False Machine (3)
June 22, 2015
The following post originally appeared at Patrick Stuart’s blog False Machine. It is one in a series of 10 analyzing the mini (miniature figure, used in wargames) and other small-scale fantasy and sci-fi models as an art form.
Most sculptures of the human body are meant to be interacted with head-on, usually from below. The mini, however, is designed to be interacted with from behind and from above. We set up a battlefield scenario with our minis, then look down at it from an approximately 75-degree angle. That’s weird. Also weird: When we’re in a cathedral or large church, the saints portrayed in the stained glass windows, high up on the walls, are looking down at us from behind and above, too.
I’ve been considering the mini through the lens of sculpture; now I’ll consider the mini battlefield through the lens of architecture — specifically, a cathedral’s architecture.
The cathedral, like the mini battlefield, is an information-producing space. The information, in both cases, is a narrative. In the cathedral the story is the religion; it never changes, but you are meant to. The mini battlefield is a story you create and reshape moment by moment.
The mini is designed to work up close — held in your hand, close to your eyes, say — and also from far away, when it’s on the table, in a battlefield scenario. Each mini needs to tell us a story intuitively, both on its own and as part of a group.
When we’re in a cathedral, we’re moving through space in a way that is meaningful; we’re individuals, but also part of the congregation. And we’re being viewed, from above, by the saints — perhaps by God, as well. Which explains why a great many religions are obsessed with certain headgears, robes, and haircuts. It’s because God wants you, and the other members of your particular squad, to have a distinctive reverse silhouette. So he can pick you out easily.
The 40k Space Marine mini has a cool backpack, based on that of a Roman legionnaire except nuclear. The backpack isn’t necessary, really, for the Space Marine’s duties — it’s there to provide information to the 40k gamer, who is viewing the Space Marine from behind and above. The bad Space Marines, by the way, have their own evil backpacks.
Look how odd and interesting these things are when seen from behind, without any context. They are strange amulets. Good guys get tight v-shaped lozenges, that simply extend their typically masculine profile in depth. The ‘V’ of their body leads into the ‘V’ of the pack. When seen from behind the curve of their armoured shoulders is still the more dominant shape.
The bad guys get these exciting predatory wings. The arms of the pack reach up and out. Now it looks more alive, the tight lozenge becomes a strong expressive triangle, and an arrow pointing down. When seen from behind, this shape actually overwhelms that of the main figure, becoming the dominant profile.
Both backpacks feature tiny skulls, because this is 40k.
Models have to do slightly separate things with their god-angle profile depending on how they are used. 40k is a skirmish game in which the models are placed in loose groups with the bases separate but continually re-arranged; the reverse profile must bind the squad together at a glance. You need the information now, you cannot waste time thinking about it.
The Warhammer fantasy game is based on regiments of miniatures on square bases, locked together in a regular block. In this case the mini is more like a piece of architecture than a sculpture. It must fit neatly with its regiment and form part of a large already cohesive group.
The informational transmission of the minis from the god-angle is different and I would expect the 40k minis, generally, to have a more powerful and more expressive god-angle profile because of it. War-figures need something on their backs. If there is no interesting stuff going on back there then they do not have a powerful god-angle profile and this makes them less charismatic and less useful sculptures.
(I wonder if the design of minis was influenced, in part, by the design of chess pieces. Like a chess piece, a mini must be easy to pick and put down, ultra stable; and it must surrender a strong individual profile at a glance.)
Many of the complex war machines and alien races produced by Games Workshop have powerful and individual god-angle profiles, but I have never seen a photograph of them from this angle on any website by any company of this kind, ever. Also, no-one in the community of painters and adaptors seems to photograph their minis like this — which is strange, since this is how they use their minis. The god-profile of minis is crucial, but neither their creators nor their users mention it.
The above-and-behind design of minis is a kabuki aesthetic — crucial, but not to be discussed.
