! Feel free to link away...

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  7. You might like Thunderchild Miniatures who do a really nice line in ridiculously expressive Post-Apoc minis https://www.tcminiatures.co.uk/store

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    1. I like some of the figures - the Mawmen are great, and the Meltymen would make great D&D Adherers - but £5 per miniature is well over what I normally like to spend. Right now I'm still firmly in the cheap collection building phase.

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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  9. These surveys of yours became boring some time ago because they are formulaic and you vomit out words.

    Try thinking. Come up with an idea.


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    1. Hi, Kent! Good to see that you're still as cheerful and generous as ever!

      I find the history of the industry quite interesting, myself. If you don't then that's fair enough, but I'm a bit perplexed by why you'd waste time reading blog posts about things you don't care about. Surely life's too short for that.

      However! I do happen to agree with you that a year spent mostly writing about other people's stuff is quite long enough. I hope to put up more primary content soon!

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    2. You have mastered tolerance like the silver surfer.

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    3. Bullshit. These articles are informative, very fun to read and generally very well written. Interesting subjects are explored in genuinely engaging ways. This is as far from "word-vomit" as can be. I seriously hope Joseph doesn't take the above, uh, advice seriously.

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    4. It's OK, Anon. Kent just judges everything by his own rather idiosyncratic standards. Thanks for the kind words, though!

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