Warhammer 40,000 is one of the most popular tabletop miniature wargames in the world and boasts a rich landscape of background lore that has been a thriving setting for novels, both tabletop and video games, and an upcoming Amazon streaming series. However, despite its popularity, I have always had trouble getting into 40k. Of all things, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide’s loading screens may have been what finally changed that.
Despite the variety of 40k’s adaptation mediums (and perhaps because of how deep the lore that surrounds the setting can go), the grim darkness of the far future has always, for me, been intimidating to approach. I would always hear concepts within 40k that seemed incredibly cool; A whole host of fantasy tropes transplanted into a sci-fi background with no questions asked; Ork spaceships only functioning because they very strongly believed they worked; and a whole faction of zombie robots. Even the sheer, nigh-impossible scale of everything within the setting is a draw unto itself - giant buildings, mechs, and tanks are just cool! However, I was never able to find a place to start getting into the background fluff that didn’t leave me scratching my head and opening a dozen other tabs to read.
Crucially, even before I decided I didn’t feel like doing homework to figure out where to begin, 40k always seemed a little edgy to me. It seemed as if it was trying a bit too hard to be dark and cool. With Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, however, I did not encounter this problem at all: the game goes to extreme lengths to put a spotlight on some of the sillier things in 40k, and of all the opportunities it has to poke fun at its setting, Darktide’s loading screens do it best.
While there’s plenty to love about the game’s use of its setting, Darktide’s loading screens do their utmost best to tell a story about 40k’s Imperium of Man, with its tips taking the form of propaganda slogans. “You need understand nothing to do your duty,” “Tolerance begets heresy,” and “Forgiveness is a crime punishable by death," are just some of the tidbits of “wisdom” that the Imperium of Man espouses. The first time I saw Darktide’s loading screens, I couldn’t help but laugh. It felt as if a setting that, to me, had once seemed like it was taking itself a little too seriously was finally letting me in on the joke: the Imperium of Man is absolutely awful.
The proclamations of Darktide’s loading screens are so obviously bigoted, vile, and odiously manipulative that interpreting humanity’s power structures as anything but a piss-take of religious extremism is impossible, and Darktide wants you to laugh at it. This is what made things click into place. The more I learned about how things became this bad in humanity’s future, the more I got out of the ironic, biting tone Darktide’s loading screens adopt. In its propaganda, we see the dogma of a civilization built upon deifying a figure who went out of his way to abolish religion, and it made me ask myself what the setting of 40k is trying to say about human beings themselves.
Is what we’re experiencing in the science fantasy setting a gloomy parable about religious control, where higher-ups in the Imperium took advantage of the Emperor’s “death” to leverage more control over humanity? Maybe how the Imperium came to be in the state that it’s in is irrelevant, and 40k is exploring our tendency as a species to seek religious enlightenment - even when it comes at the expense of others - through the lens of a hyperbolic setting? For the first time while experiencing any kind of 40k media, I feel genuinely compelled to answer these questions and find out more about this setting and its history, and I can’t believe the part of a game where you wait to do something more interesting is what inspired this.
While I still have virtually no idea where to begin unpacking 40k’s vast amount of background lore, Darktide’s loading screens have done their part to reframe the entire setting as more than the sum of its parts. Chainsaw swords, spaceships with crews equal to the populations of cities, and eight-foot-tall superhuman paladins that spit acid have all been put into context as a part of the setting’s satire, and as a result. the size and outlandishness of everything are clear as an extension of just how extreme that satire is. I get it now: while obviously not everything in 40k will be comedic per se, the setting remains vast, weird, and just a little bit wacky, and I can’t wait to find out more.