Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Jesus Likes Your Backpack

Many things have been said and some are below the jump. But first, the backpack.

I want you to imagine you are playing a game of 40k in the middle of a church. There is no-one else around. The table is in the middle of the building.

Mini’s might be like sculpture, but the battlefield is more like a cathedral. Like this – 

The informational capacity of this image is more like architecture than sculpture

They both have to carry information in a similar way. They are information-producing spaces. The information is a narrative.  In the cathedral the story is the religion. It never changes, but you are meant to. 

The battlefield is a story you create and reshape moment by moment. But you need to get that information either way or the whole thing has no point. 

They both need to work on multiple scales. Not many forms of art need to do this. You are usually expected to be only one distance away. The mini can be in your hand. Close. On the table, arranged either on its own or as part of a group. It must stand out or lock in with the group in an intuitive way. It must clearly show informational capacity both at short range as a discrete thing and very far away from you as part of a mixed group.

A cathedral has to work on similar scales. Sculptures in there must work up close to give direct information. They are also part of an overarching schema, they must harmonise with a group of other sculptures when seen from a great distance. They must also work as part of the structure of a large building.

The cathedral is a space you transit through, saints and the like look down on you from above. The battlefield is a space you create and change as you play. In both cases there is a kind of movement through the space, one literally with your body, the other with your intent and minds-eye.

If you trace the line of sight from one of the saints in the windows to the mini’s on the table then the line goes pretty much through your head. The saints are looking down on you from the same angle from which you look at the table. It’s a weird fucking angle to be interacting with something at. About 75 degrees.

And that’s why the Imperial Guard need better backpacks.

So far as I have been able to find out (let me know in the comments if I am wrong) Mini’s are the only form of sculpture, of a human form, in which you are expected to interact with the thing from behind and from above.

Most of what you see of you miniatures on the table is them facing away from you. Yes you can, and will see them from every other angle as the game goes on. But the primary, the assumed angle is from behind and from above, at about 75 (I think) degrees.

This is the same angle from which the Saints view you. Which explains why a great many religions are obsessed with certain headgears, robes and haircuts. It’s because God is looking at you from the same angle. 75 degrees. From behind. He wants you to have a distinctive reverse silhouette so he can pick you out of your squad. In case he needs to grab you. 

A good mini can, and must, hold much of its informational identity when seen from this angle. The designer of the Space Marines knew this. He gave them a cool nuclear backpack based on that of a roman legionnaire.

And then there was an even better idea. Give the bad Space Marines their own evil backpack.

Look how odd and interesting these things are when seen from behind, without any context. They are strange amulets.

Interestingly, a 40k model and a fantasy model have to do slightly separate things with their god-angle profile. A 40k model will be with a loose group, continually re-arranged. It must carry, match and mesh with that group identity. It must bind the squad together instantly, at a glance. You need the information now, you cannot waste time thinking about it.

A Fantasy mini, by contrast, will always be considered as part of a large automatic block. It is more like a piece of architecture from this angle than a sculpture. It must fit neatly with its regiment and form part of a large already-cohesive group. The informational transmission of the mini’s from the god-angle is different and I would expect the 40 mini’s, generally, to have a more powerful and more expressive god-angle profile because of it.

And that’s why the imperial guard need something on their backs. There is not much interesting stuff going on back there. They do not have a powerful god-angle profile and this makes them less charismatic and less useful sculptures.

If you look at the expensive Forge World Imperial guard Mini’s, they have one thing in common.

Kried stuff, the packs are on the bottom

these look tiny but they are better on the model

 They have been given, or given the option for, cool things on their backs.

In addition to this, the Krieg helmet, combined with the backpack, makes a much bolder god-angle profile than any other guard unit.

I don’t know how fully GW, or other companies, think about this. They seem to do so with war machines, which often receive an exciting profile of this kind. With troops they seem to go on and off. (If anyone has any info on this please do let me know.)

There are no god-angle photo's on the GW website that I could find. And no-one seems to photograph their mini's like this. Which is strange as this is how they use their mini's. But everyone thinks of them as sculpture when they hold them and then forgets how they are used.

I fantasise about a GW R&D meeting in which the first thing they do is decide on the boldest and most powerful god-angle profile. What do they wear on their backs and their heads. What is the body shape. Only then do you think about the front of the body. The you decide on the technology and aesthetic. Then simply write the whole culture and history to account for the back and the top of the head.

Evan Webber left a comment in the last post that you should read about the Warhammer universe sucking in the UK’s political background as it was born.

Jacob Hurst wrote this on G+

Erick Swenson seems particularly relevant to your post, or at least I immediately thought of him while I was reading it. If the Warhammer minis were increased in size (and had their features refined accordingly) it seems to me they'd be very much on par with this.

  I wonder if their having a story constraint and relationship to one another are the things actually hindering their acceptance though? You can't look at a space marine and spit ball this kind of stuff

Untitled leaves us to piece together a narrative based on a few visual clues that conjure up various associations.

because there's a right answer and a wrong answer when people ask questions about the figures and it's not some tabula rasa upon which one can pour their personal tastes and perversions. But damn... if those "Witch Elves/Sisters of Slaughter" were made 10 feet tall and put in the middle of some gigantic empty room with blank concrete walls they would be mindblowing.”

I think Jacob is broadly right there. I would niggle a little and say that you can just look at a Space marine and spitball that kind of stuff, if you want to. I certainly intend to do so. But he’s right that people won’t.
Like with constraints, the human mind is a bit like liquid running down hill, it always finds the path of least resistance. It’s pretty much designed to do that. So if there is a meaning to a sculpture, especially if it is a low-status meaning (and I think that Mini’s are assigned low-status in society) then people will go for that and then stop

Zak left another good comment ending with this 

“So, in short: there are lots of reasons folks don't recognize these things as art but none of them are good.”

The stuff about story I have talked about a little above and probably will more in a future post. Before that. Zak, and Jacob, and a lot of my own thinking, have convinced me of something.

In the old world you would fight to make it real. You would find something of interest. Then you would write about it. If you wrote enough, and well enough you would gradually climb the ladder of peoples attention. You would inch by inch creep closer to the mainstream elite. Arguments and fights. All the tiresome ritual activities. Then, one day, the thing you like appears on Late Review or something. Or someone important writes about it. Then you are a real art. Not a very good one at first. A bit of a shit one. You are in Guardian reviews because they want to prove a point. But if you hang on for a few years things slowly change again and then one day you are a real art. You are in the club. That’s pretty much what happened to comics. It took a while.

I choose to ignore this.

Clubs, especially elite clubs, are generally full of the kind of people who are there because they think it’s really important to be in an elite club. Almost by definition you are dealing with a group who is willing to burn a huge degree of intellectual, emotional and financial capital simply to be in a place full of people who need to prove they are in the place. I do not really think they will be very interesting.

I don’t have any money and I am pretty sure I will die poor. That isn’t great. But it concentrates the mind wonderfully. What do I actually care about?

I realise the internet, and all human discourse, has a tendency towards conflict. It’s the way people think. But I don’t have to give a shit about that. I have nothing, and can lose nothing.

I am not fighting. I don’t care if other people think Mini’s are a form of art. I believe on an intuitive level that they are. If you agree or if you are simply interested then feel free to keep reading. I am interested in the world and this blog and what I write will be a reflection of that interest.

I think we are surrounded by examples of a strange popular artform that works mainly by it’s own rules. I am going to investigate that form with as much intelligence and imagination as I can until I get bored or run out of things to notice.


  1. It's funny. As much as I agree with you about the importance of the back of minis, I could never stand to put the backpacks on my berzerkers, except for the ones with the trophy racks.

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  3. Woo! I got quoted! I hit the big time!

    I think kids toys also fall into the "God view" (which was brilliant btw), but do they meet the art criteria? As do the isometric style of video games. In Ultima 6 and 7 the characters didn't have a face to speak of, but they sure did have luxurious hair.

    1. I think you are right about toys. I have been thinking about them as well but the subject is too massive for me to usefully address it now.

      One key difference is that toys are specifically-haptic. They are made to be touched and manipulated in a quite different and much more intense way than minis. (With an mini the main way of understanding its surfaces is when you assemble it and when you paint it, which, again, is a whole other subject.)

      Kids toys might be to only remaining haptic-dominant artform. Atults are not meant to stroke or fondle imprtant or expensive things except maybe clothes, and then vision is probably still dominant.

  4. Interesting perspective! There is also that minis are often meant to be seen in repetition- which opens up the aesthetics of variation in manufacture, construction and painting.

    Space Meninas?

  5. "The designer of the Space Marines knew this" - that would presumably be the sculptor Nick Bibby.

    1. This legal transcript says Bob Naismith

    2. Ah of course, silly me, and apologies to Bob and Nick. He talks at some length about the backpacks without mentioning the informational quotient with regards the elevated gamers POV. Perhaps you could ask him if this POV was taken into consideration at the design stage - he's on Facebook BTW.