Ten Ideas for the Backs of Toy Soldiers
Imagine a mini game R&D meeting where the first order of business was to decide on the boldest and most powerful god-angle profile. What will our minis wear on their backs and their heads? Only once these questions were decided would we figure out the game’s narrative — i.e., a fictional culture and history written for the express purpose of accounting for the minis’ backs and head-tops.
Off the top of my head, here are some sample outcomes of such a meeting.
- A single air tank like the ones divers carry, either vertically or aslant. When seen in groups this should highlight vulnerability. If aslant, would seem like a row of tallymarks. Space Marines and Super-Soldiers get Rhomboids and Triangles, ordinary men get single lines. A gasmask pushed back over the head so it hangs upside-down, a line of deflated faces staring back at the player in blunt accusation. Like a row of graves.
- A kinetic sculpture. The simplest would be some kind of pinwheel. Is there any way to make this cool? Maybe psychic-dispersal vanes that catch the unseen wind of chaos and stop you mutating. Chaos troops could have an uneven eight-arrowed pinwheel that spins on their backs. They wouldn’t even need a reason, those guys would just be into that shit. Their artillery would look like the image above.
- Counterweight aliens. You could move the bulk of the sculpture much further forward of the base, creating a great impression of dynamism that would be a profile for the entire army. Imagine a beast leaping forward with only its rear limbs just touching the base. Behind it a long tail with some nodule or club at the end. Inside the club, a small lead weight. Could work well for the as-yet unseen Hyper-Violent Barghesi.
- A mirror. The player would have their face staring back at them. (I have seen Kinder Surprise Eggs do stuff like this.) The regiment carries half-parabolic defensive mirror shields like tiny radio telescopes with chunks taken out of them. Officers and assault groups carry them forward. The bite taken out of the shape makes room for the active weapon arm. Rifle troops carry the mirror shields slung on their backs, pointing back towards you.
- Faces in profile. Stormtroopers might wear embossed body armour with fear/medusa face going forward like the face of Phobos on Alexander’s breastplate and the face of Fortune, or Tyche, on their backs. Fortune does guard your back after all. The player would see a series of serene smiling female faces in profile, like those on coins, all facing the same way.>
- A spirit (bubble) level carried in small of the back or across the shoulders. Width of a drain. Just a bit wider than the back, with an actual bubble in there. Regiment from non-demonic otherspace or collapsed hypespace fragment. They grow up in a non-euclidian zone and need this stuff to function in realspace at enormous cost. They could wear strange angular helmets with prisms inside them to alter their eyesight for normal space. Could be a veteran assault force, trained for suicide actions or assaulting daemon worlds. Can’t be driven mad, so that’s handy. Weapons could look like Naum Gabo’s constructivist sculptures (above).
- Knots. Big knots of rope worn across one shoulder. Deliberately encrypted climbers harnesses. Like that thing Worf always wore, but bigger, chunkier, giving a strong asymmetric profile. Like Celtic knotwork in 3d. Regiment adds one knot for battle survived, vets have huge backpack knots they never take off.
- Stowed ceremonial powerfists they are not allowed to use. Probably not the real thing but religious/cargo cult replica’s. Like a pair of huge open hands crossed at the back. Could be worn palm down like hands reaching over the shoulder pulling them forwards into battle. Or palm up like hands reaching up out to the player. Fits with god-angle theme as it’s like prayer aimed at you.
- Religious icons made from wood that mimic mechanical forms. Cargo-cult cybernetics made from branches, obviously carved. Curled-up super-soldier icons made from trunks. Organic grain contrasting with the mechanical form. Soldiers from a savage world without its own technology yet worshiping a machine-god.
- Hexagonal backpacks? Ok this one is really rubbish, but they would lock together on the field and look like a big beehive, which is nice.
This world could be one where large pockets of invisible gas fill valleys, turning them into lifeless oceans. Armies walk into the gas like going underwater. So they have excellent resperatory gear but always know when they will need to use it. They would walk slowly and act calmly in toxic environments.
Maybe they come from the world where they make the ultra-rare anti-lasgun shields. Or from airless asteroids where laser fire can carry across hundreds of miles as it doesn’t disperse, so they had to think up an active defence.
CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators