With the gameplay reveal of Vermintide 2, Fatshark is delving deeper into the chaotic abyss of Warhammer Fantasy’s “End Times”. For the uninitiated, Vermintide is a co-op melee FPS in the vein of Left 4 Dead where four players make their way from Point A to Point B fighting swarms of enemies along the way. The universe that the game takes place in can best be described as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth tossed into a blender with 90s radical brutality, alternate European history, and a healthy dose of camp.
One of the most striking aspects of Vermintide is its morbidly gorgeous visual design. The game oozes atmosphere: each mighty swing of your hefty weapon crunches brutally into bristling ratmen hide, the frenetic sounds of battle echoing into the rain-sodden, blood-soaked, stone streets of Ubersreik. The weight of the world and its looming demise threaten to suffocate the player, each successful mission only doing so much to stem the overwhelming tide of darkness. While Warhammer Fantasy is typically considered to not be as brutal or gritty as its scifi cousin, Warhammer 40k, the “End Times” as presented in Vermintide does a fantastic job of encapsulating a similar sense of “grimdark”.
What in the name of Sigmar is “grimdark”?
Before we get deeper into the lore and visual design of Vermintide, it’s important to establish one of its key components: grimdark. The name “grimdark” comes from the tagline to Warhammer 40k:
“In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war.”
Grimdark has evolved over time to both encompass its own subgenre and act as a way to describe narrative tone and themes. The specific definition of grimdark is still hotly contested, but it tends to follow certain trends. Writer Teresa Frohock defines grimdark as follows:
“Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style, or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly graphic in its depiction of violence. In most grimdark literature the supernatural is a passive force, controlled by humans—unlike supernatural horror where the preternatural forces are most often an active entity with agency.” (Teresa Frohock, “Is it Grimdark or is it Horror?”)
I agree with her to a certain extent; the supernatural can exist as a passive force to be controlled. Wizards, necromancers and the like comprise a large portion of typical grimdark settings. Their manipulation of arcane forces often result in wanton and gruesome destruction. However, this doesn’t preclude the supernatural from being an active force as well.
Warhammer 40k makes heavy use of the metaphysical as actors with agendas. Mortal races are constantly at odds with the eldritch Chaos Gods, demonic beings from another dimension that seek to bring all existence under their domain. The same is true of Warhammer Fantasy, especially so in the context of the End Times. The two universes share a near-identical pantheon of Chaos Gods, both of them seeking to corrupt and destroy the mortal realm. Arcane and eldritch forces play important roles in grimdark as both tools and beings of destruction.
Grimdark as a narrative element is heavily dependent on content and tone. A good example to consider is the world of StarCraft vs. that of Warhammer 40k. Both franchises have the same basic template for species, technology, and the supernatural. However, one need only look at their respective treatments of Space Marines to gain a better understanding of how grimdark works. Both series feature hulking, power-armored, grizzled macho men that are bursting at the seams with testosterone, but the similarities end there.
The Space Marines of the 40k universe are indoctrinated devotees of the God Emperor of Mankind that have been made superior to all other forms of humanity through “a harsh regime of genetic modification, psycho-conditioning and rigorous training.” On the other hand, Kotaku said it best when they described StarCraft Space Marines as “truckers in space.” There oppressive weight of the 40k universe that bred its version of Space Marines is a far cry from the comparative levity of StarCraft; similar in content, very different in tone.
Another important aspect of grimdark’s tone is a pervasive sense of “necessary evil”. Violence and cynicism suffuse a grimdark world not because it’s the status quo, it’s the natural state of the universe. Optimism, hope, and other ideals typical of standard fantasy like Tolkien are simply pipe dreams that take a backseat to survival and self-interest. Calling back to 40k once more, there is no shortage of examples to draw upon: the nightmarish, capitalist-fever-dream of the Hive Worlds, the predatory subjugation of the dreaded Black Ships, and the gratuitously short lifespan of a typical Imperial Army conscript all exist within the context of a grimdark universe.
It was the worst of times, it was the End of Times
Warhammer Fantasy takes place in a fantasy world that teeters on the edge; the End Times kicks it into the grimdark abyss. The Warhammer Fantasy universe has established itself through violence, camp, and a world that is familiar yet foreign. The End Times in particular comprise a series of campaign books for the tabletop strategy game. As the name implies, the End Times covers the grim apocalypse threatening to consume the Warhammer universe. The world has plunged into chaos: foreboding omens appear in the sky and foul beasts run amok through the streets and cities of man. Vermintide‘s visuals use elements of horror to bring these grimdark themes to life.
Vermintide takes place at the beginning of the End. It draws upon its source material to craft a deeply detailed fantasy world that is steeped in cynical brutality and high-fantasy wonder. The Skaven, the conniving, insane, ratmen antagonists of the game, are halfway between an amoral destructive force and a natural disaster. Though loosely ruled by the Council of Thirteen, Skaven society is a massive and loose conglomerate of self-serving rabid manbeasts. Their domain covers the entirety of the known Warhammer Fantasy world; the only reason they haven’t overrun the surface is because they’re constantly at each others’ throats. Vermintide nudges them just enough in that direction, such that the legions upon legions of Skaven are beginning to leak out of the cracks and into the Empire of Man.
Ubersreik, the city that Vermintide’s base game takes place in, perfectly captures a sense of grimdark. Fatshark designed the city around four key design principles:
The above image is indicative of Fatshark’s visual and level design as a whole. The twisting turns of the streets and sewers of Ubersreik directly feed into the core gameplay loop. When the players aren’t running and fighting for their life, telltale signs of Skaven destruction paint the city with a grim darkness of overwhelming futility. Half-chewed corpses litter the street, claw marks splinter a broken wooden door, and the once proud streets and structures of man reverberate with an eerie silence.
Beyond the static iconography of the game’s environment, the sheer scale of the ratmen is made all the more apparent when the tide of rats descends upon the player, filthy, flea-ridden monsters skittering to hack and claw at their prey. Despite the players best efforts at fighting back wave after wave of ratmen, their numbers never seem to dwindle. Any moment of peace offered the player is a drop in the bucket of darkness that is the End Times.
Players are tasked with completing “heroic deeds”, like collecting supplies and leading a counter-attack. Some missions involve sending out a warning to others, like sounding the Horn of Magnus to alert Ubersreik and lighting a signal beacon to warn the Dwarven stronghold of Karak Azgaraz. Despite the party’s best efforts, these actions only feed back into this notion of cynicism and futility in grimdark. They’re acts meant to rally together mortal races in response to overwhelming evil, but the game and its visuals never give you a sense of hope.
A sense of futility pervades every mission. Huge, sweeping vistas and grand scripted events visually indicate to the player what they have done. The unfortunate irony is that they’ve done little to stem the tide. The Horn of Magnus thunders its call. The Chain of Fire has been lit. The Skaven and the End Times will come regardless.